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(en) Alt. Media: David Rovics - the anarchist troubadour - Songs of Social Significance

Date Wed, 16 May 2007 12:12:27 +0300

Since the mid 90s American-born singer-songwriter David Rovics has been nurturing and consolidating intelligent, informed grass-roots dissent among social movements across the world with his unique brand of protest-folk. Although he’s never attained commercial success (one gets the impression he doesn’t exactly see that as a bad thing), David’s long association with AK Press, his often provocative material and reputation for brutal honesty have made him a leader among anarchist and other antiauthoritarian groups in many different countries. During his numerous appearances at protests and rallies throughout North America and Europe he’s shared a stage with the likes of Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Ralph Nader, Michael Moore and virtually every other prominent left-wing activist and intellectual you care to name, and his songs of human struggle and social injustice have earned him frequent and well-deserved comparisons with the likes of Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs.

Ever derisive of the mainstream music industry (a “propagandistic, evil corporate phenomenon”), David makes all his albums available for free online and spends most of his time on the road, playing literally hundreds of shows every year at folk clubs, conferences and college campuses all over the world. A voracious anti-war campaigner and perennial champion of the underdog, he’s been described in such terms as “the last American protest singer”, “the peace poet and troubadour of our time” and “a guy George W. Bush would probably like to clamp in chains at Guantanamo Bay”.

After a thwarted attempt to meet in Manchester in January (long story), I eventually caught up with him the other side of the Atlantic a couple of months later at his gig at Club Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Being the amenable fellow that he is, the following morning he agreed to take some time out to answer a few questions on music, anarchism and the state of the world.

JH: You’ve described music as “part of the stockpile of ammunition necessary to build and maintain a social movement”. Music and politics have always gone hand in hand, but in the end can a song, an artist, or a musical genre ever really have any lasting influence in effecting meaningful social change?

DR: I’d say that by itself music’s not going to do anything, but I think that people always need to be inspired to continue to struggle. Within the context of a social movement music tends to play a pretty prominent role in that respect, but while the theory might be that music does have an impact, the reality is that everybody uses it for different reasons and in different ways – whether it does have an impact, or they feel it does, or they just need it. So whether you start with the theory or the reality is immaterial, but either way music has always had a role to play in social movements – and it’s is also recognised by ‘the powers that be’ as a powerful tool for much the same reasons; those in power use it all the time as well, and I think that should tell us something. I mean, just as militant left-wing movements use music, so does the military by the same token, (although it’s usually less interesting, but you know…they sing and stuff). Likewise, corporations use music constantly, daily, every minute, to sell products. Whatever’s going on, whatever we’re doing there’s going to be music involved with it – it’s part of who we are as human beings.

JH: But take punk for example, when bands like the Pistols and the Clash hit the UK in 1976-77 history shows that the establishment was genuinely worried, to the extent that the “treasonable” nature of Lydon’s lyrics was supposedly even being debated in Parliament. But aside from the obvious turning point it marked in popular culture, did it ultimately make a difference? Thirty years on and Britain still has a monarchy, we still have an immensely centralised governmental system, we have a dangerous megalomaniac in Downing Street and we still basically have the same degree of apathy among the population as we ever did – probably more so. The argument could quite easily be made that what was seen as little short of a revolution at the time actually made no discernible long-term difference whatsoever to the political situation.

DR: I guess when you’re living in a situation with people like Blair, Thatcher or whoever running the show it’s easy not to see the possible impact of various left-wing movements, individuals, musicians and genres of music, and to discount the impact that they may have had.

I mean, in the end, yes, Iraq is still being occupied by British troops, and Britain is still part of the whole global empire of wealthy countries oppressing the rest of the world, but I think that certainly from my own experience, punk rock and other recent forms of music have had a huge impact on so many people, folks perhaps like yourself, and certainly a lot of people that I know who discovered political ideas through music first and then became intellectuals or academics or activists, or maybe just continued into the musical exploration or whatever we did. People went on to do all kinds of stuff, but the point is that it was through music that they first became politicised.

For example, in the introduction to the People’s History of the United States Howard Zinn writes about how the first time he heard about the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado, a seminal event in U.S. labour history, was through Woodie Guthrie’s song Ludlow Massacre. You know, this is a real respected historian but I think it’s true of a lot of people, from teenagers discovering the Clash for the first time to people who are already accomplished historians discovering a Woodie Guthrie song – music definitely has a valuable impact.

