One of my jobs is as editor of a music blog based in Austin. We've covered South by Southwest for the last couple of years, and this year, my final day there was the longest and busiest of the entire week. Two events dominate it absolutely. First was the premiere of an unbelievably powerful documentary, "Body of War," the story of Tomas Young, who was struck with a bullet almost immediately after beginning his first tour of duty in Iraq, came home paralyzed from the chest down, and became an anti-war activist.
The second was the showcase concert that followed, featuring artists from the soundtrack including Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, the Nightwatchman), Ben Harper, and Billy Bragg. The recording features original material by Eddie Vedder as well as contributions from dozens of other alternative artists. But right now I'm just grateful the music got me there, because I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
Inspired by the film and concert, in the last couple of months I've built a playlist of some of my favorite political music, and recently found videos for many of the songs... and I thought I'd share this video playlist with you here.
Peter Gabriel, "Biko"
I truly think this might be one of, if not the, greatest political songs of all time. I saw this tour, which was a benefit for Amnesty International, in Oakland, California, and this performance was unbelievable. What actually sticks most in my mind, though, is that he was introducing a song and said something like, "This is a song about love -- the love between a woman and a man, or a man and a man..." and there was loud booing from the audience. He made them turn up the house lights and read the crowd, and said that anyone who had booed should leave immediately. I cried.
Bruce Springsteen, "The Ghost of Tom Joad"
This live version was performed with Tom Morello.
The Nightwatchman, "Alone Without You"
Speaking of Tom Morello... this is a song he wrote after seeing a pre-release screening of "Sicko." The fucked up health "care" system in this country is on my mind right now, seeing a fully employed friend who has no health coverage at her job and can't get it privately due to serious pre-existing conditions is literally on the brink of living in the streets because she can't get health care... way to go, America. So while there are at least a dozen Nightwatchman songs I could have chosen, I chose this one today:
The Dead Kennedys, "Holiday in Cambodia"
These guys always had something sharp and raw to say. I used to tell them they were too testosterone-y back in the day, but I miss them now.
Leonard Cohen, "Democracy"
This is one of the best political songs, and one of Cohen's best songs, period.
It's coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It's here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it's here they got the spiritual thirst.
It's here the family's broken
and it's here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
P!nk, "Dear Mr. President"
Backed on the album version by the Indigo Girls, this live version is backed by her tour singers, but it's just as aching and hard-hitting.
Marvin Gaye, "What's Goin' On?"
Performance from the 1973 "Save the Children" film. This iconic anti-war song was also covered in the 80s by Cyndi Lauper.
The Dixie Chicks, "Not Ready to Make Nice"
With a great intro by Joan Baez, live at the 2007 Grammys. I love the song... LOVE the song... hate their official vid, so I went with this.
"Enola Gay," Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
A song about the bombing of Hiroshima, from the very earliest days of synth-pop. This is a live performance, that sounds, well, almost exactly like the recording. I used it because the official video, made back in the dim mists of time, is so bad it made my eyes bleed.
Enola Gay, is father proud of little boy today?
Ah ah, this kiss you give, it's never ever gonna fade away
"London Calling," The Clash
There was never anything like the Clash -- another band with so many great political songs it's hard to know which to choose. I picked this one primarily because the sound quality on this live performance vid (overdubbed by the vidder) is infinitely better than YouTube usually has. There's also a live version with terrible sound quality but featuring the Clash with Foo Fighters' and ex-Nirvana David Grohl, Elvis Costello, Steven Van Zandt, Tony Kanal (No Doubt), Pete Thomas on drums (from Costello's band The Attractions), and Bruce Springsteen -- even with the crappy sound quality, it's worth a look. But start with this one first:
Tom Robinson, "Glad to be Gay"
Post-punk, pre-AIDS; from the 1979 "Secret Policeman's Ball" benefit for Amnesty International. He's got a music show now on BBC radio, and once toured as bass player for Peter Gabriel. This is not the original version, but I like this one better... although I truly want to get in my little time machine and cut his hair:
Billy Bragg, "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward"
Oh Billy. I've been following him since 1982 and I'm completely irrational in my love for him. He lights a fire in me. I saw him once in San Francisco, and he told the audience a recent poll done by Rolling Stone magazine (this was years and years ago, maybe the late 80s) that indicated the majority of the magazine's readers would not like it their brother or sister was gay. He said, "Little boys, little girls: We can't be equal until everyone is equal." On my way to the car he walked in front of me, and I thanked him, and mentioned Harvey Milk to him, and he stood there, with his van waiting and friends rolling their eyes, and talked to me passionately and knowledgeably about gay rights and Harvey Milk for half an hour.
