Wednesday, May 02, 2007

"How can you run when you know?"

In honor of the 27th anniversary of Kent State today, I present my top-five protest songs of all time.

Note that I tried to avoid songs that conjured images of flower power, tie-dye shirts and general hippines. While that music may be the very definition of protest music, I thought it was just too easy to pick from that collection. Papa Dylan is off limits too.

This had to be at least a little challenging, even if Vietnam inevitably slips into a few of my choices.

1. Ohio. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

While it skirts the area I outlined above as off limits, I'm including it for two reasons. One, it deals with a specific event. Two, it's the best protest song ever written, hands down. The best protest song by perhaps the best protest-song writer.

If you've ever caught the VH1 Behind The Music special on CSN&Y, it delivers a fascinating retrospective on this song.

All these years later, David Crosby and Stephen Stills recount the tale of Neil Young writing this song with wide-eyed awe. Their story goes something like this: Two days after Kent State, Neil Young walked off alone into the woods.

After a few days of solitude, he emerged and played this haunting song.

Two weeks later, it was on the radio. Twenty-seven years later, it's no less powerful. It perfectly captured the massacre at Kent State. Every time I hear it to this day, I still get chills thinking about what happened that day.

2. Eve of Destruction. Barry McGuire.

If Ohio summed up political unrest through one specific event, Eve of Destruction did so on the broadest possible terms. It gets included here because, despite its subject matter, Barry McGuire is an outsider to the whole hippy era.

He was kicked out of the Navy at age 16 for being under age, and later became a born-again Christian right about the time Kent State was happening, circa 1971.

He's a one-hit wonder, but his one hit just about knocks your socks off. In one gritty burst, it sums up a turbulent decade and offers a prescient look at the Mideast turmoil of today.

A sampling of my favorite portion of the lyrics, of which you can find the complete version here and a link to the hard-core video here:

You can bury your dead, but don't leave a trace
Hate your next-door neighbor, but don't forget to say grace

And from earlier in the song:

You're old enough to kill, but not for votin'
You don't believe in war, but what's the gun you're totin'
And even the Jordan River has... bodies floatin'

The cat has some serious chops.

3. Born In The USA. Bruce Springsteen.

C'mon. You knew The Boss would show up on the list somehow.

The first two songs on the list were pretty obvious . As discussed on Squawking VFR before, Born In The USA might be the more misunderstood song of all time.

Long considered as some sort of blind, patriotic anthem by Ron Reagan and his friends, it's actually the opposite. Originally titled "Vietnam," BITUSA is a scathing view of the shameful way America treated its veterans returning from The Nam.

The song was slated for a more somber, accoustic treatment and initially recorded for the Nebraska album. (Springsteen performs it this way on the Live In New York album, disc two). But he changed it up for the BITUSA album, with the intention to give it a more angry, volatile treatment.

Came back home to the refinery
Hiring man said, 'Son, if it was up to me'
Went down to see my VA man
He said, 'Son, don't you understand'

4. This Land Is Your Land. Woody Guthrie.

As Bruce notes during a speech on his 1975-1985 Greatest Hits, This Land is Your Land is "an angry song, an answer to Irving Berlin, who just wrote God Bless America."

Guthrie, the father of folk, was incensed that Berlin wholly ignored the hardscrabble aspects of American life during the Great Depression when he penned God Bless America. Guthrie originally titled his response, "God Blessed America for me."

Not only was Guthrie protesting Berlin, but the wide gap in wealth between rich and poor. Besides being a beautiful song, I think TLIYL holds America accountable for what it is supposed to be - an inclusive melting pot - and exposes the more grim reality that took hold during the Depression.

Here's a verse that is often chopped off the end of the song, written by Guthrie, a one-time proud Communist:

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office, I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.

5. Blue Sky Mine. Midnight Oil.

First of all, Midnight Oil should be recognized as one of the great (only?) political bands in recent memory. They thrived spinning songs about corporate shenanigans and the disconnect between modern-day greed and the traditions, history and culture of Australia.

Frontman Peter Garrett even won a seat in the Aussie version of Congress in the 1990s.

You could take their entire body of work as a worthy entry here at No. 5, but I'll single them out for Blue Sky Mine, which opens by extolling the blue-collar virtue, "If I work all day, they'll be food on the table tonight."

But the greedy sugar company in the song cooks its books, and in the process wipes out an entire town that depended on its business. Like Barry McGuire, it presciently pre-dates the American corporate chicancery by 10 to 15 years. Peter Garrett would probably love to duke it out with a scumbag like Ken Lay.

Good stuff, all around.



At 9:22 AM, Blogger SJPSandman said...

Yes! A Midnight Oil reference.

"Beds are Burning" was the first cassette single I ever purchased.

Nice to see someone post a list I cannot argue with.

I couldn't agree more on "Ohio."

At 6:31 AM, Blogger Smokey Robinson (aka Matt) said...

I must say, I would never have pegged you for a protest song guy. And I can't tell if I find it jarring or refreshing to see this list without Buffalo Springfield or "Give Peace A Chance" or others of the more typical protest/political complaint ilk.

Great work as always though.

Of course, I also have to deal with the weird compulsion to go hear these songs now, like when someone incidentally mentions pancakes at the office one morning and you suddenly end up with a week-long craving.


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