Neil Young Keeps Flame Alive


I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus from The Progressive Populist while absorbed with launching and growing the online publication But now that I have a little breathing space and time to ponder and write about topics for here I am glad to be back.

Plus a break can almost always be good – a way to recharge batteries, refresh one’s perspective, and one hopes gain and bring new insights.

One topic rather central to what this column explores is political music. Those of you who have been following this subject in this space for some time may recall how in what’s now a number of years past I would do an annual round-up of political music. That then shrunk into essays decrying the lack thereof. It eventually became a moot topic.

That’s not to say that no one was making political music. Rather no one of any consequence was making political music of any consequence.

Why? Alas, people don’t seem to want that from their pop stars. And it’s not easy to begin with to create political music that succeeds as music and avoids rhetoric or simplistic polemics.

As a guide to doing so I always say: see Bob Dylan. And not just his songs from the 1960s. For example, there’s “License to Kill” from his 1983 album Infidels; its first lines have spent some time rattling around in my head lately.

“Man thinks ’cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he please/And if things don’t change soon, he will/Oh, man has invented his doom….”

It hard to not have a dyspeptic perspective these days....

But the purpose of this column is to instead praise one ray of light. Because if I were to have said anything to wrap up political music in 2015, it would have come down to one name: Neil Young.

Last year he released the album The Monsanto Years. As its title makes clear, it does address GMOs and the dangers they pose. He also rails against rapacious and heartless corporate capitalism bespoiling America and our democracy and bemoans the worrisome state of our planet’s health and more.

At times his polemics may get a bit clumsy, but musically it was one of Young’s best albums in a while. Due credit for that must go to his backing band: Promise of the Real. They’re led by Lukas Nelson, son of Willie, and a formidable talent in his own right.

When they went out on what was called the “Rebel Content Tour,” Young brought along a “Village of Action” that hosted a dozen activist organizations (my favorite being Sea Shepherd, who seek to end the Japanese hunting of whales) along with a “New You Can Trust Tent” – a place to find media organizations that are reporting on what is really going on around the world today. No other major music star does anything close.

Then Young kept his money where his mouth is by starting – an online extension of his Village of Action that offers resource for finding services and organizations to help people lead healthy and informed lives. Just a few of the crucial topics covered are species conservation, GMOs, climate change and the future of farming.

It’s not all he’s been doing for the greater good. Young has been part of the movement to develop practical and efficient electric-powered vehicles. He and his ex-wife Pegi founded The Bridge School in San Francisco which helps children with severe speech and physical impairments fully participate in their communities.

So in a year when political music and rock star activism seemed all but dead, Young showed himself to be the one artist who acts on his conscience. Let’s hail him for doing so, and I urge all who have read this far to thank him by purchasing his music. Who knows? If we all work together in mutual support, maybe political music just might revive.

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

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2016

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