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Neil Young

by Braden Dupuis

 

It was 1954.

 

The United States was gearing up for war in Vietnam, the paranoia of McCarthyism was in full swing and, somewhere in Chicago, an eight-year-old Alison Hayford was settling in to watch folk-singer Pete Seeger play a concert in her living room.

 

"He was considered to be a communist, and it was a time when people were really afraid of communism," Hayford, a retired University of Regina professor, recalled.

 

Hayford was too young to fully understand the political implications of Seeger's music, or the dangers of hosting one of his concerts in your living room, but she did know one thing.

 

"I was afraid of McCarthy," she laughed. "I knew McCarthy was a really bad person."

 

 

The experience would stay with Hayford as she got older.

 

By the early 60s, she was enveloped in a world of protest music -- Joan Bayez, Bob Dylan, and of course, Pete Seeger.

 

"By then, when I was beginning to be much more conscious politically, that music was very much a part of the general development of my consciousness," she said.

 

Though Pete Seeger passed away in late January, the type of protest music he was known for is alive and well throughout the world.

 

And wherever you find protest, you find authorities doing whatever it takes to shut it down.

 

"Certainly, when you see groups like Pussy Riot being sent to jail in other countries, you realize that there is still a great fear of music as a subversive act," Hayford said.

 

Here in Canada, musicians are also speaking their minds, though they’re not jailed for it.

 

Instead, they are immediately and publicly discredited, said Robert Biezenski, a sociology professor at the University of Regina.

 

"It's inevitable," Biezenski said.

 

"Whenever corporations are threatened in any way, they have the money to mount an immediate counter attack in the media."

 

This tactic was evident during Canadian musician Neil Young's recent tour in support of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and its quest to stop oilsands expansion.

 

At every stop, Young was met by headlines and editorials calling him everything from hypocrite to imbecile to traitor.

 

But while Young may have had some of his facts wrong -- relating to the amount of CO2 produced by the oilsands and where the oil was headed, among other things -- his message was spot on, Biezenski said.

 

"The basic point he was making, that, in the first place this is poisoning the land and in the second place it's denying native peoples treaty rights, those two basic points are valid," Biezenski said.

 

"Certainly it would be better if he had got all his facts straight, but just drawing attention to the fact that there is a problem is something, because for most people, quite frankly, it's out of sight, out of mind."

 

And the simple act of drawing attention to an issue can be the catalyst for something more, Hayford said.

 

"I think that the powers that be, on one hand, can dismiss music or artists as trivial, but on the other hand, they sort of understand that art of different sorts can pack a really powerful message," she said.

 

"And they're worried about what that message might be."