SPECIAL EDITION: Songs For Today, an Album Tour

Note to readers of my column:  I normally organize my weekly missives in such a way that they work almost as well in written form as they do in podcast form.  This week is a bit different — this week’s podcast doesn’t just involve a song at the end that’s related to the subject at hand, but the podcast is about the album, and includes all 13 songs on it, interspersed.  But if you want to read all about the album without listening to it, keep reading!


From 10 am until about 9 pm on Wednesday, May 29th, I was working with an award-winning musician, producer, engineer and studio owner named Billy Oskay, along with his assistant engineer, Peter Wells, to record 13 songs.  We took a few minutes off to chat or have a snack or make some coffee now and then, but otherwise it was noses to the grindstone.  The result, by the end of the day, is my latest solo acoustic studio album, titled Songs For Today, in the form of 13 very high-quality WAV files that I put into a Dropbox folder.  For now, I’m making the album exclusively available to members of my CSA, or Community-Supported Art program, where everyone who signs up gets access to a folder with 42 albums in it, some of which are only available to CSA members, such as my latest.  But if you don’t mind listening to me ramble on about each song before you hear it, you can also take in the album by listening to this special edition of my weekly podcast — This Week with David Rovics episode 44.

I’ve never done a tour of an album in a podcast, but I also wasn’t doing podcasts when I made any of my previous 41 albums, and it seemed like a good idea.  For a variety of reasons, but partly because it works well with the theme of several of my recent missives related to the economic and other logistical realities of being a working, independent musician.  What, exactly, goes in to making an album?  Where did these songs come from?  What was involved with writing and recording them?  It seems like a worthwhile topic to explore, using this album to do it, one song at a time.

Before I continue, for people who enjoy this podcast and the music within it, if you’re able to join my CSA that would be amazing, and you can do that by going to davidrovics.com/subscribe.  If that’s beyond your means, don’t worry about it, but feel free to tell other folks about it who you may know, who like my music and also might be more gainfully-employed than you or I are.  Also please feel free to let folks know that they can hear this podcast by searching for This Week with David Rovics on any of the usual podcasting platforms.

The album is called Songs For Today, but I almost called it Somewhere On Spotify.  I decided against that title, not exactly sure why, but anyway, the album both begins and ends with songs related to a particular struggling profession with which I am most intimately familiar — the independent, touring, recording musician.  Most of the songs on the album were written over the course of the past 9 months or so, but the first and last songs on the album are both songs I wrote the most recently, during the past month.

What predicated both of these songs, along with other songs I’ve written on related subjects, is decades of experience as a touring musician, working in a collapsing industry.  Having been on Spotify and most other streaming platforms since they came into existence, it was fairly obvious that this was going to be the music industry’s game plan to do what they could to recoup their losses and that it would be their newest method of screwing struggling independent artists around the world.  Recently I’ve read extensively on the subject and have discovered that my suspicions are shared by many people who know much more about the details than I do.*

A little over a year ago I got word from folks in Manitoba that plans were afoot to commemorate the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.  The folk festival organizers and labor organizers in Manitoba who had brought me there on a couple occasions in the past were planning to do it again, for the first time in at least six years, as far as I could recall.  This gave me plenty of time to read up on the history of the strike, and write a song about it, which I eventually did last December.

I was already familiar with a lot of the context of the heady times the strike took place in — the 1910’s, with the backdrop of wars, revolutions, and many other general strikes in many other countries, including in other cities in Canada.  Reading the many accounts of the strike which emphasized the total solidarity in the city of Winnipeg among native-born Canadians, immigrants of all kinds, veterans of the First World War, non-veterans, unionized and non-unionzed workers, and even ultimately the police themselves, the chorus hit me.  I wrote the song as if I had been there, and obviously I wasn’t, so on a couple different levels one’s disbelief must be suspended, but that’s how it is when you’re writing from someone else’s perspective, which is a fine thing to do on a regular basis, I find.  And although I wasn’t there myself, I can be sure that when I say “if you weren’t there you’ll never know just what it was like when the whole city went on strike,” this is true — for me, too.  I can only dream — and write.*

As a regular consumer of lots of world news in various forms, I’ve been closely following the ongoing and worsening economic situation in Venezuela that has been unfolding over recent years, particularly since the death of Hugo Chavez, who I opened for in Copenhagen in 2009, and who I wrote a song about before that.

