In 33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, Dorian Lynskey observes that there are good reasons the term “protest song” is regarded with suspicion.
“While detractors dismiss all examples as didactic, crass or plain boring, enthusiasts are prone to act as if virtuous intent suspends the usual standards of musical quality, when any music lover knows that people make bad records for the right reasons and good records for the wrong ones,” he writes.
Lynskey goes on to suggest that “In many ways, writing a protest song is asking for trouble, and it’s this sense of jeopardy that gives the form its vitality”.
If Lynskey is correct New York City guitarist Marc Ribot, 63, is asking for all kinds of trouble after releasing not one but two protest albums this year.
Ribot won his high standing as a guitarist on classic albums by Tom Waits and Elvis Cotsello in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since then he has worked as a sideman for many stars including Wilson Pickett and Marianne Faithfull, American producer T Bone Burnett, British icons Elton John and Robert Plant, and influential New Orleans R&B musician Allen Toussaint.
Lately, Ribot has described in numerous interviews how he had a visceral reaction to the night Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, and how things have gone from bad to worse ever since.
“I got a right to say fuck you!” is how Ribot’s group Ceramic Dog, comprising Shahzad Ismaily on bass and Ches Smith on drums, opened their new album YRU Still Here?, released in April 2018, to little fanfare. The anger Ribot, Ismaily and Smith were probably feeling when they recorded songs on the album such as Fuck La Migra, Pennsylvania 6 6666 and Muslim Jewish Resistance is palpable.
Drawing from the deep river of song
Last month, Ribot released another album, Songs of Resistance 1942 – 2018 in which his reaction to Trump manifests in an exploration of a set of political songs. The collection features collaborations with American artists of the first rank. It reaches back to the American Civil War but the bulk of the songs come from from World War II to the present with civil rights and anti-fascist songs featuring prominently.
“Every movement which has ever won anything has had songs,” writes Ribot on his website. “The songs in this collection are what I wish I’d been able to hear or sing at the demonstrations and benefits I’ve attended since Donald Trump’s election. Through them, I’ve tried to channel some of the deep rivers of song from movements past into something that may be useful now.”
On Rata de Dos Patas, a psychedelic mariachi tune made famous by Mexican singer Paquita la del Barrio, Trump morphs into the title’s “rat with two legs”. Sung by an anonymous immigrant woman who didn’t want to be identified for fear of retaliation, Trump’s anti-immigration and anti-Mexican rhetoric is the target. Ribot has described the song as “raw” and the lyrics as “brutal”. He says: “It makes the Dead Kennedys seem nice by comparison.”
Ribot’s two new albums act as wonderful counterpoints to each other. Where YRU Still Here? felt poisoned by the bitter frustration of living in Trump’s America, Songs of Resistance feels imbued with a spirit of determined resolve and hope in the face of adversity.
One of its highlights, Bella Ciao, is a reworking of an anti-fascist Italian folk song that sees Ribot reuniting with long-standing comrade Tom Waits. Although the song’s origins lie in protest against the harsh conditions women farm workers suffered in 19th-century paddy fields in northern Italy, it was adopted as an anthem of resistance during the Italian Civil War between 1943 and 1945.
The twang of Ribot’s electric guitar defined the sound on Waits’s albums Rain Dogs, Mule Variations and Real Gone, but here, Ribot offers an acoustic chamber waltz. Waits delivers the line, “One fine morning, I woke up early to find the fascists at my door”. It’s all too appropriate, and foreboding, today. Whether you are in Europe, India, Brazil, the US or South Africa, everywhere you look, the right is on the rise.
Nashville country punk artist Steve Earle, 63, is no stranger to the protest song. At the height of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2004, Earle delivered The Revolution Starts Now, an album loaded with attacks on the US war machine, firing off stinging songs that included Home to Houston, Rich Man’s War and The Gringo’s Tale.
On Songs of Resistance, Earle teams up with Ribot and North Carolina country singer Catherine Tift Merritt on Srinivas, a song with Americans flying flags of hate and Trump’s immigration policies squarely in its crosshairs.
The country rock chugger built from fiddles, mandolins and guitars is about Srinivas Kuchibhotla, a young Sikh shot in 2017 by a man in Kansas who thought he was Muslim. The shooter reportedly yelled, “Get out of my country!” and “Terrorist!” before firing. Ribot’s lyrics insist Trump “loaded the gun”, before the song draws to a close with chants honouring the names of American martyrs, from Michael Brown to Myra Thompson.
The fabulously inventive Meshell Ndegeocello makes a characteristically powerful intervention on Militant Ecologist. A highlight for the fans of blues-drenched rock is The Big Fool, which turns Pete Seeger’s anti-Vietnam Waist Deep in the Big Muddy into an apocalyptic, environmental howler. Jazz singer Fay Victor provides the vocals to what has to be the funkiest, and most militant, version of John Brownever recorded. It is simply extraordinary.
Ribot writes on his website that at a time of such overwhelming social turmoil, finding a focus for this kind of project is challenging. Like Lynskey, he acknowledges the jeopardy inherent in protest music. “There’s a lot of contradiction in doing any kind of political music, how to act against something without becoming it, without resembling what you detest.”
But Ribot has certainly got it right. He has written and recorded a selection of truly great songs with impressive artistic flare, and serious political intent. It’s a momentous achievement that demands repeated listening.