Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Harps and Angels

In my last blog entry, I commented on Randy Newman without being fully integrated into his schtick. I was assuming things based on reviews; never a good place to be. Having now heard Harps and Angels, Newman's brilliant new album, I understand his genius a little bit better.

Randy Newman's true genius is based in how he presents himself, which is as a dimwit. On his new album, Newman sounds like a bumpkin sheepishly misunderstanding the world, which is what makes so many of his jarring political insights endearing.

In "A Few Words In Defense of Our Country," Newman notes that it is so patriotic to be afraid that they came up with color codes for it. He then ponders.... "And what are we supposed to be afraid of? Why, fear. .... That's what terror means, doesn't it?" He comes across as artless, and his art is in that styled aloofness which makes you love him like a little brother who knows not what he does.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Labor Songs

I know its a little bit belated, but in honor of labor unions forcing the government to give the good people of the United States a day off of work, here are five songs that pay homage to the common man, the blue collar heroes of their day.

1. "Mr. President (Have Pity On the Working Man)" by Randy Newman

Randy Newman was born world-weary, and this track bears that out. The ploddy piano perfectly suits his plaintive voice as he begs the president for a little bit of empathy. Newman's not asking for a revolution here, not even asking for as much as he does on Harps & Angels, but he does it with such subtle honesty that you know he's really saying a whole lot more.

2. "Joe Hill," by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson; performed by Joan Baez on Woodstock.

Joe Hill was quite arguably framed for murder and may have gone up before the shooting squad only because he refused to disgrace the good name of the married woman he'd been sleeping with on the night of the killing. The real reason he was so easily framed,though, was that he was a Wobblie, a member of the super-radical International Workers of the World, a socialist union. He was also a topical songwriter, which is perhaps why its interesting that there are so many songs about him. In this song, his ghost haunts the narrator, coming back to say that his spirit lives on in unions today. Some of his ashes are today enshrined at the headquarters of the AFL-CIO.

3. My Name Is Buddy by Ry Cooder

This album is the ultimate concept. Its narrative blends the fabled characters of Wind In the Willows with the setting of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and then cobbles the plot together from pieces of contemporary political context and tales of the I.W.W. Truly, when one imagines this album's scope it is one of the most underappreciated albums of the new century.

4. "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" by The Band

From the point of view of a migrant farmer, probably a fruit picker, comes this love letter to the union. "I work for the union cause she's so good to me" croons Levon Helm. Later, the union boss says that when workers don't get what they want, then "that's when [they] gotta go on strike." High on the rhetoric, this slow burning rocker compresses many of My Name is Buddy's themes. In doing so, it loses the focus of everyone working together, but expertly illustartes what unionization can do for the working man.

5. "Union Sundown" by Bob Dylan

Now that the United States is losing jobs in the service industry to overseas locations, they call it outsourcing. In the 80s, it was manufacturing jobs getting moved, and that's what Dylan rails against here. Manufacturing jobs were often better paying and required at least some level of knowledge about the machinery those at the plant worked with. This meant that employees were less easy to replace and therefore it was easier for them to unionize. When Bob sings "its sundown on the union and what's made in the USA sure was a good idea till greed got in the way," he is opening up several possible meanings. The union is both the institution of the labor union, and the Union of 50 states. Bob is saying that as we move production overseas and enter a service-based economy we are going to lose not only labor unions but the nation itself. The ever-weakening dollar seems to bear this out. Also, with the brilliant line "till greed got in the way" Dylan is showing us the motive corporations have for doing something that will ultimately destroy their consumer base. "Greed" could be lots of things, but in this particular instance the similarity of sound with "green" makes it obvious that money is the only driving factor here, and it is that brilliant double-meaning that Dylan alludes to through sound that makes this song one of his most underrated.