Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Nothing Wrong with a Protest Song

As a child of the 60s, I grew up surrounded by music that challenged us to look beyond mediocrity, to take a good look at a bad war and to stand up for what we believed. Music helped to begin the process of pushing aside a colour line that was all too visible, It shook out some old values, hung them out in the breeze and asked us to wonder how valuable they really were.

This tool of audible inspiration was known as the protest song, a form of expression that almost became a musical genre in and of itself for a time. Then one day it just sort of went away or that’s how it seems to me when looking back. In reality, I don’t think it really just happened all it once, but as the late 70s met the 80s, protest began to sag off the charts.

I suppose some would blame disco. It seems disco got blamed for everything. Personally, I never liked disco, but I didn't blame it either. At any rate, time passed and passed some more, and gradually much of our music morphed into rap tracks which often advocated the very violence that any of us who had anything at all to do with the peace movement condemned.

During much of the past 25 years or so, I’ve found myself listening to a lot of oldies and classic rock, not because I was trying to recapture another time, but because the music of the past 25 years had little to say to me. Yes there have been exceptions, but in general, not so many.

That brings us to the other day when I happened to hear a song on the radio. In 7 minutes or so, an artist named James McMurtry offered us a glimpse at just about every social injustice known to the western world and told us that we had just about reached the time in our history when, “We can’t make it here anymore.”

It’s not a brand new song, not even on Jim’s latest album. But it is new enough to be current and current enough to be new. Its point is strongly stated and I don’t agree with the depths of its conclusions. But what it does is to lead me to the conclusion that complacency is a tranquilizer that we, as Canadians or Americans or citizens of any national persuasion, cannot afford to embrace.

This week as we celebrate Canada Day, and folks south of the border celebrate Independence Day, I hope we will offer more than an expression of patriotism. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not putting patriotism down, but I think we should also pause to consider those who can’t make it here anymore, as the McMurtry song suggests.

Manufacturing jobs in both Canada and the U.S. are hopping planes for distant shores. Do those of us who live in Canada know what our provincial and federal governments are proposing to help change the picture? I haven’t heard about much. Maybe for me, part of patriotism is doing my best to find out.

Blue collar workers and others are learning the hard truth that they can’t make it to work anymore. Who can afford to drive to work? Who is our government holding accountable and what should we expect them to do when it comes to lending a hand?

Our once-proud public health system isn’t so proud anymore. Too many sick people are staying sick or getting sicker because they can’t find a doctor anymore. And if they can’t find a doctor anymore, some will face the reality that they can’t stay alive anymore. Who is doing anything about it? Lots of rhetoric, but where are the solutions?

When James McMurtry sang “We Can’t Make it Here Anymore”, he was singing about the United Sates, not Canada. An in either case, I’m not prepared to agree with his ultimate conclusion.

Still, if this and other McMurtry songs are signaling even a token return of the sometimes loved, sometimes hated, occasionally condemned protest song, I welcome it. If it can awaken the social consciousness in ten of us then maybe those ten can bring awareness to a hundred, who can maybe bring awareness to a thousand. Is it time for another Woodstock? Hmmm, maybe I’m just an idealist who spent too much time with too many hippies 40 years ago or so.

At any rate, as you enjoy Canada Day, or celebrate the special day set aside for whatever country you call home, by all means, pause to reflect on how your country came to be what it is and where it is today.

But don’t stop there. Give some thought to how your country could and should grow into something better. Are there any among us who don’t believe Canada possesses the opportunity for vast improvement? Is Canada Day the wrong day to pose that question? If you think so, that’s ok. Just ask yourself my question tomorrow. Then, as the next election day nears, ask the question once more.

Are the major parties who garner all the attention advocating improvements while practicing politics as usual? Is it time to give one of the lesser parties a crack at it? Do we refrain from voting for minor parties because we believe no one else will do so? Do we not vote at all because we feel it won’t make a difference?

To me, the most important resolve that you can set in place on the day set aside to honour your country is the resolve to vote. And all of us can do that. I sincerely believe that we can make it here.

The question is, how should we go about it?

Happy Canada Day. Happy Independence day. Please celebrate your heritage by making a difference.

You can find several unofficial videos of "We Can't Make It Here Anymore", by James McMurtry on YouTube. Please note though, the images are powerful and they illustrate realities of life for many. However, given their very nature, these images may offend some. After all, it is about protest and sending powerful messages to powerful people.

Contributed by Larry Naessens

1 comment:

  1. The whole cd on which "We Can't Make it Here" is an award winner.

    My favorite is the first track where he draws an analogy to the innocence of wanting seeing action at the front to wanting to see a festival traveling show - in "See the Elephant" Well that's probably not the best description.

    However, here's the page which includes the lyrics to both songs: