I’ve been interested in political songs, as a writer and a listener, for a long time, and it seems, for reasons that may be obvious, that more songwriters are lately coming to share that interest. I want to share a few thoughts about how I think strong political songs work, and about how political songwriting, and political art in general, may be distinct from political activism.
What are political songs?
I find that my best political songs are very much like my other good songs. They are usually about a small number of characters and they spend time dealing with the events and emotions in the lives of those characters. They are lyric or narrative, rather than expository, didactic, allegorical, or persuasive. What makes them political is not their form, but their subject matter.
To me, the overarching subject of political songs is the relationship of individuals to power, and to other people, events and currents in the world that express the workings of power. That particular formulation probably reflects my own political leanings to some extent, but I think the important element for songs is that the individual is present in the song, and the song addresses the way that the individual experiences the political. In contrast, political speeches and essays rarely linger on the emotional experience of individuals, and when they do, those experiences are quickly tempered into the support of an argument.
An example of this is Woody Guthrie’s “Vanzetti’s Rock”, a song from an album consisting entirely of songs about Sacco & Vanzetti. In the song, Guthrie’s speaker visits Plymouth Rock and, surrounded by tourists invested in the history of the Puritan pilgrims, imagines dedicating the rock instead to the Italian-born anarchist who was executed for a murder he did not commit. The emotional core of the song – what makes it interesting even if the listener is not particularly invested in Guthrie’s politics – is the speaker’s alienation from the tourists around him. The other tourists are “salesman and gamblers” in dark glasses that shield them from the history that Guthrie’s speaker quietly contemplates. He imagines a different tourist attraction, dedicated to Vanzetti’s story, that would instead attract “trades-union workers” to Plymouth. This image captures the speaker’s own isolation – he is not really a part of either group, and unlike either group, his mind is invested in a world that does not exist.
There is still plenty of room in the song for more direct political appeals, but the scene sets an emotional context and transforms what would otherwise be a simple sentiment, easily accepted or dismissed, into something more complex and even a bit puzzling. Who is this character, wandering through tourist traps and imagining them transformed into monuments to an alternate history? What does it feel like to occupy that particular alienated mind?