Folk Alliance Newsletter
by Joel Mabus
written April 2003
Music in a Time of War
By Joel Mabus
I must begin with a caveat, lest the words you read seem oddly naive or cruel or simply out of date. There is a lag of time between the days I compose this column and the day it is printed and yet another lapse until you read it. As I write, the war between the United States and Iraq is about 14 days old.
As you read this, many momentous events will have transpired of which this writer is necessarily unaware. My best hope is that the fighting will have ceased and a peaceful reconstruction will be underway. My worst fear is that utter catastrophe has befallen the world. My best guess is that something in-between is the current situation. The only thing I can be sure of is that dreadful things have happened and many people have died horribly.
Thus is war. Anxiety is the one constant in our lives. Yet throughout these early days of war, music has been played, songs have been sung, dancers have danced and the creative process has proceeded. And for many performers there have been hard choices to make and difficult emotions to sort through.
The members of the North American folk music community are never of one mind on any issue. You'd be hard pressed to find a more diverse bunch of freethinkers anywhere at any time. Yet, I'd safely bet that a majority of the folk singers on this continent were opposed to the invasion of Iraq. (The big peace rally at the Folk Alliance conference in Nashville is evidence.) Now that the war has begun, opinions on what should be done next probably vary a bit more. I am not about to make this column a political discourse - there are more appropriate forums for that.
What I'd like to discuss here is the problem many of us had to face those first weekends of war, when we drove off to do the sound checks for our scheduled gigs. What songs do we choose to sing? And what words do we choose to say?
The night the first bombs fell in Baghdad, Joan Baez was giving a concert in my hometown. She told her audience from the stage what was happening, and being Joan, gave her opinion of American policy. Friday of that same week, Iris Dement cancelled her show in Madison, WI, moments before she was to walk onto the stage. She said she was too emotionally devastated to sing. That same weekend, I was touring the Midwest with Tom Paxton. We both tailored our sets to the situation; yet found that our left-leaning audiences also really needed a few laughs too.
And so each of us as performers - as entertainers - has had to deal with the war in his or her own way. The mass media pays much attention to the big stars and their opinions. The op-ed pages of newspapers and the voices of corporate radio are settling the hash of Michael Moore, The Dixie Chicks, Madonna and other award-winning personalities for their anti-war sentiments. Media radar doesn't reach low enough to register folksingers these days, but that doesn't mean we aren't out there on the front lines of culture, waging our own battles.
It has been sometimes said that the modern folk society is something like a church to its members - that the performers are like circuit-riding evangelists, ministering each week the milk of human kindness to the local flock. I'm not sure that analogy is entirely valid, but there are times I believe there is much truth in the notion.
I'm sure that in town after town, in church basements and small halls and in house concerts across North America, that first weekend of war saw folksingers ministering to their audiences through tears and laughter, hope and desperation.
It makes me ponder this job of folksinging. Am I there to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, as the old preachers say? I certainly have caught myself preaching to the choir from time to time. Should I play a happy tune and get folks to forget their troubles? Or should I play the Jeremiah and pound the pulpit?
I think there are no pat answers, no easy solutions. I find that each night is a new situation and each audience sits in front of me with different needs and desires. I've never been one to play the same set-list night after night, but now more than ever, I find myself searching for that perfect mix of songs that will both express my thoughts & feelings and yet speak to my audience in a meaningful way.
It all changes from night to night, town to town. As the ancient preacher said in Ecclesiastes, and as we have so often sung to Pete Seeger's tune, "there is a time for every purpose under the heaven."
And to you, my gentle readers -- as performing artists, I charge you to be unafraid in speaking your mind, but also to pay some mind to your very important jobs. Music has the power to heal or to disturb. It can excite or sooth the human breast. It can provoke healthy laughter or unleash the tears of an anguished soul.
Let us pay close attention to whom we are singing. And let us exercise our gifts with both wisdom and purpose in these sinister times.