Vancouver Folk Music Festival performers use music to make a difference
Call it the dark night of the soul, an existential crisis, or a nervous breakdown: most of us have endured a moment in which it seems impossible to go on. And most of us have also enjoyed the antidote: some kind of music that carries us forward into a happier time. Whether it’s the charging pulse of a rock anthem, the gentle encouragement of a singer-songwriter’s confessional wisdom, or the cooling purity of a Bach cello suite, music has the power to heal and to sustain.
But how much power does it have in the bigger picture?
That’s an interesting question to ask in North America, where society is dealing with media-amplified feelings of exhaustion and despair. With peak oil looming, economic disparity growing, and our political masters unresponsive or corrupt, it could be time for music to come to the rescue once more, as it did with the dust-bowl ballads of the Dirty ’30s and the protest songs of the turbulent ’60s. Yet we’re also being told that music has been supplanted as a social force, shoved to the sidelines by the seductions of visual culture and online life.
It’s different elsewhere, though—as it is in Tunisia, where a young woman’s song proved the catalyst that brought down a dictator and set the stage for the Arab Spring.
That woman is Emel Mathlouthi, and her song—only the second she ever wrote—is called “Ya Tounes Ya Meskina”, or “Poor Tunisia”. Making it, she says, was a calculated gamble, but one that paid off in ways that went far beyond her wildest dreams.
“I wrote it when I was still a student, and I felt like our life was very poor as young people, as students,” the Bob Dylan– and Joan Baez–inspired Mathlouthi recalls, on the line from Paris. “The students, they had no conscience. All their dreams were to finish their studies, get a home, and get married. And I was, like, feeling lonely, so I decided to write this song to say that my country was poor—and of course I was trying to fight against this fear everybody had inside, without knowing why.”
That fear, she continues, was engendered by the corruption and brutality of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, and her song—an instant anthem for the forces of democracy—provided the crack through which liberation could slip. “You have to start to say no to fear, even in your family, in a coffee shop, in a restaurant,” she says. “And so this song became something very powerful, because it was talking about every one of us.”
Seven thousand kilometres south of Tunis, and 22 years earlier, Johnny Clegg experienced something similar while performing his song “One (Hu)’man One Vote” during a series of concerts in a Johannesburg stadium. In that apartheid era, he and his interracial band Savuka found themselves in front of a white audience—and one that might not necessarily want to hear their message of emancipation. The response proved otherwise.
“I went on-stage and said, ‘It’s not the old generation. It’s the young generation. It’s you people who are the ones that have to make that choice. You have to vote, and you have to allow other people to vote,’ ” he recalls, reached by phone at a Connecticut truck stop. “There was a small contingent of people who started shouting obscenities at me, but the overwhelming majority of people sang the song with us.”
Reports of the concert soon reached the South African government. Not long after that, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and the chains of racism began to slip.
“It was kind of a litmus test and a barometer, because everybody was concerned about whether white people would want to extend the franchise,” Clegg says now. “Basically, I laid it on the table in these three concerts, and for me it was an amazing time. It had a huge impact, so that was a small victory for me that had a major response.”
If anyone tries to tell you that music can’t make a difference, tell them otherwise.
Here in North America, the struggle is more diffuse, the entrenched forces larger, and the victories smaller. But fittingly, on the 100th anniversary of legendary songwriter and leftist Woody Guthrie’s birth, this year’s edition of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival highlights the role of activism in folk music. In addition to Mathlouthi and Clegg, both of whom will appear on the festival mainstage, Jericho Beach Park will play host to musical radicals as diverse as octogenarian bohemian Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, women’s-music pioneer Holly Near, and the socially conscious Somali-Canadian rapper K’Naan.
And, of course, no gathering of musical agitators would be complete without Ani DiFranco, who has crafted some of the most cuttingly insightful songs of the past two decades.
Activist is a tag she wears with pride, as she reports from a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, sound check.
“I wrote a little poem about that once,” she says. “Jeez, how does it go? ‘People ask me the difference between art and activism/but both are just a lifelong light/shining through a swinging prism.’
“Or something like that,” she adds with a laugh. “I think of them as kind of the same thing. What motivates me to make music and share music with people is kind of the same thing that motivates me into activism—into being accountable to my society and working for things like truth and justice. It’s the same instinct, really. I don’t draw a line between them at all.”
DiFranco identifies several ways in which songwriters can work for a better world. One, she says, is to foster empathy with others who might not have the advantage of being a middle-class folk-music fan.
“That’s a great, great purpose of music: to connect us, even across incredible cultural gaps or economic gaps or racial gaps, or whatever the social construction is. It can make family out of suspicious strangers.”
Another of music’s gifts is the power to uplift, which comes in especially useful when fighting against forces that seem almost overwhelming.
“It’s hard to be an activist,” DiFranco notes. “It’s hard to participate politically and try and change things, and there are a lot of failures along the way, or setbacks. As an activist, I feel like you win very few battles. You just keep your eye on the prize, and you keep your hope alive. And I think music is something that helps you do that.
