Ani DiFranco reshapes a labour classic
Which Side Are You On?
Righteous Babe Records
By Barry Healy
Which Side Are You On? is Veteran United States indie folk artist Ani DiFranco’s first CD release in years and her legion of fans will be pleased to hear that she has lost none of her edge.
Rambling in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie, she half sings, half talks through a catalogue of contemporary issues, including human relationships and social oppression.
Continuing her unique approach to music and words, "Promiscuity" is a very witty examination of sexual manners and another song looks at the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
The ERA, which was raised by feminists in the 1920s, but was defeated in the '80s, was an amendment to the US constitution to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sex.
The title track has solid roots deep in the radical tradition of American folk protest music.
In 1931, Harlen County, Kentucky was the scene of a violent struggle between striking miners and hired thugs employed by coal mining bosses.
The thugs, led by Sheriff JH Blair, pursued union organiser Sam Reece and attacked his home and terrorised his wife, Florence and their children.
After the thugs left, Florence composed the famous lines: "They say in Harlen County/There are no neutrals there/You’ll either be a union man/Or a thug for JH Blair.
Pete Seeger turned the song into one of the best known ballads of the '60s protest movement, virtually elevating it to a museum piece. At Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration in 2009, DiFranco was asked to sing the song. This began a process of rewriting the song to reflect current realities.
The end result is an extraordinary version that features on this CD. Gone is Seeger's plunking banjo, replaced by two drum sets thumping out a beat.
This is DiFranco’s call to arms, her declaration of what she sees wrong in the world and the way forward.
Unfortunately, her political sense doesn’t match her thunderous music. In this age of capitalist decay, DiFranco’s highest aspiration is that everyone should get out and vote.
Also unfortunately, another song, "If You’re Not", blames the victim for personal unhappiness: "If you're not getting happier as you get older/then you're fuckin' up."
She goes on: "If you're not aware that what you put out is what you get back/that you make the world through the way you act/you can't harness the awesome power of that fact."
Get happy and act right ― if only it were so easy to change the world!
Still, DiFranco is on the side of the struggle ― not on the side of the oppressors. And now that she has broken the mould on "Which Side Are You On", others can step forward to rework the song to even greater effect.
Florence Reece addresses and sings "Which Side Are You On?" to striking miners.
Natalie Merchant's version of the original classic -- with Florence Reece singing the first verses at the start.
Hip hop group Rebel Diaz update "Which Side Are You On" for the 21st century.