The children of Woody Guthrie

November 19, 2009

Never underestimate the ability for pop culture to water down its most firebrand figures--especially after they're dead. Luckily, there are people like Antonino D’Ambrosio. His book Let Fury Have the Hour: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer, released in 2003, is essential reading for anyone who wants to learn who the Clash front man really was. D'Ambrosio's new book A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears is a passionate examination of Cash's album protesting the conditions for Native peoples in the early 1960s.

Here, D'Ambrosio takes to Alexander Billet about the new book, his influences, and his thoughts on music and politics.

THERE ARE a lot of folks who say that art, and specifically music, doesn't mix with politics. But a lot of your writing, from Let Fury Have the Hour to A Heartbeat and a Guitar and many of your articles, takes a different point of view. What do you have to say to these people?

I THINK that's probably one of the most political statements you can make. When people say that art and politics shouldn't mix, or there are artists who say that their work doesn't reflect the current political climate, that's more political than when Cash did Bitter Tears in my opinion.

What I mean is that you're taking a very strong stance in support of the current dominant political ideology or system--that you're willing to remain on the surface in the hopes of not damaging your career. It's kind of a crass opportunism.

I also think it's not a very sophisticated view, because we all live in a political structure--we're all informed by it, we're all shaped by it, and we all respond to it every day. The very nature of the comment that says, "I'm not political," is very sad on one hand, and it's also very harmful, because I think the most important thing about art is its ability to try to achieve the pursuit of the truth.

Joe Strummer of the Clash
Joe Strummer of the Clash

That's what the power of art really is, whether it's Picasso's "Guernica," or Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears--those pieces of art respond to a certain human condition arising out of politics. And they tell the truth about their situation!

DO YOU think a lot of that view that art and politics don't mix is informed by the way we're taught about politics? You know, we're told that politics is something you only do every two or four years in a voting booth. Do you think that has a lot to do with it?

OF COURSE! There's a great deal of de-politicization that goes on in this country. And that's one of the reasons why in my work I try to uplift "popular culture"--not "pop culture" but "popular culture," because I distinguish between the two. Like the work of the Clash or Johnny Cash, or "Guernica," or Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"--these were popular culture works informed by politics that helped to change things. I don't think art can change things on its own, but it can help; it can create inspiration for people to aspire to get involved.

So, of course, there's a manipulation, and the media's very effective in its use of a kind of soft power through pop culture. Even the way the news is now; it's much more info-tainment than it is actual journalism. Stories will be skewed, they'll be off-balance, and when you have that, you undermine critical thinking.

When that happens then you really get into a situation where people may shy away from fighting for change. They may get into a routine, but again, that's where art like Bitter Tears comes in because it can rip off the scar tissue and try to really heal the wounds that plague this country.

WHAT YOU said about the news definitely rings true. Compared to alternative media, mainstream news seems to be deliberately sealing itself in a bubble. You can see that in a lot of pop culture, too--a refusal to address the world at large.

ABSOLUTELY. TO me, it's part of the American exceptionalism that grew out of the Reagan era. That notion that says, "America is the greatest country in the world," is a big problem because real art is made by what I call "citizen artists": people who can't help but see themselves as citizens not just of one country, but of the world. And that requires you to see yourself as interconnected and interdependent with the people outside your door and the people that are thousands of miles away.

I think any really good art--and you can apply this to almost any area of society--manages to do that. You're not always going to be successful, but you have to attempt. And that itself is a great challenge to the divisiveness and the power of the elite that reigns across the country.

THE POWER to break down divisions is something you go into with your own experience in the beginning of Let Fury Have the Hour, when you describe first hearing the Clash's song "Clampdown." It sounds like that was one of the major moments that set you down the path you're on now, and it's probably an experience that countless people have had themselves with music. Could you describe that experience?

