To recognize the power of protest music, acknowledge its role in keeping dissent alive and how musicians translate social issues and systemic problems into song, The Dissenter has launched a daily feature that highlights a protest song every weekday. The project was on hiatus last week but now it resumes.
Written by singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, the song “Lives in the Balance” seems like an appropriate selection for the day after a presidential debate with two candidates, who talk about the US and its role in the world with so little regard for the human cost of policies or operations. And I’ve chosen to feature Richie Havens’ cover version because this version was requested by a reader and it has a more honest and darker quality, which I find appropriate.
Two parts of the song repeat:
“There’s a shadow on the faces/Of the men who send the guns/To the wars that are fought in places/Where their business interest runs.” These lyrics might refer to the war profiteers themselves. It may also refer to the decision makers. [Later in the song, the wars are fought in places "where we can't even say the names." Those in power either do not tell citizens they are waging violence or the people are ignorant and do not know these countries where fighting is taking place.]
“And there are lives in the balance/There are people under fire/There are children at the cannons/And there is blood on the wire.” This is the chorus. It highlights the true cost of war.
One of the verses directly calls into question the idea that America is the “hope of the Earth,” as Romney said, or the “greatest nation on Earth,” as Obama said:
On the radio talk shows and the TV
You hear one thing again and again
How the USA stands for freedom
And we come to the aid of a friend
But who are the ones that we call our friends–
These governments killing their own?
Or the people who finally can’t take any more
And they pick up a gun or a brick or a stone
In the mid-1980s, when the verse was written, this referred to President Ronald Reagan’s coziness with dictators. The “friends” being aided were people like Augusto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein or the government of Argentina, when he first took office in 1980. Fast forward to today, the “friends”—strongmen—have faced popular uprisings. The US faces an immense amount of pressure to keep any support extremely covert or multilateral. However, there is President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Yemen, who the US helped to ensure would replace “friend” Ali Abdullah Saleh. Both of these men have ensured drones are able to continue to attack and kill targets in Yemen, even though much of the population opposes US drones.
And, as it says in the song, US support for dictators is why people turn to violent resistance. Either with guns, bricks or stones, if the US is playing some role in suppressing democracy or the will of people, it is a virtual guarantee some violence or even terrorism will occur.
The Dissenter will be putting one of these up every weekday morning. If you have requests for songs that should be featured or if you have a protest song you recorded, which you would like to see featured, email email@example.com.
And all previous Protest Song of the Day selections can be found here.