In Dave Van Ronk’s The Mayor of MacDougal Street, the singer offers this reflection on the subject of “political music”: “My feeling was that nobody has ever been convinced that they were wrong about anything by listening to a song, so when you are writing a political song, you are preaching to the choir. Of course, the choir needs songs, and when a group sings together, that builds solidarity. . . . But when it comes to singing these things in a coffeehouse or at a concert, I always felt that politics is politics and music is music.” At first glance, the evening of protest songs presented by New York Festival of Song at Merkin Concert Hall on February 27 would seem to fall firmly into the “preaching to the choir” category. Per Van Ronk, that’s no reason to dismiss it out of hand. The relevant question this evening was exactly which songs this particular choir needed, and if that’s what NYFOS delivered.
In his program notes, NYFOS Artistic Director and pianist/arranger Steven Blier explained that the idea for the program came a few days after the election, when Blier jettisoned his previously planned programming in favor of a concert of protest songs. In describing the logic behind his song selection, he echoes Van Ronk’s sentiments: “Choosing protest songs for a concert is a different matter than choosing protest songs for a rally. For the latter you want simple, direct anthems that invite audience participation . . . The recital stage is more like the theater, a place for vivid multi-textured material and musical complexity.” It is a shame that the emphasis on complexity did not extend to the politics expressed in the songs themselves. In that respect, Blier’s choices seemed calculated to flatter his audience for our right-mindedness, to congratulate us on our good taste, and above all, to completely avoid challenging us.
Of the first song on the bill that evening, Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic,” performed with flair by Shereen Pimentel, Blier wrote: “not a protest song in the traditional sense. But it starts the concert with a profound question: if ‘it’ is precious and irreplaceable, why is ‘it’ being treated with cavalier carelessness? And . . .” Blier finishes with patrician gravitas, “what is ‘it’? That is something to discuss over a bottle of wine.” This “profound question” was the only one asked of the audience this evening.
Next came the traditional Italian anti-Fascist anthem “Bella ciao.” Singer Andrew Munn entered dramatically from the back of the house. When he arrived on stage he was joined by the full ensemble in righteous chorus. After the song ended, Munn explained the provenance of the song. What followed were two Argentinean songs, “Pampamapa” and “Como la cigarra.” Christine Taylor Price and Rihab Chaieb’s performance of the latter was particularly lovely. Each was sung in its original Spanish, and preceded by a recitation of Dorothy Potter Snyder and Blier’s English translations. This same presentation technique—English recitation, sung foreign text—was used throughout the night, and was a canny way of conveying the meaning of the words to the audience, who were thus encouraged to concentrate on the song as it was being sung, rather than look down at our programs at the translation.
This is NYFOS’s strength: an in-depth understanding of the material coupled with a capable, contextualizing performance. The program featured work from the United States, Italy, Argentina, Germany, Palestine, Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe, and Puerto Rico. This range was commendable. But while the audience may have been exposed to songs we did not know from other parts of the world, we were hardly exposed to other viewpoints; the common message was bland, universal, and guaranteed not to offend.
The choice of Randy Newman’s “Political Science” was a case in point. “Political Science,” a satire of nuclear recklessness and the United States’ superior attitude towards the rest of the world, is a fine song, and certainly relevant, given that its message seems to have been adopted wholesale and un-ironically by the current administration. Dimitri Katotakis and Christine Taylor Price brought the requisite nod-and-a-wink, jazz-hand-waving campiness to their rendition, just to make sure absolutely everybody got the joke. Here’s the thing though: Newman, one of the greatest songwriters of his time, has written many other, more profound political songs, songs that unlike “Political Science” do not bolster the listener’s view of his own right thinking, songs that make the listener uncomfortable. If it was too much to hope for the messy, layered irony of “Rednecks,” then at least Blier and co. might have chosen “Sail Away,” which forces us to rethink the ideal of the American Dream by darkly recasting that dream as a slaver’s sales pitch.