JH: Like Guthrie and the other “protest singers” to whom you’ve been compared, the impact of your songs is derived not just from their lyrical content, but also from the fact that you’re clearly a technically impressive musician. Even so, most descriptions of you concentrate on the political nature of your music to the extent that you’re most frequently labelled an activist. Would you say that you are a musician first and foremost, or an activist?

DR: I’d say there’s no real line between the two, but for me that question always opens up an interesting point; the fact that you’re even asking this should tell you and everybody else that we’re living in a society which is profoundly impacted by the corporate music industry, and I think that that’s the real relevant issue here.

It’s only since the advent of the music industry – and where you draw the line as to when exactly that phenomenon came into being is a matter of opinion, but it certainly doesn’t go back more than fifty or a hundred years at the very most – it’s only since the advent of the music industry that we’ve come to think of “political” music or music with a so-called “message” as some kind of novelty, or something separate from the norm.

It’s the music industry that has caused us to think that this kind of music is marginal, or eccentric or strange or whatever, and that the normal thing to do is to write songs about heterosexual relationships. Certainly that has been normal for a long time; in music from all over the world going back thousands of years you’ll find songs about heterosexual relationships; that’s been a real standard thing – love lost, love found and so on. It’s a traditional subject to write about and probably half the songs out there, maybe more than that, are about that. That’s all fine and good, but if you look at the collections of music out there you’ll find that just under half or so of the stuff that people have been singing about is what we’d today call ‘political’ – songs about life, songs about conscription, songs about, you know, joining the army and having your leg blown off, songs about not wanting to fight in a stupid foreign war, songs about being tired of spending all your days in the factory, songs about mining disasters, songs about police brutality, songs about your land being stolen by the rich.

You know, it’s people writing about reality. Certainly it’s what has been reality for ordinary people living in industrial societies for the past several hundred years, and before that in feudal societies where most people were very poor and oppressed. This kind of music has existed in so many different societies through the ages, basically wherever there tends to be written language and an oral tradition passed on through song – the tradition goes way, way back.

Basically, where there’s a struggle people are writing songs about it, and the music industry has done its best to marginalise that and to say that it’s “political”, and to call people like me “protest singers”. I don’t reject that term because there’s certainly a lot to protest about, and I write a lot of songs that you could definitely call “protest songs”, but I think that that’s a genre that was created by the music industry. In the context of the history of music and society what I’m doing is mainstream. It’s totally mainstream. What you’re hearing on the commercial airwaves is only one side of what has been going on for thousands of years – it’s a strange sort of bizarre creature that’s had half of its brain cut out.

JH: You have a pretty sizable following among anarchists across the world, but although you’re obviously sympathetic to the aims and ideals of anarchism I’ve never heard you explicitly align yourself with “the anarchists” as a group, or other political or ideological movement for that matter. It strikes me that there’s probably a very good reason for that. What is it?

DR: Yeah, I have a more sort of populist orientation in terms of my understanding of reality and history. I have lots of respect for people who want to use the term ‘anarchist’ to describe their politics, or ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ for that matter, but I think that if you start attaching labels to your way of thinking most people have no idea what you’re talking about. I think that if you use terms like that you end up pigeonholing yourself and marginalising yourself, and people don’t know what you’re talking about and you have to explain yourself every time you use the word.

Sure, it’s efficient shorthand for people who already understand each other and understand where they’re coming from – maybe then they can use terms like ‘oh he’s an anarchist’, ‘he’s a Trotskyite’, he’s whatever, but once they get outside of their circle, even among other left-wingers, most people don’t know what they’re talking about.

I think that basic anarchist views are totally commonsense and held in common by huge numbers of people, and I just don’t feel the need personally to sort of pigeonhole myself by calling myself an anarchist and then have a large block of people discount my perspective as a result of my having chosen to attach that label to my viewpoint. I just want people to read my essays and listen to my songs and see what kind of political conclusions they get to from that.

But I think that so many of the things that I’m writing about are basically talking about anarchist principles, but are they not socialist principles as well? I certainly wouldn’t want to say that, because a lot of anarchists (by many people’s definitions of anarchism, whether they’re anarchists or not), have definitions of anarchism that I think are just ridiculous. On the other hand, other people have very sensible definitions. But the same can be said for socialism, and communism for that matter, although I have real issues with most people who call themselves communists – I have real issues with their perspective because you tend to find that if they call themselves ‘communists’ and not ‘socialists’, it often means that they have a real reverence for Josef Stalin, which I don’t share. That’s not always the case of course, and I think I have a lot in common with some of the anti-Stalinist, antiauthoritarian elements within the group who like to describe themselves as ‘communists’ or ‘socialists’.

