“No Trains on the Rails Today”: Political Songwriting

In #Canada they are trying to ram through a gas pipeline over the objections of #Wet‘suwt’en chiefs, despite the fact that legally (by treaty, which has been at least theoretically recognized by the courts as legally binding on the Canadian state) they are custodians of the land to be traversed. After the RCMP moved in to force the pipeline through, Mohawk in eastern Canada blockaded a major rail line, and other #solidarity actions are taking place as well. Meanwhile, politicians claim to still be all for #reconciliation with #Firstnations– but apparently this cannot extend to anything that might impede natural resource extraction.

Like any form of songwriting, political songwriting is actually pretty easy to do but much harder to get quite right. The jury’s still out on this particular song, but remember, a song is not a treatise or an argument. It may capture a set of thoughts and feelings around an issue. Or it might tell a story that brings the issue to life in some way. If anyone wants to know more about this issue there are many good sources out there (as well as some very bad ones), but one book that very much informed the lyrics here was The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King.

Songwriters tend to shy away from songs that directly take a political position for a number of reasons. One is that such songs tend to be divisive, and so songwriters who are trying to reach a broad audience can end up shooting themselves in the foot if they alienate too much of their audience. Also, as I mentioned, songs don’t lend themselves to in-depth examination of the issues. So the songs can end up becoming little more than slogans in service of a cause. Which is fine- that’s serving a purpose- but as art it can be very limiting. On the other hand, be too subtle and poetic and you’re not necessarily taking a clear or direct stand anymore.

So why write political songs? Because we write about what matters to ourselves and to others. After all, people still write religious songs even though that’s very much a niche market as well. If you feel something inside and you’re an artist, your art will probably end up communicating that in some way.



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