Analysis: Protest songs

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter
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LOS ANGELES, May 9 (UPI) -- The war in Iraq and persistent weakness in the U.S. economy have led to something of a revival for an art form that was popular during the Great Depression and the Vietnam era: the political protest song.

Earlier eras featured protest songs built around folk music by the likes of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. Two current examples of protest songs come in musical forms that are more commercially viable in 2005 than folk: alternative country and R&B.


Austin, Texas-based alternative-country musician James McMurtry has caused a bit of a stir with "We Can't Make It Here Anymore" -- in which he sings not only about the war in Iraq but also a long list of societal problems including outsourcing, homelessness, a broken healthcare system, drug abuse, the minimum wage and the growing gap between the rich and the poor in America.


Los Angeles-based bluesman Robert Cray is set to release a new song that is more directly about the war in Iraq, sung from the point of view of a U.S. soldier stationed there who has become disillusioned with the mission -- and who eventually dies in the war. The song, "Twenty," is on Cray's new album of the same name, scheduled for release at the end of May.

McMurtry's song is not available on record yet, although he plans to include it on his next album. However, it has been available for download from the Internet for months, and -- as McMurtry told United Press International in an interview -- has benefited from strong word of mouth.

"It's kind of amazing," he said. "Usually, we play 300-seaters. In Bangor (Maine), we played 500-seaters for two nights, and two shows in Ellsworth (Maine, on June 9-10) are already sold out."

Why Maine in particular? It seems that one of the state's major cultural figures -- best-selling writer Stephen King -- is such as fan of "We Can't Make It Here Anymore" that he programmed it on WKIT, a rock station he owns in Bangor.

The song is connecting with listeners with lyrics such as:


"That big old building was a textile mill / It fed our kids and it paid our bills / But they turned us out and they closed the doors / We can't make it here any more."

The song's lyrics are politically charged, and McMurtry said he has received some hostile e-mail at his Web site.

"A lot of people got pretty irate about it," he said. "You'd have one guy writing about what an idiot I was, and then you've have another guy writing about what an idiot he was."

McMurtry said he also gets a range of reactions when he plays the song live.

"The places where it does work," he said, "you get to where you're almost a cheerleader."

He said one line, in particular, always gets a big reaction:

"Now I'm stocking shirts at the Wal-Mart store, just like the ones we made before, except this one came from Singapore, I guess we can't make it here anymore."

Although the song is gaining McMurtry new fans -- and a lot of "attaboys" from old fans -- the singer is under no illusion that it will be influential in any way on public policy.

"Of course I hope it could, but I don't really think it will," he said. "Democrats don't have a Karl Rove (President George W. Bush's deputy chief of staff). They don't have the kind of talent the Republicans have except for the Clintons -- and everybody's already mad at them."


Cray, a five-time Grammy winner, was an Army brat as a child -- living on military bases in the United States and overseas. His father served in Vietnam, and to some extent his family's experience informs the idea behind "Twenty."

One line addresses the not uncommon experience of military personnel staying in Iraq well past the date on which they originally were told they would leave:

"We were supposed to leave last week / Promises they don't keep anymore / Got to fight the rich man's war."

Cray said another protest song on an earlier album provoked a negative reaction among some of his fans -- including one from a man who said he was going to get rid of all his Robert Cray records. Cray said people around him advised him against featuring "Twenty" on his upcoming album, but he felt as though he owed it to Americans in uniform.

"You do what you're supposed to do," he said. "It's about being misled, being lied to and nobody's taking any responsibility."

Cray said he can't let the possibility of strong negative reactions keep him from doing the song in concert.

"I sometimes think in the back of my head that somebody's going to go nuts," he said. "But I think this is being a true American -- speaking out, rather than not saying anything at all because I'm afraid."


McMurtry also said there could be a risk attached to performing his song, but he said performers are always taking a risk going onstage.

"Fans can get pretty scary," he said.


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