El Fanático

Some of those voices, Bob Dylan's especially, excited the outrage of the most richly provisioned generation in history against the bomb, the war, the racists, the petty consumers, the greedy owners, and the big polluters. Seeger's "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" and Malvina Reynolds's "Little Boxes" can still catalyze the solution of outrage and ridicule that is the peculiar chemistry of a protest song. Less well-remembered voices, like Mark Spoelstra's, over a plangently tolling 12-string, still summon the absurdity and horror of atomic war, as 14-year-old Janis Ian's does the hurt of racial hypocrisy. Even the tortured Phil Ochs's hairsplitting "Links on the Chain," scolding the labor unions for dropping the ball on civil rights, still echoes the righteous indignation that, as Yeats wrote on Swift's tombstone, can lacerate his heart no more.

People experience the injuries wrought upon them, and achieve their compensations in ecstasy, as individuals. Groups suffer oppression and poverty, but people bear them privately. In hearts broken by injustice, the romance of revolution burns hot and long. But a protest song is a song before it is anything else—and after the passions of the moment have faded it can succeed only as music. The Smithsonian Folkways' The Best of Broadside, with its 89 tracks and 158-page booklet, makes for absorbing reading and inconsistent listening. It is a scrapbook for an idealism that as always on the Left found satisfaction as much from the discharge of anger as from practical application of it, and for those whose idealism remains intact it will be a place to revisit the unbroken promise that is the glamour of youth.

Lightnin' Hopkins, Chris Strachwitz, and friend
photo: Arhoolie Records
Lightnin' Hopkins, Chris Strachwitz, and friend


Arhoolie’s 40th Anniversary Collection, 1960–2000, "The Journey of Chris Strachwitz"
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Smithsonian Folkways' The Best of Broadside 1962–1988: Anthems of the American Underground From the Pages of Broadside Magazine
Smithsonian Folkways
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It is tempting to think of these CD box sets as complete works, the inventoried estates of lives completed as much as of a songsheet or a record label. All those songs we never heard or heard of, all those record albums we lingered over and didn't buy or never came across at all, all those unsatisfied but expired hungers for being and belonging, CD treasuries offer, belatedly, to restore. But time will not be hoarded. Now that digital reproduction has opened the vaults, and the libidinal labor of the years has accumulated in quantities that defy possession in any meaningful sense, we face the question of how to process this great harvest of human souls for human use. Like recovered memories, they are as much invented as retrieved. They belong neither to past nor present but to a possible future in which they might be read again into the proceedings of a living world.

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