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(DV) gyaku: An Interview with Samm Bennett







Thoughts on the Meaning of “Protest” in Song:
An Interview with Samm Bennett

by gyaku
March 1, 2007

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Just over ten years ago, percussionist Samm Bennett made the move to Tokyo from his former home in New York City, where he had been active in the improvised music scene since the mid-1980s. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, and influenced by a wide range of musical genres -- from African traditional drumming, to free jazz, to country & western, to experimental -- Bennett has lent his musicianship and unique blend of rhythms and styles to countless groups, ensembles, and projects over the decades.

We met up with Samm at Cafe L'Ambre in Shinjuku to talk about the lyrics of his songs, his thoughts on social-political commentary in music, and the relation between simplicity and timelessness in musical expression.

gyaku: I wanted to ask you about some of the lyrics in your songs. You have one song called "Somewhere Between", with a passage that goes:

the people were primed

and the conditions were ripe for revolution

but then an awkward silence descended

on every dinner party in the land

everybody went home and cast the same old vote

as well as the first stone

so the men on the hill could get back to the business

of manufacturing the enemy

In the context of say American politics right now, [President] Bush is losing a lot of popularity, and his administration is having a lot of trouble manufacturing this enemy, but they're still trying to do it. We're approaching an election in the U.S., and it's very likely, or at least possible, that the Democrats will get in. I'm just wondering what is your perspective, from the point of view of this passage, on this situation?

Samm Bennett: Well, I guess that verse does kind of encapsulate a certain -- well, I don't want to say hopelessness -- but definitely a certain feeling of unavoidable continuation of the status quo, whether or not the people who happen to be in the White House at any given moment are Democrats or Republicans. I'd certainly, generally speaking, rather see Democrats being in power, because it's no secret that they're on the whole more progressive.

On the other hand, well for example I was just reading about James Carville, Clinton's campaign manager, who as a result of Clinton's big victory became something of a wunderkind and mastermind of politics. I was reading about how he went and married some arch-Republican female political insider [Mary Matalin]. The author of the article was pointing out that this is really the perfectly appropriate summation of what U.S. politics is about. Because here you've got this guy who theoretically is committed to a certain social agenda, as personified -- supposedly -- by Bill Clinton and the Democrats. And yet his wife is the enemy!

And then I thought, well, you know, they're not really the enemy. And that's kind of the problem with American politics, as I see it. They're all just a little too much in the same bed. They're all a little too rich, for the most part. To me they all represent, ultimately, a very thin segment of the American populace, which is to say the top 2% who owns 90% of the wealth. And so I guess that's what that line is about. Everybody went home and cast the same old vote.

g: The other passage I wanted to talk about was from your "New Orleans 2005" song, which goes:

if you say you don't think that it's racist

maybe this'll cut through your dense mental haze

just try and imagine a whole stadium full of white people

left to fend for themselves for six days

i don't think it would have happened quite that way

Could you talk about this passage and how you feel about what happened in New Orleans?

SB: I guess the passage pretty much speaks for itself. I literally can't imagine if it had been several thousand white people, that they would have been stranded for that long. I think there would have been services. I think they would have sent in whoever they needed to send in. And the people would have been taken care of in a much more dignified fashion.

Obviously there are people who disagree with me about that. All I can do is point to the facts, and say, well look, this happened, and virtually all of those people were black. So you can argue all day long about -- "well, you know, it's not because they were black" -- but I don't think anyone could actually honestly say, if this had happened in Hartford, Connecticut, and there were 10,000 stranded insurance executives who couldn't get out of town, that they'd have been left there for a week with no sewage, no food, no nothing. Nobody can tell me that! I just don't believe it! So I think it is racist. But also I think it's classist. They were poor people.

g: Some of the responses to your lyrics made the argument that: "I am a white person, I was there, therefore it's not racist."

SB: That's one of the oldest arguments in the book. And to that I just say: the sheer numbers are not there. Obviously it's a terrible thing, white people died, white people were enormously inconvenienced, and lost their homes. But nothing on the scale that we saw with those black people. The numbers just aren't there.

g: In the context of "New Orleans 2005", you also posted a short note on your website in which you commented that it is time for "a resurgence of social/political commentary in music" [ "Bring Back The Protest Song!", Oct. 13, 2005]. What do you feel is the role of the "protest song" at this moment in time?

