Saturday, November 10, 2012

Elected Officials: Hollow Man

Mark Erelli: Hollow Man


Chuck E Costa: Hollow Man (Mark Erelli cover)


I grew up in a house where it was common practice not to speak of politics, and especially not of politicians; as an adult, I continue this practice, registering as an independent and preferring to keep my vote private from everyone, even my own spouse, no matter how many times my inner-city students might dismiss such machinations as an attempt to hide what they suppose to be a natural affinity for the white man's party.

But the political process, and the way it plays itself out, has a public immediacy for me nonetheless. For one thing, I am an elected official myself, mid-way through a second three-year term on the local School Board, which is no small practice in a small rural town where the schools consume roughly half of the town budget, and where the five elected board members have to negotiate carefully with town selectmen and finance committee to be able to afford basic services while preserving as much as we can of the ever-shrinking pool of electives and extra-curriculars which townspeople desperately want but will not pay for. And in my day job as a media teacher, I have long used the study of politics and media as a mechanism to illuminate the ways that living in a show business world obfuscates and denigrates the potential for genuine public discourse.

In the last two weeks alone, I have appeared in a televised meeting wearing a jacket and tie and talking policy and procedure, taught political cartoons, debates-as-genre, and the archetype of the presidential in modern society to my tenth graders, and spent two full days at a conference discussing new laws and regulations which will affect the students in my classroom and my district. For this, I get paid a pittance in one venue, and not a dime in the other, and in all cases, find myself most often booed for my efforts - even when I do good, and do it well.

And so, even with the election over, I find frustrating familiarity in Mark Erelli's 1999 political screed, which too-easily compares the elected official to a pumpkin-headed scarecrow. For even as my media mind knows that there is no small occasional truth in the stuffed-shirt empty-mind party politician which Erelli portrays, the public servant in me - unpaid, unloved, unfairly scapegoated, and too-often lonely in the act of trying to do the best thing with the meager resources the town grudgingly votes for us to apply each year - knows that to paint this image with such a broad and common brush is dangerous twice over: first, in the way it unfairly releases the citizen from the lion's share of responsibility for this sad state of affairs, and second, in that the common and casual pass-along of this sometimes-truth as a generalization taints even the best politicians and public servants with suspicion, making it that much harder for the democratic process to work in even the best of times, with the best of officials.

Don't get me wrong: it's a good song, and Erelli is a great artist, and a helluva nice guy; Connecticut State Troubadour Chuck E Costa, who is an equally sweet guy in person, does a solid cover, too. But while such sentiment sounds good on paper, and riles up the crowd, those of us who straddle the inside and the outside of the electoral process know that it is too easy, too cheap, to make generalizations like this outside of the three minute folkpop song.

And so I offer my insider's view as a sort of temperance, in hopes that the political songs never fade, but that the political minds never, ever stop there, either. We get what we deserve, if we do not learn how to effectively demand and receive better. And so ends today's civics lesson, for better or worse.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Elected Officials: You Got Away With It

Todd Snider: You Got Away With It


I wasn’t fast enough to make this a transitional post from “Disasters” to “Elected Officials,” which I wanted to do, because I do believe that George W. Bush, the subject of this song, was a disaster. In my opinion, his regime was responsible for hugely inflating the deficit by fighting two wars, one of which was based on completely phony intelligence, while cutting taxes to mostly benefit wealthy people, by being complicit in the outing of an undercover agent, encouraging the politics of greed, appointing right wing Supreme Court justices, using 9/11 as a pretext to curtail civil liberties (which admittedly hasn’t been fixed by President Obama), discouraging marriage equality, leading the country to the precipice of economic ruin, instituting policies that were damaging to the environment, mishandling the Katrina response and worst of all, in the big picture, contributing to the increasing rejection of fact–based decisionmaking and the mocking of the “reality based community” in favor of perpetuating a series of “Big Lies.”

For starters.

Even Richard Nixon, who was a crook and liar, and made a mockery of the office of the President, supported the Equal Rights Amendment, reopened diplomatic relations with China, established the EPA, supported the Clean Air Act and OSHA, signed Title IX into law and ended the draft. I feel like taking a shower now, after writing this paragraph, but I have trouble thinking of any positives from G.W. Bush.

I’ve always had the impression that Bush was a spoiled, feckless frat boy, who muddled through an undistinguished career at Andover and Yale, and then in business and politics, mostly riding his father’s coat tails. As best as I can tell, he avoided service in Vietnam by using family connections to get into the National Guard, and then rarely, if ever, performed his duty. Despite his personal cowardice, as President he had no compunctions about sending other people to die based on false information, and he only criticized the attempts by the swift boaters to disparage John Kerry, an actual war hero, after the advertisements stopped running. And, to make matters worse, he once pulled down the goal posts at Princeton after a Yale victory. His popularity among Republicans is so great that he was invisible during the Republican convention and the campaign. As if even they were embarrassed by him (as they should be).

