I often find political songs to be kind of dull. I like a political song that has some layers of meaning and that can stand on its own outside a political context, or at least beyond one specific political context. Don’t get me wrong. I recognize that sometimes we need rallying songs, songs that keep the message simple and direct as a way of uniting people in a noble common cause. I know that these songs can be powerful and important at the right moment. Furthermore, I have been moved by these songs, but they are usually not the songs that stay with me or move me most deeply. Why is that?
Maybe for the same reason that I prefer a poem like Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” over a greeting card about Dad. The poem shows us a complex, very imperfect relationship between a father and his child. The greeting card tells us some nice things about Dad. Each one conveys something about appreciating and loving a parent—and I would never take away from someone’s sincere appreciation—but I haven’t seen a greeting card yet that conveys the kind of richness that Hayden’s poem conveys, not to mention the depth of heart that the narrator of the poem displays. To me, the poem brings us much closer to the real experience of love.
It naturally follows that I would prefer a song like Louise Mosrie's "Battle of Blair Mountain" (Mosrie/Richardson) to "Which Side Are You On?" Both songs have a socio-political element. It's not that one is good and the other bad, and both have moved me in some way, but "Battle of Blair Mountain" hits deep, line after poetic line. Its art is in the way it draws us into a human story so that we can empathize with the people in the song's story. Even after hearing it more times than I can count, I can still get a tear in my eye when I listen to it.