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Henry Rollins: The Column! How Music Has Enacted Social Change: A Primer

[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Saturday KCRW broadcast.]

I spoke recently at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles. I was mercifully brief, speaking about topics that included the abolishment of slavery by the 13th Amendment in 1865 and the failure of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 -- which was knocked down in 1883 by the Supreme Court, when they decided it was in violation of the 14th Amendment. I also talked about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (bitterly opposed by several states), Abraham Lincoln's clear meditations on the true threat to America's security (Americans), that education is the best defense against any threat from anywhere and that literacy is a true equalizer and emancipator. The public library system of the United States is worth preserving.

These are things I think about all the time. 1865 was the year America embarked on its greatest and most challenging journey -- to equality and freedom for all. It's a work in progress and there's a lot yet to be done. There are many frustrating setbacks ahead, but I would like to think we are getting up the road.

I mention all this because, from the early days of America's origins until right now, music has been a vehicle for expression, communication and freedom. It is perhaps music's journey through the American landscape -- and its ultimate triumph and influence -- that is one of America's greatest achievements, not to mention one of its great export items and cultural markers.

If a slave were to raise his voice to his master, he risked all manner of punishment. Yet what was possible in many circumstances was to lift one's voice in song. This was a major ingredient in what is now known as blues and gospel. Slaves may have been regarded as subhuman by their cruel captors, but through music they were proud and dignified.

Songs sung under duress are often very powerful. I direct you, with all confidence, to what I believe to be the single greatest blues album ever released: Angola Prison Worksongs, recorded by Dr. Harry Oster. It's on Arhoolie Records, it's in print, and there's not a second on it that's not perfect. There are other records that have similar titles, so hunt carefully. I heard this one almost 30 years ago, courtesy of the late, great Deirdre O'Donoghue of KCRW. I never thought of music the same way again.

In the summer of 1994, I had the great fortune to tour with Helmet, which featured Page Hamilton on guitar, and Sausage, with Les Claypool on bass. You would be hard-pressed to find two sharper and funnier guys to spend weeks on the road with. It was one of the better tours of my life. Page and I talked about music a lot, specifically about jazz.

Page made an observation one day that has had a profound and lasting effect on how I listen to bebop and other music. One day, he talked about the incredible dexterity and intensity with which Clifford Brown played trumpet. I had some of the man's records and knew a little of his story. Brown was just getting started in the world of jazz when his life was cut tragically short at the age of 25, in June 1956, by a car accident. The few years of his recorded work are worth checking out.

Page remarked that bebop can lay claim to countless geniuses in its ranks. Think about it: Parker, Miles, Coltrane, Hancock, Shorter, Monk, Bud, Evans, Shepp. The list is long and scary-talented. Page said that bebop was ultimate revolutionary music. The beboppers broke away from the big bands and their service-with-a-smile attitude, put on slick suits, wore sunglasses in dark clubs, spoke in a language that white club owners couldn't understand and wrote music that came from a level never imagined possible. He said this was as important a part of the civil rights movement as anything else happening in those days.

I think Page is right. Bebop wins on so many levels that words fail to describe its brilliance. Again, music comes to the rescue, the oppressor is rendered powerless and what is best about humanity rises to the top.

And then there's that thing called rock & roll. In the 1950s, all over America, young people's imaginations and libidos were being shaken by early rockers like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, who were taking "race music" into white America. Rock & roll is the very definition of cross-over. It could very well be that the first recordings of a nonwhite person in countless American households were from the likes of Chuck Berry and Little Richard.

Rock & roll unchained a nation and revolutionized radio and the record industry, not to mention the motion picture business. Lemmy, the man, the legend -- who sent music into the stratosphere in Hawkwind and now regularly nearly levels it in Motorhead -- once told me he remembered the days before there was rock & roll. I can't imagine not having that outlet at the ready. I mean, really, how the hell would life be possible?

The point I am making is this: When The Man has tried to put a lid on things throughout centuries of American history, music has always kept his ass in check. Administrations, thankfully, come and go, but the music is just getting warmed up.

How's this for an understatement: It has been a rough week, and it's always rough around here. However, if we keep the jams cranked, the bastards don't stand a chance. They never did.