Earlier this year, before the Republican and Democratic parties had selected their presidential candidates, folk singer-guitarist Ani DiFranco talked to City about the dilemma facing those who had voted for Nader in 2000. This time around, there was a growing sense among progressives that they would have to vote practically instead of support the candidate they liked best.
"If people oversimplify the argument like that, yeah, it's like 'if not a, then b,'" DiFranco says, "but I've always thought listening to the head and the heart simultaneously is necessary to work things out in life. [In 2000] I was, 'vote your heart in the lockdown states, vote against Bush in the swing states, and start talking about the electoral system being so skewed that we cannot vote freely and make that a platform.'
"And, especially after that debacle, there was such an opportunity to reform the whole system, from the construction of the ballots, to the winner-take-all states, to the Electoral College, to really having third-party run-off or something --- campaign finance reform. Oh well."
As the election drew closer and urgency grew around the campaigns, particularly around the war in Iraq, a slew of musical acts toured the States behind pointedly left-wing material in a wide range of styles. A short list includes Anti-Flag, Steve Earle, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, Rob Wasserman, and Napalm Death. DiFranco and fellow firebrand Dan Bern joined the fray fairly early. DiFranco endorsed left-of-center Democratic candidate Dennis Kucinich, as well as 94-year-old Doris "Granny D" Haddock, who ran for a Senate seat on a no-special-interest-money and ordinary-people-can-run platform.
About Kucinich, DiFranco says, "I dare you to read anything he's written in the last bunch a years and find bullshit in it. It's amazing. It's like 'Wow! Wait! There's a good man with his head screwed on, and he's in politics?'"
Meanwhile, Bern weighed in with his EP, My Country II, which came out at the end of August, while Bern was in New York City for the Republican National Convention protests. Outspoken to say the least, the album (whose title is a play on "it's my country, too") slams the Bush administration repeatedly, sets Pete Seeger's poem, "The Torn Flag," to music, and closes with a song called "Bush Must Be Defeated." A newer EP, Anthems, contains songs Bern wrote during the Convention.
Since the presidency was decided last month, the dissent has only continued to pour from speakers and stages across the land. Last week's Ministry show here, for example, opened with a simulated gunshot-to-the-head execution of Bush and featured forceful anti-war video imagery.
This Saturday, DiFranco and Bern come to town for the conclusion of their nine-city run of shows together. Dubbed O Dammit All! as a lighthearted (according to DiFranco's manager) response to the election results, the tour is a continuation of DiFranco's Vote Dammit! outing, a voter-registration drive which ran through swing states in September and October. According to DiFranco's label, Righteous Babe, she collected 20,000 pledges to vote during the tour. (Bern opened some of those dates as well.)
DiFranco has kept uncharacteristically quiet since Bush's re-election. Prior to the swing-state tour, she told Rolling Stone that the "progressive thinkers and active people" who comprise the bulk of her audience aren't "necessarily voting." She then issued a statement online on November 1 encouraging readers to protect themselves from voting fraud and directing them to moveon.org for more information.
But that was her last official statement about the election, which seems unusual and adds an element of suspense to Saturday's show. Is she feeling deflated and will that come across in her performance?
DiFranco's manager Scot Fisher says no, that both DiFranco and Bern have been sharing with crowds their enthusiasm for the work that needs to be done. "That starts with having a good time," Fisher says. "You're in a room with a couple thousand other people who are probably just as disappointed as you."
"It's been great," says Bern of the audience vibe at the recent shows. "It really has. People are full of energy, pent-up energy, and it comes out. They want to have fun and they want to laugh."
Creatively, DiFranco is pushing into new territory these days. While she recorded and performed her last album, this year's Educated Guess, in complete isolation, forthcoming offering Knuckle Down was done with a new band and produced by country-rock guitarist Joe Henry --- the first bona fide outside producer DiFranco has used.
After years of playing in various band configurations, then solo, DiFranco has also returned to playing live with just one accompanist (Todd Sickafoose) --- what she did for years with longtime collaborator Andy Stochansky.
Some of Knuckle Down's material already appears in her live repertoire. In spite of the year's events, though, the album doesn't contain much overtly political material.
In an interview conducted by Righteous Babe and released last week, DiFranco said: "There are certain times when you are ingesting the outside world and processing through your personal world, and there are other times when you're reacting to/speaking back to the outside world and your personal life is just coasting comfortably."
On the other hand, DiFranco has always been known for her broad sense of what "political" means.
"Things are very rarely exclusively either political or personal," she said.
She also said that much more political material has already been written for the album after next.
"I feel like I knew an America before this," DiFranco says. "I saw [the change] happen. Those young people today who are born into this kind of economic control of art and culture and information --- will they fight it? I think yes! I feel it beginning to happen, you know? I mean [look at] the mass disillusionment. It's not going to happen how Americans want it to happen --- like now, without any effort. It's not going to be like, in 2004, suddenly the light shines.
"But I think there's the beginnings of a social movement and I'm prepared to spend a lifetime."
Ani DiFranco and Dan Bern play Saturday, December 11, at the Auditorium Theatre, 875 East Main Street, at 8 p.m. Tix: $31-$34. Call ticketmaster for tickets: 232-1900.