Depending on one’s definition I would certainly either be a communist or an anarchist or a socialist; I’ve just never found it helpful to pick one of those things and reject the others because I think the lines are all too blurry.

JH: Anarchism of course is, and has always been, one of the most singularly misunderstood of all political ideologies. There is this common perception of anarchists that there are plenty who are to tell you what it is they want to get rid of, but fewer who are capable of telling you what they would put in its place. In other words, although anarchism does present a coherent idea of post-capitalist society, its followers often come across as being all about what they’re against, rather than what they’re actually for. It seems to me that a lot of people who call themselves anarchists these days don’t actually do much to remedy this situation.

DR: Yeah, absolutely; there’s a real element, particularly among anarchist youth, of simple, mindless rebellion and antiauthoritarianism, or people who don’t like their parents or don’t want to go to school or whatever. All of that is a perfectly understandable reaction to living in a relatively authoritarian society with values that are all messed up, and people have to go through these phases, but hopefully they come out the other end with some kind of analysis of what kind of world they’d like to see.

Rebelling against the world they don’t like is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but at the same time, naturally, growing up in a basically conformist sort of society, anarchists are actually also quite conformist, often very dogmatic as anarchists, and this can get very scary. Conformist, stylistically means, you know, wearing black or having the right kind of tattoos and facial piercings – nothing wrong with any of that, but often you’ll find that there’s a real dogmatism about it, and a real fear of straying from the party line, even though technically there isn’t any party line.

I think that’s why a song like I’m a Better Anarchist than You tends to go over really well in the anarchist community, because most people within that community, with very, very few exceptions, are all thinking the same thing – they’re all thinking “yeah, I really like the anarchists, and if I’m going to be in a community anywhere this is it….but jeez they’re dogmatic”. They’re thinking these things, but at the same time they’re thinking ‘maybe I shouldn’t say them, because I want to be like these people too, and I don’t want to get criticised for being bourgeois or something’. But when you actually say it, when you say look, come on, just fucking relax, people really appreciate the sentiment.

JH: I imagine you play that song in some places and you’ll get a few uncomfortable looks…

DR: Yeah! Yeah, that’s the best part! Most everybody loves it, but then you get a couple of people who are looking like, “uh-oh, he’s talking about me, and I know everybody else is thinking he’s talking about me”.

JH: There’s a line in that song actually where you poke fun at the anarchists who are uncompromisingly against working within the structures of representative democracy to achieve socialist or anarchist objectives. I’m interested in hearing more about where you stand on that whole issue of working within the existing democratic structures as a means of effecting social change. Because a lot of anarchists would, I think actually with a certain degree of justification, say that not only are electoral systems ineffective, but that by voting you’re merely legitimising the very structure which the basic tenets of anarchism hold to be illegitimate.

DR: Obviously representative democracy doesn’t work very well in most places, but I would tend to say that it’s a bit dogmatic to say that you shouldn’t have anything whatsoever to do with electoral systems. On the flipside of that, of course – to use the U.S. as an example – I think it’s completely naïve to think that there’s any hope in reforming the Democratic Party. But if somebody’s going to run as a Democrat I’m not going to tell them they shouldn’t be doing that, or that they’re selling out, because I don’t think that’s true. I think that actually there are some fantastic Democrats in the U.S. congress – sure, there’s only about twelve of them out of five hundred, and that’s clearly not enough to have any kind of real impact, but I think if we had a lot more Democrats like Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee and Dennis Kucinich, then the face of politics in the United States would look a lot more like, you know, Denmark, which I think works, or Sweden or wherever. It could be a massive improvement anyway.

Also I think in local elections it’s actually really possible to have all kinds of impact, although it’s somewhat limited in terms of how much large-scale change you can actually make because so many of the most important laws are state and federal in this country. Even if you run the city there’s only so much you can do while running the city, oddly enough, even though the population centres are the cities. I mean, the bottom line is that it’s really not a very democratic democracy. If we had a more actually representative democracy, that would be a very good thing.

I think reform is possible, but I think that one sort of revolution or another is the only way to advance the cause of the survival of our species or not having hunger and starvation or racism or these kinds of things. I think it’s really naïve to think that there’s only one way forward to do that, and actually reality in all kinds of places demonstrates how many different ways serious social change can happen. The one thing that is clear to me though, is that there’s really no way you can have social change without a mass movement – I think if you want to make blanket types of statement then I think that’s a blanket statement you can make; there’s no way forward without a mass movement; there’s no way that individual acts of “terrorism” or heroism or individuals in any other situation are really going to by themselves do much of anything.

