Friday, June 27, 2008

Songwriting: How To Write A Political Song

Cisco Houston: Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)
Lyrics by Woody Guthrie.


Joni Mitchell is one of my favorite songwriters, but she has one big weakness. She does not know how to write a political song. This shows up especially in her later work. She certainly is passionate about some issues, but her anger gets in the way of her craft, and she winds up with rants instead of songs. In this, she is hardly alone.

Before I go any further, I should clarify my terms. I have been careful to use the term "political song", not "protest song". A political song is a song written to be listened to by people who may not even agree with the songwriter when they first hear the song; done properly, the song persuades by drawing the sympathy of the listener. By contrast, a protest song is written to energize a group of people who already agree with the songwriter: at its best, a protest song is musically simple enough to be learned by a thousand or a million people while they march through the streets. A classic example of a protest song is "We Shall Overcome".

Returning briefly to Joni Mitchell, I have discussed her works as political songs, but really the problem is that they are too lyrically simplistic to be effective political songs, but they are too musically sophisticated to work as protest songs either.

To see how a political song should work, let's look at a classic example: Woody Guthrie's "Deportee ( Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)".

Guthrie actually wrote this as a poem in 1948, and the music was written a decade later by a school teacher named Martin Hoffman. On January 29, 1948, a plane carrying a crew of four Americans and a "cargo" of 28 migrant workers being deported to Mexico crashed in Los Gatos canyon in California, killing all on board. Guthrie found the fact that the Mexicans were identified in the newspaper accounts only as deportees offensive. Hence the line, "You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane."

Guthrie tells the story of this event through eyes of an unnamed fellow migrant worker who either knew some of the victims personally, or knows plenty of others like them. He gives some of the victims names, because to him they are people, not just "deportees". This is the key to what makes the song work. Guthrie does not sloganize; he personalizes. He gives us a character we can identify with, who tells us of the pride he takes in the hard work that he and his fellows do.

Guthrie even manages to get another issue into his poem without losing his focus. As part of the farm subsidy program at that time, the government paid farmers to destroy some of their crop to support higher prices. Guthrie found this unconscionable when people were going hungry. He ties these two themes together at the very end of his poem with these lines:

Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except 'deportees'?
And he doesn't need to say anything else.

Reader submission by Darius


boyhowdy said...

One of my favorite takes on this song, next to the recent Richard Shindell cover. Another great analysis of another great song, Darius!

Matt said...

Dang! You're firing on all cylinders, Darius! Thanks for bringing this song to my attention.

Anonymous said...

Could you please talk a little more about what you find lacking in Joni's "political songs"? I've never heard her work described as "lyrically simplistic" before, except for the songs on "Shine". Indeed, many of the lyrics on "Shine" at first glance are less nuanced and intricate than much much of her earlier work, but to my ear they work very well when heard as complete songs. Still, I'm having a very difficult time wrapping my head around your criticism. I would say that many of Joni's political songs are non-specific, but simplistic? Are you referring to "The Beat of Black Wings", "Cherokee Louise", "The Three Great Stimulants", "Dog Eat Dog", "Ethiopia"? If so, we will have to agree to disagree. The only song that I can think of where we might agree would be "No Apologies". I'm interested in which of Joni's songs you label as "political songs", and would love to hear some analysis of the lyrics!

Divinyl said...

What about 'Big Yellow Taxi'? Surely that's a political song? Perhaps not as emotionally-affecting as 'Deportee', possibly political-lite, but still about an issue that meant something to Joni Mitchell.

boyhowdy said...

I'll play Devil's advocate in this one case, I guess, Divinyl...

Darius defined his notion of "political song" fairly specifically. He says: "A political song is a song written to be listened to by people who may not even agree with the songwriter when they first hear the song; done properly, the song persuades by drawing the sympathy of the listener."

I happen to think that the "big yellow taxi" verse OF Big Yellow Taxi ("late last night, I heard the screen door slam...and a big yellow taxi took away my old man") is a perfect example of Darius' thesis. By inserting the usual Joni confessional/narrative into what was, to be fair, a pretty heavy-handed and simplistic pro-environmental song already, the "paved paradise" is revealed as nothing more than a vehicle for Joni's man to leave her.

