Music to Take You to the Streets

Steven Wishnia Oct 8, 2009


Few lyrical sentiments are as direct as “dump the bosses off your back,” as the late singer U. Utah Phillips said when he collaborated with Ani DiFranco on an album of old Industrial Workers of the World anthems. Activist singer Anne Feeney has gone to that same vein for her new album, Dump the Bosses Off Your Back.

The album runs through an eclectic mix of musical styles, but the lyrics are all political. The title track gets a rollicking accordion groove Feeney calls “danceable thrash polka”; the corrido-flavored tune is about Santiago Cruz, a union organizer murdered in Mexico in 2007; and the a cappella gospel-quartet number has lyrics like “You cannot serve God and Mammon/If it’s Mammon that you choose/You will answer on that Judgment Day.” She does Joe Hill’s “Preacher and the Slave” as a Western-swing boogie, with piano by George Frayne, the long-absent leader of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, arguably the best hippie-country band ever.

It’s not easy to write political songs that sound natural. Many leftist and liberal singer-songwriters are annoyingly sanctimonious or sound like they’re reading leaflets. Feeney doesn’t fall into those traps, but not every track here works; interspersing the verses of “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” with a radio-news voiceover about layoffs belabors the point a bit too obviously. And maybe it’s my ingrained cynicism or defective brain chemistry, but I’m a little put off by the optimism of “How Long,” based on a 1965 speech by Martin Luther King.

Yes, I know she’s trying to give people hope instead of despair, but the arc of the universe can plummet into the abyss just as easily as it can bend toward justice. And it’s not going to bend toward justice unless people push it a lot more effectively than they have.

On the other hand, “How Much for the Life of a Miner?” — one of several songs from the play Buried: The Story of the Sago Mine Disaster, which Feeney arranged the music for — sounds like it could have been written 100 years ago, despite the lines about “PR spokesmen orchestrate deniability.” It combines emotional power and black humor — “Each state has a preset cost/For every arm or leg that’s lost.” This music would probably sound best at a demonstration.


The South Bronx is a long way from the coal-mining country of Appalachia, and Rebel Diaz is the only hip-hop act I’ve ever heard sample “Which Side Are You On.” At The Indypendent benefit in Brooklyn last month, they decided the sound system was too dubious to use their turntables, so they did the set a acappella, with the crowd providing the beat by clapping and chanting. If you didn’t catch them, you missed something special.


I’m old-fashioned: I still buy CDs, and I love discovering something I wasn’t looking for in a used CD shop or on the street. Three of my recent finds have been Honkers and Bar Walkers (Delmark), The Day the Earth Met the Rocket from the Tombs (Smog Veil), and Revolución: Original Cuban Funk Grooves 1967-1978 (Freestyle).

Honkers and Bar Walkers is a compilation from a rich but little-remembered vein of American music history, the “jump blues” of 1946 to 1954. The riffs were bigband swing and boogie, but the anarchic energy prefigured rock ‘n’ roll, as sax players like Illinois Jacquet and Willis “Gator Tail” Jackson strutted bar tops, honking and screeching and blowing their brains out. The artists here are more obscure — by far the bestknown cut is Jimmy Forrest’s bluesy bump ’n’ grind “Night Train,” later speeded up and funkified by James Brown — but the music is still great.

Rocket from the Tombs was a seminal Cleveland proto-punk band. A hybrid of arty rock-poet types and crude hard-rockers, they splintered into factions before they ever did a proper LP. Singer David Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner went on to Pere Ubu, while guitarist Cheetah Chrome and drummer Johnny Blitz formed the Dead Boys. Laughner, who bridged the two factions, drank himself to death at 24. “I’m never gonna kill myself again” proved a less prophetic lyric than “ain’t it fun when you know you’re gonna die young.”

The CD contains demos and live recordings from 1974–1975: early versions of Pere Ubu and Dead Boys songs (including the eerie, dissonant “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” and the punk anthem “Sonic Reducer”), Velvet Underground and Stooges covers, and originals like the seething minor-key jam “So Cold.” Even 35 years after the fact, it’s still the most exciting rock record I’ve heard in the last year.

The Cuban tracks compiled on Revolución come from a time when the Castro government was cracking down on foreign cultural influences. Musicians like Irakere and Los Van Van responded by turning inward and working with Cuba’s Africanrooted traditional rhythms. The results were brilliant. They paralleled what numerous Latin and funk bands were doing in the States, but with their own original and distinctive flavor. Generoso Jiminez’s “El Contrabajo Fantasma,” which segues from a Bachesque bowed-bass solo to a deep salsa groove, lives up to its title.

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