Antiwar Songs: What Are They Good For?

"War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!" chanted Bruce Springsteen and his E Street bandmates to open an early March show in Austin, Texas, just prior to the group's European tour. One imagines the 1970 chestnut made famous by Edwin Starr served the indelibly American musical artist well as he traversed the Continent, where the US rush to war against Iraq has been dimly viewed by most of the populace and their politicians.

Antiwar concertgoers seemed heartened by Springsteen's statement in song, although the more realistic (if also likely more cynical) view would be, what else would you expect? Despite right-wing efforts to co-opt his song "Born In The USA," Springsteen has long been a left-leaning, populist voice with a traceable tie to the Woody Guthrie tradition of topical songwriting.

As the Bush band of chickenhawks beat the drums of war in the nation's capital, much of the popular music community - generally as leftist as the film industry -- struck up the protest song in a chorus of opposition. Rocker John Mellencamp released "From Washington," a Guthrie rewrite, while rapper Chuck D. has reworked John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" into an antiwar number. In England George Michael has put out a single and video of his take on Don McLean's "The Grave." These are but the major gestures of a widespread opposition to war from musical artists.

Not surprisingly, Nashville's more conservative country music industry offered its minority report with songs of pugnacious patriotism like last year's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" by Toby Keith or the new single by Daryl Worley, "Have You Forgotten?" After Dixie Chick Natalie Maines condemned George W. Bush on a visit to England, the outcry in the country community caused Maines to rescind her statement and offer support for the president.

Yet for all the clatter in the music world about war, one has to wonder: What are these acts of protest (or support of the Bush agenda, for that matter) good for? Absolutely nothing? Maybe not quite that, although America was a few days into attacking Iraq at deadline. And the big question is: Are these musical commentaries all more or less a matter of preaching to the converted?

Can such songs, antiwar or pro, make a substantive difference? It isn't just the warm glow of nostalgia that indicates that they did so in the 1960s during the Vietnam War. But as (America's best) music critic Jon Pareles pointed out in a recent Sunday New York Times article about the onrush of musical protests against the Iraq war, the times they have a-changed. Within a music marketplace fractured into formats and sub-genres and a radio landscape dominated by corporate consolidation, there's little chance of antiwar numbers even reaching the mass audience. And the rapid buildup to this war left precious short time for the music to percolate up from the underground and persuade listeners to shift their views.

A friend who called me in the midst of writing this pointed out that these songs do make a difference to the artists who perform them -- a small point not to be discounted. They are also meaningful acts of solidarity. But can songs, as the movement and its music did in the 1960s, stop a war? Does the fact that on the Grammy telecast a popular artist like Sheryl Crow wore a guitar strap that declared "No War" make any difference at all?

My cynicism may be fueled by -- coincidentally or maybe synchronously? -- recently reading There But For Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs. After all, the 1960s topical song icon took his own life in 1976 after descending into psychological disorientation. But during my read, I came across Ochs' obscure opus, "Crucifixion," and in its poetry and profundity also found what might be an answer to my question.

The solution is the same one, I believe, as that for the Democratic Party and the American left at large. To be able to persuade and even change minds, singers and songwriters as well as activists and politicians need to rise above rhetoric into eloquence regarding this situation and the human condition at large. It's a challenge indeed, yet one that can be met.

Proof of such can be heard in the enduring relevance of Guthrie's best, and even more so in the finest work of the best protest artist of the 1960s, Bob Dylan. I recall hearing Dylan play a powerfully disturbing version of "Masters of War" in concert in the late 1980s at a time when world events hardly begged its message. Yet its chilling potency felt so strong even then that the echo reverberates with me now, at a moment when the song applies as specifically as it did in the time when it was written. And Rosanne Cash has now been performing his song "License To Kill," a crystalline poetic political analysis whose 1983 date stamp answers any accusations that Dylan abandoned the topical song.

The call to artistic arms opposing war was, hopefully, not just one to address that single issue. Rather, it should be a rallying cry for continuing creative ambitiousness and excellence with a topical bent, especially in light of all the old material being recycled to address this current crisis. The war on Iraq is a disastrous symptom of a much larger problem that has reached crisis proportions while the popular music community has gleefully helped build the weapons of mass distraction. Now it's time for those musical artists who care to put mammon and the quest for fame aside and use their minds and mouths to address what matters.

Music couldn't stop this war. But one of the sharpest weapons against propaganda and rhetoric is eloquent and affecting art. Perhaps musical artists can wield this power to draw listeners out of an indolence that has lingered too long. Yes, great songs can change minds and even affect history. And whatever the results, music that addresses issues with high poetry and captivating melody could well enhance human existence as a time when such spirit and wisdom is sorely needed.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas.

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