Saturday, October 18, 2008

Civics Lessons: Lena Horne Still Sings Stormy Weather

Thelonious Monster - Lena Horne Still Sings Stormy Weather [purchase]

"They tore down Ships just like they tore down Tiny Naylor's,
They'll tear down anything in this town,
They'll do just about anything to squeeze an extra dime,
They'll probably even sell their own grandmothers.

Ah but Lena Horne still sings 'Stormy Weather,'
Yeah things, they're bad, but they could get better,
Yeah things, they're bad, but they could get better,
And I'm just waiting to see which way to go.
Yeah, I'm just waiting to see which way to go.

They say Jesse Jackson will never be President,
But yet, he's still the man I'd vote for,
'Cause people everywhere, we're workin' our ass off,
And can't even afford to pay our bills.

Ah, Lena Horne's still singing 'Stormy Weather,'
Well things, they're bad, but they could get better,
Well things, they're bad, but they could get better,
And I'm just waiting to see which way to go.
Yeah, I'm just waiting to see which way to go.

And I'm hopin' and a-prayin' and a-wishin' and givin' my all,
I'm hopin' and a-prayin' and a-wishin' and givin' my all."

One of Bob Forrest's finest moments as a songwriter and Thelonious Monster's finest moments as a band, "Lena Horne" is essentially a folk song done as rootsy punk rock. Forrest's songwriting triumph ... especially in the context of both Reagan/Bush and post-punk's golden age ... was in transcending a predictable vitriolic rant against "the system" to produce a compelling song of hope and belief. There's no reason for the protagonist to feel hope, especially against a backdrop of depressing and destructive forward-thinking materialism. After all, two of Los Angeles' most distinctive googie-style coffeehouses, Ships and Tiny Naylor's, were torn down because that's what Los Angeles, and by extension, of course, America, does. We don't preserve the village green. We raze it and open a Starbuck's. We'll do just about anything to squeeze an extra dime, we'll probably even sell our own grandmothers.

And yet, the song's message remains one of perseverance. Forrest doesn't say things are bad and getting worse. He says things are bad, but they could get better. A vote for Jesse Jackson isn't a pointless and cynical gesture of protest, it's one man's emphatic endorsement in the machinery of democracy as a force for change. Maybe we are working our asses off and can't afford to pay our bills, maybe Tiny Naylor's was torn down (pictured above), and maybe there are people who'll sell their own grandmothers. But, that doesn't mean things can't get better. We just have to believe they can get better and work and hope and pray and wish and give it our all.

Civics Lessons: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Pete Townshend: Won't Get Fooled Again (Demo)


This song has the dubious honor of being named number one on the National Review's oxymoronic list of the Top 50 Conservative Rock Songs. According to NR: "The conservative movement is full of disillusioned revolutionaries; this could be their theme song, an oath that swears off naïve idealism once and for all."

In response to the designation, Townshend explained: "It is not precisely a song that decries revolution--it suggests that we will indeed fight in the streets--but that revolution, like all action can have results we cannot predict. Don't expect to see what you expect to see. Expect nothing and you might gain everything."

My own cyncial opinion is that the song is neither conservative nor liberal, but instead just realistic.

This demo version comes from Pete Townshend's Lifehouse Chronicles box set.

Here is a very funny satire of the National Review list.

Civics Lessons: Your Neighborhood

Bob McGrath: The People In Your Neighborhood


Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood?
In your neighborhood?
In your neighborhood?
Say, who are the people in your neighborhood?
The people that you meet each day

Is there any greater act of citizenship than knowing the people in your neighborhood? I think not - join Bob McGrath as he strolls around his environs, greeting the people that he meets each day. Here's the lyrics so you can follow along.

Sesame Street - People in Your Neighborhood

Frank Sinatra: The House I Live In (That's America To Me)


The House I Live In was part of a ten-minute short film starring Frank Sinatra to oppose anti-Semitism and racial prejudice at the end of World War II. It received an Honorary Academy Award and a special Golden Globe award in 1946.

With the US political season in the home stretch, I have to say this is the ugliest Presidential race I've ever witnessed. The House I Live In reaffirms what this country should stand for, I think Americans need to be reminded of that right now.