Clearly, Todd Snider’s opinion of Dubya is at least as low as mine, if not lower. Initially, the song, which is in the form of a message from one frat brother to another. The narrator recounts a number of incidents of wrongdoing, and remarks that his subject regularly got away with it. The song does not make it clear who it is about, until the last verse:

You never did tell me what happened with you and your brother down there in Florida
I heard they gave you a hell of a time
Everybody around here was afraid you might lose
I told them not to worry cause I knew you'd be fine
Had me out here to Camp David a few times over the years
I think the first time we were teenagers sneakin' beers
Look at you now you old son of a bitch
You got the run of this place

And then, all is clear.

Elected Officials: Grandpa Was A Carpenter

John Prine: YouTube version of Grandpa Was A Carpenter
John Prine: [download it @ Amazon]

A few weeks back, we were looking at Leonard Cohen, and most of our posts noted how dismal we felt when we listened to his music. In addition to Tom Waits, the third musician I would categorize as representative of “bleak” would be John Prine, but for reasons I cannot explain, I much prefer Prine’s negative outlook to that of the other two. Several of his songs deal with political issues of the day: the Vietnam war comes to mind.

It must be Prine's way with his lyrics that attracts me. In "Grandpa Was A Carpenter", Prine gets me thinking about the pendulum effect: over time, parties, individuals and corporation find themselves faced with the need to adjust their stance, and end up swinging away from their extreme positions. This need for realignment is what the Republican party seems to be debating in the wake of their defeat this week.

Grandpa Was A Carpenter includes in the lyrics, references to Presidents Eisenhower and Lincoln as candidates of the Republican party: “… [grandpa] voted for Eisenhower ‘cause Lincoln won the war…”

Now, it is hard to picture fully the mentality of the populace in either of these times: just what did the Republican party represent to voters then? Could it be that even with 100 years separating these two candidates, the GOP stood for the exact same set of values?

There are several versions of John Prine playing the song at YouTube, but I chose this one because of the treble: I like my music crisp, and even if the sound quality of this version fades in places, you’ll have to admit that the  guitars are “sharp”.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Elected Officials: We've Got Franklin D. Roosevelt Back Again

Norman and Nancy Blake: We've Got Franklin D. Roosevelt Back Again

[purchase New Lost City Ramblers: Songs from the Depression]

I always breathe a big sigh of relief when Election Day is over, even if all of my candidates didn’t win. KKafa offered up a song commemorating FDR’s 1936 visit to Trinidad. That got me thinking about a song recorded by Billy Cox one week after the election in that same year. “We've Got Franklin D. Roosevelt Back Again” was also recorded by the New Lost City Ramblers on their “Songs from the Depression” album. On there, it’s titled “Franklin Roosevelt's Back Again.”

For this exercise, I’m linking to an old video from a Norman and Nancy Blake concert. I don’t know if they ever put this song out on an LP or CD. If you like the music of Norman and Nancy, here’s even another song they wrote and sang with a political message called “Don’t Be Afraid of the NeoCons.”

Monday, November 5, 2012

Elected Officials: FDR in Trinidad

YouTube link to FDR in Trinidad (Attila the Hun)
YouTube link to FDR in Trinidad (Ry Cooder)
Amazon link to purchase Ry Cooder version from Into the Purple Valley

I was wondering why some of our elected officials end up being well-remembered by their initials. You don’t have to be a great historian to know who JFK, LBJ or FDR are, but no one knows Lincoln (arguably equally well-known) as AL. You may well know Bush senior as George H.W. Bush, but you’d be among the elite who could tell us what both the H and W stand for, I suspect.

Name-“plays” related to my posting this week don’t end there. My choice of song this week is a song originally composed by a Fizt MacLean (and that is not a typo). You would be forgiven for wanting to go searching for a “Fritz”. In fact, there is a YouTube take of the great musicologist Ry Cooder getting the name wrong just before he performs one of MacLean’s songs with David Lindley. [after the fact edit: it wasnt Ry with D Lindley and it wasnt Fizt Maclean: It was "Fizz" Fuller and Jackson Browne with David Lindley, but the FDR info appears to remain correct. Sorry.]
Ry Cooder performed the first version I ever heard of my choice of song this week on “Into the Purple Valley”, and other sources indicate that, among others, Van Dyke Parks has also done the song. However, Attila the Hun (nee Raymond Quevedo), calypso musician from Trinidad, first popularized the song in order to commemorate FDR’s 1936 visit to Trinidad. Wikipedia tells us that Attila the Hun championed the poor and eventually made it into politics in Trinadad. It isn’t too hard to see from the lyrics of the song why Quevedo might have latched on: (for the suffering humanity) and attention from the foremost republic espousing it (to make the world safe for democracy).

