It is a matter of small embarrassment that, while attending a music festival in North Carolina this weekend, I found myself steering clear of the sessions where that great legend of folk and protest Pete Seeger was appearing. The problem was not Seeger's mighty age - another octogenarian, the brilliant flat-picking guitarist Doc Watson, was one of the undoubted stars of the festival - but the terrible thought of all that sincere radicalism, the moaning about George W Bush, the grim possibility that at some point one might be required to sing along to that depressing dirge of defeated radicalism "We Shall Overcome". For me, the songs of love, loss, the family and the mountains being sung by young and old on the other stages had, for all their apparent domesticity, more universal resonance than anthems of war and peace.
We didn't overcome. The times, they were a-changing, then they a-changed right back to the way they were before. Today we have a Labour government in power which loves business and pursues increasingly illiberal policies. In America, the administration is packed with men whose behaviour makes old villains of the past, like Spiro T Agnew, seem almost innocent. Yet expressing opposition in the form of music has mysteriously become an act of futile self-indulgence.
The great protest songs of the past - Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land", Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom", Saint-Marie's "Universal Soldier" - were acts of bravery and defiance from a political underclass outside the establishment. Now, if anything, bravery involves defending war. Briefly, as the Dixie Chicks discovered, the invasion of Iraq was identified with patriotism and opposing it was a bad career move, but soon the establishment view was that of the liberal consensus: the war was, at best, ill-conceived and more probably a cynical, oil-inspired conspiracy. To sing songs that made the very points with which most people agreed is about as courageous as playing at a benefit in support of Aids victims.
But, like an old horse that becomes restless in his stable when he hears the hounds passing by, the veterans of pop protest reach for their clichés and expensive guitars with every new war. Anyone who needs convincing that, somewhere on the list of collateral damage caused by the Iraq war, there should be a place for truly terrible protest songs, should listen to Neil Young's new concept album Living With War. "Way out on the desert sand/ Lies a desperate lover/ They call her the Queen of Oil/ So much to discover," sings the old groaner. "Don't need no Madison Avenue wars/ Don't need no boxes I can't see/ Covered in flags but I can't see them on TV."
There is, I suppose, something laudable about old rockers who can still find things to be angry about, and now and then it is possible that something interesting might emerge. Bruce Springsteen still has the power to surprise and his new enterprise We Shall Overcome; The Seeger Sessions might even breathe new life into those tired old songs.
But it is safe to assume that the more politics, in the explicit sense, enter the popular song of the early 21st century, the more dire and smug it is likely to seem. There are great songs being written about our past and our present - at that festival in North Carolina, some astonishing material came from Gillian Welch and David Rawlings - without tired references to war and peace, rights and liberation, which have become contemporary lyrical equivalents to the moon in June.
Stranger than fiction
For those who worry that the literary world is exclusive and snobbish, it must be a relief to discover that getting published involves as much shady dealing as getting into the House of Lords. Last month, a couple of sensational memoirs were discovered to have been largely invented. Now it is fiction's turn, with the revelation that Kaavya Viswanathan, left, an acclaimed first novelist in America, may have liberally borrowed material from two other novels.
Behind all fakery lies the simple fact that these days authors are part of the sales package. The logical next step has already taken place with the publication of Bad Timing by "Guy Troop", which started life as a manuscript glimpsed in the TV series Lost. Disney cobbled up a story, cranked up the marketing machine, and creating the perfect package, a book in which even the author is fiction.
* Returning home after a few days abroad, one is often struck by the full peculiarity of life in these islands. Where else, for example, would a man approaching his 50th birthday and suffering from penile cancer celebrate emerging from surgery with a party so wild that it took 15 policemen and two environmental health officers three hours to break it up?
The music playing at the small terraced house of Colin Bellis was so loud that, according to one constable, "it made my chest cavity resonate". When the police were summoned by exasperated neighbours in Lowestoft, Bellis and his guests attempted to prevent them confiscating sound equipment and a full-scale barney broke out.
The cancer victim's excuse in court this week had a certain shamelessly Blairite style to it. The party was eco-friendly, he said. "I vote for the Greens."Reuse content