Friday, July 14, 2006
I've just been listening to one of the best - though today relatively unknown - songs of political protest from the sixties, Phil Ochs' Ballad of William Worthy. It's a bullet aimed specifically at the ban on American citizens entering Cuba after the revolution, and sings of the defamation of a man named William Worthy, a reporter who'd travelled to Cuba. The refrain is particularly striking: Somehow it is strange to hear the State Department say / 'You are living in the free world, in the free world you must stay.' It's a potent dig at the idea that the world that named itself 'free' could maintain a forced separation from its Other, and remain 'free'. The idea that free-market capitalism could define a world as 'free', when the constraints on freedom produced by a war against 'godless communism' had generated a world that was in many ways similar to, and as unfree as, the enemy socialist bloc. It gestures towards memories of McCarthyism. And simultaneously, it points a finger to the 'free world's' enthusiastic support for murderous, dictatorial regimes of the Right, in every conceivable way and more as repugnant as anything produced by dictatorships of the Left. These are the wonderful lines that pin this lie down: Oh, why did he waste his time to see a dictator's reign / When he could have seen democracy by travellin' on to Spain? (Spain at this time, of course, was still ruled by Franco). The third flank of Ochs' attack on the 'free world' is a reference to the invasiveness of the West's relationship to the rest of the world: The only way to Cuba is with the C.I.A. Towards the end of the song, again, these lines: Oh there is really no need to travel to these evil lands /Yes, and though the list grows larger, you must try to understand / Try not to worry, if some day you should hear /'The whole world is off limits, visit Disneyland this year.' Here the forcibly maintained insulation of the American-led Western order from the rest of the world, and the maintenance of imperialist controls through the waging of constant war on the Third World, are tied concisely and forcefully to the wider assertion that the minds of people living in the 'free world' are being kept closed, and ignorant of anything like a world beyond this bloc's artifically imposed political and cultural borders with the outside. This is one of the finest late achievements of the left-wing folk music scene in the United States, which is of course the same world that Dylan was nurtured in, but eventually found too narrow in its vision and its range for his songwriting imagination.