Whenever a government wants to rouse its people into a patriotic fit, it hauls out its brass bands and bass drums. Before the last note has sounded and the last drumbeat has rumbled across the land, armies are forming to go to war with whoever's at the opposite end of the bugles.
On the other hand, whenever the people decide they've had enough of the drums and bugles, they turn to the folk singers, who get up on a stage armed with nothing more than a guitar or a banjo and deliver their messages in words that you sometimes have to lean forward to hear.
I gave up on martial music a long time ago, but there's always time in my life to listen to folk singers. Their music emanates not from government decisions but from the hearts of the people, where pain and caring dwell.
That's why I ended up one night in a club on the edge of downtown called Fais Do-Do, listening to four folk singers strumming away about all the issues that have been plaguing us lately. Piano-playing satirist Tom Lehrer once called them "The Folk Song Army" in his take on cultural troubadours, adding: "We all hate poverty, war and injustice / unlike the rest of you squares."
I don't think there were any squares that night at the Fais Do-Do, a club that's been around for years and looks like it might have been a used-furniture store once. The catfish sandwiches are out of this world, but eating wasn't what the evening was all about.
The Coalition for World Peace, whose banner was strung across the back of the stage, brought the folk singers together. Money collected at the door was for the benefit of the coalition, as well as for Coffee House Teach-Ins and the Colombia Peace Project, which you may or may not have heard of before, but that's beside the point.
Around 75 peace-lovers turned out, ranging from stylish Westside women dressed in hootenanny chic to peace mothers from the 'hoods surrounding West Adams Boulevard, where the club is located. There were some hobos too, brought out by one of the singers, Fred Starner, a PhD in economics who gave up the academic life to play a guitar and ride the rails.
He sounds more like Pete Seeger than Seeger did when he was roaming the country during the '50s and '60s, singing about war and the working class and the hatreds sizzling among us. Seeger, Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and others brought America the kind of music that touched our souls and, when we thought about it, made us wonder about the world we were living in.
Patrons at the Fais Do-Do sat at little round tables or in booths, or stood by the bar in back of the room, listening to Starner, David Rovics, Jaryd Burton and Anita Coats remind them why they were there. And if they missed the musical message, speakers punctuated the night with strong reasons why we shouldn't be going to war with Iraq.
Rovics was the star. He's described as the most prolific political songwriter in America today, with CDs, videos and even a songbook attesting to that. I bought the songbook, but there's a lot of stuff in it that makes even a guy like me uncomfortable. He damns America with lyrics like "The flag is just a rag / The flag is just a rag / Just a worn-out, tired, dirty, blood-soaked rag." I'm not big on symbols, but when you think of the freedom that "dirty, blood-soaked rag" represents, you wonder where Rovics has been most of his life.
Seeger knows about things like that. He's almost 84, but the old minstrel stays acutely attuned to the problems of today. He understands confrontational lyrics because he's written them, but he told me over the phone that he also knows the value of a country that lets you stand up and be heard. Observing the hundreds of thousands protesting George Bush's war plans, he says, "I'm prouder of freedom of speech today than I ever was before."
Starner, his deep, resonant voice a double for Seeger's, brought a different tone to the night by taking on those who use God or Allah to justify murder, and he addressed the shortcomings of America by asking, "Why do they hate us? / Trample the red, white and blue? / Why do they give us the finger? / I swear I haven't a clue."
We clapped, hollered and sang along with some of it, just like we did at those Berkeley hootenannies in the '60s when the folk song army helped define an era of woe. We're in another era of woe now, and you can count me among those who are glad they're still around. Tom Lehrer said it best: "Ready, aim, sing!"
Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at email@example.com.