What would Phil Ochs do?: an open letter to today's musicians

There has been a lot of talk here on No Depression on occasion discussing modern-day protest music. There are those who feel that there are many artists who are still giving back to society as a whole and still making relevant topical music, while others feel like the younger generation of musicians, and the younger generation in general, are apathetic towards all social and political issues. Regardless of your stance on this issue, some simple math settles it for good.

Tom Morello is in Wisconsin to support the protesters. Morello is one of my favorite musicians and anybody who has followed his career would expect him to be there. My question to all of the young musicians is this: why aren't you with him? Let's face the facts: Tom Morello is 46 years old. In two or three years his most popular work will be a staple of classic rock stations. 

Chuck D, another artist who is rightfully hailed as one of the best contemporary political songwriters is 50. Billy Bragg? 53. Steve Earle? 56. Bruce Springsteen? 61, and too busy hanging out with Obama at the White House these days to care about the people who buy his records.

In 1985, at the age of 34, John Mellencamp wrote "Rain on the Scarecrow," arguably his greatest song, and co-founded Farm Aid. He's now 59 and still fighting on the side of working class Americans, but who's going to fill his shoes? The other chairmen of Farm Aid range in age from 44 to 77. One of them is a 65-year-old Canadian who penned the best song about America's war with Iraq. I love you, Neil, but that's just a sad demonstration of how bad things have gotten.

For a while it looked like Obama might be the cure for this nation's political apathy, but then he actually took office and proved himself to be the most disappointing politician in U.S. history (not the worst, but by far the most disappointing.)
"But wait," you say, "isn't Pete Seeger still making relevant music at 91?" Yes, he is, but that's the exception that proves the rule. Woody Guthrie was unable to make music after the age of 44. Phil Ochs was dead at 35. Dylan wrote "Masters of War" at 22.

And what have you done? Made money off of the backs of working class people who buy your records, then refuse to give back to the community when they really need you. Workers in Wisconsin and Ohio are fighting for their rights, their jobs, and their families. Will The Black Keys, the famed duo from Akron, be showing up in Columbus tomorrow to help out or will they be playing to a roomful of hipsters in a club somewhere? That's the big question to all of the artists out there: are you willing to lose a few fans to help the common good? Will you take a stand now or just wait until 2012 rolls around and appear in some sterile, meaningless Rock the Vote ad telling kids that all they have to do is turn off the XBox one day a year and go vote for somebody. The choice is yours, but as Bob Dylan said, "your old road is rapidly agin'/Please get out of the new one if you can't lend a hand."

Hope to see you in Madison or Columbus.


Views: 155

Comment by hyperbolium.com on February 23, 2011 at 2:21pm
An ironic arrangement of responses: Jack posts a link to a report by the Cato Institute, Adam posts a link to a story about a fake David Koch interviewing Gov. Scott Walker. The connection? David Koch's brother Charles is the co-founder and initial financial sponsor of the Cato Institute. Which doesn't make the report wrong, but certainly inclines one to inspect it more closely. And upon closer inspection, it's still unclear what they're measuring, and more importantly, what they're comparing. Numerous factors that might skew the comparison -- such as job mix, equivalency and mean tenure -- aren't mentioned, rendering facile their reduction of millions of compensation package across multiple regions, socioeconomic, job categories, etc. Again, they may be right, but you certainly can't tell from their statistical sophistry.
Comment by Jack on February 23, 2011 at 3:25pm

Hyperbolium, well, I couldn't find anything from George Soros.  Here's another analysis pulled from the ever authoritative USA today, which also cites stats from the US Bureau Of Labor Statistics; it gives the same general flavor with just a bit more breakdown. I agree with you that there are variables these stats may not capture or explain, and that the source is important.  Do you suspect that government employees are under compensated, and if so, where does your perception come from?  Anyway, for what it's worth, see below:


Key findings:

• Federal. The federal pay premium cut across all job categories — white-collar, blue-collar, management, professional, technical and low-skill. In all, 180 jobs paid better average salaries in the federal government; 36 paid better in the private sector.

Private. The private sector paid more on average in a select group of high-skill occupations, including lawyers, veterinarians and airline pilots. The government's 5,200 computer research scientists made an average of $95,190, about $10,000 less than the average in the corporate world.