This is his performance on Henry Rollins' show, with lyrics updated for the Iraq War days, like, "And no, I don't believe we can defeat the axis of evil by putting smart bombs in the hands of stupid people." If you'd rather listen to the original, which is actually better, an audio version is here.
In The Ghetto - Joe Simon
Love, love, love love this version -- although the Elvis Presley one is, of course, much better known. It just always sound a little too over-polished to my ear -- although not remotely as much as the version by the song's writer, Mac Davis, which hurts me to listen to. But there are several versions of this: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Dolly Parton (no, I'm not kidding), Natalie Merchant, the Cranberries... I'm sure there are several others I'm not thinking of. Great, great song. This is the Elvis Presley version since I can't find vid for the Simon version.
The Road I Must Travel - The Nightwatchman
I suppose this one might come off the playlist after I OD on Morello... maybe in ten years or so. This song evokes some of the feeling of old folk/populist songs with a dark, post-911 sensibility and a touch of WTF. Brilliant.
Flesh Shapes The Day - The Nightwatchman
This is a profoundly poetic song about race and war. It gave me chills when I heard it live in Austin.
What's Up? - 4 Non Blondes
One of the least overtly political songs on here, but it always makes me want to change the world when I hear it. Plus you gotta love the words:
And I try, oh my God do I try
I try all the time
In this institution
And I pray, oh my God do I pray
I pray every single day
For a revolution
P!nk has never recorded this, but she performs it live... and I prefer this video to any of the 4 Non Blondes vids.
(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding - Elvis Costello & The Attractions
I did, indeed, grow up in San Francisco in the 60s, but I was just a little girl and not a flower child. And you'd never know it from the crazy huge love I have for this song.This is a fan-made vid.
I Hope - Dixie Chicks
I heard this when they played it on a televised Hurricane Katrina benefit. It was the first time I ever heard the Dixie Chicks and it was instant love.
Sunday morning, I heard the preacher say
Thou shall not kill
I don't wanna, hear nothin' else, about killin'
And that it's God's will
Cuz our children are watching us
They put their trust in us
They're gonna be like us
So let's learn from our history
And do it differently
This is a fan vid, and not a great one, but you can hear the song.
How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live - Bruce Springsteen
Another Katrina benefit number that blew the top of my head off.
Streets of Sorrow / Birmingham Six - The Pogues
The Pogues have no shortage of songs that could have been on this list, but although it's about war, this one always reminded me of the early years of the AIDS epidemic:
Oh farewell you streets of sorrow
And farewell you streets of pain
I'll not return to feel more sorrow
Nor to see more young men slain
Through the last six years Ive lived through terror
And in the darkened streets the pain
Oh how I long to find some solace
In my mind I curse the strain
Which Side Are You On - Billy Bragg
I first heard this song in 1984 during the British miners' strike, when Bragg and other progressive British musicians toured the country raising money for their cause. Old-fashioned politics with a punk edge. I loved it then. I love it, and him, now. I can't find a video clip of his version, and his is nothing like, say, the original or anyone else's, so... nothing for this one. But find it if you can.
I Love A Man In A Uniform - Gang Of Four
More of my 80s self coming out. We used to dance to this one and changed the lyrics to, "I love a man in a Maidenform." Ah, the days when I thought this was dance music. But hey, it has a beat!
Sadly, the video is very poor quality.
