Folk & Country 2011: Where Are the Protest Singers?

Folk & Country 2011: Where Are the Protest Singers?
On July 13, Vancouver-based Adbusters Magazine, inspired by the Arab Spring, posted on their blog that people could similarly amass on Wall Street in New York City on September 17 to protest against the ever-growing disparity between the rich and poor. Thus was born the now-global Occupy Movement.

Its power to rally support naturally reflected the values that artists within the folk tradition have always espoused, such as solidarity in the face of oppression. Curiously though, the music world has been uncomfortably silent when it comes to Occupy.

The industry today is, in many ways, just another part of the corporate behemoth that the Occupy Movement is targeting. The mood at New York's Zuccotti Park, Occupy's epicentre, was soured early on with Kanye West's controversial appearance, followed by Jay-Z's "Occupy All Streets" t-shirt campaign that somehow didn't manage to raise any money for organizers, as was his stated intention. Since then, Tom Morello, Jeff Mangum, Sean Lennon and Rufus Wainwright have performed at Zuccotti Park, and it has been announced that a compilation album to raise funds for the Occupy Movement, with contributions from Lucinda Williams, Jackson Browne, Yo La Tengo and others, will be released in the coming months.

But as protestors are evicted from their camps and the television crews vanish, so does what would seem a moment for songwriters who truly support the cause to make statements that will carry its message into the foreseeable future.

It brings to mind "event" songs like Neil Young's "Ohio," sober reminders of brutally real situations punctuating the peace-and-love drone on mainstream radio. Yet, this now seems a foreign concept. Young wrote the song in May 1970 immediately after Ohio National Guardsmen killed four Kent State students at a Vietnam War protest. As recorded by CSNY, the track was on the singles chart within a month, galvanizing public outrage against the incident.

The folk music canon was built upon similar responses to current events, with the most celebrated examples in our lifetime being Bob Dylan's early songs that spoke out in favour of civil rights and against nuclear proliferation. That body of work turned out to be profitable as well, and the mass acceptance it attained completely altered the landscape of the music business from then on. "Protest music" briefly became just another marketing gimmick for record labels, but by then Dylan's shift toward introspection had changed everything once again.

It was fitting, then, that the organizers of this year's Grammy Awards concocted a scenario that found Dylan performing his great kiss-off to folk music purists, "Maggie's Farm," with Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers, two of the most successful neo-traditional groups in the world today. The intense navel-gazing inherent to songs written by both the Avetts and Mumford & Sons has proven divisive, though, with The Guardian even going so far as to call M&S harbingers of "The New Boring," following their win at this year's Brit Awards.

While that sentiment does not extend entirely to this year's most notable roots music releases, it is a little difficult right now to listen to an album like the Decemberists' The King Is Dead without wondering whether its ingrained hope, forged in the fires of Barack Obama's "Yes We Can" dream, has not already played itself out. In other respects, the neo-traditionalist movement originally spearheaded by artists such as Gillian Welch, at a time when country music had virtually abandoned its history, now feels strangely in tune with the conservatism that dug its claws deeply into Canada this year.

One exception was Toronto's One Hundred Dollars (pictured), whose singer and principle songwriter Simone Schmidt boldly placed herself in unfamiliar shoes with Songs Of Man, a collection sung from an array of male perspectives that was as illuminating as it was invigorating. Similarly, the Barr Brothers, American transplants to Montreal, took the outsider concept to new heights with a self-titled debut album that combined many disparate rootsy elements with the production values that have drawn international acclaim for the Montreal scene. It wasn't exactly folk, but the album's passion was undeniable.

In these times it is therefore more tempting than ever to proclaim folk music ― as scholars have defined it ― no longer relevant as a musical form, much less as a vehicle for dissent. Punk rock has had that latter market cornered anyway since the mid-'70s, and artists today whose work in nearly all respects could be called folk are often labelled with a punk tag simply because of their prior association with the genre. Some, like Alexisonfire's Dallas Green and Hot Water Music's Chuck Ragan have successfully made the full transformation into balladeer, but it is British singer/songwriters such as Frank Turner who still have the edge thanks to having grown up as class warriors dating back to the Margaret Thatcher regime.

This year, Turner decisively proved he was Billy Bragg's heir apparent with his fourth solo album, England Keep My Bones, a rousing love letter to his native land that still retained a healthy streak of subversion. It's a testament to Turner's talent for conveying universal themes that the album made any inroads across the pond at all. For whatever reason, social commentary is a skill that few North American songwriters have ever mastered.

The question remains, is it the obligation of an artist who is supposedly working within the folk tradition to have a social conscience? Only those artists themselves can answer. But whether we are currently engaged in a class war or a culture war, we are sadly being forced to choose sides once again, and musicians are not exempt.

If our goal remains to live in a world of truth and justice, songwriters who want to contribute to that end need to start taking a hard look at what is really happening. As Dylan once sang, "Now ain't the time for your tears."