Abel Meeropol was an American songwriter and poet who wrote the poem “Strange Fruit” in 1937, which was first recorded by Billie Holiday. First published as “Bitter Fruit”, he later set the poem to music. The words concern the brutality of racism by describing a postcard of a lynching that he had seen. The contrast between the wonderful beauty of a Southern landscape and the brutal descriptions of black bodies swaying from a tree made for traumatic listening at the time. And it still does today. “Pastoral scene of the gallant south/The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth/Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh/Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.” When Billie Holiday first began performing the song, she was afraid of retaliation. A rule was enforced that she’d only be able to perform it as the last song in her set, once the bar staff had called time and the room was darkened.
Woody Guthrie had grown increasingly irritated with the smug complacency of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” and wrote “This LAnd Is Your Land” as a retort which praised the natural beauty of the landscape of the United States but also observed the problems associated with private ownership of property, poverty and inequality. He recorded the song in 1944 and over the subsequent years, it was adopted as a patriotic anthem, being sung at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration by Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen. “In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple, near the relief office, I see my people and some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’ if this land’s still made for you and me.”
“I’ve never really written anything like that before. I don’t sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn’t help it in this one. The song is a sort of striking out, a reaction to the last straw, a feeling of what can you do?” This is how Bob Dylan described “Masters Of War” which was originally intended to be a pacifist song against the US involvement in Cuba and Vietnam. When the song was published in “Broadside” magazine in 1963, it was accompanied by drawings by Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s girlfriend at the time, which depicted a man carving up the world with a knife and fork, while a hungry family forlornly looks on. “You that never done nothing but build to destroy – you play with my world like it’s your little toy.”
“Get Up, Stand Up” is an inspiring reggae anthem, which was written by Peter Tosh and Bob Marley after they saw poverty and oppression in Haiti. The lyrics describe the oppressive nature of organized religion, and say that instead of waiting for a heavenly reward, you need to demand your own rewards right now. “Most people think great God will come from the sky and take away everything, and make everybody feel high. But if you know what life is worth, you would look for yours on earth and now you see the light. You stand up for your right.”
“Hope The High Road” by Jason Isbell, is the best song about Trump’s election in 2016. It starts with a confession that he thought he understood things and the people that he grew up with. “I used to think that this was my town. What a stupid thing to think.” He realises things have turned pretty bad and he’s feeling very down. “I hear you’re fighting off a breakdown. I myself am on the brink.” He doesn’t understand how “there can’t be more of them than us.” However, he’s not going to feel sorry for himself and he realises that even with Trump’s election, he is living the life of a privileged white man. “I’ve heard enough of the white man’s blues. I’ve sang enough about myself.” The chorus is just exceptional. “I know you’re tired and you ain’t sleeping well. Uninspired and likely mad as hell. But wherever you are, I hope the high road leads you home again to a world you want to live in.”
Iris DeMent has written protest songs before. Her 1996 album, “The Way I Should” contains the remarkable “The Wasteland Of The Free”, in which she sings about political corruption, preachers espousing un-Christian hatred and CEO’s bloated earnings. The chorus is “Let’s blame our troubles on the weak ones. Sounds like some sort of Hitler remedy”.
“Going Down To Sing In Texas” is a worthy follow up to “The Wasteland Of The Free”. Her piano playing is jaunty, the melody is infectious and the words are kindly vitriolic. The first verse explains that she is about to go and sing in Texas, “where anybody can carry a gun“. She invites a would-be gun-owner to “go ahead and shoot me if it floats your little boat“. However, her anger is not contained to members of the NRA. She is appreciative of women who have spoken up in the face of male oppression. The Chicks get a belated thank you from Iris DeMent for their stand against the Iraq war. Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the band, told a London audience in 2003 that that they did not endorse the war and were ashamed of US President George W. Bush being from Texas. This led to their being blacklisted from many radio stations and receiving death threats. Iris DeMent makes the point that Merle Haggard or Willie Nelson would have “walked away unscathed for taking a stand like that.” The sixth verse is “I just wanna say thank you to those brave women in The Squad. Everyday their lives are jeopardized by that hate monger and his mob, but when you care about something that’s bigger than you, even the fires of hell ain’t too much to go walking through.” The Squad was originally composed of four women of colour who were elected in the 2018 United States House of Representatives elections and whose views, along with their heritage, were the focus of attacks from Donald Trump, who suggested they “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Ayanna Pressley spoke out about poor conditions for detained migrants and the growing humanitarian crisis on the southern border. Rashida Tlaib advocated “Medicare for All”, a $15 dollar minimum wage, debt-free college and has called for abolishing ICE. Ilhan Omar has been a vocal critic of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, calling its government the “apartheid Israeli regime”. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced the Green New Deal Resolution – a sweeping proposal to combat the global climate crisis and poverty in the USA. Other verses in “Going Down To Sing In Texas” concern the treatment of Muslims, police brutality against people of colour, the hypocrisy of organised religion, Jeff Bezos’ “obscene amount of wealth” and the lies told by Presidents of the USA. At the end, Iris Dement takes solace in simply trying to be a decent human being. “I know I’m just a pilgrim, I’m only passing through. It’s a choice I’m making tryin’ to be true. I don’t know if there’s a Judgment Day or a master plan, but I wanna be ready if before the Lord I stand.”