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Elected Officials : Vote For Me

Bad officials are the ones elected by good citizens who do not vote. 
 George Jean Nathan

It would have been punk for The Move to have released "Vote For Me" in 1967, the year it was recorded. The band had just been sued for libel by Prime Minister Harold Wilson for producing a cartoon showing Wilson in bed with his secretary in a promotional postcard for their hit single "Flowers In The Rain". 

                               Prime Minister Harold Wilson

    The band lost in court. Badly. Every penny they made off the UK #2 single went to the charities of Mr. Wilson's choice. The band probably lost millions of pounds. 

      Again it was 1967. Not 1977. So in a manner that could hardly be considered punk, The Move shelved this delightfully edgy pop tune until it appeared on a compilation in 1997.

Elected Officials: Bread Line Blues

Bernard “Slim” Smith : Breadline Blues (1932)

Del McCoury Band with Mac Wiseman, Tim O'Brien, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings: Breadline Blues (2008)

[purchase Various Artists: Hard Times Come Again No More ]

[purchase New Lost City Ramblers: Songs from the Depression ]

[purchase Del McCoury Band: Moneyland ]

The Del McCoury Band released their 2008 “Moneyland” album with only one intention in mind – to send a clear message to Washington’s politicians. “Over the last couple of decades, you have turned Rural America into a scene of devastation which can best be described as 'Forgotten America.' Not only do we believe it 'un-American' for Washington to be blind to the problems of small towns and rural America, we believe it immoral ... and there are an ever-growing number of us out here who are ready to stand up against this corrupt neglect of our culture and people."

McCoury’s album opens with an excerpt from one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era fireside chats espousing a "broader definition of liberty" that allows more freedom and security for the average man than ever known before. Then, the advice in Bernard "Slim" Smith's 1932 rendition of "Bread Line Blues" is to “Vote away those blues, the bread line blues.” It’s great advice, and we have until next Tuesday to have our say on which direction we take for the next four years.

Think about what it was like in the 1920s and 30s. Following the 20s’ economic boom, our country experienced the Great Depression. As many rural Americans hadn’t exactly prospered during the boom years, they’d been hit with a double whammy. In this day and age a century later, it’s fun to relate to those songs recorded before and after the 1929 market crash. In many cases, their messages are still relevant. You certainly don’t need to wear a size-8 hat to understand straightforward lyrics like:

The mule said, “Elephant, it ain’t no joke.
We gotta do somethin' or we're all gonna croak.”
Ain’t got nothin' but a car load of tax,
And the doggone load is just breakin’ our backs.
We got the blues, the bread line blues.

Songs like “Bread Line Blues” don’t deserve to be relegated to historical musical archives full of wax and cylinders. That’s exactly why groups like the New Lost City Ramblers and Del McCoury Band have recorded this kind of material in more recent times. McCoury’s 2008 remake also featured Mac Wiseman, Tim O'Brien, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings along with additional lyrics.

After listening to the newer remake of "Breadline Blues 2008," we’re still left wondering about various moral dilemmas and whether there are any clear-cut answers. Some folks despair and remain pessimistic, but I’d just say that songs like “Bread Line Blues” are a call to action. Tongue-in-cheek social commentary of "Bread Line Blues" between the long-eared mule and the big-mouthed elephant is still relevant today. The message to all politicians is clarion. Start talking, collaborating, compromising and working on our Nation’s problems. Whether you’re "red" or "blue," think about the current state of all Americans, their communities, and their livelihoods. We need more than corn that’s “all cob.” FDR was optimistic, and we should be too. Still timely today, FDR's advice was to overcome our arduous burdens and economic calamities by retaining our faith in our ability to master our own destiny.

As politicians tout their respective visions for America, most of us just want a small piece of opportunity to achieve the American dream. By getting to the ballot box, you’ll help the country determine the way ahead. As the original "Bread Line Blues" stated so profoundly eighty years ago, "And when you place your vote / Please don't vote wrong / Vote away those blues / The bread line blues." Moreover, when the general election is all over and done with, I look forward to that time again when we can “all have fun and better home brew.”