Saturday, August 28, 2010

Strange Fruit: The Politics of Protest Songs

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

A stanza from "Strange Fruit" by Allen and Mellow

Strange Fruit as sung by Billie Holiday
What strikes me most about this haunting, horrific song is that Billie Holiday closed each of her shows with it...back in 1939! That is what I call fortitude in the face of the enemy, particularly since Ms. Holiday began singing to predominantly white audiences by that period of here career. But because many listeners prefer the tune and the delivery of a song as opposed to what is actually being stated in the lyrics, the dire message of 'Strange Fruit' often went right over the heads of her naive pre-WWII audiences, a fact noted by Billie Holiday herself in an interview near the end of her life, when she sadly opined, "They'll ask me to 'sing that sexy song about the people swinging'." Of course, Holiday wasn't referring to Ella Fitzgerald's scat: "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing"; but people often equate their own meanings and context to words, and lyrics in particular. My brother used to sing "Slow Cousin Walter" as the refrain to the song "Smoke on the Water".

But there are very few songs that resonate so deeply with me and cause such a feeling of revulsion and regret as Strange Fruit. I don't know why I feel regret, because my family never lived in the South; but it must be some ingrained response within American Caucasians, even those Caucasians, like me, whose grandparents got off the boat at Ellis Island and were too busy ekeing out a meager existence during the Great Depression than to indulge in violent, systemic racism (who had such inordinate amounts of time to waste?). Or perhaps it has something to do with the Catholic guilt I still harbor, even though I have abandoned that medieval, misogynistic museum of patriarchal relics and dogmatic oddities decades ago. Therefore, since I was already in a state of rueful melancholy, this got me to thinking about songs in general, and then protest songs in particular. Naturally, this caused -- as these things usually do -- the labyrinthine vaults of useless information stored in the recesses of my brain to disembogue a veritable flood of songs, which gushed over my memory banks and floated about, like so much flotsam and jetsam, in the cluttered corridors of my cramped cranium. And since I was already pondering the subject, what more appropriate way to rid myself of depressing thoughts than share my misery with the rest of you? Sharing is caring, after all.

And rather than belaboring the point by offering a long, winding (and long-winded) narrative history of the protest song from William Blake's "Dark, Satanic mills," to Joan Baez's "Drugstore truck drivin' man" (in honor of Ronald "Ray-guns"), I thought it would be better to just let the songs speak for themselves. And I would just comment. A little. Not too much though. Starting now.

The Star-Spangled Banner by Jimi Hendrix
-- An eloquently stated protest without saying a word. In this most famous version of the 'National Anthem', the message is relayed via Hendrix's artistry at coaxing the sounds of war from his axe: machine guns, explosions, dive bombers, shrieks and moans. Juxtaposing a violent aural assault atop the Anthem speaks volumes regarding the anti-war sentiment of the time, perhaps even more so than Hendrix's Machine Gun from the 'Band of Gypsies' album.

Sunday, Bloody Sunday by U2
-- This rousing, martial U2 song from the album 'War' recalls the 1972 'Bogside Massacre' in the Northern Ireland city of Derry, where British soldiers opened fire on unarmed civil rights protesters and bystanders, killing at least 17 people, five of whom were shot in the back. The passion and outrage is evident in Bono's vocals on this, the most overtly political of all U2 songs.

Biko by Peter Gabriel
-- Steven Biko was a leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. In 1977, Biko was arrested on trumped up charges under a South African terrorism act (basically, he was arrested for protesting while black). He was beaten so badly during a police interrogation that lasted over 24 hours, that he lapsed into a coma. He died within days due lack of medical care (the police would later claim he committed suicide). As is the way of injustice, the police were cleared of the crime by the South African courts. But the horrid event gained worldwide attention, and Peter Gabriel's stirring anthem, one which he sang to end each of his concerts, is one of the most powerful protests songs of the 80's and a catalyst for change in South Africa. From an anti-apartheid standpoint, it certainly has a more emotional punch than the tepid 'I Aint Gonna Play (Sun City)' by Little Steven and his coterie of 'We Are The World' rejects.

What's Going On by Marvin Gaye
-- Not only is this an important protest song, it is one of the finest soul songs ever crafted. Motown mogul Berry Gordy had refused to release the song on the grounds that it was politically objectionable (even after Edwin Starr had released the song 'War'), but Marvin Gaye stuck to his guns, and after near eight months of wrangling, Gordy finally relented. Like Holiday's 'Strange Fruit', Gaye's delivery of 'What's Going On' gives the song a deceptive, soulful air that belies its social commentary about the Vietnam war, drug addiction and abject poverty.

This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie
-- In response to Irving Berlin's ultra-patriotic 'God Bless America', an irritated Woody Guthrie composed a simple but stunning folk song which subtly reminds those in power that America is owned by the People and not the institutions that are caretakers for the People. The song has been adopted across the world, and many recorded variations refer to the specific artists' countries of origin.

