Historic Times – a collection of David Rovics’ best live and studio efforts from the past few years, as well as some brand new songs – begins with jolt. Just a Renter is urgent, dissonant, and unhappy, as it charts the struggle to continue living in Portland amidst an ever growing flood of real estate speculation, rent increases and yuppies
In England, the “land question” was, until quite recently, regarded as a once-great cause of radical liberalism, that had been supplanted at the beginning of the 20th century by the pre-eminence of labour struggles. Today, right across the northern hemisphere, the struggle over space is very much back at the forefront of our thinking and action. And so it is with Historic Times, which focuses heavily upon social and individual struggles against landlordism, real estate markets and immigration controls. Even Ballad of a Wobbly begins with a tale of territorial dispossession, in the form of the Highland Clearances, and ends with a tale of deportation.
It is perhaps fitting that this album does not, in general, replicate the ease with which David Rovics’ best known hits are listened to, emoted to and sung along to. The history of labour struggles, whilst bitter and nasty, is nonetheless a history of great camaraderie, and of impressive victories as well as serious defeats. And it is a focal point for a great many narratives that point towards our eventual triumph. By contrast, the struggle against landlordism is, as many readers will know, often a distinctly lonely business.
The album’s early tracks culminate, in a sense, with Names and Addresses, which tells the story of Grenfell, skillfully, angrily and compellingly. It is not until track 5 the listener is truly permitted to look at the world with great hope. East Kilbride is vintage Rovics at its very best. David tells the story of the union men in Scotland who kept Pinochet’s war-planes out of the sky for years, by blocking the repair of the engines. Like all of the very best of his work, he tells the story in a way that will make you well up, no matter how many times you have already listened to it that afternoon.
It should also be said that East Kilbride is not merely a triumph of poetry and story-telling but also a triumph of sound. The finger-picking is perfect, and it works incredibly well with the accompaniment from Arcellus Sykes’ acoustic bass. Indeed, despite the unfortunate association, at least in my mind, between the sound of an acoustic bass and the tedium of jazz music, Sykes’ bass playing adds a great deal to what is a very musically accomplished album.
On the B side of the Album, If This Were a War stands out as a powerful rumination on America’s security state and the relationship between its domestic and overseas manifestations.Cheese and Bread chronicles the first moment at which the red-flag was used as symbol of workers’ revolt. It was the uprising in Methyr Tydfil in 1831, at the height of the agitation that led to the first great reform act, when workers took over the town “chanted ‘cheese and bread’ with a bloody loaf above their heads”. This song surely has the makings of another great David Rovics anthem.
The great danger for any topical song-writer is that they slip into becoming a museum-piece – that is to say, they become a victim of their overly well-honed capacity to talk about particular struggles in particular ways. With this album, David Rovics demonstrates very well his capacity to reanimate powerful stories from the past, whilst also very much addressing the zeitgeist of the present. Musically, it perhaps owes a bit less than his earlier work to the folk-revival of the mid-to-late twentieth century, and yet still contains many of the sounds that the experienced fan will know and love.
Altogether, it’s a cracking collection of songs. Intriguingly, it has been released on Vinyl as well as in digital format, and whilst I do not own a record player personally, I will be buying a copy for my best friend, and look forward to listening to it on the turntable.
By Ruben Bard-Rosenburg