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American Patriot from Guelph?

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Issue: 20 Section: Arts Geography: Ontario Guelph Topics: terrorism, media

July 21, 2004

American Patriot from Guelph?

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Sam Turton: "There are no real borders... but in this case policies in the US are affecting all of us and we have a right to speak to that"

Every movement needs a theme song.

So I was told by that 1998 satire 'Wag the Dog', a movie I watched last week with increasingly mirthless laughter. Its "fake war" was too eerily true, and my position as a spectator too uncomfortably familiar. Then I got to speak with a Canadian who actually has written a theme song, and who is overturning his role as spectator to the American administration.

Sam Turton is a longtime singer-songwriter now settled in Guelph, Ontario. His anthem, currently flying around the inter-world on downloadable mp3, is a single called "Patriot." The impossibly direct message of this track slices to the heart of Bush's militaristic PR.

"Patriot" refuses that last bastion of nationalistic propaganda-the "you're with us or against us" mentality that characterizes crusaders of any persuasion. Its lyrics reclaim dissent itself as patriotic, demanding that the listener think beyond any blind nationalism to a more essential ideal. "I have a lot of American friends," says Turton, "and I send them information all the time because they're living in a media blackout. This song grew out of that sense of...world community, of being in Canada, just feeling very affected by what Bush's administration has been doing."

"If mainstream America heard this song without the words, they'd love it," Turton declared. It's easy to agree. "Patriot" mixes a down-home country flavour with a fife-and-drum-type motif which sure does waken a sense of the old Stars and Stripes. Now perhaps I'll be forgiven for craving a little variety in "Patriot's" refrain...but when one has the propaganda of the current climate to counter (Did anybody else hear about the new truckers-against-terror vigilante program?), there's value in what's catchy and direct.

In "Patriot", all-American musical style and thematic content are comfortably entwined, a deliberate choice. Instead of using biting humour, the beloved weapon of Bush-bashers, Turton chose infectious rhythm and melody to snare his audience and convey his earnest message. Although this intersection of art and politics is a new project for Turton, a musician for some 30 years, the passion driving the project is tempered by pragmatism. Lots of "activist music" is about personal expression, he says, but he disciplined "Patriot" to resist murky artistry and speak to a large and mainstream audience.

And what, I wondered (always willing to jump in and ask the obvious), do audiences think of some Canadian guy singing at them about American politics? "Mmmmm," said Turton, "People don't usually appreciate people from other countries coming in and commenting on their political processes."

Well, no. Yet Turton has had only positive responses, having now performed at a variety of venues in Ontario, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, and currently preparing for some gigs in Greenwich Village.

Is this success because he's been preaching to the converted? Actually, no: his first and most nervous "Patriot" performance was to a staid bunch in rural Pennsylvania. Oddly enough the only belligerent audience member he's yet encountered was at home in Guelph.

Ideally, a reasonably well-known US artist will pick up the song and re-release it in the US, spreading the message and inspiring people to oust Bush come November. Barring that, as time ticks along and the election approaches, Turton hopes for media attention (I coughed politely) and increased radio play of his own recording.

Having only just recovered from my annual phobic response to Canada Day, though, I did have to raise some concerns about this whole "I am a patriot [repeat]" idea. Patriotism is chauvinism, no doubt about it, and Turton is ready to say so. "There are no real borders, of course; economically, socially, environmentally...but in this case policies in the US are affecting all of us and we have a right to speak to that." The rhetoric of the song is a tactic, then, an effort to use patriotism to curtail its own excesses.

The Canadian federal election, on the other hand, came and went without any Sam Turton sound bites. "I was pretty uncomfortable about that, actually," Turton admitted, "though it was a joke amongst my friends. Here we were, realizing that Stephen Harper's a little Bush, and I don't have a song!" Letters to the editor were his route on that one.

With "Patriot", both sound and message are a departure from Turton's usual approach. Although the song implicitly denounces the authoritarian Bush administration, Turton ordinarily shies away from such generalized criticism. Ideals of compassion are central to his career, as a primal integration therapist, and also to his musical compositions. The variety of tracks on his 2003 album 'feel' are more representative and were selected to evoke a "vibrant, primal, fully feeling way of life." To this end Turton uses uncomplicated lyrics and a range of musical styles, many rooted in bluesy, R&B traditions which have your foot tapping and your neck loosened by the onset of the second bar. The sound puts me in mind of summer evenings, sundried fields, beer, friends and the well-mixed satisfaction there entailed.

The lyrics in "Patriot" use an American voice, but the song surely speaks for many Canadian spectators: get out and vote in November, dear neighbours, please. And with "Patriot" jingling in the back of your head, you're likely to feel proud about it.

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