Saturday, August 16, 2014

Unanswered Questions: The Riddle of the Topical Song

"Every folk song is religious in the sense that it is concerned about the origins, ends, and deepest manifestations of life, as experienced by some more or less unified community. It tends to probe, usually without nailing down definite answers, the puzzles of life at their roots."

–  John Lovell, Jr., Black Song: The Forge and The Flame.

Some years back, while I was in high school, FM radio still held the promise of surprise, along with a keen sense of artistic danger always lurking. There was the prospect of discovering something you might not have the good fortune to hear again. Late one night, on Toronto's CHUM-FM, I first encountered Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Effigy" from their 1969 album, Willie and the Poor Boys. This epic song, which concluded the first side of their fourth LP, described an act of mob violence without identifying the mob (or the subject of their anger), and it had all the insistence of a news bulletin interrupting regular programming. With a portentous melody built upon the foreboding chords of a dirge, "Effigy" carried some of the same apprehension that the news reporter's commentary did in Orson Welles's famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast just before the Martians started vaporizing the citizens of Grover's Mill, New Jersey. Listening to "Effigy" that evening before bed, I kept expecting the song to conclude just like that news reporter's broadcast did – with death – where the mob would ultimately catch the singer before he could finish documenting the crimes he was witnessing. Songwriter and singer John Fogerty continually outpaced the urgency of what he was seeing until all that was left in his dying questions was why this was all taking place. His chiming guitar, with the clawing force of a chainsaw, soon cut through those questions just like the Martians' vapour ray did through Grover's Mill. His fears quickly faded into the long night as if he'd been finally caught and silenced by the mob. And I never heard "Effigy" on the radio again.

Up to that point, AM radio had been playing, from that same record, Creedence's hit single "Fortunate Son" non-stop. Recorded at the height of the Vietnam War, John Fogerty addressed that conflict and his refusal to support his country's involvement in it with a clarity and passion that made you want to join the barricades and protest with him. Unlike "Effigy," "Fortunate Son" came from a long and noble tradition of what Bob Dylan once called "finger-pointin'" songs, topical numbers like "John Brown" and "I Ain't Marching Anymore," that would stop you in your tracks. But the topical song, both the lasting kind and the pretenders to the throne, do run the danger of sooner or later becoming co-opted. As they lean towards conveniently dividing the world into those who stand on the side of righteousness and those who don't, given the day, righteousness can turn out to be relative. Topical songs rarely ever escape their time because they are always fixed on the subject of their time.

On occasion, that problem poses a great pop quiz: How long can these songs stay relevant? Consider Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'," which in 1963 foretold an age of unrest, but within a few decades, the Bank of Montreal would gleefully incorporate that tune in order to promote their credit cards. The Beatles' "Revolution," where John Lennon passionately laid out his ambivalent views on the political tumult of 1968, would a few years later be in the service of selling Nike running shoes. Imagine Bruce Springsteen's horror in 1984 when Ronald Reagan would usurp "Born in the U.S.A.," an angry protest song that accounted for the damaged psyches of Vietnam War vets, as a patriotic number to underscore his idea of a new morning in America. During that same dubious bright dawn in the country, Tom Petty had to watch stupefied as David Duke, a former KKK Grand Dragon running as a Republican, chose Petty's defiant track, "I Won't Back Down," as his campaign song. As powerfully persuasive as "Fortunate Son" became in 1969, in its convictions against the Vietnam War, the track really had only one side of the story to tell; and if you shared in its vision, you went to the wall with it, and for it. Fogerty's "Effigy," though, barely had a story to tell, yet it held you in complete suspense for the entire six minutes it took for it to end. The facts in the song were suggested rather than stated. Who knew what side you were supposed to be on? All we did know was that the singer walked out one night and saw "a fire burning on the palace lawn" as "humble subjects watched with mixed emotions." Rather than solving the enigma as to who was being burned in effigy, and why, Fogerty simply raised more urgencies as the fire spread across the countryside until, by morning, "few were left to watch the ashes die." As a listener, you were left with unanswered questions rather than partisan answers.

When "Fortunate Son" comes on the radio today, it still has the force to take you back to the time it dominated the airwaves, but it doesn't have the importunateness to seize the time we live in now. It remains in the past tense. Even if one wanted to apply it to any war, from Iraq to Gaza, the meanings would have to be imposed on the conflict and by those looking for the song to speak for their side. By contrast, "Effigy" didn't directly address its time, it embodied it, like a swath of tissue being swept up by the political winds. It doesn't tell the listener what to think, but invites us to think along with it. You can't get the song under your control. It escapes your desire to define it, to have it say what you want it to say. Even with its description of the Silent Majority "not keepin' quiet anymore," which evokes the voters that Richard Nixon named as his true supporters, "Effigy" breaks free of the dark shadow of his regime. It doesn't even try to sum up his time. Heard on the radio today, "Effigy" might just as easily speak for the recent murder of black teenager Michael Brown by the police in Ferguson, Missouri, where the flames of anger and protest that followed called up all the racial injustices of the past.

