The pliability and tolerance within political ideology and movements often shows up in the titles and metaphors they bring to the table. The Tea Party, for example, have provided self-appointed and self-serving heroism to its supporters with comparisons to the Revolutionary War, casting its opposition as tyrants. That has carried through to current times with the false comparisons of today’s executive administration to English tyrants and their supporters “takers,” a deluded attempt to escape reality at best. A terrible insult at worst.
Singer-songwriter and left-leaning satirist, Roy Zimmerman, in his metaphorical whimsy, paints his political opponents in less insulting terms. In fact, his terms for those on the other side of the aisle tend to reflect traditional family values. Take for example the irrational response by the gun lobby and activists to federal background checks on gun ownership in the aftermath of so much gun violence. The heavy-handed, dramatic response had the parents of children who were murdered at Sandy Hook portrayed as fascists who were out to ban gun ownership entirely. It was a call to arms. For Zimmerman, the libertarian gun rights advocates were child-like. “With their talk about the ‘right-bear-arms’ they’re like two-year-olds,” he quipped. “Two-year-olds would make great libertarians.”
On his website it says, “Roy Zimmerman sings satirical songs – original songs about class warfare, creationism, same-sex marriage, guns, marijuana, abstinence, Republicans (a lot of songs about Republicans), ignorance, war, and greed.”
But, to be even more succinct, his song, “This Machine,” which he says is the closest he has come to a mission statement, takes the original saying by Woody Guthrie, “This Machine Kills Fascists” and Pete Seeger’s equally profound, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender,” a few steps further as he sings, “This machine sends fear and ignorance to their fear and doom/This machine drives neo-con, jingoistic, war-mongering, xenophobic, crypto-fascists from the room.”
Another key to Roy Zimmerman’s tune-filled satire is that his music is really good, drawing from the combined influences of John Lennon, Phil Ochs, the Beach Boys, and Pete Seeger. It’s good time music with a social conscience and its tongue ever placed firmly in its cheek. But, the message beneath is incisive, insightful, and always carries a trace of compassion for those who don’t often find the voice to speak for themselves.
He developed his craft through as the founding member of the Foremen, a political satirical folk quartet who recorded four albums for Warner/Reprise. They toured extensively and once played Pete Seeger’s famed Clearwater Festival… under a bridge in the rain, as it says on Zimmerman’s website. The group also has the distinction of writing, recording, and playing the song, “Ollie, Ollie Off Scot Free” for Oliver North as a guest on his syndicated radio show. North’s response was, “This is a very, very weird group.”
Zimmerman wrote two satirical revues, “Yup!” and “Up the Yup” for the San Jose Reperatory Company during the ’80s. They went on to become the longest running live shows in San Jose history. He later joined folk singer Stevie Doyle as the duo, the Reagan Brothers.
He has labeled his most recent tour, the Blue Dot Tour. In this label, there are no “enemies” beyond those color labels of states with two different political leanings: the Blue (progressive) states and the Red (conservative) states. It now brings him to, as he stated in a recent phone interview, “the most progressive people living in the least progressive areas of the country like Birmingham, Moscow, Idaho, and Wichita, Kansas. We are connecting the Blue Dots on this tour”
The concept has its origins as Zimmerman has toured the country, bringing his disarmingly funny topical songs to big cities and small towns alike. During a 2012 interview, Zimmerman spoke of how impressed he was with the small groups of activists in the most unlikely of places that have long been strongholds for conservative activist movements. “Some people have criticized me for preaching to the choir. But in this case, I’m entertaining the troops!” He laughed. It’s a lighthearted distinction that conjures up Bob Hope rather than the heavier handed Paul Revere of the opposition. “They huddle in basements and feel as though they’re in a battle zone. But, there are amazingly progressive things going on in red states.”
The four are that came up most frequently were Birmingham, Alabama; Wichita, Kansas, Tulsa, Oklahoma and Moscow, Idaho. “Tulsa is a hotbed of progressive activity in support of LGBT rights.” He observed “In Moscow, Idaho, the cowboys and Indians are coming together for the environment,” He said. “The coal mining industry transporting coal across their land has united ranchers and native Americans in support of their environment.”
One of the challenges in getting the blue dot voters motivated is off-year elections where people tend to believe they have less significance. It seems, as Zimmerman stated, that the hopeful optimism of 2008’s Obama campaign, “Yes we can,” has turned into, “Yes, I’ll get to it later.” “It’s incredibly important that we get out to vote this year to support the senate and the ridiculousness of the Supreme Court.”
However, Zimmerman strongly considers himself an optimist. When asked if Obama was presiding over a failed presidency, he asserted, “Far from it! On health care alone he has been successful.” He continued, “He has reduced the deficit and has helped to reduce unemployment.”
But, it does seem there is a great divide in America today that has grown wider with the times. Zimmerman sees in this divide an important distinction. “I saw a debate once between creationist Peter Ham and Bill Nye, who was arguing for evolution. The moderator asked the question, ‘What would make you change your mind?” Zimmerman explained. “Ham said ‘nothing.’ When Nye was asked the same question his reply was, ‘evidence.’ That opened my eyes. One is visceral and closed-minded while the other simply wants evidence.” He said. “The right has become so visceral. It’s why it’s so easy to prove them wrong. But, then, a half an hour later, they’re out making the same argument!” He said sounding humorously frustrated.
One of the challenges of being a satirist has been keeping up with current events. It can keep a songwriter on his toes. For the 2012 elections, Zimmerman and his wife, Melanie Hardy, toured all 50 states writing the epic song, “Vote Republican,” adding a verse for every state they visited. Last year, the song was released as a DVD documentary.
Most recently, Zimmerman and Hardy have addressed the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision allowing private sector employers to deny employees access to insurance-covered birth control on the basis of religious conviction. The song, which can be heard on YouTube, SCROTUS(Supreme Court Republican of the United States), expertly exacts satirical vengeance on the right-leaning high court with lyrics like “All Hail Us, Read Us, Quote Us… SCROTUS!”
Before we finished our conversation, I asked Zimmerman to give me his own personal state of the union as he sees it today. His answer was simply, “I’m optimistic because of the 15-year-olds. The 15-year-olds in America are going to save our nation because they’re open minded and are able to accept new information and change their views. It’s the 15 year-olds who are our future. They are able to challenge realties and accept the world for what it is.”
Without a doubt, Roy Zimmerman is among the most important political commentators of the last few decades who operates from a musical basis. And in the end, it’s the music that unites and disarms. For Zimmerman, while he’s out “entertaining the troops,” and connecting blue dots he is also allowing us to take his advice to “keep going and don’t give up,” he says. With music this good and humor this insightful, there is good reason to be optimistic.
Roy Zimmerman will be performing at a private venue in Clairemont, Friday, August 8, 7pm. Prepay to reserve your seat(s) at: www.brownpapertickets.com/event/739165