Rebel Voices,
A Piece of the Wall
(Reveille, 1998)

The protest song has gone through a great number of changes in the last few decades. From its roots of the work songs gleaned from the folk tradition, it was transformed by folk singers in the '60s to the more contemporary protest song calling for social reform and a better world. Simon, Garfunkel and others in the '70s made the songs less strident, but made them really groovy. Eventually, the protest song slipped into the oldies bins as the Me Generation quit caring about anyone else. But we survived the '80s, and so did the protest song. The Indigo Girls, bless their lyrical hearts, brought us the folk song with a spiritual twist. Now we were looking at the world again, but through the lens of personal and karmic responsibility. And behold, it was good. The Angry Young Woman song brought the protest aspect back to the fore with a strident vengeance. And it was still good and had a hell of a beat. But as this genre ages, hints of the selfishness of the '80s start to slip back in: Don't Cross Me Because I've Been Done Wrong -- And It's All About Me Anyway songs leave me a little bitter and longing for the Good Old Days. I grow old, or so I thought until I found something to give hope again.

The reason I start this review with my own layman's version of the history of the protest song is because A Piece of the Wall by Rebel Voices has given me a joy that cannot be adequately understood without a bit of background. The ladies who bring us this refreshing sound are Susan Lewis and Janet Stretcher. These ladies are indeed veterans of the folk circuit for even though Rebel Voices only came together as a folk duo in 1989, these two have been making the rounds of the folk circuit for more than twenty years. The sound may be old-fashioned, as is the spirit and integrity of the music, but the topics are contemporary and immediate. They cover the more traditional subjects of workers' and women's rights, political prisoners, gay rights and environmental activists, as well as speaking out for other real people who have even less of a voice in our culture. For example, "Nine Gold Medals" celebrates the victory of runners in a Special Olympics race in a beautiful song that emphasizes the positive in people despite overwhelming odds. Like all of their musical efforts, the song is well written and easily avoids the trap of trite sentimentality.

Their work has wit and witticisms that are wry and sometimes scathing, but always dead on the mark. The first song, "One," sets the pace. It cleverly promotes unity among workers with a familiar tune and intricate vocal weavings. "Borderlines" is the next song and more traditional in its protesting edge. It is the tale of women realizing that it is the corporate power structure that is the enemy, not the underpaid and abused workers in other countries. It is strong and haunting. "In Contempt" continues the hard line of strong dissatisfaction. This time, they raise their powerful voices against censorship that spawns expatriates. "If You Can See Me" bemoans the fates of political prisoners who struck out for civil rights. They name the names, among which is Leonard Peltier who was recently denied assistance by former President Clinton. "Nine Gold Medals" breaks the tension with its uplifting message. "B Side" is a hilarious satire on the social roles of the sexes, flipping them in a comic tale with a biting sharp-edged humor.

"Intruders" reminds us that bigotry still demands its scapegoat, even at this late date. Its message should be and is painful and all too familiar. The tension is again balanced with humor as "I Hype the Songs" tells it like it is in the recording industry. The tune is obvious; feel free to sing along. Temporally and topically appropriate after the 2000 election debacle, "The Same Merry-Go-Round" sticks it to the two-party system with amusing tongue-in-cheek alacrity. "Billions of Brain Cells" turns the sharp edge of humor back on the self with great jocularity that still makes one think -- as much as one is still able. "There is a Wall" brings back the more serious nature of the need for social action to right the wrongs of or society. More than the Berlin wall has to come down, and they are certainly doing their parts. The last selection ends the CD on a perfect note. "They All Sang Bread and Roses" recalls the past efforts to help out others by protesting and acting to stimulate change, but rather than simply reminiscing, they point out each new generation's efforts and offers the great hope that the fight for reformation will continue on in the future.

All of this CD is motivating and stirring in the messages' humor or immediate need for attention. I am, however, perhaps doing great disservice by focusing mainly on the lyrics and giving little hint at the strength and beauty of the voices that sing the songs or the pleasing simplicity of the accompanying music. Other artists who also deserve kudos for their talents here are Ruthie Dornfield, David Lange, Janet Peterson and Greg Scott. But I am so excited by the discovery of new music in the traditional style that I get carried away. A Piece of the Wall offers the best of all worlds: strong messages, beautiful voices and entertainment for the ear and mind. Old hippies rejoice; the beat goes on.

[ by Debbie Gayle Rose ]

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