Irony, schmirony… free speech in bluegrass

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.”

  • Kevin Landon

    Yeah. All told, Junior made a wise and thoughtful choice. I wish the haters out there would put their enthusiasm behind something more meaningful than this dumb song…

    I found your post a little wan, though, Chris: Can you speak from experience about a time you offended someone? Was it worth it?

  • Mr. Jones, please keep in mind this is a family friendly website. If you insist on using words like “Schmirony” in here, I’m afraid we’re going to have to censor you.


      Terry’s right Christopher, your mother taught you better.

    • HDbassman

      Terry…re you sure you have that spelled correctly?

  • janice brooks

    and to think all we were talking about next door was how to make music bumpers.

  • Chris Jones

    I’m off the hook here, you all; the editor is the headline writer around here. You’ll have to take “schmirony” up with him!

    • Even though this sounds a lot like Chris is blaming the dog for the bad smell in the house, I checked and I am afraid we’re going to have to censor our editor. Prepare for a complete bluegrass news blackout shortly.

  • dennis

    There are those who frequent this forum that deny there are “lyric police ” out there trying make Bluegrass lyrics “politically correct”. Well, some folks would disagree with them.

    • dennis

      I guess I should have mentioned the song being banned in the article above is Rocky Top by the Osborne Brothers.

    • Kevin Landon


      Seriously, I gotta agree that this situation is kinda dumb…but I think it’s the sort of incident that happens at schools all the time (book bannings, clothing bannings, organizations banned, etc.), and hardly constitutes a formal, systemic attack on bluegrass liberties. Still, these are the kind of battles worth fighting…

  • Kathy Evans Kirkpatrick

    As an advocate of stopping violence against women…or anyone for that matter…I did not find this song offensive. I took it for what it was…amusement.

    If this song is offensive enough that it should not be allowed, then we will lose a lot of bluegrass songs that men have killed women because “she would not marry me”.

    These people really need to get a life.

    • grasser

      100% agree.

  • grasser

    Chris, I thought I was the only one who found the last line of Pretty Polly kind of odd. Thanks for making me feel not so alone. lol

  • Temperance Bellerin

    When is folks gonna recognize this issue ain’t ’bout free speech and it ain’t about banning songs. It ain’t about what you think is offensive or what I think is acceptable. It ain’t about bein’ correct in any darn fool’s politics neither.

    It’s ’bout a singer’s right to put in and take out songs he performs for any reason whatsoever. His choice! Not yours. Not mine.

    You cain’t tell a shoe store to stop sellin brown shoes cause you think they’re ugly and you can’t tell Hardy’s to stop usin’ beef for their burgers cause you think it’s cruel to cows. Why? because they ain’t gonna listen to you and neither should Junior!

    • Kevin Landon

      Temperance is right on. Although I can do without the fake hillbilly speak. Anyone else remember when he used to talk like this? “Putamayo’s Bluegrass collection is to the genre that Bill Monroe began what 3.2 beer is to fermented beverages. That is to say watered-down at best. First glance at the artists and titles included in this collection indicates some desire on the part of Putamayo to be a genuine effort but first listen is nothing but a disappointment.”

  • grasser

    He (Junior Sisk) had the song on the CD. SOME people starting whining about it. He took it off. Of course he has EVERY RIGHT in the world to do with his songs as he sees fit and I think he made a wise decision.