IF YOU EVER wondered what you would get if you crossed Woody Guthrie with Jimi Hendrix, you might want to check out guitarist and activist Tom Morello, also known as The Nightwatchman, whose work combines very modern flurries of feedback and distortion with old-school Popular Front politics. Last year, Morello played a prominent role in the occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol in support of public employees’ unions, and this May Day he led a “guitarmy” through the streets of New York, singing “This Land Was Made for You and Me” in support of Occupy Wall Street.
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Morello first made his name playing with Rage Against the Machine, a 1990s band that blended a potent Molotov cocktail of rock, rap, and revolution. For most rock stars, getting political means promoting Amnesty International or Greenpeace, but Rage’s favorite organization was the Mexican revolutionary Zapatista Army. After Rage fell apart, the guitarist had another successful band, Audioslave, fronted by former Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell. Audioslave was a great rock band, but it lacked a political agenda. Morello is a great rock guitarist, but one with a political science degree from Harvard who said he finished his degree because he wanted to “learn how to get my hand on the levers and be an effective revolutionary.” So simply making cool noises couldn’t possibly keep him satisfied for long. Soon Morello was turning up for open mic nights at folkie clubs, disguised as his alter ego, The Nightwatchman.
The Nightwatchman’s singing made it pretty clear why Morello had always worked behind a front man. He often sounds like an unfortunate cross between Woody Guthrie and Lou Reed. But The Nightwatchman found his niche in political contexts, such as Madison and Wall Street, where the point was to get the people singing. This new role on the street has also given a new direction to Morello’s music. Last fall he released a Nightwatchman album, World Wide Rebel Songs, that included a full rock band and found Morello beginning to integrate the Hendrix and Woody sides of his musical personality.
If you listen to his interviews, such as the one he gave in May on Bill Moyers’ Journal, you learn that Morello’s approach to politics is as unique and incisive as his best guitar solos. He has a class-based view that sees the power struggle between workers and owners as the hinge upon which history turns. This worldview has given Morello a very unfashionable passion for the cause of organized labor. He’s a card-carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World and often wears a hat with the IWW slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
Undergirding Morello’s ferocious political commitment is a biography he once thought was unique. His father was a Kenyan anticolonial revolutionary; his mother, an Italian-American school teacher from the Midwest, was working in Kenya at the time of the rebellion against the British. Morello’s father disappeared from his life pretty early and his mother raised him in her native Illinois, with her family name, but the parallels with our half-Kenyan president continue. They once shared a college campus. Morello was an undergrad at Harvard when Barack Obama was a law student. And they were both pretty good intramural athletes. But then their paths diverged.
After a promising start with Gamaliel, doing church-based organizing in a community of laid-off steel workers, Obama has ended up as what Cornel West calls a “mascot of the Wall Street oligarchs.” Morello, meanwhile, is using the multiracial, bottom-up power of rock and roll to promote broad, effective alliances for economic democracy among the 99 percent.
Danny Duncan Collum teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. His latest book is the novel White Boy.