Re­turn of the protest song

Buffy Sainte-Marie, Bruce Cock­burn on the power of mu­sic

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - DAVID FRIEND TORONTO —

Folksinger-song­writer Lindy Vop­n­fjord climbed into bed stunned on the night Don­ald Trump won the U.S. pres­i­dency, but he awoke the next morn­ing feel­ing ac­ti­vated.

Bristling with an urge to speak out, the Ice­landic-Cana­dian mu­si­cian wrote lyrics that might’ve seemed alarmist at the time.

And even two weeks ago, when he fi­nally re­leased “Dark­ness is the Day” to co­in­cide with Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, some of the words didn’t res­onate quite as much as they do now.

“Opin­ion is king, one-plus-one is three. The loud­est truth is the truest, so re­peat af­ter me,” Vop­n­fjord sings. “It takes a lit­tle time to get the spin to un­wind. It takes a lit­tle time.”

Vop­n­fjord is stunned by the evo­lu­tion of his song’s sig­nif­i­cance.

“There’s so much that keeps feed­ing into the lyrics,” he says. “There was more to it than maybe even I re­al­ized.”

He’s just one of count­less mu­si­cians us­ing their voice to push against what they see as an alarm­ing po­lit­i­cal cli­mate. Over the past month, prom­i­nent artists have con­trib­uted a cho­rus of anti-Trump an­thems, which started flow­ing out ahead of the elec­tion last Novem­ber.

Tracks by Ar­cade Fire and Mavis Sta­ples (“I Give You Power”), Fiona Ap­ple (“Tiny Hands”) and the Go­ril­laz (“Hal­lelu­jah Money”) have stood out as re­cent high­lights.

Be­fore that, artists like Franz Fer­di­nand (“Dem­a­gogue”), Jimmy Eat World (“My En­emy”) and Amy Mann (“Can’t You Tell?”) col­lab­o­rated for “30 Days, 30 Songs,” a project that counted down to elec­tion day in the hopes of draw­ing at­ten­tion to Trump’s po­ten­tial power. The cam­paign re­cently ex­panded to 1,000 songs that will be re­vealed through­out Trump’s pres­i­dency.

Lis­ten­ers ap­pear ea­ger to hear more protest songs too.

Sev­eral anti-Trump an­thems be­came vi­ral hits last year, in­clud­ing Ledin­sky’s “Don­ald Trump Makes Me Wanna Smoke Crack” and YG & Nipsey Hus­sle’s “FDT,” a rous­ing rap track which pairs an ex­ple­tive with the pres­i­dent’s ini­tials.

All of this new-found in­spi­ra­tion has long­time so­cial-ac­tivist mu­si­cian Buffy Sainte-Marie a bit sus­pi­cious. She ques­tions why some artists only de­cided to write protest songs when there’s “go­ing to be money” in it.

But she’s also not against more peo­ple speak­ing out.

“The art of the two-and-a-half minute song — it’s such a pow­er­ful tool,” she says.

“If you can say some­thing in three min­utes that some­body else had to write a 400-page book about, the book is go­ing to be shelved. The song can live for­ever.”

Sainte-Marie says she writes her songs with the mind­set of a pho­tog­ra­pher cap­tur­ing snap­shots of his­tory.

Her 1964 protest an­them “Univer­sal Sol­dier” was a por­trait of the Vietnam War era while “Now That the Buf­falo’s Gone” tack­led the cen­turies-old plight of in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties that still con­tin­ues to­day.

Fel­low ac­tivist song­writer Bruce Cock­burn is cau­tious when it comes to de­cid­ing how to ex­press his opin­ions through mu­sic.

With a ca­reer span­ning nearly 40 years, he’s found him­self in­spired by causes like the en­vi­ron­ment (“If a Tree Falls”) and the dev­as­ta­tion of war (“If I Had a Rocket Launcher”). But so far, the U.S. elec­tion hasn’t mo­ti­vated him to write any­thing pointed, and he says it might not.

He says he doesn’t want to veer into ter­ri­tory where he’s just spout­ing his po­lit­i­cal views against a back­drop of bad mu­sic.

“It’s not al­ways ob­vi­ous to put it in a song that (doesn’t sim­ply be­come) a pro­pa­ganda di­a­tribe,” says Cock­burn, who will re­ceive the Peo­ple’s Voice Award at the Folk Al­liance In­ter­na­tional awards show in Kansas City, Mo., this month in recog­ni­tion of his so­cial and po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary.

So many po­lit­i­cal songs just cap­i­tal­ize on anger, he ar­gues, but don’t have any artis­tic merit. He points to 1965’s “Eve of De­struc­tion,” a song recorded by Barry McGuire that topped the Bill­board charts, as one ex­am­ple of a mis­fire.

Cock­burn sug­gests the track was too lit­eral and sounds es­pe­cially dated now. Many protest songs that at­tack their sub­ject head-on suf­fer the same fate of be­com­ing ir­rel­e­vant, he adds.

Bob Dy­lan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” stands as a far su­pe­rior ex­am­ple, he sug­gests, or “We Shall Over­come,” which be­gan as a hymn in the early 1900s and evolved into an an­them of the civil rights move­ment.

“It had tremen­dous ap­pli­ca­tion over the years to any num­ber of causes,” he says of the lat­ter. “It’s ab­so­lutely time­less.”


Folk singer-song­writer Lindy Vop­n­fjord is one of count­less mu­si­cians us­ing their voice to push against what they see as an alarm­ing po­lit­i­cal cli­mate.

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