Ron Radosh

Shut Up and Sing!

            To celebrate my wife’s birthday, we went to a concert in Frederick, Maryland performed by country/folk singer-songwriter Nancy Griffith. Hailing from Austin, Texas, Griffith had a wonderful voice, and over the years, has penned some first rate songs, blending folk, country, rockabilly and ballads in her broad repertoire. 

            We went to hear her sing, not to be harangued about politics. Griffith could not stop herself from sharing her ecstasy at Barack Obama’s election victory and proclaiming that for the first time America was united and proud. I wondered if she is even aware that some 46 per cent of the popular vote went for John McCain, and that perhaps some of his supporters were in the audience? Well, she didn’t forget. She then said that at a previous concert, she said much of the same, and sitting in the front row with flowers for her, was a man she described as “looking like a football player” who clearly supported McCain. She had told the crowd that if anyone did support McCain, they should “get over it.” The man handed her the flowers and mumbled, “I’m getting over it.”  Griffith’s audience cheered. Then she had to tell a really stupid Sarah Palin joke, one definitely not repeating.

            Why do these singers, it seems especially those with ties to the folk world, insist on pummeling the audience with their politics? It’s one thing if they are known as political song-writers. I like much of the work of Steve Earle, particularly in his non-political era. But anyone who goes to hear Earle now knows what to expect from a man whose recent CD’s include songs attacking George W. Bush and who entertains on Nation  magazine cruises.  Like Pete Seeger  politics is part of his personna.

            But that is not the case with Griffith, or a guitar virtuoso and blues singer like David Bromberg. Friends of ours went to hear him this year at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., where he let loose with a harangue about the need to impeach Bush. I doubt if even those who agreed with Bromberg knew that was coming, or who went to hear him sing blues, country and engage in dazzling guitar solos, were looking forward to a speech about his political views. 

            These  artists might take a tip from Bob Dylan. The great bard has always been foolishly portrayed as “the voice of the 60’s generation,” and it has been assumed he shared all of the New Left’s political beliefs and attitudes. The most incorrect take on him was to view him as a political singer or a “protest singer,” as he was often called.  Clearly, Dylan was moved – who could not be- about the racism and the system of segregation in the deep South that existed when he was growing up. His first song, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” was a heartfelt response to that. But aside from some specific songs like the ironic “Oxford Town” and a few others, Dylan did not write many overt political tomes. His famous rebuke to his contemporary Phil Ochs, the leftwing singer-songwriter, was that “Ochs, you’re a journalist, not a songwriter.”

            When Dylan gave an interview to his friends Happy Traum and John Cohen for Sing Out! Magazine in Oct.-Nov.1968, they asked him about the Vietnam War and suggested that perhaps artists had to take a position against it since it was, as Traum said, “their responsibility to say something.”   Nancy Griffith and the others should heed Dylan’s answer to this attempt to get him to speak out on the issue of that era. Dylan said: “I know some very good artists who are for the war.” (my emphasis.) He went on: “I’m speaking of a certain painter, and he’s all for the war. He’s just about ready to go over there himself. And I can comprehend him.”  Exasperated as Traum went on, Dylan told him “people just have their own views. Anyway, how do you  know I’m not, as you say, for the war?”

            Dylan wanted people then, and now, to respond to him through his music. He has refrained from making political speeches, or appearing at rallies. Joan Baez made that clear in her comments for Martin Scorsese’s  documentary,  when she said that people always ask her if Dylan will be joining her at a rally? They don’t get it, she said; Bobby doesn’t do that.

            Will there come a time when I go to a concert to hear a singer I like, and not be told what to think?  It is pure narcissism for artists to assume he or she will be cheered for their private political views? I wish they would listen to Bob Dylan.