David Rovics: the remembering tradition

Submitted by Matthew on 27 May, 2010 - 2:49 Author: Tom Unterrainer

Tom Unterrainer went to listen to David Rovics singing his songs.

I remember Warsaw

We stood side by side

The Star of David flew above the ghetto

There we lived and there we died

“I remember Warsaw”, David Rovics

American radical culture has suffered a number of notable losses of late. Most recently Howard Zinn, and before him Utah Phillips, Kurt Vonnegut and Studs Terkel have passed from the scene of the living, to be remembered by their words and music alone.

These were great losses indeed, all the more so for us British-based America-philes who have admired the distinct, “dissident” political and artistic voices that found space in the mass of cosmopolitan America but failed to experience them first hand.

One thing that linked Zinn, Phillips and the others — but by no means the only common association — was their act of remembering. Not reminiscing for purely romantic reasons, though a helping of romanticism does no harm, but remembering for a reason.

The reason? To educate and arm their brothers and sisters with the knowledge of things past in preparation for the struggles to come.

David Rovics, a singer-songwriter “folk” musician, stands in that remembering tradition.

From Dublin City to San Diego

We witnessed freedom denied

So we formed the Saint Patrick Battalion

And we fought on the Mexican side

“The Saint Patrick Battalion’

Ranging through history, taking in everything from the 1846 Mexican-American war in “The Saint Patrick Battalion”, the life of Boxcar Betty all the way to the recent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Rovics sings and talks us through the events that shaped and continue to shape individual lives and the life of our movement.

But Rovics is not only concerned with the “big events” and “big personalities” of the near and distant past. Remembering his friends and comrades in struggle in the here-and-now is just as important. The song written for Brad Will, the activist-photographer murdered by police during the Oaxaca uprising, stands out.

Away from personal stories and historical events, Rovics turns his eye to the contemporary political scene: here he is uncompromising but often funny.

Rovics is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) and has little time for either the “poseurs” that litter the anarchist scene (“I’m a better anarchist than you”) or for the myriad socialist organisations he encounters (‘Vanguard’: “Worker's World says that they have all the answers, And Milosevic is a guy that they admire”). I suspect he’d have little time for my own politics, though who knows?

If Rovics is often hilariously acerbic when dealing with the idiocies he sees close at hand, his critical gaze is less than comprehensive. This should neither surprise us nor lead us to ignore what he has to say and the way he goes about saying it.

After all, he’s not in the business of writing big fat books or orientating an entire movement. He’s a political singer in the populist tradition, and as such he’s a few paces removed from those often whimsical singers and groups that have recently emerged in the mini-folk renaissance of late.

Another difference between Rovics and the new wave of folk groups is that his main audiences are distinctly “activist” and political. So when I managed to see Rovics live, he was a support act for Attila the Stockbroker in a tiny pub room in Leicester. I don’t suppose Rovics minds such small audiences and such small venues — in times like these, it is to be expected.

Through Rovics’ music, we know that much more is possible: that we have resisted in the past and that we will resist again.

With every bomb that they drop, every home they destroy

Every land they invade

Comes a new generation from under the rubble

Saying "we are not afraid"

They will pretend we are few

But with each child that a billion mothers bear

Comes the next demonstration

That we are everywhere

‘We are everywhere’

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