Throughout history, the making and distribution of anti-establishment art has been problematic. For most of the last century, so-called "Socialist" art was endemic, ripped from its roots in the Communism of Lenin and Stalin, and adopted by German Nationalist Socialists, Italian Fascists, and every cause and movement of any colour that followed after. In mid-century, when I was a teen, there was a lot of this art around. Here, protesting the war in Vietnam, Communism, Capitalism, Male Chauvinism, and about any cause you could make up, was the dark vision of Socialist art. This art was well-intentioned but, for the most part, was ineffectual and failed to get the intended message to the intended audience.
We've all seen it. Whether a painting on a wall, a book, a play, or a song, this is black, strident art that insists on being heard and so is easily ignored. This is the stark, black and white, deliberately crudely-formed woodblock prints of workers struggling, the plays about simpler people in simpler places and times [for example, The Good Woman of Schzechuan), the chapbooks filled with the accusatory poetry of this literary underground or that, the hard-edged songs that protest this wrong or that. Heartfelt works created with love, much of this art is interesting and well-conceived. However, the harsh confrontational first impressions turn away precisely the audience the artist wants to reach. In the end, the artist is left preaching to the already converted.
More than anything else, If All the Land Would Rise feels like Socialist art. Worse, the words and the performances add little if anything new to the social discourse. The result is many of these songs sound like anachronisms, locked in the Sixties or even, in some cases, the Thirties. After listening for a while, even the converted might stop. This is not music for the protest meeting but for the local folk music club. It's more the stuff of nostalgia than of rebellion. The performances by Ethan Miller and Kate Boverman are excellent and should hold the attention of a room full of aging folkies but are unlikely to change anyone's mind.
Forgetting the political content, this is an interesting and enjoyable set of music. The musicianship is superb and the two singers sound good separately and together. The harmonies are the most interesting vocals, ranging from a sort of Peter, Paul and Mary slickness to something that sounds like a small-scale choral arrangement to some segments that are original and hard to describe.
In their songs and in their publicity and packaging, these artists decry all things that smack of control by others. Incongruously, they choose to include the folk music classic "Lonesome Traveler" and then whine [in print] about having to pay mechanical royalties to use the song. Since, in context, there seems no reason to include this simple song among the original protest songs on the CD, one can wonder if it had been included only so the complaint could be made.
A nice touch is the included 28-page booklet, which includes not just lyrics for all the songs but also notes by the authors about the background of each song. Those who are not turned away by the abrasive approach of this Socialist art will find this booklet an interesting read.
Listening to the range of subjects on this album, it strikes me that these artists perhaps want to protest on too many fronts. This scattered focus serves only to distract the listener from any one issue and, in consequence, from all issues. In the end, all the listener will hear is the noise of protest without any clear message coming through.
Part of the difficulty this release will have in finding an audience is its very approach may tend to drive away the precise audience it most hopes to reach and educate. What's worse, though, is the artists appear to have chosen to speak up on issues which are past their due date and have been discussed to death. While these issues may still be very important, it will take a very creative and perhaps more focused approach to be heard above the clamour to address newer issues.
Am I against Socialist art? Absolutely not. I love it, both for its aesthetic and for its positive goals. I'm just not convinced it often achieves the goals toward which it aspires. I suspect it usually doesn't. For the music, I do recommend this release. As for getting the message across, well I wish Ethan Miller and Kate Boverman a lot of luck.
Those who may be interested can find additional information about Ethan Miller and Kate Boverman at the "Riot Folk" website. There are full length mp3 downloads of all of the songs on this release on the same Riot Folk website. This website makes interesting reading and is well worth looking up.
If All The Land Would Rise
Ethan Miller & Kate Boverman