Songs of social protest — music and the quest for justice — have long been intertwined, and the troubadours of troubling times — Guthrie, Seeger, Baez, Dylan, and Springsteen among them — have become famous for their dedication to both. Now we can add a name to the ranks of those who lift their voices for social and economic justice: Tom Morello.
Morello is the Harvard-educated guitarist who dabbled in politics, then chose rock music to make a difference. He played guitar for the popular band he co-founded — Rage Against the Machine — and then for Audioslave. Rolling Stone chose his album “World Wide Rebel Songs” as one of the best of 2011, and named him one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.
As likely to be spotted at a grass-roots rally as he would at a concert hall, Morello was in Madison, Wisconsin last year, braving bitter winter weather to sing on the steps of the state capitol in support of public service workers. Morello defended their collective bargaining rights against Republican Governor Scott Walker.
He was in New York City at the May Day demonstrations, an honorary commander of a battalion of musicians they called the “Occupy Guitarmy.” That same night, Harry Belafonte presented Morello with the Officers’ Award from the Sidney Hillman Foundation, honoring his “advocacy for and support of working people across the world.”
Tom Morello shares his music, his message, and mission with Bill Moyers, who’s all ears.
BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company.
TOM MORELLO: My job is to steel the backbone of people on the frontlines of social justice struggles, and to put wind in sails of those struggles. And people who are fighting on a, on a daily basis, at a grass roots level.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. This week, something different.
Rage Against the Machine — one of the most successful, politically ferocious rock bands of its time. Here they are at a music festival back in 1994, packed with more than a hundred thousand enthusiastic fans.
The lead guitarist of Rage Against the Machine, Tom Morello, is my guest.
He’s become part of the long tradition of troubadours with a message. Dubbing himself The Nightwatchman, in 2007 he released his first solo album. “Rolling Stone” magazine chose his recent album “World Wide Rebel Songs” as one of the best of 2011 and named him one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.
TOM MORELLO: From Cairo, to here, everybody has to stand up in their place where they live.
BILL MOYERS: Last year, he was in Madison, Wisconsin, braving bitter winter weather to sing on the steps of the State Capitol in support of public service workers.
TOM MORELLO singing This Land is Your Land: This land is your land…
BILL MOYERS: He defended their collective bargaining rights against Republican Governor Scott Walker.
TOM MORELLO singing This Land is Your Land: As I was walking, That ribbon of highway…
BILL MOYERS: Tom Morello has performed “This Land is Your Land” and his own songs at Occupy Wall Street protests from California to the New York island…
TOM MORELLO singing This Land is Your Land: …for you and me. Let’s march and sing!
CROWD singing This Land is Your Land: This land is your land This land is my land.
BILL MOYERS: He was here in New York at the May Day demonstrations, an honorary commander of a battalion of musicians they called the Occupy Guitarmy.
TOM MORELLO singing World Wide Rebel Songs: Are you going to stand around, Or are you going to be free?
BILL MOYERS: That same night, Harry Belafonte presented him with the Officers’ Award from The Sidney Hillman Foundation honoring his, “advocacy for and support of working people across the world.”
This week he’s in Chicago, singing for the nurses’ union, and their protest calling for Wall Street accountability.
Tom Morello, welcome.
TOM MORELLO: Thanks very much.
BILL MOYERS: So at all these protests, what’s your message?
TOM MORELLO: My message there is— what my job is as a— I didn’t choose to be a guitar player. That’s something that was a calling. That was something that felt like it was chosen for me. And with that blessing and curse, I, throughout my entire career, it’s been my job to weave my convictions into my vocation.
And so, whether I’m standing in the streets of Chicago or the Occupy Wall Street or in Madison, Wisconsin, my job is to steel the backbone of people on the frontlines of social justice struggles, and to put wind in sails of those struggles. And people who are fighting on a, on a daily basis, at a grass roots level, for the things that I believe in.
BILL MOYERS: It’s sort of like people going to church. They may not know each other very well but when they sing the same songs.
TOM MORELLO: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Same hymn, something hap— you can sense something happening to them?
TOM MORELLO: There’s a unique component of music that is different from, you know, the written pamphlet or a speech. There’s something, when you get the right combination of rhythm, melody and the right lyrical couplet, that feels like truth in the reptilian brain. There’s something hardwired in our D.N.A.. And when you get a large group of people singing together in solidarity, it’s something that, in my experience, and I’ve played countless demonstrations and protests through the years, it’s something that can really help a struggle.
BILL MOYERS: Talk a little bit more about the sense of calling. You said you had no choice, really.
TOM MORELLO: Yeah, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Why did you have no choice?
TOM MORELLO: Yeah. I started playing guitar rather late. I started playing when I was 17 years old. And until then, I had a myriad of interests. I was an artist, I was a writer, I was interested in politics. And then I started playing guitar, and, you know, I can’t describe— it’s a— I, you know, I hesitate to over-intellectualize it. It just like, it felt like this— by the time I was 19 years old and a freshman at Harvard University, I, you know, majoring in political science, I knew that I was going to be a rock and roll guitar player.
You know, but I really turned a corner with my guitar playing where I kind of broke through to a different level of ability, of technical ability, and was able to express myself via that instrument in a way that I hadn’t been able to express myself in other forums. And it really felt like this is the thing that I am destined to be.
I didn’t abandon my studies. Because, you know, I was, through no— clarify this. Through no particular genius of my own, I was the first person from Libertyville Public High School to attend Harvard, not because I was smarter than anyone or better than anyone, but no one had ever applied before. It was, you know, like University of Illinois, a fine institution, was the— you know, sort of the upper echelon of places where kids went from that school. And so I felt sort of a duty to myself and my peers to continue with those studies, and to continue to, you know, intellectually arm myself for my coming struggles.
BILL MOYERS: So being the first citizen of Libertyville to get to Harvard what did you think about yourself at that stage.
