Fiddlin' AroundNancy Buchan

Music & Politics

Ozzy Osborne
Ozzy Osborne

By Nancy Buchan

That bat-biting old rocker, Ozzie Osborne, once said “I think entertainers should stay entertainers and politicians should stay liars.” He’s probably right, but the temptation to use the fame and influence you might have as a musician in the political realm does suck some people in. Rarely do politicians become musicians, but sometimes musicians can’t resist putting their personal agenda onto a national or regional political stage. Musicians have the microphones and the words and the opportunities to take a message to the masses. Musicians can be our conscience and a thorn in the side of politicians – or at least can be an alternative source of information. Every government on the planet knows this, and they all make efforts to manipulate and use artists to their own advantage – or, failing that, they shoot the damn singers or muzzle them or bust ‘em for half a joint…

Looking back, I’m not sure we accomplished a whole lot by the counter-culture spawned in the 60s, but it did become clear to everyone that there is POWER in music. That really bothers the ‘power freaks’ in any government, anywhere, whether they’re in Iran, or Peru, or Alaska, or in jail or at Alice’s Restaurant. Unifying anthems like “We Shall Overcome,” or “Give Peace a Chance” or “Blowing in the Wind” or even Michael Jackson’s “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” gave a voice to dangerous concepts. Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez – they all brought important issues to their listeners. Some governments sent their dissident musicians away and didn’t let them come back, or sabotaged their travel plans in the misguided belief that they could be silenced and their message would be ignored. In the 60s America put Bob Dylan on their hit list as a subversive, and tried to mute him – last year the U.S. presented Bob with the Medal of Honor – anyone else see the irony here?

Miriam Makeba, nicknamed ‘Mama Africa’, Hugh Masekela and many other great South African musicians were exiled from their homes and families for decades. Decades! Yet when the apartheid creeps finally lost power the grace and forgiveness these political pawns showed was inspiring and amazing – as was Nelson Mandela himself. I happened to be with Hugh Masekela and his band after some gigs they had played in New Orleans, and they were all flying to NYC to the United Nations to vote in South African elections for the first time in their lives. To say they were totally jazzed would be an understatement. They were triumphant and humble and proud. Their years of sacrifice were finally done and they could go home.

Vote Kinky
Kinky Freidman

Over the years I have had a couple of pretty heated arguments with people I was playing with over slightly controversial lyrics and about whether politics should ever be in the mix at all. Lots of musicians feel their job is only to entertain – stick to that and leave your opinions about social issues or anything vaguely divisive at home. I feel the exact opposite – I think it’s my duty and job and privilege to tell everyone what to do and how to think – why else would I have been given a microphone! MCA Records in Nashville (which is run by rich, white, corporate guys) once cut a song from an album we were doing with them because of some pretty obscure yet vaguely negative references to the KKK. I was totally pissed, but didn’t win that round, and even within the band we weren’t all on the same page about it. Guess the record company big shots thought they’d lose the southern listeners – a pretty insulting assumption.

Of course, musicians don’t agree with each other about all kinds of things. There’s Ted Nugent out there rabidly defending gun rights, and rappers profaning women, and Tammy Wynett standing by her man, and U2 writing songs about global poverty and civil rights. Christine McVie wrote the song “Don’t Stop” about the dissolution of her 8 year marriage to John McVie – it was about leaving the past behind. Bill Clinton used it in his 1992 run for the president, knowing that it would appeal to a lot of baby boomer voters. John McVie was not happy about that and said, “You think rock and roll is phony? You should meet this lot!” George W. Bush used Tom Petty’s song “I Won’t Back Down” is his 2000 campaign until Petty’s lawyer hit him with a ‘cease and desist’ order and threatened legal action. John Mellencamp and Sting also asked Bush to stop using their songs without their permission, as it implied their endorsement of him. Barak Obama loves Stevie Wonder (who doesn’t?) and used his song “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” in his presidential campaign. Kind of an odd choice, as the bridge lyrics say “I’ve done a lot of foolish things/ that I really didn’t mean.” Of course that statement could apply to most politicians.

