So a week ago Friday, I was at Club Congress to enjoy the excellent musical stylings of Dar Williams, with Shawn Mullins opening. It was a good bill. She talked a bit about politics by way of introduction to her song “The Christians and The Pagans,” and with the election so close and her own politics pretty obvious, it was a theme returned to throughout the set.
Live shows often inspire me musically, which is part of the reason I go, and part of the reason I do make music: I want to be that, if only in my tiny way. Sometimes they inspire me to go home and practice my guitar more, which is always a good idea for me, and sometimes they inspire me to write songs.
I’m not dedicated songwriter. I write blogs and poems and songs and long e-mails; I’m writing all the time, in whatever medium I feel like at the moment, and when the songs come, they do. I’m fine with that. I’ve written songs before, and will again, so there’s really no pressure to write 6 of them before some arbitrary deadline; I’ve nothing to prove.
As I was walking to my car after the show, lines and verses started to form in my head, and their substance was one of political anger and exhaustion regarding this endless campaign season. If the concert was sunshine and rain, the seed was a comment some guy made at open mic to me and the assemblage well over a year ago, maybe two, wondering where all the protest singers were, writing songs about the Bush debacle of the last 8 (then 6) years. He couldn’t believe there wasn’t a folk uprising of political songs, like there’d been in the ‘60s. What I thought in answer to him then, and now, was that they’re tired. I know I am. I’ve been protesting in various ways for the last 8 years. I protested with my vote to no avail. I live in a country where a majority of people feel more secure if neighbors rat each other out and the books you borrow from the library are a matter of public record; that doesn’t make me feel secure. It gives me the willies.
Anyway, when I got home from the show, I did a brain dump of the lyric fragments I’d managed to hold on to, and scribbled out a few more. I let it sit a day, and went back to it on Sunday to make sense of what I’d written and add more if I needed. What I came up with in the end was 15 verses.
I won’t lie to you, that gave me pause. 15 verses is way too damn many for one song, contrary to what a lot of original songwriters who show up to open mic might tell you. I am steeped in a pop tradition where 3 1/2 minutes is a long song, and 5 minutes is epic. 7 minutes for anyone but a jam band is unforgivable. You can’t have too many of those, unless you’re doing a CD for insomniacs, in which case it’ll sell big time, only encouraging you in your long-windedness (she says, having intended to write 2 paragraphs of introduction in this post).
But I was game, and I sat down with my 15-verse song and attempted to put some chords to it and play it. Then I realized that there was no way this song was ever going to be played out in the world. It was just too damn long. And if I cut it in half, I’d have to get all Solomon-like and cut out some of the best parts.
So instead I’ll share it with you, as a poem. I call this “One for My FBI File.” Enjoy. And then tomorrow, go out and vote.
Tough times for democracy,
and capitalism, too
private profit for the big shots,
socialized debt for me and you.
Seems we’ve forgotten what “freedom” means;
to speak your mind is treason.
Elections run and won on pathos;
we’ve abdicated reason.
I have to pick a president,
they tell me that I must,
and my choices are two men
who have yet to earn my trust.
Their rhetoric is nasty,
their supporters even worse,
and they never answer questions
beyond what they have rehearsed.
We’ve got ourselves a citizenry
that doesn’t want to think,
they want someone they can understand,
someone they’ll buy a drink.
Seeing problems clearly
is tantamount to sin;
it’s patriotic to ignore the fact
we’re rotting from within.
Don’t confuse us with the issues,
or the dire straits we’re in;
just be sure your lies are plausible
and wear a lapel pin.
It’s all soundbites and headlines,
that’s all you need to know;
how dare you presume to question
the ones who run the show?
The war and the economy are under control,
we are heartily assured,
while all we see around us
is the American dream deferred.
A man asked me, “Where are
all the protest singers?”
But I tell ya, my bleeding heart’s
spent 8 years in the wringer.
‘Cause my president’s a criminal
and my army can’t come home
and everything we have is
from China, and on loan.
You can protest all you want to,
you can protest ’til you’re hoarse.
Doesn’t seem to make a difference;
we stay this foolish course.
They’re shouting from the podiums
and they’re shouting on the news
and we’re shouting at each other
in the red states and the blues.
And in all this shouting,
no one’s listening to a word;
the sad truth is that we only shout
’cause we’re not being heard.
I’m just one protest singer,
with my message to the powers that be:
It’s far past time you remembered,
dammit, you work for me!