If I Had a Hammer
Liberation Records, 2013
Fans of radical US singer-songwriter David Rovics will welcome his latest CD, If I had a Hammer, a compilation of three albums recorded last year and released in December. And those not familiar with his mix of angry, satirical, pensive and informative folk punk songs of struggle should check out this 23-track marathon introduction to some of the recent offerings of this prolific artist.
Rovics’ audiences include young and old folkies, anarchists, socialists, animal liberationists, union activists, environmentalists, and refugee, Palestine and anti-war activists – and it’s easy to see why, scanning the contents of this newest album.
In the best tradition of a people’s bard, Rovics helps keep alive the historical memory of popular struggle, long past and recent.
“Landlord”, “Trade War” and “The Man Who Burned The White House Down” all tell stories of the long past. “Landlord” (which might get you dancing), tells of the 1840s militant mass struggle of New York state tenant famers against the exploitation of feudal landlordism:
Who gave you the right to be a landlord,
To live a life of ease while others toil?
Who gave you the right to be a rich man,
While the rest of us pay you so we can work this soil?
Rovics links the angry demand to the plight of today’s homeless, affected by the bursting of the speculators’ housing bubble.
Likewise, “Trade War” – the story of the British-led three-year war on China to force it to allow trade in an addictive drug to the benefit of the West’s trade ledgers – points to the West’s ongoing insistence that it’s only “free trade” if the West comes out ahead. This lesson retains its relevance as the United States, Australia and other powers negotiate the Trans-Pacific “Partnership” Agreement for the benefit of the corporations of the strongest nations.
More recent history is recounted in stories of individuals and communities. “Vanunu” tells of Israeli Mordechai Vanunu’s heroic whistle-blowing to alert the world to Israel’s illegal nuclear weapon program (“I just did what I had to do”).
“Oil Train” speaks of the catastrophe in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, when a 73-carriage oil train caught alight and derailed, killing fifty people – one of numerous “accidents” inevitably accompanying the rail transport of the current shale oil frenzy across North America.
“Song for Pelican Bay”, arranged with a simple but effective guitar accompaniment, conveys the story of the mass hunger strike launched by tens of thousands of prisoners in California’s prison system, in protest against the abuse of solitary confinement in “Security Housing Units”.
The title track tells of the motivation in US war crimes in Iraq, for Queensland ploughshares activists to damage a US helicopter gunship during joint US-Australian “war games”.
“Anthony’s Wiener” is a satirical poke at the Democratic ex-congressperson and failed New York mayoral candidate and the furore over sexting engulfing him – with the observation, reminiscent of the Clinton-Lewinsky coverage, that the scandal that is not mentioned is this politician’s pro-war vote. And “Spies Are Reading My Blog” recounts Rovics’ own experience of being denied entry to New Zealand on political grounds.
Finally, there are songs that take up contemporary social issues in a more analytical or critical way, less as storytelling (though there’s a lot of overlap). These include a kind of social transformation 101, “Everything Can Change”, anti-capitalist anthem “Kick It While Its Down,” and a celebration of Australian-based direct action whale-protectors, Sea Shepherd, “Between You and that Harpoon”.
Rovics articulates scepticism and anger at Obama and other Democrats in “Four More Years” and “Democrats Make Me Want to Vomit” – the latter of which is made funnier by the contrast between the almost sweet musical style and the revulsion expressed in the lyrics towards the betrayers of progressive people’s hopes.
In the fast-paced “Syria 2013”, he directs satirical criticism at the US’ hypocrisy in preparations to launch war on Syria on the pretext of last August’s chemical attack on Gouta: “We don’t know who did it, but there’s been a war crime/So we’ll bomb and Arab country one more time.”
In “Prism”, Rovics details the illegal measures exposed by Edward Snowden to have been taken by the “secret government” to introduce police state powers to spy on citizens of the US.
Among other gems include “Trayvon,” shining the spotlight on the racist double standards of the US “justice” system, taking on the apologists for the racist white killer of Afro-American youth Trayvon Martin; anti-Zionist response to an Israeli attack on Gaza, “What Do you Call It?” and “Pipeline,” a song for the movement against the mega-project to build an oil pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands across North America to the Gulf of Mexico.
Liner notes and credits are not available with the disc – presumably to keep production costs down, as the CD sells for US$10. However, they are available – along with hundreds of free downloads and details of coming gigs – via links on Rovics’ website.
From the site you can access his January re-recording of “Song for Chelsea Manning”, correcting the gender and name used in previous recordings, and a listing of all his songs by theme and with tags for ease of searching.
While conceived as a tool for radio presenters to find topic-appropriate material for music breaks, it could also be useful for protests and other activist events.
Consistent with Rovics’ stance against intellectual property rights, all his songs are licensed creative commons rather than copyrighted, and available to share for noncommercial uses. While this means greater access for fans and greater exposure for him, it also means he’s reliant on a greater degree of conscious financial support than if he took a more market-oriented approach.
The web-site has links for donations and subscriptions to enable him to continue production of songs for social and environmental movements – in recordings, gigs and at protest actions.
Rovics is definitely deserving of a wider audience.
Greetings for Green Left's 1000th issue
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"From a cultural perspective, long before MP3's existed, before anyone in Australia might have heard of the music of people like, say, me, GLW was the only publication that I know of that mentioned my existence, or the existence of my recordings, which they consistently reviewed every time a new one came out, long before I ever even made it to the country!
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