Tim McMullen's Missives and Tomes

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Music in a Time of War?

Originally posted March 2, 2007 - Friday
Where to begin? This thread prompted a great number of varying responses and varying tones; many were amusing, thoughtful, and/or provocative; nevertheless, I feel compelled to respond to some of the more glib and cynical posts. The '67 hit list is very telling; however, if you look at any hit list, then or now, as musicians or fans of music, you will realize that most of the best written and most moving songs are not the biggest hits. The music business is designed to discourage originality or complex thought. If you want to have a hit, you'll never write a topical song. You'll write some derivative, imitation of ten other pop songs. Occasionally, someone writes a strikingly original song that has some modest success. But, if your goal is commercial success, avoid topical songs like the plague. If, on the other hand, you write because you have to, because you have a story to tell, or because you have an idea to convey, or a feeling to share, then the real question is, "Do songs affect people?" The obvious answer is, "Yes, they can." Thankfully, the internet has given writers a way to circumvent the limitations of the "record business."

Some of the analysis of the '60's is accurate. The draft was a significant motivator for opposition to the war; furthermore, the earlier civil rights and free speech movements lent legitimacy to political action used for social change. As for writing the songs off as "preaching to the choir," this is a gross overstatement and misperception. Of all the most significant topical songwriters of the Vietnam era—Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Mark Spoelstra, Buffy Sainte Marie—their topical songs on all topics—environment, race, labor, war—were always a small minority of their full repertoire. This is also true of later topical writers like Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn, or Loudon Wainwright.
The point about songs with meaning, whether a love song or a protest song, is that they are always a communication between the writer and the individual listener. The suggestion that "your song didn't stop the war" is actually a silly one. What your song can do is make someone think, feel, respond. If, after hearing your song, a seed of doubt has been planted, or a new perspective has been recognized, or an empathy has been felt, that is a real impact. Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton didn't stop the war, but their inspiration, their example, their witnessing, their arguments, their stories moved and motivated many thousands of people, who, in turn, moved and motivated many thousands of others. Make no mistake, the protest, despite all the effort to stifle it, did alter the course of the war, did directly affect both Johnson and Nixon, and did leave a legacy, no matter how much the revisionist Reaganizing of an alternative historical reality has attempted to lay waste to that legacy.
The most ironic thing about topical songs is that their relevancy should instantly fade; the most tragic thing about the human condition is that the topical song becomes relevant again and again. My song, "Blood Red," which was originally written during Reagan's incursions into Nicaragua, is as relevant to Iraq and Afghanistan as it was to our Latin American invasions or the first "gulf war" (with the exception of the reference to "patriotic yachting crews" which explicitly ties it to Dennis Connor and the America's cup). A performance of the song is included below. Many people today tell me that they are especially moved by that song, and it is a song of open anger and angst, as opposed to what I consider to be even more moving songs like Paxton's tragic, character-driven vignettes like "Jimmy Newman" or "My Son John."

The suggestion that, in the end, Sha Na Na is more significant than Country Joe because the rock and roll pastiche makes you feel better than the song that makes you think, seems to offer some fairly skewed values, or at best, an explanation as to why the general masses have not called for impeachment of a proven liar whose failed policies have killed more Americans than the 9/11 attacks. In the end, music can communicate on many levels: both butt music and brain music, gut music and pain music; all have their place. But few uses of music, or literature of any kind, are more valid than those which challenge, provoke, or change us.

The Greatest threat to Democracy is Hypocrisy! Seek Truth! Speak Truth!

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