What is America to me
A name, a map, or a flag I see
A certain word, democracy
What is America to me

The house I live in
A plot of earth, a street
The grocer and the butcher
Or the people that I meet

The children in the playground
The faces that I see
All races and religions
That's America to me

Here's the short, though keep in mind using a war to explain brotherhood is indicative of the dire times.

Frank Sinatra- The House I Live In video short (1945)

Friday, October 17, 2008

Civics Lessons: We Can Change The World

Graham Nash: We Can Change The World


Civics Lessons: The Bus

Billy Jonas: The Bus


Billy Jonas is a singer/songwriter based in the Philadelphia area who plays acoustic guitar and percussion on various found objects. He has split his recorded output between adult material and kids’ music, both of which he does very well. I have wanted to introduce him to all of you for quite some time.

As you listen to “The Bus”, you may wonder, “where’s the civics lesson?” I offer this one with a gentle touch, not a raised voice. As the election approaches, we hear statistics drawn from various studies to support one point or another. I just wanted to remind everyone that, as Jonas says, “it gets more complicated”. Behind each number in these studies is a good person in a bad situation, especially in these trying times. As you enter the voting booth, don’t forget to care about the people behind the numbers.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Civics Lessons: Study The Moon

These United States: Study The Moon


Lately, politics has been synonymous with bad news. And at this point in the campaign, everything is crumbled down to policy. I like to look at the big picture. Things are brighter there. The best way to get a new perspective is to leave the room – better yet, the planet. We’ve been to the moon… a handful of times. Why aren’t there four-wheeler tracks all over that thing yet? Test Stations… Agricultural experiments… Sno-Cone Stands?

“According to religion, there is someone I can call.
According now to science, this is all my fault.
According to the big blue ox, I should just look up Paul.
Accordingly the consequence is a concert hall,
Where everyone waves words but, no one thing resolves,
Until they come and serve us from that wrecking ball.

By then the chancellor goes and gets the infantry involved,
the overreaching economy creeping to a crawl,
accountants come to ties to the town square totem poles.

We should really just go and study the moon.”

This is the most flagrant abuse of this blog’s new music rule, but my job for each week is to post the best-fitting song(s) I have. From that ‘big picture’ perspective, the goal here is to turn people on to great music – but to use the word great would be a disservice to this song and the other eleven it comes with. Jesse Elliot of These United States is just finding the right direction for his muse, and Crimes is an album that results from someone who is obviously affected by the things going on around him, just not enough to be deterred.

Civics Lessons: From Little Things Big Things Grow

Paul Kelly: From Little Things Big Things Grow


Civic pride has caused our comments to swell with debate; without the glare of the TV lights and a high-polish moderator, things seem to have flared up, both modeling and threatening to overwhelm any chance we might have of returning to a normal state of musical celebration. I take partial responsibility, both for fanning the flames and for "calling" this week's theme without considering how quickly we might turn to the right to protest, and those things protested, as if that was all that civic engagement had to offer us.

But there are as many ways to take up the citizen's mantle as there are moments of change. Voting is a civic task -- mind the voting box to our left. So is writing your congressperson, or co-creating a bill, or running for office yourself.

So is making peace.

In the interest of civility, then -- an etymologically relevant term -- I thought a turn to songs of reconciliation would be appropriate. And there's none better than Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody's co-written history of the Gurindji strike, and how a few brave Black Australian cattlemen and house servants walked off their jobs and, instead of holding out for merely the right to run Casino palaces and cigarette stands in tiny havens throughout the country, staged an eight year sit-in on their own land in order to get it back. The event sparked and focused the Indigenous Australian land rights movement, and the above image shows the end result: Whitlam, the government rep, pouring the land back into the outstretched hand of indigenous activist Vincent Lingiari, and through him, to the culture he represented.