TOM MORELLO: Yeah. I did have some experience being unique. I literally integrated the town of Libertyville, Illinois, according to the real estate agent that showed my mom and I around. But when we moved from Harlem to Libertyville in 1965, my mom, who had taught around the world and had, you know, teaching credentials galore, we were informed by the— she was informed by the, I was one years old at the time, she was informed by the high school administrations, “We would love to have you teach here. But because you’re an interracial family,” that is, my mom and myself, a one year old half Kenyan, “you can’t live here. It just wouldn’t be good for you.”
So when we finally settled in Libertyville, my mom had a mutual friend that she had grown up with, which was our in there, that wrote some sort of letter of recommendation. That the real estate agent literally had to go door-to-door and apartment-to-apartment asking the other residents of this, you know, small apartment complex, if they would be okay with us living there.
And the way how they sold me to the locals was that I was not an American Negro, but I was this very exotic Kenyan, you know, princeling that was moving into the building. All of that worked out fine until I was old enough to date their daughters.
BILL MOYERS: And they didn’t give you a pass then.
TOM MORELLO: And then they did not give me a pass. So when I, being the first, you know, Libertyvillian to attend Harvard, that was small in comparison.
BILL MOYERS: Did you ever hear the N-word?
TOM MORELLO: Oh. People often ask me, like, what was my introduction to politics. And I could tell you it was the first time I, you know, read a Chomsky screed or during the—
BILL MOYERS: Noam Chomsky—
TOM MORELLO: Yeah, yeah, or during the— you know, the Bobby Sands hunger strike. But it was really the first time I entered a playground, was my introduction to politics. Lot of N-wording when I was a kid. When I was 13 years old, there was a noose in my family’s garage. I saw a couple of nooses growing up. There was, you know, some Klan activity in the town, in the deep north of Illinois. But I, you know, I— it’s only later reflecting back on that, that seems so outrageous. It was just sort of our life.
BILL MOYERS: Do you ever think about your experience in comparison to Obama’s because he, too, had a black Kenyan father, a white mother from the Midwestern part of the— of America. But he went to Harvard. But he—
TOM MORELLO: Yeah. And both able amateur basketball players.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah. He grew up in Hawaii, where the colors of the world mixed and merged.
TOM MORELLO: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: And this dilution hadn’t happened yet in Libertyville.
TOM MORELLO: Yeah. That’s correct.
BILL MOYERS: So have you ever read about his experience and thought of yourself in that context?
TOM MORELLO: Yeah, I mean, when I first heard, when he came onto the national scene, when he spoke at the Democratic Convention eight years ago now or eight plus years ago.
BILL MOYERS: 2004.
TOM MORELLO: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: That stirring speech.
TOM MORELLO: Yeah. I mean I couldn’t believe it. Like, I thought I had a very unique biography. You know, and here’s this very, you know, prominent up-and-coming politician. And I— what dissuaded me from, even though I had interests in the realm of politics, what dissuaded me from ever wanting to put my energy in that direction was I worked for two years as a scheduling secretary for U.S. Senator Alan Cranston.
BILL MOYERS: Alan Cranston was one of the Keating Five. Those were the members of Congress, who were accused of illegally taking campaign money, during the savings and loan crisis at the end of the 1980s, right?
TOM MORELLO: That’s right, while we worked together.
BILL MOYERS: Oh, you were working with him?
TOM MORELLO: I was working for him. I took the job not because I was hoping to rise in the ranks of, you know, I was his scheduling secretary for California, rise in the ranks of the office. It was basically a day job while I still pursued my rock and roll music at night.
But there were two experiences I had there that’s made me think this is not for me. One was the Senator, while he was a really good person and was— he and I saw eye to eye on, you know, many issues. Every waking moment that I spent with him, he was on the phone asking rich guys for money. I mean that was what the job seemed to me to be. And none of that money came without a price tag on it.
And then secondly, one day I was, the receptionist was out for the day, so I was fielding phone calls. And a woman called up. And she was— had a complaint for the Senator. And her complaint was that there were Mexicans moving into her neighborhood.
And so I, you know, my dander was up, and I let her finish. And I, you know, representing the Senator Cranston, I let her know, “Ma’am, you’re a racist, and you can go to hell.” And I thought, “Well, goodbye, good day to you, ma’am,” and thought I had done an excellent job that day. I was yelled at for two— like everyone up and down the ladder, like with the exception was Senator himself. Like, I was yelled at for two weeks and bombarded with letters at the time, faxes, we didn’t have e-mail. And it dawned on me. If I’m in a job where I can’t tell a racist to go to hell, I’m not in the right job for me.
BILL MOYERS: In fact, this leads me to another question, Tom. You have been invoking more and more the tradition of Woody Guthrie, which is another, it seems to me, a fairly significant change in the direction of your work.
TOM MORELLO: Yeah, yeah, I’ve always been a fan of heavy music. You know, I grew up in suburban parking lot heavy metal. And then, you know, transferred to sort of punk and aggressive hip-hop music. And it was only in the last, you know, sort of 10 or 12 years, where I realized that folk music like the music of Woody Guthrie or the early Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen “Nebraska” records or Phil Ochs, that that music could be just as heavy or heavier than anything that’s played through a wall of Marshall stacks.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
TOM MORELLO: That the right turn of phrase and the right couplet can cut to the core of your heart in a way that a searing, you know, guitar solo sometimes can’t— sometimes can, but sometimes can’t. You know, the music of Johnny Cash. Like, I delved deeply, you know, into these artists and found, at their core, you know, a heart that was a lot darker than in Metallica records, you know? And was very much drawn to that.
And I think for me it’s not— let me make this very, very clear. In my catalog of Nightwatchman songs, while I tend to be a, you know, I’m— I go to protests so I’m branded as a political artist, a good deal of the material on those records is very, very personal. And it’s, some of it’s politics with a lower case P. Some of it could hardly be described as politics at all. It’s sort of, you know, an unearthing of the dark, shining a light on the dark recesses of that tortured suburban psyche that feels like, in order to be true to the political stuff, I feel I have to be just true to myself in making that music and to not conceal those things.
