Nothing to Bragg about as the times, they ain’t a changin’…

Bob Dylan - still freewheelin' at 70.

So the voice of the 60s American counterculture turns 70 today, and is still as cantankerous as ever.

Bob Dylan almost makes a point of not giving people what they want in concert or in his later recordings, and in doing so remains relevant  when his contemporaries (like the risible Rolling Stones) have long since ceased to matter.

How we could do with an Irish Bob Dylan, or a Billy Bragg or a Bill Hicks in these turbulent times, as our politicians whistle past the economic graveyard and our people vote for more of the same.

The passing of Garret Fitzgerald gave us plenty of time to reflect on Irish politics over the last half-century, and it’s not a pretty sight. Irish political life is essentially made up of a whole bunch of people who all believe the same things arguing over who’s right.

There is, as we have seen with the happy-clappy visits of the Queen and Obama over the last few days, not much room for dissent.

As Dylan blows out the candles on his cake, Obama and the Queen have left, but astonishingly our banks are still broken and the recession hasn’t gone away.

The relative silence of our artists, poets and songwriters is disconcerting, as from my far-flung Scandinavian perch I cannot think of too many of them who have stuck their heads above the parapet to engage in any meaningful criticism.

There has been some tremendous satire and comedy (not least by illustrator and cartoonist Alan Moloney, and Dermot Carmody and the creators of the Emergency), but serious protest songs are noticeably absent. And you can’t have a revolution without music.

Instead, economics has become the new Irish rock’n roll, with David McWilliams, Morgan Kelly and Constantin Gurgdiev playing a role previously filled by punks and folk musicians. In a country famous for its “rebel songs” the social critiques of Christy Moore have been replaced by op-eds in the Irish Times, which although often well-written, are a damn sight harder to hum along to.

Given the seeming absence of an intelligent Dylanesque social commentator on the Irish music landscape, our best hope lies with our comedians and satirists, for whom these should be times of plenty. There is an endless supply of original material being provided by the buffoons that claim to be in control of all aspects of Irish life.

Just as Billy Bragg could never have existed without Thatcherism, the legendary Bill Hicks was assisted in his breakthrough by American foreign policy in the early 90s – it didn’t make him popular back home, but it would be hard to find a more respected and influential comedian. For Irish comedians, are politicians are the gift that keeps on giving.

But the Bills, Hicks and Bragg, operated in a much wider marketplace. Their home countries have populations much larger than our island, increasing the likelihood that they would find people prepared to pay to share their opinions – besides, who cares if a million people hate you, out of an audience of 250 million?

Our singers and comedians operate in a smaller, much more rarified environment, and not just in terms of audience size. Criticising anyone in public life might lead to a TV appearance getting cancelled or a gig slot getting pulled, or a grant being denied – the scrapping of Scrap Saturday and the banning of “They Never Came Home” are a good barometer of just how free speech in Ireland really is.

But if our journalists and commentators are to continue to abdicate responsibility by not asking the hard questions, someone else will have to step into the breach.

Though we are under no obligation to agree with what our songwriters, satirists and artists say, we should support them if and when they decide to do so.

Even more so, we must support their right to do so – without their being punished, ostracised or silenced.

“I think of a hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom.” – Bob Dylan, 1985.

“My theory is this; I’m not a political songwriter. I’m an honest songwriter.” – Billy Bragg.

Bill Hicks- the War.

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