Kelly and Carmody's protest song never charted, but it has become a sort of anthem for change in the land down under since it's release, helped along recently by a new version of the song featuring a cast of thousands and a heavy set of speech fragments from Prime Ministers old and new. Of the many "original" recordings of this song, though Kelly's original is nice and folky, complete with banjo plunks and charm, I much prefer the live version released this year through Kelly's free A-Z downloads project. To further show its strength, here's a pair of other Aussie bands taking a turn on the song: The femmefolk harmonies of The Waifs and the mystical trancejam of Okapi Guitar each bring a new tone to the poignant tale of sitting as change.

The Waifs: From Little Things Big Things Grow [purchase]

Okapi Guitars: From Little Things Big Things Grow [purchase]

We are all tribes, with naught but civility keeping our speech from becoming war. But nations within nations pose a special problem for citizenry, especially vis a vis issues such as loyalty, allegiance, and fairness; here more than elsewhere, in order to keep balance, it falls to the powerful to be generous and good, or in the end they will be forced to act anyway, lest they lose the faith and confidence of the populace. When nations swallow nations whole, and then mistreat them, the best any of us can do is to know where we stand in the law, and walk the walk, and trust that -- as the song says -- if we fall, others are rising. And that's not nothing. From little things, big things grow.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Civics Lessons: Love It Or Leave It

Ernest Tubb: It's America (Love It Or Leave It)


It had to be very disconcerting for members of the greatest generation—who survived the depression and risked their lives fighting on two fronts in World War II—to see the upheaval of the 1960's.

I'm not saying that the 1960's social unrest was wrong. Only pointing out how unsettling it must have been to the older folks who came of age in such a different time (one generation earlier).

Music can help us see things from other people's perspectives. This one comes from the great Ernest Tubb, a proud member of the WWII generation who had trouble making sense out of the hippies.

Civics Lessons: Vote With A Bullet

Corrosion of Conformity - Vote With A Bullet


Bush? McCain? Obama?
We really are getting the leaders we deserve.

It's high time for the tree of liberty to be refreshed.

Prison for praise is not worth thinking / Sin is still in and our ballots are shrinking / So unleash the dogs - the only solution / Forgive and forget, fuck no / I'm talking about a revolution

Clutch - The Mob Goes Wild


Civics Lessons: I Had a Dream I Was Falling Through a Hole in the Ozone Layer

Deee-Lite: I Had a Dream I Was Falling Through a Hole in the O-Zone Layer


Remember in the early to mid-90's when being environmentally conscious was just a trend and not a necessity like it is today? This song was written back then, but these days those issues are a hotbed topic in the election and big concern for many of the voters.

Back then (this was released in 1992), being environmentally conscious was relegated to the dirty hippies and social elites who had the time to drive across town to the recycling center or the money to spend on the premium products that were made of recycled paper or from all-natural materials. The members of Deee-Lite certainly fit the bill as far as being freaky folk from New York City that hang out with bohemians and transvestites, but hey, that's sorta why I liked them so much.

Admittedly, these days Deee-Lite gets plenty of eye rolls and is just remembered for their top 20 song "Groove Is In The Heart", but they had something that made me stop and take notice when I was in junior high and I bought their albums and I was impressed. It was certainly something unique among the grunge, the new era of hip-hop and the left overs of the 80's pop generation. This song comes from their politically-charged second album. They made their opinions known, but did so with a good beat to back it up.

The point is, this is an issue near and dear to many citizens and a responsibility of citizens of Earth, not just Americans, to take to heart because each of us has a responsibility to each other and the Earth to make this world a better place for future generations.

Civics Lessons: Our Flag Was Still There

John McCutcheon: Our Flag Was Still There


When I first heard the word “patriotism”, I thought it was a negative emotion. I saw bumper stickers displaying the American flag alongside the words “America, love it or leave it” and recognized the anger and hostility to dissent that were being displayed. “Patriots”, I learned from this, were intolerant people who demanded that those who did not think as they did deserved to be denied their rights as Americans.

But this, of course is not what patriotism truly means. We live in a country which was founded as the result of a revolution; without dissent, the United States could not exist. The founding fathers wrote into the bill of rights that every American should continually question the actions of our government, and speak out freely when those actions are wrong. Protesting against the Vietnam War, my first act of dissent, was also my first act of patriotism, although I did not make that connection until years later.

