Sara Marlowe,
A World to Win:
Songs from the Struggle
for Global Justice

(World to Win, 2002)

In August 2001 in Sudbury, Ontario, a woman named Kimberley Rogers died in her sweltering apartment along with her unborn baby. She had been sentenced to house arrest for taking out student loans while receiving social assistance from the Ontario government. Rogers' death became a powerful symbol for anti-poverty activists and was the inspiration for the making of this record.

This CD was released at a time when political protest in Ontario was often met with official violence by a hard right-wing regime. (Other victims included Dudley George, an unarmed aboriginal man shot by police in a land-claims dispute.) In the broader global context, this CD of 12 protest songs comes in the wake of the massive street protests in Seattle, Quebec City and Genoa.

Sara Marlowe's strong, young but rough-edged voice is a decent vehicle for a pointed message, and the guitar playing is more than adequate to the task of accompaniment on this well-mastered CD. Much of what she says here needs to be said -- and to be said in strong words. But this CD is not for everyone.

Most thinking people are very concerned about the increasing Walmart-ization of our neighborhoods, globalization, the weaponization of space and the effect of junk take-out food on children. These are some of the serious issues Marlowe tackles head-on. In "Making History" she's positive about the prospect of social change brought about through protest: "If you want to find me I'll be sleeping on the streets of Seattle / Washington's calling my name / Tear gas in Quebec can not choke a movement."

In songs such as "Access Denied," she deals with the plight of Kim Rogers and others in poverty, stigmatized by right-wing governments as a scapegoat for public service cuts: "Teacher, teacher / What was I supposed to do / I thought that making something better of myself was a virtue."

While Marlowe (vocals, acoustic guitars), Michelle Denis (djembe, keyboards, piano and backing vocals) and various band members and guests perform satisfactorily on this recording, the emphasis is on the lyrics. But her honesty and political clarity is also an artistic weak point at times. Although I am sympathetic to many of the sentiments on this recording, too much of the material falls under the category of "preaching to the converted." All too often Marlowe falls back on writing cliches, which weaken rather than enhance her songs. Slogans such as "Who pays the price?" "This nightmare is real" or "When will the madness end?" won't make her work more enduring or broaden her appeal.

As far as protest rallies, strikes and marches go, it's fine. But when compared to the finest exemplars of protest song -- Silvio Rodriguez's beautiful lament "Unicornio," which electrified an entire continent with its simplicity; Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" or Basque singer Mikel Laboa's allegorical call for freedom "Txoria Txori" -- this material falls far short.

Desperate times do call for desperate measures. But in artistic expression, more is needed than simply outspokenness. A little subtlety is needed as well. Another singer who also dealt with the most serious issues of his day (the 1960s), Tom Lehrer, wrote some of the most memorable protest songs ever. He made his point with humour -- a device that Sara Marlowe could well incorporate.

You can't fault her for passion or commitment, though.

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 31 July 2004