The children of Woody Guthrie
November 19, 2009
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Never underestimate the ability for pop culture to water down its most firebrand figures--especially after they're dead. Luckily, there are people like Antonino D'Ambrosio. His book Let Fury Have the Hour: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer , released in 2003, is essential reading for anyone who wants to learn who the Clash front man really was. D'Ambrosio's new book A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears  is a passionate examination of Cash's album protesting the conditions for Native peoples in the early 1960s.
Here, D'Ambrosio takes to Alexander Billet about the new book, his influences, and his thoughts on music and politics.
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THERE ARE a lot of folks who say that art, and specifically music, doesn't mix with politics. But a lot of your writing, from Let Fury Have the Hour to A Heartbeat and a Guitar and many of your articles, takes a different point of view. What do you have to say to these people?
I THINK that's probably one of the most political statements you can make. When people say that art and politics shouldn't mix, or there are artists who say that their work doesn't reflect the current political climate, that's more political than when Cash did Bitter Tears in my opinion.
What I mean is that you're taking a very strong stance in support of the current dominant political ideology or system--that you're willing to remain on the surface in the hopes of not damaging your career. It's kind of a crass opportunism.
I also think it's not a very sophisticated view, because we all live in a political structure--we're all informed by it, we're all shaped by it, and we all respond to it every day. The very nature of the comment that says, "I'm not political," is very sad on one hand, and it's also very harmful, because I think the most important thing about art is its ability to try to achieve the pursuit of the truth.
That's what the power of art really is, whether it's Picasso's "Guernica," or Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears--those pieces of art respond to a certain human condition arising out of politics. And they tell the truth about their situation!
DO YOU think a lot of that view that art and politics don't mix is informed by the way we're taught about politics? You know, we're told that politics is something you only do every two or four years in a voting booth. Do you think that has a lot to do with it?
OF COURSE! There's a great deal of de-politicization that goes on in this country. And that's one of the reasons why in my work I try to uplift "popular culture"--not "pop culture" but "popular culture," because I distinguish between the two. Like the work of the Clash or Johnny Cash, or "Guernica," or Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"--these were popular culture works informed by politics that helped to change things. I don't think art can change things on its own, but it can help; it can create inspiration for people to aspire to get involved.
So, of course, there's a manipulation, and the media's very effective in its use of a kind of soft power through pop culture. Even the way the news is now; it's much more info-tainment than it is actual journalism. Stories will be skewed, they'll be off-balance, and when you have that, you undermine critical thinking.
When that happens then you really get into a situation where people may shy away from fighting for change. They may get into a routine, but again, that's where art like Bitter Tears comes in because it can rip off the scar tissue and try to really heal the wounds that plague this country.
WHAT YOU said about the news definitely rings true. Compared to alternative media, mainstream news seems to be deliberately sealing itself in a bubble. You can see that in a lot of pop culture, too--a refusal to address the world at large.
ABSOLUTELY. TO me, it's part of the American exceptionalism that grew out of the Reagan era. That notion that says, "America is the greatest country in the world," is a big problem because real art is made by what I call "citizen artists": people who can't help but see themselves as citizens not just of one country, but of the world. And that requires you to see yourself as interconnected and interdependent with the people outside your door and the people that are thousands of miles away.
I think any really good art--and you can apply this to almost any area of society--manages to do that. You're not always going to be successful, but you have to attempt. And that itself is a great challenge to the divisiveness and the power of the elite that reigns across the country.
THE POWER to break down divisions is something you go into with your own experience in the beginning of Let Fury Have the Hour, when you describe first hearing the Clash's song "Clampdown." It sounds like that was one of the major moments that set you down the path you're on now, and it's probably an experience that countless people have had themselves with music. Could you describe that experience?
WHEN I was 12 years old, my cousin had this kind of audio room--stereo systems were huge back then. And I remember that day clearly, because it was also the first time I heard the Replacements, the Jam and Elvis Costello--it was a transformative time for me. I was like, "Wow!" because it was filled with the sounds of the world to me! You could feel it! There was an energy and a spirit in that music that had been lacking before.
That being said, my parents were immigrants and came here in the '60s, and my mom was greatly informed by Elvis, the Beatles and also by John Lennon, so I remember that very clearly. But the transformative moment was when my cousin put the needle of that record player down on "Clampdown."
Hearing that story about working-class struggle--you know "wearing blue and brown," that's something my uncles would wear. I remember thinking that they weren't just talking to me, but they were telling my story. I was only 12 years old, so I guess you could say that at that moment, my world became bigger than my one block.
It's something that set me off in trying to seek out the music that influenced the Clash. The Clash was influenced by all kinds of sounds. So that's how I got to Jimmy Cliff, and Toots and the Maytals, and lots of different reggae. And I got into American roots music because of the Clash: blues. I got into cumbia when I was 14 years old--music that I probably never would have heard in my life where I grew up. And it's all because of the Clash in that moment.
I think music can do that the way other art forms can't. This is something I write about in Let Fury Have the Hour and A Heartbeat and a Guitar--that music is art's story about life. There's something that's very transcendent about music, but also something that is deeply personal.
THE POWER to break down boundaries is something you go out of your way to talk about when you examine the influences of the artists you profile. In doing so, you show that so many of the most influential artists in music have been people who stood for something.
TO ME, that's the very definition of humanism. You know, Joe Strummer and [Clash guitarist/vocalist] Mick Jones are two very intelligent and curious human beings. Johnny Cash was the same way; he was very, very smart. And whenever you're able to explore yourself in relation to the world, I think it's almost impossible to not seek out in defense and in support of the very human conditions that trouble you.
If you really look at all the artists who have been influential in their day, they can be progressive in their work and progressive in their life.