The Curmudgeon: Singing for the Cause

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A Column Questioning the Assumptions of Popular Music

When they ask musicians for help, the organizers of charities and political causes are almost always more interested in the musicians’ celebrity than in their art. These organizations know how to turn celebrity into money by selling concert tickets, selling albums or soliciting donations on televised fundraisers. They know how to bask in the reflected publicity that a star radiates. They’re not always sure what to do with art.

There’s nothing wrong with this. Most causes—whether it’s freeing the West Memphis Three, supporting U.S. troops in Afghanistan, helping the victims of Hurricane Sandy or saving Alaska’s Bristol Bay—need cash and deserve attention. But this approach ignores the very thing that made the musicians celebrated in the first place: their art.

After all, society’s problems require more than money and attention; they require understanding. If we can’t appreciate how it feels to be falsely imprisoned, deployed to an Asian battlefield, flooded by a storm or threatened by pollution, we can’t truly grasp the situation, no matter how many facts and arguments that journalists and academics throw at us. Only artists can help us empathize with people in situations so different than our own.

When Bruce Springsteen, for example, donated his services for the September 1979 “No Nukes” concerts at Madison Square Garden and allowed his “Mitch Ryder Medley” to appear on the No Nukes album that November, he raised a lot of money and attention for the movement to limit nuclear power and nuclear weapons. But he didn’t really contribute much to our understanding of the issue’s personal dimensions.

He didn’t, for example, perform “Roulette,” the song he had written and recorded (but not released) about the Three Mile Island meltdown that year. A man is driven to desperation by an environmental accident that arrives on “a strange breeze” and leaves him with “a house full of things that I can’t touch.” Eventually he realizes that somewhere corporate executives are “playing roulette with my life, roulette with my kids and wife.”

Still uncertain about his public political role, Springsteen didn’t perform the song at Madison Square Garden and thus failed to provide a valuable insight into the lives of ordinary Pennsylvanians near the nuclear plant. In fact, he wouldn’t release the song until 1988 as a B-side. He had helped raise money for a worthy cause, but any entertainer might have done that. Only a songwriter of his caliber could have helped us understand what was at stake.

Springsteen learned his lesson. By the time he joined the Amnesty International Tour in 1988, he committed himself to not only raising money but also expanding empathy. He did this by featuring his own political songs about marginalized individuals (“Born in the U.S.A.” and “Promised Land”) as well as appropriate cover songs (Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom,” Woody Guthrie’s “I Got No Home,” Edwin Starr’s “War,” Eddie Floyd’s “Raise Your Hand” and Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up”). Springsteen didn’t write a new song specifically about political prisoners, but he did the next best thing.

Organizers are often reluctant to ask musicians to write songs about a particular cause, because artists have a tendency to find complications and contradictions in every situation, while movement leaders want to send a clear, unambiguous message. And musicians are often reluctant to accept such commissions, because they believe writing on assignment somehow violates the mysteries of artistic creation.

Woody Guthrie never had any such reluctance; he wrote songs for every left-wing cause that came along. And Si Kahn, one of Guthrie’s most obvious heirs, has never hesitated either. Kahn, in fact, has spent his life in both roles: as a community organizer in North Carolina and as a folkie singer/songwriter whose songs have been recorded by Pete Seeger, Eddi Reader, Utah Phillips, Kathy Mattea, Hazel Dickens, Planxty and June Tabor.

These days Kahn is asking his fellow musicians to help out with the movement to protect Bristol Bay, one of Alaska’s purest, most productive fisheries, from a proposed two-mile-wide gold mine that might flood the estuary with toxic metals. The EPA has reported that 46% of the world’s remaining wild sockeye salmon come from Bristol Bay, home as well to bald eagles, brown bears, two American Indian tribes and a longstanding fishing industry.

Kahn is heading up Musicians United To Protect Bristol Bay, which takes a most unusual approach to getting musicians involved. The group is asking not for their celebrity but for their art. “Write a song about the campaign and the issues involved,” the group asks. “Perform it in your concerts and on the air. Record your song and send us an MP3 or a video…. If you’re not a songwriter, go to the Musicians United website and learn one of the songs other artists are writing and posting.”

Kahn has provided an example of what he’s looking for on his album to be released tomorrow, Bristol Bay. All 16 songs are set in the southwest corner of Alaska, but most of the tunes touch on the Pebble Mine threat only glancingly, if at all. Most of them provide that thing an artist can offer and a political activist can’t: what the situation feels like to the people who live there—and in one remarkable song how it feels to the sockeye salmon. If those fish can swim hundreds of miles against the current “Upstream,” Kahn asks, why can’t the humans overcome the odds of battling a well-financed mining corporation?

There are songs about a 1915 shipwreck, a torturous romantic triangle among two fishermen and a woman, life on the tundra a thousand years ago, a Swede immigrating to Alaska, the addiction of gold fever, a local fisherman who can look seven generations back and seven generations ahead and a dystopian vision of the last fishing trip before the salmon disappear. There’s even a funny song, “Everything Is Bigger in Alaska,” that spins tall tales about bears six-stories tall and salmon so large you have to take them to a saw mill. The gifted Swiss multi-instrumentalist Jens Kruger crafts electric folk-rock arrangements for some songs and acoustic string-band arrangements for others.

Only after Kahn has put us in the shoes of the people who live along the Bay (and in the fins of the fish that swim there), only after he has made us appreciate the way of life at risk does he cap off the album with two political anthems that provide the rousing slogans that political activists crave. “Down on the River” is an uptempo, folk-rock fight song that declares, “Sometimes we fish for herring; sometimes we fish for salmon; whoever comes to poison that, we’ll take ’em on, god damn ’em.” “Pebble Mine” is a midtempo accordion song that asks, “How can they be so greedy, so blind?” Both numbers function as secular hymns designed to bind the congregation together and lift its morale.

Kahn has been doing this a long time. His other new album, Aragon Mill: The Bluegrass Sessions, provides a good introduction to his career since 1974, for he has re-recorded his most popular songs such as “Five Days a Week,” “Wild Rose of the Mountain,” “Gone, Gonna Rise Again” and the much-covered title track in spirited arrangements with the German bluegrass trio the Looping Brothers.

But with Musicians United To Protect Bristol Bay, Kahn has done something more than bring in another crop of smart, catchy songs. He has reminded us that musicians can respond to the natural and man-made disasters of our time with something more than their celebrity. They create new music that reaches beyond the external facts of the situation to give us a peek into the internal experience of those people who have survived the last disaster or are bracing for the next.