Friday, November 03, 2006

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: BALLOT BALLADS

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
November 3, 2006


There’s been no shortage of protest songs in the past three or four years. With the Iraq war dragging on and the death count rising, not only do those golden-oldie protest classics of the ‘60s take on new relevance, but a whole new crop of antiwar anthems has sprung up from artists old and new.

But in recent months a couple of songs, inspired in large part by the war, deal specifically with next week’s midterm elections.

Some historical perspective:

Election songs are nothing new. In the past, campaigns frequently would come up with jingles to rally the faithful around a candidate. I still remember, as a kid growing up in Oklahoma, Sen. Fred Harris’ campaign song.
“The man from Oklahoma is a man that you can trust/A vote for Fred R. Harris is a vote of confidence.”
Presidents going back to the first George W used campaign songs. Folkie Oscar Brand recorded an album of 43 such songs (Presidential Campaign Songs: 1789-1996) with titles like “Jimmy Polk of Tennessee” (which might have inspired They Might Be Giants’ historical homage to Mr. Polk), “Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge,” and “Hello Lyndon.”

And yes, even Tricky Dick had a campaign song, “Buckle Down With Nixon,” which Brand recorded. But who could forget 1968’s “Nixon’s the one, Nixon’s the one, Nixon’s the one for me ...”? No high concept here, no bothersome issues or answers. It was simple and memorable — but not nearly as cool as Neil Young and Graham Nash’s “War Song,” a rocker about Nixon’s opponent, George McGovern: “There’s a man who says he can put an end to war ...”

(Young, on his most recent album, Living With War, is already looking ahead to 2008 with the song “Looking For a Leader.” Did Sen. Barack Obama, who recently announced he’s thinking of running, hear this song?)

Although Brand goes all the way up to 1996 in his collection, campaign songs are seen these days as cornball. In recent elections we’ve seen candidates choose theme songs from the realm of tacky pop music — Bill Clinton’s use of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” or John Edwards’ appropriation of “Small Town” by John Cougar Mellencamp.

(That’s why I never could run for office. How would voters respond to The Cramps’ “Bikini Girls With Machine Guns”?)

But most music we associate with elections these days is the sinister, synthesized, minor-chord rumbling played on negative ads when the candidate’s opponent is being discussed — and the tinkly New Age piano music played in the background when people talk about the candidate paying for the ad.

Back to the midterms:
Most election songs are about specific candidates. Candidates, whether U.S. Senate contenders or City Council hopefuls, always try to hype the election as a critical crossroads. Midterm elections — when there is no president being chosen — rarely capture the imagination of the general public, much less that of creative spirits. But both Rickie Lee Jones and Texas troubadour Butch Hancock are portraying Nov. 7 as an epic day of reckoning in new songs.

Both are decidedly anti-Bush and anti-Republican. (Sorry, GOP, but I couldn’t find any equivalent on your side. If you can point out any Republican-oriented midterm election songs by artists of Jones’ and Hancock’s stature, let me know and I’ll post it here on my blog.)

In a song circulating around lefty Internet circles as a free MP3 download, Jones teamed up with Tom Maxwell and Ken Mosher, formerly of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, on a tune called “Have You Had Enough?” The melody and arrangement will sound hauntingly familiar to Zippers fans. It’s lifted directly from their quasi-hit “Put a Lid on It,” a hot, jazzy tune with muted trumpet. It’s the kind of song that would have been popular during the “Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge” era.

The lyrics go like this: “Have you had enough of the rubber stamps?/Have you had enough of the wire taps?/If you’ve had enough, then it’s time to throw the rascals out.” Jones even has a nice League-of-Women-Voters “get out and vote” message: “You cast your vote, it don’t cost a dime/Sittin’ it out will be a crime.”

Hancock’s new album War and Peace could be considered his Living With War. From start to finish, it’s political. And like Hugo Chavez, when Butch smells Bush, he smells sulfur: “He smiles like the devil when he’s talkin’ to the press,” he sings in a Buddy Holly-like rocker called “The Devil in Us All.”

But Hancock doesn’t sound as much like Neil Young as he does Woody Guthrie. The spirit of the original Dust Brother (sorry, I stole that line from Billy Bragg) is evident throughout War and Peace, as if he heard the call years ago when Steve Earle sang, “Come back, Woody Guthrie” in his song “Christmas in Washington.”

(Strange Woody detour: At one of President Bush’s Albuquerque appearances during the 2004 campaign, a recorded marching-band version of “This Land Is Your Land” played after Bush’s speech. “They’re playing a song by a real communist,” I told a Republican friend there. He thought I was crazy. Maybe so, but I was right.)

For those unfamiliar with Hancock, he’s probably the least-known of the three original Flatlanders. But while he’s not as recognizable as Joe Ely or Jimmie Dale Gilmore, he’s easily the best and most consistent songwriter of the three.

Hancock alludes to the upcoming election in the last verse of “Cast the Devils Out.” But the final song, a nearly eight-minute saga called “That Great Election Day,” casts the election not as a choice between candidates but as a choice between “who’s gonna be the master and who’s gonna be the slave?”

Butch puts in a plug for paper ballots with the lyrics “Don’t let ‘em count the votes with some man-made machine/... Mark your ballots on a piece of paper and count ‘em all by hand.” But the meat of the song is when he sings, “I ain’t a gonna vote for man nor beast who’s full of lies and fear, on that day on that great election day.”

So vote. It don’t cost a dime.

War and Peace is available through Waterloo Records, , or Miles of Music.

What the heck: It's been a long time since I've had the excuse to post my Butch Hancock rafting photo. This is a 1995 trip on the Rio Grande. The photo is taken on the "Race Course" near Pilar. Butch is holding one of the oars. I'm the drenched walrus in the front.

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