United Sons of Toil sing their minds.
The protest song ain't what it used to be. Time was - in Madison and almost anywhere else - when hearing Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young rage against the machine was a shared experience via records and radio.
"I think the problem with our generation is that, even though we know problems exist, we just go to Starbucks and talk about them," says God-des, an often political lesbian rapper who left Madison for New York's burgeoning homo-hop scene in 2004 with her musical partner, She. "We're a complacent generation. I mean, George W. Bush didn't really win the presidency, and there weren't riots in the street? In the '60s, there would have been riots."
Today, people are plugged into what University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Craig Werner calls "micro-networks," in which iPods and satellite radio stations discourage community building, especially among younger generations.
"Everybody's heard the Beatles, everybody's heard CCR. Most people have heard the Doors," says Werner, author of A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America. "What they haven't done is listen to them in the way that we listened to them at the time. They're not attuned to the fact that the Turtles' "It Ain't Me Babe" was a draft resister's song, and everybody heard it that way when it was on the radio."
Most forms of protest happen on a much smaller scale these days, and so it goes with protest music. Madison has always boasted its share of politically sharp and socially relevant artists, but they're a minority, even in a city that considers itself open-minded. The reality is that many local musicians struggle simply to build an audience. Throw in some heated rhetoric, and it's even tougher. "You either play it safe," Werner says, "or you play to a niche."
Madison's current protest music takes many forms. It can be heard in the blatant political messages of the Raging Grannies, an a cappella group of women over 50 that performs antiwar songs. Or in the jazzy "free thought" pop songs of minister-turned-atheist Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, including "Beware of Dogma" and "Stay Away Pope Polka" (as relevant today as when it was written in 1987).
The all-ages, environmentally conscious work of folk singer Ken Lonnquist can be considered protest music. So can the feel-good tunes that sometimes overpower the serious messages of the groovy progressive jam band Baghdad Scuba Review.
Natty Nation's positive reggae-rock vibes have been advocating change for more than a dozen years, while hip-hop groups such as Dumate and Know Boundaries strive to debunk the media's negative depiction of rap culture and right society's wrongs via vicious rhyming. Elsewhere in hip-hop, God-des and She's "Lick It," a risqué but obsessively catchy oral-sex instructional, can be seen as a song of empowerment - and thus protest.
Even acts not known for politics have their protest tracks. Goofball rockers Awesome Car Funmaker's "Divided States of the Absurd" is a ballad about a U.S. Army draftee who refuses to flee to Canada for moral reasons. The United Sons of Toil's angry "The Treaty of New Echota" uses hardcore metal to broach the controversial 1835 treaty that ceded Cherokee territory east of the Mississippi River to the United States.
"I never know if somebody is writing with the intention of getting people riled or as their own personal outlet for expressing something," says Wendy Schneider, coordinator of 2005's No Camouflage antiwar project, featuring such Madison-area artists as the Motor Primitives, the Kissers and Cris Plata. "Is protest music really influencing our political or social consciousness? I think there is some of that in corners of Madison, but it's not a strong, focused and unified genre. I don't know if it ever was, or ever will be."
Maybe it's not supposed to be. Lonnquist has performed adult-oriented songs about politicians, the environment, and war and peace in Madison since the late 1970s, but he expanded his fan base upon realizing the importance of subtlety.
"It's important for people to understand that protest music is often just commentary," he explains. "It's not saying, 'Hey, do something.' It's saying, 'Hey, observe this and at least think about it.'"
That was the intent of Lonnquist's "O, Isthmus Tree," which poked fun at the Capitol Rotunda's holiday-tree controversy and received spins on Air America Radio.
"Humor is a wonderful way of winning people over," he says. "It disarms them."
Take "Hurricane Katrina" - a jaunty ditty Lonnquist wrote with Thoreau Elementary School first-graders in September 2005, less than a month after the levees broke in New Orleans. He says he seized upon a student's comment about the federal government's poor response to the disaster and ended up with this verse:
People asked the president where the FEMA money went
Never saw a single cent arrive
Stranded in the Superdome, on the rooftops of their homes
Doin' what they could to stay alive
FEMA wasn't fast enough
"W" wasn't fast enough/His mama wasn't fast enough
'Cause Hurricane Katrina was so rough.
The challenge is to be compelling and persuasive without making musical sacrifices. "The music is more fundamental than the lyrics," Werner says. "There can be protest songs with really good music that overcome problematic lyrics, but bad music can sink lyrics that are good."
"The primary thing is making sure people like the music," agrees John Schneider, vocalist and guitarist for Madison's Baghdad Scuba Review, which addresses the president's incompetence in "GWIII" and the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in "Ol' Orleans." "If they like the music, maybe they'll listen to it enough to say, 'Hey, there's something else here.'"
Baghdad Scuba Review has been denied sponsorships by corporations not wanting to be associated with the first word in the group's name, and the band is sometimes asked not to perform its more incendiary material by promoters fearing what audiences will think. "We are more concerned that people actively think, rather than what they think," says BSR vocalist and guitarist Chad Thompson.
The Raging Grannies, on the other hand, know what they want people to think. "We are angry," admits Rosemarie Lester, one of the feisty members of the Madison chapter.
The Raging Grannies are an international group of political activists who gather in public places to sing songs like "Recruiters Lie" to the tune of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall."
