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To be topical, or not to be: political songs pt 2

2016 January 25
by Mike Vial

My last week’s post about “political songs” got some great comments, friends sharing a contrasting opinion to my theme. Songwriters Josh Woodward and Spencer Michaud‘s comments got me wondering: is it better to seek out that universal song, or is there a time to write the topical protest tune?

I’d like to return to my theme because there is a time to be topical!

“A time for a big message; a time to be topical and specific”

Recently, I wrote a song called “Girl on the Mountain, Boy on the Beach” inspired by the Syrian refugee crisis (boy on the beach), and my own reflection as a new dad (girl on the mountain).

However, most listeners wouldn’t connect the dots without me offering an explanation.

If you listen to Neil Young’s “Ohio”, you know exactly what that song is addressing if you have prior knowledge about Kent State and 1970:

Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming/We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming/Four dead in Ohio.

Gotta get down to it/Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her/And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know? – “Ohio” by Neil Young

Kent State shooting. May 4, 1970. Vietnam War. Right there, in the lyrics.

Yes, topical songwriting will most likely become dated, and get lost in the shuffle after time passes; but there is a time to be specific rather than attempting to write a universal “Blowing in the Wind.”

Every American history teacher I had in high school and college neglected to talk about the Vietnam War in depth in their curriculum. We’d cover the Revolutionary War, the Seven Years War, the Civil War, WWI, WWII…then the bell would ring, and summer recess was here. (Which is a lost opportunity, because those alive during the Vietnam War are here to talk about it with us.)

What inspired me to start reading books about Vietnam? Neil Young’s song, “Ohio”.

Twenty years after that song was on the radio, it inspired a high school kid to not only learn the guitar parts, but ask, “What is this song about?”

Last year, I played this song in Columbus at the Six Strings Concerts. It was the song that concert attendees wanted to talk to me about the most after the concert. It was a song they remembered personally from that time period.

Don’t be afraid to write your area’s “Ohio.”

video credits: Larry Wolfe


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