WHEN I was 12 years old, my cousin had this kind of audio room--stereo systems were huge back then. And I remember that day clearly, because it was also the first time I heard the Replacements, the Jam and Elvis Costello--it was a transformative time for me. I was like, "Wow!" because it was filled with the sounds of the world to me! You could feel it! There was an energy and a spirit in that music that had been lacking before.

That being said, my parents were immigrants and came here in the '60s, and my mom was greatly informed by Elvis, the Beatles and also by John Lennon, so I remember that very clearly. But the transformative moment was when my cousin put the needle of that record player down on "Clampdown."

Hearing that story about working-class struggle--you know "wearing blue and brown," that's something my uncles would wear. I remember thinking that they weren't just talking to me, but they were telling my story. I was only 12 years old, so I guess you could say that at that moment, my world became bigger than my one block.

It's something that set me off in trying to seek out the music that influenced the Clash. The Clash was influenced by all kinds of sounds. So that's how I got to Jimmy Cliff, and Toots and the Maytals, and lots of different reggae. And I got into American roots music because of the Clash: blues. I got into cumbia when I was 14 years old--music that I probably never would have heard in my life where I grew up. And it's all because of the Clash in that moment.

I think music can do that the way other art forms can't. This is something I write about in Let Fury Have the Hour and A Heartbeat and a Guitar--that music is art's story about life. There's something that's very transcendent about music, but also something that is deeply personal.

THE POWER to break down boundaries is something you go out of your way to talk about when you examine the influences of the artists you profile. In doing so, you show that so many of the most influential artists in music have been people who stood for something.

TO ME, that's the very definition of humanism. You know, Joe Strummer and [Clash guitarist/vocalist] Mick Jones are two very intelligent and curious human beings. Johnny Cash was the same way; he was very, very smart. And whenever you're able to explore yourself in relation to the world, I think it's almost impossible to not seek out in defense and in support of the very human conditions that trouble you.

If you really look at all the artists who have been influential in their day, they can be progressive in their work and progressive in their life.

AND THAT'S not a coincidence either. I think a lot of people may read that and think it's just happenstance, but I don't think so.

NO, I think that the more they drill down deep within their soul, the wider their world view gets. And I think that Johnny Cash was a great example of that. The "Walk the Line" metaphor is very interesting to me, because everyone knows that song along with "The Man in Black" and "Folsom Prison" and songs like that. But the line he really walked and really kind of tiptoed on gracefully wasn't love--although, you could say he had great love for his fellow human beings--but he had this way of being clever and getting his message out there that transcends political platitudes.

That's something that both Strummer and Cash share: a very real sincerity and authenticity in who they are, and also a willingness to be completely open. I think that kind of openness is important to being creative because it's not always about the posturing of being a celebrity or superstar. That's an important thing--especially with Johnny Cash.

While Strummer might have had a bit more of a comfortable life growing up, Cash had the whole gamut: he grew up in rural poverty, had struggles with his family, and he had his own battles with addiction. And I think that complexity, that messiness in their lives and how they created was important to show to people, because that's the way we all are. That's the way the world is. It's not polished.

That's something I really try to pull out in my work. I want to cut against "Johnny Cash the Hero" or "Johnny Cash the Genius." Same thing with Joe Strummer or any of these artists. These guys don't work in a vacuum. They live within a society just like we do, and they're affected by the social upheavals that are happening around them just like we are.

They tell the stories that need to be told. These are the people we need; they create what I call "sonic documentaries" of an important time in world history that, without their voices, we may not know about.

I mean Bitter Tears is 45 years old, and it's the only record that I can really point to by an artist of this caliber that takes up this issue, and the issues of Native people haven't gone away either. Bitter Tears stands as a testament to that time and that struggle. I mean, the Native part of our population is almost invisible in this country--it's like they don't even exist. And that's troubling.

STRUMMER AND Cash haven't been dead that long, and yet there already seems to be a push to mainstream their legacy--to sanitize them and make them safe for consumption. Do you think there's a need today for us to remember what set artists like them apart in the first place--their rebellious nature and willingness to tell the truth?