We need a mass movement, a sustained, militant mass movement. Whether that’s a movement bent on overthrowing the government or not is a different thing – there’s all kinds of ways forward, and I think recent events of the past ten years in Venezuela are a real example. Certainly there are many perfectly legitimate criticisms of Chavez, and I have plenty of them, but I think that what’s happening in Venezuela is accurately described as a revolutionary situation; and it’s not a violent revolution – it’s not non-violent either, but the fact remains that Chavez is elected, and he’s been elected over and over again.

On the other hand I think the kind of work that Michael Albert is doing on economics is really important, thinking about how an anarchist society would really function and how, if we’re really going to completely reject the market how are we going to do things economically, and how, if we’re really going to completely reject representative democracy, how are we going to structure things so that everybody has a voice.

JH: Moving from Chavez, someone who was elected to someone who quite clearly wasn’t, you’re also known for your outspoken criticism of the Bush Administration, and in particular the events surrounding 9/11 that you talk about in Reichstag Fire.

DR: Hmm. It’s been a very interesting experience having written that song. What happens when you write certain songs about certain subjects is that you become in touch with a community that you might not otherwise have become in touch with, not to the same degree. Certainly this happened the first time I wrote a song about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict – I started meeting a heck of a lot of people on both sides of the divide. But when I wrote Reichstag Fire a lot of people were very quick to assume that I have a certain belief-system that I don’t have, purely based on my having written that song, which is interesting.

I think that what we’re talking about here is the whole 9/11 truth movement, which is a very mixed bag, and really a fascinating phenomenon. I mean, clearly some really, really big things happened on 9/11 and there are some major unanswered questions which very directly implicate the CIA and U.S. Foreign Policy in general, U.S. support of the Taliban, U.S. support of Islamic extremists all over the world which is actually still going on now. As Seymour Hersch has recently exposed, for example, the U.S. is sending huge amounts of money to support Al-Qaeda-linked Sunni groups in Iraq because they’re afraid of the Shia being dominant, you know, this kind of thing is still very much going on. The U.S. is up to the same old tricks that led to the blowback which was 9/11 itself and has led to many other events that the United States presumably did not want to happen, such as the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

So there are a lot of really interesting questions here that need to be analysed, and are being analysed by people like Seymour Hersch and others. But then at the same time there are a lot of the other questions which are not really particularly relevant and are really distractions. I think it’s a combination of well-meaning people who are not very scientifically-minded, who have no background in investigative journalism, or science, or architecture, or any of the other fields that might be relevant for what they are supposedly trying to study or write about or make movies about, and they end up doing really shitty work that gets used in various ways by both well-meaning people and people that I think are actually just trying to confuse things.

I have absolutely no doubt that there’s a lot of involvement of various intelligence agencies – I have no idea to what extent, but the FBI by its own admission has 1500 people employed to write disinformation and send it out to newspapers. Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair discuss all this kind of stuff in their book Whiteout, as does Gary Webb in Dark Alliance – these are very well-researched books about the various intelligence agencies and their involvement with the press and the drug culture. But I think that questions like ‘was there a bunch of explosives lined up in the building?’ ‘Did building 7 fall because of a demolition?’ ‘Was it a plane that hit the Pentagon?’ You know, all of these kinds of questions are just non-questions. It seems abundantly clear that these are just distractions, and that they’re not real questions that any serious investigative journalist really looking into this stuff, or anybody who actually knows anything about the architecture of skyscrapers, such as the editors of Popular Mechanics who did a really excellent issue debunking a lot of these myths.

I think these kinds of conspiracy theories like Loose Change is full of – these are good questions to ask, good questions to get answered, and now irrelevant because the answers are there: we know that there were no explosives in the building; we know that building 7 fell because it was on fire, I mean these things are quite clear. What’s not clear, or what I think needs to be looked into and exposed much more, is ‘what is the involvement of Pakistan?’; ‘what is the involvement of Saudi Arabia?’ ‘What is the involvement of the CIA?’ You know, look at the history and you can see that so often the government is always wanting to blame Iran for all sorts of things, it’s always wanting to blame Syria for all sorts of things because of a political agenda. In reality though, it’s the Saudi government and the Pakistani secret intelligence agencies and the CIA which have been involved with funding all kinds of Islamic fundamentalist groups, including Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, for decades.

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