It’s November 8, 2016. Guitarist Marc Ribot is so appalled by Donald Trump’s election he knows he needs to respond. But how? He was making an album with his band, Ceramic Dog, at the time. “I realised that the world might have to wait for another record about me fighting with my girlfriend,” he says on the telephone. “There were more important things to do!”
The upshot is Songs of Resistance 1942-2018, an album of original and classic protest material. That the guest singers include Tom Waits and Steve Earle reflects the New York musician’s spectacular versatility: the guitarist of choice for artists ranging from John Zorn’s fire-breathing avant-garde to Elton John’s frothy pop, via the diversity of Waits, Robert Plant, Diana Krall, Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithfull, Wilson Pickett and McCoy Tyner.
Even before Trump gate-crashed world politics Ribot had noticed a lack of music held in common at demonstrations, beyond the usual juvenile chants. “I wished there was something people could sing,” he says. “It would be more beautiful. And it frustrated me that we have this incredible culture of resistance music, and so few of the people engaged in resistance right now are aware of it.”
During the Occupy Wall Street movement he witnessed a moment when police were moving against protesters that just cried out for a song. “A couple of people sang some lines from Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down,” he recalls. “Tom Petty was a wonderful pop musician, but, with all due respect to him, somehow it wasn’t quite right for that moment: maybe a little too macho, and maybe because it had come through the corporate pop channels that Occupy seemed to be protesting against. I don’t think that Songs of Resistance is going to solve that problem, but I didn’t know what else to do.”
Included is We Are Soldiers in the Army, traditionally sung while people were being arrested or in jail. “Those songs have a purpose,” Ribot explains. “They keep people’s courage up and remind them that they’re not alone. People in the paddy wagon can hear other people outside singing, and people in jail can hear people in other cells or outside the window singing. People need to hear that and feel that…
“Underlying the record is the politics of a popular front, which means that when you’re confronted by a threat like this – a real threat of fascism; a real threat to democratic institutions – it’s not that you give up your individual agenda, but that you agree to act together in some way.” He points to the diversity of allies fighting Nazism. “I wanted to not just sing songs about it, I wanted to enact it in the making of the record, so people from different communities participated. I mean Steve Earle has long displayed an unbelievable amount of guts in taking left positions in the country music world.”
Ribot’s distinctive guitar playing partially results from his being a left-hander who was taught to play right-handed. Some years later his teacher explained that Ribot’s mother thought he was just pretending to be left-handed to annoy her, while his mother claimed the teacher was too lazy to restring the guitar. “The funny thing is,” he says, “I think they were both telling the truth!”
Originally a trumpeter, he turned to guitar because “an 11-year-old can be forgiven for thinking that playing the guitar would be sexier than playing the trumpet. I thought that if I could play like Keith Richards I’d be more likely to meet girls. By those standards I should have stuck with the trumpet!”
He first worked with Waits when the singer sat in with Ribot’s band the Lounge Lizards on New Year’s Eve, 1984. “We did an amazing version of Auld Lang Syne,” he says, a thought that makes one’s ears salivate. “When I heard Tom’s music,” he continues, “I could hear that he was creating characters. He’s a poet who speaks in the voices of different people, so the music had to be like a theatrical setting for those voices.”
When recording with jazz pianist McCoy Tyner (of John Coltrane fame) Ribot suggested the two of them just improvise on one piece. It proved an epochal moment: the first time Tyner had free-improvised since Coltrane’s death.
Whatever the context Ribot says he sets out “to make something happen between the musicians and the audience that is a transformative experience… It’s not so different from what happens at certain spiritual or religious events, and there’s some degree of that intensity in all music: when people come out of a mosh pit drenched in sweat something’s gone on!”
Songs of Resistance is out now through Cooking Vinyl Australia.