On March 7, 1965 a group of marchers led by John Lewis, attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge en route to a demonstration in Montgomery, the state capitol. The local sheriff and state troopers attacked the marchers at the bridge. This story is told by Iris DeMent in her typically charming, melodic but hard-hitting style in the first verse of “Warriors Of Love”. The second verse tells the story of Rachel Corrie, who was a 23-year-old American peace activist from Olympia, Washington, who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer on 16 March 2003, while undertaking nonviolent direct action to protect the home of a Palestinian family from demolition. As with “Going Down To Sing In Texas”, Iris DeMent completes the song in a positive note. “Look around you, you will see people still building the beloved community in every corner of this earth. You’ll find people in a fix, willing to risk an early ride in the hearse. Folks who don’t bend, folks who don’t bow. They get right up to Goliath and shoot their shot somehow. Now it’s on us to be worthy of our great warriors of love.”
Iris Dement has a sophisticated ability to get straight to the point. “Nothin’ for the Dead” contains four distinct verses. The first verse describes the beauty of a snowy tree but recognises that “Everything that lives gets battered, everyday goes dark”. The second verse describes a child being raised in the image of his father and she warns, “Don’t be fooled, there is no separating the good stuff from the bad.” She sings honestly about how she finds it hard to comprehend the world when “Even little childrens’ hearts get torn to shreds” and so in the final verse, she decides to just go for it, not to be hindered by chaos and carnage, but to hope that brutal honesty will help her to change her perspective. “And these waves of inspiration sure can be few and far between. Like a train that just won’t leave the station, they resist my plans and schemes. But I’m not holding back nothin’ anymore and I’m done with being afraid of being bled. Use me up while I am living, Lord. Let’s not leave nothin’ for the dead.”
Anton Chekov’s play, “The Cherry Orchard,” concerns an aristocratic Russian landowner who returns to her family estate (which includes a large and well-known cherry orchard) just before it is auctioned to pay the mortgage. Unresponsive to offers to save the estate, she allows its sale to the son of a former serf; the family leaves to the sound of the cherry orchard being cut down. In “The Cherry Orchard,” inspired by Anton Chekov’s play, Iris DeMent occasionally uses a searing falsetto to emphasise the feeling of loss and regret. When she sings “My life, my youth, my happiness/I bid adieu,” the sensation of tragedy which permeates every song becomes real and impossible to ignore. Her documentation of the lives of the majority of American people has never felt so immediate or heart-rending.
The title track, “Working On A World”, describes how she wakes up every morning, “filled with sadness, fear and dread“. However, she refuses to feel sorry for herself as she thinks of “the ones who came before” – those people who opened up doors of understanding and compassion. These were people who “were workin’ on a world they never got to see“. She feels inspired to continue the fight – the work – and feels privileged to be “workin’ on a world that I may never see.” When she sees “a little baby reaching out its arms to me“, she resolves to be more positive, despite all “the troubles of the day“. By combining a documentation of the inequalities and suffering of the day with a resolve to help make the world a better place, Iris DeMent places herself as the latest in a long lineage of sensational writers of protest songs. “Strange Fruit”, “This Land Is Your Land”, “Masters Of War”, “Get Up, Stand Up” and “Hope The High Road” not only document the troubles of the time but also inspire us to take action. To work on the world.
iris DeMent says “I’m not trying to impress anybody with my new, clever metaphor. I’m trying to speak to people emotionally and spiritually.”
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