Without, if possible, tooting my own horn in some narcissistic way, I think it’s interesting to briefly explore what exactly goes into writing a song like the third track on the album, “In Venezuela.”  How would we break it down?  Partly I just find it an interesting question because Spotify values one stream at one one-tenth of one cent, which strikes me as elitist.  Also because I, along with lots of other musicians, am often in the position of being asked to do a gig and being told that we will be paid “traveling expenses.”  I always wonder exactly how this amorphous concept is defined, especially when they know they’re talking to a musician who is not from their country.  Traveling expenses from the last city I played in to the city you’re in?  Or traveling expenses from Oregon to Europe?  Do these “expenses” include food and lodging?  How about paying the rent back at home and feeding the kids?  And so on.

On the surface, obviously the song was written after extensively following developments in Venezuela, amounting to hundreds of hours of news programs from many different news outlets from many different countries and many different perspectives, as well as a similar amount of written material from a similar variety of sources.  The perspective behind the song, though it’s a short song, also required that I understand the nuances involved in terms of the current government of Venezuela not being without fault, but also not being primarily responsible for the current mess.  Nowhere in the song do I present a black and white perspective, though this can obviously be inferred by anyone who really wants to infer one, given the small amount of information that you can really have in a decently-written song.  Equally, the perspective in the song also required an extensive knowledge of Latin American history and the history of US imperialism in the world more broadly and in Venezuela in particular.

As with all of the songs on this album, I’m using an open tuning called DADGAD, which I first learned from listening to the Scottish musician, Dick Gaughan, and then later discovered among many other players in the Scottish and Irish traditional music scenes especially.  The dissonant chords that feature prominently in this song are ones I adapted from listening to, touring with, and learning from Scottish master guitarist, Alistair Hulett, before his untimely death.*

There are many songs about events that took place which I never would have heard about if I didn’t travel so much.  It also helps that at least some people know I’m always interested in hearing about things that someone thinks would make a good song.  Last year was when I first learned of the trial of the Rotherham 12, in the small, struggling, post-industrial northern English city of Rotherham.

Still today, if you mention the town of Rotherham in England, if anyone has heard of it, it has been in the context of tabloid press stories about Asian men grooming children to become victims in a pedophilia ring.  To read the English tabloids, you would think that all the Asian men in Rotherham were pedophiles, though obviously we’re talking about a tiny minority, and no larger percentage than there is within the broader population.  Groups of Nazis capitalized on the situation by holding monthly anti-Asian rallies in Rotherham.

The fact that the police steered an anti-Nazi march directly in front of a group of Nazis, essentially forced a confrontation, and then went about actively vilifying and prosecuting the Asian men who defended themselves against Nazis, is still little-known in England, or anywhere else in the world.  But in the town of Rotherham, the trial saw many people from all walks of life mobilized in defense of these innocent men, who were ultimately acquitted.

I only heard about the Rotherham 12 last year, from Love Music, Hate Racism organizers in the area who were putting together a gig for me, who were also very much involved with the solidarity campaign.  The song went through several revisions before it got to its present state, as I checked with LMHR organizers as well as one member of the Rotherham 12 to make sure I was getting all my facts straight, and just as importantly, to make sure I was accurately representing the emotions behind the whole situation, particularly given that I’m again writing this song from the first person perspective, and I am myself neither from Rotherham or of Asian descent, and I was not on trial, either.

Musically, the song’s chords and structure once again owe a great debt to Alistair Hulett.  Fans of Alistair’s who are also serious guitarists might notice the unusual, dissonant chords in DADGAD in the song.  The other musician who was very influential in the guitar style employed in this song is Ani DiFranco.  I fell in love with her intense, percussive guitar style when I first heard her, in the 90’s.  I developed my own right-hand thump technique, to keep a steady rhythm in between chords and riffs, around 2011, I guess, and it started finding its way into many of my songs, especially ones I wrote around 2011 and 2012, but it crops up again frequently in more recent songwriting efforts to varying degrees.*