John McCain selected ABBA’s song “Take a Chance on Me” to use in his campaign, which frankly says all I need to know about his taste in music… Then he tried slipping in Heart’s song “Barracuda” (apparently Sarah Palin’s nickname in high school was Sarah Barracuda – gag), until the members of Heart asked him to stop using it. Jackson Browne sued the Ohio Republican party for using his song “Running on Empty” in a negative attack ad on Obama. In 1992 Ross Perot played Patsy Cline’s 1961 ballad “Crazy” at his political rallies – a song about being hopelessly in love. Makes you wonder what the hell he was thinking…

Then there’s Louisiana’s wacky but beloved ‘singing governor’ Jimmie Davis. He was a respected country singer and wrote many songs, including the hit “You Are My Sunshine.” He yodeled and sang his way into the hearts of Louisiana voters and served twice as governor. He also acted in B Westerns and taught history and yodeling at a women’s college, was a bit of a segregationist and lived to be around 101, although as one of 11 kids he didn’t really know his own birthdate. At his inauguration he wore a white cowboy hat and rode his horse ‘Sunshine’ up the steps of the Louisiana Capitol building. His back-up band, the Plainsmen Quartet, all mysteriously got jobs as “insurance rate supervisors” or “inspectors” at the La. Dept. of Agriculture. His critics accused him of doing a favor to his friends at the Musicians Union by vetoing a right-to-work legislation that they were opposed to. Gov. Davis said there was no truth to the reports that he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to sing on the radio or in recording sessions. At the end of the legislature sessions he would gather friends and foes alike to sing his hit song “It Makes No Differen

Martha Reeves
Martha Reeves

ce Now’. At his funeral, former governor Edwin W. Edwards – another colorful character who spent several years in jail as a result of his shenanigans – said “Just imagine! He served 2 terms as governor of Louisiana and was never indicted. That’s a genuine achievement!”

There are quite a few well-meaning American musicians who have entered the political arena, and since I am sick of things being run by lawyers and rich guys I applaud their efforts. Martha Reeves, the ultimate soul diva of Martha Reeves and the Mandellas, was a Detroit councilwoman from 2005 to 2009, and she testified before congress in 2007 on behalf of musicians, session singers and recording artists for better wages and royalties. My husband Charley, who was her road manager back in the early 70s, says she was always very well organized and detail oriented – a trait that probably helped her to achieve things politically. She is still performing all over the planet to rave revues, though she is now a great-grandmother! Helen Reddy, of 1977’s “I Am Woman” fame, served 3 years as California Parks and Recreation Commissioner. After Sonny and Cher called it quits, Sonny Bono ran unsuccessfully for the Senate, then was elected to the U.S. Congress as the representative from California in 1994 and served as Mayor of Palm Springs, CA. in 1988. He’s probably the only high school drop-out to achieve such political prominence! Then there’s Kinky Friedman, lead singer with the Texas Jewboys, author of detective novels, Peace Corp volunteer in Borneo, chess champion, unrepentant cigar-smoker, male chauvinist pig and political satirist. He is now running for Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, after getting 13% of the vote in the last Texas Governors race. He’s so bizarre yet wonderful I think I’ll save him for a future column….

So, folks, enjoy celebrating America’s Independence Day on the 4th of this month, and keep in mind I am just exercising my right to free speech! Come out and hear Ben Jammin’ and the Howlers when we play at the new marina in Quepos on July 5th, or come south to Dominical where we play most Friday nights at the beautiful Roca Verde. If you have any gripes or want me to run for office – don’t email me at [email protected]

“We should celebrate people that are intellectually smart and trying to make this world a better place!” Kid Rock
“Musicians can run this state better than politicians. We won’t get a lot done in the mornings, but we’ll work late and be honest.” Kinky Friedman
“Like family, we are tied to each other. That is what all good musicians understand.” Billy Joel
“I mean, just because you’re a musician doesn’t mean all your ideas are about music. So every once in a while I get an idea about plumbing. I get an idea about city government. They come the way they come.” Jerry Garcia
Lifelong professional musician Nancy Buchan and her husband Charley built a house in Dominical 20 years ago, and moved there full time after Hurricane Katrina swept them out of their beloved New Orleans. Nancy plays her 5 string violin in a variety of situations – from rock and roll with Ben Jammin’ and the Howlers to jazz with C.R. pianist Manuel Obregon to Bach at beach weddings. She has been featured on over 50 cds and teaches violin at the Escuela de Musica Sinfonica in San Isidro. Contact her at [email protected].