Personal Beats Political in Socially Conscious Music
Thanks to the Clinton-Lewinsky soap opera, 1998 was the year that politics became sexual, and I'm not talking about sexual politics or the politics of sexuality. So it's only appropriate, I guess, that much of the music by socially conscious artists was concerned with the personal over the political.In fact, 1998 has been anything but a bumper year for socially conscious music, at least not anywhere near the mainstream. It seems the Clinton-era complacency has infected the musical world as well, and with the continuing corporate consolidations within the major record label realm and commercial radio, one shouldn't expect the sounds of political outrage nor cries for social justice to be very prevalent in the commercial music scene. When one of the bigger artist-label battles this year is between pop-dance artist Sophie B. Hawkins-who, to her credit, displays a certain socially conscious chutzpah in being very up-front about her bisexuality-and Columbia Records over a banjo track on the first single from her upcoming album, we are hardly in a time when fighting the good fight is going to be at all common with major label acts.This lack of direct social consciousness in popular music also mirrors the ebb and flow of musical movements. Folk music, once the prime genre for social and political statements, has in recent years become a refuge for the sensitive singer-songwriter crowd, many of them, sadly, lacking much in the way of timeless talent. Reggae, another once-politically charged medium, is in fallow times, its native Jamaican popularity eclipsed by the more hedonistic dancehall style. The early years of rap music were marked by significant social commentary by acts like Public Enemy, but the sometimes anti-social argot of gangster rap long ago captured the ears of hip-hop fans. Punk and its stepchild grunge have become little more than fashion statements, and even the pop music world's championship of AIDS causes has faded like the consciousness of the disease itself has from the forefront.That's not to say it was a bad year for music, per se. Though hardly a great musical year, 1998 did offer significant musical moments. But instead of having much socially and politically conscious music to recommend from 1998, I find myself instead marveling at how much good but hardly political music was made last year by socially conscious artists. What follows are some of the highlights, culled from this music critic's year of admittedly selective listening.As noted, the thematic groove for 1998 was primarily emotional and sexual. This wind of thought and feeling can certainly be traced back to '97, when the greatest musical political of all time, Bob Dylan, released another landmark album with Time Out Of Mind (Columbia). Progressives who feel Dylan all but abandoned politics back in the mid-1960s probably haven't lent their ears to all the nooks and crannies of his output since then, but Time Out Of Mind was clearly a disc consumed by the wars perpetrated in the cause of the human heart. A caustic yet wise look at love, it was nonetheless one of Dylan's most compelling works in a career of indisputable genius, and if you haven't checked back in with Bobby Zimmerman in a while, it's a wonderful place to start.In the same vein, 1998 saw the resurrection of Dylan's direct forebear, Woody Guthrie, the most socially and politically committed popular musical artist ever. Thanks to English socialist singer-songwriter Billy Bragg and the American rock'n'roll band Wilco, we now get to see "a different Woody Guthrie," said Bragg at a recent concert, "the Woody Guthrie who wanted to sleep with Ingrid Bergman, one of many different Woody Guthries." Bragg was granted access to Guthrie's voluminous archives of lost songs and lyrics by Woody's daughter Nora, and then recruited Wilco and its frontman Jeff Tweedy to play and sing the resulting songs he set music to. The result, Mermaid Avenue (Elektra), doesn't have many overtly political tracks; "Eisler On The Go" eliptically addresses Hanns Eisler's early grilling by the House Unamerican Activities Committee in the Truman years, "I Guess I Planted" is a laborite rouser, and "Christ For President" is obviously if oddly political. But Mermaid Avenue (named after the street Guthrie lived on later in life in Coney Island) is more about the playful, romantic and naturalistic Woody Guthrie. It is also one of the most simply delightful records all year. Though progressive politics aren't part of Wilco's oeuvre, I would highly recommend their own albums as the most creative and soulful American rock'n'roll to be heard in our times. And to Bragg's credit, the British musical rabble-rouser continues to put his money where his mouth is, setting up informational booths at his concerts for the Wobblies and other social causes.Postmodern folkie Ani DiFranco has been heralded for her business independence-she runs her own label, selling hundreds of thousands of records, and setting up a substantial cottage industry to do so in her rust belt hometown of Buffalo, NY-as well as her outspoken lyrical devotion to feminism, sexual liberation and other right-minded causes. Her 1998 release, Little Plastic Castle (Righteous Babe), may incite charges of "sell-out" from hardliners, especially since DiFranco is coifed and made-up on the cover, but what may be her least confrontational and political work may still be her most satisfying album of music yet.Some of the old war horses of musical and social activism were represented in 1998, most notably Pete Seeger with a two-CD tribute by a variety of artists famed and more obscure, Where Have All The Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger (Appleseed). Featuring 39 tracks, 37 of them new recordings, this loving salute features folk stars Judy Collins, Odetta, Holly Near, Tom Paxton, The Weavers and Peter, Paul & Mary, rock stars like Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne, such modern acts as Bragg, DiFranco, John Gorka, Tish Hinojosa, The Indigo Girls, John Trudell and Greg Brown, and even unexpected treats like Studs Terkel and actor Tim Robbins. It's an ideal way to savor Seeger's songs anew, or perhaps introduce