A large number of the folk songs I collect and record for YouTube are political in nature. Whether they are bemoaning the unfair life of a coal miner in the 1800s, a dam builder in Scotland in the 1950’s or a conscripted soldier in the Napoleonic wars, the political theme is clear. There are others that take a more philosophical approach and advocate or denounce a particular political view, Alastair Hulett’s, Dictatorship of Capital is a good example, as was the thieving of My Love’s in Germany by Robert Burns to make a point about Jacobites.
I knew about Bob Dylan from a young age, mostly because my parents followed him into his Pentecostal Christian phase. I think the 2007 biographical movie I’m Not There did a fantastic job of showing Dylan’s immense capacity to change his image to fit the times, and probably fit his interests as an artist. As I looked into Dylan later in life, I noticed his distinct move from folk Messiah to electric narcissist rocker. When I was in New York in 2014, I spent some time walking through Greenwich village pondering what went down there in the 1960’s. I tried to imagine what was going through the minds of Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Dave Van Ronk as they witnessed Dylan’s chameleon act.
Someone who was every bit the 60’s folk musician that Dylan was, but never made it through the 1970’s was Phil Ochs. It took me much longer to learn about Phil as he died the year I was born and his work largely fell from view as Dylan’s flourished. I mention Ochs and Dylan in the context of this article because I wonder whether these two can be looked at in terms of the true believer and the salesman. Was it Ochs’ status as a true believer that caused his breakdown when the perceived wave of socialism, freedom and equality fell flat? And is there an argument to be made about the quality of each as a person? Do we care if our artists genuinely believe what they sing, write or paint?
I write songs about things that I care about. I have written about the treatment of refugees by Australia, the horse racing industry, a local road that claims a few lives each year and the lack gender equality in our society. I have also written a number of songs about the banning and subsequent imprisonment, torture and execution of Falun Gong adherents in China since 1999. This subject is close to me as I learned this peaceful meditation and exercise system myself in 1998. I knew first hand that the global propaganda campaign run by the Chinese Communist Party was a lie. It has taken 16 years, but most governments of the western world have now acknowledged this. My most recently published song, Spring Comes, highlights the stories of a handful of people caught up in this saga.
For me, folk music is a way to share what we have seen and experienced with other humans. In sharing we seek a mirror, a nod of understanding, a smile or even a tear. It is disconcerting to think that some on the other side of the microphone might not necessarily be sincere in their sentiment.
I do know, and have met, many folk musicians who are sincere about what they sing. They sing not just to record, but also to influence. The story of Alistair Hulett’s efforts to keep a local swimming pool in Glasgow open, as documented here by Gavin Livingstone is just one example. I’m sure we have lost many like Phil Ochs when advocacy fails, but I cannot resign myself to the idea that we should stop trying to change the world for the better through song.