Freedom Sings celebrates banned, political songs

Friday, July 16, 1999

Left to right, ...
Left to right, Rodney Crowell, Kevin Welch and Radney Foster

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For songwriter Chip Taylor, the power of musical expression didn’t first reveal itself on a stage, in a jam session or on a record album. It came from a rhythm and blues magazine left under a bus seat.

As a Bronxville, N.Y., youth in the 1950s, Taylor says he didn’t get to hear rhythm and blues because most area radio stations banned “race music.” But flipping through an errant magazine on his way home from his weekly trip to the movies, Taylor found a listing of the most popular R&B; tunes in the country.

The Top 3: “Work with Me, Annie,” “Sexy Ways” and “Annie Had a Baby,” all written and performed by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters.

“So I got those records as soon as I could,” said Taylor, who immortalized the bus trip in the song “The Real Thing.”

Taylor flirted with censorship himself in the 1960s with his song “Wild Thing” — a No. 1 hit for the Troggs in 1966 — but surprisingly skirted past it with the adultery-themed “Angel of the Morning,” a tune that became a Top 10 hit for both Merrilee Rush and Juice Newton.

Beth Nielsen Ch...
Beth Nielsen Chapman

“There are ways not to get banned,” Taylor told a packed crowd at Nashville’s legendary Bluebird Cafe during Freedom Sings™, a celebration of freedom of expression through music. “You have to get those songs by those who make the decisions. Often they don’t get it. Maybe that’s what happened with this one (‘Angel of the Morning’).”

For two nights on July 13-14, musicians mixed banned songs and protest anthems of the past with some of their own scandalous material. Sponsored by the First Amendment Center and the Bluebird Cafe, Freedom Sings is designed to be an annual event timed with the anniversary of folk singer Woody Guthrie’s birth.

With Freedom Sings, the Bluebird Cafe broke from its status as Nashville’s premier venue for country singer-songwriters to accommodate styles ranging from hip-hop to a tongue-in-cheek rendition of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” to a climatic sing-along of Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

Tommy Womack, formerly of rock bands Government Cheese and Bis-quits, kicked off the two-day event with versions of John Lennon’s “Power to the People” and Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction.”

John Kay...
John Kay

Womack followed up with “Skinny and Small,” a song he wrote 14 years ago about a tormented high school student who returns to his hometown with a murderous vengeance.

The song includes the line: “He can’t play sports he must be a fag, Stay away from him he’s a drag.”

“Stations wouldn’t play it because of the word ‘fag,’ forgetting that the last verse of the song is a complete bloodbath,” Womack said. “For the protagonist to go around murdering everybody … that’s OK apparently. But just saying the word ‘fag’ is bad.”

In the wake of April’s school shooting in Littleton, Colo., however, violent imagery in music has come under increased attack. Congress and state lawmakers in recent months have explored a variety of ways to curb violent content in music.

Kim Richey...
Kim Richey

But while censorship efforts in the past galvanized the music industry to stand up for free expression, some say musicians haven’t united successfully against current criticism.

That’s part of the impetus for Freedom Sings, says Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center. By showcasing banned songs of the past, Paulson says, the musicians demonstrate how arbitrary and unnecessary censorship can be.

“When you hear those stories, you realize that short-term censorship seems so silly in the long run,” he said.

“It’s hard to imagine how a rumble beat or a certain guitar lick can be unhealthy,” Womack said. “If they don’t get allowed or if I’m not allowed to put ‘fuck’ on a record, what’s next? Distasteful is just what goes first. The very first place to defend that right is the very first place it’s under attack.”

Bill Lloyd and ...
Bill Lloyd and Radney Foster

As the lead singer of the seminal band Steppenwolf, John Kay remembers facing his share of angry parents and eager cops, mostly because of a Hoyt Axton-penned tune called “The Pusher.” Although the anti-drug tune had played on FM radio for a couple of years, some had become concerned about the song’s key refrain: “God damn the pusher.”

Such efforts might have stalled the song if it hadn’t been featured in the film “Easy Rider.”

“No matter how much they tried to hold it in, it was busting out all over,” Kay said.

“That’s the beautiful thing about words,” said songwriter Kim Richey, who performed the Martin Luther King Jr.-inspired “Beautiful Fool” with Don Henry. “Once they are out there, you can’t stop them. You can stop the person, but you can’t stop the words.”

Over the two nights, the musicians often highlighted the silly side of censorship. Bill Lloyd, the event’s musical director and a songwriter formerly with the country duo Foster & Lloyd, led the audience in a sing-along of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” a song banned for the use of the word “high.” Robbie Fulks sang a rip-snorting version of Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill,” the 1975 anthem about reproductive freedom for women.

Steve Earle...
Steve Earle

Steve Earle, the maverick guitar player and singer-songwriter who closed the event, said the two nights at the Bluebird illustrated how too many people take freedom, particularly musical expression, for granted.

All viewpoints and expression, he told the crowd, need protection, particularly the unpopular ones.

“I see a lot of stuff I don’t agree with,” Earle said. “It bothers me to see the Ku Klux Klan in public. It bothers me to see the effort people put in to keeping a death penalty in this country. I just don’t agree with them. But I do defend to the death their right to be there and say what they want to say.”