David Rovics’ songs of social significance

David Rovics, indie musical activist, makes his living writing and performing what he calls “songs of social significance” – a line that’s truthful and alliterative, but in no way encapsulates the insight, rage, and occasional whimsy of the artist’s corpus. Rovics produces some of the best music available today, but as he notes in a song, ”Why Don’t They Play You On the Radio?” “maybe I’m too red or maybe I’m too green” to make it to the mainstream radio.

His songs have an honest, folky sound, and his lyrics are far from meek. In some cases, he plays it up – the contrast between his harsh words and his calm voice highlights the difference between the world as it is and the world as it should be. Concern for the welfare of people and anger at their oppressors come through loud and clear in most of his songs. “I think inevitably and naturally this kind of rage is naturally inextricably intertwined with love,” he said.

Rovics comes from a family of classical musicians, but was drawn to populist themes early on. Today his material reflects rampant social and economic injustice. He tours the world and lends his voice to many movements on the left, recently including Occupy and  the Greek resistance to austerity policies.

“I would say that the underlying root cause of pretty much most of the things that I write about can be boiled down to in a real broad way to the conflict between the haves and the have-nots,” he said recently.

Rovics has an unusually keen sense of history and the struggles of working people. His songs “The Last Lincoln Veteran”,  ”Sugihara”,and  ”St. Patrick’s Battalion”, are some examples – in all of these songs, he tells the stories of heroic people who chose to do the right thing in spite of the demands made by their governments. Unfortunately, most today are unaware of these histories. “I think people need to tell about this history and need to be inspired by this history. Oftentimes the most inspiring stories and episodes in history are the ones that people don’t really know about,” said Rovics.

According to him, that’s not a coincidence. Even if Clear Channel doesn’t recognize his genius, some very big names in the music industry do. Tom Morello, guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, independently known as The Nightwatchman, has quoted one of Rovics’ songs, “Halliburton Boardroom Massacre.” The two artists recently collaborated on a track for one of Rovics’ newest albums. The song is London is Burning”,  about police violence and systemic racial injustice.

In Rovics’ opinion, we can expect great things from Morello’s new band, Street Sweeper Social Club. He believes their great sound and Tom Morello’s name will give them the rare opportunity to successfully work as leftists in the corporate music environment.

Rovics does a fantastic job of portraying much of what’s wrong with our world. But if injustice is the disease, what’s the remedy? “What we need is well organized militant mass movements,” he said. And after the revolution?  Apparently he’s planning to learn to play the accordion.

A full length interview with David Rovics will appear in Political Affairs on 3/13/13. He will be performing live on 3/15/13 at the LLC Performance Hall, 1475 East 15th Avenue, Eugene, Oregon, at 6:00 PM in a benefit for The Peoples World.

Photo: David Rovics