David Rovics with Acoustic Catfish
Thursday, Oct. 14, 8 p.m.
Birdy’s Bar & Grill, 2131 E. 71st St.
Proceeds benefit Hoosier Environmental Council Information: www.davidrovics.com, www.hecweb.org David Rovics Subtlety isn’t worth much in the public arena nowadays, so maybe David Rovics is the perfect musical commentator for these nutty times. This is a songwriter who doesn’t mince words. Politically speaking, you might call him a third-party guy.
“I don’t hold it against anybody who thinks that voting for Kerry is the way to go,” Rovics said of the pending presidential election, “because clearly, although Kerry is a war-mongering, free-trade, rich piece of shit, Bush is worse.”
The figure of the socially conscious musician — or “protest singer,” for lack of a better term — is an American archetype, thanks to folks like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. Then again, such left-leaning earnestness has been officially unpopular in the post-Sept. 11 world.
Rovics, however, says the tradition is alive and well in the new millennium. He doesn’t mind comparisons to his 20th century predecessors, but he sees the field as much older and broader, predating the commercial music trade’s preoccupation with romance.
“Relationships matter, too, but it’s the music industry that tells us this is the only acceptable thing we can write about,” he said. “Folk traditions around the world, as long as anything has ever been recorded on paper, have always been political. In addition to songs about love, there have always been songs about political issues, class struggle being very prominent among them, whether it’s a song about killing the king, robbing the bank, organizing a union, whatever. These are all popular subjects.”
Rovics, 37, will bring his own “songs of social significance” to Birdy’s on Thursday, with proceeds to benefit the Hoosier Environmental Council. The special guest is local folk-blues trio Acoustic Catfish, featuring Jim Pennell, Rob Gobetz and Monika Mueller. Admission is $5, or free with a new HEC membership application.
The event is typical of the Massachusetts-based Rovics, who has chosen an unglamorous showbiz path in which the activism is inseparable from the music. He makes his entire recorded catalog available online for free streaming or downloading, relying only on fans’ goodwill to actually sell any CDs. During a phone interview Friday, he was on the streets of St. Louis among hordes of demonstrators awaiting the second Bush-Kerry debate.
“I think there’s about as many cops as there are marchers,” he noted.
Across seven mostly independent CDs and years of touring North America and Europe, Rovics’ subject matter has run the gamut from trade policy to environmental issues to pivotal historic moments and even the occasional love song. Clearly, the Bush Administration has inspired much of his recent material, as indicated by such titles as “Fallujah,” “Guantanamo Bay,” “Moron” and “Who Would Jesus Bomb?”
Rovics counts on humor and irony to make his tirades more palatable, though the comedy tends toward the black. Here’s the opening verse of his new ode to Abu Ghraib, a Dylan-style tune titled “After We Torture Our Prisoners”:
We’ll get rid of the dictator, rebuild your country
Make sure all your kids go to school
We’ll clean up the cities, get the sewage plants running
Institute parliamentary rule
… After we torture our prisoners.
Some might call Rovics’ lyrics heavy-handed, and he doesn’t necessarily disagree.
“That’s always a challenge,” he said. “The stuff I wrote when I was younger, and still some of the stuff I write today, is too preachy, and probably a lot of times you could just get rid of the last verse all together and it would be a better song. I think that’s true of most of Woody Guthrie’s songs, too.”
More often than not, however, Rovics plays to sympathetic crowds who give him the benefit of the doubt. He’d like to reach out more to audiences with opposing views, but he also sees value in preaching to the choir.
“It’s important to help keep people’s spirits up and keep people’s eyes on the prize, that there is actually — as shocking as it is to think about — there is the possibility of actually winning, of actual change,” he said. “Most change that has happened in society has happened because of mass social movements. The powers-that-be always try to paint a picture like we’re losing, like the mass movement is having no effect or doesn’t exist. In fact, they’re very aware of it, and they always know at any moment that it could suddenly become huge. The conservative politics of so many so-called conservatives is just skin deep, and it won’t necessarily take much of a blunder to turn many people in this country into the enemies of the powers-that-be that they naturally should be.”
Scott Hall writes about music and stuff at www.onthebeat.org.