If there can be such a thing as an apocalyptic love song, Mike Stout’s most recent album Break the Chains is it. His latest offering is a mix of a few earlier songs with new arrangements, and new songs that mix expressions of love and pleas for solidarity with dire warnings of coming disaster without humanity’s awakening to revolutionary change. The philosophical vision is best captured in the title cut Time to Break the Chains.
We’ll never stop all the violence with more violence
Never break the code of silence with more silence.
As long as we keep playing the game, the game will go on.
As long as we keep staying the same, the same’ll come along.
We’ll never stop all the war, with more war and hate.
Never stop all the terror with the terror of the state.
After laying the groundwork, the record proceeds with two sweet love songs, including the beautiful tribute to his wife, Covered Wooden Bridges to Your Heart, and his song to the Appalachian Mountains, Heaven’s Mist, four rousing calls to struggle, back to two warm songs of tribute and plaintive questionings, only to end with a rousing call to revolution. The entire effort is lushly orchestrated and demonstrates the polishing effect of working and reworking earlier material, with Jim Croce-like acoustic guitar duets featuring one of Pittsburgh’s finest guitarists, Fred Nelson. An example is the remake of Hard Times are Fightin’ Times which traditionally Stout has performed as an angry rocker. This time the fighting words are delivered in a bouncy, bluesy style that is if anything more effective when understated. The whole damned corporate system’s a mess. It’s in rotten decay. They want the poor, working and middle class to pay the penalty... Well damned if my belt is gonna tighten, let big business do the big bullet bitin’ – Hard times are fightin’ times for me.
A recurring part of Stout’s song production includes tributes to the heroes and heroines of the working-class. This album has a remake of Flowers of the Working Class, his tribute to two radical steelworkers from Youngstown, Ohio. The new tribute piece on this album is to the feminist radical Crystal Eastman who came to Pittsburgh a century ago in 1907 and investigated the carnage that marked the brutal heavy industrial production of the time and place. Eastman, a young woman of 26 when she arrived in the smokey city with a masters and law degree, documented the facts and circumstances of 526 deaths in a single county in a single year. Her masterpiece Work Accidents and the Law showed clearly that the horrific death toll was systemic not the result of individual carelessness. She also went beyond virtually every safety study to investigate the social context and the familial consequences of the industrial death and mutilation. Subsequently, she pioneered the first Workers Compensation law, fought against World War I, was a founder of the ACLU and co-wrote the Equal Rights Amendment.
Crystal Eastman was a warrior of yore,
Mover and shaker, path-breaker for sure.
Voice for the victims of the captains of wealth,
The mother of all workplace safety and health…
Fought for women’s rights and equal pay overdue;
Said mothers raising kids are workers too.
Her life was a torch that burned for liberty,
A symbol of the free woman to be -
Crystal Eastman, your spirit’s alive and risin,’
Crystal Eastman, your name will never die…
Stout’s apocalyptic vision emerges starkly in Children of the Aftermath about the future time following our economic and ecological collapse. There they are, over there, on the sidelines, unaware of what’s unfolding. There they are, so young, the inheritors of the whirlwinds we’ve been sowing, Picking up the pieces from the ash, cleaning up the mess after the crash…There they are so poor, deep in debt before they’re old enough to know it… Picking up the tab after the bash; recycling all the garbage and the trash, CHILDREN OF THE AFTERMATH.
The most strident and urgent appeal on this album is delivered on behalf of Gaia, earth mother. In the song Global Warming is Real, he sings:
Hurricanes come one after another, each more intense, more immense than the other.
Flood waters roar, rain storms all about now-, right next door to wild fires and drought now.
Ocean waters risin’ as the polar ice melts; lakes and rivers dryin’ up in giant dust belts.....
Nowhere to run, there’s nowhere to hide; not thinkin’ about it, won’t make it subside –
Our children’s children will surely pay the price. Gaia knows the real deal-
HER GLOBAL WARNING IS CLEAR- GLOBAL WARMING IS REAL.
Mike Stout and his music is a reminder of the truth that a prophet is rarely recognized in his own country. As the last union grievanceman at the historic Homestead Steel Works, in a career expressing blue-collar anger and sense of betrayal, of denouncing nuclear war and chemical pollution, his music has come across as too strident for most Americans. In 2002, with a small group of American union workers, Stout toured coal mines and steel mills in Poland and Germany with guitar in hand. He gave several impromptu concerts, and this led to invitations to sing in Germany for the past four years where his CD sales and popularity has steadily grown. Thousands of German youth and workers cheer this anti-imperialist, American, union, working-class bard with an enthusiasm he has never been able to conjure up in Pittsburgh.
Stout’s music could never be considered bland easy-listening. While he is far from alone in bemoaning the devastating assault on the earth by the forces of wealth and greed, his message has few equals for urgency and straightforwardness. The importance of his message, the poetry of his words, the sophistication of his musical arrangements begs the question: Why can’t Stout break through with his music? The simple answer, of course, is that the corporate music world won’t touch his particular message. But that isn’t an adequate answer. Until recently, Stout’s Jeremiad’s were too dark, too angry, too passionate for the mass culture. But now as the extent and depth of the economic, political and ecological crisis is becoming clearer to tens of millions worldwide, maybe his time, his music, has come.
His answer: We Need a Revolution Now
Stand up and rise, we better get organized; these madmen won’t go without a fight.
We need something like a world general strike- WE NEED A REVOLUTION NOW!
And where does the revolution start? Fundamental change incubates in the heart of man and the fate of the earth depends on it.
Human nature gets most of the blame for why we never change,
But in your heart is where it starts – its time to break the chain.
Director, Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Labor relations
Indiana University of Pennsylvania