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V/A - Freedom is a Hammer: Conservative Folk Revolutionaries of the Sixties

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Artist: V/A

Album: Freedom is a Hammer: Conservative Folk Revolutionaries of the Sixties

Label: Omni

Review date: Jan. 16, 2013

Another national election still freshly in the rear view mirror, and there’s plenty to comment on in terms of precedence-setting outcomes: legalized pot in two states; our first openly lesbian senator; an impending white electoral minority. One area that remained status quo was the campaign strategy of appropriating popular music for political ends. Both sides got dinged for their more overzealous efforts, but as with cycles past, the animus directed by bands and musicians toward conservatives well outweighed that levied at their opponents on the other side of the aisle. That disparity is longstanding and while it hasn’t stopped conservatives from enlisting music as a means to their ends, for every fist-pumping Kid Rock spectacle or flag-waving Ted Nugent rally, there are legions of liberal-leaning artists ready to tip the scales.

Freedom is a Hammer takes a historical survey of the phenomenon through the lens of the 1960s, and while the artists featured are long forgotten and sometimes suspect musically, the parallels to their present day counterparts are often pretty striking. Janet Greene, Tony Dolan and Vera Vanderalaan each took timely folk templates as their starting point and in the process became “through the looking glass” variants on the populist personas pioneered by the likes of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and further popularized by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Sadly (or perhaps gladly), their material often wasn’t up to the standards of those they were aping, though it is an undeniable trip hearing such jingoistic sentiments attached to campfire tune trappings. Dolan’s songs, in particular, fall prey to era-specific acronyms and trivial attacks at the opposition, including hollow pot shots at hippie hygiene. Communism is the most predictable and prevailing target with Greene’s “Commie Lies” and “Termites” being among the most scathingly anti-Red. Of the three singers featured, she is easily the most skilled and also benefits from surprisingly solid songcraft and production.

In common with their counter-culture counterparts, topicality runs rampant through the trio’s songs, with Dolan’s ruminations on the strife in post-revolutionary Cuba (“Cuba Will Be Free”) and besieged Budapest (“Remember Bloody Budapest”) both working as pivots for patriotic action and resolve. The latter song even contains a direct shot across the Baez bow (“You sing so soft, you sing about the falling rain, where were your songs of righteousness…when Poland’s youth lay slain?”). Dolan’s “Poor Left Winger” finds him mining similar patronizing territory, while Greene gets into the addled head of her country’s sworn enemy with the contemptuous “Comrade’s Lament.” Vanderlaan’s “Modern Paul Revere” sings the virtues of then-Governor Ronald Reagan, but Dolan again earns the most scorn for “Abolish! Abolish!,” a passionately positive ode to work of the House Un-American Activities Committee in rooting out and punishing Reds. These cuts and others come queasily close to endorsing the sort of fascist impulses the singers so readily condemn in others. And as Greene demonstrates in the cheerfully patriotic photo that adorns the cover, flag pins were a popular conservative accoutrement even back then.

A pair of booklet essays put everything in concise perspective and is bolstered by a scrapbook of period-specific ephemera. The prize amongst the latter artifacts is a magazine ad pitching the reader an invitation to become a charter member of The Conservative Record Club of America and receive a copy of their inaugural release, the Hit Parade-proof Barry Goldwater’s Acceptance Speech at the Republican National Convention. Figurative eggs and rotten fruit are easy to lob at the bulk of these performances, particularly with the hindsight that has rendered them wrong-side-of-history curiosities rather than right-minded treasures. But it’s also instructive to remember that there was time shortly after Pearl Harbor when Seeger and his cohort were performing and recording pro-War songs of a comparable ilk. Sobering proof there that ideology is often both trend-conscious and mutable and that one person’s revolutionary can easily be deemed another person’s zealot.

By Derek Taylor

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