Roy Zimmerman reZists in hilarious and moving contemporary topical songs

The Trump Era has not been without its joyous moments—courts denying him the right to implement some of his most noxious policy moves, elections (Virginia! Alabama!) going 180 degrees away from his endorsements, mass demonstrations showing the still vibrant commitment to democracy in America, and a flourishing of protest culture, some of it fleeting and some destined to leave a permanent legacy.

Singer/songwriter Roy Zimmerman has been on tour with his songs, his expressive vocal delivery and his magical hands on the guitar for a number of years. Perhaps you’ve run into him here or there. I have a few times, and each occasion is a revelation, not only of his continued mastery at songwriting and performance but of the historical hour with his amusing, pointed patter.

Based in Northern California, Roy just turned 60, and frequently cowrites songs with his wife Melanie Harby, an accomplished performer in her own right. He has a versatile baritone voice with a remarkable range and special effects, and easily holds the stage for a full evening’s performance without flagging.

Roy is joy. Joy in the art of throwing banana cream poetry in politicians’ pusses, joy in crafting memorable words and lyrics, joy in finding the right catchy hook for a chorus, joy in creating tunes audiences will sing along with, joy in waking you up to a subject you didn’t know was worthy of a song and finding a meaning in it far deeper than you imagined, joy in the struggle, joy in being alive.

Roy Zimmerman is today’s musical satirist and topical timely commentator in the tradition of folks like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Earl Robinson, Marc Blitzstein, Yip Harburg, Tom Lehrer, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, the Prince Myshkins, Charlie King, Billy Bragg, Holly Near (I really don’t mean to slight the women, but offhand it would appear this special calling tends to be mostly a male thing). If those artists ever meant anything to you in your past years of activism, then Roy is your man today.

“Sometimes I think satire is the most hopeful form of expression,” he says, “because in calling out the world’s absurdities and laughing in their face, I’m affirming the real possibility for change.”

His new video of ReZist, a suite of 17 mostly new songs, has just come out. It was filmed live at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, a storied venue in Santa Monica, Calif., on July 23, 2017.

This collection of material is about our “whole new political landscape,” he says on stage. “Unfortunately it’s a Jackson Pollock.” Roy does presume a certain amount of currency both in today’s news and in the musical trends and cultural figures of the past. He’s not shy about talking about age and aging, particularly in his song “Psychedelic Relic,” which references the 1967 Summer of Love, the Beatles, acid trips, the attraction of Indian musical tropes, 8-track tapes. He knows some of the New Left crowd will be in his audiences: “If you still believe in peace and love…you’re a psychedelic relic.”

But he gets into many current issues as well. “Abstain With Me” cuts into the insanity of abstinence-only sex education. “It’s a little like saying, ‘Just hold it potty training.’” He comes across as a sophomore purring to his lover to be celibate with him “all night long.” This doesn’t make it into the song, but in places where abstinence is the only approach taught, sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies are more common: Young people simply don’t know what they’re doing.

Other songs touch on gun control, or the absence thereof: “Our words say we’re so sorry, and our actions say, Who cares?” “Old Man Fibber” takes on Sen. Mitch McConnell’s lies and heartlessness on health care: “He just keeps rollin’ the con.” “Summer of Loving” commemorates Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that finally banned the ban on interracial marriage, throwing out Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. Roy drolly quips: “‘Act” was spelled with three K’s for some reason.” Speaking of the KKK, another song is “Pixie Man,” nailing Jeff Secessions for his pack of lies.

“Religious Freedom (To Burn Our Own Witches)” is a quick history of the subject in these United States, beginning with the Puritans’ “freedom to oppress in the name of righteousness” and taking us through Thanksgiving, the Salem witch trials (they were actually drowned and stoned, not burned, but whatever), the Biblically sanctioned slavery built into the American Revolution, the Civil War, and up to the current “bathroom laws” in North Carolina and elsewhere. According to Roy Zimmerman, what too many Americans really mean to say is, “I’m free to practice my religion, and you’re free to practice mine.”

A few of his songs take on the aspect of movement anthems. He does a riff on top of the audience singing “We Shall Overcome,” and in his original song “Hope, Struggle and Change” he reviews all the movements for freedom that folks here worked so long and hard to bring about. “Change will come but it won’t be easy.”

In “My Vote, My Voice, My Right” he hones in on today’s voter suppression movement and how the current tactics are just the latest re-dos of old established ways of preventing the “wrong” people from exercising their electoral rights, how there always was this urge in some quarters “trying to get the voting out of politics.”

“Right now I feel the whole country is texting and driving,” Roy remarks.

“I get accused of ‘preaching to the choir,'” he says, “but that’s not how I think of it. I think of it as ‘entertaining the troops.’” He finds “blue dots” everywhere he goes, people in red districts valiantly pursuing more justice in their communities.

Most of his songs involve clever lyrics, fresh, unexpected rhymes, and good cheer, but on one or two he turns intensely, deadly serious. Such as “DWB,” which opens with the voice of the cop asking the driver he’s just pulled over, “Do you know how black you were going?” A series of wordplays shows the cop can only see the blackness, not the humanity, in his prey. “You can’t breathe? That’s what they all say.” Profoundly sobering.

Roy’s final song is “I Approve This Message,” a modern-day tribute to the multiculturalism and broad humanity of this nation, a sort of Earl Robinson-John Latouche Ballad for Americans for our time.

There’s lots more great material in this highly satisfying 68-minute concert video.

A link to “Religious Freedom (To Burn Our Own Witches”) can be found here.

Videos of “Psychedelic Relic,” “My TV,” “Abstain With Me,” “My Vote, My Voice, My Right” and “I Approve This Message,” as well as others of his songs from different shows and albums are here,

Roy Zimmerman’s website, with ordering information for ReZist and other CDs and merch is here. Check out his gig list, too: He may be coming to a venue near you very soon, and he is truly a treat to experience in person.

Anyone who’s read this far will totally enjoy viewing ReZist on their home video system. But really the best way to see it is with friends. Better yet, show it at your next gathering to plan the rally, the protest, the electoral strategy for that turn-red-to-blue vote coming up that you know is within your grasp, maybe as a fundraiser/potluck for a community group you’re involved with. This is music to share with comrades and friends.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic. His latest project is translating the fiction of Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese. The first two books, "Five Days, Five Nights" and "The Six-Pointed Star," are available from International Publishers NY.