Talkin’ Political Occupy Blues: Todd Snider

From Pop Matters:

I had been sitting in a pew in St. David’s Historic Sanctuary for most of the night, resting my feet and back from a long day of bandhopping at SXSW 2012. I had just taken in the Thirty Tigers showcase. So far, it had been excellent, and after all was said and done, the showcase would stand as one of the festival’s highlights for me.

The church, which had seen the crowd vary throughout the night, began filling as Todd Snider’s set approached. I’m sure many were expecting one of Snider’s trademark sets, full of stories and humor. What we got instead was the rare sight of the famously barefoot Snider in shoes, gripping an electric guitar, and backed by a full band. He clearly meant business, and even by the standards of short SXSW sets, his performance was lean, mean, and efficient. Snider tore through songs from his most recent record, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, one of 2012’s best records so far. The record, as its title might suggest, doesn’t shy away from religious content.

Snider didn’t shy away from it on this night, either. Instead, playing songs dominated by snarling electric guitar and keening fiddle, he seemed to grit his teeth, lean into the wind, and dive into it with all the commitment he had. If Snider had simply been singing songs about how God might not be real, or how religion’s a bit of a farce, the whole thing might have seemed edgy and scandalous enough. Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, however, commits the much more radical act of tying religion into the current economic crisis and into class war in general.

Atop the bluesy, lurching-towards-Mammon groove of “In the Beginning”, Snider wove a tale of the poor turning on a local rich man, only to be seduced by the rich man’s claims that the same God who provided his bounty could provide his attackers with the same prosperity—especially if they work for him on the cheap, so that God can see them working humbly. Then Snider brings in the kicker: “Ain’t it a son of a bitch to think that we would still need religion to keep the poor from killing the rich”. He didn’t really take his foot off the pedal, either.

The roof-raising stomp of “In Between Jobs” gave even more edge to lyrics like “[money’s] the root of all evil, I agree / and I suppose the blossom would be my kind of poverty” and “what’s keeping me from killing this guy, taking his shit?”, while the rowdy chorus of “Good things happen to bad people” in “New York Banker” punctuated the tale of a teacher who loses all of his retirement savings to Wall Street shenanigans.

Anyone who’s paid any attention to Snider’s career, shouldn’t be surprised. Gifted with a songwriter’s eye, he’s always told tales of the out-of-luck and the downtrodden. As time goes on, though, he seems to be casting more and more of an eye towards these things in terms of class struggle. It’s always dangerous to guess someone’s politics, especially when you haven’t talked to them about it, but let’s assume that Snider’s not far from the “Tree huggin’, peace lovin’, pot smokin’, porn watchin’ lazy-ass hippies like me / Tree huggin’, love makin’, pro-choicin’, gay weddin’, Widespread diggin’ hippies like me” that he describes in “Conservative Christian, Right Wing, Republican, Straight, White, American Males”.

On 2004’s East Nashville Skyline, “Incarcerated” finds his narrator relating a hard-luck story to a judge. It’s a wry tale told at a breakneck pace, combining half-truths, high-speed chases, and reality TV. It also ends with Snider singing “Nobody suffers like the poor people suffer”. It could be Snider’s narrator adopting a last-ditch Pollyanna tone of high drama, but it could just as easily be the voice of Snider as he tacks on a moral lesson.

On 2006’s The Devil You Know, Snider tells the story (fictional, according to him) of helping a young guy get away from police helicopters buzzing his neighborhood. The song’s full of scathing lyrics, from its beginning (“Helicopters over the house again / We got the projects two or three blocks from here / They pull the kids over for driving while African”) to Snider’s mental picture of the suspect (“Poor kid probably never had a chance to give a fuck / Wouldn’t know good luck from a debutante / He’s gotta find a way to be Steve Mcnair or Young Buck / Or he’s just tough luck looking for a prison to haunt”). Then he casts the net even wider: “There’s a war going on that the poor can’t win / Helicopters over the house again”.

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