I found myself at a couple of artistic endeavours recently where the above aphorism came to mind. Show, don’t tell is said to be the mantra of creative writing classes the world over. Let the audience see the story and they will probably get your point of view but will have come to that position, at least, imagining they came independently.
In the early 80’s I bade farewell to agit-prop having spent many years being brow-beaten by Socialists, Christians, Pacifists or a combination of all three. Often they wanted to bring their own propaganda for fear you’d be seduced by someone else’s. In all of it there was the recurring theme of the main stream media – especially our beloved state broadcaster – traducing our higher instincts of reason, fairness and justice and supplanting it with orthodoxy, conservatism and conformity. The only real conformity was the regularity in which all manner of ginger groups used the same arguments for their own particular diffidence to the real world.
The trouble is I’ve only been put off the political because the medium became the message. When it works well it really is great. Woody Guthrie, Bertolt Brecht, John Steinbeck and Pete Seeger take a bow. There is something true and honest about taking an idea into the public space and using that to provoke, encourage or surprise us. Sometimes the very act of opening up our thinking process to the world will bring a clarity to an idea and usually, in song, brings a rounded humanity to any polemic.
So, and with that in mind, I come to this week’s guest artistes. Joe Henry is no stranger to the AC although his own contribution to our content has been as a producer rather than an artist. We’ve played records he has made with Rodney Crowell with and without Emmylou Harris, Allen Toussaint, Carolina Chocolate Drops and this year the remarkable new album from Hayes Carll. He’s also a writer and artist in his own right. Billy Bragg, his travelling companion on the current project, is a man who we may have less connection with on the programme but who exemplifies artist as activist.
Given my opening salvo, you would imagine that my enthusiasm for Billy and his music may not be as high as it could have been. The opposite is, in fact, the truth. Art as politics works brilliantly simply because it follows the same rules as every other piece of art: it works because it’s good. So my earlier antipathy, I quickly gleaned, was not an indifference to the propagandists per se but a dislike of being ignored as participator and being taken for granted as a mindless devotee.
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry of course sidestep all of this neatly by telling some stories on a train. What could be simpler or more innocent than that? Except that Billy and Joe’s stories have a pre roll, a context and and an aftershock because of the place and the time they choose to sing. Travelling 2728 miles on the Great American Railroad from Chicago to Los Angeles is always going to be interesting in a Presidential election year. Given the fact that they are travelling in tracks made famous by Leadbelly amongst others when the USA is in a fierce debate about the worth of black lives only adds to the intrigue.
On Tuesday Billy and Joe tell their own story of the journey, the people they met and the songs they sang. We will start the two hours with some fine country and americana songs of choice before moving into the main event. Do join us if you can from five past nine on BBC Radio Scotland.