Musical Space: Protest Music
Kelly St. Pierre pinch hits for Mark Foley this week on Musical Space. Here's the audio of the on-air commentary, plus her extended conversation with KMUW's Fletcher Powell.
When I heard Arlo Guthrie play at the Orpheum a few months ago, I decided that “Alice’s Restaurant” has to be one of the weirdest songs in music history. And not just because of Guthrie’s characteristic irony, but because “Alice’s Restaurant” is a protest song that somehow believes people will bother listening to the end.
Protest music, almost by definition, is for people who won’t listen; it’s a platform for an otherwise silenced group. Guthrie wasn’t silenced; he was somehow granted a good 18 minutes of stage time in “Alice’s Restaurant” to make his point. The voices represented in protest music are oppressed: Ice-T had to scream his “Cop Killer,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” had to be noisy to be heard. Protest songs that are pretty, like “We Shall Overcome,” are effective because of their singability so those oppressed can come together to form one, louder voice.
Guthrie invites many voices to unite by collectively singing the refrain to “Alice’s Restaurant” at the draft office, so that the song might become part of an “Anti-Massacre Movement.” But even though this is protest music, its length shows Guthrie’s was also a privileged, allied voice, and this is the reason that “Alice’s Restaurant” is a weird song. Other allies like Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young and Bob Dylan were heard, too, but Arlo Guthrie’s protest song compels the audience to keep listening through its 18 minutes, as though he wrote a protest song with time to spare, knowing the message would eventually come through.
The podcast 'playlist':
- Alice's Restaurant - Arlo Guthrie
- Strange Fruit - Billie Holiday
- Be My Husband - Nina Simone
- Bring the Noise - Public Enemy
- We Shall Overcome (version heard on podcast by Pete Seeger)
- Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock (specifically the Star-Spangled Banner)
- Reformation-era chants by Catholic and Protestant clergy (no audio available)