Michael Weston King brings back the protest song
Difficult times have long spawned some of the most remarkable artistic outpourings, from the songs and poetry of World War I and the tales of the Great Depression to the folk songs that were the strongest expression of people’s anger at the Vietnam war. Michael Weston King looked at the world today and wondered, where have all the protest songs gone?
The result was I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier, an album of protest songs, many of them written decades ago but still with a lot to say about the state of things today. The album is released on August 9 and King is touring the UK in October to promote it.
The Birmingham-based singer-songwriter is a big fan of Phil Ochs and the Greenwich Village scene of the early 1960s and is disappointed that the big rock and pop stars of today – he names Coldplay, Oasis and Radiohead – don’t use their fame and their big audience to express their opinions.
“It wasn’t that I had something specific to say. My first thought was: why is no one else, who's got a platform, doing so? But things aren’t great at the moment. The continuing state of affairs in Afghanistan and Iraq is becoming as tragic as Vietnam or any of the wars of the past 30 or 40 years. And apart from the old names such as Neil Young or Elvis Costello, in white rock music people simply aren't writing about it,” he says.
“And obviously the terrible financial state _ the depression era spawned great songs. This new crisis could be reflected in new songs, but if it has been, I haven't heard them.”
King’s original idea was to select songs from the past that were still relevant today, but as time went on he began writing some songs of his own, so that the 12 songs on the album now are a mixture of the old and the new.
The older songs range from relatively well-known ones such as Bobby Darin’s “Simple Song of Freedom” and Dylan’s “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” to songs that King found tucked away on obscure records or poems that he set to music.
The deeply moving title song was written in 1915, during World War I, by US pacifist Alfred Bryan. King wrote a new tune for it – “The music just didn’t really fit me and it was an impossible song to play acoustically. But I didn’t change the lyrics apart from the odd word.” The devastating “Hey Ma, I’m Coming home” – in the form of a letter from a soldier serving overseas to his mother – is a brand new song written by King, as is the strong opening track “In Time”, where an Iraqi farmer tries to explain to his young daughter what is happening around them.
Phil Ochs’ “Cops of the World” – an indictment of US foreign policy and the American military written at the time of the Vietnam War – is remarkably just as relevant almost half a century later: We own half the world, oh say can you see/ The name for our profits is democracy/ So, like it or not, you will have to be free/ 'Cause we're the Cops of the World, boys/ We're the Cops of the World.
The reaction to the songs has been very positive, King says.
“It’s good. The album is becoming a real talking point, which of course is very much the idea behing protest songs,” he says, adding that a lot of people have shared their own experiences with him.
“A guy came up to me after a recent show in Oslo. He had been in the Norwegian army all his adult life, he came out at 45 having never been in a war zone. His son followed his father's footsteps and joined when he was 17, and within two years was posted to Afghanistan. Naturally, his father is petrified. You get a lot of people coming to talk to you about that sort of thing.”
King is touring the UK and Germany in the autumn and plans that his set will be entirely made up of protest songs. He is also playing a number of protest song festivals and has been asjed to play for the Trade Unions Congress. He also plans to give talks and run workshops on the history and relevance of the protest movement.
Talks are currently taking place with American labels regarding the release of the album in the United States. King believes people there won’t be upset at a foreigner singing songs that are often particularly critical of the US.
“An audience who would take offence to those kind of songs I’m sure would take offence to anybody singing them,” he says.
King is one of the most successful British Americana artists. After playing with alt-country pioneers, he went solo in 1999 and has released a stream of studio and concert albums.
Though he is putting most of his effort into the protests songs for the moment, King is also hopeful that next year will see the release of My Darling Clementine, a self-funded album of original country duets that he recorded with his wife Lou Dalgleish.
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