“Every movement which has ever won anything has had songs,” says Marc Ribot.
With his new album Songs of Resistance 1942 - 2018, Ribot—one of the world’s most accomplished and acclaimed guitar players—set out to assemble a set of songs that spoke to this political moment with appropriate ambition, passion, and fury. The eleven songs on the record are drawn from the World War II anti-Fascist Italian partisans, the U.S. civil rights movement, and Mexican protest ballads, as well as original compositions, and feature a wide range of guest vocalists, including Tom Waits, Steve Earle, Meshell Ndegeocello, Justin Vivian Bond, Fay Victor, Sam Amidon, and Ohene Cornelius.
Ribot began working on the project at the end of 2016, responding not just to the American elections, but to the political trends he was seeing around the world. “I am alarmed by Trump and the movement he’s part of,” he says. “I’ve spent a good chunk of my life running around the world on tour—I’m kind of an accidental internationalist—and I see that he’s not an isolated phenomenon. And if we don’t deal with what is going on, it is going to deal with us.”
Over a forty-year career, Ribot has released twenty-five albums under his own name and been a beacon of New York’s downtown/experimental music scene, leading a series of bands including Los Cubanos Postizos and Ceramic Dog. Since his work with Tom Waits on 1985’s Rain Dogs album, though, he is best known to the world as a sideman, playing on countless albums by the likes of Elvis Costello, John Mellencamp, Norah Jones, the Black Keys, and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Grammy-winning collaboration Raising Sand.
Along with his musical efforts, Ribot has also been an outspoken activist/community organizer in a number of causes, from affordable housing to musicians’ rights in the digital age. During his time on the protest lines, he became aware of the diminishing role that music has played in recent years.
“I remember being at Occupy Wall Street early one morning because there was a report that the cops were going to come and break things up,” he says. “It was a moment when people needed something to sing. They tried Tom Petty’s ‘I Won’t Back Down,’ but it didn’t quite fit. It frustrated me that we had this rich history of songs for that occasion, but nobody knew them.
“On this record, there’s a song from the American civil rights movement that people traditionally sang when they were being arrested called ‘[We Are] Soldiers in the Army.’ Sound can travel into the paddy wagons and jail cells where people are isolated, and people in the civil rights movement needed that song to remind them that they’re not alone. Songs can also remind us that we’re not alone spiritually or historically: in fact, we have some pretty great company. But singing together is more than just gesture: it’s a political act in itself: when people are willing to sing ‘WE are soldiers in the army/[we have to fight/ we also have to cry]’, that’s half the battle right there.”
Most of the material for Songs of Resistance was chosen by March 2017; over the next eight months, singers were being matched with songs and tracks were recorded whenever and wherever possible. “Though this record has some well-known people on it, it wasn’t star-focused, says Ribot. “I wanted to include people who felt a personal connection, who understood the project culturally and politically and were really involved in the process.”
One critical participant was Waits—with whom Ribot has frequently collaborated over the last three decades—who sings “Bella Ciao (Goodbye Beautiful),” an Italian partisan ballad. “I played Tom a bunch of the tunes and he immediately bonded with that one,” says Ribot. “Of course, he brings a certain gravitas to everything he does—my Italian friends say he sounds exactly like an old ‘partigiano’ (resistance fighter)!”
Steve Earle joins Ribot on one of the album’s new compositions, which are largely based on texts the guitarist encountered as news stories or overheard conversation. “Srinivas” is a metered version of news articles on Srinivas Kuchibhotla, a Sikh immigrant murdered in February 2017 by a racist who mistook him for a Muslim. “In the original version,” Ribot points out, “I had named the guy who shot him, but Steve changed that—he said, ‘That guy is just some poor idiot, it’s not about him, it’s about the ones who set him up.’ That kind of intelligence and wisdom coming from the artist was important to me.
“There’s no way Steve Earle is going to be a sock puppet for anyone else’s voice, and that’s exactly the kind of situation I wanted. It’s cool to have professional protest singers and all that, but I wanted to include artists who reached outside the ‘protest’ bubble.”
For “The Militant Ecologist” (based on another Italian anti-Fascist song called “Fischia Il Vento”), Ribot turned to the magnificent singer/songwriter/bassist Meshell Ndegeocello. “We changed the gender in our version, and the flag at the end is green, not red. But Meshell projects the persona of a resistance fighter going on a mission perfectly: ‘strong her heart, and swift her arm to strike.”
For Marc Ribot, the creation of Songs of Resistance was not just an act of protest, but also a path to discovery. “I went through a lot of self-examination,” he says. “I kept asking ‘What gives us the right to perform this song or access this history or change this lyric?’ Sometimes we had to change an arrangement, to add and build on the original, or change the context. The struggle to find out which songs to perform, how (and with who) to perform them—to learn how we can live the musical ideas from our past NOW—is ongoing, and it extends beyond music.”
At a time of such overwhelming social turmoil, finding a focus for this kind of project is challenging. But Ribot’s purpose remained clear. “There’s a lot of contradiction in doing any kind of political music,” he says, “how to act against something without becoming it, without resembling what you detest. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what to do, and I imagine we’ll make mistakes, and hopefully, learn from them. But I knew this from the moment Donald Trump was elected: I’m not going to play downtown scene Furtwangler to any orange-comb-over dictator wannabe. No way.”
“When democracy is threatened, people who value it need to work together to defend it. When basic human rights are threatened by racists, sexists, and homophobes, we need to respond. I don’t know what “the answer” is: but I know this: If we’re not able to work together, we’re going to get our asses kicked separately.”