Marc Ribot on Resistance and its Songs
Marc Ribot has been an activist for years. For 2018, though, he’s doing something new.
He’s been a “rank and file” activist with his union, as he puts it. He’s attended Occupy rallies. He’s never been much for established party politics, though; he has never hit the pavement in support of a candidate, for instance. This year that has changed. The prolific experimental guitarist canvassed during the primaries. He didn’t get sent out to argue with people on the opposing side, he says, but to energize the existing voting base, to remind voters that an election is coming, or to line up a ride to the polls for someone in need. What he saw poked holes in the clichés that circulate online or through TV. What he saw energized him.
“You become aware, man – a lot of our neighbors are really in despair and you need to get out there,” Ribot says. “Also, you become aware that a lot of our neighbors are really cool people.”
In his four-decade career, Ribot has released 25 records under his own name, though many likely know him as the guitarist whose oblique, angular style has become a hallmark of Tom Waits records since 1985’s Rain Dogs. He’s released politically charged tunes, sure, such as on his trio Ceramic Dog’s fierce YRU Still Here?, which came out in April. His latest, September’s Songs of Resistance 1942-2018, mixes new interpretations of Italian anti-fascist songs and civil rights anthems with newly penned numbers that directly address the dangers of the Trump era in America. (Part of the album’s proceeds are going to current-day resistance group The Indivisible Project.) In collaboration with artists including Tift Merritt, Waits, Steve Earle, and Meshell Ndegeocello, Ribot’s latest presents what he hopes are useful songs of resistance.
These are not necessarily protest songs, Ribot points out, elucidating an important distinction at the core of his LP: A protest song and a song of resistance are not one and the same.
“Protest recognizes the legitimacy of the power to which it protests. An anti-war song is asking the government to stop a war, but it recognizes the power and legitimacy of the government it is petitioning,” Ribot says. “A song of resistance has a different purpose. It doesn’t necessarily recognize the legitimacy of those who it is opposing. Its purpose is to cheer up the people who are opposing, or it’s speaking to the people who are opposing. There’s a key difference.”
In Ribot’s travels, he has seen what he describes as an increase in anti-democratic and authoritarian political movements. Outside a venue he played in Turkey, a government-sponsored poster announced “We are the 100 percent,” while he has friends who are being harassed out of the country and knows of opposition newspapers that are being shut down. And in September Pyotr Verzilov, who is affiliated with Russian political punk rockers and activists Pussy Riot (a band Ribot has recorded with), was flown to a German hospital after a suspected poisoning. This is par for the course in Russia, Ribot offers, citing the recent murders of two journalists. He fears this is the direction America is headed in.
“When I see President Trump, when I see him demonizing the press, restructuring the intelligence and security services to be personally loyal to him and getting rid of people who aren’t, and constructing an unaccountable prison system for immigrants — when you see these things, an alarm should go off in your head,” Ribot explains. “An alarm is going off in my head. My fear is it’s leading toward a Russian-style situation. I’ve been there, I have friends there, and I don’t want it here. It’s dangerous.”
He pauses, then adds heavily, “No one there believed it would happen, either.”
Songs of Resistance, then, is specifically penned for the resistance within the United States. His collaborators, with the exception of one musician from Mexico, are artists from the US. As for the songs themselves, Ribot has been exploring historical labor songs, songs of the civil rights movement, and European resistance songs from World War II for several years.
“I hope other people go back and realize and check out that we have this wonderful history of songs that people sang when they were marching down the street and that we could sing them again,” he says. “The other part of what I did is I didn’t simply copy them, but I hope I participated in the tradition, which is to take what’s from the past and to change it so you can use it now.”
“Bella Ciao,” which Ribot performs with longtime collaborator Waits, changes from a driving rally song to a tragic lament in this treatment; civil rights anthem “We Are Soldiers in the Army,” sung here by Fay Victor, becomes a free jazz overture. Sometimes, Ribot says, the songs were taken further away from their familiar formats so they could feel right in 2018. This is part of a long tradition in resistance music, Ribot points out.