Jeremy Corbyn is the elected leader of the biggest political party, by membership, in all of Europe — the British Labor Party.  As an avid listener to BBC World Service and active consumer of other British media, I might have been forgiven for thinking that Jeremy Corbyn was either a pitchfork-bearing anarchist with a recently-contracted case of rabies, or some kind of a clown.  As a regular visitor to the island that contains England, Scotland and Wales, I know differently.  Jeremy Corbyn is a brilliant and morally upstanding human being.  Not only does he have a stellar voting record and great eloquence when it comes to explaining his very sensibly left wing positions on most everything, but he is a personal friend of friends of mine, and one of my best former gig organizers in England is now in his shadow cabinet.  I wrote this song last November.*

I have been writing songs about refugees for a long time now.  Partly this is because I write songs about historical and current events, and refugees figure prominently into them, in many different ways.  Also the reality of refugees and what people go through to get out of war zones is a phenomenon I have intimate second-hand experience with, being close friends with many refugees from many different war zones, from Guatemala to Afghanistan to Palestine.

But particularly since what became known as the refugee crisis of 2015 in Europe — which hit me hard, you could say, because Europe is where I do most of my touring these days, and being in the little niche I’m in, I did a lot of gigs in 2015 throughout Europe, and even a few in the US, with and in solidarity with refugees from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, and elsewhere — I became increasingly aware that what hit me so hard about this situation is partly how closely it resembled the kind of situation my own ancestors were in, when they fled wars in Europe for the relative safety of New York.

Shortly after writing the song, “My Great Grandparents,” last fall, I learned that at least on my father’s eastern European Jewish side of the family, I have a lot in common with Donald Trump’s xenophobic immigration czar, Stephen Miller, and Stephen Miller’s uncle, who so eloquently denounced everything his nephew stands for in an open letter he published soon after I wrote it.*

I guess track 7 is the only song on the album that was written more than a year ago.  I wrote “Is That A Girl Or A Boy” in 2015.  I don’t even have to look it up, because 2015 is the year I was mainly writing songs using an electric cello instead of a guitar as my main instrument for playing chords on, or some approximation thereof.  It was one of many “cello songs” that never made it on to the one album of cello-backed songs I made, Punk Baroque.  But pretty much every time I make a new album, I take some time to go over songs I’ve written over the past few years that have never made it onto an album.  There are many others I considered, but this is the only one I chose.  There were also many songs I wrote in the past year that also didn’t make the cut — not because they weren’t well-written songs, but mainly because I’m looking for a nice selection of different themes and different musical styles when I’m putting together an album, and a good album, like a good song, is generally best when it’s neither too short or too long.

The song was inspired by kids I’ve known who have preferred to dress in clothes that are popularly identified as belonging to a gender other than the one that they are generally identified with.  It’s a song for all the boys who like to wear dresses, and all the other gender-nonconformists.  It was also inspired by the beautiful children’s book, Jacob’s Dress, and by other experiences in my own personal exposure to and slow development of an understanding of what so many people around me have been going through for so long, just because they don’t conform to patriarchal gender stereotypes — gender norms and expectations which we would all be better off throwing out, I have come to believe.  My own teenage daughter, Leila, has been a big part of my education on that front as well.*

I was once again thinking so much about my daughter — at the time I only had one, now I have two daughters, as well as a son — last September, during the Supreme Court hearings and related activities going on around Brett Kavanaugh, who, of course, was confirmed as a member of the Supreme Court, where he now presides over us all.  Hearing the testimony of Dr. Blaisey-Ford, hearing his pleas of total ignorance, it brought me back to my teen years, growing up around the same time as they did, in the same culture, in which teenage male football players are given a massive carte blanche to behave in whatever misogynistic ways they want to, with no repercussions, leaving a trail of destruction, pain and anger in their wake.

Long before these particular hearings, though, I struggled with the idea of writing a song like the one I ended up writing, “Behind Closed Doors.”  My own feminist education has been a gradual one, and I didn’t want to write a song that somehow left me off the hook, or implied that I have always lived up to my own standards of behavior, or that my standards have always been what they are now.  I grew up in the same sorts of suburbs as they did.  I never behaved the way Brett Kavanaugh did, but I knew a lot of guys who did, like the entire football team in my high school one year.  They talked about ending the football program and suspending the entire team.  As I recall, they did neither, and the idea of criminal prosecutions wasn’t even on the table.

