I first heard Allen Toussaint’s “Freedom For the Stallion” on his collaborative album with Elvis Costello, a collection of Toussaint’s songs, and some collaborative originals, meant to benefit the reconstruction efforts after Hurricane Katrina. The album was not exclusively themed around the event, but certainly songs like “The River In Reverse” were created to touch on the tragedy. Other songs from Toussaint’s back catalog were equally diverse: some reflected the reality of a post-Katrina New Orleans, while others were simply solid tracks from the New Orleans musician’s oeuvre. Costello’s vocals make the effort feel far more like his own project, which is perhaps a credit to the originals, that they can be so effortlessly incorporated into someone else’s repertoire.
“Freedom” struck me most because of how beautiful the song is, and how powerful the sentiment. It was originally written in the early ‘70s, clearly a protest song against racial inequality. With race as an undercurrent to the devastation of Katrina, bringing the song back was a smart choice. It added a different voice to the Kanye-posturing that would become emblematic of Kanye’s entire persona. The song is a protest song that feels like real people feel. Sure, we embrace tracks like “Masters of War,” because the anger is cathartic, and because we DO feel angry. There was anger in the people who found themselves at the receiving end of police violence during the civil rights movement, and anger in the hearts of those whose homes went destroyed in New Orleans, and then ignored because of the race and class make-up of the most heavily affected areas. But for most of us, anger is an emotion we can sustain relatively briefly. When it fades, what is left is the helplessness… how futile it must have seemed to those trying to end segregation when they saw more friends arrested for peaceful protest, more colleagues beaten and sprayed with hoses. How desperate must it feel to be left homeless and penniless after an act of nature wipes out everything you’ve ever known. We get angry when life throws us indignities, but these are brief peaks. The major theme is, instead, realizing that some things are fully outside our control, and being scared at how weak we are against such things.
As such, Costello wrings every bit of desperation out of “Freedom.” It’s a song that already repeats a refrain that begs a higher power for help fixing what seems insurmountable for us mortals. It’s the power of religion for many of us… there is that hope, however slim, that justice might be served someday even when it is not here on earth. That desperation, for a better world after this one, often leads us to ignore what life throws at us, but here we are asked not to ignore, but to join together and solve problems, even if it takes a helping hand from God to do it. It is inherently peaceful, on the side of the protest. It is also, however, helpless. There is a wisdom that no one can fix this alone, that huge change will need to occur. Yet, when we’re feeling helpless, a song that expresses the same desperation, the same feeling of powerlessness, can be a comfort. It proves, for one, that someone else out there is seeing what you do, but it also means there are others finding that song as a touchstone. It creates a community, albeit one that does not necessarily realize its connection. In other words, when people complain about music being political, ignore them: great music has had politic for longer than it had words. If music connects us, and we connect to it, these social connections become a huge factor. Indeed, a song about deeply held emotions that can live on frequently does so as a commentary on the continued existence of some social problem. That “Freedom” got a second life is indicative of the life of the issue it addresses.
On Wise Up Ghost, Costello’s recent collab with the Roots, “The River in Reverse” takes on a similar second life. The album, so sayeth the press, seems to be political in and of itself, and the pseudo-remixes that are peppered throughout point to this (we also find “Pills and Soap” here, one of the more pointed of Costello’s political barbs). In light of even more recent events, however, “Freedom for the Stallion” has, to me, entered a third life much more powerful than any of Ghost’s tracks.
It is perhaps not the job of a small-time musical rag to pretend it is important enough to weigh in on matters of national significance, but so long as we’re talking music, we’re talking about the social factor somehow, so let’s just get it out there. Last month, the news was dominated by the story of a young man who was gunned down by a police officer in Ferguson, MO. Hopefully this is not news to anyone. The dialog swings from the youth being a student who was on his way to college, to him being a thug who recently held up a convenience store. Both sides are, as far as I can tell, accurate. They are also both totally irrelevant to what happened. The facts are this: a young man was gunned down by an officer. The officer didn’t know the youth was heading to college, nor that he was a suspect in a robbery. He knew the youth was black. That’s really, as far as any solid evidence shows, the only thing we know, besides the bullet wounds being numerous and consistent with someone surrendering.
The thing we should take away from this has absolutely nothing to do with Michael Brown himself, but the police response. It shouldn’t be character assassination, or even character praise. It needs to be about the action. It, of course, hasn’t been. That’s why it matters. To a certain subset of people, our own experience is all that matters. It is these people who believe ANYONE can succeed with hard work, because THEY did. It is these people who believe racism and sexism are eradicated, because hell, they WORK with a black woman, so CLEARLY there is no more racism or sexism. These people are wrong, of course, and moments like these prove it. The second people see the strong protests over the use of lethal force on an unarmed youth as “playing the race card” is the second people stop trying to understand other people. Those people are wrong, because those people attempt to put their experience in place of everyone else’s experience. Thousands of African Americans can speak directly to how different it is for them.
It is one of the beautiful things about music, though, that we can take other people’s experiences and contemplate them. We probably don’t care about a random person on the bus talking on the phone to a friend about their girlfriend dumping them, but when we hear it structured out in a powerful song, we relate, because it has happened to us, or because we think about our happy relationship and say “well damn, if I went through that, it would tear me up, too.” That is the beauty of a good social issue song, too. When we read something, we can gloss over the emotion in the words. When we see someone speak on an issue, they often take a too-formal tone. Music leaves the emotions bare. That’s why my mind has kept drifting to this song of late. If you can listen to a song like “Freedom for the Stallion” and not share that struggle for three minutes, well, you’re missing something human within you. It is the very eloquent, plaintive, desperate plea of a community that is constantly treated as second class. To not hear it is to intentionally not want to hear the truth.
That’s the story out of Ferguson this month: a community realizing they are not safe, they are not innocent-til-proven-guilty, because of the color of their skin. A community realizing their right to speak out is going to be silenced by military grade weaponry, because of the color of their skin. A community realizing they aren’t granted due process, that their protests will be considered “riots” and their transgressions will be used to validate their deaths after they occur… because of the color of their skin. Toussaint sums it up pretty damn well when he writes “ignore him when he whispers, and kill him when he shouts.” It’s not a reality that has changed, and we are ignorant to believe otherwise, to simply ignore how another group lives, with no discussion, no contemplation, not even the vaguest allowance that maybe something could be wrong. We are still deep in a civil rights struggle, and so long as the people in power ignore that reality, I hope we’ll all be shouting for someone, anyone, to help us find a way through it.