In the months leading up to one of the most important elections in Canada’s 150-year history, Canadian folk music has seen an unlikely overnight success in “Harperman,” a three-chord protest song by Tony Turner, an Ottawa folksinger and environmental scientist who’s now suspended from his job and under investigation by the government because he dared criticize it.
I’ve been thinking seriously about the success of this song (It’s got 642,000 views since June 22), and find myself wondering whether we’ve come again into a time where corrupt governments actually have something to fear from folksingers. I’ve spoken before about the “upside” of draconian censorship of literature in faraway dictatorships: namely, if you can call it an upside, this kind of censorship of literature and music is a sign that people respect and fear the power of poetry in a way that many of us in the developed West just don’t anymore. The fact that Turner could lose his job over “Harperman,” and recorded it anyway, signals a raising of bets on all sides. That he’s suspended at all for it is a sign that this music again has power.
As I find myself in a second term empty of academic opportunities, a casualty of academic precarity who’s finding it increasingly difficult to hold my head above water, I look up to the anti-intellectuals on the Hill who are making it harder to eke out a subsistence in the world of arts & letters, and find that these artistic tools we’ve been given look more and more like weapons.
It was Abraham Maslow, in The Psychology of Science, who first wrote that “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Well, I am armed with twenty-six letters, and this is how I’ve chosen to assemble them.
If there’s space in the public discourse for “Harperman”–a very pointed and targeted folk song–then maybe there’s space for this song as well.