Irony, schmirony… free speech in bluegrass

| October 9, 2013 | 16 Comments

Chris JonesWell, if you’ve followed Bluegrass Today at all in the last week, you know there really is something more newsworthy and controversial than a government shutdown. It turns out to be the fact that a bluegrass artist decided to stop performing a song.

As much as Junior Sisk may be regretting every aspect of the Bicycle Chain drama, he can console himself with the fact that Stevie Wonder didn’t generate nearly as much interest when he announced that he would no longer perform You Are the Sunshine of My Life. That, and the fact that Junior is the Male Vocalist of the Year.

Yes, it seems that we have not only grown sensitive as a community and a society, we’ve also grown very sensitive about others’ sensitivity.

I rarely editorialize here (because, you know, everyone’s so doggone sensitive), but I do want to express my support for Junior, and for his right to discontinue doing any song in his repertoire he feels like, even if, as was the case with Stevie Wonder, he’s just plain sick of a song.

His choice in this case was, for a recording artist, a fairly straightforward one: If a song generates controversy you didn’t anticipate, rather than risk alienating a segment of your audience (and the audience for our music is such that artists can’t afford that), it’s wise to pull the song. And, doing it in the straightforward and classy way that Junior did is the best method.

The only circumstances under which you should stand your ground in a situation like this, is if the song makes some kind of serious moral, religious, or political statement that is of personal importance to you. Whatever the merits or flaws of Bicycle Chain, it isn’t that kind of a song, and was never intended to be.

Still, I have to hand it to the defenders of free speech who expressed themselves so vehemently in the past week. It’s important to have those voices heard too sometimes.

Before I became concerned about offending people in the audience (or Bluegrass Today readers), I too was a staunch defender of artists’ 1st Amendment rights, and a fighter against censorship of all kinds: I spoke up for the Dixie Chicks when they were being banned from radio stations, I rooted for Frank Zappa against Tipper Gore, and I stood up for the guy who wrote Whoa Mule when the Mule Anti-defamation League (MAL) raised a stink back in 1993.

Once a bluegrass artist friend of mine (we’ll call him “Fred,” even though his real name was “Joe”) recorded a song that generated a huge amount of controversy among his following. And for a very good reason; the song was offensive on many levels.

Essentially it was a nostalgic look back at 1940s Soviet-style communism, with a verse praising the East German Stasi, and especially unkind words about “American Imperialism.” Puppies were also tortured in the third verse. It was called “I ‘heart’ Stalin” and it was set more-or-less to the tune of the Wabash Cannonball.

Fred said the song was meant ironically, and I said that irony and the Wabash Cannonball melody don’t mix.

Message aside, the song also just wasn’t any good; for example, at one point it used the rhyme of “Stalin” and “Darlin’.”

Still, though I personally found the song appalling, if not disturbing, I urged Fred not to give in to a handful of squeaky-wheel, PC police (in this case a “handful” was about 85% of his fan base; the other 15% never listen to song lyrics), who want to dictate what he can say in a song.

I told him that if you give in now, next thing you know they’ll object to less offensive songs they don’t happen to like the message of (like the Salty Dog Blues). Eventually you’ll have animal rights activists telling you you can’t sing Groundhog anymore, and there goes your set opener on February 2nd!

Fred stood firm, and today he owns a pizza place in Beloit, WI. Now I feel kind of bad about the advice I gave him back then. On the other hand, he makes a spinach and Italian sausage pizza that’s out of this world.

I’m less idealistic now, but I will still go to the mat for Pretty Polly if they ever try to take it (or her) away. I just love the part where he goes to the jailhouse and announces that he’s “trying to get away.”

Chris Jones

Chris Jones wears many hats in his bluegrass career. In addition to leading his own band, with whom he tours and records, Jones is an award-winning broadcaster and songwriter.

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