Like many others, I've been keenly watching (and supporting via social media) the Occupy Wall St. protests going on in New York City. They're only the latest instance of protests that are erupting all across the globe. Something's in the air to be sure. Maybe it's dragons and the return of Tiamat. Some have called it "a movement of movements". Whatever it is I thought it provided a good opportunity for a meditation on revolutionary music, music that's calling for, or commenting on, or actively driving societal transformation. I think we can too easily get caught in thinking of revolutionary music as necessarily angry or aggressive music, when in fact it can take on many forms. I've spent a few nights on Youtube listening for candidates for this edition of the Jukebox, and have now finished the very difficult task of whittling it down to a group of six. So I invite the reader to sit back, maybe grab a favorite cocktail, and join me in sitting with and contemplating this particular form of musical expression.
The first one- Revolution by the Beatles- is in many ways an obvious choice, but this only makes the contemplative exercise more challenging. It's hard to come fresh to a song we've heard so many times, but I think it's worth making this song strange again for a moment, to approach it as a brand new artifact for investigation. The context of the song is the social upheavals and revolutions that were happening in the 1960s, and you have John Lennon speaking to, and often critiquing, elements of what he was seeing in these movements around him. On top of that it's a pretty rippin track, one that marries the ever skilled pop melodies of the Beatles with a little fuzz box fire. The chorus- "You know it's going to be, alright"- has always moved me. There's something spiritual in it, mystical. I can't tell if John is sensing the gilded future, awash in timeless Being, or something else entirely. But it's a great contrast to the commentary of the stanzas. There's also another interesting thing about this song. Not in this version, but in some recorded versions, when Lennon sings, "But when you talk about destruction/ Don't you know that you can count me out", he tacks on an "in" to the end of the out. So it goes, "You can me out, in". This move speaks to the ambivalence that can arise when one feels passionate about (r)evolution and contemplates the methods by which it might come about.
The next song, A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke, is a good example of a revolutionary song that takes on a different form, this one almost a prayer or a spiritual yearning. It's said that Cooke was inspired to write it after hearing Bob Dylan's Blowin in the Wind. It's a powerful track, and the images here only deepen the experience of its call.
The next cut moves toward the more energized and aggresive side of the street. Which Side Are You On by Rebel Diaz utilizes the power of the beats and poetic flow of hip hop to lay down a bangin protest song. The original song was written in 1931 by Florence Reece, an artist and activist and wife of a union organizer. I love the weaving in of an early recording of the song in this track, it gives it an extra power I can't quite put my finger on. When I was listening to this song the other night, getting into it, a phrase kept popping into my head- Total Mobilization. What would this world look like if we had total mobilization of all the Earth's peoples towards a new and just civilization? I don't know what that would look like, or even what that means really, but the song kept on coughing that image forth in me, a testament to the power of great music.
My next choice is How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live by Bruce Springsteen. Bruce has been a very political and socially conscious artist over the years, and there's many choices I could've made, but the context for this performance really brings this one home. Bruce is playing with the Seeger Sessions band at the first Jazz Fest in New Orleans after Hurricaine Katrina. Bruce brought his band there to give support to keeping Jazz Fest afloat as a cultural event for the city, and he took an old song and added three new verses for the occasion, one of which includes the line "Gonna be a judgment that's a fact, a righteous train rollin' down this track", from which comes the title of this Jukebox.
My next choice is another one that we likely have to work with to see again for the first time, Bob Marley's Get Up, Stand Up. What at this point could be more cliched and tired than revolutionary activity and images/invocations of Bob Marley, with years of Bob Marley flags and shirts at protests in danger of making his message and music passe and tiresome. Well if that's the case, then we must go back to Marely himself, particularly live Bob Marely. He's quite a powerful presence on stage, and it's worth watching him and asking- "Where did this dude show up from?!". This is a man on a mission. "A mighty God is a living man". Copy that Bob, and thanks for leading by example.
My last choice is Biko by Peter Gabriel. This peformance came at a time when apartheid was still in place in South Africa, making this a brave performance in the face of those times. The song is about Stephen Biko, an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa that was murdered by the authorities. Gabriel goes to some kind of deep place in this performance, shamanesque and committed. Be sure to watch it to the very end, the collective sing a long at the end is beautiful.