The anti-Trump playlist is pretty packed: from A Tribe Called Quest’s rant on the president’s campaign rhetoric; to the indie-rock compilation Our First 100 Days; to Roger Waters’ Is This the Life We Really Want?, a fiery and stunningly dreary exploration of Trump-era malaise. Plenty of newer artists, too, will compete to be successors to Bush-era political rock stars like Rage Against the Machine, pummeling their audience with in-your-face politics and instrumentation.
But on Inauguration Day 2017, singer-songwriter Anthony D’Amato had a more subtle idea: protest songs that aren’t overtly political in their origins, but can take on a new meaning given our anxious political climate.
With some help from friends in the indie community—including background vocals from mainstay folk-rocker Josh Ritter, Nickel Creek member Sean Watkins, cosmic Americana guru Israel Nash, and alt-country couple The Mastersons—D’Amato recorded Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a seven-song extended-play aimed at exploring, in part, that exact concept.
“I wanted to bring together a group of artists I admired and create a collection of political music for a cause I believe in,” D’Amato wrote for the EP’s description, “but I also wanted to push on the idea of what exactly makes a song political. The tracks here are a mix of covers and originals reimagined for a year in which kindness and empathy have become their own form of political statements.”
The title, of course, comes from the theme song from the iconic children’s show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—a song which D’Amato reimagined as an open-arms greeting for refugees while the president and his base actively work to dehumanize, ignore, or treat them all as suspected terrorists.
The project began with that song, D’Amato explained, “because I was imagining what would happen to Mr. Rogers if he sang that song in 2017. Rush Limbaugh would be blasting him as part of the ‘liberal elite’ inviting terrorists to live in your town. Sean Hannity would lead a boycott to get him taken off the air for ‘supporting sanctuary cities.’
“It's kind of this very innocent, pure song about kindness and empathy and generosity, and I wanted folks to think about it not as a nostalgic childhood memory,” he added, “but as something very timely and relevant to the world we're living in today.”
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was released last week in advance of World Refugee Awareness Day (June 20). Appropriately, all of the proceeds from the project will go to the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian aid and relief organization founded in 1933 at the behest of Albert Einstein. The packaging for the EP’s limited-edition physical release is made from recycled cardboard sleeves—hand-assembled, autographed, and numbered by D’Amato.
The Daily Beast spoke with D’Amato about his political motivations and the particular song choices for the other six songs on the EP.
“I was on a European tour that started on Inauguration Day, and I found myself feeling a little helpless as I watched everything unfold from so far away,” he explained of when he first came up with the idea. “It was disappointing to see these seemingly uncontroversial concepts like helping refugees from war-torn countries become politicized. I wanted to channel all the frustration and anxiety I was feeling into something positive, so the day I got home from tour I started recording the EP.”
Neighbor opens with a cover of Woody Guthrie’s classic “This Land Is Your Land,” featuring background vocals from Josh Ritter. The song, while initially famous (and controversial) for its political message, has become somewhat sanitized by its ubiquity and its popularly abridged version.
But as D’Amato explained, “Guthrie's original lyrics included verses denouncing walls and bearing witness to the plight of the poor, but those aren't the verses we sing in school, I wanted to draw out Guthrie's original intent with the song, which was to ask if this land really was made for you and me?”
He added that President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord breathed extra life into the song. “Guthrie's not just singing about the idea of America in this song, he's singing about the actual land and water and trees and air,” the songwriter said. “If those things belong to all of us, it's our responsibility to step up and make sure they're protected for future generations, because it all belongs to them, too.”
Next on the EP, featuring background vocals from Americana musician Michaela Anne, is a cover of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” which has never been considered a political outside of the many times politicians have used its titular chorus at rallies. But for D’Amato, the song felt appropriate given the nationwide airport protests against Trump’s now-stalled travel ban against six Muslim-majority countries. Petty’s original Jeff Lynne-assisted power-rock crunch is translated here into D’Amato’s campfire folk aesthetic that swells with its background vocals, synths, and the occasional bell toll.
Third up is a re-recording of D’Amato’s own song, “On the Banks of the River Where I Died,” with background vocal, fiddle, and guitar from The Mastersons. "I wrote this one years ago when I read about a particularly treacherous border crossing where Mexicans were drowning trying to make it to the United States,” D’Amato said.
Thematically akin to a Devils & Dust-era Springsteen track, “It's sung from the perspective of someone who's died trying to find a better life for their family. Regardless of political affiliation, I think anyone can relate to the idea of being willing to risk everything to help the ones you love the most." The song itself, however, is reminiscent of ubiquitous, rejoiceful English folk melodies—a clever juxtaposition with the weightiness of the story itself.
Following that is a slowed-down version of Bob Marley’s “One Love”—normally associated with positive reggae vibes and Sandals vacation commercials, but reimagined here as a prayer for unity in the face of political despair. The choice to record the song, with background vocals from neo-folk upstart Lizzie No, was thanks, in part, to time spent on tour last fall with Ziggy Marley, D’Amato said. The finger-picked pacing and occasional use of Sufjan-like atmospherics works to emphasize the song’s communal mentality.
Following that are two more originals from D’Amato. ”Holy War” is a song he told The Daily Beast he wrote several years ago in response to the bravery and heroism of vets returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder. “Regardless of political affiliation,” he said, once again channeling his fellow New Jersey native Springsteen, “it’s easy to agree that the way they're neglected upon coming home is shameful.”
And “If You're Gonna Build a Wall” is D’Amato’s own furious response to Trump’s plans for a big, beautiful border wall. Written during the Republican primaries and performed extensively since, D’Amato re-recorded the track here because, he said, “Walls have a way of coming down, and history tends to be unkind to the builders. The song touches on immigration and race and police violence, because I think we live in a society with lots of walls, but most of them aren't physical structures.”
The new version of the song features background vocals from Nash and No, along with more gritty guitar and synth than the folksy original version. As such, the righteous indignation comes through, tying neatly into the final track: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
“I don't think this song has ever served as a ‘protest anthem’ before, but in these days of ICE raids and refugee bans,” D’Amato said of closing the EP with the Mister Rogers theme song. “I can't really hear it as anything else.”