On the streets of Nashville, Tennessee, Humphrey Hawksley has been trying to find the modern heirs to those guitar-hero singer-songwriters who wrote so many anti-war anthems in the 1960s. Lyrics once tackled the trauma of the Vietnam generation – but does America today have any appetite for ballads about war in Iraq or Afghanistan?
A massive neon light shaped like a guitar protrudes from a building along the Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee. Underneath, bathed in the flashing blue lamp of a delivery truck, a street singer with a stubbled beard and black T-shirt, plays a familiar song that I can’t quite place.
“It’s not me that started that crazy Asian war,” he sings to a small circle of passers-by. “But I was proud to go do my patriotic chore.”
I put some dollars into his tip jar. “What’s the song?” I ask.
“Kenny Rogers. 1969.” His eyes gleam with enthusiasm. “So tragic. A Vietnam vet gets crippled. Back home he watches his girlfriend dress up to go out on the town while he has to stay in. He pleads with her – Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, it’s called.”
He nods thanks as others drop more dollars into the jar.
“What about now?” I say. “Any songs about Iraq, Afghanistan?”
“Can’t think of one.” He shrugs and runs his fingers over his guitar strings to begin his next song.
Iraq and the spectre of Baghdad’s collapse is filling the airwaves counting the human cost and the struggle of troops returning home. Forty years ago with America’s attempt to democratize Vietnam failing, protest movements swept the country led by young musicians like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Joan Baez.
Nashville is known as America’s Music City and the Broadway is a main road flanked by neon-decorated bars with names like Whisky Bent, Tin Roof and Legends. Bands hoping for the big break play from cramped stages, their raw music spilling out into the humid night. It’s a place where Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn meets Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire and where musicians have drawn inspiration from issues of poverty, inequality and race.
And, of course, war. But where is the war music now?
“We’re not writing any of that stuff,” says the heavily-bearded Stephen Mollere of the Relentless Mules as they pack up after a set. The mule was the work animal of the cotton plantations and with a banjo, mandolin and resonator guitar, they play a style called blue grass. “It’s just not commercial anymore,” he adds.
Further along, Jim Hayden, a jazz singer with the geeky bespectacled look of Buddy Holly agrees. “People don’t seem to want it. But maybe……” He pauses hesitant on what he’s about to say.
“Go on,” I nudge.
“You know we have the Patriot Act over here and people remember how the FBI tracked John Lennon for his anti-war songs and then he got shot….” He tails off, embarrassed at his own conspiracy theory. “Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen have done stuff. But they’re dinosaurs. I don’t know, music against the war is being unpatriotic and people don’t want that.”
Earlier, I’d asked the same question in the small town of Tupelo in Mississippi where American flags fly from lampposts and where Elvis Presley was born in 1935 and grew up in a two room clapboard shack.
The mayor, 38-year-old Jason Shelton, lived in the same poor part of town and went to Elvis’ old school. He described how Elvis’ childhood experience of race and poverty helped him take music to a new level.
“But your question about songs from these wars,” he said “Nothing really comes to mind.” He gets out his I-Pad and logs onto his Facebook page. “But let’s see. I’ll send a message and ask around.”
While in Nashville that evening, there’s a response to the mayor’s message from Darby McCuller, an Iraq veteran, who has a band called Dry County Tragedy. He sends me a rough recording of a song he’s just written, a tribute to his best friend killed by a roadside bomb.
It has a slow, haunting melody. You never thought this ‘ol world would turn out so cruel, goes one line and describing coming back from the war You wake up screaming…. Yesterday a Hero. Yesterday is gone.
“All that hero hype,” says Darby when I call him. “All those medals. For what?”
“Are there any other songs?” I ask.
“There’s got to be, but I don’t know them,” he replies. “Young folks today are all on their phones and computers and you don’t get music from that.”
A colourful sculpture emblazoned with the faces of legendary singers marks one end of the Broadway, where a guitarist who must have been in his seventies plays an old Joan Baez protest song.
“Those issues ain’t solved,” he says when I ask him. His wonderfully alive, craggy and layered face breaks into an upbeat smile. “But there’ll be someone out there who’s writing a song about these wars. It’ll be from their soul and suddenly the song will be there and it’ll take us all in a storm.”
In the 1980s, India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi armed and encouraged Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka, thus creating the Tamil Tigers who blew up airplanes, invented the suicide vest, slaughtered women and children and murdered her son Rajiv. At the same time, the United States bankrolled the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, thus helping to create Al Qaeda who attacked the Twin Towers and now have off-shoots stretching from Yemen to Iraq and beyond. In 2014, Russia armed and encouraged separatism in Ukraine thus starting a civil war withsophisticated weaponry resulting in the shooting down of MH17. There are probably 500 or so in the villages around who have a pretty good idea who fired the missile. What unfolds in their minds over the next few weeks is crucial. As soon as they begin to weave the big lie, invent myths of glory and honour to tell their children and grand children, justify a lethal injustice by upping hatred for the enemy and brace themselves for violent reprisals, they will go into an unbreakable mental lockdown that will contaminate generations. They could say: “Sorry, we messed up.” But it takes a big confident, mind to do that. Like India and the United States, Russia should prepare for the monster it’s created.