Nowadays, there are still many people who do not understand what being a patriot in America truly means. In our political campaigns, whether a candidate wears a flag pin in their lapel can be seen as more important than their dreams of how to lead our country. We still have leaders who try to say that questioning their decisions is somehow “unpatriotic”.

“Our Flag Was Still There” was inspired by an essay by author Barbara Kingsolver, who also collaborated with John McCutcheon on the lyrics. I’m glad there are people like this around to remind us all of the true meaning of patriotism.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Civics Lessons: Minority

Green Day: Minority


Protest as a civic responsibility? Dissent as a vital underpinning of a vibrant democracy? Supporting the underclass as a matter of course? You better believe it. I may not agree with what you say, but I stand by your right -- and your responsibility -- to say it. Here, Spinner does this one better than I could ever say:

In which rambunctious Billie Joe Armstrong goes explicitly political, pledging eternal allegiance to society's misfits, the downtrodden and the outnumbered. Since this song, the poster band for juvenilia has been active in alternative energy advocacy, Hurricane Katrina relieve and a rock opera about nonconformity.

Most of you know me as a folkblogger, but I can't resist the the almost celtic beat on this perfect punk paean to the underclass from Green Day circa 2000. Once upon a time, I listened to this stuff far more often. Here's a coversong on the same topic from a decade earlier, when Green Day were truly raw.

Green Day: My Generation (orig. The Who)


Civics Lessons: One Cat, One Vote, One Beer

Ry Cooder: One Cat, One Vote, One Beer


One Cat, One Vote, One Beer is from Ry Cooder's 2007 concept album, My Name Is Buddy. The main protagonist is Buddy Red Cat, a hobo tabby who sings, "I just got my suitcase in my hand, walked across the tracks, caught me the end of an old freight, train and never did look back" and the two friends he makes along the way: union rodent Lefty the Mouse and the Reverend Tom Toad, a blind, gospel-singing, guitar-playing amphibian, chased from his home by the Ku Klux Klan.

The liner notes asks the audience to join along as they "Journey through time and space in days of labor, big bosses, farm failures, strikes, company cops, sundown towns, hobos, and trains... the America of yesteryear."

The line up of musicians is incandescent, featuring Van Dyke Parks, Pete and Mike Seeger, Flaco Jimenez, Paddy Maloney, Roland White and Jim Keltner.

One Cat, One Vote, One Beer addresses the election process, backed with haunting trumpet accompaniment by Jon Hassell. While crying in his beer, Buddy bemoans being turned away from the voting booth on Election Day. This is a treat of a tune, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Civics Lessons: The Democratic Circus

Talking Heads: The Democratic Circus


It is an unfortunate fact of American life that our presidential campaigns tend to be about everything except who is the best person to be president. It does not make any difference that Barack Obama has worked with William Ayres on some worthwhile education initiatives in Chicago; it is terribly important that Ayres did some terrible things when Obama was ten. The fact that Sarah Palin has a fifteen-month old child with Down’s Syndrome gets for a much wider airing than the fact the that Alaska legislature has found her guilty of violating the state’s ethics laws. And on and on.

Of course, this is not new to this year’s campaign. George W. Bush was put in office by an electorate that thought they would rather go to a barbecue with him than with Al Gore. The results of that one speak for themselves.

This kind of campaign by distraction has gone at least since the first presidential election I voted in, in 1980. In 1988, Talking Heads found an eloquent metaphor to describe the situation. The song is as relevant now as it was then.

Civics Lessons: M.T.A.

The Kingston Trio: M.T.A.


"These are the times that try men's souls. In the course of our nation's history, the people of Boston have rallied bravely whenever the rights of men have been threatened. Today, a new crisis has arisen. The Metropolitan Transit Authority, better known as the M. T. A., is attempting to levy a burdensome tax on the population in the form of a subway fare increase. Citizens, hear me out! This could happen to you!"

-George O'Brien (looking for your vote)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Civics Lessons: Fortunate Son

Creedence Clearwater Revival: Fortunate Son


Does civic responsibility include the idea of putting one's very body in service to the country? Some cultures believe so; nations from Israel to Iraq, and from Mexico to Mongolia, mandate military service for young people as a basis for citizenship (though each defines eligibility distinctly -- Israel is relatively rare, for example, in conscripting both men and women).