BILL MOYERS: Who is that self?
TOM MORELLO: Well, that’s something that I’ve found that I’ve been able to explore to the greatest extent in this music. Rarely will I sit down and say, “I am now going to write a song about unions.” That stuff, I don’t know where it comes from. You can practice guitar eight hours a day and get a predictable result.
But how I write my lyrics, it’s just like I hope to have the antenna up when inspiration strikes. And quite often, you know, what I see in those stanzas is an accurate reflection of the fears, desires, the hope and the struggle that’s been my personal journey, as opposed to my political one. The name of my first solo record was called “One Man Revolution.” That was not an accident.
TOM MORELLO singing One Man Revolution: On the streets of New York The cabs don’t stop On the street where I live They called the cops Found a noose in my garage Now how ’bout that So tonight I’m in the bushes With a baseball bat
Cause I’m a one man I’m a one man I’m a one man revolution I’m a one man I’m a one man I’m a one man revolution The time is nigh The day is dark There’s only one solution ‘Cause I’m a one man I’m a one man I’m a one man revolution…
BILL MOYERS: Is that autobiographical?
TOM MORELLO: Oh, every word of it. Yeah. Every word of it. The— you know, one of the things that I, in the Nightwatchman catalogue that I deal with a lot is pacifism versus active resistance to oppression. And you know, I grew up, you know, despite some of the radical politics in my household, very much a pacifist.
And, you know, when I entered Harvard University, I was discussing with some friends then who were of a more radical bent than myself. And we were discussing the incident when I was 13 years old of having the noose in the family’s garage. And they were challenging my pacifist leaning, saying, you know, like, “How did you feel about that?”
And I was terrified for months afterwards. They said, “Well, how would you feel if, you know, the Klan were coming up your family’s driveway with a noose with— not knowing what their intentions might be, you know, and at that point, do you feel it’s best to turn the other cheek? Or would you rather that me and my friends were in the bushes with baseball bats?” And that’s a— I’ve turned that over, you know, on the course of four records, that is a recurring theme. And not— and some days I fall on one side of the line, on some days, the other.
BILL MOYERS: Is it feasible to you that, Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan, all felt like a one-person revolution, as if something they saw in the world they couldn’t get out except through their songs?
TOM MORELLO: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: And nobody else could really know what was going on in this?
TOM MORELLO: Yeah. It’s possible. I mean for me, one of the things that draws me, especially to the folk music, and to this tradition, is that, perhaps for the first time, I feel heard and connected, in a way that I haven’t in any of my other endeavors. You know?
BILL MOYERS: How so?
TOM MORELLO: When I began doing the Night Watchmen stuff, it was at coffee houses. I was already, you know, well established in the bands Rage Against the Machine and Audio Slave playing, you know, enormous arenas.
And on nights off, I would look through the local paper and head down to a country and western bar or a coffee house, sign up anonymously as The Nightwatchman and play two— wait in line and play two or three songs. And I felt— even— I felt a visceral connection to the audiences, even on those nights where no one was coming to see or hear me. When it went well, it really felt like everyone’s soul in the room was at stake.
And it really felt like I was being heard for the first time. And this was the most complete and honest me as an artist that I’d ever experienced. And that’s one of the things that draws me to it. Because in some ways, like whether I’m standing in Zuccotti Park or whether I’m standing on the steps of Madison in the freezing cold, I’m no longer a one-man revolution, that I have friends and comrades in arms.
BILL MOYERS: Bruce Springsteen invited you to join him and sing “The Ghost of Tom Joad” together at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th anniversary benefit concert. Frame “The Ghost of Tom Joad” for me.
TOM MORELLO: Sure, sure. Tom Joad is a character in Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” whose family, you know, is an immigrant family that hopes for a better life in moving to California and realizes the brutality and the violence of capital, as they make their journey. Tom Joad, through his experience becomes an outlaw and has to leave his family. But when in the closing pages of the book reminds his dear mother, who he will likely never see again, that “You will always see me. It’ll be in, you know, when the hungry babies are crying. When someone’s standing up for justice. When you see a cop beating a guy, that I’ll be there.”
Bruce Springsteen’s song, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” is a sort of a reimagining of that character, set in our times, where immigrants and the poor once again have, you know, are that, we’re continuing to build lower rungs on the ladder for the dispossessed.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN singing The Ghost of Tom Joad: Now Tom said, Mom, wherever there’s a cop beating a guy Wherever a hungry new born baby cries Where there’s a fight against the blood and hatred in the air Look for me Mom I’ll be there
TOM MORELLO singing The Ghost of Tom Joad: Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand Or decent job or a helpin’ hand Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN AND TOM MORELLO singing The Ghost of Tom Joad: Well the highway is alive tonight Where it’s headed everybody knows I’m sitting down here in the campfire light Waiting on the ghost of Tom Joad…
TOM MORELLO: This Tom Joad in Bruce’s song, it was originally written as an acoustic ballad. In this Tom Joad the, our, the protagonist is sitting around the campfire, waiting for this ghostly character to return in today’s struggles.
In the version, the electric version that Bruce Springsteen and I play, it has, it takes on, in my view, a different meaning. It’s an angrier Tom Joad. It’s a Tom Joad that I try to evoke the loss souls, you know, from in the jail cells and of the barricades, those who have sacrificed their lives for a better world. I try to invoke their ghostly voices in the guitar solo in the song.
BILL MOYERS: What’s going through your mind Are you thinking of the words? Are you thinking of the political message? Or are you just so much—
TOM MORELLO: It’s a very, it’s a very charged moment for me, because I’ve been— you know, Bruce Springsteen is one of my biggest inspirations. And just the fact that I’m sharing the same with him and the Easy Street Band is something that’s very meaningful for me. If I was just standing there, you know, shaking a tambourine.
