The Other Swing Music
Singer/Songwriter/Schoolteacher Lea Jones Makes the Political Personal with the Swing States Road Show
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Political musicians don’t usually look like teachers; this one does because he is one. Sitting outside a midtown café on a crisp weekday afternoon in his day-gig slacks, button-down shirt, and tie, the only trapping of the activist songwriter about this incorrigibly affable 50-year-old Sparks resident is an acoustic guitar, the folk weapon of choice, sitting across his lap.
Tall and lanky, with his weathered wheat-colored hair barely hitting his innocuous glasses when he bends over his guitar, he lays two sheets of paper out on the table and smiles. “Let me play you a song,” he says. “I stayed up last night trying to get a new demo of this together.”
Strumming and picking a casual country blues, he digs into his latest creation, a song sung from what he imagines President George W. Bush might be thinking at his ugliest moments: how Bush might laugh at his perpetually serious opponent, Sen. John Kerry (“while he ran the D.A.’s office, puttin’ away criminals/ I was smoking and snorting and getting all subliminal”), what Bush might think when he sees his polling numbers (“I’m a Texas oilman and I’m giving you the shaft/ I get your blue-collar backing, man, I just gotta laugh”), what Bush might think of the voting public (“I never did my homework and I’m glad you don’t either/ ’Cause only by staying clueless you can be a true believer”). And with a bit of inspired spite, he sings:
I’m a real patriot, red, blue, and white
When I yell ‘homeland,’ you go and fight
Me and Rummy will be counting the cash
Just starting up wars and sending poor white trash to do their duty
He stops midstrum and chuckles: “Is that harsh enough? It baffles me that the salt-of-the-earth working guy thinks George Bush has done anything for them. I figured those are the swing voters we got to get. I started getting real pissed off when the whole Swift boat thing happened. So I got a little nasty. That’s about as nasty as I can get. Well, I could get nastier, but I just don’t see the point.”
Meet Lea Jones, teacher by day, accidental activist during practically every other waking moment. As the primary force behind the Swing States Road Show—the satirical, happy-go-lucky Western swing “band” (often just Jones) that has performed at Democratic party rallies, Kerry fund raisers, Bush protests, and just about anywhere he can and the self-released 14-track CD Jones sells to raise money to donate to advocacy groups MoveOn.org, TrueMajority.com, and Democratic Party headquarters in swing voter states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia—Jones earned a crash course in political engagement over the past year when one of his old songs turned into a CD turned into a band turned into something that will consume his weekends from now until Nov. 2.
“I’ve never done anything political in my life,” Jones admits. “So this is a real breakthrough kind of experience for me.”
A singer/songwriter from Eugene, Ore., who moved to the Baltimore area 11 years ago, Jones planted the seed for the Swing States Road Show at the beginning of 2002 as a war with Iraq evolved from possibility to certainty.
“I had this song called ‘Turkeys in Texas’ that I wrote during the first Gulf War, and it was real popular with about, oh, 12 people,” Jones cracks. “I knew 12 people who really loved it and thought it was the funniest thing ever. And so when the Iraq war became apparent, that it was going to happen, I started issuing calls to local guys on Baltimore message boards and down in D.C., to see who would want to be part of the Turkey Sessions, to make this one song with updated lyrics as a way of—I don’t know doing what. One song doesn’t do anything.”
It started slow, meeting musicians online who were interested in the project, trying to update the lyrics, and slowly getting more and more upset with where the Bush administration was taking the country. And after almost of year of talking about it, and around the time he discovered the simple home-recording software Garage Band, he decided to put a band together to record some jaunty, playful songs poking holes in Bush’s swagger.
“As things got more and more horrendous with the administration in D.C., I got more and more motivated to do something,” Jones says. “Long about  I put out ads saying I wanted to start a band, like a real band, but in the meantime, a short-term project is the Swing States Road Show, to just do some music and throw our voices into the mix on the political thing.
“I got enough responses that were, ‘OK, what can I do?,’ to know I was onto something. The graphic artist donated all of his work. We did two songs in the studio, and the studio donated its time and did the mastering for like a third of what it should have cost. All the players did it for free.”
Jones confesses that although he doesn’t know how to Western swing in the true sense of the term, he was fortunate to meet some musicians who did. With bassist Willy Gilmore, fiddler/mandolinist Alexander Mitchell, and dobroist Dave Giegrich lending their hands, The Swing States Road Show offers seven tracks of Bob Willis-tinted shuffle (the disc’s last seven songs are Jones’ numbers from Oregon) spiced with jocular political observations. “Four More Years?” takes a cheeky look at what another Bush term could mean (“four more years of sweet compassion . . . as long as I am rich and white,” “four more years of using science in the most creative ways/ global warming and can’t compete with the rapture and end of days”). “Blues for Crawford” is a tear-in-beer lament from a Republican who voted for Bush who is now discouraged. And “Psycho Cowboy”—a playfully boot-scooting arrangement of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer”—takes Bush’s adopted Texan persona to absurd ends.
It’s all very much a forgotten form of satire, in which you adopt the target’s mind-set in order to lampoon it. And though Jones had the hardest time getting anybody to pay attention at first, once he started showing up at rallies and fund raisers and offering to play, people responded to its jovial, lighthearted tone.
“You’ve heard some of the folk stuff out there, the other stuff by people like me who write political stuff, and it just beats you over the head,” Jones says. “I’m as disgusted as anybody else, and if I let myself get angry about it I just get balled up. And those songs sound like that: Man, I’m so pissed off, and here’s my pissed-off song. So for ‘Four More Years?’—the idea actually came from my acupuncturist—I was like, ‘Oh, this is great, four more years of this and this and this and I’ll sing it in a really cheery, sarcastic voice.’ You can make jokes out of every single line.”
Since he first started performing at events in May, he’s played solo and with pickup musicians from Michigan to Massachusetts, concentrated on Pennsylvania and Ohio, and even opened for Al Franken in Cleveland. And every week, he fields more requests to perform and receives more requests for CDs, all the proceeds of which he donates. (“I’ve taken to mailing the CDs off to people to sell, and then [they can] send the money to MoveOn, or if they’re in a swing state to forward it to their Democratic offices and just tell me where the money went,” he says.) And as Election Day approaches, Jones is starting to wonder just what sort of impact he is having.
“If I took all the money I put into just printer cartridges and blank CDs and stuff, I should’ve just gotten a weekend job washing cars or something and sent that money in [to the advocacy groups],” he laughs. “But I’m just hopeful that somebody heard the tunes or knew about somebody busting their ass to do this, it might make somebody go, ‘Gad, that’s intense. Nobody’s doing that for Bush. What does that mean? Where’s that coming from?’”
It’s also ignited an activist streak in Jones he didn’t know he had. “This music thing has been harrowing and unproductive and occasionally fun, so I figure, well, maybe I should just do what the regular people are doing, which is go out and beat the streets and canvas,” he says. In recent weeks he has traveled up to Pennsylvania with an organization called Maryland Driving Votes to register voters, and on Election Day he is going to be working as a poll monitor with the nonpartisan volunteer organization Election Protection.
Of course, such a grass-roots perspective of the 2004 presidential election has given Jones a poll-free view of what people in swing states are thinking, a glimpse that becomes more and more a gift and curse as Election Day nears.
“If the people who don’t approve of what he’s done go out and vote, he’s gone,” Jones says. “I mean, he’s a sitting duck. Those people who have blown [voting] off in past years, they blow it off this year they only have themselves to blame. So how do I feel about it? I’m scared shitless.”