A while back, Ani DiFranco and Utah Phillips teamed up to produce The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere — and proceeded to prove it by interweaving Phillips’ tales with dub beats, scratching and tape loops to reframe Wobbly radicalism in a newer genre. History is replete with lessons, they reminded us, forgotten at our peril — and the problems, indeed, haven’t gone anywhere.
The redoubtable Phillips cut his musical teeth in the societal upheaval following the Great Depression, and while he’s still touring, he is clearly winding down — playing select venues and having just released Starlight on the Rails: A Songbook on Daemon Records, a four-CD retrospective spanning his rabble-rousing career.
When Phillips relinquishes his role as the most authentic voice of a generation of justice seekers, it will surely go to David Rovics. No folkie on today’s scene more fully grasps both the lessons of history and the need to be on the ground, with the people, facing down the legionnaires of corporatism and global hegemony. Many talented musicians offer populist inspiration, but Rovics is in the trenches and behind the barricades.
Seattle, Genoa, Palestine, Bonn, Oak Ridge, the School of the Americas, New York, Montreal, Miami … name a theater in the struggle between localism and globalization, between human rights and corporate power, between prayers for peace and the engines of war, and Rovics has been there.
The songwriter repeatedly offers a laser view of historic import, whether it’s the piece he wrote last week for Cindy Sheehan or his recounting of “The Saint Patrick Battalion,” the true story of Irish immigrants to this country who recognized the Mexican American War as a travesty and fought against the United States. His condemnation of mass media in “Who Will Tell the People” or his remembrance of Rachel Corrie are more telling than anything Dylan ever hoped to write. Bob, of course, eschewed barricades and tear gas, making his calculated comments at a comfortable distance.
Also unlike Dylan — who, as ex-lover Joan Baez divulged, wrote antiwar songs because they sold well — Rovics gives his work away. Yes, he’ll happily sell you a CD, and yes, he is paid for shows — but you can download most of his music for free off his Web site. Pitch in some money if you can, is his explicit suggestion, but above all listen.
Last week, Xpress caught up with Rovics on the road, a couple time zones west of WNC, to ask him what seems to be the most urgent issue on his plate.
Rovics mentions his song for Sheehan and adds, “I’ve been writing a lot of other songs about the war lately. Songs about the impending collapse of the occupation [‘Waiting for the Fall’], about soldiers coming home dead [‘Four Blank Slates’] and homelessness [‘When Johnny Came Marching Home’]. I also find myself coming back to environmental themes — peak oil’s on my mind a lot [‘When All the Oil Wells Ran Dry,’ ‘Age of Oil’].
“Before I recorded the 15 new songs in my Web-only release Waiting for the Fall, I recorded another Web-only release titled Beyond the Mall, which has a sprawl/ecology theme,” says Rovics.
The songwriter reports that the most moving event he’s attended in recent memory was “the Veterans For Peace conference last week [Aug. 4-7, Dallas]. … It had the feel of a big therapy session, with so many like-minded people meeting each other, many for the first time.
“Past Vets For Peace conferences I’ve played at have also been very powerful,” he says, “but this one was different. This one had many more very recently returning vets from the occupation of Iraq, and many parents and other relatives of living and dead soldiers, as well.”
The current VFP campaign is being called the “Impeachment Tour. ” And Rovics says that title’s not just wishful thinking.
“Someone at the convention gave me a vintage ‘Impeach Nixon’ bumper sticker,” he reveals. “Lots of people back then didn’t think it would happen, but it did. I’m sure it could happen now. The evidence is overwhelming for Bush’s war crimes and lies.
“I think it’s mainly a matter of an appropriately large and militant mass movement developing to drive the point home,” he continues. “And some decent investigative journalism from the corporate press would be very helpful, too.
“But let’s not hold our breath.”
David Rovics will perform at a benefit for Asheville Global Report that starts at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 25, at Stella Blue (31 Patton Ave.). Local support acts are Sugar and the Plums, Mad Tea Party, Hollywood Red and Stephanie’s ID. $8. 21-and-up. No smoking till 11 p.m. 236-2424.