Music Notes: April 2017

Bragg fires up folk music convention
British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg delivered a rousing keynote address on February 16 to several thousand folk musicians at the 29th annual Folk Alliance International conference in Kansas City. Bragg’s plea for “compassion” and “solidarity” matched the conference theme, “to celebrate activism in art by exploring the past and present role of folk music in civil, labor, pacifist, and environmental movements.” The singer, now 59, described his political awakening, as a young punk rocker, at a 1978 Rock Against Racism concert, organized to build resistance to England’s fascist National Front. He went on to describe a lesson learned at a gig in Northern England in the eighties in support of striking miners. There, to his dismay, he found that his political songs were no match for the repertoire of a miner-musician named Jock, his opening act. Jock showed him that he was a link in a chain of generations of folk musicians. Bragg told the assembly that his experience working with Woody Guthrie’s archive of unpublished lyrics, at the invitation of daughter Nora Guthrie, taught him the important of resisting cynicism. “You’ve got to have that optimism to be a socialist”, he declared, adding that socialism a form of “organized compassion”. He concluded with an appeal to folk music’s history of struggle. “Its tradition”, he said, “is to pass on that struggle to the next generation of musicians”. Listen to Bragg’s address at

Residente denounces U.S. colonialism

René Pérez (a.k.a. Residente), co-founder of the Puerto Rican rap duo Calle 13, was at the SXSW music festival in Austin on March 13, promoting his new documentary film. Residente, who has won three Grammy awards and 21 Latin Grammys, used the occasion to denounce American colonial rule over his homeland. The long-time supporter of Puerto Rican independence called it “ridiculous” that the island remains a colony. Residente was commenting on the U.S. appointment of an oversight board with a fiscal plan that will force the Puerto Rican government to impose punishing austerity measures on the people. Puerto Rico has been a U.S. colony since 1898, when it was seized from the Spanish Empire. Its colonial status prevents it from making independent decisions about its economy, particularly regarding debt. Residente had a few other choice comments about racism in the U.S. He called President Donald Trump an “idiot”, while crediting him, in a backhanded way, with inspiring racists to identify themselves. “You can see them with the little cap,” he said, alluding to the red “Make America Great Again” caps that are popular with Trump supporters.

Rock On, Chuck Berry!

Chuck Berry, the major architect of the mid-fifties cultural revolution that was rock & roll, died on March 18. He was 90. Given the co-optation of rock music in later years, and its relative eclipse in the digital age, it may be difficult for younger generations to appreciate Berry’s accomplishments. Simply put, Chuck Berry, a southern Black man from St. Louis, had the audacity to cross over from the segregated “race music” categories of the day to bring a hybrid contemporary style of rhythm & blues and hillbilly swing to “mainstream” (i.e. “white”) American culture. Berry’s lyrics celebrated the everyday life of teenagers and young adults in their quest for freedom and independence, while slipping in democratic, anti-racist and anti-military content. He was both the first poet of rock & roll, and a brilliant guitarist who laid the musical foundations of a musical genre that ruled the airwaves for several generations. As he cried out in his 1957 hit School Days: “Hail, hail, rock and roll! Deliver me from the days of old!”

Ángel Parra: 1943-2017

Chilean singer and guitarist Ángel Parra died in Paris, France on March 11. He was one of the leading exponents of Nueva Canción, the revolutionary Latin American song movement that swept the world in the sixties and seventies. Ángel Parra was a member of a family of Chilean musicians, poets, and visual artists that has left a profound impact on Latin American culture. His mother was Violeta Parra, a singer-songwriter, folklorist, and cultural organizer best known for her famous anthem Gracias a la Vida. His uncle is the renowned poet Nicanor Parra. His sister Isabel is a prominent folk musician. Another sister, Catalina, is a well-known visual artist. Ángel, possessor of an unforgettable voice, was a passionate interpreter of contemporary revolutionary songs. He was arrested and imprisoned shortly after the overthrow of the socialist government of Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. Parra was freed thanks to an international solidarity campaign led by U.S. singer Joan Baez and French singer Charles Aznavour. He eventually settled in France, where he lived for 40 years. While Parra recorded many albums, they are not easily found in the English-speaking world, but his fine 2005 album “Le Prix de la Liberté”, can be listened to for free on Spotify.

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