We Need Art Now, More Than Ever

Tom Maxwell (Squirrel Nut Zippers) urges artists to keep creating under President Trump.

In the wake of the 2016 Presidential election, the Talkhouse asked musicians for their reactions to the results. Tom Maxwell, formerly of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, shares his thoughts below. Keep an eye here for future posts from musicians and filmmakers.
— Brenna Ehrlich, The Talkhouse Music Editor-in-Chief

A lifetime ago, before the Squirrel Nut Zippers took off, I got to meet one of my idols. In the mid ’90s, Al Casey was the last surviving member of Fats Waller’s Rhythm. When I read that he was still alive in the liner notes of a reissue, I called every Al Casey in the New York City directory until the right one answered. I loved Al’s chorded, acoustic guitar soloing, sometimes a little clunky but always endearing. When he played, it sounded like he was handing you a bunch of flowers.

I hit it off with Al at our first meeting, despite his suspicions. There was commonality, after all: the advantages of playing a big jazz box guitar, life on the road, the relative merits of different kinds of strings, our various musical heroes and influences, and the music we loved. That discussion never ended.

Meeting Al made plain to me that music does not know race or age. It felt good, hanging with an eighty-year-old black man and being able to speak a common language. I knew, even then, that our society did everything possible to keep us separated. I can also say, without shame, that I had the luxury of my newfound insight: I will never know the degradations that Al and his colleagues had to undergo as a matter of routine. If you want the smallest taste, listen to this live broadcast of Fats Waller’s Rhythm from New York’s Yacht Club in October 1938 and note how often the white announcer refers to Fats as “boy.”

My friendship with Al Casey (he died in 2006) was a memento I kept as a reminder of my privilege: the privilege of being a musician and emotional communicator, one with the knowledge that nothing separates us except fear. It was also, naturally, indicative of another kind of privilege: that of a white man, with valuable insights gained but hardly earned.

That’s all changed now. It is time for me to have the courage of my convictions. The same goes for you, and all people of good faith.

Those who are about to assume the offices of our government have made no attempt to hide their disdain of those they consider “other.” They have as much use for art as they do for science, or pluralism, or our shared humanity. Their language is one of anger and division. They are artless, in tone and temperament. However bad things are now, in theory, they will be much worse when put into practice.

Of course, this will ultimately lead to a full flowering of grassroots artistic communication, as we saw in the ’80s under Ronald Reagan’s unhappy rule. (I’m thinking here of the absolute wave of indie bands so well chronicled in Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life: Mission of Burma, Black Flag, Minutemen, Minor Threat.) There are other precedents going back further: the protest music of the 1960s, the folk music of the 1930s. And it’s our turn now.

I’ve never liked overtly political music. Political music, to me, limits one to time and place and position, when our job is to speak the universal. “All You Need Is Love” is, to my ears, a demonstrably better John Lennon song than “John Sinclair.” The former is timeless; the latter feels dated. (There are, of course, a million mitigating factors here, especially with Lennon. God bless him for getting to ground and participating in his own life after the Beatles.)

Regardless, in the days and years to come, anything you say that is loving or honest or sympathetic will be inherently political, simply because it will go against the kind of thinking that is now politically ascendant. Artistic work like this will become the binding agent of a community — a true and diverse community — peopled by those who have been made to feel isolated.

Use it as a return to regionalism. Remember the powerhouse music towns of previous decades: Boston, Austin, Chapel Hill, Los Angeles, Seattle. These places fomented creative communities and informed them with a musical language. Find yours, or create one. The only requirement to belong is a desire to participate.

They will hear your voice, once it’s raised.

Know that, wherever you live, the attacks on members of your community have already started. Muslim women are having their headscarves torn off. Queer men are being beaten bloody. Black women are being verbally assaulted at gas stations. If you’re not a direct victim, know that they live within your earshot. They will hear your voice, once it’s raised.

We, as musicians and songwriters, know a shared language. It must be spoken now, clearly and bravely. It doesn’t have to be oppositional, although God knows there is and will be enough to push against. It only has to be empathetic. You don’t have to make a record of your grievances with the Trump administration. You only have to say, “My brothers and sisters are those who understand that all are equal, and I love my brothers and sisters.” It’s not about policy disagreements, not any more. It’s about basic humanity.

At this time, I can’t think of a simpler or more important message — or one that can work within every framework of expression. Help expose the old lie of “apart-from.” It will be music to our ears.

Love to all.

(Photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

Tom Maxwell is a musician (late of Squirrel Nut Zippers and The Minor Drag) and writer (Al Jazeera America, The Oxford American, The Bitter Southerner). He’s glad to combine the two for The Talkhouse.