Country Joe McDonald
In October, 1965, at the Vietnam Day Teach-In at Berkeley, Country Joe McDonald began a habit of opening his concerts with what would grow to be known as the FUCK cheer. “Gimme an ‘F’. Gimme a ‘U’. Gimme a ‘C’. Gimme a ‘K’. What’s that spell? What’s that spell? What’s that spell?” Immediately after the call-and-response gimmick, The Fish (Country Joe’s band) would break into the Vietnam demur “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag.”
What this was, was protest. The setting was a common one for the late 1960s, a stage full of anti-conformist musicians, hippies smoking pot and dropping acid, dancing and making love, the whole time drawing attention to what they saw as unjust and unqualified government policy. What was perhaps even more brilliant, was the way many of the musicians were able to poke fun at themselves and the ridiculousness of their own counterculture, taking jabs at the extreme far left Hippies, Yippies, and SDS’ers.
Social protest is nothing new, but the recent Toronto G20 riots that saw cars burned, businesses completely destroyed, and over five-hundred arrests took the modern act of demonstration to a much uglier, and as a result, futile level. The only thing people are talking about in the hangover of Canada’s recent G20 Summit are the riots themselves. Nobody knows, nor seems to care, what side the violent attackers stood for or whom they represented, let alone what the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations accomplished.
Alas, there is to be plenty of material written on the subject from all around the world, so I shall do my best to refrain from the mundane opinion sharing on how poorly Ottawa delivered, and omit a verbal lambasting on the deplorable acts of Canada’s largest cowards. Yet being originally from Toronto, and having a general hate-on for protests and the people who participate in them anyhow (even before these cowardice insolents took to the streets of my beloved hometown), I can’t help myself from tying this week’s Liner Notes somehow back to the protest theme.
The Freedom Singers, Newport Folk Festival 1962, (Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, amongst them)
How will I do that? By looking at how we got from bands like The Freedom Singers (founded 1962), who encouraged people to hold hands and resist, without violence, actual injustices against authentic social monstrosities like Civil Rights inequalities and preemptive invasion, to bands like Mudhoney, encouraging uneducated insubordinates to mask themselves, create anarchy with no real effort to produce an alternative, and destroy property on the principal that one is allowed because of chartered freedoms. These are two very distant sides on a strangely similar spectrum.
Lyrically, each side can be represented by two very different songs, decades apart, but both which seek the same message. Song 1: “We Shall Overcome” (1947 – a spin-off from an old gospel piece made famous by Pete Seeger as a campaign piece for the Civil Rights Movement). Song 2: “Killing In The Name” (1992 – the title track from Rage Against the Machine’s debut album and an anthem for a generation to bored to love but with nothing to hate).
Allow me to point out the obvious first. Here are the six phrases repeated in “We Shall Overcome”: We Shall Overcome. We’ll walk hand in hand. We shall be free. We are not afraid. We are not alone. The whole wide world around.
Compare with the repeated phrases in “Killing In The Name”: And now you do what they told you. Now you’re under control. Killing in the name of. Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.
Two songs discussing the same theme—racism in America—with two very different messages. Where one preaches of hope, unity, and adversity through bleak times, the other elicits rage, antagonism, and vehement anarchy.
What has happened though, is that the act of social protesting has lost its one tactical edge—the unexpected. Every time there is any sort of meeting of international diplomats, major governing bodies, or colossal corporations, local authorities prepare and allow for protesting to take place. Since the late sixties, both the media and the public are caring less and less about “marches” and/or “demonstrations” because, in 2010, the people protesting have become as expected and conventional as the very agent they are wishing to protest against. A thousand people politely cordoned off in a predetermined protester square has no flash and therefore draws no attention. The stakes must be raised, and music is a great vehicle to antagonize the willing.
But at what cost and for what cause?
In the past, one could join a noble cause and feel good about taking to the streets: woman’s suffrage in the early 1900s; labor-struggle and union organization in the 20s and 30s; nuclear war in the 40s; Civil Rights in the 50s and 60s; The Vietnam War in the 70s. Some songwriters (certainly not all) were able to capitalize on the proletariat point of view, and write well thought-out poetic diatribes giving voice to a group waning in a superior government or corporate shadow.
However, the last twenty to thirty years have been a relatively peaceful and progressive period. This is the longest we have gone without a large-scale (meaning many nations involved) war, and with the exception of G.W. Bush’s unlawful and downright vindictive invasion of Iraq, there have been few major causes to protest over the last three decades (I am very aware of the many events warranting “protest” since the 1980s. However, for the sake of brevity, I offer the argument that, in America, there has been very little in terms of catastrophic change as a result of high demand by public demonstration).
During the sixties, especially with song laureates like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, major record labels and marketing firms discovered the value (both psychological and monetary) in the teenage-angst musical formula. There is an innate desire in all of us to challenge authority during the adolescent years of our life. High school kids want music that supports and answers their natural call for rebellion.
The problem with an album like Rage Against the Machine’ 1992 Killing In The Name is that it only incited white suburban middle-class brats to get pissed off at their school principal. While Zack de la Rocha sang of racism in the Southern police squadrons, spoiled teens took the lyrics as inspiration and a call-to-arms to disrespect all and any form of institution or adult-represented establishment.
Unfortunately, for the rest of society, some of these kids have become stunted in their intellectual growth, and instead of passing through the adolescent phase of anti-institutionalism and anti-establishmentism, they have become members of anarchist groups like Canada’s “Black Bloc,” and are continuing to spend their time listening to bands like Rise Against, System Of A Down, or Score Throat while completely missing the point. Most of the time, the writers and bands are quite articulate and compose some brilliant, if somewhat misguiding, lyrics about the current (mis)state of affairs.
Sadly, the fans of the bands are rarely ever as versed or intelligent as the musicians themselves, and instead of inspiring people to seek change in this world, what results is a group of misguided idiots dressing up in Halloween ninja costumes who go around trashing urban centers with rocks, bats, and flamethrowers, using any causal chance they get. The Black Bloc has turned Martin Luther King Jr. and intelligent social protest with meaning into the ten year-olds on William Golding’s deserted Pacific Island.
Pete Seeger must be rolling in his grave. How sad.
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