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Tuning in, turning out: tea party finds its music

The tea party activists that packed the room picked up the refrain of a song as they waited for Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann to arrive.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The tea party activists that packed the room picked up the refrain of a song as they waited for Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann to arrive.

"While we need a new beginning, no Republicans or Democrats. Yes, clean out all the vermin and then kick out all the rats," Don Fortney, who wrote the song, vocalized as he played the guitar.

As Bachmann entered the Golden Corral restaurant, a crowd belted out the chorus: "Can you hear us now?"

"Blowin' in the Wind," it's not, and Don Fortney isn't the platinum-selling troubadour of a new generation. But the tea party, like its left-wing progenitor, has spawned a new genre of protest music that's becoming the soundtrack for the political movement's gatherings.

About half of self-described tea party supporters are 50 or older and can remember listening to AM radio that spun 45s of liberal protest music like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger.

"They're the modern hippies," Florence County GOP Chairman Bill Pickle, 60, said. "But they're called 'tea party' and they've moved to the right."

Memorable music has sprung from people seeking change: from the slaves in the South and union organizers during the Depression to the civil rights and Vietnam war protesters of the 1950s to 1970s.

Tea party performer Billy Blaze finds some inspiration comes from the 1970s protest music, such as Edwinn Starr's "War." But Blaze's ballads talk about freedoms that are challenged and government overreach. "It's like an onslaught of one thing after another after another," said Blaze, of Austin, Texas.

Performers are trying to put the movement's themes at the heart of their tunes. For instance, Jordan Page loads his music with liberty and small-government themes and even works in the Federal Reserve with a lament about children as "slaves to the banks that cause hyperinflation" and "bad legislation."

Charleston Tea Party organizer Ron Parks said some of the music amplifies the movement's message. "Some of it, I know, is really from their heart — it really is something they believe and feel, and they're really going after that," said Parks, 55.

Tea party-inspired music has a long way to go to achieve the influence of the songs heard during civil rights marches or anti-Vietnam War protests. Ralph Young, a protest music expert at Temple University notes tea party music has yet to seep through society, the way the music of the '60s and '70s did. And people don't come to tea party rallies for the music, Columbia Tea Party organizer Allen Olson said. "It's not the heart of the movement whatsoever."

Whether or not the tea party is steeped in the tunes it spins off, the performers say they've found a calling.

"My job is to plant seeds. It's to get people talking," Page said. "I am a vicious voice in protest. Because these things need to be protested. Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."

Fortney says he's offering a milder tone. "I try to be a little tongue-in-cheek and direct. I respect the left's position. I just disagree with it," Fortney said.

Marcus Lloyd sells something else as part of his gigs. The black Baltimore native makes a point of putting down notions the tea party has racist undertones. His 301st tea party performance came at the CNN-Tea Party Express debate in Tampa.

Lloyd, the son of a firefighter, was singing full-time for a decade in 2009 when his "American Tea Party Anthem" became popular. The 62-year-old said before then "everybody told me to keep my political views to myself because that would stifle my career."

His anthem starts: "Mr. President: your stimulus is sure to bust, it's just a socialistic scheme. The only thing it will do is kill the American dream." The refrain: "We're having a tea party across this land. If you love this country, come on and join our band."

TV appearances on Fox News followed, along with bookings that loosed a man closing in on retirement age on the road. "I never thought my music career would take off so late in life," Lloyd said. "These people treat me like a rock star."

It's still music for a narrow market and tough to make a living from. Blaze, for instance, recalls a couple of years ago packing 500 CDs into his car and driving the 1,000-plus miles from Austin to Greenville, S.C., for a big tea party rally. The crowd loved the music, but he sold only 15 CDs.

"You do good if you break even," Blaze said. Still, "it's a good cause and I don't mind putting myself behind it."

Fortney, 64, grew up in Baltimore. His dad played the honkytonk bar circuit, put a ukulele in his son's hands early and eventually graduated him to rhythm guitar.

"In my tradition, when we'd go out into those bars and play at cookouts in the '50s and '60s, everybody would sing along," Fortney said. "It's like a lost social grace."

That was on display at the Bachmann tea party event in Bluffton as Bachmann walked into the room to Fortney's tune.

Fortney is hearing the chorus.

"It tells me somebody is listening," Fortney said.


Associated Press Deputy Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.


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