I’d like to share some a bit of a discussion that has been taking place on the FOLK-DJ listserv – at least my views on the subject! FOLK-DJ is an Internet forum where folk DJ’s from around the globe post their playlists and discuss topics of relevance to our programs and the current state of music.

Rich Warren, the well-respected host of “The Midnight Special“, a radio program that has been running (with various hosts) since the early 1950’s out of WFMT in Chicago. In addition to being heard in the Windy City, “The Midnight Special” is syndicated to various radio stations across the nation as well as on XM Satellite Radio. Rich has a wonderful ear for music and his show is very influential and popular in the folk community.

In a post earlier this week, Rich posted a note lamenting the generally poor quality of “protest” songs that are being submitted for airplay. Rich noted that the best songs contain “authentic passion”, clever humor, or are “subtle and poetic songs that sneak past a person’s defenses”. He remarked on something that I have also noticed – many of the current crop of protest songs seem to simply insult and lack the passion of the great protest songs that many of us grew up with – literally, politically, and socially.

I agree with Rich’s comments. There are a lot of new songs out there that try to give an impression that they belong on radio simply because they speak out in supposed protest. I received a call from a listener who complained that they heard another radio show playing songs that just made fun of George Bush and called him all kinds of names. They said they turned it off because the song was simply taking cheap shots and not making a point. While this person admitted she and her husband are Republican supporters, they did say that they appreciated – but did not agree – with some of the anti-war and topical (I call them government awareness) songs I had been playing.

The difference may be that the songs I chose were more universal and did not rely on trying to find funny rhymes for people’s names. There are two big questions I think that songwriters need to ask themselves – just who is the intended audience and what is the intended purpose of the song. It might be that the songs were never intended for radio – and there is nothing wrong with that.

I’ve always been fascinated by protest songs, and it was one of the reasons that I grew to love folk music. I am reminded that many of the early folk song collectors chose to ignore songs of protest when they were collecting. Early collectors were primarily looking for American versions of old English ballads and songs of social relevance to the era were often ignored. Perhaps these collectors also felt the songs were not very good???

While there were a handful of early collections of what we would now call “protest” music, many of the early songs were probably lost to the sands of time and it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that protest songs were collected in earnest.One of the first “protest” groups might have been the Hutchinson Family, a group that toured the nation before the civil war singing anti-slavery songs. The Hutchinson Family might have been as important to their time as Peter, Paul & Mary or Pete Seeger were to ours. The big difference may be that Peter, Paul & Mary and Pete Seeger created songs that have a more universal and timeless appeal – I can see “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” being sung by future generations when war unfortunately breaks out – but there are very few Hutchinson Family songs that are still sung, and the ones that can be heard are usually not the songs that dealt with such specific issues. The era that Peter, Paul & Mary and Pete Seeger lived in made use of radio – often FM radio shows like ours – and many of these songs were crafted for airplay. Not bad for a time when we were still dealing with the blacklist.

There was criticism hurled at some of the white protest singers during the 1960’s civil rights movement. Their songs were not “folk songs” because they really weren’t singing TO the community they were singing ABOUT. While their songs really weren’t intended for the African-American audience they were trying to “help” – perhaps their greatest purpose was to educate others and bring about change. I think these are the songs that most of us think of when we hear the term “protest song”.

Which brings me to another type of protest song – songs that do come from the community that is the subject of the song. There is an area of protest songs that are not made for radio. Some songs are meant as motivational tools for people directly involved in situations – songs for for empowerment instead of entertainment and education. Pick up a copy of the Little Red Songbook (still in print!). You will find songs that are designed to help people on picket lines and fighting for their livelihood – they are not meant as concert hall songs. Civil rights songs that were sung in jails, anti-war songs that would motivate protesters and demonstrations – these songs were designed for other purposes. Perhaps that is something that many songwriters today need to figure out – just who are they writing for and why?

In the discussion on FOLK-DJ listserv, singer-songwriter Jen Cass made a very good point that GOOD protest songs are much harder to write than average songs. I believe she is referring to songs that are meant for a universal appeal, not picket lines. While many of us have dealt with personal relationship issues and can find some understanding when a singer-songwriter deals with their own issues in song, it is much harder to reach an audience when the subject is foreign to both the audience and the writer.

