The Haymarket Squares,
Light It Up
(independent, 2016)

In the midst of a strike in Chicago's Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886, someone tossed a bomb at police officers seeking to break up demonstrators who had gathered to support an eight-hour workday and to protest the killing of strikers by authorities the day before. In the explosion and subsequent gunfire, 11 persons, seven of them cops, were slain. Following the incident, among the most violent in American labor history, eight anarchists were sentenced on basically no evidence except the ideological convictions they presumably shared with the actual bomber, never identified. Four were hanged, and one committed suicide rather than go the gallows. Those who didn't die were pardoned in 1893 by a newly elected Illinois governor who judged the trial a farce.

Thus the name of this Phoenix-based band. I wonder, though, if another inspiration may be an obscure 1980s outfit, the Washington Squares, who tied a punkish sensibility to 1960s-style political folk music. In that spirit the five-member Haymarket Squares offer up a 21st-century sound that is as much folk-punk as folk-rock.

If you were to ask me, I'd say the two finest English-language protest songs of the last couple of centuries are Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More" (1855) and Florence Reece's "Which Side are You On?" (1931). Not, of course, that these are the only good protest songs -- there are plenty of those -- but these have proven to be among the most enduring. The first was the creation of a professional composer observing the panic of 1854, the latter the bitter statement of a woman caught up firsthand in a particularly savage Kentucky labor conflict. Foster's song survives because of its eerie, melancholic beauty, Reece's because of the simple but profound question posed in its title; otherwise, like most topical songs, its life would not have survived the real-life events that inspired it. In that context you might listen, or try to listen, to an early Phil Ochs album. You'll need a sharper than ordinary historical memory to appreciate most of what he was complaining about. That's probably the reason his most enduring song, the lilting "Changes," isn't political at all.

In the absence of liner notes, I am going to assume that all but one (John Fogerty's "Fortunate Son") of the songs on Light It Up are originals. Musically, they sound much alike: hard-charging harmonies set to punk-rock rhythms, if mostly acoustic instruments, and melodies, if that's the word, that feel almost improvised. One consequence is that one strains to hear the words, which one would think are the whole point of topical material. Still, what one hears is often witty, sometimes outright funny. The focus is on the ills of this sorry time: the plight of immigrants, the destruction of nature, the prison industry, government surveillance, stupidity and greed in general. I don't quarrel with any of the targets, though someone who is of another ideological disposition might want to reach for antacid pills.

Basically, Light It Up amounts to singing -- loudly -- to the choir. I also imagine the natural environment for this sort of thing is live performance.

music review by
Jerome Clark

23 April 2016

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