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Canadian contributions to War and Politics

Call me a cynic, but I was skeptical about War and Politics, Volume 1. The CD struck me as a tripod with three shaky legs: a compilation record, with twenty tracks, and every one of them a protest song. I respect the form, but that much pure protest pushes my patience.

Of course, I’m a fortunate Canadian far from the fray, and living in a peaceful country can instill a major measure of apathy. The release of this album gave me pause to ask, just how peaceful are we really?

So while the issues addressed range widely, it’s the Canadian contributions to War and Politics that hit home.

Jon Brooks’ “War Resister” is sung from the perspective of American Jeremy Hinzman, one of over 200 Iraq war resisters living in Canada. Brooks’ distinctive rasp over a spare, insistent guitar has more than a shade of Springsteen on Devils and Dust. Lyrically, Brooks wields an even heavier pen than usual in an effort to evoke empathy for an overlooked aspect of the Iraq conflict.

Brooks’ mentor Enoch Kent looks at war from a wider perspective. “I Didn’t Raise My Son to be a Soldier” was a rallying cry for the pacifist movement in the U.S. prior to World War 1, but the lyric is universal: “a million mothers’ hearts must break” as young men continue to go to war. Kent’s brogue and the simple snare drum accompaniment give this track a classic feel, while the line “why can’t Muslims and Hindus live the way they choose” is as piercing today as it was the day it was written.

Much like Kent, with whom she shares Scottish heritage and influence, Maria Dunn relies on a traditional vocal approach. On “The Peddler,” she opens a cappella: “Came a peddler to my door, said he’s got a sale on war… I said what have you come here for, do you think that I forgot? Last time you showed to me your wares, it left me cold, it left me scared. I’d rather pay for peaceful cares than all your gaudy war.” The song’s moral heft derives from the strength of a fierce lyric and a voice minimally adorned with mournful accordion.

A particularly poignant piece on War and Politics comes from the late Taylor Mitchell, the promising young folk singer who died tragically in 2009. Mitchell’s “The Prayers We Light” was written “for a friend who was badly hurt fighting in Iraq.” Late on the album, following more polished tracks, the lo-fi recording may not appeal to everyone, but Mitchell’s distinctive, throaty voice, as she accompanies herself with a simply strummed guitar, has an eerie quality appropriate to the subject at hand.

Another Canadian contribution worth mentioning is the album design, by the celebrated graphic artist A Man Called Wrycraft. He’s at his bold best here, riffing on the image of the iconic flag-raising at Iwo Jima; in this case it’s a snake-like gas pump hose squirming in the hands of faceless marines.

Unfortunately, Wrycraft’s work doesn’t stand out as much if you buy War and Politics, Volume 1 online at iTunes, where it’s reduced to a thumbnail. But that’s the way I’d recommend folks check out this album. Tastes vary, and while anyone with an ear for folk will find a few tracks they like, it may prove a bargain to pick up the album for $10.00 and pick a personal playlist.

Look for standouts from Canadian festival favourite Eliza Gilkyson (“Runaway Train”), Amy Speace, (“Weight of the World”) and Robby Hecht (“Along the Way”) to name just a few that perked up my ears.

Sales of the CD will support Folk Alliance International, which does a lot of great work in keeping folk traditions alive.

Despite the curse of the compilation CD, War and Politics has the right idea at heart: music helps make sense of our times, and the times we’re living in are as senseless as any. Amid the echoes of the missiles and the whine of the drones, twenty songs sung bravely into the fray can’t hurt, and might help.

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