But listening to the way Blaisey-Ford described the party she was at, and the cultural environment and extreme forms of male entitlement around the football team in her suburb, in my suburb, I kept thinking of this one football player I knew from another town who bragged to me about how he got drunk and raped a fellow drunk teenager at a party they were both at one night.  He thought that his actions made him both cool and funny.  I didn’t think he was either cool or funny, but it wasn’t until last September that I started really wondering who was the girl he raped, and how has her life been over the past 35 years or so, since that kid told me about his horrifying accomplishments.  Then I thought about my own daughter, already in Middle School, soon going off into the world.*

The astute observer may have noticed thematic connections between songs appearing on the album.  Sometimes I opted for musical diversity and the changing of keys from one song to the next over thematic connection, while other times all those factors came together fine.  Tracks 4 and 5, about the Rotherham 12 and Jeremy Corbyn, are both about England, for example.  Tracks 7 and 8 are both related to gender and gender roles.  Tracks 2 and 3 are both about epic, world-historic struggles of the working class on Planet Earth.

Tracks 9-12 are all directly related to war and peace.  Track 9, “In ’68,” is an overview of some of the key events of 1968 on the streets of the US, France, southeast Asia and elsewhere.  The guitar part employs a bit of that thump I mentioned earlier, and some dissonant, Hulett-esque chords, played with a slightly funky right-hand part.

As with many other songs, this song was probably mainly written as a response to media coverage of 1968 that I was listening to throughout 2018, which did usually touch on protests as well as sex, drugs and rock and roll, but most of the coverage of the protests minimized them in terms of how much support the movement had, how global it was, how threatening it was to the powers-that-be around the world, and how much it changed the face of so many societies, despite the fact that the movement in the US, France and most other places was ultimately beaten back.  It may not be much consolation, but if not for certain social movements, things might be even worse now than they are.

The basic knowledge of history involved with writing a song like this involves a lifetime of reading history, news stories, traveling to key destinations, and personally knowing many of the people involved with this particular struggle, most of whom are still alive and currently in their seventies or eighties.*

I studied Political Economy at the Evergreen State College for a few months in the fall of 1993.  I was apparently unsuited for academia, and I didn’t last long, but I had a lot of nice walks through the beautiful, forested campus, I met a lot of nice people, and I attended a lot of fascinating lectures about politics and economics by Pete Bohmer, some of which I understood.  I wrote this song as a surprise for his 75th birthday, but after I wrote it I liked it so much that I had to put it on the album, so I might lose the element of surprise before his actual birthday party.*

A man from more or less the same generation as my professor, but on exactly the opposite end of the spectrum politically, was the late Senator John McCain.  He was celebrated by liberals and conservatives alike, for very mysterious reasons.  To me, he was nothing more or less than a war criminal.  Not just because he flew bombing missions over Vietnam as a young man, but because in his long life as a politician, he supported every war that ever came across his desk, and every military expenditure, at the expense of humanity — including his own.  This is my remembrance of Senator John McCain, who died last August.*

One of the biggest supporters of arming the criminal regime of Saudi Arabia and aiding the Saudi royal family in its apparent goal to completely destroy Yemen and kill all of the country’s inhabitants was Senator John McCain.  His own death came twenty days after the Saudi Air Force bombed a bus parked in a crowded outdoor market in Yemen, killing 44 children, among many others.  They were all from the same school, out on a school trip.

There were a couple songs on the album that were significantly reshaped by my producer for the album, Billy Oskay, and “Today In Yemen” was one of them.  Those of you who want to hear the difference can check out earlier versions of the song that you can find on the very first episode of my podcast, This Week with David Rovics.*

The last song on the album is, like the first one, about the struggle of the working musician in the post-piracy, for-profit streaming age.  It is my musical effort to encapsulate what it is we need to do — not to form an alternate platform or boycott the incredible infrastructure that we all now have at our fingertips in the form of platforms like Spotify, but to organize as a class against the ruling elite of Big Tech, as represented by predatory corporations such as Spotify, and their predatory companion corporations such as Uber and Facebook.  It is the theme song for the campaign I’m trying to get off the ground, which I’m calling the Penny Campaign for Streaming Justice.*

David Rovics is a songwriter, podcaster, and part of Portland Emergency Eviction Response. Go to artistsforrentcontrol.org to sign up to receive text notifications, so you can be part of this effort. Another Portland is possible. Read other articles by David, or visit David's website.