Let’s face it: A cynical world doesn’t necessarily nurture good causes. Even I tend to roll my eyes at the poor sap standing on the street corner holding up a sign that reads, “Impeach Bush.” And after the last presidential race, it’s hard to blame people for feeling apathetic toward social change within the democratic system, let alone the impact of artistic expression on political issues.
However, famed-and avidly anti-Bush-folk rocker Neil Young has recently given a voice to anyone brave enough to speak up against the current administration or the ongoing Iraq War. Young has invited artists of all mediums to submit their protest songs, videos, or poetry to his Web site as part of his Living with War Today (LWWT) campaign. Through the site (neilyoung.com/lwwtoday), it seems Young has created a movement of peaceful, artistic protest that’s doing rather well for itself. “Around the time I submitted, there were only about 200 songs, but now there are 3,000,” Cindy Lee Berryhill explained in a recent phone interview. Berryhill, who is an accomplished singer/songwriter, has a featured song on Young’s Web site called “When Did Jesus Become a Republican?” which blatantly laments the intermingling of religion and politics.
Soon after submitting her tunes, Berryhill coordinated with other artists in the LWWT community and proposed a concert that would feature performances by other likeminded songwriters who were featured on the site. “I got tons of emails from people who wanted to do this,” she said. Not long after, Songs of Protest: An Evening with the Songwriters Featured at Neil Young’s Living with War Web Site was born. And though it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, the series of concerts brought together professional musicians and, as Berryhill likes to call them, “spirited unknowns” who “aren’t [well] known, but have a whole lot of spirit and something to say.”
SOhO will offer its intimate charm to Berryhill and two fellow LWWT artists, Blame Sally and Nancy Hall. The ladies from Blame Sally had their song “If You Tell a Lie” featured on the LWWT site’s Top 10 list. And though the SOhO gig is the fourth installment of the traveling Songs of Protest tour, it’s guaranteed to be different from previous outings. If anything, it is a last-minute surprise. Berryhill explained, “Blame Sally said to me, ‘We really dig what you’re doing. : We have a show in a month in Santa Barbara. Would you be interested in turning it into a Songs of Protest?'” Nancy Hall was also asked to bring her experience as a former actress/backup singer on Young’s Greendale Tour to the show. Hall’s song “No Fighting” has recently been featured in the video section of the Web site.
It often seems protest songs have been challenged by the shallowness of the present-day music industry. Once it was all about Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan; now the public craves plastic pop stars who might as well have been packaged by Mattel. But Berryhill expressed optimism about the role and message of the Songs of Protest series. “Hopefully it is bringing folks together through the music,” she said. Either way, it’s certainly gaining interest from other artists, especially political activist and long-time musician Jackson Browne. “Jackson hardly ever goes to shows, and if he does, he doesn’t usually stay the whole time. He gave us his blessing on it.”
And with the ongoing success of the Songs of Protest tour, Berryhill has set new goals for herself. She’s currently plotting to take her tour-and her message-to Washington, D.C. “I actually do have an ambition for it. I’m trying to find a way to get it on the road,” she said. The big question remains, though: Is music still a strong influence on social change in America and throughout the world? Berryhill seems to thinks so. “I feel like this series of shows has tapped into something that we all want to be a part of,” she said. And with all the support from the fans and artists, it’s beginning to seem like Neil Young can finally end his search for a heart of gold.
Blame Sally, Nancy Hall, and Cindy Lee Berryhill take their folksy songs of protest to the SOhO stage at 8 p.m. on Sunday, September 9. Tickets are $12 with dinner, and $15 at the door. Call 962-7776 or visit sohosb.com for details.