new generations to his formidable catalog of folk classics.In a similar vein, the reunited Peter, Paul & Mary-the darlings of the folk movement-released a 25-song anthology this year, Around The Campfire (Warner Bros.). The set features their best-known and best-loved material over two CDs, and includes newly-recorded versions of four PP&M standardsThe folk era spirit was also revisited once again by Nanci Griffith on Other Voices, Too (The Trip Back To Bountiful) (Elektra), the second edition of Griffith's celebration of her folkie roots begun on Other Voices, Other Rooms (Elektra) a few years back. Though it features a bevy of folk stars and noted singer-songwriters, as well as some great songs, Other Voices, Too is musically something of a cluttered mess, sad to say, especially since its predecessor was a beautiful, heartfelt monument of a record. I'd still say buy the first one, but as the latest feels like Other Voices, Too Much-a good idea overdone-I'd only suggest devoted Griffith fans and diehard folkies invest in the sequel.Some of the artists who provided parts of the soundtrack to the '60s and '70s winds of social change delivered significant and surprisingly strong discs this last year. Jubilation (River North) by The Band has all the hallmark rootsy charms of their best work, while former Band songwriter and guitarist Robbie Robertson delved further into his Native American heritage on the fascinating if flawed Contact From The Underworld of Red Boy (Capitol). Seventies post-folk divas Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt returned with new works in fine form on, respectively, the jazzy and cheeky Taming The Tiger (Reprise), and the lovely and stirring pop-rock collection We Ran (Elektra).If any contemporary artist embodies the musical traditions set in the 1960s and '70s, it's Lucinda Williams. On Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (Mercury), she travels the backroads of the American South and the human heart while fashioning a modern roots-rock masterpiece.Though today's corporate and conformist country music world is the last place one would expect to find any genuine social consciousness, fans of The Band might just cotton up to The Tractors, whose Okie shuffles and country-rock boogies mark them as The Band's more countrified cousins. Farmers In A Changing World (Arista), The Tractors' follow-up to their best-selling debut, is also marked by a genuine lyrical blue collar solidarity that's as heartfelt and winning as the irresistibly grooving music they make.In the ever-growing reissue market, Dylan once again brings it all back home on Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert (Columbia/Legacy), the official release of the widely circulated bootleg of Dylan's first electric tour of England (that was actually recorded in Manchester, not at London's Royal Albert Hall). Filled with fierce performances by Dylan solo and with The Band, it's a stellar document from a time of sweeping musical revolution. In the same spirit, two other musical revolutions I've immensely enjoyed revisiting in 1998 are found on a pair of Miles Davis box sets: Miles Davis Quintet 1965-'68 and The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (August 1969-February 1970) (both on Columbia/Legacy).One classic rock act whose keen social commentary has often been overlooked by progressives is The Kinks, who are currently re-releasing expanded CD versions of their 1970s and '80s catalog in successive batches. This year's crop includes the surprisingly prescient Preservation Act I & II rock musical-shades of today's corporate consolidations-along with the always witty and insightful social observations of lead Kink Ray Davies on songs like "Everybody's In Showbiz" (on the reissued album of the same name) and "Misfits" on Sleepwalker (all on the Velvel label). If any pop star is an undersung populist, it's Ray Davies.Lastly, the Central Texas home of this writer and The Progressive Populist has yielded some of the year's better progressively-minded music. Austin was the site of a Mexican American music super session featuring Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, Texas Tornados Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez, young country buck Rick Trevino, Texas rocker Joe Ely and Tejano star Ruben Ramos, known collectively as Los Super Seven (RCA).Their attempt to bring traditional Tex-Mex sounds to a mass audience is inherently political in and of itself, and the music is utterly seductive and uplifting. The Austin Lounge Lizards continued their wry and pointed political and social commentary on Employee Of The Month (Sugar Hill) while also playing some mean bluegrass to boot. And one of the the most humanistic and life-affirming albums I heard all year was by rising Texas singer-songwriter Terri Hendrix, who sings about sexual tolerance ("Sister's Apartment") and personal liberation ("Wallet") on Wilory Farm (Tycoon Cowgirl), which showcases Hendrix's impressive talents as a singer and songwriter, and has sold thousands of copies just in Texas on her own label. And one of the best albums this year, bar none, is Lyle Lovett's gorgeous two-CD salute to his Texas singer-songwriter influences, Step Inside This House, where he gives the songs of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Willis Allen Ramsey, Steve Fromholz, the late Walter Hyatt and other Texas heroes the finest showcase imaginable.But as I said, 1998 was not much of a year for politically explicit music, even if there was music politically minded folks could enjoy, and hopefully derive wisdom, comfort and inspiration from. Perhaps next year we'll see more activist musical activities, with my hope being that someone makes the musical equivalent of Michael Moore's film The Big One. The ongoing corporate consolidation and the resultant economic oppression and widening of the income gap is the greatest underexposed social and political danger of our times here in America, and maybe a musical wake-up call might help bring this crisis to light. Will anyone step up to the podium, and if so, will people listen? Only time will tell.Rob Patterson is a writer in Austin. This originally appeared in The Progressive Populist.