Blowin' in the Wind by Peter, Paul & Mary
-- Naturally, SONY CORP. has banned any studio versions of the Bob Dylan original, but this Peter, Paul & Mary cover is earnestly sung and was a hit for the group. 'Blowin in the Wind' has become the 'Kumbayah' of protest songs, blithely sung around the campfire without context or thought of the powerful poetry contained therein. Oh well, pass me a smore, please.

Imagine by John Lennon
-- The only anti-nationalistic, anti-religious, anti-capitalistic song of nihilistic deconstruction which is also one of the "100 most-performed of the 20th century" (according to BMI), and which is blithely hummed by right-wing fascists, religious fanatics, and corporate raiders around the world, with nary a thought to the song's meaning. This makes this Lennon song even more satisfying.

Masters of War by Bob Dylan
-- I finally found a Bob Dylan original. Let's see how long it takes SONY CORP. to remove it from the Internet. Ironic, isn't it, that one of the most important protest songs of the 20th century, one that speaks out against the corporate sponsorship of military aggression, should be stifled by corporate greed.

Update: Well, it's obvious and infinitely ironic that profit is more important than the message of this song. Here's a version by Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam.

Culloden's Harvest by Déanta
-- Culloden was the site of a battle in 1745 which pitted 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' and 3000 blindly loyal Scottish Highlanders armed with muskets and swords against a well-armed British army of 10,000 with cannons. The result is what usually happens when bravery and patriotism faces superior numbers and firepower: within an hour, 2000 Highlanders lay dead and the hopes of Scottish independence was erased forever. Déanta, a Northern Irish traditional band, sings an impassioned version of the song, which is told from the point of view of the wailing widows and orphans left destitute after they were driven from their homes by the victorious invaders.

Eve of Destruction by Barry McGuire
-- For a song written in 1965 by P.F. Sloan and sung by Barry McGuire, 'Eve of Destruction' shows quite vividly that absolutely nothing has changed in our society or elsewhere. The Eastern World is still exploding, there are still bodies floating in the Jordan River, and a handful of senators still don't pass legislation.

Sky Pilot by The Animals
-- Another song protesting the Vietnam War. This time, Eric Burdon and the Animals refer to the hypocrisy of religion, as a chaplain blesses soldiers who are about to go out and die. The padre reminds them of their duty to god and country, and then goes to take a nap, exhausted by the unctuous exertions of his own holiness.

For What It's Worth by Buffalo Springfield
Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Southern Man by Neil Young
To the Last Whale by Crosby & Nash
-- Somehow, Steven Stills, David Crosby, Graham Nash and Neil Young became the self-anointed, aggregate social-conscience of rock during the 1960's. This occurred in conjunction with Bob Dylan abdicating his throne after pissing off all the dyed-in-the-wool folkies for daring to play an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. In combination or solo, CSN and sometimes Y (just like vowels) offered some muddled hippie indignance ('Almost Cut My Hair'), misguided odes to infidelity ('Love the One You're With') and overgrandizations of personal travails ('Immigration Man'), but the four songs I have emphasized hit their marks with unerring power and clarity. The most poignant of the four is 'To the Last Whale', because, after all, don't we as a society get more upset when animals are being slaughtered than when humans are in danger?

Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival
-- John Fogerty vocalized what most American draftees felt in 1969. The Vietnam Conflict was a war fought by the 'have-nots', while the 'haves' (or 'fortunate sons') had their military service deferred while they went to college or, through their family connections, got plumb commissions in the Air National Guard (like George W. Bush) or the Naval Reserve (like David Eisenhower, grandson of Dwight Eisenhower and son-in-law of Richard Nixon, who the song is directly referring to).

The Sound of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel
Scarborough Fair/Canticle by Simon & Garfunkel
-- 'The Sound of Silence' was written in the wake of John F. Kennedy's assassination. The song and the album it first appeared on, 'Wednesday Morning, 3 AM', were a flop, and Simon and Garfunkel ended their affiliation. But then, a funny thing happened. A producer at Columbia Records thought enough of the song to dub electric guitar, bass and drums on what was originally an acoustic song and rereleased it without the knowledge of Paul and Art. It went to number one and the duo reunited. In regards to 'Scarborough Fair/Canticle', it is actually two songs: an English ballad that can be traced back to at least the 17th century (the part sang mainly by Garfunkel), and an anti-war song sung in counterpoint by Simon. The juxtaposition of the pastoral "parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme" with "generals order their soldiers to kill", followed by "and to gather it all in a bunch of heather" with "and to fight for a cause they've long ago forgotten" is a brilliant bit of songsmithing.

