On The Eve Of A High Stakes Election, Americana Surges With Protest Songs
As ideas go, “Shut Up And Sing” has only backfired. The edict comes from conservatives triggered by political beliefs more liberal than their own coming from songwriters they like. Broadcaster Laura Ingram wrote a book about it. It became so central to the blackball campaign against the Dixie Chicks over their 2003 remarks against the Iraq War that the phrase became the title of a documentary. But the Chicks certainly didn’t go mum, and neither has popular music generally.
Today, the United States is experiencing a crisis of political division as profound as the Civil Rights 1960s and the McCarthyite 50s. And with a threshold election even now underway, artists in the roots/Americana space seem to feel that now is the time to use whatever voice and influence they have. We’ve heard a flood of new message songs lately, and they’re becoming more explicit as the nation’s temperature rises and the stark choices facing voters comes to a climax.
“This is a really special moment for protest songwriters, because you can get away with a lot,” says Melody Walker, a progressive activist and singer-songwriter in the Nashville band Front Country. “Not every national moment is a time when people are down for the most preachy, diatribe type of song. But I think right now, that's where people are. And I think that people are finding these kinds of songs really cathartic.”
Walker’s band is preparing to release Impossible World on Oct. 30, which Walker describes as “an album of protest songs.” So far they’ve dropped video singles for “The Reckoning,” a dream-pop plea for truth and reconciliation, “Broken Record,” a snappy and celebratory get-out-the-vote song and the most recent and angry single “Amerikan Dream,” which contrasts the growing chasm of wealth and power in the country against purported American ideals. “What will the people do, when they’ve got nothing to lose?” Walker sings in the refrain, as the music grows into a maelstrom behind her.
For the first three years of the Trump administration, folk and roots songwriters were agitated and motivated, but their songs focused less on anger directed at authority and more on pleas for unity and healing. Those are still coming, but in the case of Shemekia Copeland’s new album title track “Uncivil War” there’s a harder edge, a palpable fear about the future if opponents of basic justice and American values don’t de-escalate. The song builds on the emphatic 2018 album America’s Child, in which the Chicago blues and soul heiress make a mother’s plea for a better, fairer future for her son.
“I mean, shoot, the older I get. Not only do I want to speak my mind, but you know, I want to put my hands on my hips and point my finger while I'm doing it,” she said in an interview last week I conducted for Alligator Records. “There's nothing better than being able to use your voice to put the issues out there. And I love the way that we do it. Because it's not in your face. It's just more, here's what's happening. And I love that. So if the world ended and they found this record, they would know what was going on in 2020. That's what this is about.”
The American condition is so extreme that it’s motivated other blues singers to lean into protest for the first time. “You can look at my my resume on iTunes. I must have 200 songs on there, and there's not a political one in the bunch,” Elvin Bishop told me as we talked about his new duet with Charlie Musselwhite called “What The Hell.” “But my feelings got so strong. Towards the end of the Trump administration, everybody's kind of realized what it would be like to have him in there again. And so your your feelings are getting stronger.”
The blues veteran starts in the same vein as Copeland, lamenting the resentment and extremism he sees in the country. But in the third verse, with his unrelenting thumb pulsing the bass line and Musselwhite tossing fuzzed-out harmonica lines around the room, Bishop turns his fire on Trump himself.
He is the president but wants to be the king Know what I like about the guy? Not a goddamn thing I want to know, how can four years seem so long? Lord have mercy, what the hell is going on?
Since June, there’s been a steady stream of songs inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and moment in 2020, none more striking than the very new “Can’t Cry No More,” an ensemble track from Rhiannon Giddens. But such songs coming from unexpected artists tend to have more impact and make more news. While Americans at large, according to polls, embraced the BLM protest movement, conservatives gave it a partisan valence. That prompted Tyler Childers into releasing an unprecedented album. Long Violent History use old-time instrumental country music to set the tone for a single song at the end, an emotional appeal to his fellow rural white people to empathize with the BLM cause and asking "can you imagine just constantly worryin'" about police violence against them or their communities. It's been one of the most talked about statements of the season.
Childers is in a vein of prominent artists breaking with an apolitical posture and putting their audience on notice for the first time that they do in fact have strong feelings about how they see the world and how they hope their fans speak out or vote. Taylor Swift is another. She broke cover on her election preferences in the Fall of 2018, released the pro LGBTQ anthem “You Need To Calm Down” in 2019 and took a direct shot at Trump in May of this year promising in a tweet that “We will vote you out in November.”
Sheryl Crow has performed for Democratic events in the past but has a light track record in the protest song category, until this Summer. True to her background of keeping things meaningful and bright, in August she re-released her 2012 song “Woman In The White House”. But its follow-up “secret B-side” is a rock and roll takedown of the president with ice in its veins.
There's a fly on the wall in the house on the hill Where the king of the world watches TV And the people await for his latest mandate To a nation of angry believers His words are a drug while his loyal band of thugs Cover up all his many transgressions The fly lands on his ear and whispers, "What's there to fear As long as you're still the obsession?"
The video gets even more explicit, with elaborate animations creating a cascading montage of self-dealing, self-aggrandizement and indifference to the suffering of the country. She’s apparently not addressed the explicit song in interviews, letting the music do the talking.
Activist songs are nothing new for Nashville roots rocker Will Hoge, who cast the president as a showbiz huckster in 2018’s “Oh Mr. Barnum.” This summer he wrote a whip crack 2:14 long punk tune about that maddening part of the human condition that makes it almost impossible for people to admit they’ve been betrayed by somebody they trusted. In “Con Man Blues” he rips the president’s believers as ‘Living with your own infatuation, While the rest of us are sleeping in the streets.”
“It's interesting to watch in the era of Trump, so many people that are I think slowly awakening to that idea,” Hoge said in an interview this spring. “Some of the venom I think that comes from the opposite side is people that somewhere inside do realize that they're being duped but will continue to double down to not have to admit that I was wrong about this. Yeah, that's really what ‘Con Man Blues’ was written about.”
Mary Chapin Carpenter takes a creative cut at the story, focusing not on the con man but on his enablers in the song “American Stooge.” We see a young white American man grow up, serve in the ways prescribed and authorized by his society and winds up interested only in power.
When he's not kissin' the ring and levelin' threats He's proud to be your favorite hypocrite Polishin' sound bites for the folks at home A moth to a flame and a microphone
“It started out as a general character study in a way inspired by Lindsey Graham,” she told American Songwriter. “I was just writing and writing, and by the end of the song, it became an indictment of all those sycophants that inhabit the halls of congress. It’s not just Republicans, but it’s Democrats as well. They’re all over the place. So it’s all about those stooges. It was just my humorous take on the whole thing.”
This isn’t close to an exhaustive list. The Drive By Truckers have released “The Perilous Night,” a song that takes a rare musical swing at Trump’s Russia/Putin infatuation and its connections to white supremacy with lines like “White House is glowing from the Red Square light/ The gates at the border being slammed down tight / We're moving into the perilous night, my friend.” Lucinda Williams sounds exhausted and aghast in her new country lament “Man Without A Soul.” Robert Cray delivered “This Man” with its acid groove and lyrics: “Now he's walking around / Like he's a big king / If we're gonna save our home / We need to get him out.” And that was before the Pandemic overtook the country. Neil Young himself has returned to the fray, updating his 2006 anti George Bush song https://youtu.be/c0cOUDwKl9k">“Lookin’ For A Leader” with details drawn from the 2020 headlines. And The Chicks remain in the vanguard with their June release of “March March,” which asserts the power of the individual while imploring others to join the cause.