Powerful songs, stirring performances mark 2nd Freedom Sings concert

Thursday, July 27, 2000
Greg Trooper

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Lest anyone doubt that songs can still shock
the conscience, move the spirit, and rattle the powerful, Bruce Springsteen and
Greg Trooper have proven it anew.

Springsteen, international rock star, penned a song recently about
last year’s shooting of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo by four New York
City police officers. And this week, Trooper, a Nashville singer/songwriter,
performed “American Skin (41 Shots)” with a focused passion for two audiences
gathered to celebrate the power of music and the vitality of the First

Trooper’s rendition of the chilling song, in which the mantra-like
lyric “41 shots” refers to the number of times police shot Diallo in purported
self-defense, was a highlight of Freedom Sings™, the second annual concert at
Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe.

The July 25 concert, sponsored by the First Amendment Center to raise
awareness of the connection between music and the First Amendment, included
more than two dozen singers and musicians giving their time to perform songs
that, in the words of FAC Executive Director Ken Paulson, “had been banned by
government, censored by radio, or offended a significant percentage of the
American public.”

Joy White

Springsteen’s song certainly offended a New York police union. As
Trooper told it from the stage, the head of the NYPD Patrolmen’s Benevolent
Association said on a television talk show that “we cannot have songwriters
coming to town that will create a civil disturbance.” The same police official
urged his colleagues on the force to refuse to work security at the concerts in
their off-duty time, a customary practice. “He doesn’t get it,” Trooper said,
before performing the song with a band that included Springsteen’s bass player
Gary Tallent.

The evening’s songs, split into two shows, fell into rough categories.
Some songs raised the ire of lawmakers, even recently. Joy White, a figurehead
in the Nashville alternative country scene, coursed through the long and
complex “Living in the Wasteland of the Free” by Iris DeMent. DeMent’s
recording of that song, which skewers everything from the campaign-financing
system to executive pay, became a favorite of a Florida public radio station. A
Florida legislator nearly succeeded in getting $104,000 of the station’s state
funding rescinded over the station’s playing of the song.

Tommy Womack

Some songs, like the Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together,”
performed by Duane Jarvis, could only get on 1960s television and radio by
having their lyrics changed. (Mick Jagger sang, “let’s spend some time
together” on CBS and winked at the camera.) Some, like Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day
Women,” performed by local songwriter Tommy Womack, had been banned by radio
stations. Dylan’s song, famous for its refrain, “Everybody must get stoned,”
became a target of programmers in 1966, Womack said.

Other songs pointed to the fever pitch of paranoia reached among some
conservatives in the 1960s, who at times seemed able to find illicit references
even when they weren’t there. Steve Forbert delivered a tender “Puff the Magic
Dragon,” and ’70s pop star Andrew Gold offered up the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky
With Diamonds.” Both songs were suspected of references to drugs; both were
written for or inspired by children.

One song, “Louie Louie,” even earned the dubious distinction of having
its lyrics investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. (The agency
concluded ultimately that it couldn’t understand the words).

Beth Nielsen Chapman

The most moving moment of the night belonged to Beth Nielsen Chapman,
a leading Nashville songwriter, who performed “Strange Fruit,” a brutal
portrait of lynching written by a schoolteacher named Abel Meeropol and made
famous by Billie Holiday. Chapman said it was “a difficult song to grasp and
learn, because it was obviously written from such a deep place in someone’s
soul.” The song shows, she added, that “we can paint with words and move people
to see things differently.” That’s something Holiday understood; she would
silence the room before performing it as the last song in her set, and it
crystallized the racism she experienced throughout her career. Chapman didn’t
need to silence the room. Her delivery was almost painfully poignant.

Other striking performances came from ex-New Yorker Amy Rigby on Bob
Dylan’s “Hurricane,” from Brooklyn Cowboys front man Walter Egan on Neil
Young’s “Ohio,” from Bill Lloyd, the event’s musical director, on Stephen
Stills’ “For What It’s Worth,” and from Nitty Gritty Dirt Band veterans Jeff
Hanna and Jimmy Fadden on “One Toke Over the Line.” That song was banned on
many radio stations after the Federal Communications Commission issued a notice
warning broadcasters that they had a responsibility not to glorify drug

Bill Lloyd

It was little surprise that most of the songs performed at Freedom
Sings dated from the 1950s and 1960s, when the gulf in understanding and
tolerance between America’s older, conservative establishment and its younger,
more hopeful generation was at its widest. In many ways, the event chronicled
the consolidation and transcendence of rock ‘n’ roll, a genre that, during
those years, marshaled the power of song to challenge prevailing notions about
race, class, drugs and even truth. Though rock, as lamented by Womack in his
original song “Big Money,” may have been “ruined” by commercial, corporate
culture, it proved itself for a time to be a force of nature that had its way
with detractors, prudes and bureaucrats.

Two performances may have best captured lyrically the spirit of the
event and the spirit of unfettered expression in song. Aashid Himons, a world
music veteran, delivered the famous opening song from Woodstock, Ritchie
Havens’ “Freedom/Motherless Child.” That song’s mantra-like chant of the word
“freedom” resembles the fervent prayer of a generation, shot through with the
lyrics of an archetypal American folk song. And Don Henry’s original “New Old
Song” kept returning to its chorus: “Let’s sing a new old song/ of peace, love,
and understanding./So freedom marches on/ and all the world can dream
along./Let’s sing a new old song.” It reminded an appreciative crowd that
freedom, even more than love, may be the oldest song subject of all.

Tags: ,