Sing me a song of protest

WHEN last seen overplaying devil's advocate, Mick Jagger gave no signs that his social consciousness had been raised. But practically all the other rock superstars, it seems, are worrying about the state of the world. On such subjects as South Africa, Nicaragua, the plight of the American farmer, and AIDS, such voices as Prince, Tom Petty, and, of course, Bruce Springsteen have been singing out loudly. U2, every parent's favorite group, is selling out concerts by applying the beat to the service of ``moral imperatives and social responsibilities,'' as one critic puts it. Great balls of fire! What's rock and roll coming to?

A few veterans recall the '60s, when Joan Baez and the folk singers led the chorus against Vietnam. Truly learned scholars drop the even earlier names of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Everybody else believes social consciousness in music was invented by Willie Nelson.

Such is the nearsighted state of history in our times.

The fact is, protest songs are as old as America. The colonists practically sang their way into the Revolution with hyperbolic lyrics like these, exhorting Boston merchants to boycott British goods: ``Oppression's bond we must subdue,/ Now is the time or never;/ Let each man prove this motto true/ And slavery from him sever.''

The struggle of American blacks for their freedom from slavery - actual slavery - is recorded in spiritual after spiritual.

Words like the following speak powerfully in a double sense: ``Ain't you got a right to the Tree of Life?'' The blues composer W.C. Handy declared that spirituals did more for emancipation than did all the guns of the Civil War.

The folk anthems of the labor movement defined class attitudes in the 19th century. Coal miners, railroad workers, mill hands ``'mid factory gloom'' - all had their special grievances sung. The overview was taken in this 1866 song by a mechanic's wife of Bridgeport, Conn.: ```Heaven help the poor - protect the old -/ And give us all a home.'/ Thus often does the rich man pray,/ With solemn tone and word;/ But, oh! how seldom does he say,/ `I'll be thy agent, Lord.'''

Women's voices chorused in protest over a century ago in this sort of pre-Friedan musical version of ``Feminine Mystique'': ``There's too much worriment goes in sewing a bonnet,/ There's too much of ironing goes in a shirt,/ There's nothing worth all the time you waste on it,/ There's nothing that lasts but trouble and dirt.''

The working woman as well as the homemaker went on strike in song before she did in life, as in this verse by a South Carolina weaver: ``We work all day, we work real hard, and toil from soon to late,/ We have no time to primp and fuss, or to dress right up to date.''

What period, what interest group, we may well ask, has not had its songs of social consciousness?

In fact, of all forms of indignant music, rock may have the least to say in words. ``What used to be called protest music,'' the critic Robert Christgau once observed, ``accomplished less with words than rock and roll did with nothing but sound.''

This may or may not be a compliment. But Mr. Christgau was certainly right 15 years ago when he worried about the attempt of John Lennon and Yoko Ono to raise social consciousness. ``The time is right for such a move,'' he began. ``But the new songs ... attack issues so simplistically that you wonder whether the artists believe themselves.''

The best protest songs spring from the throats of participants. Hoarse-voiced millionaires in blue jeans and bandannas, with the Rolls waiting at the stage door, should not be expected to articulate for the underclass, though it is to their credit that they wish to do more than offer up a whoop and a holler and an invitation to party.

For better and for worse, rock has been one of the greatest attention-getters in the history of music. It can ``do good'' now by calling attention to social issues in the moral style of a carnival barker (``Hey, right this way, folks!''). But rock may be well advised to leave the fine spelling out of themes to other kinds of singers - other kinds of people.

We have enough loud simplifiers on the scene already - not excluding journalists.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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