Talking Politics From the Stage

To speak out or entertain or both?

I remember being lucky enough to be taken to a Harry Belafonte concert by my Mom and Dad when I was a kid. There is nothing like a concert with a full on orchestra. What a band and what a show.

The concert was spectacular and as a middle class white kid growing up in the prairies in Canada, was the first time I had ever really been exposed to someone in person discuss coming from a different culture, civil rights and politics in general.

Hard to believe now but that’s actually how isolated from multi-culturalism we were in parts of Canada back then. The exposure was still only onstage for me at that time just because of where we lived.

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The concert left me gobsmacked and I had my mind opened to so many things, not to mention the music and perhaps for the first time ever, I truly became aware of what a big ol’ world we live in and how relatively small my world view was.

It was years later I learned Belafonte was one of the main players and financial backers of the Civil Rights movement.

My Dad was a great and caring man who mostly lived by a live-and-let-live creed but I remember him being furious at Belafontes comments between songs where he expressed his Culture, Civil Rights and his Political beliefs. My Dad believed entertainers were there to do one thing and that was to entertain.

I think that may have been partly a generational thing although Pete Seeger came from his generation and Woody Guthrie from the generation before.

And I sometimes hear people my age say the same thing now. They don’t want their music mixed with anything political.

Sometimes I like really good music that is all about the playing and the groove and I could care less about the lyrical content as long as it’s not hateful, so I don’t feel like I’m knocking their opinions.

Dad didn’t like the idea that performers would speak on stage about their beliefs. I’m not sure it even had anything to do with if he agreed with what Belafonte had to say. He simply didn’t want to be preached to after he spent his money on a ticket to a musical concert. He wanted to be entertained and that’s that. Fair enough.

But he loved All in the Family on TV. And Laugh In. And the Smothers Brothers. Very confusing.

Move forward at least 40 years and we have the stunning artist, Angelique Kidjo playing at Vancouver Island MusicFest.


After the show, I had an audience member come up to me and say he wished Angelique had kept her mouth shut and just sang. First of all, I’m not sure how she would do that !

Secondly, this is a woman who is know around the world as a voice of sanity for Womens Rights and African Culture. Not to mention, dude, you are at a ‘folk’ festival!

I have heard this statement numerous times from people in regards to artists representing many genres of music.

I believe part of the original intent of the folk festival was to have modern troubadours spread the word. To teach each other about different cultures and belief systems. That was their job. To share our ideas. This, of course, was long before the immediacy of the internet when Artists truly were ambassadors of news and opinions that may not have been stated by the media at large. It was so needed and was such a big part of their job.

Today, it seems as the music world has become more industrialized and the need for the role of the troubadour has changed somewhat due to our instant access to news from around the world. Maybe that role isn’t as needed as it used to be? The world is certainly a smaller place.

But maybe there is one kid or adult within a small community who has been questioning things who discovers he or she is in a community of like-minded people for the first time ever at a concert or Festival.

I dunno, what do you think?




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9 thoughts on “Talking Politics From the Stage

  1. Growing up in the 60’s, that was the whole point of the new music. Political change. Joseph Campbell said it was up to the poets, artists and musicians be the voice of a new religion. The trouble with the world is we’re following the dogma from 1 , 2 and 3 thousand years ago in the 21st century. We need a new teaching and music can be just that catalyst.
    In the 50’s, my dad had a record album… “Satch plays Fats”… where Louis Armstrong plays the tunes of Fats Waller. I remember listening to “Black and Blue”. Quite a statement that made an impression on me. It was the first time I really thought about what was going on in the world. I still have the album.

  2. Take Me To Church by Hozier comes to mind.
    Troubadours of every kind will always be around, I hope,
    and organically, as it happens, industrial or not, we can take it or leave it

  3. More comments from Facebook –

    Brent Reid : Fascinating column, Doug. It was life-altering for me to attend a Pete Seeger concert in Vancouver in 1960 and hear his lyrics and incisive inter-song comments on peace, race relations, workers’ rights, and human dignity. Since then I’ve always admired progressive -thinking performers who state their beliefs onstage, but remember that they also have a responsibility to entertain.
    Like · Reply · 4 hrs · Edited

    Din Solesinger : Great piece Doug! At a young age I was influenced by The Clash, U2, Bob Marley, Rage Against The Machine and even a bit from locals like The Hip. So it’s normal from my point of view.

    I find this issue is not just with entertainment, I think it’s at e…See More
    Like · Reply · 3 hrs · Edited

    Lucas Schuller : Especially as musical genres continue to blend and in some ways become irrelevant, for me this is a key part of what defines a folk festival as opposed to a rock festival. A folk festival isn’t just about music, it’s about ideas and community conversation. For as long as we’ve had song, one of its many roles has been to provoke conversation. It’s critical that we continue that tradition.
    Like · Reply · 2 · 3 hrs

    Din Solesinger: Lucas, in my opinion Rock concerts should/could/have done the same. The first seems to have been John Lennon’s, but I could be mistaken.

    I ultimately think that Rock n Roll should be rebellion. The last decade and a half has been rather safe and boring though, in the Rock world. Which is weird, because we’ve had enormous political, geological and economic upheaval.
    Like · Reply · 1 hr · Edited

  4. From Facebook :

    Bill Ayers : I lament the very noticeable LACK of political commentary on folk fest stages nowadays. I think we’ve lost something important in our culture, and it’s not being compensated for online.

  5. I too saw a Harry Belafonte concert when I was in my late teens (so late 60’s) in Monteal. He did have commentary between songs. One audience member was not pleased and shouted out “we came here to see you sing not speak”. Mr. Belafonte was silent for a moment and then said” Hmm, we have an American in the audience”. The audience burst out in applause. I have remembered that all these years. I also remember The Smothers Brothers censored on TV. I listening to Harry Belafonte on Canadian TV singing Please don’t stop the Carnival to the backdrop of the Chicago riots but on American TV it was a blank screen for the length of the performance and no vocals. I hope we’ve come a long way from that.

  6. Before this age of mass communication, music and stories were our way of sharing our opinions and remembering our shared history. Songs tell the stories of our lives. “Folk music” is music of the people. In Italian “musica popolare” is music of the “popolo” the people, the origin of our word “popular,” which has come a strange path in its current meaning. Love and friendship and sorrow and celebration are certainly part of folk music, but so is telling it like it is on a cultural level. Music is a huge part of what propelled “popular” movements – the Civil Rights Movement in North America, the Nueva Cancion movement in Central and South America, the Anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Music has so much power to move us and join us and make us think. And yes, entertain us as well.

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