I SEE it as an act of cultural rescue. It's reclaiming a culture that can get calcified in myth and cemented into caricature. I mean the folk scene--I never paid attention to it! I used to think, "Oh my god, this is so cheese ball" and things like that. But then I kind of fell into it while researching A Heartbeat and a Guitar, and you meet people like Peter La Farge or Tom Paxton or Buffy Sainte-Marie, who are just phenomenal musicians and incredibly courageous and beautiful human beings that care about the state of the world.

It's something that I see as an obligation in my own work--to say, "This is not the way it really was." There are always certain things that rise to the surface in looking at this history that become the dominant way of seeing things because they're comfortable to see. And that may be a part of the whole picture, but the other 90 percent is unknown. That's certainly true with Johnny Cash. And what I tried to do in my book is flip on its head the way that Johnny Cash is used today

A lot people think of him as playing at "Folsom Prison," or as "The Man in Black," which is a phenomenal song, and what he did for prisoners was great, too. But if you listen to Live From Folsom Prison, it's essentially a greatest hits album. Bitter Tears is the only album he made that is dedicated entirely to one social issue. He made that in '64, at a time when the country was just awash with division. And he made that album then! This was a risky venture for Cash--unwittingly for him. But it was a creative obligation for him too, because he considered himself a folksinger. Joe Strummer did, too.

ONE OF the things you really drive home in A Heartbeat and a Guitar is that kind of folksinger tradition--not just the stories that are told but, how effectively they're related in the songs. That kind of storytelling is largely forgotten today in much of pop music. The exception to this would definitely be hip-hop--and that's a pretty big exception given how dominant hip-hop culture is today.

AT MY book launch recently, someone asked me, "Who are the new folk musicians?" And my view, just my view about punk, is that it's much broader than that one genre. I think that Chuck D and Public Enemy are great folk musicians, because they're telling stories. And if you listen to these records a hundred years from now, they're going to be valuable, important and interesting.

Hip-hop today is most certainly the most vibrant kind of "folk" music out there now. Of course, so much of it has been co-opted by the system. But I think that anyone who aspires to really reach people with their music has to be a storyteller--they have to be interested in what's happening around them. Are people in love? Do they have opportunity? Do they hope? Do they have freedom or justice? These are basic elements that are key to survival.

That's why Bob Dylan found such success by being a folksinger first. And that's why Johnny Cash returned to it with Bitter Tears--because he was so influenced by the Carter Family and Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. These guys were the traditional musicians of the era and they got that way by writing folk songs--songs about folks.

LOOKING AROUND the world, young people really are getting the shaft. They say the recession is ending but unemployment is still going up, and I can't think of a time when people are more in need of art that reconfirms their humanity. Are there any musical rebels around today that are carrying on this kind of tradition?

THAT'S A tough question. When you're talking about Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer, you're talking about extremely successful musicians. Are there musicians of that kind of level of success like them in this country today? I'd have to say no. I could say Manu Chao, I could say Rachid Taha, I could say Caetano Veloso, or Mercedes Sosa who just died, or Los Fabulosos Cadillacs. These are huge bands with big followings around the world.

Here in the U.S., though, the artists who are saying something are not at that level yet: the Ted Leos, the Radio 4s, the Mos Defs. Mos Def is more out in there in pop culture through his acting now, but his music is incredible! Black On Both Sides is a tour-de-force record. But when it comes down to how well-known he is in the culture, Jay-Z just trounces him. I could walk outside my Brooklyn door right now and ask 10 kids in one block, "Who do you like better? Mos Def or Jay-Z?" and I'd be willing to bet that nine of them would say Jay-Z.

There are scores of artists that say something, but they're just not at level where they're affecting the wider culture the way that Johnny Cash or Joe Strummer did. Green Day is at that level, and American Idiot is a powerful statement. I would say certainly Green Day is there, but they're an exception. But we're also in a period of transition right now.

