Agitprop song in the 21st c. Midwest

I was dismayed when a friend posted a video of my cher maitre William Bolcom on Facebook.

Then in the ensuing conversation, I was alerted to this:

which is apparently only half (!) of a longer ditty available on itunes, where, oddly, it gets rave reviews.

I’m going to dispatch the Rindfleisch first.If I were going to write a parody of a professor of composition writing a pop-ish song against conservatives, it would sound exactly like this. It’s self-parodying. It follows in the footsteps of another liberal academic singer-pianist, Tom Lehrer. But Lehrer had true wit, a deftness with language, and specific sacred cows to slay (as opposed to writing a song against, oh, half the country). Since he was a mathematician first instead of a composer, he knew that facts were facts, that reality was not a matter of whim. And the purely musical values of Lehrer’s products far outclass this work; it’s as if Rindfleisch isn’t even trying. He’s relying on his audience to consider their moral preening as fit recompense for the time spent listening, and that’s thin gruel artistically. It might work at a party, where everyone is drunk on Belgian Tripels and are your friends anyway; notsomuch on the iPod in your car.

As for the text, judging by the YouTube version (What? You want me to pay a buck to be insulted for 8 minutes?), it’s basically a list of alleged hates and loves of conservatives. It’s as if Rindfleisch lined up row upon row of strawmen in front of a trench and mechanically mowed them down with a machine gun, Nazi-style. To refute his generalizations would be a waste of time; the song is not about policy, but about how our guys are cool and your guys are not. It doesn’t even function as Alinskyan ridicule; to do so, it would have to say something unexpected, accurate, and funny about conservatives, and it fails at all three.

Bolcom’s song is dedicated to Woody Guthrie, and more-or-less written in his style. Unlike the Rindfleisch, it is dedicated to a particular specific policy position: victim disarmament. I say “dedicated to” rather than “argues for”, because it’s not an argument; it’s an imprecation against the Senators who chose not to vote for cloture, for “giving up this way / to the bullies of the NRA”. “The country screams and sobs / all you can think of is your jobs” . “how can we vote for you conscienceless men / when you’ve sold us out yet again”. If the Senators who voted no were indeed thinking of their jobs, it was because they were representing the people in their states, who didn’t “scream and sob” for the same things that Bolcom did. Or do the “bullies of the NRA” (i.e., the organization I won’t join because they are the pusillanimous self-serving compromising Vichy regime of gun control) spend their magical money, which somehow seeps into Diebold machines and turns the votes all red, while the money of Bloomberg and Soros is perfectly inert? In any case, it’s not a cogent position; it’s the yawp of a cranky old man. Now, I understand cranky old men, being one, and Bill has better cranky old man cred than I do (he’s just old enough to be my father, if he’d knocked up my mother in high school, which wouldn’t have happened because she was a senior when he was a freshman). But to see a revered master (well, revered by me, anyway) stoop so low as to bang out tonics and dominants beneath 4th-rate poetry, well, that just hurts. OK, it’s not contemporary music; as we said at the University of Michigan, it’s temporary music, as played by the Temporary Directions Ensemble. It’s a jeu d’esprit… but jeux d’esprit are best left to the young.

It might make sense though to situate these works in the tradition of political music. Looking at the classics of the repertoire, the IWW Little Red Book, The Internationale, Woody Guthrie, the union organizing songs of the 30s, one can draw some generalizations.  One is that they are by-and-large positive in tone. They advocate for a specific condition or course of action. They are not personal in tone; if the oppressor is described or addressed, it is in terms of oppressive actions, not as a target of character assassination. Even the most biting and memorable lines are more about actions than people. For example, in Joe Hill’s Preacher and the Slave, the Salvation Army are not bad people, they just have an inconsistent sense of social justice, and offer “pie in the sky” instead of pie here on earth. In his Casey Jones, if anyone is abused, it’s Casey, for putting up with too much, refusing to strike and valuing his “wooden medal”.  In Guthrie’s 1913 Massacre, the villainy of the “copper boss thug men” takes a back seat to the unfolding of the tragedy. The pattern begins to unravel somewhat in the ’60s. Tom Paxton’s Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation is personal, but still in a focused way: LBJ is a liar who sends us into an unwinnable war in spite of what he said in the campaign.The other element of the best protest music was poetry, the telling image. I’ve given a few examples already. In Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd, “Some will rob you with a six-gun/ And some with a fountain pen.” After the Punk revolution, vulgarity became acceptable in the protest song. One example is Mojo Nixon’s I ain’t gonna piss in no jar: “I ain’t gonna piss into no cup/unless Nancy Reagan’s gonna lap it up.” Agtain, a striking image, but more for its shock value… and intensely personal.

Setting the two works under discussion into this context, the differences can be seen to be generational (1938 vs. 1963 birth dates). Bolcom is working consciously in the Guthrie tradition, without the same solid practical grounding in the Anglo-Saxon ballad tradition. (One wonders what sort of agitprop music would have been written by Ross Lee Finney, Bolcom’s predecessor at the University of Michigan, who was a professional folksinger.) He IS very well grounded in the American Songbook tradition, as was Lehrer, and one wonders what an artisticly serious attempt by Bolcom would sound like. Rindfleisch’s poetic voice sounds like somebody who had grown up listening to the Feederz’ Jesus entering from the rear. I don’t know if he was ever guilty of playing punk rock. The music affects the surface of urbanity without the content, so not punkish at all. That raw energy would have improved it, I think.

Like these gentlemen, I am no good at keeping my mouth shut. I suppose I will get no more performances of my music by the Cleveland Contemporary Players; on the other hand, I’ll get no fewer either. I can’t think of a classical composer writing agitprop song whose work in that genre has become canonical. Since some of them worked with Berthold Brecht, this is not simply a matter of poetic skill. This leads me to believe that music would be better served if we all found a different outlet for our political agitations, and made art for art’s sake. I’ll admit that I have a hard time taking my own advice here; there is certainly at least generalized political (or more accurately, anti-political) content in my Assault March of the Assistant Deputy County Environmental Safety Director. And I’ve written a libretto for an opera about the hen who bakes bread, updated for modern conditions. But neither of those works are in the agitprop/mass song tradition. So Bill, how about that next symphony for band? Andy, how about some more choruses or brass pieces?

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