But, you know, that song in particular— that’s a song, actually, Rage Against the Machine covered years ago, as well. So that song has particular meaning to me in that it does really express my worldview. It’s sort of, there’s a sadness and a hope. There’s a darkness and there’s, there’s a shade and a light to that song that I try to evoke in my guitar playing in that.
When I am most successful as a guitar player is when I’m able to just sort of lose myself. You stop thinking about technique or anything like that and just trying to evoke the emotion of that song brings, which is a very strong emotion for me.
BILL MOYERS: Do you know what I was thinking as I listened to that? Literally thinking of something John Steinbeck, who wrote “Grapes of Wrath,” said about Woody Guthrie’s music. He said, “There is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression. I think,” said John Steinbeck, “we call this the American spirit.” And my question to you is, what is the fight today? Who’s being oppressed?
TOM MORELLO: I believe that desperate times deserve desperate songs, you know? And you know, and what is the fight today? The fight— that song and, you know, that artist. And I try to contribute in my own way. It is continued links in the chain, you know? And that it, during every epoch, there are those that, there’s two sides to history. Like, one of the things that I think the Occupy movement’s been very successful is both bringing class to the fore and identifying the fact that we are not one homogenous nation that high-fives each other at the Super Bowl.
That we, there are different elements. This is a country, on the one hand, of lynchers and napalmers. And on the other hand of people fighting to desegregate lunch counters and working towards peace, you know? It’s, there are two Americas. I write songs for an, for not just America. I think that it’s important that it’s a global struggle. I don’t look at myself as, while I’m very patriotic in the sense that those who have struggled for social justice in this country. I’m tremendously proud of that struggle. It’s important to me to try to be another link in that chain.
But it’s a struggle that goes beyond, you know, the borders of the United States. And that I see myself and my music standing shoulder to shoulder, in solidarity, with people, with the voiceless, the poor, the wretched, the people who don’t have a chance to even reach that bottom rung of the ladder. And if my music can give them some voice. And if my songs can give some hope to their struggle, and that’s been a good day at work.
BILL MOYERS: Here in New York the other day, on May Day, you led this group of guitarists.
TOM MORELLO: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: The Guitarmy. As it was called. And you chose “World Wide Rebel Songs” as the rallying cry.
TOM MORELLO: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Let’s listen, because I want to know why you plucked that song from your arsenal.
TOM MORELLO sings World Wide Rebel Songs: World Wide Rebel Songs Sing out loud all night long Hang on man, it won’t be long World Wide Rebel Songs!
From the hallowed pubs of Ireland To Nairobi’s fallen slums In New York City open fire With the guitar, bass, and drums
Down in Gaza down in Frezno Out your door and down streets Are you gonna stand around? Or are you gonna be free?
BILL MOYERS: Where did that song come from?
TOM MORELLO: The people that make the guitars that I’m playing in that video, and some of the other guitars you saw there on stage, they used to be made in a factory in Seoul, South Korea. The workers in that factory formed a union. When they formed the union, they were all fired, the factory was shut down, and was moved to China.
Those Korean guitar workers came to the United States looking for financial help. I offered to play a benefit show on their behalf. But the day before the benefit show, the earthquake in Haiti happened. So these Korean guitar workers, who had traveled 6,000 miles and were in desperate need for money for themselves, their families, and their strike fund, voted to donate 100 percent of the proceeds from their benefit show to the Haiti relief effort.
And I was, very moved by that selfless act of international solidarity. That day, I wrote the song “World Wide Rebel Songs,” performed it that night, and became the staple, the cornerstone, of my most recent record of the same name. Because their selfless act provides a window into the kind of world that I’d like to live in, the kind of world I’d like my children to inherit, the kind of world that I fight for in my music.
BILL MOYERS: Here’s the paradox you take me to, though. You sing, “Hang on, man. It won’t be long.” There’s something wonderfully promising about that, but also, terribly potentially disturbing. Because you hang on and think, you know, you’ve been at this 20 years.
TOM MORELLO: Uh-huh, Sure.
BILL MOYERS: And things haven’t gotten better. Is that an illusion that we are holding out to people?
TOM MORELLO: What, first of all, I don’t know that I would agree entirely with that statement. But that some of the grassroots campaigns that I’ve been involved have been tremendously successful, from the Immokalee farm workers in Florida who have had tremendous gains, to— there were Burger King workers in Chicago that that organized.
And, you know, and while I was a small part. My songs were a small part of those struggles, and the credit needs to be given to the grassroots organizers on the ground, there’ve been tremendous successes along the way. And one of the reasons why I’ve eschewed electoral politics instead of these grassroots politics is because of these sort of tangible gains.
Now, do we have, have we erased inequality and racism, and do we have peace no, we don’t. But that’s in my music, what we continue to fight for. On moments like that, when those Korean guitar workers sacrificed, what they’ve come there for, and their most desperate need, to help other people who are worse off, that is a vision of the kind, of what the world can be like.
There progressive— like sometimes it does seem like we’re up against, you know, insurmountable odds. But no one thought during my lifetime, the Berlin Wall would fall, or that Apartheid would be dismantled, or, in days past, that there’d be a desegregated lunch counter, or that women would get the right to vote. All those things have happened because of the struggles of everyday people who, you know, are not in rock bands, and people who are not presidents or Supreme Court justices, people whose names are not in the history books, have sacrificed their time, and sometimes, their lives, to improve the world in that way.
And the “World Wide Rebel Songs,” like those people’s struggles, not just in the United States, but from around the globe, their voices and their struggles have been an important part of my music. And this is one way to give back.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve been at several Occupy events. And you’ve come to know some of the chief organizers.
TOM MORELLO: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Much of the public is confused about this movement.
TOM MORELLO: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: What is their goal? What do they want?