“‘We Are Soldiers in the Army’ was, I think, originally a gospel tune, but it was altered just a little bit … the people in the civil rights movement took what they found and changed it. I’m hoping that process will continue, because that’s what it’s about,” Ribot says. “I hope people will do the same thing and will find something to sing. It sure gets boring chanting the same half-sentence slogans again and again. My god, we’re going to die of boredom while Trump’s still in office.”
Indeed, the need for slogans and marching songs was in the back of Ribot’s head as he made this album. He recalls one Occupy rally he attended. Word came down that the police were coming, and some of the marchers began singing Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” One reason it didn’t work was because not everyone knew the song, Ribot ventures, as it was a song best known by a particular demographic —white indie rockers, mainly. There are already civil rights tunes that were sung by protesters while they were being arrested, “We Are Soldiers in the Army” being one, which Ribot felt would have been more appropriate for that moment.
“[This song] gave people courage and reminded them that they’re not alone. People in the paddy wagon could hear that there are still people on the street. People in the jail cell could hear that there were supporters outside or other people in the jail that they couldn’t see, but could hear,” he says.
“People need songs for these things, and also to remind us that we’re not alone in history, that we have company from earlier times,” Ribot continues. “It’s pretty great company when you think about it.”
In one way, resistance songs like these serve the same purpose as military music — they’re for marching to. But unlike military music, Ribot notes, songs of resistance acknowledge human frailty: “We are soldiers in the army / we have to fight / we also have to cry.” Ribot did not use the song “City Called Heaven” on this album, but he deeply loves it for many of the same reasons. “It goes, ‘I am a pilgrim of sorrow / walking through this world alone / I have no hope for tomorrow / but I’m starting to make it my home,'” he says. “This was sung before people were going to go on marches where there was a good chance that they would be hurt and jailed.”
This awareness of human vulnerability is important, Ribot feels, as are other sorts of self-reflection. At the core of all political action, musical or otherwise, is the question of whether the good fight is winnable, Ribot says. Can one defeat an evil enemy without becoming just as evil in the process? And can one defeat an enemy that appeals to peoples’ worst instincts without falling into that same trap? (“Too long a sacrifice can make of the heart a stone,” he utters, quoting W.B. Yates. “O when may it suffice?”)
Yet Ribot’s heart is not a stone, partially because playing music is a lot of fun, he says lightly. His aim was not to make Songs of Resistance a leftist record, but an album that hopefully raises questions on both sides of the political aisle. Ribot is concerned about climate change, he says, and worries about the world his 21-year-old daughter has inherited. “The Militant Ecologist,” then, is an environmentalist song, and Ribot contends that environmentalism has a strong history in the Republican Party — equally or even more so than Democratic.
“The Sierra Club was strongest in western states that voted Republican. It wasn’t a liberal issue,” Ribot says. “Conservatives like clean air and water and a livable environment as much as liberals. The same thing is true for a lot of other things that the record alludes to.”
Indeed, if there is to be a serious resistance to fascism, Ribot says, he hopes it echoes World War II, a time when leftists and conservatives put aside their differences, at least temporarily, in what he refers to as a popular front against fascism. “There were many of them, and hundreds of thousands fought and died for that cause during World War II,” Ribot says.
As for his own part in the resistance, Ribot is putting aside his reservations about getting involved in party politics. Among musicians, there tends to be a strong thread of cynicism — plainly put, the idea that politics suck and that nonprofits are more deserving of benefit concerts or albums’ proceeds. Plus, Ribot and his colleagues make a living by selling records and concert tickets. Piss off 10 percent of your audience, Ribot says, and you’re 10 percent poorer. Yet the Trump era is a different time, Ribot says, and people need to get directly involved.
“This is one of the most important months of any of our lives politically [because of the election] and everybody needs to get out there,” he says.