South Africa’s Johnny Clegg sang against apartheid in the 1980s.
“Churches discovered this long ago, too,” she adds. “If you gather people together for a common good, then they’re probably going to be more inspired if they can also make music together. Music is what keeps political action going. I definitely feel it every night when I perform. We get collectively inspired together to keep fighting the good fight.”
Mathlouthi and Clegg have had the extraordinary experience of seeing their music contribute to profound and positive social change. DiFranco is still waiting for that day to come in the United States, but her relative fame allows her to help fund an innovative free music school for disadvantaged youths in her adopted hometown, New Orleans, and various inner-city conservation efforts in her New York state birthplace, Buffalo. Some of the other folk activists coming to Vancouver are engaged on a smaller scale, however. For both Toronto’s evalyn parry and Austin, Texas’s Atomic Duo, the goal is simpler: changing the world one mind at a time.
In many ways, parry is essentially a nonfiction poet. Her acute intellect seizes on a topic, analyzes it from several angles, then presents the result of her research. She’s not interested in dogma, or even in answers; instead, she’s fascinated by questions.
“More and more, I think I understand my own writing and creation process as one of transformation—transforming an idea,” she says in a phone conversation from her home. “On the personal level, it’s about me understanding the issues that I’m writing about, and my own place in the world, in the process of trying to understand and grapple with them.”
Although she’s written passionately about gender issues—a subject that concerns her, as a lesbian, intimately—and the politics of water, parry’s day-to-day activism usually centres on making Toronto a safer place for cyclists. That sounds uncontroversial, almost domestic—but cycling, as she explains, has radical implications for climate change and the environment, the way we perceive urban life, and individual autonomy.
“It’s a topic that never ceases to engage me, and it’s also a really quotidian part of my life,” she says. “Riding is the way that I get around, and to me it’s such a beautifully elementary and yet profound, personal action that people can undertake.”
Parry’s 2011 release Spin celebrates everyday and extraordinary aspects of pedal power, ranging as it does from the sweetly propulsive “She Rides” to the curious “The Ballad of Annie Londonderry”, about a 19th-century adventurer and possible con woman. It also demonstrates how music has become integral to her poetic delivery: in addition to featuring Anna Friz on harmonica, accordion, and melodica, plus Brad Hart treating a 1972 CCM cruiser as a percussion instrument, it finds parry playing deft acoustic and electric guitar. Words and music, she says, are a natural fit.
“It’s the stick-in-your-head factor,” she observes. “Music has a way of making something memorable. Short little ideas become mantras, or memorable little hooks. That idea of a hook, in pop music, is about selling more records; in folk music, that hook can be about mobilizing people. Words can do that too, in a sense; look at campaign slogans. But add music to them, and they can move the heart and the spirit.”
The trick of matching content and sound is especially important to Austin, Texas’s Atomic Duo. Hot country pickers Silas Lowe and Mark Rubin are unabashed socialists, a rarity in the U.S. today, and they’ve taken on the task of enlightening white, working-class audiences—who, self-punitively, have voted Republican for most of the past 40 years—about the real forces that oppress them.
A good example of their approach is “Trickle Down”, from the Duo’s debut CD, Broadsides. “It’s about the theory that if you give a bunch of money to what we call ‘job creators’ in the States, but who are the ultrawealthy, they’ll use those resources to create wealth that will eventually find its way to everybody else,” explains singer and mandolinist Lowe, just before his band makes its Canadian debut at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. “What we’ve found is that hasn’t happened, so I wrote a country song that tried to address that concern—and I tried to write it through a musical form that folks who might not necessarily be receptive to the message right away would be at ease with.
“It’s really fun to see people two-stepping to a country song about a failed economic policy,” he adds.
Humour is obviously a potent tool in the Atomic Duo’s kit bag, but Lowe turns entirely serious when talking about art’s immense power for good—and for evil.
“The Nazis and the Soviets spent huge sums of money to make films and to make music and to make architecture,” he says. “So if the most powerful people in the world used art as a weapon to subjugate people, then it’s obvious that art is powerful, that music is powerful. And when we don’t engage that power in a socially responsible way, when we’re abdicating all of that power, we’re giving it to people who do not have the best interest of everyone at heart.”
All of the political songwriters coming to the Vancouver Folk Music Festival share the belief that the common good is the greatest good. And they’re all brave in their own way, although one of the bravest shrugs off the idea that she is especially courageous.
“I never felt worried for myself,” says Mathlouthi, reflecting on Tunisia’s recent, revolutionary past. “I knew people who died in prison. I knew political prisoners, students who had been tortured, persons in jail, persons in exile. I was nothing compared to these people, so I had to face [Ben Ali’s regime] with all I had—and I chose music.”
Her strategy worked: thanks to others’ sacrifice and her song, Tunisia is now more open and democratic than at any time in its centuries-old history. Some say North America is going in the opposite direction—but could the same thing happen here?