State and local. State government employees had an average salary of $47,231 in 2008, about 5% less than comparable jobs in the private sector. City and county workers earned an average of $43,589, about 2% more than private workers in similar jobs. State and local workers have higher total compensation than private workers when the value of benefits is included.


Average federal salaries exceed average private-sector pay in 83% of comparable occupations. A sampling of average annnual salaries in 2008, the most recent data:

Job Federal Private Difference
Comment by Adam Sheets on February 23, 2011 at 3:32pm
Yes, I suspect that government employees are under-compensated and that perception comes from witnessing countless friends and family members struggle to make ends meet day after day, week after week. I've seen their benefits cuts year after year as big businesses get welfare. I've seen prison guards who had to take second jobs in fast food. But if you're considering the rich CEOs on Wall Street government employees, which you should considering their benefits, that the average salaries are pretty high. Again, all this is is a civil war orchestrated by the privileged class and pitting the working class against one another, making us forget that THEY are the real enemy.
Comment by Jack on February 24, 2011 at 6:41am

Hyperbolium, I tried unsuccessfully to cut/paste a more detailed table comparison from the USA as noted above, so instead, here's the link for whatever it's worth. 




I got a huge chuckle out of the blogger who spoofed Walker. 


Have enjoyed reading everyone's forceful views and the fact there was no personal acidity. Catch you on a different discussion.

Comment by hyperbolium.com on February 24, 2011 at 8:18am
Do you suspect that government employees are under compensated, and if so, where does your perception come from?

I have absolutely no clue either way, and would be just as wary of numbers offered by George Soros. What I do know is that statistics can lie, and very easily. The USAToday piece suffers the same opacity as the Cato Institute's, as it's unclear whether the comparisons are like-to-like. On the surface, the numbers are startling, but without some color on the undocumented variables - complexity of work, quality of work, mean worker age, career tenure, etc. - it's hard to know if these statistics are meaningful.
Comment by Easy Ed on February 24, 2011 at 9:04am

You know, greed seems to be a human trait that doesn't distinguish itself from union worker to non-union worker. Meaning that there is no question that some people game the system to their benefit. Be it the cop who logs a ton of overtime on his last year in service to jack up his annual pension, or the CEO who borrows five million from the corporation and then has his hand-picked board of directors "forgive the loan" and write it off against profits. Both are terribly wrong and somewhere, someone has to pay for this. 


This conversation over the past few days has centered on the mis-deeds of some, as well as trying to paint one side or another as the bad guys. In the case of Wisconsin, despite numerous posts here explaining that the unions have already conceded the points in regards to benefits and pension contributions, some still choose to make that the topic. It's not. The problem is that certain people are working hard and in concert and conspiracy, to take away the rights of workers...basic rights as defined by our laws and international human right's organizations. 


Probably the greatest problem facing this country and my children is not the growing deficit, healthcare or any number of potential foreign military operations. It's the wide division between what I'l call the super rich versus everyone else. The middle class is being pushed into lower income levels and losing benefits while those that have amassed wealth are using their money to take control of the political process though the old means of special interest groups and lobbying, and the newer means such as corporate donations and communication, as we see on their sharp skills to stay on task with talking points and rallying cries. (To be continued)

Comment by Easy Ed on February 24, 2011 at 9:04am
I t's this division of classes that will tear the fabric of America apart. When I watch the films of what is transpiring in the Middle East, or of late in my reading about the rise of Germany after the first World War and the extermination of millions of people, it's not so far fetched to think it can't happen here, because it can.


So where are the voices today? I don't know Adam...maybe their there but we just can't hear them. Or maybe their not ready to be heard. I do know that in the past few days I've seen and heard more Woody Guthrie music than ever before. Maybe it's because he already has said what needs to be heard.

Comment by dansullivan9026 on February 25, 2011 at 4:41am

Adam,   I'm 61.   I'm old school.    But here's my contribution for what it's worth.



Comment by Lucky Mud on February 25, 2011 at 5:57am

God, I love these blogs! I'm not tring to be a smart-ass, either, it's just that I learn so much not just about current events but the sea of different ideas from so many sides.

     We've been told, more than once,  at major festivals, to be careful and make sure we don't get political. Imagine that. Folk singers told not to sing to, well.....folks.

Comment by Easy Ed on February 25, 2011 at 7:07am
@Dan Sullivan.....I love it. Great job...despite your advanced age.


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.