Steve Earle – The Revolution Starts…


From 2004, alternative country singer Earle looks around backyards, the street, his home town and even his dreams, for a revolution to start. He doesn’t say for why or too much for what, beyond helping people that are “without.”

It’s widely thought he was singing optimistically for the 2004 US presidential election to be that revolution. At the time of this song’s release, that election was a mere season away.

That November, incumbent George W. Bush for the Republicans triumphed over Democratic candidate John Kerry. Bush received a shade over half of the popular vote.

No doubt Steve Earle was disappointed: he had a different revolution in mind!

What is a revolution? Ask the Clash.


Kanye West – New Slaves

Hip hop mogul Kanye West had a laundry list of issues to itemize, along with singer Frank Ocean, in 2013.

Racial segregation in schools is noted to the extent of separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites. Kanye also points to the fashion industry for past racism. It goes on.

A larger theme might be criticizing mindless consumerism, even though West is easily able to afford luxuries and set popular culture trends. Maybe that makes the man a hypocrite, or at least someone who thoughtfully feels conflicted by his wealth given the struggles of his people in the past, and the challenges many of his brothers and sisters continue to face. Whatever, the chorus crudely suggests that for Kanye, its better to lead than follow (or is that, better to give, than to receive)?

This is the type of song that raises many political issues, with individual lines that could be parsed as individual posts.

The song quotes from Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit. Also by West, reviewed here: Otis

Jimmie Rodgers – Hobo Bill’s Last Ride

Rodgers (1897-1933) may have been singing country, before there officially was country music? The “Singing Brakeman,” back in 1929, sang this sad tale of a boxcar riding man who probably froze to death, eastbound, during a storm.

A “hobo” was a term back then referring to people that travelled around taking work where they could. Keep in mind, this song was from Great Depression era times. Finding work was challenging. Even the most resourceful of souls fell on hard times, and gradually, many felt more of a role for government to assist people was required.

What we got from this, was the welfare state: a government-administered collection of services and programs, aimed at helping out those who needed help, without any assignation of blame.

Some sources distinguish “hobo” from “bum,” the latter being someone not that interested in working, even when jobs were available. Both terms are likely considered politically incorrect today. However, a criticism of the welfare state is that it creates dependency on government: that it creates “bums.” And further, that the welfare state reduces not just our self-reliance, but our personal freedom when we are recipients of public services. After all, it’s not so easy to ride the rails from town to town unless the stops all have unemployment offices along the way.

Billy Bragg – To Have And Have Not

The melody seems to come from Rudy Can’t Fail by the Clash, or maybe their version of I Fought The Law. Like the Clash, Bragg is British, and his folk and protest music is punk-tinged.

This song communicates that the privileged aren’t better people than those less well off. It tries to correct a stereotype that those out of work aren’t in all cases lazy, but that they just have less opportunities than the upper class.  It came at a time of hardship for the working class in the 1980s, when even if industrious, may have found themselves struggling to get by, unemployed.

In politics “haves” and “have nots” are popular ways to describe economic classes of people in a fixed social structure. Here, the “haves” accumulate more and more wealth, at the expense of the “have nots.” In Marxist terms, these would be the bourgeosie and proletariats. Today, we have seen the division described as the 1 percent and 99 percent, from the Occupy Movement.

The title is also from the 1937 Ernest Hemingway novel, which became a film with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

Michael Jackson – Man In The Mirror

A #1 in 1988 for “Jacko,” though not written by him, is sung in the first person as a declaration to change for the better. It comes off as a self-inflicted guilt trip, with Michael looking at his reflection, knowing he could do more to help those less well off.

Technically, around 99% of the world were financially worse off than the singer!

But we could all take from the song the hope that change can start with us, at the individual level. Some critiques of poverty alleviation maintain we too often look to or expect “the government” to get to work on the situation, freeing us to focus on our own selfishness… that we should help others organically. The government, in this view, may be seen as impartial and arbitrary, coercive and even uncaring. But as people, together as a society, there is optimism the poor can be voluntarily assisted by philanthropists large and small. The trade-off can be less coordinated efforts. A concern is whether the problems of poverty are too large and complex for such decentralized, non-expert responses.

Man In The Mirror could provoke an interesting discussion about the size and scope of government and the responsibility of individuals, to their brothers, sisters and strangers, too. It’s typically maintained that as government gets bigger, the role for individuals decreases. This is also debated.

Tracy Chapman – Subcity

From 1989, Tracy Chapman poetically likens marginalized citizens to living in a city below where everyone else gets by and finds success. This subcity exists because of a cosy relationship between government and big business, both failing to provide enough (and adequate) employment opportunities for the poor.

Chapman may be expressing a view of equality, from the ideology of liberalism, which has maintained the importance of using state intervention to assist people to reach their own dreams. People that fall through the cracks through no fault of their own, should be helped to regain their independence. Policy-wise, this could be through education, health care, social assistance, job training and other services. Chapman’s song does not mention the many such supports that Americans may be eligible to access, perhaps feeling that what is there, is not enough.

Curtis Mayfield – New World Order

Curtis Mayfield’s final effort in 1997 examines the challenges of rising out of poverty in inner city American neighbourhoods.

The concept of a New World Order sometimes refers to a conspiracy theory with global elites taking over the world, perhaps with a world government. Mayfield probably is singing more generally, of a New World Order being a time of dramatic change, for the betterment of people. This can be done not through revolution or elite leadership, at the grassroots, with common people working together (the song references millions marching to accomplish progress).

Mayfield started out in church choirs, was in the Impressions (“People Get Ready”) and here, paralyzed, sang lines on his back. Hope for families in the ‘hood meant that much to him.