The people of Hong Kong must be among the most sensible in the world when it comes to balancing hostile power against personal aspiration. So far removed from the Middle East with its corpses, offence and revenge, Hong Kong people have generations of experience in flitting between China’s red lines and what they wish to achieve. They concentrate on making money, building homes, educating children and dispatching relatives to far-flung cities like New York, Vancouver and London to set up nests should everything around them collapse. So far it hasn’t. But now, 17 years after Britain handed its control to China, the times might be a changing. Trust has broken down on how the Chief Executive is to be elected in 2017 while Beijing is telling Hong Kong judges that they must be ‘patriotic’, meaning they need to back Communist Party policy. There is an instinct in this place that if it loses its reputation for impartial rule-of-law, businesses will pull out, money will flee and Hong Kong’s golden goose will shrivel and die. The upshot has been some of the biggest protest Hong Kong has ever seen. Against the backdrop of China’s regional muscle flexing, one of the world’s glittering financial centres could be facing its biggest test yet for survival.
As Egypt detains Peter Greste and thousands of others in appalling and intimidating conditions, foreign companies investing there must be reminded of new international standards on business and human rights. Egypt is a military-run government that kills, detains and tortures. Millions who supported the legal opposition last year now live in terror. Any company operating in or buying from Egypt has an obligation to make itself aware of human rights abuses there and either find ways to rectify them or stop doing business. The 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights apply to all businesses regardless of size, sector, location ownership and structure – that includes tour operators sending holiday makers to Sharm El-Sheikh, retailers importing Egyptian cotton sheets and banks lending money for new enterprises. Company executives can no longer use the excuse that they’re unaware of what’s going on there. It’s their job to know and act accordingly.
Travel agents need to remind their customers that Sharm el Sheikh is part of Egypt and is best now avoided as a holiday destination. Their customers risk being jailed, beaten or disappeared if they do or say anything the regime does not like.
They need to tell families booking with them that in the past few days, Egypt’s military government has given international journalists long jail terms, 183 Egyptians have received death sentences and that thousands have already been imprisoned, beaten and killed.
In this updated travel advise, they should add that any client who gets into trouble with the regime will receive very limited consular protection. Western democracies regard Egypt as an indispensable ally — however abhorrent its policies.
US President Andrew Jackson’s old plantation near Nashville, Tennessee brings to mind a story I’ve been working on. Jackson got rich in the 18th Century cotton boom for which he kept 150 slaves, sleeping them ten to a hut. He preferred owning families because they were more controllable and, by law, slaves were not allowed to be educated. When one escaped he took out a $50 newspaper advertisement for his capture with $10 bonus if the finder punished him with lashes. The plantation’s audio guide explains that it’s difficult to imagine how a person could work ‘in the heat of the day all day’ exhausted and with bloodied hands picking cotton. But then, mirror-similar abuse is going on today in India and elsewhere as uneducated enslaved workers, living in constant fear of violence, feed the world’s markets with cheap cotton and other raw products. Like in Jackson’s day leaders of big industries allow slavery because it’s good for business. Unlike then, slavery is now illegal. Yet India’s slavery is so widespread that the government issues a certificate that’s meant to guarantee freedom once an enslaved person has been released — even to children as young a three.
Overheard at a Tennessee hotel breakfast buffet where sugar, cheese, cream, syrup and pancakes are piled onto plates and Fox News is reporting on Iraq. One guest is Australian and the other is from Texas and he says: “A helluva mess we got ourselves into over there.”
The Australian says: “But you guys voted for it.”
The Texan polite but angry says: “Sir, there is no way I voted for Obama.”
The Australian responds: “No, I mean Bush. He went into Iraq.”
To which the Texan replies: “It was indeed and he brought democracy there.”
The Australian looks perplexed. They are distracted by an explosion and gun fire on the screen. Then the Texan says: “See what I mean. Helluva mess. The problem with Iraqis and Obama is they don’t want democracy.”
When writing Democracy Kills: What’s So Good About Having The Vote a few years back, I listed a points needed for democracy to emerge in any society. Given what’s unfolding in Iraq, here they are again.
- Conciliatory and inclusive leadership of the type used by Nelson Mandela in South Africa and now by Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar
- The building of impartial institutions, strong enough to challenge the vested interests of electoral politics
- The promotion of trade and business as drivers for development.
- The creation of a tax-paying middle class whose higher levels of education and income give it the confidence to hold government to account
- The use of mentors to shepherd new governments to legitimacy. The overarching modern mentor has been the European Union, which played a major role in preventing conflict and bringing democracy to the once-autocratic East.
- A realisation that democracy is an ideal that represents fairness and hope. It is not a system of government.
I dropped by the American Civil War re-enactment of the 1864 Battle of Tupelo in Mississippi and afterwards asked one of the soldiers what he thought about what’s unfolding in Iraq. He said:- Like the rest of the world we have no say in what the North decides to do. They’ve just been carrying on their policies of invasion of what they did to us, going into other countries, taking property, telling people how to live and what to do in their own homes. They always make a moral reason. In Iraq, they say it’s about democracy. With us they said it was about slavery. But mostly it’s about money and control. They wanted our taxes and our cotton.
Last night on St Louis in the French Quarter of New Orleans two young women, Tanya and Dorise, made stunning street music that mesmerised the crowd. Tanya is black and Dorise looks Chinese. Or it may be the other way round. One plays the guitar, the other the violin. They worked together like Simon & Garfunkel or Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar. They brimmed with talent and energy. No-one within earshot passed without stopping to hear more. With the news of Iraq in my mind, I imagined what would happen if ISIS suddenly took over the French Quarter. Either Tanya or Dorise (maybe both) risked being killed, beaten or raped because of how they were born. Their music would be banned; their instruments smashed; their tip basket pocketed; and their faces, filled with expression and creativity, would be covered. Then, I tried to work out whether Saddam Hussein would have allowed Tanya and Dorise to perform and if so, what that meant — if anything?