TOM MORELLO: Well, I think the goals of the Occupy movement are as big as the goals of the 99 percent.
But the thing the Occupy movement has done is it has introduced into the national and global discu— or in the United States, in the national discussion, the dirty, unspoken, five-letter word “class.” I mean, imagine, you know, a time in our country’s history when a Republican presidential candidate’s feet have been held to the fire because he’s too rich. You know, that is in direct response to, at least, an acknowledgement among the vast majority of Americans that economic equality, this grotesque economic in equality is just not okay.
BILL MOYERS: I saw an interview that you gave on the street, during the recent May Day march.
TOM MORELLO: In the countless protests and demonstrations I’ve been involved with in my lifetime, the Occupy movement is very unique in that it does identify class. What keeps more people from getting involved? It’s because there’s a high price if you risk privilege and that’s something that we all have here. It doesn’t come free. Like if you come out today for the general strike or you’re arrested on the Brooklyn bridge, or if you live your life in accordance with your beliefs, sometimes there’s a very high price to be paid.
BILL MOYERS: You are there, and in what you said a moment ago, violating one of the cardinal rules of two-party politics. We never mention class.
TOM MORELLO: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: If you mention class, immediately, “The Wall Street Journal,” Fox News, talk radio, accuses you of class warfare because you’re daring to question the motives and virtues of the job-creating rich, right?
TOM MORELLO: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, I mean there has been an explicit class warfare go been going on for decades in the United States. But now, but it’s been one-sided. Now we’re fighting back, you know?
BILL MOYERS: You mean from the top-down?
TOM MORELLO: From the top-down, yeah, to destroy unions, and to— I mean the fact that neither presidential candidate, like I think you, I think there’s a contest. Whoever says the words “middle class” more often gets in the White House. What about the poor? You know, what about the destitute? What about the people—
BILL MOYERS: And, you know, doing the three debates that Barack Obama conducted with John McCain in 2008, the word “poor” was never mentioned. Poor people never came up.
TOM MORELLO: No, ’cause they don’t exist. They don’t have a lobbyist. They don’t have a— I mean, in my mu— my job is to be that lobbyist. I mean and one of the motivations for this, it’s the double edged sword of freedom of choice.
In this country, we have freedom of choice. But some are free to choose between Lamborghini and Rolls Royce while others are free to choose which dumpster they’re going to have their meal out of next. Some are free to choose which, you know, homes and farms to foreclosed on, while others choose which bridge they’re going to sleep under tonight.
And so that’s been, you know, that issue is one that the Occupy movement has put to the forefront of this grotesque economic inequality. And is it okay or not? And I don’t think it is. People here, we still, you know, the middle class where you’re able to send one fewer kid to college than you were before, these are you know, real hardships. And there are people sinking from the middle class into to becoming poor, and those, the poor into becoming homeless.
But we still live in a very privileged bubble. And one of my motivat— like I feel very blessed, and you may, as well, that you’re able to—
BILL MOYERS: Oh yes. We’re in the fortunate class.
TOM MORELLO: Well, yeah, but not just that you’re fortunate class, but you’re able to be the person you were born to be. You know, I think I was meant to be a musician who speaks his mind about social justice issues. And I was you know, I grew up in a lower middle class family, but a family that had enough money to buy a $50 guitar and a $50 amplifier, and had a basement to rehearse in.
What I think the global human cost of this horrific poverty is how many Mozarts or curers of cancer are slaving away in the Maquiladoras along the Tijuana border, or in the Indonesian sweat shops? You know, there are billions of people who will never become the people they could be, or the people they were meant to be, due to crushing poverty.
Poverty is not an accident of, sort of, an economic spreadsheet. Poverty is a crime. There are criminals involved. And those criminals walk the streets as free men. What my music is about, and what— this from, you know, from the riots in the streets of Greece and Spain to the people’s uprisings in Egypt and Libya and Madison is about is holding those people accountable, those who are responsible for subverting the entire global economy and causing so much misery and then laughing about it with their, you know, clinking their champagne glasses on their yachts.
BILL MOYERS: You said in that interview a moment ago that you can’t, one cannot participate in this revolution without paying a price.
TOM MORELLO: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Without it costing them something.
TOM MORELLO: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: And I wonder, do you think you’ve paid a price? Do you think that, by becoming left of left, to use a critic’s term—
TOM MORELLO: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: —do you think that your politics and your joining the side of the marginalized, has affected your career?
TOM MORELLO: Well, I think it’s affected it in two different ways. First of all, the music of Rage Against the Machine, the politics of Zack de la Rocha’s lyrics and the music of Rage Against the Machine is certainly the most politically radical, chart-topping music in the history of— there being charts or music. And, you know, in that regard, it’s— I think it’s a interesting phenomenon to explore why that music, which contains such an unapologetic radical political message was so popular on a global scale.
It wasn’t just that the, you know, the beats and the guitar solos were exciting. There was the, you know, there was something that people could— had never heard on the radio before, and I think resonated in a way— so on the one hand, that band became very commercially successful, in part, because, you know, of the radical politics.
BILL MOYERS: I watched, in getting ready for this interview, I watched some of the old Rage Against the Machine videos. And there’s a huge crowd, hands uplifted, almost as if a religious epiphany had come over them.
And I’m wondering, is there something hypnotic to this that makes it difficult for a political message to get through?
TOM MORELLO: The entire political spectrum of opinions was represented in the fan base of Rage Against the Machine. What it— what happens when you’ve got music that is that compelling that contains a radical message is sometimes people are drawn to the music because of the aggression of it, because of the beat of it, because of the excellent rhyming and, you know, vocals of Zack or the guitar solos or whatever.
But then they unearth the message afterwards. I mean, having spoken with the— with the organizers of Occupy Wall Street around the globe, you know, almost to a man and woman, one of the things that radicalized them was the music of Rage Against the Machine. So it, it casts nets wide and then, you know, separates the wheat from the chaff.
