Rising to the Times
“Where have all the flowers gone?”
— Pete Seeger
“How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?”
— Bob Dylan
“What can a poor boy do, ‘cept sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band?”
To this musical list of rhetorical questions, let’s add another: Who killed the protest song?
Despite the valiant effort of Steve Earle’s Jerusalem to revive the proud tradition of the topical broadside, pulling the plug on the protest song was a mercy killing. For those of us who survived the strident self-righteousness of the ’60s and early ’70s, when we sang to keep from going to Vietnam, just the thought of hearing Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young again bleat “We can change the world!” is enough to make a tone-deaf pacifist decide to give war a chance.
The problem with most of the music that labels itself “political” is that it’s merely political, its tunnel vision failing to recognize the wider realm within which politics is part of the warp and woof of everyday life. Thus, such music risks restricting its listenership to those whose focus on politics is every bit as narrowly single-minded, who subject art to an ideological measuring stick and judge it on the basis of political expediency.
Playing against its purer musical instincts, the didacticism of the topical song tends to subvert not only its artistic effectiveness but its ideological impact. If politics is a process of engaging debate and changing minds, what purpose is served when the ones most receptive to hearing the music are the ones who already agree with the message?
Try as Jerusalem might to rekindle the populist torch that once passed from Woody Guthrie to Pete Seeger to the young Bob Dylan, the times they have a-changed. Whether Dylan was responsible for the sea change or simply reflective of it, the protest song has never recovered from his defection from the front lines in the mid-1960s.
After Dylan decided to forsake the social conscience of “Only A Pawn In Their Game” and “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” for an amphetamine-fueled surrealism, many of his activist fans screamed betrayal. But, as hindsight makes plain, Dylan’s challenge to his audience was more profoundly political than his previous role as topical troubadour, with the revolutionary impact of “Like A Rolling Stone” far transcending the finger-pointing of “Masters Of War”.
Where social conscience was once as much of a musical fashion statement as buckskin fringe or love beads, Earle’s is plainly cut from a different cloth. The best of Jerusalem attacks its listeners with a militant musical punch to match the artist’s unrepentant radicalism, a depth of feeling and strength of commitment that transcend political boilerplate.
Whatever one thinks of the ideology, songs such as “Ashes To Ashes” and the title track challenge the listener in the manner of the most provocative art, questioning our basic assumptions as to what it means to be alive in this time and place. This doesn’t feel like message music, where once you get the message you no longer need the music.
As a response to the anniversary of the September 11 devastation, Jerusalem couldn’t be more divergent in spirit from The Rising by Bruce Springsteen, the rocker with whom the renegade Earle has so often been compared. Where Springsteen’s material aspires to comfort and unite, Earle’s aims to disturb and divide. The Rising is a musically safe album about brave people triumphing over tragedy; Jerusalem is a brave album that evokes a tragedy even more profound than two towers destroyed and thousands of lives lost. Where Springsteen offers secular hymns, Earle tosses Molotov cocktails.
Yet the project can’t help but carry a whiff of ’60s nostalgia, since it fails to resolve the conundrum of preaching to the choir. While Earle’s liner notes invoke the legacy of “asking the hardest questions in our darkest hours,” who’s listening beyond those already most inclined to agree with Earle’s answers? I’m sure the artist wishes that Jerusalem carried even more of a risk, that enough people might be so outraged by it that it might seriously be considered a cultural threat. Yet, in times like these, an artist is only allowed to express “dangerous” ideas so long as they pose no real danger. (When protest becomes a threat, call out the National Guard.)
Instead, most of the mainstream attention generated by the album concerns “John Walker’s Blues”, one of its musically weaker and more conventionally topical tracks, in which Earle tries to write from the perspective of the so-called American Taliban. Mainly, he sounds more like a pissed-off Steve Earle than a convert to militant Islam, and most of the questions raised by the material have been more concerned with its effects on his career — commercial suicide or savvy publicity mongering? — than with the issues it raises.
Ultimately, the music that has the most profound political impact succeeds on a number of levels simultaneously, nourishing the soul, elevating the spirit, perhaps even inflaming the libido. It’s more interested in sharing something with us than convincing us of something. No one classifies Sam Cooke as a political artist, but the secular hymn of “A Change Is Gonna Come” is the greatest of protest songs. Bob Marley is mostly known as the father of reggae, but he was also the last of the great protest singers. And “Everyday People”, “Sympathy For The Devil” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are more all more political than “Eve of Destruction”.
No music is more inherently political than country, steeped as it is in issues of class and race, staking its claim to a tradition where the past both informs and interprets the present. Paradoxically, the “political” tag ensures that the timeliest music of Earle’s career will have the shortest shelf life. Guitar Town and Copperhead Road may be every bit as political, but they wear better after more than a decade than Jerusalem will in another month or two.