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Tom Morello: "We need songs for right now" ( 0) Printer friendly page Print This
By Alexander Billet interviews Tom Morello
Socialist Worker
Thursday, Apr 29, 2010

Tom Morello will be celebrating May Day like the radical he is this year.

On April 30, Morello's folk-singing alter ego the Nightwatchman will be playing at Chicago's Bottom Lounge at a show put on by the Industrial Workers of the World.

From Rage Against the Machine to the Street Sweeper Social Club, Morello has survived and thrived as a rare breed in today's musical landscape--a relentless proponent of grassroots struggles for democracy and justice.

Here, he talks to's Alexander Billet about the show, his work and the role that music has to play in fighting for a better world.

Below: Musician and political/social activist Tom Morello's stark new album as The Nightwatchman, 'One Man Revolution,' is a dark, urgent portrait of a world in turmoil.

VERY FEW artists of your profile would play a show for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Why do you think it's important for you to do so?

WELL, FIRST of all, I'm a card-carrying member of the IWW. And I've been a lifelong supporter of labor causes and unions from the time I picked up a guitar.

The Morello family were coal miners in central Illinois, and union values were instilled in me at a very young age. I was very much drawn specifically to the IWW first of all through the music of Joe Hill, who I count as chief among my influences as a songwriter. And I believe that music can be a battering ram for social justice.

The specific event that I'm performing at is also going to be the release of a brand new edition of the IWW's Little Red Songbook, in which they've included the Nightwatchman song "Union Song." So, it's meant to celebrate the release of the Songbook, it's on May Day eve, and it's maybe just one small part of what it takes to stir the masses.

YOU MENTIONED the vibrant history of music that runs through the IWW. Do you see a need to keep that tradition alive in this day and age?

DEFINITELY. I don't think that it necessarily needs to be contained within folk music. There are many links in the chain of radical and political music. It certainly got a great send-off with artists like Joe Hill, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.

But from the Clash and Public Enemy to Rage Against the Machine and System of a Down, there have always been bands that in an unapologetic way stood up for social justice and continue to carry that torch, to build a bridge between a mass audience and important ideas about economic democracy and societal freedom and liberation.

One of the reasons I started writing Nightwatchman songs was that I would often find myself at rallies where the musical component was often songs from the '60s or earlier. It felt like there was a real disconnect between these antiwar rallies or union rallies and these kind of old "Kumbaya" jams. We need songs for right now!

"Union Song" was actually written after an anti-Free Trade Area of the America protest in Miami in 2003. Myself and Steve Earle and Billy Bragg and some other musicians had just gotten doused in tear gas, and we were then playing this rally for steelworkers, and I suddenly thought, "I don't have a song to play today! I don't have one of my own songs to play today, so I need to write one while the tear gas is still setting in my shirt!"

SO YOU pretty much wrote that song with the billy club coming right down on your head then?

YEAH, IT was in the aftermath of that, and as I've played countless union rallies and picket lines, I've seen it's a great arrow to have in the quiver.

YOU'VE BEEN playing as an open radical musician for almost 20 years now, during which there have been plenty of political shifts. Have you noticed anything new about the past few years?

WELL, I'VE always tried to stay above the fray of electoral politics. The issues that I'm interested in have always had more to do with the levers of power rather than who sits in the seat holding them.

So, throughout the ramp-up to Obama's election--which in some ways was pretty miraculous--I was kind of the "Downer Danny." You know, like "Hey hold on here, I'm surprised as you are that we have an African American president, but let's not all just start painting rainbows and unicorns like some kind of magic fairy dust is going to come down and transform society."

That still has to be done by us. It was a kind of sober admonition that I would give at all of my shows during that period of time, and I believe it's as true now as it was then.

DO YOU think there's a lot of disappointment that folks have a year into the Obama administration?

IF YOUR expectation were high, then yes. But this is very much a Democratic administration. Democratic administrations commit war crimes, they kow-tow to corporate interests, and those things are happening. It could come as a surprise because of the powerful rhetoric during the campaign, but if not, well...

HAVE YOU noticed that disappointment leading to any kind of radicalization among ordinary people nowadays?

I THINK that's a good question. As the air has been let out of the balloon a little bit, where does it go? On the one hand there's been this right-wing kind of "I told you so" swell, which I think is just so ignorant. But there are still all these countless millions who got on this bandwagon who are thinking, well, maybe this first year didn't go exactly like we hoped it would.

The thing is, you can't count on any administration to have the spine to stand up to "Power-with-a-capital P." That always has to come from below. So merely casting your ballots into the electoral void once every four years is not enough. And if you really want change you can believe in, you have to make it, you have to demand it.

And you have to hold those in power accountable. The politics of the streets are just as important as the politics of the ballot box.

EVERY TIME a political musician raises their voice it seems to stir controversy, as if politics and music have nothing to do with one another. I'd imagine you think differently.

THAT'S ALWAYS been a charge that's been leveled against me throughout my career, and anyone in the field of entertainment. It's almost like once you're an entertainer doing an interview in a magazine or on television you forfeit your First Amendment right to speak your mind.

First of all, the charge is only leveled by people who disagree with what you're saying. The second that it's Ted Nugent or Arnold Schwarzenegger, or the "actor" Ronald Reagan, then it's like they can't believe what a great populist this artist is!

I think that it's a responsibility--not of artists to speak their mind or to make moral decisions about what they see in the world, it's everybody's responsibility! Some people may have access to a recording studio or a microphone or a magazine, but I'd much rather hear what school teachers and longshoremen have to say about the war in Afghanistan than Wolf Blitzer. I know what he thinks; I've heard it too many times.

Another voice in that debate--whether it's from music or somewhere else--pushes the goal-posts out. Countless times I've heard from fans that they saw me on Tavis Smiley or heard a lyric in a Nightwatchman song, and it did a special thing that music and musicians can do, which is build a sense of community. Like "I am not alone in thinking that the president is a war criminal," or "I am not alone in thinking that despite all outward appearances, something isn't right here."

So I think it's very important for people who have ideas to not shut up.

Socialist Worker

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