Nellie McKay on Politics & Protest in Jazz

The creative vocalist offers up her Artist's Choice playlist on songs of social justice and activism

NellieMcKay

Nellie McKay (photo by Shervin Lainez)

Jazz used to be alienating, rather than comforting and bourgeois. It used to provoke discussion and dissent. Teddy Wilson was known as the Marxist Mozart!

Hoagy Carmichael
“LAZYBONES” Co-written with Johnny Mercer
Stardust & Much More (Bluebird; rec. 1933, rel. 1989)
This might be one of the greatest protest songs ever written, because it’s about radical non-participation. There’s a line in Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut where the woman who’s working as a relative underling wishes everyone would just stop thinking. That makes me think of this song. I have a friend who says, “If everyone would just do 10 percent less.”

Edith Wilson
“(WHAT DID I DO TO BE SO) BLACK AND BLUE”
Music by Fats Waller with lyrics by Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf (Columbia, 1929)
I was able to perform this for a member of the original cast of Black and Blue. [The song was originally written for the 1929 Broadway show Hot Chocolates.] I was a little embarrassed because I knew I wasn’t playing it like Fats Waller. The song is more nuanced than one might think. Most people just know the chorus. I always thought it was about being black, and then I
thought about how you can see it as a woman who’s being beaten. When you hear Edith Wilson’s version you realize that it’s about being left for a lighter-skinned black woman. It’s about color but also about the vagaries and whims of love beyond only race.

Charles Mingus
“FABLES OF FAUBUS”
Mingus Ah Um (Columbia, 1959)
I used this in my show about [the trailblazing conservationist] Rachel Carson [Silent Spring: It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature], and we changed some of the shout-outs to be about chemical pesticides. It’s a protest song that can be used for so many movements. It has a wonderful feel; it’s the delight of protest. I felt it when I campaigned for Bernie Sanders in particular, but also at other moments in my life—that joy of revolt and of the genuine resistance, not the corporate, co-opted kind. The thrill of fighting back shouldn’t be underestimated. [Anarchist writer] Emma Goldman said something to the effect of, “I don’t want a revolution where there won’t be dancing,” and this is a catchy tune as well as a statement.

Les McCann & Eddie Harris
“COMPARED TO WHAT” By Gene McDaniels
Swiss Movement (Atlantic, 1969)
The men wore suits back then and the women were all put together, and they wrote these songs of such emotion and so much range. Maybe the secret is to go to church and drink a lot on weekends. I love “Compared to What” because you find out where the truth lies. The ground is always shifting beneath you. There’s a term called “fake news” nowadays, but that can apply to so much, to the majority of the media we consume, which is corporate. We need mass movements of civil disobedience.

Billie Holiday and her dog "Mister" (photo by William P. Gottlieb/courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Billie Holiday and her dog “Mister” (photo by William P. Gottlieb/courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Billie Holiday & Her Orchestra
“STRANGE FRUIT” By Abel Meeropol (Commodore, 1939)
Billie used to close her sets with this and not come back, even if people didn’t like it. There’s a wonderful documentary about the creation of this song [Strange Fruit, from 2002]. The song has so much resonance for me. It also applies to war. Civil rights used to be emphatically antiwar; it’s lost that international movement of solidarity. If you want to have progress at home as well as abroad, you really need that solidarity, for people and animals.

Dave Frishberg
“MY COUNTRY USED TO BE”
Quality Time (Sterling, 1994)
I saw him at Birdland and he got booed for this song. But that was under [George W.] Bush. The song is beautiful and gets to what is still possible. I’ve spent some time with David over the years and he’s the truest artist I’ve ever met. There’s not a phony bone in his body. He also has “Listen Here,” which we also used in my Rachel Carson show. It’s about that inner voice that we all neglect. He can be so terribly witty but there’s a real earnest Midwesterner in him.

[As told to Jeff Tamarkin]

Nellie McKay’s seventh album, Sister Orchid, will be out May 18 on Palmetto Records. She has never won a Grammy. She is a recipient of PETA’s Humanitarian Award and the Humane Society’s Doris Day Music Award, recognizing her dedication to animal rights. She would like to be friends with Russia, the country with the most nuclear weapons in the world. We must all be very kind to one another.

Listen to a Spotify playlist of the songs recommended by Nellie McKay

Read Christopher Loudon’s review of Nellie McKay’s album Sister Orchid on Palmetto Records.

Read Rene Marie’s Artist’s Choice playlist on protest music.