The Indigo Girls wrote an anthem to activism in 1990. The song was called "Hammer and Nail." The lyrics shun theory in favor of practice: "Now I know a refuge never grows / From a chin in a hand in a thoughtful pose / Gotta tend the earth if you want a rose."
The same year "Hammer and Nail" was charting in Billboard, Ani DiFranco's self-titled debut album was released on her own Righteous Babe records. One of the tracks was "The Lost Woman Song." In highly personal lyrics, DiFranco took on the voice of a woman crossing a picket line to get an abortion.
Nearly 20 years later, the Indigo Girls and Ani DiFranco are still making albums that are personal and political. They're still championing activism, and that includes headlining The Progressive magazine's 100th anniversary celebration concert April 30 at the Orpheum Theatre. The concert kicks off a weekend-long conference at Monona Terrace. (For information on conference events, including talks by Robert Redford, Sen. Russ Feingold and others, click here.)
DiFranco has made Hurricane Katrina a central theme of her last two albums. She was recording Reprieve in New Orleans in the summer of 2005 when Katrina began to threaten. DiFranco was forced to evacuate. Reprieve includes "Millennium Theater," a song describing how New Orleans "bides her time" during the political spectacle of the Bush era. The lyrical references touched on Halliburton, Enron and "chief justices for sale."
On her latest album, Red Letter Year, DiFranco invited local Crescent City musicians to join in on the recording. The Rebirth Brass Band shines on the final track, "Red Letter Year Reprise."
Meanwhile, the Indigo Girls' 12th studio album, Poseidon and the Bitter Bug, was released last month, and it's a high-production, mellow-rock affair. The electric piano and delicate electric guitar on "Sugar Tongue" have studio session written all over them.
Still, the lyrics of "Sugar Tongue" are unflinchingly political. The song chides insatiable consumer appetites for threatening animal welfare and the environment: "All the fur and fin will lose again / 'Cause our better is their worst reckonin' / And our fine-feathered friends will sing until they bleed / And how will we replace that symphony?"
A hundred years from now, The Progressive magazine might still be around, but one thing's for sure: As long as there are people, protest songs will live.