Back in 2006, Canadian singer/songwriter Serena Ryder released an album called If Your Memory Serves You Well. The title being the opening line from Bob Dylan & The Band’s song "This Wheels on Fire." If Your Memory Serves You Well was also something of an appropriate title. After all, most of Serena’s record was a trip down the memory lane of some of the best Canadian pop and folk songs of the last forty years. Besides Canadian Rick Danko’s co-written "This Wheels on Fire," Serena Ryder also included versions of Leonard Cohen’s haunting “Sisters of Mercy,” Ian & Sylvia’s indelible “You Were on My Mind” and Paul Anka’s mournful ballad “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” which became a posthumous hit for Buddy Holly after he was killed in a plane crash in 1959. But there was one song she included where your memory might not serve you well, a track many would not have pegged as one written by a Canadian. It was a song called “Morning Dew.”

“Morning Dew” was an anti-nuclear war folk song written by a young Toronto teenager named Bonnie Dobson back in 1961. Dobson's topical song would become a timeless anthem, a melancholic ode to a world left devastated and abandoned by nuclear holocaust, and a tune that artists from every genre would come to cover. Over the years, performers as diverse as The Grateful Dead to Jeff Beck to Devo to Robert Plant came to be just as intrigued by the song as Serena Ryder was. "Morning Dew” developed a long shelf life even if listeners didn't always recall it. The question of why is intriguing. Written one evening, after a gig at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, Dobson came to write her signature song after being inspired by director Stanley Kramer’s film adaptation of Nevil Shute’s anti-war novel, On the Beach, a movie which had all its fingers pointing. On the Beach featured a group of people on an island off Australia waiting to be shrouded by a cloud of hydrogen gas from a bomb that had already taken out the rest of the world. One couple with a child was also left contemplating suicide. “Morning Dew” was a protest song and it was conceived at a time when folk music was attempting to change the world from one that would turn to rubble into something new and egalitarian in spirit. “Morning Dew” is framed through a conversation, but is it between a parent and child, or is it two lovers? Who really knows? Who really cares? At the time, the exquisite darkness of "Morning Dew" laid clues that we could be facing a nuclear holocaust, but heard today, the singer could be describing global warming. Being specific denies the song its particular greatness, and what's made it last to become one of the most covered of Canadian folk songs. And like many lasting songs, it has its origins in another. The nightmare "Morning Dew" suggests had its roots in an earlier Canadian tune that in some ways could be considered the antithesis of “Morning Dew,” a 1950 Ed McCurdy anti-war track called “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.” But if “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” imagined a better world out of horrifying circumstances, “Morning Dew” was a nightmare about something good that has now tragically ended.

“Morning Dew” never really tells you the details of its story any more than Fogerty's narrator did in "Effigy." The song becomes essentially a mystery novel waiting for someone to solve it. It was as if by singing it you just could unlock the door to its bottomless mysteries. Many have tried. “Morning Dew” does unfasten a series of questions, but they never get fully answered. All we do know is that there is nothing left of the world – but how and why it got there remains a secret. Unlike those many anti-war songs that dozens of people lined up to sing, as if signing up for a different kind of army, “Morning Dew” didn't offer a clear message in which to sign on. It didn't provide the affirmation of spirit that folk artists embraced when they sang the many other tunes they turned into social protest.

Woody Guthrie, who knew a thing or two about "finger-pointin'" songs, once said that he didn't so much write songs as pull them out of the air. But he was being somewhat disingenuous with that remark. What Guthrie chose to 'pull out of the air' were tunes that suited his beliefs. "Effigy" and "Morning Dew" aren't so much pulled out of the air, as they are the air. Their creations escaped their control and their meaning moved beyond even the intent of the songwriter's goals. (In the case of Bonnie Dobson, for a number of years, "Morning Dew" literally escaped her control when songwriter/performer Tim Rose stole it from her by claiming copyright over it.) Woody Guthrie, like many political folk artists, wanted his songs to possess answers to the urgent issues he wished to address. John Fogerty and Bonnie Dobson might have also begun their songs with that aim in mind. But when they sat down to find those answers, the illusive questions "Effigy" and "Morning Dew" possessed offered the kind of riddles we are all still seeking solutions for.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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