“The truth is the truth. Not just the government’s truth or the church’s truth or the truth that won’t upset the advertisers and stockholders but THE TRUTH and the TRUTH is that when the very institutions that we depend on to inform us and guide us omit any part of the truth for any reason whatsoever then that is called a lie.” — Steve Earle
Furious with the Bush Administration’s deceptions, and even more furious with the failure of major media outlets to expose and challenge those deceits, thousands of Americans are chanting, “Tell us the truth!” Their cries are being met not with the stony silence of Washington but with a protest chorus that mixes rock, rap, folk, soul and alt-country into a call to arms.
The Tell Us the Truth Tour has set the sentiments of millions of angry Americans to music, and taken the show on the road. Traveling by bus across the eastern United States on a tour that began November 7 in Madison, Wisconsin and will finish November 24 in Washington, some of the most innovative artists in American music — and a comrade from Britain — are raising a ruckus about the Bush administration’s push for greater media consolidation and for international economic policies that are devastating the economies of both the U.S. and its trading partners.
“Media consolidation needs smashing and globalization needs unmasking,” says Tom Morello, the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, who has joined the tour along with keyboardist Mike Mills of REM, British folk rocker Billy Bragg, genre-bending singer-songwriter Steve Earle, rapper Boots Riley of The Coup and Lester Chambers of the Chambers Brothers. They’ll be joined at a number of later shows by singer Jill Sobule and comedian Janeane Garofalo, and perhaps by other artists. Morello, who is performing as The Nightwatchman on the tour, sums up the sentiments of the musicians who have donated their time to the effort by explaining that, “When presidents and politicians lie, it is the job of the press to expose those lies. When the press fails, the lie becomes the law. The point of the Tell Us the Truth Tour is to help others make connections, and to show them that activism can change the policies of this country.”
The core group kicked off the tour at the National Conference on Media Reform in Madison, Wisconsin, where AFL-CIO President John Sweeney joked during his remarks about “opening for Billy Bragg” and a crowd of 1,700 ended the first night of the conference dancing to a version of the Chambers Brothers 1968 hit Time Has Come Today that featured Chambers and Riley trading vocals and chanting, “Now the time has come… to tell us the truth.”
Bragg, who has gained international acclaim for his work with the family of Woody Guthrie to put music to lyrics that were left without tunes at the time of the folk music legend’s death, helped organize the tour and has insisted from the start that the music be as strong as the message. “Bush is a serious threat, not just to America but to the world,” says Bragg, who gave up a chance to join protests against the President’s visit to Britain this week in order to join the tour. “We’re talking about that threat, the message will get through. But this isn’t a seminar. This is a show, we want people dancing, singing, getting into the music.”
People are doing just that. While Bragg performs overtly political songs, such as his anti-WTO epic “NPWA (No Power Without Accountability),” he also does favorites such as “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward” and “Sexuality.” Earle offers up a sampling of his recent songs, including the brilliant “John Walker’s Blues.” Playing acoustic guitar, Morello sings new songs, some written in preparation for the tour. Riley raps and Chambers turns in brilliant blues performances. Mills even straps on a guitar and sings, trying out a great version of Macy Gray’s “I Try” at some shows. Invariably, the highlights each night are the ensemble performances, featuring all the musicians. In addition to “Time Has Come Today,” the group has perfected a remarkable song cycle that begins with Chambers singing Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and then slides into Bragg singing Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey,” samples some Marvin Gaye and then closes with the whole group joining Chambers again to sing: “People get ready, there’s a train comin’/You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board.”
The music is so good at times that it is, indeed, easy to forget the politics. But the message never gets lost. Working with the AFL-CIO, Common Cause, Free Press, the Future of Music Coalition and Morello’s Axis of Justice, the tour features at every stop information about the current fight to block Federal Communications Commission rule changes that would further media consolidation and the struggle to prevent corporations and the Bush administration from undermining workers rights, human rights and the environment by developing a Free Trade Area of the Americas. And, while the emphasis is on entertainment, the band members frequently draw the show back to fundamental, and often dramatic, messages. Morello closes his set in silence, holding a clenched fist above his head as, invariably, the crowd erupts in thunderous applause. But most nights the loudest sound of all are those chants of “Tell us the truth!” Riley says that’s the signal to him that the crowds understand what is at stake, and what the struggle is about. “All we’re doing is bringing people some more information, telling them how to get connected with these movements and getting them energized,” says Riley.
After performing Sunday night in Atlanta (Variety Playhouse) and Monday night in Tampa (Tampa Theater), the tour will hit Miami where, on Wednesday night, it will join the People’s Gala for Global Justice. The Gala, one of a number of protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas Ministerial being held this week in Miami, is expected to draw more than 10,000 people. After Miami, the tour roars up the east coast to the Philadelphia area (Keswick Hall: November 21), New York (Webster Hall: November 22), Boston (Berklee Performance Center: November 23) and, finally, Washington, DC (930 Club: November24).
In Washington, the tour will perform at the 930 Club, not far from the White House. Morello says they will bring some bad news to the current occupant. “I’m certain Bush won’t be reelected,” explains the activist musician. “From the economy being in the toilet to American kids dying every day in a war we should never have gotten into, that’s not a very solid resume. All of his personal jack-assed-ness aside, the one thing that was clear at the end of the day is that The Dixie Chicks were right. They had every right to be embarrassed that that guy is from Texas.”
— For more information on the Tell Us the Truth Tour, and information on how to obtain tickets to upcoming shows, visit the official website at www.tellusthetruth.org
— For more information on Morello’s political work, check out the www.axisofjustice.org website. For more information on Billy Bragg, go to the www.billybragg.co.uk website. For more information on Steve Earle, go to the www.steveearle.com website. All of these websites contain details regarding the Tell Us the Truth Tour.
— With Robert W. McChesney, John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press, the media reform network that organized the National Conference on Media Reform. The Free Press website is www.mediareform.net