My children are amused when I bring home a bumper sticker that says, in big red letters, "DON'T OBEY." They want to know if that means they don't have to mow the lawn anymore. I explain that I got the sticker at the farmers market from a local (Vermont) singer/songwriter named Scott Ainslie, who was stirring up publicity for his new CD, The Feral Crow. Maybe he was also trying to stir up trouble.
I direct my teenagers' attention to the quote beneath the block letters: "More hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion." The author C.P. Snow wrote that, and I point out its pertinence to the current national situation - how our president has bullied and lied his way into war, and how we have a right, in fact an obligation, to stand up against him and not blindly obey. My kids seem unconcerned: she turns back to cooking her ramen noodles, he sticks his face back into his laptop monitor. They're good kids; if it was a friend talking to them instead of their dad, they might pay attention better.
In the meantime, I slip The Feral Crow into the stereo and listen. It's quite a solid production: chunky guitar chords, edgy drums, restless riffs, urgent vocals-smart and gritty folk-rock. Ainslie plays acoustic guitar, clawhammer banjo, and diddley bow, and he is joined by a tight crew of musicians, including Jerry Marotta, Scott Petito, Leslie Ritter, Marc Shulman, and Peter Vitalone. He examines a number of topics, ranging from the current political climate, to personal stories and yearnings, to the hard work of love. In the last category, one of the most heart-wrenching songs is Over Again, with the line, "If I could swallow the dreams I had like a mouthful of broken glass … We could take a chance and try this over again." What a perfect metaphor: Haven't you ever had a relationship that felt like you had to swallow glass to make it work?
But Ainslie's political-message songs are consistently the most powerful here, and even then they cover the whole spectrum of human experience. Uncommon Life tells of people persecuted for who they love ("We may burn easily-but we'll make a strange and beautiful light"). It's My World, Too tells the story of the closing of a steel mill, and the lives that are shattered by the loss of work ("My pockets are empty, my fingers are cold / And I'm so tired of doing what I'm told"). The title song, The Feral Crow," compares violence against women to the practice of "mountaintop removal mining" in Appalachia: blowing off the tops of mountains to get at the coal. And Rice Grows Again in Vietnam tells of new beginnings wrestled out of a hard past ("Lift up your tools, lay down your gun / Once peace is lost, nothing is won / Harvest a thousand grains from one").
And then we return to Don't Obey, a witness and a warning against our increasingly totalitarian administration. Its litany of recent history's evil-doers and rebels serves as a mirror to our present state of affairs, and its conclusion allows for no compromise:
Presumably Cindy Sheehan is one mother who knows exactly what George W. Bush is asking.
Thus Scott Ainslie is a voice crying out in a wasteland of atrocity. Luckily, he's in good company. Nowadays local, independent recording artists with relatively small followings are almost the only musicians making genuinely provocative, rabble-rousing statements, whether it's about politics, the environment, sex, or other social concerns. In my corner of Vermont, it's people like Ainslie, Derrik Jordan, or Lisa McCormick, all of whom have been reviewed on this web site; you can name your own local heroes. But virtually no nationally known recording artist, working for the two or three major conglomerates, would ever risk a song like Don't Obey. Granted, there are occasional exceptions like Green Day, Springsteen, and bless their buttons the Rolling Stones, all of whom have spoken out recently about the moral bankruptcy of the radical right, but those songs don't get airplay. As for Dave Matthews? Coldplay? Beyonce? Forget it. Their corporate sponsors would drop them like bad meat, the one or two radio conglomerates would ignore them, they'd be branded un-American terrorist-lovers. The original protest music-rock 'n' roll, and even folk to an extent-has been co-opted and emasculated to the point where it's nothing more than bland entertainment, background music while you're cooking ramen noodles.
Meanwhile folks like Scott Ainslie show up at the small venues, the farmers markets, the demonstrations, and they tell the truth as they see it. And people listen. If enough of us get angry enough, maybe we'll do something about it. In the meantime, thank you, Scott Ainslie, et al, for telling those much-needed truths.
I think I know what I'm getting the kids for stocking-stuffers this year.
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