Friday, April 12, 2013

Protest Music as a Teaching Tool or, All is Not Lost After "Accidental Racist"

It has been a rough week for historians who love music. The popularity of the Brad Paisley/LL Cool J collaboration "Accidental Racist" - aside from showing the continued significance of David Blight's work - illustrates the ways music can be manipulated to cover social ills. For those lucky few who have not heard "Accidental Racist", the song features Brad Paisley as a proud Southerner who wears a Confederate flag t-shirt as a "proud rebel son" and "a Skynard fan" singing to an African-American baristo (voiced by LL Cool J) about why his glorification of his white, southern roots should not be confused with support for slavery or racism. Surprisingly, the baristo does not respond by spitting in Paisley's coffee or splashing it in his face, but with an impassioned defense of African-American inner city culture ("Just because my pants are saggin' doesn't mean I'm up to no good") and solidarity that both sides are merely "misunderstood." The song ends with some unfortunate lyrics ("If you don't judge my gold chains/I'll forget the iron chains [of slavery]") and presumably a postracial South.

Having read Blight's brilliant Race and Reunion the lyric "Can't rewrite history baby" rapped by Cool J is especially troubling. In the context of the song, Cool J is insinuating that this generation's white Southerners cannot be held accountable for the indiscretions of their forefathers. Interestingly, it raises the question of how post-Reconstruction Southern history has been rewritten to minimize Southern responsibility for slavery. All the typical tropes of this revisionist Southern history appear in "Accidental Racist". Paisley claims he is the "son of the new south", a South untainted by the legacy of slavery. He also dumps on Reconstruction for not fully rebuilding the South ("They called it Reconstruction, fixed the buildings, dried a few tears/We're still sifting through the rubble after one-hundred and fifty years") and pays his respects to Robert E. Lee ("RIP Robert E. Lee"). "Accidental Racist" is the perfect case study for how - as Blight has demonstrated - Southern reunion could only come through forgetting race and the bloodshed of the Civil War, not coming to terms with the horrors of black slavery and postwar segregation.

On a cheerier note, "Accidental Racist" did make me think about how effective music can be as a teaching tool. Like poetry, lyrics often condense complicated political messages into a few, easily understandable lines. Also, using non-traditional teaching tools like music can shake up the routine of class and allow students to see the material in a new way. Here are a few under appreciated protest music gems that I think would be particularly useful in the classroom.

Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers ~ "It Isn't Nice"

Dane, who still makes music, joined with the Chambers Brothers to make this classic song attacking liberal complaints that protest - nonviolent resistance in particular - was upsetting or inconvenient. This song documents that it isn't always "nice" to protest systematic oppression, but, in the climate of racial injustice Dane was commenting upon, it is often necessary.

Kinky Friedman ~ "We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You"

Friedman is a country music icon and staple of the vibrant Austin music scene. Blending country with lyrics from his Jewish background, he created protests songs that made him sometimes sound like a Southern Dylan. "We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You" is Friedman at his best. Friedman tells two stories of how he is refused service at a restaurant (because of his race, ethnicity, or political beliefs) and then at a local synagogue because of his politics. Taking the logic of denial of service a step farther, Friedman argues that if he can be refused service at a restaurant or religious establishment, he can deny the government military service as well. Friedman's defense of the refusal to go to Vietnam ("Let Saigons be bygones") puts in sharp relief the hypocrisy faced by minorities who were denied rights in the US, but were expected to embrace the obligation of military service.

Dave van Ronk ~ "Luang Prabang"

"Luang Prabang" is a terrifying song. With the same sarcasm and nihilism brilliantly depicted on screen by movies like "The Deer Hunter" and "Apocalypse Now", van Ronk tells America to "mourn your dead land of the free" and that "every corpse is a patriot" when telling the story of a "ballless wonder" castrated in Vietnam. Though it may be too violent for some students, van Ronk pulls no punches when explaining the horrors and violence of the Vietnam War.

Daniel, Fred, and Julie ~ "Halleluja I'm a Bum"

This is a contemporary cover of an IWW protest song. It satirizes the relationship between management and workers as well as the Presbyterian hymn "Revive Us" which is an exhortation of the restorative powers of work. Furthermore, it shows that bumming was preferable to many able bodied workers because of the horrible conditions suffered by American labor during the early 20th century.

Kris Kristofferson ~ "The Law is for the Protection of the People"

Kristofferson is an underrated political commentator. Perhaps it is because of his relationship with the flag-waving Johnny Cash or his movie star status, but "The Law is for the Protection of the People" sees Kristofferson mustering his considerable lyrical might in criticizing police violence against "hairy-headed hippies". Like other protest singers including Phil Ochs, Kristofferson reminds his audience that these same police justifications were used "when they nailed the Savior to the cross". In a class environment - where many students may only be familiar with the Jerry Falwell factions of evangelism - Kristofferson's music can be used to illustrate how religious language was frequently employed in political dissent in the 1970s and 1980s.

If anyone uses these songs in class I would be interested to hear about their reception. Please post any suggestions for further listening in the comments section. Also, I hope these songs do a small part to offset the popularity of "Accidental Racist" and show the ways music affirms that important of examining injustice historically instead of seeing history as something to transcend.

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