Playing Guitar - We Need More Protest Songs

By Tim Gillespie

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We Need More Protest Songs!

What do you write about?

What do you sing about?

When I talk to people about what motivated them to learn to play a guitar, the answer usually includes some sort of self expression. Of course most guys seem to think they can meet women more easily if they play the instrument and these reasons play a part as well.

But when you get down to what it is that makes you want to address the guitar for so many hours, self expression seems to be one of the main reasons. The superficial reasons probably wouldn't hold up under scrutiny. So if you are trying to make a statement with your music, then how do you do it?

With each passing day, new guitarists are created and new songs are developed. To what end shall these human resources be used? Should we encourage these new found talents to produce more love songs or songs with no content. With the posssible exception of some Rap music, there are very few protest songs compared to a generation ago.

When you examine the history of rock and roll and music in general, you can begin to contrast the different approaches to self expression. You can look to specific songs as turning points in human history. Some songs will forever be attached to events etched in history.

For me, Crosby, Stills and Young song, "Ohio" will always be attached to the Kent State shootings and President Nixon. Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" is certainly attached to earlier unsettled times.

These songs and many others like them did more than just string a few chords together to form a simple song. They focused the attention of the entire US of A. They caused millions of people to question their government, and their conscience. These songs transcended borders, they knocked down hidden barriers and they united millions of like minds.

These songs did even more than that. They leveraged the skills and musical qualities of individuals to act as a focal lens to things that were really important to us and the rest of the world. What is more they were one of the most effective tools we had in countering corporate greed, human right violations and bad taste. These songs were the perfect vehicle for delivering messages the the world was ready and eager to hear. You can make a strong case that the world needed to hear this stuff.

Have you ever tried to advertise anything? I have! It's hard. It is very expensive and it offers results that are hard to manage. Any good manager know measuring results is an indispensable tool in gauging advertising. Most of the time it is very difficult. What is worse is advertising is hard to believe. It is usually some company talking about how great they are. No wonder nobody likes to hear advertisements. But the biggest reason you advertise is to reach people. To spread the message (whatever the message is). But you have to pay for it regardless if it works or not.

If you write a song that catches the thoughts and mood of a large group of people, you will get instant attention. Instant recognition. Instant advertising for yourself and band, and it's free (other than the time and money to produce the recording in the first place).

Very few barriers can suppress a song that captures the spirit of a movement waiting for a spokesperson. And at the same time you can serve the causes you think are most important

I am convinced one of the reasons CSN became an American musical success story is because they took the time to write songs that had meaning. You can hear this in the song "Triad" on Four Way Street. The band was not sure what would happen when David Crosby sang the song. They knew the emotional pull of the song could create an unstable atmosphere for Crosby, and he may have trouble finishing it. Crosby says on the CD (album at the time) that they have a lot of trouble with that. They write about the things in their lives that have meaning and it is difficult if you are going to write about things that have any meaning.

But at the same time they delivered songs that had more power then they could have imagined. So why are we talking about something that some people would consider ancient history? Because it has more meaning today than ever. Listen to the radio and what do you hear? To me, much of the music today sounds like the same formula was used over and over. When every story line contains the same elements you come to expect it. It no longer catches you off guard and delivers a shock to the system, (something the writers try to do). It soon becomes another boring story with a easily figured ending.

This is not to say that we don't need love songs, we do! And we also need songs that make us laugh or make us want to sing out loud. We need all that stuff. But today more than at any recent time we need protest songs! And there is much to write and sing about.

Anyone who takes the time to examine any facet of society, regardless of what country they live in, will see something that is wrong and should be talked about. In this very imperfect world we live in, there are all sorts of things we put up with but do not like.

Want some examples? Here are some dandies! If you are an American, how about the last election! No one liked it. It is the only election I can remember when no one was happy. The Republicans are unhappy because historically a President with this level of support carries no mandate to Washington. Historically they have gone down as ineffective presidents. The Democrats are upset because their candidate won the popular vote and may have suffered because of voting irregularities. I don't like it because for the first time in my history, the election didn't work. The process is broken. What is worse, I don't think it will get fixed! This could spawn countless songs and it should. And everyone I know would probably react to a carefully constructed song that America could relate to.

If you are an environmentalist, take your pick. There are more things here to write about than anyone has time. Many of these causes have no voice. Is it hot where you live these days? If you detest corporate greed, all you have to do is look at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. The protesters actually stopped the first day of meetings, and they got beat up for it.

There are more things to write about now then ever before. And if you pick the right topic, write thoughtfully and express the thoughts of a large group of people, your voice can be heard. Your career can skyrocket faster than you can say Watergate.

When you see the true power of music, most people are humbled. The force that a strong and finely tuned musical statement can wield is enormous. A well placed song exposing the true nature of arctic oil drilling can be a very hard force to deal with. And the polluters would have to sink millions in advertising to even come close to countering the effect. It can be one of our biggest voices. Music in this form is a very big force.

What is just as great is this. This may be the most highly regarded contribution you can make to the rest of our lives. These songs can change the minds of millions who have not taken the time to examine the issue as closely as a thoughtful song writer. We may need your insights to really focus on the problem. It may take your voice to make a difference.

I am in the position to talk to a lot of people that live in different parts of my country and the world. I have consistently found one thing to be true. Most people care about their lives, their country and the events that are unraveling on a daily basis. Most people want to do the right thing. Most people do not have a voice either.

We all have busy lives. You can't serve all the causes out there, although the people that come to your door with petitions may not agree. But we certainly can rally around like minded people that express our views and have a strong voice. It will certainly be reassuring to know they are out there. And we will probably support them by buying their CD's. We will not agree on all the causes out there and I may even disagree with the ones you write about. So be it! But we will all be better off if we focus our precious talents if for only a short while on writing about things that have true meaning in our own lives. This is a chance to leverage your talents and use all of your skill to build something millions of people can relate to and may possibly be fed up with. And it's something that we amass expertise about throughout our life. What do you think?