The program, to be fair, did not ignore racial politics. Joshua Blue’s performance of Fats Waller and Andy Razaf’s “Black and Blue” was nothing short of extraordinary. It was unfortunate, however, that Blier's chief concern in the program notes was congratulating himself for having chosen the song and introduced it to his students. “Since this started as a school project, I was glad to share some of my musical passions with my student cast . . .The singers also heard Fats Waller’s 1929 hit ‘Black and Blue’ for the first time. (The musical Ain’t Misbehavin’ is apparently not on their radar.)” This captivating mix of blithe self-satisfaction and smug condescension towards his students was a hallmark of Blier’s prose.
Next up was text from a poem by Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuqan, A Prayer to the New Year, set to music by Mohammed Fairouz, followed by Hirsh Glick’s “Zog nit keyn mol.” Blier: “While it seems more impossible than ever to bring the Jews and the Palestinians together, we can at least seat them at the same table in our concert.” Appropriately enough, given the theme of the evening, the short text excerpted from Fairouz’s setting of Tuqan’s poem made no reference to Palestinian resistance or the Israeli occupation or even Palestine or Israel at all: “Give us love, so we may build the collapsed universe within us anew and restore the joy of fertility to our barren world.” Could be that another line from the poem was deemed too incendiary: “Give us wings to open the horizons of ascent, / to break free from our confined cavern, the solitude / of iron walls.” Similarly, Hirsh Glick’s beautiful poem set to a Russian folk melody summoned a spirit of defiance and resistance to Nazi oppression. With Poland passing laws sanitizing the history of the Holocaust and Nazis on the streets of Charlottesville, the song is, sadly, not without relevance. But to frame this artifact of the heroic past in the context of Israel-Palestine is reductive. Seemingly an attempt to avoid a political stance on the present-day conflict, it is inevitably a political choice.
Blier allowed his students to pick the next offering, Woody Guthrie’s “Old Man Trump.” Even by this evening’s low standard for absent self-awareness, this was hard to watch. Guitarist Jack Gulielmetti got up from his chair, I guess to add some zip to the number, and between verses Katotakis played the harmonica for some reason. I realize classically trained singers are taught to be expressive, but watching the singers’ exaggerated pantomime throughout tonight's concert felt like watching a high school drama club, with the audience cast in the role of indulgent grandparents. Before the song began we learned that Guthrie wrote the song to protest Donald Trump’s father Fred Trump’s racist policy of hiking rents and displacing poor black tenants. Naturally the song’s chorus of “No, no, no, Old Man Trump” seemed directed more at Trump fils than Trump père, but this elision was only to be expected and was harmless enough. Less harmless was the fact that at a concert within the immediate orbit of Lincoln Center, construction of which displaced thousands of tenants, we were encouraged to act as if such actions were only ever the work of racist bogeymen, not policies in which we ourselves could be implicated.
In describing his choice of songs, Blier wrote that “More than anything, I wanted to strike a blow for thoughtfulness, literacy, and truth—what some people might call culture.” The performance was certainly thoughtful and literate, albeit within a carefully circumscribed frame. Truth, however, cannot be circumscribed, and truth was served not at all. In preparing for the concert I revisited Bertolt Brecht’s 1935 essay “Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties”—it’s in the back of the Grove paperback edition of Galileo; you can get it for about three bucks at the Strand. Brecht’s specific argument is that one cannot denounce the barbarism of fascism without denouncing the capitalist system that underlies it, but there are lessons in the essay that still resonate outside of a narrow Marxist framework. One passage seems particularly apropos:
It takes little courage to mutter a general complaint, in a part of the world where complaining is still permitted, about the wickedness of the world and the triumph of barbarism, or to cry boldly that the victory of the human spirit is assured. There are many who pretend that cannon are aimed at them when in reality they are the target merely of opera glasses. They shout their generalized demands to a world of friends and harmless persons. They insist upon a generalized justice for which they have never done anything; they ask for a generalized freedom and demand a share of the booty which they have long since enjoyed. They think that truth is only what sounds nice. (Trans. Richard Winston)
One lesson of Brecht’s essay is that it is possible to tell the truth despite constraints, and indeed that it is the job of whoever would tell the truth to find a way to do so within those constraints. It might well be the case that in order to fill a concert hall at $40-$55 per ticket, one has no choice but to sound nice. If you are content to be a well-trained troupe entertaining the well-heeled, you need do no more. But if you insist on calling yourself a defender of truth, of “what some people might call culture,” then you must challenge yourself to do more—and that means challenging your audience.
