Can music change the world? Can a song influence history? And are songwriters under any obligation to write about the political and social issues of the times? Or to motivate their audiences to respond to injustice?
Those questions arose at the Folk Alliance International conference in February, when thousands of songwriters gathered in Kansas City. One of those songwriters was Billy Bragg, a self-avowed left-wing activist who was the conference’s keynote speaker. The conference’s theme was “Forbidden Folk: Celebrating Activism in Art,” a timely coincidence given the prevailing political environment.
In his speech, Bragg addressed that theme but put his perspective out there explicitly: “In my experience, music cannot change the world. In the wonderful exchange of ideas we engage in as artists, the only people with the power to change the world are the audience, not us. Let’s not take it upon ourselves to feel like failures if we haven’t brought down capitalism by the end of the weekend.”
But what should songwriters take upon themselves when it comes to political expression? Is there an obligation to address the volatile socio-political landscape?
Howard Eisberg, who fronts Howard Iceberg & the Titanics, has been a Kansas City songwriter for decades. A retired immigration lawyer, Eisberg is politically engaged and acutely aware of what is going on in the world, yet he thinks that a performer should proceed carefully down the road to political songwriting.
“I think in times like these, it is incumbent on all citizens, even songwriters, to address the political landscape as best we can in our daily lives,” he said. “This includes discussing the issues with our friends and neighbors, joining committees, writing letters, contributing to causes, marching. Also I think it’s great if anyone, whether songwriter or bricklayer or doctor, wants to address these issues in their work. I myself have written a couple of political songs just since the inauguration.
“If you have the talent to write a really good political song, and the star power to present it in a way that inspires others, I say bravo, full speed ahead.
“However, I don’t think the songwriter should feel specially impelled to write such songs if the spirit doesn’t move them.
“The artist’s first duty is to the voices within. In my experience, very few topical or protest songs end up having much staying power. And often you end up preaching to the choir — singing to a group of like-minded people who already agree with you anyway.”
Rodney Crowell, who performs at Knuckleheads Saloon on Thursday, said he generally isn’t a fan of music that gets too topical and can become disposable.
“I don’t like it,” he told The Star recently. “Woody Guthrie was able to do it with ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ but that song is timeless.
“In 2003, when we invaded Iraq under false pretenses, I got political about it. I wrote a song called ‘Don’t Get Me Started.’ Well, I can’t perform that song now because it’s dated.
“A song can’t be timeless if you write about something specific that’s going on. There are those who can and have been able to do it. But usually, the self-consciousness involved in that kind of writing can expose itself. I’m a better writer when I let the song tell me what to do.”
Mikal Shapiro, a Kansas City songwriter, said politics and world events make their ways into some of her songs and writing organically.
“Politics has always wormed its way into my music,” she said. “Maybe I’m more overt now than before, but the state of the union has always been a thread through my material. Music is another (way) to use my voice. Songwriting helps me process issues, not in any definitive way. I don’t have the answers, but writing songs helps me untangle some of the questions.”
Ani DiFranco also spoke at this year’s Folk Alliance International. DiFranco, a songwriter, label owner and activist, didn’t address the issue of political songwriting directly. But she did address her role as a well-known songwriter and musician in motivating her audience into action, specifically, to get out and vote.
DiFranco started Vote Dammit!, a group that aims to get out the vote and educate voters on issues. Before the 2016 elections, DiFranco launched a Vote Dammit! Tour as a way to convene her fans and deliver her message.
“To me a vote is an expression that acknowledges you are part of something bigger than yourself,” she told the Folk Alliance crowd. “And when you show up to vote, you are making yourself accountable to that which is bigger than yourself.”
Like many punk bands, the Kansas City band Red Kate infuses its loud, brash music with political messages, and its lead singer, the pseudonymed L. Ron Drunkard, said more bands ought to be expressing their views.
“It has always been incumbent on songwriters to address the socio-political environment,” he said. “The fight against authoritarianism never ends. I never understood why musicians weren’t stepping up during the Bush years and the country’s two longest wars.
“No individual can solve these problems alone. … We can only add our own light to the darkness, and if that extra light helps someone see, then we’re doing our job. Solidarity and collective action are our only power against those with organized money.”
Solidarity and music’s ability to unite people was the theme of Bragg’s speech. He recalled attending a concert and a Rock Against Racism rally, featuring the Clash, that was transforming.
“The guy at the top of the bill was a guy named Tom Robinson,” Bragg said. “He had a great song at the time called ‘Glad to Be Gay.’ Today, that sounds like a great idea. Back then, for being gay you’d get your head kicked in. It was an incredibly brave song to sing. And when he began singing that song that day, all these geezers standing around with me and my little gang of mates started kissing each other on the lips.
“I was a 19-year-old working-class lad. I’d never met an out-gay man. And I was taken aback by this. … My first thought was, ‘Why are these gays here? This is about black people.’ It didn’t take very long that afternoon to realize that the fascists were against anybody who was in any way different. Even us little punks. And I came away from that afternoon understanding that my generation were going to define themselves in opposition to discrimination of all kinds.”
Bragg later talked about getting involved in a miners’ strike in England in 1984, using his music to express his support for the miners and their cause, which ultimately failed. But the experience affirmed what he’d learned at that rally as a teenager: Music may not be the answer, but it can be part of the solution or part of the reaction to injustice.
“Music can’t change the world,” he said. “The miners lost. The Clash didn’t change the world. They didn’t even give me the courage of my convictions. Being in that audience did. Seeing a hundred thousand kids just like me standing up against racism: that gave me the courage of my convictions to go back to work Monday morning and stand up for what I bloody well believed in.
“That’s what music can do. It can make you feel you’re not alone. Music doesn’t have agency. But we do have the ability to charge people up, to make them feel like they’re a part of something bigger.”