THAT'S DEFINITELY true; things are changing really quickly right now. If you look at "indie" culture--which has come to include not just rock but folk and hip-hop artists--it's becoming the dominant culture among kids. Mos Def, Ted Leo and Radio 4 are all incredibly popular in the indie milieu too. And I think a lot of indie's popularity has to do with the crisis the music industry is in: kids can go to the Internet to find a wider scope of music than the industry is willing to allow. Do you think this might make it easier for artists who are saying something to rise to a greater level of popularity?

I THINK that's absolutely true. And I would also throw in Thievery Corporation and TV On the Radio. And I would definitely include Antibalas! The reason I think they're one of the best bands in the country right now is that they're reflective of the kind of change we need in the world. You know, they've got a 15-piece orchestra with members from all over the world, they're from all different backgrounds and ethnicities--and I think that's more representative of where we're headed.

YOU MEAN something more all-encompassing and organic?

RIGHT, BECAUSE more people see that the consolidation and the vertical integration of the capitalist system is not working, and that goes for pop culture too. When I came up, when I was a young kid in the '80s and going into the '90s as a teenager, 7-inches dominated my life from all these independent labels like Touch 'N' Go. And they'd teach me something new, I'd discover new music through them.

IT'S ALMOST as if the mp3 has become the modern-day 7-inch: it's compact, it's just a snippet of an artist, but it's a lot more accessible than an overpriced CD is, and it allows people to discover new music.

I THINK that's a good way to put it. I think that this is a very hopeful time that we need to seize. The window is starting to close, but it's not closing as quickly as I thought it would. So we really have an opportunity here to level the playing field and create a reality where the hundreds and hundreds of bands that don't make it or the bands that have something to say have room as artists so that they can contribute to the wider culture.

YOU MENTIONED Antibalas. One of my favorite things their horn section did recently was show up on Jimmy Fallon's late night show, where the Roots are now the house band. And they appeared with Public Enemy and the Roots doing a version of "Bring the Noise" that was out of this world! The Roots have always had an incredibly political edge to them, and that performance really illustrates what's possible to me right now in terms of getting real rebel music out there to a wide audience--and also some of the challenges.

IT'S INTERESTING that you say that because I've become good friends with some of the guys in Antibalas, and one of the guys--Martin, who plays the bari sax--was giving me the background behind the Roots becoming Jimmy Fallon's house band. And the reality was that it provided them with the stability they needed.

For, years I've thought that the Roots are one of the best bands in America, but it's hard staying out on the road when you get older and you've got families. But I'd rather have the Roots around than not. It's also that we can't be so rigid and slipping into thinking that you're more pure than anyone else because when you do the same thing as people that you're trying to oppose.

I think performances like that, when they reach a wide audience, can be incredibly powerful. And you couldn't ask for better spokespeople than the Roots, Chuck D and Antibalas. These are real musicians!

What I mean by that is that they breathe the history of music, which means that they understand and contextualize that history--not just by their music but by their very presence. That's so much more powerful than Kevin Eubanks on the Jay Leno Show. I don't want to diminish Kevin Eubanks, but the difference between him and the Roots is kind of like the difference between Britney Spears and the Clash.

GIVEN ALL this, do you think there's room for the legacies of Cash and Strummer to continue on and be revived?

I DO. I'm always ultimately hopeful and optimistic because there are always going to be artists out there who respond to the moment. They're going to produce work that becomes the next chapter in the progressive movement of humanity. I think ultimately, in a way, music is that.

The very idea of making music is a rebellious act. The Reagan ideology we were talking about has been proven as not sustainable. And a lot of the kind of shallow pop culture that's out there today for the most part is not sustainable. I'll put it this way: you're not going to hear Creed or Nickelback 50 years from now. What you will hear is TV On the Radio.

Alexander Billet's music blog is Rebel Frequencies.

Further Reading

From the archives