WE NEED RUMBLIN’, NOT RAMBLIN’
Even though legendary folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who performed here in Santa Monica at McCabe’s last Sunday, was close to Woody Guthrie and sang his songs, met Dylan at Woody’s bedside and mentored him (Bob even copped Jack’s hesitation high nasal singing style), and most in the folk community admired the way he turned his back on being a doctor from Brooklyn and ran away with the rodeo at 14, the archetype wandering minstrel never got too heavy politically.
Too bad. Because he’s part of the old guard who mostly did, and we need those voices now, and especially new voices. We need our artists to step forward boldly and call out the eroding of our democracy, the blatant and condoned racism, the economic subjugation. And for the most part, they’re not.
Music is what I know and what I pay the most attention to. So maybe filmmakers and writers and painters have been better at addressing pressing current issues… but I’m not aware of it. But where are the troubadour poets?
They used to be the leaders we could look to, to shine a light on social injustices. Many of Ramblin’ Jack’s contemporaries in the ‘50s and ‘60s did — Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, Utah Philips, Peter, Paul & Mary, Tom Paxton, Woody and of course Dylan. But things have changed.
The fan base is more important now than ever. You mostly can’t sell your music outright anymore, via CD or LP or even download (streaming pays a laughable pittance), so you depend for your livelihood on fans coming out to your concerts. If I put out this political song, will I lose half my fan base? Maybe for good? A moral dilemma. Ask the Dixie Chicks.
Radio and television used to be the vehicles for getting your music heard, but no more. Social media is critical, but you also get the extremists and crazies weighing in, guaranteed. Is the exposure worth more than the vicious vilification, when your song takes a side?
Not saying that political courage is not out there. But it is harder to find. And it would seem most of the big names are falling short.
Bruce is always good for the occasional zinger, and he released one written by Joe Grushecky just for the Orange Obama-nation, “That’s What Makes Us Great.” The Killers’ Brandon Flowers cold-called Spike Lee to direct the video for their song this year, “The Land of the Free,” and Green Day’s gloves-off “American Idiot” was written for George W. in 2004 but has seen a resurgence, especially in Britain, since Trump took office.
GIVE THEM A PASS?
The Old Guard, they did their duty, wrote and sang their consciences, back when protest could get you shot, most aren’t so willing to rumble in their 70s or 80s as they were in their 20s. Ramblin’ Jack is 87.
But Willie Nelson is 86 and still Willie, God bless him. He speaks and sings his mind. After the I.R.S. has come after you with all guns blazing, who do you fear? His latest, excellent album (he seems to be getting a second, or eighth, wind these last few years, with a string of four good albums), “Ride Me Back Home,” includes the moving Guy Clark song “Immigrant Eyes,” and the video of it was just released. It made me think.
One of the first thoughts was, “Nelson” — I wonder where his immigrant forebears came from. Ireland? Sweden? England? Scotland? Turns out he had a direct ancestor named Nelson who fought in the Revolutionary War (on our side, I think), but his mother was three-quarters Cherokee. So unlike most of us, Willie has some standing to be looking at these issues from the native side. Almost all the rest of us are immigrants, even the Mayflower families.
Is where the video begins, with photos and film, reminding us that leaving home, your language, family and friends and everything familiar, to travel thousands of miles to some place you know only as an idea, with hope, faith and conviction and the dream of freedom but no assurance that you will be allowed to stay (more than 200,000 Germans were sent home from Ellis), has been our entire history. You look at all those motley faces and colorful clothing from every corner of the earth (“old Ellis Island was swarming, like a scene from a costume ball”) and you realize they too were condemned at the time as strange, probably dangerous, “unworthy” to be U.S. citizens. The song refrains to “my grandfather’s immigrant eyes,” and in the next to last line remembers that “he gave me the gift of this country,” and that’s when I got emotional.
Isn’t that true for almost all of us? But do we think of it that way, or take it for granted? With our schizophrenic history and our dark periods including right now, I think most of us still realize that this is a great country, unique in history, still trying to live up to the ideals upon which it was founded.
Three of four came from Germany in the early 20th Century. They had all died by the time I was born and I know almost nothing about them. But at that moment at the end of the song I realized they had indeed given me the gift of this country. I think all immigrants understand that they are trying to find not only a better life for themselves, but for all their generations of family to come.
Sometimes all the political wrangling in the world can be better said, humanely, in 4:44.
Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for 33 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. Send love and/or rebuke to him at firstname.lastname@example.org