BILL MOYERS: Clear Channel took— put it on a list of inappropriate music
TOM MORELLO: In the aftermath of 9/11, there was a musical hit list drawn up by Clear Channel, which is a company that, at the time, controlled over like about 65 percent of all the radio stations in the country. And they thought that there were certain songs that were inappropriate for sens— then very sensitive American ears to hear, including the Bangle’s “Walk Like an Egyptian” and The Gap Band’s “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” and John Lennon’s “Imagine.” There was only one artist on the list whose entire catalogue was singled out for censure, and that was Rage Against the Machine, something that we wore as a badge of pride.
BILL MOYERS: What was it that you that they found so inappropriate?
TOM MORELLO: I can’t— you don’t have to— you’d have to ask them. First of all, they denied the list existed. And—
BILL MOYERS: I tried when I was doing another series, and of course Clear Channel wouldn’t talk.
TOM MORELLO: Yep. Yep.
BILL MOYERS: There’s a lot more. They listed a lot more than you.
TOM MORELLO: That’s correct. It was a lot. It was a hysterical list. But at first, they denied that the list existed. Then we faxed them the list. And they were like, “Oh, that list.”
You know, and I think that— I mean when the list is that broad, it’s comedic. My opinion is, in the aftermath of 9/11, that is the time for deep reflection on, like, what is going on in the world, and what is America’s place in the world, and let’s hear a chorus of voices, you know, in sort of— both in understanding and in mourning, and in, “Let’s get to the bottom of what’s really happening here.” That is not a time to silence voices of dissent.
BILL MOYERS: You and Springsteen and others, over the years, have been singing about working people, working men and women. And yet, a recent study shows that, over the last 20 years, even though productivity has increased, the workers share of that productivity has diminished.
TOM MORELLO: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: So the music hasn’t helped.
TOM MORELLO: Yeah. Well, I mean— what you state is a perfect example of how class warfare has been used on the working class and the poor. Like, that is not an accident. That’s not an accident of economic spreadsheets. That’s a, you know, there’s a plan to continue to wring every cent, you know, into the .001 percent.
And so the politicians who are in the pockets of the corporations do not stand in the way of that inequality growing greater. That’s how I would put it. But yeah, no, we do not— the music has not caused us to live in an anarcho-syndicalist utopia. Yet. That means I’ve got more albums to make.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I’m sure you’re—
TOM MORELLO: I’m not done. I’m not done.
BILL MOYERS: But there’s a journalist who’s been covering Occupy for some time now. His name is Josh Harkinson. And he says that if the movement is going to sustain the kind of momentum that captured the country’s attention back in the fall, if it’s, in fact, going to accomplish the change you sing about, and bring about greater equality and more opportunity for poor, it has to evolve in a different direction, that it has to plunge directly into electoral politics on the local, state, and Congressional level. In fact, he says, Occupy has to co-opt the Democratic Party the way the Tea Party has co-opted and taken over the Republican Party. Now, as a political science major, what do you say about that?
TOM MORELLO: First of all, given the decentralized nature of the Occupy movement, that even— becoming a possibility is debatable. But, you know, should Occupy run candidates, or should Occupy sort of tug the Democrat Party, you know, further this direction? What I think that our job is, those of us who, you know, believe that this grotesque inequality must not stand, is to widen the goalposts.
The first step is, I think, to just to widen the goalposts, to suggest impossible yet realistic ideas of greater economic equality and to, you know, to shine a spotlight on the, you know, the horrors committed in the name of, you know, capital’s rampage. And that, I think— just— not only broadens the debate, but it allows people who used to be like me in that conservative town of Libertyville, Illinois, to feel less alone with those opinions.
I saw the world very differently than the community around me. But I had no way to plug in. The way, the first way that I plugged in was through music. It was through bands like The Clash and Public Enemy, who— seemed to me to be speaking the truth in the, in a way that the that the news, nightly news anchors were not. They made me feel like I was part of a community that was beyond the walls of this stultifying, you know, town that I lived in, and made me think that, yes, there is a way to engage in the world and to make a difference.
BILL MOYERS: Let me play this for you.
TOM MORRELLO sings This Land is Your Land: This land is your land.
As I was walking That ribbon of highway I saw above me An endless skyway I saw below me a golden valley This land was made for you and me
CROWD singing This Land is Your Land: This land is your land This land is my land From California, to the New York Islands From the Red Wood Forest To the Gulf Stream waters This land was made for you and me
BILL MOYERS: How do you choose when and where to go?
TOM MORELLO: I try to choose my— to, you know, union issues have always been near and dear to my heart, especially with Madison. My mom was a public high school teacher for 30 years in Illinois. And while we never had a lot of money, we always had enough food on the table and close—
BILL MOYERS: Did she belong to a union?
TOM MORELLO: Yeah. Because she was a union high school teacher. You know? And so when Governor Walker was attacking union high school teachers in Wisconsin, I took it very, very personally. My wife was nine and a half months pregnant with our second son when we were sitting at home in bed and we were watching the T.V. and we saw 100,000 people in the streets of Cairo as the government was there was about to fall.
And the next story they cut to was 100,000 people in the small Midwestern city of Madison, Wisconsin, who were protesting some anti-union legislation. I couldn’t believe it, first of all. And I turned to my wife, and she had sort of a knowing look on her face. And I said, “Honey, the Nightwatchman’s probably going to have to go.” She was about to give birth. And she says, she very generously said, “You know, our sons are going to be union men. You better go.” And so I— the good news is I didn’t miss the birth of my second union baby. But I was there in the streets of Madison.
BILL MOYERS: What did you find when you got there? A lot of critics dismissed it as just a union agitation. Bussed in from other places.
TOM MORELLO: Yeah, well—
BILL MOYERS: What did you find?
