Friday, January 13, 2017

Hard Times Come Again No More

“Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh! Hard times come again no more.”
“'Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh! Hard times come again no more.”

Stephen Foster – 1854.

Coming January 20, 2017, life on planet earth gets a rude awakening. Donald Trump assumes the presidency. Now, this can go a few ways. Trump will either stand with democrat Bernie Sanders – who, like Trump, continually campaigns for fair trade and better wages - or he’ll dismantle all protections, abandon campaign promises and further accelerate the decimation of middle-class workers' wages and benefits. On the nation’s table are so many bone-chilling challenges, we are certain to find ourselves back in “protest-song land,” once again. By that I mean, songs that actually say something: songs that motivate and carry great emotional weight. The next “We Shall Overcome?”

As I look through each Trump cabinet pick, I see a protest song. Everyone could have their names stamped in infamy, depending on their actions or inaction. All of them are conflicted in one way or another.

You could argue that rap and hip-hop music have long been protesting and speaking loud and clear on issues such as racism and social injustice. And those words and the power of those words are heard and felt in that large community. The issue being, much like pop music, words must cross over and reach a broader, sympathetic audience. The chart-toppers aren’t viewed as conscience movers. You can’t impact the world in a positive manner sporting pounds of meretricious jewelry and exiguous Victoria Secret seduction-wear.

The generation that bore Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Pete Seeger arrived with dust on their boots. These song spokespeople dressed much like the faces in a crowd. You didn’t sing Dylan – you recited the message...however reluctant the preacher may have been.

Truly, the table is set for some great pushback material. Late night comics have been winning at this game. Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Bill Maher and Trevor Noah are making “people’s theatre” out of daily political mishaps. Musicians, for the most part, haven’t caught the big wave.

Perhaps, Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe Awards subtle takedown of “the Donald” was the foot in the door. I sense an impolite greeting for all politicians who think they can willfully manipulate and exacerbate either the left or right. Every word, every motivation, even body temperatures, are being monitored. Not from some foreign entity scanning our brainwaves, but us, clawing away at ourselves.

My generation was saddled with emotional withdrawal from World War II; later a Korean War and then the protracted threat of being stuffed in a winless, unconscionable war in Vietnam. It was the swing-era bands and crooners that consoled my parents through the long, painful ordeal. I can’t really think of a song from the Korean War that held court. Vietnam – now we’re rolling!

Here’s five rock/funk songs that are classics from the Vietnam era with staying power: Barry McGuire – “Eve of Destruction,” 1965; Donovan – “Universal Soldier,” 1965; Buffalo Springfield – “For What It’s Worth,” 1967; Edwin Starr - “War,” 1969 and Crosby, Stills & Nash – “Ohio,” 1970.

Today’s urban country music has lost footing, buried under whiskey and truck anthems... few reflective of real life. Early on, the songs spoke of extreme poverty and miserable wages. Many were migrant workers. My dad was part of that wandering delegation of young men who traveled to Utah to fight forest fires in the '30s; this after losing the family tobacco farm down in southern Kentucky to bankers. The songs he most remembered were those that spoke of homelessness, near starvation and survival with a bit of Pentecostal exuberance mixed in.

Country music has given us some great contemporary protest pieces. Merle Haggard's – “Fightin’ Side of Me,” 1994; Kris Kristofferson’s – “The Eagle & the Bear,” 2004; Steve Earle’s – “Mississippi, It’s Time,” 2015; Ronnie Dunn's – “Cost of Livin’,” 2011 and John Rich – “Shutting Detroit Down,”, 2009: all live up to their billing.

Classical music has a voice in this too: women’s rights, censorship, social justice – orchestrated and delivered: Ethel Smyth - “March of the Women”, 1910; Sibelius- “Finlandia;” Krzystof Penderecki – “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima,” 1960; Arnold Schoenberg – "A Survivor from Warsaw,” 1947 and Frederic Rzewski – “The People United Will Never Be Defeated,” 1975.

As I’m writing this, my partner is reading aloud postings of sheer frustration and anger across the Internet. Richard Nixon was the fuse-lighter of my generation; Donald Trump may very well be the acetylene torch of our times. Stephen Foster – please!

“While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh! Hard times come again no more.”

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