Even if you or your audience are too polite for John Lennon’s visceral, problematic, “Woman Is the Nigger of the World”; even if your conservative definition of art song doesn’t allow for Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon”’; even if, in other words, you are constrained to choose only nice-sounding songs, still there are choices available to you. Tom Waits’s “Road to Peace” could easily serve as a complement to Tuqan’s poem, portraying the suffering of both sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict as well as examining the U.S.’s own role in prolonging it. Neil Young’s delirious, beat “Vampire Blues”—“Good times are comin’, I hear it everywhere I go / Good times are comin’ but they’re sure comin’ slow”—portrays a more poignant despair about the destruction of the environment and the prospect of positive change than Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” at least as it was performed here, with perky backup singers glossing over the fatalist message. Instead of ending with the vague class agitation of Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock,” you might have cast a critical eye upon yourself with Phil Ochs’s “Love me, I’m a liberal.” Of course, any of these choices would require you to take a position that is not yet safely historical and thus decided for you in advance.
Granted, my choices, being the choices of one individual, are biased to reflect my own taste and political positions—not to mention race and gender. It would have been better to allow many others to decide on the program, since Blier’s selections show similar bias. As he writes, he “sketched out the lion’s share” of them “within 20 minutes.” Perhaps the most glaring bias was chronological: with the exception of the Fairouz/Tuqan song, there was nothing composed after 1977. Blier offers a characteristically dismissive explanation: “A friend of mine recently lamented that today’s resistance movement ‘doesn’t have any songs, not like we did in the sixties.’ Those songs, I suggested, came from a simpler musical era when one human being could speak truth to power backed up by just an acoustic guitar. Popular music these days is too electronically layered, auto-tuned, and processed to expose the human soul in the same way.” Never mind that in ignoring four decades of musical history you discount the entire history of hip hop, a genre political to its core; never mind the inherent class and racial prejudice in such an omission. The worst part is that in ignoring this span of time you ignore the very generation of performers you claim to be fostering.
Prior to the encore, Jean Ritchie’s “Now Is the Cool of the Day,” Blier spoke, congratulating himself for not having said anything up to that point. He’d preferred to leave the talking to the performers, the “hope of our country,” whose talent he praised and hoped would be a barometer of “what will save us.” That talent, in Blier’s assessment, would seem to consist of their ability to flatter the old by singing their songs. According to this thinking, the young will save the world by applying the lessons the old themselves failed to take to heart.
In preaching to the choir and not the general congregation, you are preaching to the already converted, rather than those most in need of the Word—so the cliché. But few enough of us go to church anymore that we forget that sermons typically aren’t meant simply to flatter the faithful, at least not where I come from. Most preachers I’ve heard assume both that you have faith and that you doubt. Sermons, good ones, bolster your faith and assuage your doubts, and they do so with persuasive rhetoric, with eloquence. Good preachers don’t assume you already think as they do, they convince you that you should by convincing you that their argument is right. A good sermon encourages you to think; a good song should as well. To say Stephen Blier and NYFOS were preaching to the choir would be undue praise. The choir needs songs, not flattery.
MARSHALL YARBROUGH is a writer, translator, and musician. He lives in New York City.