TOM MORELLO: They weren’t there. Let me tell you, as someone who was there. I mean, first of all, that was— the first occupation of the Capitol building in Madison, was, you know, occupied by students and firefighters. What I found was, you know, on the frontlines of demonstrations for many years, I’ve never seen anything quite like Madison.
It was— you know, we got in the first night. And I think that it was a beast that the, both the Democratic Party and some of the more conservative union leadership had no idea what to do.
But what I found then when I went into— the first time we got there, I went into the occupied Capitol building. And it was, you know, it wasn’t the usual suspects of the aging hippies and the young anarchists. It was families. It was longshoremen. It was firefighters. It was off-duty policemen who came back to participate in the occupation and bring burritos for the, you know, the kids inside, to help sustain them through the night. It was—
BILL MOYERS: I bet they brought some bratwurst, too, being in—
TOM MORELLO: Let me tell you, bratwurst was in abundance throughout the protesting there, thank goodness. But it’s the first protest I’ve ever been in my life where it was anarchists and Green Bay Packers. You know, where it was old school hippies and cops and firefighters who were standing shoulder to shoulder in solidarity. It was very inspiring to me.
The day I returned back to Los Angeles from Madison, on my way to the hospital, for my son’s birth— you know, I wrote the song “Union Town,” which was, you know— I made an EP, a short record of union songs, that I donated 100 percent of the proceeds, you know, to the union efforts across the Midwest.
BILL MOYERS: Someone said to me, “Everybody knows that unions are in decline except Tom Morello. And unions are in decline except in his music.” Let me play you a little:
TOM MORELLO sings Union Town: This is a union town, a union town All down the line This is a union town, a union town All down the line And if you come to strip our rights away We’ll give you hell every time This is a union town, a union town All down the line
Today the policeman’s a union man Brother firefighter’s my friend And the kids locked in the Capitol Are fighting ’til the end And we’re not gonna break tonight And we’re not gonna bend Some say the union’s down But I asked around And everybody said
This is a union town, a union town All down the line This is a union town, a union town All down the line…
BILL MOYERS: Where did that come from?
TOM MORELLO Well, that’s basically my journal entry on returning back for— coming back from my trip to Madison.
BILL MOYERS: You know, watching that’s the first time I realized that you’re wearing the hat now you had on there. And it’s the hat of the Old Wobbly.
TOM MORELLO: Yeah, the IWW. I’m a card-carrying member of the IWW, as well as 20—
BILL MOYERS: Tell us about the Wobblies. Why do they—
TOM MORELLO: Sure, sure. Two things that inspire me about the Wobblies is it was a singing union, first of all. And they realized that, in order to organize diverse groups of immigrants who often didn’t speak the same language, they would do it through song. And their solidarity came through music.
And Joe Hill, the great poet laureate of the early 20th century, you know, said, “You—” I’m paraphrasing. But—”A pamphlet you’ll read once. But a song you can sing again and again and stays in your heart.” That’s one of the things that I hope that some of my music will do.
And they suggested some very, very radical things before they were even on the plate. One was that people of every ethnicity could join their union. One was that women could have leadership in their union. One was that everyone should vote. One was the everyone should sing their protests. They are things that are now sort of taken for granted but you know, be realistic and demand the impossible.
BILL MOYERS: I understand the poetry, I understand the power, the inspiration of what you do. But this is a very divided country. And as we speak, the wealthy, powerful interests are pouring money into Wisconsin to try to prevent the recall of Governor Walker in a few weeks. And unions are pouring money in—
TOM MORELLO: That’s correct.
BILL MOYERS: —too. So how do you— are you going to be there for the recall?
TOM MORELLO: Of course. Of course I’ll be there for the recall it’s going to be a very— a watershed moment in the boomeranging back around for fortunes of unions in this country. I mean if we allow in the, one of the most pro-union states in the United States, Wisconsin, them to strip public service workers’ union rights away, that’s a domino that’s going to have things fall in the wrong direction.
If, on the other hand, we hold that governor and some of his cronies responsible, and he loses his job because he came after working class people, the dominoes can fall in the other direction. And it certainly will embolden working class people. And I think this is a, it’s really a crucial— already the shot’s been fired over the bow. Like they’re going to have to do everything they possibly can for that guy to hold onto his job. And they thought this was going to be a cakewalk. It’s not a cakewalk. We’re still here.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve been very critical of many things that happen in America and that America does. What do you like about this—
TOM MORELLO: Oh, are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? Like, what I, like I said, like from those people who have, you know, from day one, from the earliest slave rebellions to, you know, to the women’s rights movement. You know, the people— there are contending forces at every point in history. And one side of that are people fighting for justice. That happens in America. It happens in Mexico. It happens in Canada. It happens in Spain. It happens in Greece.
But in this country, I’m so proud of that vein of, you know, that version of patriotism that is to stand against injustice, wherever it rears its ugly head, in your home, in your school, in your place of work, and in the country at large. Like, that is the America that my songs are for.
These are worldwide rebel songs, you know? And it is. And our struggles here, you know, and the people’s struggles, and the maquiladoras in Mexico, in the sweat shops of Indonesia. Those struggles are all united.
BILL MOYERS: So let me play something from The Nightwatchman album, “World Wide Rebel Songs.” And it’s called— you call it “Black Spartacus Heart Attack Machine.”
TOM MORELLO singing Black Spartacus Heart Attack Machine: History’s not made By presidents or popes Or kings or queens or generals Or CIA kingpins runnin’ dope History’s not made By nine robed men Or billionaires or bankers It’s not made by them
Black Spartacus Heart Attack Machine Black Spartacus Heart Attack Machine Black Spartacus Heart Attack Machine
Might throw a little money ’round Wonderin’ who can be bought Some might find they’re weaker Some stronger than they thought Well, I’ll stand or fall right here In my country, in my home I used to think I was alone I ain’t alone no more
Black Spartacus Heart Attack Machine Black Spartacus Heart Attack Machine Black Spartacus Heart Attack Machine…
BILL MOYERS: What is Black Spartacus?
