The labor movement had “Solidarity Forever.” Civil Rights had “Mississippi Goddam,” “Strange Fruit” and the spirituals activists sang with linked arms in the streets. Black Lives Matter adopted Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.”
“Every movement which has ever won anything has had songs,” says Marc Ribot in promotional materials introducing his new record, Songs of Resistance 1942-2018. Of course. Music helps movements instill resolve in their base and renders messages memorable and digestible as they spread to a wider audience.
The guitarist knows well the horrors of authoritarianism. His grandparents lost siblings in the Holocaust and over his career he has toured in places like Turkey and Russia. He recognizes President Trump, he says, “and it’s no mystery where we will wind up if we don’t push back.”
Ribot has lent his mastery at the strings to everyone from Ikue Mori to Elton John, Allen Toussaint to Allen Ginsberg. With Songs of Resistance, he gathers an impressive group of friends and collaborators to present a captivating collection of original and traditional protest songs that showcase the longevity of message and, conversely, the seemingly glacial nature of progress.
“John Brown,” an original song written by Ribot, recounts the story and spirit of the abolitionist. It’s an interesting and effective blend of tradition and modernity. The century and a half old tale of revolt is recontextualized by Ribot’s funk freak-out arrangement and Fay Victor’s soulful vocals.
“Fischia Il Vento,” a 1943 Italian anti-fascist anthem is updated to rail against climate change and the forces that perpetuate it in “The Militant Ecologist.” The substitution of the enemy in the song could risk feeling a bit paint-by-numbers, as if songs of protest could be written using mad-lib formula, if not for the fact that climate change denial actually seems to be one more facet of the authoritarian regimes we know today. This adaptation refines the original’s scope, envisioning a future where “the earth’s green flag is flying.”
Tom Waits, a long-time collaborator of Ribot’s, joins him on “Bella Ciao,” yet another 1940s Italian anti-fascist song. Waits, per usual, sounds weathered but resolute, a natural fit. “One fine morning, woke up early to find a fascist at my door,” Waits sings.
In the accompanying music video, seemingly calm American streets are shown with increasing police and military presence. People gather to protest the Trump administration, police brutality and other modern-day horrors plaguing the country. The character in the song, too, resolves to fight the evil on his doorstep. Placed in our modern context, the song shines a light on the damning reality that despotism has gained a foothold here in America.
This sad state of affairs manifests itself powerfully on the standout track “Rata de Dos Patas,” an anti-misogynist ballad sung originally by Mexican artist Paquita la del Barrio. This updated version of the song powerfully pairs a woman singing in Spanish of taking down Trump — comparing him to rats, snakes, cockroaches — with Trump’s infamous slurs against Mexicans. The singer was tragically unable to be credited on the song for fear of repercussion due to her undocumented status in America.
Songs of Resistance is certainly never subtle or terribly nuanced but it seems fairly disingenuous to begrudge it that. If you’re looking for precedent shattering songwriting, you’d best look elsewhere. Simplicity and spreadability (even in bits and pieces) of political and social messaging may be more valuable here.
“I have a lot of friends who think that any kind of politics isn’t cool,” Ribot says. “I appreciate the sentiment but we need to get over it, roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty if we’re going to survive this thing.”
I tend to agree, and Songs of Resistance succeeds in raising a number of banners you can grab and run with.
Perhaps the most poignant moment on the album is “Srinivas,” a lyrical document of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, a Sikh immigrant murdered in February 2017 by a racist who mistook him for a Muslim. It’s a horrifying story that sadly illustrates the reality of many Americans’ lives, the environment we have fostered for centuries and that has been stoked by the current administration.
“My country, ’tis of thee” Steve Earle sings repeatedly, though he never reaches, as if unable to, the commonly known following line. He sings of a nation in turbulence, one with unfulfilled potential, one where only certain populations are free to live without worry.
Hopefully, one day soon, we’ll be able to rightfully call it Sweet Land of Liberty.
Songs Of Resistance 1942–2018
By Marc Ribot
Photo: Marc Ribot. Credit: José Luna/ Secretaría de Cultura Ciudad de México.