Steve Earle – Rich Man’s War

Outlaw country musician Steve Earle grindingly tries to rhyme “far” with “war,” and looks at stereotypically hard-working but low income Americans forced to fight in Iraq as an economic opportunity. It’s Springsteen-lite from, still, an engaging performer. And it is an update of the theme expressed decades earlier by John Fogerty, in Fortunate Son, also reviewed here.

In fact, the socio-economic status of US army recruits mirrors the full population. This finding is from the Heritage Foundation, albeit a right-of-centre organization with its own ideological axe to grind. The results aren’t perfect (as if social science data could be), but widely considered authoritative.

Still, what makes the 2004 song compelling rhetoric is it also looks at the other side: poor people in Iraq recruited by rich men, too, to fight for Allah against Americans. The larger point of the song may be a commentary on aggressors on opposing sides being more alike than different.

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Pete Seeger – Where Have All the Flowers Gone

Pete Seeger borrowed the tune for this 1955 song from a Russian (or Ukranian) folk tune. And since then, other artists have added verses and adapted it. This makes the song a folk song in the true sense of it seeming like it has always been around, and a tradition evolving. Mind you, nowadays we might also call such borrowing and adaptation to be copyright infringement.

Perhaps Bob Dylan, too, copped the rhetorical device of asking “where” and “when” in this song, for his own argument or resignation that solutions to political, social and economic problems are out there blowing in the wind. Both tunes may be depressing for recanting areas for improvement, for bringing peace and ending war… and wondering if we have what it takes, collectively, to learn and better ourselves for the good of all. And perhaps frustratingly, not suggesting solutions. It’s been a long time passing, and when will we ever learn?

Given that Pete Seeger has dedicated many, many decades to teaching us through song, we should hope others will continue his tradition.

Also by Seeger reviewed here: Little Boxes

U2 – New Year’s Day

Don’t let the 80s hairstyles fool you this is ephemeral pop twaddle: Irish rockers U2 delivered this anthem for the Polish solidarity movement, in 1983. This organization was like a federation of trade unions, seeking, among other things better working conditions. Except that its advocacy faced crackdowns for not being Communist-party controlled. Lech Wałęsa, a leader, went on to be a president of Poland, and New Year’s Day remains one of the band’s most revered of songs.

Ani DiFranco – Amendment

The message is too direct to become a classic folk song of the kind that becomes universal in its stanzas through all ages. It lacks a melody that sticks. This 2012 rant may be more effective to dispense with the rudimentary arrangement and just be delivered as a speech. And there may be some logical inconsistencies in the lyrics that both call for government action and private education in the home. None of this might be the point.

Alternative folk singer Ani Difranco boldly sings for the recognition of women’s rights. This includes the freedom for a woman to have an abortion: ending an unwanted pregnancy must be a choice. This may be the most direct pro-choice song out there, but goes further. She tosses in anti-capitalist rhetoric and religious criticism, in what must surely be as a whole a feminist anthem… even if it bites off more than it chews.

The many messages in one song could fill a few album’s worth of material. A listener wanting to learn the singer’s views and more on the issues raised may have to spend some time with the song to reflect upon its many sidebars. But it is probably not meant to sway opinions; Difranco’s fans will hear want they already believe and feel emboldened in their continued efforts to achieve women’s equality.

The style is similar to another Difranco song, Self Evident.

John Lennon – Happy Xmas (War Is Over)

Quite the bummer of a Christmas tune, especially when wedged between Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree or some other fluff about Frosty or Rudolph.

This was a 1971 anti-Vietnam protest song, but the pretty melody copped from the folk song Stewball (about a race horse) has made it a Christmas standard. In addition to being covered many times, the song depresses those better-off-than-most by being the soundtrack to commercials urging donations to various developing country causes.

Of course, the message of peace is important, and Christmas is a good time to be reminded that the world need be a better place. Still, it is simplistic to sing that war is over if you want it to be, and the Vietnam War went on another four years after Lennon’s plea.

Also by Lennon here: Imagine

Bob Dylan – Political World

Dylan back in 1989 provided a state of the union address in song which speaks the the notion, going back to Aristotle, that that man is a political animal. In fact, the philosopher – Aristotle, not Bob! – meant this as one reason we’d live in cities together. Yet the soundbite has become about the ubiquity of politics.

Dylan takes the negative view of politics, that it is about us versus them, corruption, greed, fear and war. Of course, what he is chastising is some potential, but not necessary, outcomes of politics. The concept itself is not always described so malevolently, but even benignly. After all, it is the people practicing politics that collectively make decisions, if you’d prefer to back up the causality blame game. And many a politician has staked a career on the hope and change of better days to come that politics is also able to bring.

You probably just thought of Barack Obama, but it was Otto von Bismark, German politician around the end of the 19th century, who supposedly said, “Politics is the art of the possible.”

Phil Ochs – Power And Glory

Things could be better, folkie Phil Ochs notes in this 1964 protest song. After citing what’s great about the USA, he lets us know that not all are free if poor, and that some detract from the majesty of the land by spreading their fear, hate and even treason.

Now, let’s acknowledge from the lyrics that some are padlocked in prison for committing crimes against others, but the rest of the song is a Woody Guthrie-styled critique of the American dream. The equality of opportunity for all to succeed may be hampered through the actions of others. We can note the singer still loves his country and finds within it the structure for improvement and betterment. Sadly, Ochs took his own life in 1976.