Troubadours for our time

Leonard Cohen and Victor Jara 

Troubadour, two definitions : 1) medieval lyric poet/musician; 2) a singer, especially of folk songs. (Merriam Webster) It’s the first definition I like.

The death of Leonard Cohen set me to thinking. Who might be the troubadours of our own time? Troubadours for our time?

I tried in an early version of this post to characterise Leonard Cohen as somehow in that medieval tradition. As a poet of love, even courtly love. He was inspired and tormented by his muse, and his audience connected and were inspired in turn. But I’m foolish to try and say more than that. The more I listen to his songs the more in awe I am. There’s a fine piece by Edward Doxx connecting Cohen to John Donne. It gets closer than I ever could. He quotes Cohen:  ‘So come, my friends, be not afraid/We are so lightly here/It is in love that we are made/in love we disappear.’

Cohen didn’t take up the cudgels against violence and injustice, as Dylan once did.  Nor did he understand ‘the other side’ quite as Woody Guthrie did: ‘As I went walking I saw a sign there/And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”/But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,/That side was made for you and me.’

But he did write and sing ‘Democracy’, which lays bare a dysfunctional USA, but in the midst of it all just about finds reason for optimism. ‘It’s coming to America first,/the cradle of the best and of the worst./It’s here they got the range/and the machinery for change/and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.’ 

Asked two years ago if songs can offer solutions to political problems, he replied, ‘I think the song itself is a kind of solution.’

Dylan back in the 60s confronted the ‘masters of war’ and racists: ‘William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll,/with a gun that he twirled around his diamond ring finger.’ There was a rawness about Dylan back then, just voice and guitar and a language we’d never heard. There’s something about a troubadour who carries his guitar and gathers an audience around him wherever he might be. (Once or twice I did just that!) No band in sight.

Dylan put overt protest behind him, took on another persona,  many personas – but he’s still the troubadour.

As for others …..Buffy Sainte-Marie has long been a favourite of mine. ‘Welcome welcome emigrante,’ words for our own time as much as hers. Pete Seeger and Euan MacColl were at the political coal-face: amazingly MacColl also wrote ‘The first time ever I saw your face’. Joan Baez has never lost her touch or her commitment, or her ability to inspire. She was the first for me, back over fifty years ago.

Bruce Springsteen, a man with a guitar, and a rock band. A different kind of troubadour. As for Steve Earle, ‘hardcore troubadour’, Springsteen may have been the ‘consummate chronicler of welfare-line blues, but Steve had lived the life’. (Lauren St John).

There’s another , who I’ve just re-discovered, playing my old vinyls. Someone who maybe I should have put first, ahead even of Cohen, Guthrie, Dylan. I’m thinking of Victor Jara, a Chilean troubadour who died for his songs, his poetry, his guitar, his beliefs, his hands first broken, and then murdered in the stadium in Santiago on 1973, when Pinochet with CIA backing overthrew the Allende regime. His songs have a purity and a magic, and a simple beauty, and they stop me in my tracks.

Yes, my guitar is a worker/shining and smelling of spring/my guitar is not for killers/greedy for money and power/but for the people who labour/so that the future may flower. (His last poem, which could never be a song, written in the stadium.)

The Beatles could have been troubadours, if they’d followed the direction taken by Penny Lane and Eleanor Rigby. Ralph McTell (Streets of London) was memorable, though sentimental. Billy Bragg never sentimental, stridently political, a street singer. But in truth he never inspired me. One song that did was Peter Gabriel’s lament for Steve Biko, which is searing, searching, and angry.

Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Yves Montand… chanteurs/chanteuses, troubadours. There’s a Gallic intensity we Brits and Americans find hard to match. They’ve inspired me, but they’re not my focus here.

For I’ve a question. For anyone who reads this, for my children, for generations born in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, even the noughties.

Who are your troubadours?

Singers and poets for whom words matter, for whom stories matter, for whom love matters, and above all – injustice. Who sing to be heard, and to be understood. Who sing with passion and with anger.

Back in the 60s the civil rights movement galvanised us, in the UK as well as the USA. Apartheid likewise. We’d a sense that history was on our side, justice and social justice would prevail. Now, in 2016, post Brexit and the Trump election we’re on the defensive. Nativist, racist and sexist attitudes find favour. Trump somehow finds the rule of law and torture compatible.

(Trump and torture reminded me of Victor Jara. Pinochet’s soldiers thought torture and death legitimate. Once hatred in engendered anything is possible.)

Who is singing for us, writing songs, wanting to be heard? Who will be singing?

Maybe we’ve been listening to the music too much in recent decades, and we’ve forgotten the song.

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