Author: Reams, James

”Where Have All The Activists Gone?”

The recent passing of legendary folk singer and activist Pete Singer touched more than just a musical chord with me. I knew Pete from back in the Greenwich Village days. His passion for social justice and ability to transform those feelings into songs that have remained in the hearts and on the playlists of generations will be greatly missed.

And that got me to thinking about who has picked up the social justice torch in recent years. What singers/bands are writing and performing those songs that will galvanize this generation into action? More specifically, what bluegrass musicians are taking a stand – politically, socially, and morally – with their music?

It’s not like there isn’t a whole mountain of issues out there to choose from. Unfortunately, we’re still dealing with wars, poverty, pollution, and inequality. Punk, hip hop, rappers, and rock musicians have been holding court in the area of protest songs for the last couple of decades (think Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar Mellancamp, Eminem, Townes Van Zandt) so — to paraphrase one of Pete’s songs — where have all the activists gone, at least in the world of bluegrass music?

We’ve had some heavy hitters in the past like Zilphia Horton (1910-1956). Working in rural Appalachia, Zilphia used folk music as direct action on the picket lines of the labor movement and later in the civil rights movement. Through the Tennessee-based Highlander Folk School, Horton taught folk music to many civil rights leaders and even influenced Pete Seeger. Did you know that she’s responsible for adapting an early gospel song into the unofficial anthem of the African-American Civil Rights Movement? Pete Seeger later changed “will” to “shall” and “We Shall Overcome” became a rallying cry in the 1960s.

Then there’s Hazel Dickens (1935-2011) an American bluegrass singer, songwriter, double bassist and guitarist that garnered a long list of awards in her career including the Award of Merit from the IBMA. Like many of her fans, I hope induction to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame will happen soon. Her music was characterized not only by her high, lonesome singing style, but also by her provocative pro-union, feminist songs and her outspoken support for the plight of coal miners. The New York Times called her "a clarion-voiced advocate for coal miners and working people and a pioneer among women in bluegrass music." Just check YouTube and you’ll find a whole slew of her songs including the haunting a cappella version of “Black Lung” that’s sure to put a catch in your throat.

Kathy Mattea has picked up right where Hazel left off. Her latest albums “Coal” (2008) and “Calling Me Home” (2012) have solidified her place in the social justice movement. Her song “Hello My Name is Coal” describes the love/hate relationship between coal mining and those affected by it. Kathy has toured extensively to bring attention to the environmental and human devastation of coal mining and appeared on programs such as NPR’s “Living on Earth” as she promoted the COAL project. She is a force to be reckoned with and her latest songs lean more toward bluegrass than country as she rediscovers her roots. All I can say is “Roll on, Kathy!”

Okay, that made me feel a little better. But where’re the male counterparts to these women in bluegrass music? Well, seems we’re a little thin in that area. I could think of all kinds of songs about coal mining from bluegrass legends like Carter Stanley, Hobo Jack Adkins, Ralph Stanley and more; but scratched my head and thought long and hard to come up with any bluegrass songs about other social issues.

A couple of names came to mind like Steve Earle and Si Kahn. Though they’re more recognized in folk music circles, but both of them have dabbled in bluegrass and brought us face to face with some of America’s sore spots.

Steve Earle released his first wholly bluegrass album “The Mountain” in 1999 with musical accompaniment from the Del McCoury Band. This album was nominated for a Grammy in 2000. Steve is well known for his stand against the death penalty, prison reform, and for his anti-war sentiments. The album’s title song “The Mountain” deals with the environmental effects of mining. And he swings over to folk music for “Over Yonder” about an inmate with whom Steve corresponded and whose execution he attended. But songs about the plight of inmates and opposing the death penalty haven’t really found much support.

Si Kahn is a hugely talented individual and the founder and former director of Grassroots Leadership, a non-profit organization that advocates for several causes, including prison reform, improved immigration detention policies, and violence prevention. Most of the profits from Kahn's musical performances benefit this group. He’s also been involved with Save Our Cumberland Mountains, an environmentalist group opposed to strip mining in Appalachia. Though Kahn writes songs about a variety of topics, he is especially known for songs about workers and their families, like "Aragon Mill" from the album “Aragon Mill: The Bluegrass Sessions” (2013) featuring lyrics that resonate with many out-of-work middle aged men today.

Unemployment is definitely a huge social issue facing Americans right now but where are the bluegrass songs supporting anyone except ex-coal miners? What about farmers? Returning veterans? Truck drivers? I hate to admit it but I had to resort to Internet searches to answer my own question! As someone who thought he had a finger on the pulse of bluegrass, that was an eye opener. I was looking for that rallying point…what is bluegrass music standing behind today? What gets our blue blood pumping?

Blue Highway came close with Shawn Lane’s “Just to Have a Job” which supports the blue collar working man. But it just didn’t quite make the emotional connection associated with songs that promote action. A closer look at some of their recent albums revealed Wayne Taylor’s incriminating “Homeless Man” whose lyrics brought tears to my eyes as they sang about the unjust treatment of our country’s military veterans. Now that’s what I’m talking about. Also on the same album (Through the Window of a Train – 2008) is another song about the high price of freedom paid by our soldiers.

So I did some searching on songs about the homeless and I stumbled upon Detour’s album “A Better Place” (2012) that contained a gem of a song entitled “Homeless of the Brave.” The song was written by band member Jeff Rose after he was stunned by what he heard on a radio program "that there are approximately 70,000 homeless veterans in this country and over 600 in northern Michigan alone". The song is a story about American veterans who return home, only to find they can’t get jobs, or in some cases, even find places to live and sleep. And this Michigan-based bluegrass band is putting their money where their mouth is; they’re donating proceeds from the sale of the song to help provide transitional housing for homeless veterans in Michigan. I have to say, my hat’s off to them and they have my whole-hearted support.

Could it be that in supporting veterans (homeless and otherwise) bluegrass has found a modern day rallying point that suits our staunchly pro-American sentiments? It’s possible, but we’ve buried these calls to action in albums that contain a wide variety of song topics. The cohesiveness found in Kathy Mattea’s Coal Project albums is missing and so is the impact that comes along with that kind of dedication. Mea culpa!

So here’s the burning question: Should musicians use their talent and popularity to bring attention to social justice issues or should they stick to making entertaining music and keep their noses out of other people’s business? Send me an email and let your voice be heard!
Posted:  6/19/2014

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