I think about 9/11, and while the songs written specifically about the event were not “protest” songs, many of them were not very good (in my opinion) because the writer tried too hard to place themselves in the situation. Sure, all of us watched in horror that day – but we can only imagine what it must have felt like to be in the WTC when the planes hit. Unless you or I were actually there – we are only using our imagination. An imagination is a powerful tool in the right hands, but in most cases it does not serve well in treating topical issues. A rare exception was Tom Paxton’s “The Bravest”. With that song he made it personal for each of us. Unfortunately, there are not many people like Tom Paxton. Listen to some of Tom’s “short shelf life” songs. While he can be very funny and poke fun at the subject, he never stoops to cheap shots.

It’s not just a matter of taste. There are reasons why “We Shall Overcome” was such a powerful song. There is a reason why “Deportee” has touched so many people. Many people of my generation can trace their moment of becoming politically aware to hearing songs like these. I wonder if future generations will be able to say the same about today’s artists?

I am very encouraging to artists, as anyone who has listened to my show or met me should realize. With that in mind… not everything is meant for “primetime”. Many of the songs I hear are songs that I would not choose to air on the radio – not because of the topics, which I would not shy away from, but rather because of the lack of interesting music. However, that song could still serve a purpose as a “tool” such as what I described above.

Back in the 1920’s and 1930’s, when the roots of the folk revival were starting to sprout, musicologists were beating the bushes looking for “authentic” folk songs. Their collections were usually printed in books and some collectors would create piano or guitar accompaniment so that people could make their own music. Later, they would start recording these “source singers”. These were not polished musicians, but the recordings were not being made for a radio audience.

At the same time the collectors were poking around rural America, intrepid musicians in the 1920’s and 1930’s were singing on street corners and getting the attention of the new record companies who recorded them on 78’s. With changing times and tastes, WWII and other factors, much of this music was forgotten.In early 1950’s, along comes Harry Smith and his “Anthology” on Folkways. It was not a collection of field recordings, it was a collection of polished (for the time) commercial recordings that Smith collected on 78’s.

That collection really played in an important role in inspiring the folk revival of the 1950’s and make no mistake, it was a commercial sound even though it came from a “roots” world. The musicians that we continue to play grew out of that revival. Pete Seeger is not a “source singer” – he came from a well-to-do family and learned through recordings and from other musicians.

While some radio DJ’s, like myself, play field recordings with less than tolerable sonics, these are not the recordings that build audiences – and I daresay that these are not the recordings that most artists are using for inspiration or instruction. They do deserve airplay, but if our interest is in building larger audiences, these recordings will limit that audience. It is a matter of blending.

As radio hosts, we are looking for recordings that will appeal to a wide audience and hopefully grow that audience, just as Harry Smith did with his collection. We aren’t reviewing, which is a matter of taste, we are critiquing. Critiquing a song is not simply a matter of opinion, there are elements that can be recognized in composition, structure and performance. While there is some judgement of taste, it is the elements that are definable that we try to recognize. That does not mean that songs or performers need to follow a formula. Creativity is an individual benchmark.

When we listen to recordings as radio hosts, these are some of the criteria we should be using to pass judgement. It doesn’t mean we need to “like” the song or the artist. We just need to be honest. Being supportive of musicians means being able to give honest, and sometimes brutal, criticism. While every artists THINKS they are creating great art, they will need to be able to withstand the comments to improve. They also cannot let a “bad review’ sidetrack them.

Judging by the piles of CD’s I receive, there is no shortage of singer-songwriters. Yet we need more. We need to hear more “crappy” political songs. Folk music should keep it’s “homemade” roots and continue to inspire the pure joy of making music- whether it has a place on radio or not. Musicians should continue to make music, good or bad. That is the only way we will continue to have an audience for our programs – and more importantly, it is the only way true “folk” music will survive. Forget about radio – the music is meant to be made, not played.

(Note- portions of the above were originally posted on Folk-DJ by Ron Olesko)

About Ron Olesko

For over 40 years, Ron has been a radio programmer with WFDU-FM in Teaneck, New Jersey. He created WFDU-FM's TRADITIONS in 1980, a show that he continues to host and produce every Sunday afternoon from 3 to 6pm Eastern Time. He's the president of and booker for the Hurdy Gurdy Folk Music Club in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and is a regular contributor to Sing Out! as well as the host of the Folk Music Notebook blog on this site. Ron can also be found emceeing concerts and festivals around the NYC/NJ area. A lifelong Mets fan and a rabid soccer geek, Ron is a Red Bull season ticket holder since their inception and will most likely be in his seat when not in the studio.