Smile Politely

Twelve-bar news:  Roy Zimmerman at the IMC

About ten years ago I was tipped off to the existence of a band named the Foremen. An intensely funny political folk quartet whose very name contained a subtle pun, the Foremen went beyond my novelty act expectations: their arrangements were smart showing an easy virtuosity in their range of musical styles and the lyrics were dense with in-jokes and out-jokes that one could keep discovering, giving the music a comic half-life well beyond the single listen most humorous songs are worth. As political music, the songs’ pervasive, learned, literate humor saved them from their own depth. And occasionally they struck the perfect balance between clever and deeply moving that allowed them to penetrate more deeply than any apolitical pop song ever could. The Foremen released four CDs (now there is a fifth, a compilation) which promptly went out of print.

The songwriter and bandleader of the Foremen was Bay Area composer Roy Zimmerman. Wednesday was Roy Zimmerman’s second appearance at the Urbana Independent Media Center, and my first time seeing him. Last year, on his own “political campaign,” he managed to perform in 47 states. He clearly has an enthusiasm for the touring lifestyle, modest expectations, and seems especially fond of playing Urbana’s Independent Media Center.

Roy is a seasoned, expert comic political folksinger. When he gets a laugh, he knows how to vamp until the noise subsides before continuing with the rest of the verse. His songs take on homophobia, the rich, hypocrites, aggressively political “Christians,” Republicans, Republicans, and more Republicans. But not Bush: “Don’t Make Fun of the Crippled Boy,” he sings. He uses songwriting techniques that are uniquely crafty and appropriate exclusively for his sort of material.

For example:

  • Getting fresh, perfect rhymes by breaking words in two at the ends of lines (“We’re upwardly mobile/While others go bel-/ow.”)
  • Using neologisms (“Sean Connorrhea”)
  • Unexpectedly rhyming words with themselves (in a song about the sort of right-wing “sex education” that preaches abstinence: “When you’re not there, I’m blue/…you know where I’m blue”)
  • Rhyming multi-syllable words with clusters of small words (in a song referencing Dick Cheney’s excuse for avoiding military service in Vietnam: “I had other priorities/like feeling more at ease”)
  • A bait-and-switch where he sets up the listener to expect a rhyme but doesn’t deliver (in a song about Ted Haggard, the evangelical preacher caught buying methamphetamine from and having sex with a male prostitute, Roy ends a line with “schism,” pauses to give the audience a chance to anticipate the rhyme, then finishing the verse with “syllogism”)
  • Internal rhymes (in a song about intelligent design: “Shun evolution”)
  • Repetition (“Ted Haggard is born again, again,” “Walter Reed, the resort of last resort”)
  • Puns (in “Ted Haggard is Completely Heterosexual”: “Glory how he blew ya”)
  • Unexpected pauses

All these techniques come together with good, fluid guitarwork in songs that are strikingly unique, laugh-out-loud funny, and always smart. Comic disruptions in song structure interrupt their inevitability and give his humor an added release. Roy Zimmerman has always liked to mock the cliches of folk singing; his sing-along number the text of the second amendment set to a very difficult melody was a deliberate clusterfuck that left the earnest, liberal crowd stammering in confusion.

Especially refreshing to me is his conservative appearance and sober, subdued, polite personality. He does not fit the grizzled stereotype of a political folksinger: with short hair and white button-down shirt and tie, he could be selling Bibles. As a performer he is quietly exuberant, pleasant, controlled, and (probably) sober (though he is deliberately coy on this issue). He does not wear the left-wing nonconformist uniform–beard, hemp jewelry, clown pants, tie-dye, an unkempt aspect and a haze of patchouli. He does not try to come off as a counter-culture hero, radical, or hippie; he is a transparent conduit for his songs, the songs are not ads for his rebel personality. His atypical accouterment suggests he is an independent thinker, which gives his political insight added credibility. When Roy Zimmerman does talk about himself in seriousness, it is with graciousness, humility, and a sense of humor, such as when he described with humor his fear at being accosted onstage by an irate audience member at a bar in Texas.

It’s a difficult season for political song. Eight years of Bush/Cheney songs, along with eight months of election season songs, are now (we hope) obsolete. With the new Obama administration, we don’t yet know what we’re singing about. I’m grateful we have songwriters like Roy Zimmerman to translate the newspapers into language we can stand and understand. He’ll be back; be sure to catch his next show at the IMC. Roy Zimmerman thanks you for your support.


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+ Piatt County at 4800 Feet: flying high with the Illini Glider Club
+ Ageless Smoking Popes reel ’em in at Courtyard
Honoring Chimesmaster Wood and the Altgeld Bell Tower
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