House Gone Up In Flames - The Nightwatchman
Another one I suspect will stand the test of time with me. The incredible poetry -- I don't know what other word to use -- of Morello's lyrics, combined with the spare, hard delivery, just get me every time. If I quoted you every word, it would be hard to say why this is such a political song, but listening to it, and even more, seeing him perform it live, leaves you with absolutely no doubt.
He Thinks He'll Keep Her - Mary Chapin Carpenter
I'm sort of in an anti-war political mode these days (wonder why), but I'm a feminist nonetheless, and I love this song. Embedding disabled, but the vid is here.
Stupid Girls - Pink
Feminism you can dance to. Play it for every little girl you know.
Anthem - Leonard Cohen
Apparently I'm a complete sucker for that place where politics and poetry intersect.
I can't run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they've summoned, they've summoned up
and they're going to hear from me.
This is an interesting fan vid -- more of a short film with the song as the soundtrack.
Jesus Walks - Kanye West
Another Katrina benefit song. I freely admit I don't listen to rap or hip hop. I am old; what can I say? But he performed this at the same benefit where I heard "I Hope," with some custom lyrics for the floods, and I was just staggered by it.
Suffragette City - David Bowie
I really don't care what he meant by this song. It'll always be a feminist anthem for me. "Don't lean on me, man, cuz you can't afford the ticket." Vid is actually audio only.
Whine and Grine / Stand Down Margaret - The Beat
Some of you may be too young to remember Margaret Thatcher, but I do. And seeing the Beat do this live in London when she was in her heyday? Nothing like it.
I see no joy
I see only sorrow
I see no chance of your bright new tomorrow
So stand down Margaret, stand down please
I said stand down Margaret
Pride (In The Name Of Love) - U2
Martin Luther King, Jr: Rest in Peace.
Early morning, April 4
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride
Straight to Hell - The Clash
Talk about bitter.
And in looking for this vid, I realized I was at this concert.
Absolutely Not (Hex Hector/Mac Quayle Chanel Mix) - Deborah Cox
More feminism with a beat!
Should I wear my hair in a ponytail?
Should I dress myself up in chanel?
Do I measure me by what you think?
Absolutely not, absolutely not
If I go to work in a mini-skirt
Am I givin' you the right to flirt?
I won't compromise my point of view
Absolutely not, absolutely not
Silent Legacy - Melissa Etheridge
Breaks my heart every time. About growing up gay. Her "Nowhere to Go" does, too.
You are digging for the answers
Until your fingers bleed
To satisfy the hunger
To satiate the need
They feed you on the guilt
To keep you humble keep you low
Some man and myth they made up
A thousand years ago
And as you pray in your darkness
For wings to set you free
You are bound to your silent legacy
Mothers tell your children
Be quick you must be strong
Life is full of wonder
Love is never wrong
Remember how they taught you
How much of it was fear
Refuse to hand it down
The legacy stops here
Clip is audio only.
Help Save the Youth of America - Billy Bragg
The cities of Europe have burned before
And they may yet burn again
But if they do I hope you understand
That Washington will burn with them
Omaha will burn with them
Los Alamos will burn with them
This is another that's audio only.
What's the Matter Here? - 10,000 Maniacs
I'm not a huge fan of this band, but this song, about child abuse, is incredible. One of the greatest songs of the 80s.
One Man Revolution - The Nightwatchman
Tired of him yet? I think this is the last one.
There Is Power In a Union - Billy Bragg
Do you know I have never, ever crossed a picket line? It's just how I was raised.
This is a fan vid.
Money Can't Buy It - Annie Lennox
I'm not absolutely sure this is political, but it feels that way to me.
Free Nelson Mandela - The Specials & The Special A.K.A.
When I was young, Nelson Mandela was still in a South African jail.
Man In Black - Johnny Cash
I love this song by Cash, which is about the Viet Nam war. And he took huge heat in the day for recording it, too. But if someone could find me an mp3 of Marc Almond's version, done on an 80s AIDS benefit album called "Man in Black," all of covers of Cash's songs, I'd love you forever. I own it on vinyl but I don't even have a record player anymore.
And since I showed you mine, maybe now you can show me yours?