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The folks of folk music, then and now

“I hate a song that makes you think you’re not any good. I hate a song that makes you think you’re just born to lose, bound to lose, no good for nobody, no good for nothing, because you’re either too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that … I’m out to fight those kinds of songs to my very last breath of air and my very last drop of blood. I’m out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world. The songs I sing are made up, for the most part, by all sorts of folks, just about like you.” 

-Woody Guthrie

Last week, the Billboard Music Awards saw Atlanta rapper Killer Mike of Run the Jewels fame, win the Billboard “Change Maker” music award. A brand new accolade to the BBMA, the Change Maker is awarded to those who, among other things, “speak truth to power through their music, celebrity, and community.”

The award, presented by Atlanta mayor Keisha Bottoms, should not be shocking to anybody who has been following the trajectory of Killer Mike and Run the Jewels over the past decade. In the music industry, there have been few voices as politically outspoken as Killer Mike, who, along with his RTJ partner in crime El-P, has crafted some superbly topical tracks. On “Early,” from their sophomore LP “Run the Jewels 2,” Killer Mike gives a chilling, if fictional, account of a Black man who is forced to watch a police officer murder his wife and son. Elsewhere, and before Run the Jewels, Killer Mike broke down corruption in the prison system on “Reagan,” on R.A.P. Music: 

But thanks to Reaganomics/Prisons turned a profit/Cause free labor’s the cornerstone of US economics/Cause slavery was abolished/unless you are imprisoned/You think I am bullshiting/Then read the thirteenth amendment. 

Indeed, Killer Mike and El-P are exemplars in the field of socially conscious music, a genre which has been alive and well in America since perhaps its inception. Run the Jewels, among many other socially aware artists, are only the newest lot in a tradition that has always been inextricably linked with American politics, places, problems and people. As subject matters shift and evolve, so too does the music, and at the core of it all, so too do the people. 

Before Killer Mike and El-P were discussing police corruption and American poverty, figures like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly were having much of the same conversations. Woody Guthrie, a forefather of American folk music as we understand it (with acoustic guitars, harmonicas, dusty boots and dirty jeans), gave a voice to the endless cavalcade of social issues that plagued America in the early twentieth century. Comparing the voices of then to the voices of now, it is rather remarkable how many similarities exist. In “Hobo’s Lullaby,Woody Guthrie’s sardonic consolation to the eponymous hobo sounds just diminutive enough that it might be chanted at a protest rally today: 

I know the police cause you trouble/they cause trouble everywhere.

But when you die and go to Heaven/you’ll find no policemen there!

Clever stuff. Maybe a little tame by the standards of today, but it reveals the roots of an issue that has lived in the lifeblood of America for a lot longer than many would realize. Elsewhere, in “This Land Is Your Land,” arguably his most famous song, Woody calls America a land “made for you and me,” before quickly calling into question the validity of the statement: 

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple/near the relief office, I seen my people/And some are grumblin’, and some are wonderin’/if this land’s still made for you and me?

Ironic that, in spite of being in one of the most famous folk songs in America, this line goes criminally unsung by most. One need only consider Ol’ Dirty Bastard using his food stamps card as an album cover to see that these topics of conversation have just as much relevance now as back then. 

Elsewhere, the contemporaries of Guthrie wrote of similar issues. Huddie William Leadbetter, better known as Leadbelly, was another foundational figure in the annals of Americana, leaning more towards the blues than Guthrie ever did. A recording or two exist with the two men singing together, but Leadbelly solo is when many of his most poignant stories are told.

Gallis Pole,” re-imagined a few decades later by Led Zeppelin, mourns the loss of a man who, because of the poverty of his family, is unable to escape from the hanging pole. Elsewhere, “In the Pines,a song made most popular by a Nirvana unplugged session half a century later, gives us a Black woman rendered homeless and helpless by the senseless murder of her railroad-working husband. All of it is pretty grim stuff, but folk songs are nothing if not reflections of their times, and as Abner Jay says, “folk songs tell true stories, terrible stories, because folk are terrible.” 

Woody and Leadbelly wrote of hard traveling, of dust bowls and fascists and innocent Americans gunned down by Nazi soldiers, yet as the world around folks changed, folk music changed too. From out of Greenwich Village, steeped in the folk tradition, figures like Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs transmuted these older modes into modern issues. Unlike Leadbelly and Woody, however, the protest music of the Village scene was concrete and grounded in names, dates and specific examples. 

Perhaps one of the most his most well known elegies, “Only A Pawn In Their Gamesaw Dylan reflect on the pointless and cruel murder of Medgar Evers, a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People civil rights activist shot down in Jackson, Mississippi. Elsewhere, Joan Baez eulogized the wrongly executed anarchist scapegoats Sacco and Vanzetti with “Here’s To You,both a celebration of life and a spiteful renunciation of American politics. 

The Greenwich scene, aside from its folky proclivities, was the birth of the modern “protest” song, and although today there are few singer-songwriters singing to old Irish standards and strumming through I-IV-V chords, the sentiment behind these songs remains to this day. Just as Dylan mourns the disaffected youths of America in his classic “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” so too does Kendrick Lamar channel a similar, disenfranchised ethos in his track “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirston the modern classic “good kid, m.A.A.d cityand by the way, a very happy eighth birthday to that beautiful record. 

And all of this is only one tradition in a wide stratosphere of American music. Before Dylan, Ronk, Mitchell, Baez, and the like were turning heads in Greenwich, Billie Holiday was exposing the nightmarish reality of racially-based murder in “Strange Fruit,” the same song which Kanye West sampled for his “Yeezustrack “Blood On the Leaves;” not much of a protest song, that one, but it bears mentioning. Gil-Scott Heron, another forefather of protest music in many respects, blended beat poetry, jazz music and political activism on “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

Across the Atlantic, Robert Fripp and co. used grinding jazz arpeggios and flittering guitar work to communicate both the horrors of war on “21st Century Schizoid Man(Woah, another Kanye sample!), and the horrors of gang violence on “Fallen Angel.” As the No Wave genre hit the 80s underground, the experimental rock band Swans put a bleary, grease-lit spotlight on police brutality and capitalist regimes on their brutalist cult classics “Filthand “Cophow about those titles? 

And on and on it goes. To continue to list the political acts of America in the past century might be redundant, but the sentiment still stands. Quite often, it is the music of the people through which their voices can be most clearly heard, and whether it be Woody Guthrie, Swans or Run the Jewels, the people will continue to make their voices heard. In that sense, the Billboard Change Maker award is a wonderful way to acknowledge this beautifully American tradition. There may not be another country in the world that is so self-scrutinizing, and it is commendable, on the part of Billboard, to acknowledge this as a core aspect of music today. As long as folks are around, folk music will keep coming, and why not celebrate that?

Congratulations to Killer Mike for his win. May Run the Jewels continue the tradition as long as they can.