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Hard Times: Democracy and Song

Ryan Bingham and his band were lighting up the room Friday night during an Austin City Limits festival aftershow. Joined at times by blues phenom Gary Clark, Jr., legendary artist/musician Terry Allen and Alejandro Escovedo, Bingham had the young, college-aged audience fist-pumping and foot stomping.

Then, Bingham growled out his song, “Hard Times,” and the party-hardy boys lowered their arms and looked a little confused:

You got yours and I have mine
Most good folks have tried and tried
To make a living on your minimum wage
Your coming up short nearly every day

And what’s enough and what’s the cost
You can’t stand up cause all is lost
The oil is up and your doors are locked
There’s a poor boy living on every block

Minimum wage? Good folks facing hard times? What hard times? And what do they have to do with getting laid later on?

The rhythms, melodies and lyrics of popular music can lift us out of the present, feed our desire for collective joy, and give us a private and comfortable escape. They can also enlighten hearts and minds. (Certainly some who came to Bingham’s gig weren’t confused; Bingham made ’em think, which is hard to do when you’re pumping a fist in the air.)  Song can celebrate our common humanity and bring us together for common purpose, as when civil rights marchers sang “We Shall Overcome.”

And sometimes songs meant to enlighten or unveil some truths are mistaken for celebrations of the very social maladies they criticize. As comedian Bill Hicks said, sometimes a popular audience is like “a dog that has just been shown a card trick.”

The reaction to Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall (Redneck Mother)” is an example. He wrote it after getting beat up by a barroom full of rednecks,  and he intended it as a kind of musical retaliation. That was lost on the rednecks of the early ‘70s, who turned it into their anthem and sang along in sincere appreciation of a prideful ignorance swollen bigger than Joe Bob’s  beer gut.

Or take Robert Earl Keen’s tragic song, “The Road Goes On Forever” (And the Party Never Ends). Its message is precisely the opposite, of course. This is irony. But the relationship of irony to much of popular culture is like the relationship of a songbird to the sea: it can’t find a place to land. Sure enough, rowdy youngsters sang or shouted along in homage to the neverending party of their lives, ordered their double shots and woke up somewhere sometime later wondering what happened to all that fun.

I have a dream that a deep understanding of American culture and politics can be reached through the music we sing and play. This is a little like hunting the white whale in Huck and Jim’s raft. The thing is, from folk songs to post-modern opera, real music is not reducible to a particular insight or another.

American music courses through our lives and culture like a river, but you can’t hear the same river twice. Real music doesn’t mean one thing, it opens many meanings or even many ambiguities.

I’m a child of the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Still, I found the literalism of many of that era’s “protest songs” confining and irritating. Bob Dylan figured that out quick. And when he turned up the amps and played “Maggie’s Farm,”  “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Phantom Engineer” (it became “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, it Takes a Train to Cry”) at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, the angry reaction of some in the crowd (and, reportedly, Pete Seeger, backstage) just proved the point.

It’s a commonplace now in cultural criticism to explore ways in which technology has shaped or reshaped experiences we once took for granted. Music was once performed in homes, on porches,  at barn dances, at wakes and weddings. We used to sing as much as we listened. Mass reproduction, radio, television, YouTube and iTunes changed all that. Maybe we still sing to one another (in my circles in Austin we do). But, generally speaking, we’re a nation of listeners.

There’s something in the nature of shared music that promotes egalitarian understanding. And, to their credit, many of our historical music popularizers, from the late Mitch Miller to John and Alan Lomax, promoted music toward just that end. This was easier to see, hear and understand when music was shared by many different people from wildly different circumstances in a variety of public settings.

Is it still true? Are we having anything close to a democratizing experience when we wander around isolated from one another by our iPods and ear buds?

I’m no luddite. The remarkable expansion in access to music made possible by technology has to be mind-opening. I also think it’s contributed to greater numbers of skilled musicians. Most young popular music players today are much more adept than some big stars of the ‘60s. Still, I wonder whether the growing ranks of professional musicians somehow silences the amateurs, the lover who once sang to a sweetheart, the brother and sister who once banged out duets on the piano? And, isn’t something of music’s democratizing power lost when public performance gives way to private listening?

I told you it was hard to hunt a whale from a river raft. Maybe we need many rafts on the river. What do you think? Sing along with Mitch:

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith