David Rovics: politically sharp and beautiful poetry


David Rovics
Ever Reviled Records, 2003
Hang a Flag in the Window
David Rovics with Allie Rosenblatt
Self released, 2002
Rovics' albums can be ordered from <http://www.davidrovics.com> and from the Hobart Resistance Bookshop (<hobart@greenleft.org.au>) for $25 includes postage.


David Rovics is one of the best political songwriters in the English-speaking world today. His songs are a powerful musical challenge to the status quo. They are so effective because they are both politically sharp and contain beautiful poetry.

Rovics is a musical tribune for the campaigns and struggles of our times. While the world's rulers are waging the so-called "war on terror", Rovics is writing songs from within the heart of the US empire exposing and challenging its "war of conquest".

Return is Rovics' seventh album, and the third to be released since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Since I first discovered Rovics, my enthusiasm for his music has been overflowing and it is difficult in a review to get across just how great his songs are. The folk-music scene has traditionally had a left-wing stream within it, which is what I like about it. Rovics is much better than most in that stream!

Consider the issue of Palestine. This would not even be addressed in popular music. However, within the folk scene, I can think of several writers who have a song about Palestine. However, too many avoid taking a clear stand in favour of justice for the oppressed and dispossessed Palestinian people, lamenting instead the "cycle of violence" in the region.

Rovics' Return is an entire album devoted to justice for the Palestinians — its title refers to the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their land. (And it is not just a passing fad for Rovics — previous albums have included songs like "Jenin" and "Children of Jerusalem".)

Rovics' songs take a clear stand against Israel's occupation. Consider the chorus to the song "Occupation" — one of my favourites on the album: "The word you need to know is occupation,/The very definition of a land without a nation,/And if peace is what you're after, let us not deceive/It will come on the day the tanks return to Tel Aviv."

This by itself would cut to the heart of the injustice, but it gets better. The last line of the chorus changes with every verse. Thus the first chorus refers to the return of tanks to Tel Aviv. The second refers to the return of Israeli "settlers". The final chorus refers to the return of "the refugees" thereby going well beyond a "two-state solution" to the conflict.

However, it is not just Rovics' politics that are spot-on; it's the creative way he gets his messages across. Rovics is expert at including very radical ideas in his songs in a way that doesn't come across as doctrinaire or even especially radical.

Return includes a number of songs not related to Palestine, such as "Hiroshima" and "Song for Ana Belen Montes" — the latter a tribute to the woman who worked deep in the Pentagon establishment, with responsibility for Caribbean policy, as a spy for Cuba.

One particularly notable aspect of Rovics' music is his revolutionary optimism — something the progressive movement could do with more of. Several songs on the album are infused with the confidence that we will ultimately win and that things will be so much better when we do.

"After the Revolution" sketches a vision of victory. Another is "Resistance", which includes the chorus (addressed to the rulers): "There will always be resistance/The next battle will always be near/As long as you have everything/There will be those who have nothing to fear/And little by little, or maybe all at once, you will lose/Because our future is not yours to choose."

"Strike a Blow Against the Empire" is another song that makes you feel good for being involved in the struggle.

Hang a Flag in the Window was released before the US-led war on Iraq began. It includes many songs that could have been played at anti-war rallies and that retain their relevance.

These include the title song (which challenges the wave of pro-war patriotism in the US), "The Village Where Nothing Happened" (the true story of the US bombing of an Afghan village) and "Bomb Ourselves" (Rovics exposes the illogic of the "war against terrorism").

The album also includes "Drink of the Death Squads" (which supports the campaign to boycott "killer Coca-Cola"), "Ballad of a Cluster Bomb" and the inspirational "We are Everywhere".

The biggest disappointment of Hang a Flag in the Window — and it's a big disappointment — is the song "Vanguard". Ostensibly, the song is against sectarianism on the left (against the "leftist circular firing squads of the world") but in fact contributes to it. The first verse ridicules almost every organised socialist group in the US. Another verse implies that Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin was a repressive dictator.

Happily, such disappointments are not frequent. Taken as a whole, Rovics' music is revolutionary, inspiring, hard-hitting and sometimes humourous. If you like left-wing music, you will like David Rovics.

From Green Left Weekly, October 29, 2003.
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