Have you ever listened to Tom Lehrer? Maybe the best novelty song composer ever. (although, I’m pretty partial to Stephen Lynch nowadays - ever hear “Kill a Kitten?”)
If you’re old enough, you’ll know Tom from his “Silent E” song on The Electric Company. Or you might know “The Element Song”, where he sings the names of ALL the elements to the patter tune from Pirates of Penzance: “I am the very model of a modern major general” He wrote most of his stuff in the 50s and 60s, and so occasionally it’s very dated. (He has one song about Hubert Humphrey!)
It always strikes me how amazingly topical some of his stuff still is.
Take “Send the marines”…
When someone makes a move
Of which we don't approve,
Who is it that always intervenes?
U.N. and O.A.S.
They have their place, I guess,
But first - send the Marines!
We'll send them all we've got,
John Wayne and Randolph Scott;
Remember those exciting fighting scenes?
To the shores of Tripoli,
But not to Mississippoli,
What do we do? We send the Marines!
For might makes right,
And til they've seen the light,
They've got to be protected,
All their rights respected,
Til somebody we like can be elected.
Members of the corps
All hate the thought of war;
They'd rather kill them off by peaceful means.
Stop calling it aggression,
Ooh, we hate that expression!
We only want the world to know
That we support the status quo.
They love us everywhere we go,
So when in doubt,
Send the Marines!
Sound familiar? Cowboy diplomacy through the ages.
But he hit’s the peaceniks just as hard. To wit: “The Folk Song Army”
We are the folk song army,
Every one of us cares.
We all hate poverty, war, and injustice
Unlike the rest of you squares.
There are innocuous folk songs, yeah,
But we regard 'em with scorn.
The folks who sing 'em have no social conscience,
Why, they don't even care if Jimmy Crack Corn.
If you feel dissatisfaction,
Strum your frustrations away.
Some people may prefer action,
But give me a folk song any old day.
The tune don't have to be clever,
And it don't matter if you put a couple extra syllables into a line.
It sounds more ethnic if it ain't good English
And it don't even gotta rhyme... (excuse me: rhyne!)
Remember the war against Franco?
That's the kind where each of us belongs.
Though he may have won all the battles,
We had all the good songs!
So join in the folk song army!
Guitars are the weapons we bring
To the fight against poverty, war, and injustice.
Ready, aim, sing!
But as witty and clever as this one is, the dismissiveness and deriseiveness has always made me uncomfortable. His point is obviously that singing “feels” good, but doesn’t accomplish anything. I just don’t think that’s true.
I’m writing this having just watched a retrospective on the career of Peter, Paul, and Mary, the folk group extraordinaire. Man, some of their stuff still rings. They were a rallying point for the counterculture of the 60s. And they were very activist, and still are. But do words and music make a difference? I suppose I think they can, but I don’t see it happening too much.
This is in contrast, I think, to the 60s. I saw P,P & M sing Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the wind” at the podium at which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was about to make his “I have a dream” speech on the mall. And it made me think how much the well-turned phrase matters to our values. We remember Dr. King’s words and his artistry in stating them, and it moves us. Certainly, Mr. Lehrer would concede that Dr. King’s words mattered - that they inspired us, galvanized us, rallied us, impressed us, challenged us, changed us. What’s more, it’s deep within our consciousness. Once something is said in such a profound manner, it becomes as true as any gospel. No one can any longer disagree that we should judge people on the basis of their character, rather than the color of their skin. Even in many circles far distant from Mobile and Birmingham. The question has been settled, and is no longer up for debate.
Songs do the same thing. There’s something about a pithy, rhythmic rhyme or a well-phrased line that affirms the truth of the words.
It certainly works for the conservatives. Remember “Have you forgotten”, which questioned our memory of 9/11 given lackluster support for the president’s Iraq war. And there’s “I’m proud to be an American” which tells us we’re free and should go to war if asked. You just can’t deny it. At least not with anybody else in the room. Toby Keith and his friends remind us regularly that uninformed gut-level knee jerk opinions are just as meritorious as well-reasoned, researched logic. And I haven’t even mentioned all the sacred music and psalms that remind how great our god is.
So my question is… where’s the new age’s singers? Where are the words to inspire this skeptical, drifting, selfish generation and bring them together? Against the war…against AIDS…against global warming…for civil liberty…for community…for peace? Is it just that corporate radio won’t play them? Or are they not being written. I reject the claim that people are not interested. I think we’re a nation thirsty for something to work toward, a leader to follow, a cause to pursue. It may just take someone to get us to listen and convince us it’s so.
Of course, that’s only part of the equation. There does have to be action in addition to words. But as identity theorists and symbolic interactionists will tell you, the words determine the action. Words define our worlds. Literally.
But we live in a time where this process has gotten harder. When asked by an Australian newspaper about his silence since the 1960s and his legacy now, Lehrer commented that his particular brand of political satire is more difficult in the modern world. "The real issues I don't think most people touch. The Clinton jokes are all about Monica Lewinsky and all that stuff and not about the important things, like the fact that he wouldn't ban landmines. I'm not tempted to write a song about George W. Bush. I couldn't figure out what sort of song I would write. That's the problem: I don't want to satirise George Bush and his puppeteers, I want to vaporise them." Maybe a song is just what we need to get us started.