War by Edwin Starr
-- Nowadays, it's difficult to think of this song without recalling Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker's hilarious harmonizing in "Rush Hour', but the 1970 version by Edwin Starr went to #1 and was the biggest hit of Starr's career (a previous version by The Temptations in 1969 was not released as a single). Starr's musical genre was known as 'psychedelic soul'(which also included Sly and the Family Stone and The Temptations), an arcane term that at first seems bizarre, but it eventually morphed into 'funk' which, I suppose, is a bit more familiar sounding to current listeners.

Uncle Remus by Frank Zappa
-- An incredibly sly attack on racism. The lyrics, although witty, hit their intended target with the force of a pimp-slap upside the head. Of course, the allusion to Uncle Remus is self-evident, and the mention of spraying with hoses recalls the crowd control during the 60's civil rights marches. The best lines of all are "I'll take a drive to Beverly Hills/Just before dawn/ An' knock the little jockeys/ Off the rich people's lawn..."

Behind the Wall by Tracy Chapman
-- A chilling and intense song about domestic abuse sung in a capella by Tracy Chapman. It recounts a person listening to a husband and wife fighting night after night on the other side of a wall in an apartment building. The narrator seems to have become almost immune to the constant battering, bemoaning that "it don't do no good to call the police, always come late if they come at all." This song and other stellar songs from Chapman's debut album, like 'Fast Car' and Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution, presented a powerful, feminine social conscience in the music industry that was nearly absent in the big-haired, banal 80's.

Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six by The Pogues
-- A political song from one of the best albums of the 80's, 'If I Should Fall From Grace With God', 'Streets of Sorrow' details Northern Ireland during the time of 'The Troubles' and is sung by Pogue Terry Wood, while 'The Birmingham Six' is sung by drunken poet extraordinaire Shane MacGowan and tells of the plight of the 'Birmingham Six' and the 'Guildford Four' who were unjustly arrested and framed for murder and terrorism. The song was banned by Britain's Independent Broadcasting Authority, until the two groups' convictions were overturned and Prime Minister Tony Blair offered a public apology. You may recognize the story of the Guildford Four if you've ever seen Daniel Day-Lewis in the Oscar nominated 'In the Name of the Father'.

Another Brick in the Wall Parts 1,2 & 3 by Pink Floyd
-- A song so dangerous to the Establishment that it was banned in South Africa prior to the fall of Apartheid. The song and the album 'The Wall' were prohibited by the South African government in 1980 when the song was adopted by a nationwide group boycotting schools in protest of the inherent inequality of the education system. The ban has lapsed, but it has never been officially repealed.

Luka by Suzanne Vega
-- One of the first songs to address child abuse from the point of view of the child, tells the story of 'Luka' who makes excuses and lives a life of denial, which is often a coping strategy for the abused. This song came out in 1987, but Pat Benatar released the fiery Hell is for Children in 1980. Because of her commitment to stopping abuse, Ms. Benatar started a foundation for abused children.

No Man's Land/Flowers of the Forest by June Tabor
-- I had originally thought this version of the Eric Bogle composition was done by Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention. I always liked it, but never could find a copy. Well, after some laborious research and many dead ends regarding Sandy Denny, I finally discovered it was actually sung by June Tabor, a noted singer in British folk/traditional circles. Sorry, Ms Tabor. The recording can be found in a stellar Green Linnet compilation of trad songs from all across the British Isles. In any case, the song 'No Man's Land' (sometimes titled 'The Green Fields of France') concerns a narrator who contemplates the senselessness of war at the graveside of Willie McBride, who died at the age of 19 during WWI.

Redemption Song by Bob Marley
Get Up, Stand Up by Bob Marley
-- Two different politically-charged tunes by Marley that deal with racism, repression and religion (in the case of 'Get Up'). The composition 'Redemption Song' is particularly striking, as Marley had already been diagnosed with cancer and was in a reflective mood about life. He deals with two aspects of slavery here: the physical and the mental, and then freeing oneself from those yokes. Some of the lines of the song were borrowed from a speech given by Marcus Garvey, an early 20th century Pan-African and national hero of Jamaica.

I Aint Marching Anymore by Phil Ochs
-- This song had a huge impact on the anti-war movement of the early 60's, and it certainly is stirring. But as Ochs recounts the different wars he has fought in (he as a narrator, speaking for each generation): the Battle of New Orleans, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, The Indian Wars, WWI and WWII, each followed with the line "But I ain't marching anymore", I wonder what took him so long to actually stop marching.

Zombie by The Cranberries
-- Perhaps the addition of the arresting video makes this Cranberry song special. When Dolores O'Riordan utters the line, "It's the same old theme since nineteen-sixteen," she is referring to the Irish Easter Rebellion of 1916, and the fact that Irish rebels and the British Army kept up a near continuous battle in Northern Ireland for nearly 70 years thereafter. The final shot of the dead boy merely heightens the frustration over escalating sectarian violence.

It's the End of the World as We Know It by REM
-- Not necessarily a protest song, per se, but it is indicative of the way I feel after writing this piece.

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