(Video is QuickTime MPEG-4 format.)
Political conversations in Washington D.C. tend to focus on campaigns and candidates, public policy, or power brokering. The news that makes headlines pits black and white ideologies against one another in battles to capture the attention and support of voting blocks.
In the towering shadow of partisan debate, it is easy to lose sight of a diverse political conversation. There are as many threads to the political conversation as there are construction workers drinking coffee in diners, nurses mingling outside hospitals, and citizens wondering about the fate of their loved ones serving in Iraq.
Josh Ritter is a young troubadour whose music focuses on those ordinary talking points. His current tour brought him to Washington, where he made a special appearance at the Center for American Progress Annual Dinner on October 5th.
Ritter regularly draws comparisons to the heroes of socially-conscious American folk music, artists like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. Joan Baez, another legend of the genre, has even recorded her own version of one of his songs. Like those singer/songwriters of the older generation, Ritter knows that music has the power to articulate the hardship that war and injustice wreaks on American men and women. As Center for American Progress President John Podesta pointed out, “We spend a lot of time talking to people’s heads, and Josh talks to people’s hearts.”
Describing his most recent album, The Animal Years, Ritter told The Irish Sunday Tribune, “I was trying to write about what I believed in, and the only way I could do this was to write songs about confusion.” He shared one of those songs about confusion, “A Girl in the War,” with the audience at the dinner. The song portrays the disciples Peter and Paul debating the dangers of maintaining an inflexible worldview while a young man fears for the fate of his lover who is serving in Iraq. Ritter searched the audience and explained: “It’s about a bunch of people talking about problems and not getting past just the talking. So I hope you do.”
Ritter also described his travels around the country, talking to people at truck stops and in their homes. “I pretty much came about 2000 miles to play you this song,” he said. His discussions with ordinary Americans lead him to a musical style that shows us the conflicts and problems of individual characters, rather than hearing a narrator tell us what to think. “I didn’t feel like editorializing,” Ritter told The Irish Evening Echo. “I felt like it was better to write songs that felt like reporting. I like that better because everybody knows that the world is screwed up. They don’t need someone like me saying it.”
Like a good protest song, “A Girl in the War” infuses the unacknowledged threads of our national conversation with poetry. But it also gives voice to the righteous anger of those excluded from the discussions of policy and power brokering. As the song’s worried lover declares to the political leaders, “If they can’t find a way to help her, they can go to hell.”
Ritter’s record company has made the album version of “A Girl in the War” freely available. You can listen to it here.