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"Protest Songs Still Satisfy"


One phrase - "I ain't a-marchin' any more" - could sum up most of what a young local singer named Sebastian is surveying this week at The Hotel Isabella. He is presenting a history of protest songs from 1930 to 1980, a collection of heretical works whose common theme is the refusal to march to whatever beat was prevalent at the time. Ant-war, anti-authority, anti-business and anti anti-Communist, Sebastian's tunes, culled from the works of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and others, are his reply to the '70s, "the sell-out decade."

At every other period in Sebastian's research he found a minimum amount of commitment to some alternate philosophy. But when it came to the seventies he evidently had problems; only a slim diatribe by John Prine represents those years. It was not a hot decade for protest.

The 1930s, on the other hand, were a lot hotter than Sebastian let on in the early part of his show. It was a decade spitefully rich in dissent; Sebastian hinted at it with one of Guthrie's wry tunes but missed the mark with two songs from Jimmie Rodgers. The only protest in the first. One of Rodger's blue yodels, was a familiar one: "women make a fool out of me." My condolences to Jimmie, but I was expecting a hard nip at the oil trust. The second, about a man named Bill Campbell, was simply realistic rather than polemical.

Through all of this Sebastian's plain voice was adequate for a brand of material that requires only adequacy from a singer. Even with the extreme cold in the place slowing his fingers, his guitar-picking was clean and effective. Hardly charismatic, he was at least friendly, and he had a few words to say about each of the songs and their place in the tradition.

Later the tireless Pete Seeger was given his due in his pro-disarmament rewrite of Oh, What a Friend We Have In Jesus, which was not at all subtle but certainly contained the clearest message of the show. More of that would've been in order, but Sebastian confessed to skipping a few more Seeger songs - "because they're too depressing" (2 days before Christmas)- in order to move to the pre-Vietnam era in Bob Dylan's John Birch Society Blues, a biting little piece that required intuitive timing for the punch-lines. He socked them all in the right spots and received his best response from the crowd, which was by that time dressed for the outdoors to ward off the preposterous chill in the place.

The Vietnam War brought the upstarts out of the woodwork; Sebastian had the best of the war songs: Phil Och's Draft Dodger Rag, Joe McDonald's Fixin' To Die Rag and Tom Paxton's Talking Niet Nam Pot Luck Blues. Again, none of these required vocal calisthenics, so Sebastian's plain delivery was satisfying; in his talking style there was an effortless, humourous inflection, and the sort of commonalty that made memorable the people whose songs he sang.

Paul McGrath The Globe And Mail