In cultures where drafting is historically normative, military service is seen as natural and unquestioned, a matter of civic pride. But in countries where a draft is not normative, creating one does not suddenly create an accompanying cultural buy-in. Rather, drafts in special circumstances cause special problems, especially when the culture is ideologically divided about the reason for such a draft, or in situations where the perception in culture is that the rubric for eligibility is either inherently unfair, or not being applied fairly.

The best and most recent example of this latter case in United States history is surely Vietnam. Where the previous World Wars had established a sense that the draft was necessary, because our enemies were perceived as a direct threat to us, the United States had trouble justifying what appeared to be a civil war in an uncivilized country as an imminent threat worthy of conscription. It didn't help that such service, especially in the midst of the unpopular war of Vietnam, was seen as something which was not being applied as an equal standard to all members of all classes in the culture.

Many popular songs of the sixties and seventies would speak to the various complex of perceived injustices that followed from US involvement in Vietnam, but few as eloquently or as angrily addressed this issue of civic injustice as Fortunate Son, a 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival hit written in the voice of a draftee who -- being neither the son of a Senator, a millionaire, or a military leader -- is no "fortunate son", and thus has no choice but to head off to war to protect those fortunate ones. Also included: three very recent covers, all released within the last year or so, which strip the song down into something more plaintive and reflective. In fact, the Todd Snider cover just came out this week; if you like it, act now, because like the rest of his new 8-song EP Peace Queer, it's only going to be available as a freebie until the end of the month.

Todd Snider w/ Patty Griffin: Fortunate Son


Donavon Frankenreiter: Fortunate Son


Tony Furtado: Fortunate Son


Civics Lessons: Fight the Power

Public Enemy: Fight the Power


There are times when being a good citizen means rallying behind our leaders and our government to accomplish goals that benefit us all as a nation.

Other times... well... that's where Public Enemy comes in. "Fight the Power" was voted the "Best Single" of 1989 by the Pazz and Jop Critics Poll and the number one hip-hop song of all time by VH1. Outside of that, there isn't much I could say about this song that wasn't said in this article from 2002.

And just for fun... here's a cover of "Fight the Power" from The Barenaked Ladies.

Barenaked Ladies: Fight the Power


Civics Lessons: Model Citizen

Alice Cooper: Model Citizen


"Civics is the study of citizenship and government with particular attention given to the role of citizens..."

But, which 'Model' to model yourself after?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Civics Lessons: Race For The Prize

Flaming Lips: Race For The Prize


The opening line to the first song on the Flaming Lips' brilliant album, Soft Bulletin is:

Two scientists were racing
For the good of all mankind
Both of them side by side
So determined
Locked in heated battle
For the cure that is their prize
But it's so dangerous
But they're determined
In the United States we are currently caught in a vibrant debate about the best way to provide health care for the citizens of our country.  Many believe that a laissez-faire approach is appropriate.  They argue that without competition in the market place, prices will rise and quality will be reduced.  Adam Smith, pictured above, argued that when markets are unfettered, an "invisible hand" corrects problems of supply and demand and keeps prices low at the same time.  It is true that the for-profit drug companies in the US produce a hugely disproportionate number of life-saving and life-improving drugs, and this is largely due to the fact that scientist are fighting for patents because patents equate to profits.

The other side argues that health care is a right and that the government can and should direct tax dollars to providing it for the people.  They argue that the whole notion of profit should be removed from the health care system because it is unacceptable for anyone to be left uncared for in a nation as wealthy as ours.

I have no idea what Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips thinks about this subject, but I do know that the sad Nature of Man is that we are generally more likely to be "locked in heated battle" over profits than over "the good of all mankind".  Here's hoping we can all work together to find a solution that works for everyone.  In the meantime, enjoy one of the best opening tracks of the decade of the 90's.

