- Protest and the Southern ImaginaryWhat I Learned from Gay Country, Communist Disco, and a Choctaw Poet’s Sermon on Immigration
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folksingers and journalists
As a kid—hell, for much of my adult life too, if I’m being honest—I hated so-called protest music. Weaned on a heady mix of postpunk and indie rock (which I discovered through fanzines, newsprint label mail order catalogs, local college radio, and all-ages shows in Boston and Providence) and classic postwar country, folk, and jazz (which I explored through my father’s dog-eared record collection), the songs and recordings I associated with “protest music” seemed to me ossified, defanged fossils of a bygone era—namely the 1960s, my parents’ generation. As a teenager, I revered Odetta and Nina Simone, John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, but I somehow associated any overtly political material with “Kumbaya” singalongs and handholding, anemic acoustic guitars and campfires. I liked some deeply politicized contemporary bands like Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat and Public Enemy and the Ex, but, in retrospect, I was responding more to the anger and profanity, the aggressive sonic assault, than the actual political content, which I didn’t entirely digest.
It’s not that I didn’t agree with the substance or the sloganeering, but rather that I found any explicit statements of political position in music gauche, even mildly embarrassing, for what I perceived as strenuous earnestness, stridency, and didacticism. The cloistered cultural corner of the 1990s that I blithely inhabited valued irony and detachment, a position I could afford to assume. Classic American vernacular protest music all sounded to me vaguely medicinal—prescriptive and proscriptive—and insufficiently veiled. All I could hear was sanctimonious self-righteousness, a hermetic resistance to criticism, and engagement that reeked of cloying clouds of church incense and represented to me the opposite of artistry, as if singing unequivocally about actual freedom precluded the exercise of artistic freedom (whatever that might be). I was a white boy living a sheltered, solipsistic, and privileged life in rural Massachusetts, in a family of middle-class Republicans, a provincial product of Catholic and Latin schools. Thick gray veins of ancient, tumbling stone walls ran through the broad woods around my house at the foot of a steep hill; my adolescent taste and my adolescent angst were equally impregnable. I knew nothing about protest. I knew nothing about the South, certainly. (I’ve lived in North Carolina for thirteen years now, and I’m still learning.) [End Page 7]
“You’re not a folksinger, you’re a journalist,” Bob Dylan spat at Phil Ochs, before kicking him out of his limo, or so the legend goes. How brave and righteous of Blonde on Blonde Bob, I thought. How noble to value art above politics, to honor interiority over topicality, to keep those realms separate and discrete.
I was wrong, reader; I was deaf. I grew up and joined the world, in which music fulfills a myriad of functions and needn’t remain segregated from political speech and action. The songwriter and organizer Si Kahn, whose interview appears in this issue, has succinctly expressed the ubiquity of politics in, and adjacent to, music, even when unintentional:
Being “political” isn’t about being “politically correct,” or about taking particular stands. It should never be about having our art subsumed by the political. Rather, through our work, the political is made into art. Particular issues may come and go. But the art we create, individually and together, will persist, and will continue to move people, both into action and into a deeper place of consciousness and hope. All artists are political, whether we mean to be or not . . . If in your art you are silent about the challenging issues of our time, you have by your silence taken a political stand.1
The title of this special issue of Southern Cultures, “Music & Protest,” deploys language that is explicitly additive and equivalent instead of descriptive or possessive. “Protest Music” and “The Music of Protest” both struck me as too specific and constrained, too on the nose...