The Moderate Troubadour

Steve Martin has a tune entitled, “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs.” Neither do moderates. Why is that and can the problem be fixed?

My favorite NPR show is Mountain Stage. The eclectic live music show has been on the air for 30 years. It originates in West Virginia with host Larry Grose. I like to listen on WXPR, a funky north woods station based in Rhinelander. They run the show from 5 to 7 PM on Saturday evenings, the same time slot as the old Prairie Home Companion program. I enjoy listening and discovering new musicians as I have a cocktail and chop and stir stuff for dinner.

Larry Grose has hosted Mountain Stage for 30 years.

While the show features all kinds of music, it leans heavily on blue grass, country and folk. And, of course, a hazard of folk music is that it can be just insufferable. I was listening last night, happily enjoying my manhattan, when a folk duo came on to preach at us about how much they hate Donald Trump and all he stands for. (Because of COVID, the live shows have been cancelled until further notice, so this one was recorded sometime during the Trump years.)

While I didn’t disagree with the sentiments, the songs themselves were horrible, as most protest songs are. Only Bob Dylan can write a good one. Folky political songs are almost always wordy, angry, preachy and set to tunes contorted to fit the sermon. The general theme is that nobody has a right to be happy while anyone is suffering and then they go on to detail said woes. And they are, without exception, leftist in their sentiments. I turned down the volume, made myself another cocktail and carried on until better acts followed.

But it got me to wondering why there are no moderate or conservative folk songs. The only ones I’m aware of are the incredibly funny and creative songs penned by Tim Robbins in the 1992 satirical film “Bob Roberts.” For example, “The Times, They Are A-Changin’… Back.”

I think your basic problem here is that moderation tends not to lend itself to poetry and passion. Revolution, now that can fire up a tune. Steady, incremental change within the system, not so much.

To illustrate, let me try my hand at it:

Come gather round people both near and far

And admit that things are pretty good as they are

And accept it that soon you’ll have more cash in your jar

For the times they are incrementally improving

Now all that is true, but see what I mean? It just doesn’t work, does it?

It’s the same reason we don’t have our own moderate street marches. “Hey. Hey. Ho. Ho. Let’s form a bipartisan group to work out a compromise on the minimum wage!” Hard to keep that chant up for several blocks.

And slogans like, “Let’s Get a Reasonable Covid Relief Package That Can Come in Somewhere Between the $1.9 Trillion Biden Plan and the $610 Billion Moderate Republican Proposal,” well ya know, it’s hard to get that on a placard.

The serious challenge here is that moderation is not entertaining. Moderate ideas don’t fit well into songs, on signs or bumper stickers or, especially these days, on Twitter posts. (It’s nothing for Jack Dorsey to brag about that Trump could never have become president without his Twitter account.)

Nuance, complexity and compromise always were tough sells, but in this media environment it’s a real uphill battle. And moderates, temperamentally, are just not the kind of people who like to march or go to rallies filled with impassioned speeches.

I’m not sure there’s a way to make moderate ideas exciting. But I do give it a try now and then. This morning I have a piece in the Wisconsin State Journal in which I tout the fact that a bipartisan proposal led by Mitt Romney and Joe Biden could be the biggest poverty reduction plan in a half century. It would lift 10 million kids out of poverty.

Now, that’s a pretty exciting moderate success. If we could only figure out a way to get it into a folk song.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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