"We don't expect that one small group is going to change the whole mess, but the more small groups that take a stand to oppose this kind of government, the more people we will reach," Lester continues. "It's very important for us, as political activists, to realize that we are not alone. It's also important for people to see that we seniors are not doddering old women who knit socks."
Meanwhile, Dan Barker's free-thought music strives to expose abuses of church and state. "We would protest the government if it was promoting atheism as well," he says. "I think all protest music falls under a fearlessness to challenge authority. It is trying to correct wrongs that we see."
Despite its grand heritage, protest music is always ripe for change. Hip-hop rocker Jon Henry, for one, who self-released socially conscious songs about the war and urban violence while attending UW-Madison (he now lives in Los Angeles), thinks the art of protest music could use some tweaking.
On his forthcoming double CD, Goodbye Cruel World - a concept album about a disenfranchised young American - Henry attempts to make music that's socially relevant with mainstream appeal. "Instead of making a statement that's against an idea, I'll promote a positive idea. I can write a song for hope rather than against war. I want people who listen to my music to be entertained. I think I can also give them something they can relate to, a reflection of reality."
God-des, who claims most hip-hop lost its sense of reality years ago, is also trying to be less angry and more approachable. She uses her music to change people's perceptions of the gay community. "It's really important for a gay woman's voice advocating change to be heard," she says. "I want to make sure that is an underlying message in my music."
Some protest music doesn't even have an explicit message. As director of the Handphibians percussion ensemble, Robert Schoville knows that actions can speak louder than words. Over the years, the Handphibians have participated in a variety of political rallies, many of them on State Street and at the Capitol, in an effort to sway public opinion.
"While engaging in personal politics is cool, the real goal is to change the conscious state of those who may not belong to the choir," he says. "The work of the drum ensemble calls attention to a larger event that is taking place."
People are attracted by the Handphibians, check out the rally, and get their consciousness raised. In other words, music can still help change the world.
Will protest music dry up after George W. Bush leaves office?
"I don't think a change in administration is going to bring a sugaring up of indie music," says Wendy Schneider. "There are a lot of voices out there and a lot of issues that a changing of the guard won't necessarily get rid of."
Besides, Werner says, "People are always going to be pissed off about something."
O, Isthmus Tree
by Ken Lonnquist
O, Isthmus Tree! O, Isthmus Tree!
The Capitol Rotunda
Finds some perplexed and others vexed
They scratch their heads in wonder
While Christians claim you as their own Historically, it's widely known Your origin was pagan when The Yule-Tree was plundered
O, Isthmus Tree! O, Isthmus Tree! The Yule-light that glistens From every bough upon you now Shone long before the Christians
Your candle-fire the ancients burned To bid the wayward Sun return Songs of light on Solstice Night Still kindle hearts that listen
O, Isthmus Tree! O, Isthmus Tree! Your warm illumination Against the cold, dark Yules of old Inspired imitation
But this sincerest flattery By circuit-box and battery Should stake no claim to, or re-name The Yule-Tree celebration
Fast away the old year passes
Stay Away Pope Polka
by Dan Barker
Pope, Pope, stay away!
Don't come back some other day
It's worse than a sin that we have to pay
To hear you preach against the American way
How dare you show your face in the great USA Where dictators like you are out of place! We believe in freedom and democracy here And fairness for the whole human race Now here you come parading on your pompous royal clatter Pretending that you govern the earth But a million mouths are hungry while the church is growing fatter That shows us just how much you are worth
You always that say Woman is "God's holy flower" But you really cannot hide what you mean If you control her body and won't let her share her power She just becomes a breeding machine The world is overcrowded and they're dying of starvation And you tell us what we need is a prayer! A simple word from you could help control the population But, no! You're too religious to care
You think that we should cower to your great medieval power But who the devil do you think you are? Since we can't put up with you, why should we put you up? This is really going much too far! You say to "Pray for Peace" while your Inquisition rages And you push us to the end of our rope We will never get away from the bloody Dark Ages Till we've excommunicated the Pope.
by Baghdad Scuba Review (lyrics and music by John Schneider)
It starts with a stream of light to his eyes
This child's dreams: guns, deception and lies
Where are the days of flowers in the field?
Programming begins before his first meal
Breaking the fad of the dreams that you've had You're gonna see what I see Changing the view of what you will do How you will be? Don't question my judgment Your thoughts they misguide you Trust me you'll see Everyone lives under my rule You all will be free
Oh can't you see just how perfect it's gonna be? You're poor and you're young, so easy to steer Remove all your hope, replace it with fear Glory it comes in these games that we play It's not very different from what they planned anyway
You're back and you're old You're collecting the mold - no use to me now Why should I feel guilty for the fear in your brow? I gave you your life now you go Make it your own - haven't you learned? I'm not here for you I've done what I do Don't you feel burned?
Oh can't you see just how perfect it's gonna be?
Can't you see just how disturbing it's gonna be?
(excerpt, sung to the tune of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall")
by the Raging Grannies (lyrics by Vicki Ryder)
We're the Raging Grannies!
We're mad as mad can be!
Recruiters lie, our children die
That's not how it should be!
Our kids are told that they'll get jobs And money for college too, But you can bet that what they'll get Is just the royal screw
We're here to say we want our kids To grow up safe and sound Not blown up by a roadside bomb Half the world around....