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God Shed His Grace

Want patriotism? Look to the passion of protest music


Monday is Independence Day, the day lazy radio jocks and dogmatic nationalists get all warm and fuzzy, break out the old Lee Greenwood/"God Bless the U.S.A." and Charlie Daniels/"This Ain't No Rag, it's a Flag" records, and feel real damn proud to be an American. I'm proud to be an American, too. Proud of America's democratic ideals, its constitutional principles of free speech and religious choice. Proud of its putative egalitarianism.

That's why on Monday I'll be listening to the Mexican band Los Jaguares' song "Esta Muy Claro" (It's very clear), a sad ballad of identity loss in which the group's front man and songwriter Saúl Hernández sings in Spanish, "In my country, the system has lost itself / Lost its beliefs, its autonomy; lost its peace . . . Lost its history, its present; lost you."

Hernández is singing of his own beloved Mexico in the song, but his words also reflect my feelings about my beloved U.S.A. (You can see Los Jaguares perform the song when the band comes to Tremont Music Hall July 26.)

Hardcore right-wingers would have us believe that protest singers are just a bunch of anti-American, terrorist-loving traitors. Don't believe the hype. Some of the most America-loving citizens the country has known have been protest singers, from Woody Guthrie to Phil Ochs, Bruce Springsteen to Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine to Steve Earle. They love America enough to rail against its leaders when their actions corrupt the country's soul.

To me, loving America means loving the rest of the world, too. It's kind of like what the Bible says about loving your neighbor. Jimmy Carter understood that concept; our current tsar, George Bush, doesn't. He's too busy impressing his fellow millionaires to worry about his neighbors, American or otherwise. Which is why even some Nashville country artists — typically as America-love-it-or-leave-it as they come — are writing anti-Bush songs these days.

Take the Honky Tonkers for Truth. In their 2004 pro-Democracy, anti-Bush song "Takin' My Country Back" (written by David Kent, who's penned songs for Blake Shelton), the group sings, "I'm takin' my country back, son, you ain't been doin' her right / I been watchin' you and I don't like how you've been treatin' the Stars and Stripes / You got too many fancy friends for me, the Saudis treat you like you're royalty / You blew the budget and you botched Iraq, so I'm takin' my country back."

The Honky Tonkers' sentiments aren't much different from 60s protest singer Phil Ochs' position on Mississippi during the Civil Rights movement, when officials let the likes of recently convicted Edgar Ray Killen walk away from a mass murder scot free. Back then, Ochs wrote, "Here's to the state of Mississippi /For underneath her borders the devil draws no line / If you drag her muddy rivers, nameless bodies you will find / Oh, the fat trees of the forest have hid a thousand crimes . . . Here's to the land you've torn out the heart of — Mississippi, find yourself another country to be part of."

It's a bittersweet time to be singing the praises of American ideals. On the one hand, we're fighting a war waged on lies. Gas prices are sky high and there's no sense they'll be going down anytime soon. We're treating our fellow immigrants as criminals, even though each of us, unless we're full-blooded Native American, came to this country from some other land. We're destroying our guaranteed freedoms as though we were a big, dumb kid smashing ant hills.

On the other hand, we're in a time of great and wonderful change. We live in a city, state and nation that are becoming more diverse and interesting than ever before. You can see it on the streets and in art galleries, and you can hear it in the different accents and languages that sing together like one big cacophonous symphony. And you can hear it in local clubs, from the blues and Americana of bands that play at the Double Door to the neo-soul and hip-hop that's come to Amos' Southend and the Room in recent months; from the crashing punk rock at Tremont Music Hall and the Milestone to the rock en espaol that the Visulite Theatre and Evening Muse have begun to bring to their musical menus; from the skittering beats of club DJs to the buoyant salsa and ranchera coming from restaurants all over town.

Happy birthday, America. Feliz cumpleaos. Let's celebrate nuestra América con la música. Patriotic music. Music that says, "I'm proud, I'm loud, I'm American" — but it doesn't mean I'm always, as Chuck Berry sang, so glad to be livin' in the U.S.A.

Mark Kemp is the editor of Creative Loafing.

Ten Provocative American Protest Songs to Burn (onto a CD, that is):

1) Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit"

Provocative line: "Southern trees bear strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root. . ."

2) Woody Guthrie, "This Land is Your Land "

Provocative line: "In the squares of the city, in the shadows of the steeple, near the relief office, I see my people . . . some are wonderin' if this land's still made for you and me."

3) Bob Dylan, "Masters of War"

Provocative line: "There's one thing I know, though I'm younger than you: Even Jesus would never forgive what you do. . ."

4) Leslie Gore, "You Don't Own Me"

Provocative line: "Don't tell me what to do and don't tell me what to say . . . when I go out with you, don't put me on display."

5) Johnny Cash, "The Man in Black"

Provocative line: "Till we start to make a move to make a few things right, you'll never see me wear a suit of white."

6) Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, "The Message"

Provocative line: "A child is born with no state of mind, blind to the ways of mankind."

7) Dead Kennedys, "Nazi Punks, Fuck Off"

Provocative line: You still think swastikas look cool, the real Nazis run your schools. . ."

8) Public Enemy, "Fight the Power"

Provocative line: "Our freedom of speech is freedom or death, we've got to fight the powers that be. . ."

9) Rage Against the Machine, "Guerrilla Radio"

Provocative line: "It has to start somewhere, it has to start sometime - what better place than here, what better time than now?"

10) Steve Earle: "The Revolution Starts. . . Now"

Provocative line: "In your own backyard, in your own hometown — so what you doin' standing around?" - M.K.

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