SB: I go back and forth in my thinking about the "protest song". For one thing, I don't really like the term, I think it's kind of stupid. On the other hand it's in wide use and it does define for most people simply a song, a piece of music, that has explicit political or social commentary. So in want of a better term, I still use "protest song", even though I think it's too simple. But I feel that way about almost any genre categorization of music.

Aside from that, I think the notion that songs or music can or should address issues of topical political concern or social impact should just be a given. If you're going to sing about "my baby left me", why not also sing about "I don't like the way the administration dealt with this fucking flood"? I'd like to see a point where people aren't necessarily like -- "Ah! That's a protest song! He's a protest singer!"

I hate to trot out the name Bob Dylan, because everybody always talks about Bob Dylan, but I think that that's one of the things that he had to deal with. People tended to think that, well, if you sing about Hattie Carroll getting killed by a rich white land owner, and your next song is about your baby's leopard-skin pillbox hat, you're not valid or something. Which is of course bullshit. Who would want to just sing about politics all the time? You'd dry up, it's really boring.

That's why a lot the songs that I've been writing in the last few years will do something like the one that you just pointed out ["Somewhere Between"]. It actually has just one verse in it, or maybe two, that are like: "Wow, all of a sudden he's singing about submachine-guns on the rooftops, but the other verse was about how he wants to sit down by the river and fish!" But well, why not? We all feel like that. We talk about politics one minute, and then we make a joke, or you talk about your girlfriend. Ideally people would be writing songs about whatever strikes their interest. And ideally people would be willing to take it with the same receptiveness, the same non-judgementalness that they would take any other kind of song.

g: When we think of protest songs we usually think in terms of the lyric content, the words, but can't there also be a kind of "protest" in instrumental music, or in the style of a song?

SB: Yes. For example, free jazz musicians in the 1960s. They weren't using words, and yet their music was an expression of the social cauldron that it came out of, which was the black liberation movement, and the general heightened awareness of civil rights. That was protest music. On the other hand, with instrumental music, there's only so much social commentary you can make. It might be aggressive, or it might be energetic, but the music itself -- outside of its social context -- doesn't have any explicit political message. You could only derive whatever political message it may or may not have had by thinking about it in context.

However I like to think that instrumental music, if not conveying any specific political message, at least -- and that's a big "at least" because that's already a great thing, in fact a lot of time conveying a specific political message is no big deal either -- can on some level open peoples' minds to other means of expression, means of organizing information. People are still, by and large, extremely conservative when it comes to music. Free improvisation is already something like forty years old, and yet, by and large, you still get most people who will listen to Derek Bailey, and go "what the?" It's more true for music than almost anything else. The various avant-garde movements throughout the modern era in visual arts have for example been embraced by a larger segment of the population that knows about art than have developments in music. So yes, I think it's good to think about -- in the sense that any kind of free music, or new ways of thinking about organizing sound can help liberate people from hidebound views of the world.

g: Going back to lyrics again, it's interesting that you play with your words, and yet at the same time you have very strong messages. It seems like in the '60s and '70s, when people were writing all these anti-war protest songs, they were more artistic, more creative in their words and melodies. People seem to be losing that, recently.

SB: Well, I think there is a certain danger inherent in the writing of "protest songs", and that is in being too literal, too issue-specific, and most importantly, in losing sight of the fact that it's a song you're writing, not a newspaper article. For example, I've heard some stuff here and there which comes off as simply a run-down of current affairs, and not very artfully done. My feeling is that that will get old very fast; it has a very short shelf-life. For example, unless you've got a really compelling reason to drop Dick Cheney's name in your song, it's probably better not to, cause as soon as Dick Cheney is out of office it becomes something that's too specific to be universal.

