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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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    Rock’s Populi

    Populism’s tricky. Just ask good old Tom Watson, leader of the Populist Movement at the turn of the 20th century. Brilliant working class organizer, friend of the poor farmers, and also a stone cold racist and nativist. Populism’s like that: it can swing both ways. Populism is the ideological backbone of every radical social movement, but it also propels fascism, nativism, and jingoism. Populism is the Sandanistas, but it’s also the Italian blackshirts; it’s innocuous Ross Perot and insidious Pat Buchanan.

    In a sense, all these musicians are populists, mining spiritual yearning, political aspirations, and social commentary for a contemporary audience.

    John Mellencamp: Freedom’s Road (Universal Records)

    John Mellencamp is one of many singer songwriters who want to put the populist back in pop. Like Bruce Springsteen, he harnesses simple populist homilies to a driving, often anthemic sound. Mellencamp’s politics have always been out front – sitting on that rocking chair on the front porch of his Indiana home, supporting farmers in Farm Aid, and a host of liberal Democrats in recent elections. But his music’s been too timid, too eager to uncritically embrace those Hoosier folkways, that his songs could be misread.

    Too easily, actually – as in the recent appropriation of “Our Country” by General Motors as the theme song for Chevrolet. Have you seen those ads, currently rotating through every timeout in the NCAA tournament? It’s a “what’s the matter with Kansas?” moment.

    Until you actually listen to lyrics they left out! The commercial plays it as an up-tempo anthem, a defiant assertion of patriotism a.k.a. consumerism. Chevrolet is patriotic. But the song is anything but. Do you remember when Ronald Reagan said he was a fan of Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”? Or when a bill was introduced in the Senate to make Woody Guthrie’s socialist standard “This Land is Your Land” the new national anthem – that is until they heard the lyrics of the last verse?

    Same here. Watching those pickup trucks, you’d never know that this is what he’s singing:

    That poverty could be Just another ugly thing And bigotry would be Seen only as obscene And the ones that run this land Help the poor and common man This is our country

    So when Mellencamp says “This is our country” he means to take it back from the right wingers who have hijacked it. But when you see it on that commercial, it could be just another moment of Iraqi “freedom.”

    This is true for a lot of songs – the lyrics are strongly anti-war, anti-Bush, and anti-religious right. And yet it is completely imaginable that they’ll be singing along with his odes to the little guy.

    Graham Parker: Don’t Tell Columbus (Bloodshot records)

    Not so Graham Parker. It’s amazing that 30 years after he burst on the scene with his brash, British angry pub rock sound, parker’s anger is undiminished by time. (Springsteen once said that parker was the only musician he’d actually pay to see). His sound is more melodic, less beholden to rock blues of the 70s, but he’s as unsparing in his dissection of the foibles of the ruling class as he’s ever been. His newest album is as strong on songwriting as it is on driving sound.

    Some songs are more grandly elegiac (“Other Side of the Reservoir”) and some simply wry and clever (the title track). But Parker’s still got a healthy dose of populist skepticism, and “Stick to the Plan,” a terrific dig at the various scandals of the current regime, is as musically muscular as it is politically pungent.

    Parker was once the poster child for the “angry young man” of British rock. Now he’s an angry old man – and still worth paying to see.

    Johnny Clegg: One Life (Marabi Records import)

    Johnny Clegg burst on the musical scene in the early 1980s, riding the first crest of the wave of South African music to emerge from the crumbling apartheid regime. Clegg was mercilessly censored in those days, his interracial band banned from performing, and his easy mixing of singing in Zulu and English, a call to white South Africans to look to the post-apartheid future.

    It was political in form, if not content. His songs themselves were often light global pop, with the occasional Zulu beat thrown in. But even that was too much for the Botha regime.

    Clegg has weathered the transition to democracy handily. Embraced by the French (the French love edgy world music – they love samba, brazilian music and jit jive), this new release showcases everything exciting about Clegg’s music: complex rhythms, easy melodies, a vibrant voice, and an exhilarating sound. He fuses tribal rhythms with pop arrangements into a blend that is truly, uh, global.

    David Bromberg: Try Me One More Time (Appleseed)

    David Bromberg’s been absent for nearly two decades, during which time he’s learned to make violins, open a violin store in Delaware, and make homemade music for friends. But ever since he learned how to finger pick a guitar from the great Delta bluesman Rev. Gary Davis, his music strength has been to marry those blues riff to eclectic and electric renditions, delivered with his nasally growl of a voice.

    It’s refreshing to see he’s lost none of his finger-picking ability (or his sense of humor) on this entirely acoustic collection of folk blues classics, his first studio album in 17 years. Here are a few choice cuts from Davis, Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson and guitar picking stylist Elizabeth Cotton. He’s relaxed and assured, sitting in his living room, picking and singing, reminding us that the blues are blue because people were in pain, aching for something to finally go right in their lives. And if that ain’t populist, what is?

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