TOM MORELLO: Sure. Well, the one genre of music that is absent from much of my catalog are love songs. And so when I finally sat down and wanted to pen a romantic, emotional ballad, you know, I wrote a song for, a love song for one that was very, very close to me, my guitar. “Black Spartacus Heart Attack Machine” is the name of that guitar. The—
BILL MOYERS: And was it made by Union made?
TOM MORELLO: Yeah, it’s a Union made— of course, it’s Union, are you kidding me? I couldn’t— there may be some in my collection that we must, you know, sort of send back to the factory, but not that one. And Mick Jones, the guitar player in The Clash referred to his guitar as a “heart attack machine.” And this guitar I branded Black Spartacus. So I mean, the— it— the idea is that sometimes your closest, you know, compadre at— whether at the, you know, at the frontlines in the barricades or on the concert stage has six strings. So that song is an ode to it.
BILL MOYERS: Woody Guthrie had the words on his guitar—
TOM MORELLO: “This machine kills fascists.”
BILL MOYERS: So what are the words on your— you have—
TOM MORELLO: Well, I have, I have a number of guitars. My electric guitar that I use most often has “Arm the homeless” written on it. My acoustic guitar I use most often has, “Whatever it takes.” And then Black Spartacus—
BILL MOYERS: Whatever it takes to do what?
TOM MORELLO: It expresses my musical and activist commitment to social justice in a way that is, you know, that is unapologetic and is without fetters, you know? And it’s sort of whatever—like, you know, doing The Nightwatchman stuff, I sacrificed, you know, sort of commercial intent for the things I believe in musically and the things I believe in politically. And so, you know, much like when I left my poor, dear, nine-and-a-half-month pregnant wife to be in Wisconsin, sometimes you’ve got to do whatever it takes.
BILL MOYERS: You are testing my journalism and you’re subverting my worldview when I hear the lyrics of Black Spartacus. And I hear “Popes and presidents don’t make history.” I read that, “Black robe judges don’t make history.” I’m thinking, but five black robe justices ruled that in terms of elections in this country, money is speech. And it’s free speech. And they’re making history with that, because this election is seeing unbelievable amounts of undisclosed money, unidentified money coming into our system. They made history with that decision. I mean, isn’t— there’s some sense in which the poetry misleads people or leads them away from reality?
TOM MORELLO: My take is that there’s two ways to approach history. You sit in your armchair and you watch it on the news and you return to your PlayStation. Or you get out in the streets and you make it. That’s what I mean. Like, when those Supreme Court justices, you know, legalize desegregation, it wasn’t due to their infinite wisdom. It’s because people whose names you do not read about in history books, people whose faces you will never see, were the ones who struggled and sacrificed, sometimes gave their lives, to make this country a more equal one. That’s what I mean. When, it’s like those people don’t make history, it’s us. It’s our job to do that. And you can’t abdicate that. Like, my— if you have the convictions that you want to see a better world, you can’t abdicate that responsibility. First realize, yes, you know, you can have your hand on the wheel of history. Then you’ve got to turn it.
BILL MOYERS: Tom Morello, it’s been a pleasure to have you here today. Thank you very much for joining me.
TOM MORELLO: Thanks very much for having me.
BILL MOYERS: That’s it for this week. We’ve collected some classic protest songs at our website. We’d also like to know which musicians and their protest songs over the years have inspired you. That’s at BillMoyers.com. While you’re there, take a look at our “Take Action” page for the latest on how people are organizing to make a difference.
Also on the web: Correspondence from the Tucson Unified School District. They objected to several things said during my recent conversation with Luis Alberto Urrea.
LUIS ALBERTO URREA: Now the Tucson Unified School District’s take on this is that you weren’t banned, you were boxed.
BILL MOYERS: What do they mean by that?
LUIS ALBERTO URREA: They didn’t really ban it. They just took it out of brown hands. They banned Mexicans basically. They got rid of Mexican-American studies. They put all of the books that they took away from the students, they boxed them and put them away. The catch-22 seems to be that anybody who’s not from that ethnic studies world could teach it but that there would be disciplinary action as I understand it if anyone complains about those being taught. So in essence they’ve been, what I call a soft-banning. They’re out of the picture.
BILL MOYERS: In the interest of a fair and open discussion we invited Urrea to respond to the school district’s objections to our conversation. You’ll find both letters at BillMoyers.com.
Coming up on Moyers and Company: How you can help America reckon with torture.
DOUG LIMAM: Hi, I’m Doug Liman and I’m asking you to help me direct the movie “Reckoning With Torture,” which uses the government’s own documents to tell the inside story of America’s torture program.
ROBERT REDFORD: I’m reading an excerpt from the declaration of Lieutenant Colonel Darrel Vandeveld, former lead prosecutor in the military commission case of Guantanamo detainee, Mohammed Jawad. The records reflected…
MOE DAVIS: The records reflected 112 unexplained moves from cell to cell over a two week period.
LARRY SIEMS: The documents you begin to recover are just glimpses of humanity, because you hear the voices of detainees. We’ve never heard them.
VOICE #1: I was handcuffed, blindfolded and taken to a building where I was severally beaten.
LARRY SIEMS: We made mistakes. We made grave, serious mistakes of judgment. And we would be stronger as a nation, if we stood up and said, you know, “We did these things. We’re sorry. We’re going to do better.”
VOICE #2: The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out throughout the night.
DOUG LIMAN: We have posted a number of the documents that have been declassified.
KAYLA THOMAS: Hi, my name is Kayla Thomas…
DOUG LIMAN: And we’re asking people to stage their own readings.
ZACK DE LA ROUDA: The U.S. policy of extraordinary rendition has a human face. And it is mine.
DOUG LIMAN: Go to the website, pick a document, and somebody reads it and the other person films it. And for both people involved, you know, it will change your life.
BILL MOYERS: See you here you next time.