There are also exceptions to that rule, but they tend to be by songwriters who are so fucking good, like Dylan, that they can pull off a song like "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll", which was this incredibly specific example of this black servant being killed by a wealthy white land-owner in Maryland in the late fifties. The song still resonates, even though he named names -- he actually talks about the court trial -- and yet you have to admit it's just so good. But even Dylan only had two or three or four songs in his whole career like that. So if you're going to come straight out of the box, and make a whole record of songs, every one with a shelf-life of approximately six months, it's probably not a good thing.

The other thing that you were mentioning is that the '60s and '70s, things were just a little bit more artistic. Basically, I have to say that I agree with that. Nowhere is that clearer than say in R&B and black music. You listen to Motown, classic Soul, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Al Green -- all those R&B singers and songwriters back in the '60s and '70s were great songwriters. The songs were clever, they always gave you a new slant on something. You're always basically singing about your baby, or that you don't have a baby, or whatever -- it's the same five or six topics all the time -- and yet the task of the songwriter is to find the new way to say it.

Country music has been doing that for years. In fact country is one of the only areas left, to my way of thinking, in popular music, that still places some premium on lyric content. Black music's like, forget it man! Outside of rap -- rap is a whole different thing, there's in fact a great variety of expression in rap. But sung R&B, since the last 20 years, has been just like "Baby get your clothes off" -- now it's just right down to: "I want to fuck you, baby!" It's so boring! They were saying the same thing twenty years ago, but they said it with class. And in some way that either made you chuckle, or made you feel, oh yeah I've been there, or made you think: "Why didn't I think of that? That's such a brilliant turn of phrase."  And now it's just like dead. It's all gone.

g: Perhaps that's because music in the '60s was more about creative expression, whereas today it's much more about making money.

SB: I guess so. Even though music was big business in the '60s and '70s, it wasn't corporate on the level that we think of as corporate now. The corporation didn't hold the massive reign of power and wealth that it does now.

g: Where do you see that going in the future?

SB: Oh my god, I don't know. I think that unless there is some type of massive shift in the current political situation, this situation where government -- the U.S. government in particular -- and corporations, most or all of which are based in the U.S., are in the same bed, and are almost becoming indistinguishable from each other, particularly in the Bush administration, where you've got your guy from Halliburton who steps down for eight years so he can be the vice president and then he's going to step back, after awarding his company untold billions in contracts. Unless there's some kind of major shift where people suddenly say: "we can't have this, this is wrong" -- I can't see things changing. But I can't imagine that that's going to really happen, because most people are still very far from putting two and two together about that. And, truth be told, most people are too caught up in trying to pay the bills, and live their lives. It's the rare person who's going to actually try to get out there and do something. It's so huge. Of course you could say the same thing about the kings of Europe, and they came tumbling down. But these days it seems like the actual era of the people's revolution is over.

g: You recently started working on solo music again. What was the inspiration for this change of direction, after twenty years of mostly collaborative work?

SB: Well, I did a whole lot of gigs with different Japanese musicians since moving here in '95. I spent several years running around Tokyo a lot playing with a lot of different people, and I guess I sort of reached a saturation point with it. With every passing year, somehow I want to make music which is on some level or other, simpler. And that often means less information, less notes, less clutter, less thickness of sound. I started realizing that there's not much of a way to do that unless you play solo, and do exactly what you want to.

g: Do you think that there's a connection between what you were saying before about this timeless quality of not tying things down, and this kind of simplistic, not overly burdened, style of sound?

SB: Definitely, I think it's coming from the same point of origin. You want something that has a kind of clarity to it. I listen more and more to music by solo performers, particularly Mississippi Delta Blues. I like the blues, but I really like solo acoustic Delta Blues because the guy could go anywhere with it. When the blues got really locked into this 12-bar thing played by bands, it gained a certain danceability and energy, but it lost some of the granular essence of humanity that you hear with just a voice and some slightly out of tune guitar. The old blues guys, like Charlie Patton, Skip James, Bukka White, they hearken right back to Africa. They're just one little step removed, really. That essence of humanity is what turns me on.

gyaku is a media project based in Japan. This is a shortened version of an interview posted here. For more information about Samm Bennett, see his homepage. To listen to a sample of his music (including his latest 'protest song'), see his MeFi Music