Civics Lessons: You Are (The Government)

"Hey, sit down and listen and they'll tell you when you're wrong
eradicate but vindicate as ´progress´ creeps along
puritan work ethic maintains its subconscious edge
as old glory maintains your consciousness

there's a loser in my House and a puppet on a stool
and a crowded way of life and a black reflecting pool
and as the people bend the moral fabric dies
then country can't pretend to ignore its peoples' cries

you are the government
you are jurisprudence
you are the volition
you are jurisdiction
and I make a difference too..."

´Nuff said.

Between ´88 and ´90, L.A.´s Bad Religion ruled thinking man´s punk rock, paving the way for punkpop hitmakers Green Day, Offspring and countless others. In singer Greg Graffin the band had an articulated songwriter (with a Ph.D. in zoology no less) adressing society´s many ills.

Civics Lessons: New Kicks

Le Tigre: New Kicks


Part of being a responsible citizen in a democratic nation is exercising your right to free speech and standing up for what you believe in, especially when you feel the government is taking actions that do not match it's citizens beliefs. These days it seems people are not quick to protest things that really deserve to be protested, things that should be enraging people. But the apathy and complacency of most citizens is overwhelming and so we wait and hope it resolves itself on its own most of the time.

Back in 2004, I made myself a politically motivated mix to get myself ramped up for election day. The lead track on that disc was Le Tigre's "New Kicks". Le Tigre is a dance-punk band fronted by Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna. "New Kicks" is a song that is comprised of protest chants and audio clips from protest speeches from some national protests against the war in Iraq. This song gives me chills and really gets me riled up.

This is what democracy sounds like.

Civics Lessons: Here Comes The Judge

Shorty Long: Here Comes The Judge


The American government consists of three branches: The legislative branch (which writes the laws), the executive branch (which enforces the laws), and the judicial branch (which don’t take no stuff from nobody, no kind of way).

I love this song.

Civics Lessons: Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)

Steve Earle: Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)


We are a people perpetually balanced on a tightrope stretched between our history and our potential, one faltering step away from a headlong tumble from the most dizzying of heights. But fear not – we're working with a net.

In spite of our worst intentions and ignorance of our own history, our Constitution has, thus far, proven resilient enough to withstand anything that we throw at it, including ourselves. For myself, my faith in this one institution of our all too human (and therefore imperfect) society is absolute, but, I hope, not blind. It was built to last, but only if properly maintained. Fierce vigilance against the erosion of its proven principles is the very heart of our peculiarly American brand of democracy.

- Steve Earle, July 4th, 2002

We kick off our civics lesson theme this week with angry, aging alt-country musician Steve Earle's sweeping condemnation of both the very insufficiencies of Compassionate Conservatism as a mechanism for perpetuating those values which we as Americans claim as ideals, and of the misguided complacency of those who accept that standpoint as "the best we can do".

It's a pretty extreme lesson to start the week with, but there's much here about the state of our current civic society -- a veritable laundry list of social and civic issues, from global warming to HMOs -- and Earle makes a pretty explicit connection between what he sees as our abdication of our full responsibilities as citizens and the ways in which he sees the limited passions of the conservative platform as, ultimately, eroding the very foundation of our democracy. Take a gander at the lyrics, and you'll see what I mean:

Yeah, take a look in the mirror now tell me what you see
Another satisfied customer in the front of
the line for the American dream
I remember when we was both out on the boulevard
Talkin' revolution and singin' the blues
Nowadays it's letters to the editor
and cheatin' on our taxes
Is the best that we can do
Come on...

Through these words, supported by driving guitars and an understated, half-ironic lack of intonation, Amerika v. 6.0 offers a pretty thorough look at what happens when we limit our civic responsibility out of fear and selfishness. Earle has angrier songs (his cover of Nirvana's Breed, for example, rocks much harder than this) but I think he doesn't want to scare us off with too much anger -- after all, the second person address of the first verse makes it clear right from the get go that Earle is asking us to own our own complacency, and yelling at people isn't always the best approach if ownership is the goal.

The push to do better -- to take up the mantle of civic action upon ourselves -- may be otherwise unstated, but I don't think you'll find many who can argue that this is a song of despair. Rather, this is a call to action, just one of many we are sure to hear this week, which traces its call to action to the folk process which lies at the very foundation of Earle's electro-roots sound.