Bonnie Raitt on Music with a Message

Protest Music During an interview on The Colbert Report from April 16, Stephen Colbert starts “taking issue” with Bonnie Raitt for having a history of supporting activist causes. The conversation is brief, but interesting, particularly as Raitt appears to reveal why she doesn’t generally choose to sing protest songs herself. What do you think of her reasoning? Colbert’s line of questioning starts 2:59 into the segment or 15:46 into the full episode.

Bonnie Raitt: Not afraid to speak her mind

Bonnie Raitt: Not afraid to speak her mind

Stephen Colbert: Now I’ve got a bone to pick with you.  You’re one of those activist music types.  You’re like a “No Nukes” environmental lady, right?

Bonnie Raitt: Oh yeah, I knew this was coming.

SC: Ok, let me guess.  You’re one of those people who says like, “Oh, don’t use any electricity,” and you’ve got like 11 houses, and they all run on baby seal meat. (laughs)  Do you walk the walk, baby?

BR: I walk the walk.  I’m not perfect, but you know, I try to conserve where I can.  I’ve switched the light bulbs out.  I drive a hybrid.

SC: Ok well let’s talk about the… (applause)  But you don’t sing songs about like conservation, do you?

BR: Mmmm… I think my audience would probably take a hike if I did.

SC: Now that’s interesting, because when I was younger, people were singing songs about the political issues they cared about, and I don’t see that much anymore.  Do you regret that that’s not around anymore?

BR: Well you know with the Occupy movement I think there’s a lot more people interested in having their vocal… their points of view out there.  There’s a lot of political bands, and especially on the Internet now, people can just put up their YouTube, you know… some of the songs are a little pedantic, or corny, but other ones are great.

SC: I don’t know what the word “pedantic” means, but I assume that’s good.

Personally I’m a little surprised to hear her dismiss the idea of writing protest music almost out of hand. In conversation with Dolores Huerta as part of the film series This Brave Nation, Raitt talks about her introduction to the world of music — specifically through protest singers such as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. She describes how, growing up in a Quaker family, she dreamt of working for the American Friends Service Committee, doing her part to undo “what the colonialists had done, over in different parts of the world.” So clearly Ms. Raitt is no stranger to the world of activism, or to how music can be used to galvanize people towards becoming more involved.

In fact, it seems she’s even engaged in a protest song or two herself over the years. Along with some other musicians she performed a new version of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” opposing the spread of nuclear power (check out her website NukeFree.org), and with a different group, helped create a song for Greenpeace called “Go Green“.

So I’m wondering what she meant when she said that if she sang about conservation, she’d probably lose her audience. Is it the difficulty of coming up with effective protest songs that, as she said, are neither corny nor pedantic? What is it that makes certain artists able to not just support a cause, but sing about it, too?