The result: any passion about the political/environmental message has been undermined by what, here, comes off as selfish and petty. We lose any sense that she really cares about the earth at all -- maybe she just cares for her man, and is trying to convince us that trees would have been better, because then her man would have stayed, having nowhere else to go.

That said: the confessional is often effective political -- after all, female empowerment was, once, a major political issue, as was listening to the inner voice. So writ large, I would say that Joni IS a political songwriter...but only when she sticks to what she does best, and doesn't try to write "political" songs.

Anonymous said...

Boyhwdy, you nailed it, so I don't have to comment further on "Big Yellow Taxi". Anonymous, I never questioned Joni's passion about the issues she writes about; it was her execution I was referring to. Personally, I find "Ethiopia" to be lyrically heavy-handed, although I love the music, I would say the same of "Sex Kills", which would be my exhibit A for this discussion.

It was interesting that you mentioned "Cherokee Louise"; I was tempted to cite that as Joni's best political song, although I think the politics of it may have been an accident on Joni's part. I don't know how Joni came to write the song, but I get the sense that "Louise" was somebody she knew or met. Does anyone know for sure?

I don't want anybody to think that I am a Joni disser. I ran out of time this week, but I was thinking about a post on "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" from the Mingus album. Maybe if there is a hat week...

- Darius

Anonymous said...

PS. If you really want to see the fur fly, maybe there should be a political songs week. Should make for lively comment sections.

- Darius

Anonymous said...

The Beat Of Black Wings
by Joni Mitchell

I met a young soldier
He said his name was Killer Kyle
He was shakin' all over
Like a night-frightened child
This is his story
It's a tough one for me to sing
Hard as the squawk and the flap
And the beat of the beat of black wings

"They gave me a gun" he said
"They gave me a mission
For the power and the glory
Propaganda piss on 'em
There's a war zone inside me
I can feel things exploding
I can't even hear the fucking music playing
For the beat of the beat of black wings"

He said "I never had nothin'
Nothin' I could believe in
My girl killed our unborn child
Without even grievin
I put my hands on her belly
To feel the kid kickin' damn!
She'd been to some clinic
Oh the beat of black wings"

"They want you they need you
They train you to kill
To be a pin on some map
Some vicarious thrill
The old hate the young
That's the whole heartless thing
The old pick the wars
We die in 'em
To the beat of the beat of black wings"

There's a man drawing pictures
On the sidewalk with chalk
Just as fast as he draws 'em
Rain come down and wash 'em off
"Keep the drinks comin' girl
'Til I can't feel anything
I'm just a chalk mark in a rainstorm
I'm just the beat of black wings

Anonymous said...

Hey Darius,

It never occurred to ME, at least, that you were dissing Joni -- I'm just not sure that I agree that her anger always diminishes the artistry in her more political songs. Sometimes, perhaps, but IMO not always. Here's the "Cherokee Louise" info:

"Cherokee Louise" recounts the occasion when a 13-year-old Indian friend was forced to flee the foster home where she was a victim of sexual abuse. Mitchell and another friend hid the girl in the narrow tunnels under Saskatoon's Broadway Bridge. The lyrics speak of flashlights slashing through the dark, handprints left in the piles of soft dust and the frustration Mitchell felt when Cherokee Louise was eventually discovered and taken into custody.

"Saskatchewan was where I was shaped, where I first learned about bigotry. I remember my first reaction seeing Indians, how interesting and beautiful their clothing was compared to what we wore." It remains a source of immense disappointment to her, she says, that the native culture - a treasure of lore and tradition - was viewed as something primitive or uncivilized.

From "On Being A Flatlander"
by Brent Lannan [Saskatoon Report]
October 1990

As I'm sure you know, Joni's had a long history of addressing Native American (& Canadian) issues and causes.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Joni's lyrics are simple, however, good grief are you up on today's music anyway? Today's country and rock/pop stuff is crap - way too simple, apparently simple is where it's at! I don't get it though. That's why I love relevent and smart lyrics like the ones in The Chevy Ford Band's 350+ original song line up. Now, you tell me, why aren't they hot!?!?