Protest music and political satire aren’t meant to be muted, as comedian Bill Maher was after asserting (on his late-night show, Politically Incorrect) that the 9/11 terrorists weren’t cowards. Protest music and political satire are essential components of the whole American notion of freedom of speech.
But where are all those 1960s folksongsters, Vietnam protesters and Civil Rights advocates when you need them?
Maybe they got older and developed a sense of humor. At least, that’s what happened to Asheville’s answer to said artistes, Cecil Bothwell.
Southeast Poetry Slam champion, carpenter and author of the subversive column (and former WNCW feature) “Duck Soup,” Bothwell will serve up a solo performance, “Disturbing the War,” at an upcoming Grey Eagle show.
The bearded, lanky fellow may look like a fugitive from some cabin in the woods (he did, in fact, live that way for 20 years, relying on solar power and catching rainwater off the roof). But the post-hippie look and the gentle voice peppered with Southernisms (he was born in Chicago but came of age in Florida) belie Bothwell’s passion and anger about matters that matter — war, oil, politics and humor.
Explaining the title of his Grey Eagle show, Bothwell says, “You can get arrested for disturbing the peace but not for disturbing the war.” Among other things, he’s disturbed about the war in Afghanistan and its companion actions, such as the Patriots Act (passed by Congress soon after 9/11 in the name of protecting America — but probably violating at least five sections of the Bill of Rights with such directives as allowing people to be held without being charged and without legal counsel). Or consider President Bush’s proposed military buildup, which the widely read Bothwell says is “greater than the entire Chinese military budget.” And what about the Enron scandal, he adds, noting that the latest disclosures point to the bankrupt company’s role in the California energy crisis.
“It’s important, while we still have some smidgen of freedom of speech, to speak out,” declares Bothwell — especially at a time when six corporate conglomerates control all the major media outlets in the United States.
“Peace — or the question of war or peace, these days — has everything to do with oil and energy. You’re talking about wealth,” says Bothwell, linking such seemingly disparate topics as NAFTA’s effect on manufacturing jobs in WNC, the proposed widening of Interstate 26 through Asheville, nuclear storage and transport, the war in Afghanistan, the concentration of U.S. wealth in 1 percent of the population, and America’s status as the only industrialized country without universal health care. “There’s only one issue — control,” he asserts. Air pollution in WNC, he argues, “is a result of a commitment to an energy policy which [has led] to the war in Afghanistan.”
How do you get people to start linking the dots?
“What I’ve found that works best — in print and in music — is humor,” says Bothwell. This approach, he observes, “disarms those who disagree with you, and it amuses those who do agree with you.”
Consider his latest song, done to the tune of “Da-doo-ron-ron”: Just subsitute En-ron-ron in the chorus, and Dick Cheney for the guy named Bill. Bothwell’s repertoire also includes “Safe as Mother’s Milk,” an indictment of the nuclear-power industry, and “If I Were a Lawyer” (a play on Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter,” the song slams politicians, movie stars, TV preachers and the self-obsessed.
In the original love song, the poor guy asked his honey if she’d still love him if he were a lowly carpenter. Leave it to Bothwell — a carpenter who came to Asheville two decades ago to build a friend’s home — to play on our modern perspectives (or simply say out loud what we all think: “I always thought there were lots worse things than carpenters”).
But Bothwell’s not one to take himself too seriously, confessing that he’ll sing a song May 24 that zings cat food, doughnuts, Swami Yogananda and Zen.
Such sure-fire hits explain why Bothwell claims to have shared the stage with lots of famous people: “Lots,” he says, when asked to elaborate. “Not Elvis, of course, and not John or Paul or George. Definitely not Joni — but you never know, she could call. And not Arlo, although I sat in the second row when he played the old legendary Grey Eagle. Does that count?”
Even in his responses, Bothwell satirizes our culture, our fascination with stardom and the limelight. He even pokes at that hippie longing for the simple life, exemplified by Scott and Helen Nearing — two Yankees who left “modern” America in 1932 and moved to an old farm in Vermont: They grew their own vegetables, bartered for other supplies, and described for those hungry for the simple life how to accomplish such tasks as building a stone wall. Like many people in the ’60s and ’70s, Bothwell bought the notion and went to live off the land.
It was hard. Instead of turning up the thermostat or flipping a switch, heating your home now meant going out to chop wood and picking locust over poplar because it burns hotter, says Bothwell.
Then, a few years ago, he learned that Scott and Helen didn’t really rough it. Turns out Scott Nearing had a tidy little income from public-speaking engagements around the world.
That revelation was bound to turn a one-time coffee-house singer into a satirist. “That’s it! That’s how they did it! They were rich!” exclaims Bothwell.
He’s not, however, and perhaps that’s why this literary minstrel came down from the hills and now lives in Montford. He of all people would smile at the irony.