Kent State & the Protest Song
Today's rap crap is frequently too full of violent, misogynistic lyrics (OK, you've made a good point, The Rolling Stones songs were often like that too). Today's self-absorbed, singer-songwriters, as excellent as many of them are, can not be mistaken for real folk or protest singers even though that is where a lot of their musical influences were schooled.
It's not that there is nothing left to say and nobody around to say it. Jackson Browne's latest, 2014's Standing In The Breach, was very politically and socially aware.
The recently, dearly departed, Celtic-rock band, Black 47, also frequently walked in Browne's territory over their twenty-five year existence. Their final CD, Last Call (also 2014), took on illegal immigration. In 2008 they recorded an entire disc about the war in Iraq and they were important in spreading the word about Ireland's often violent history.
Protest and political songs don't have to be depressing or preachy. Humor is a great way to make a point and to gain attention. Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant Masacree" is very long but it's also extremely funny while protesting war and the draft. Stevie Wonder recorded a song you could dance to with "Happy Birthday," the last track from Hotter Than July (1980), his last record from his golden era. It was his plea for Martin Luther King's birthday to become a national holiday that he was eventually happy to see become a reality. Both artists, though very different musically, proved lightheartedness can help promote serious goals.
There were more. The almost forgotten Al Stewart told us all about the "Road to Moscow" and George Harrison lead The Beatles on his tirade against the "Taxman."
Peter, Paul, and Mary are finished, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez have grown old, and U2 have abandoned their causes. Where are the new Pete Seegers and Woody Guthries? Some of these activist musicians actually recorded songs with a social conscience that became hits and, over time, popular standards.
This post was inspired by today's forty-fifth anniversary of the tragedy at Ohio's Kent State University. The unfortunate campus protest that resulted in the deaths of four college students prompted Neil Young to write "Ohio," one of rock's great politically charged records. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young rode it to number 14 on Billboard's Hot 100 shortly after the tragedy. The flip side of the famous single was a short, Stephen Stills song, "Find the Cost of Freedom," dedicated to those who died in the war in Viet Nam.
While there has always been a need for escapism in entertainment there was a time when pop music made people think. We need some of that thoughtfulness again.