Besides his not-insignificant role in Rage Against the Machine as one of the most innovative guitarists of the last 20 years, Tom Morello has had a long history as an activist. It’s part of his family’s DNA; his schoolteacher mother, Mary Morello, has been a vocal advocate for everything from civil rights to free speech (she holds a special place in rock history for founding Parents for Rock and Rap after Tipper Gore began her ‘80s campaign against explicit lyrics).
So it was no surprise that Morello turned up at a rally last February in Madison, Wis., protesting Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts to restrict union rights and pay raises. Morello, himself a member of a Los Angeles musicians union, says he was so galvanized by the experience that he quickly recorded an eight-song EP, “Union Town” (New West), with profits benefiting the America Votes Labor Unity Fund.
It consists of five covers and three originals, mostly fist-raising, folk-punk exhortations to everyday workers to stay the course. Though Morello’s blunt originals don’t leave much room for poetry or subtlety, hearing him perform “Union Song” at the Madison rally invokes a certain rabble-rousing spirit that Billy Bragg surely would recognize. Curiously, he tries to swing on Merle Travis’ “16 Tons,” as if channeling Tennessee Ernie Ford’s hit ‘50s cover rather than the country original. Morello’s functional baritone is better suited to evoking Bruce Springsteen’s somber “The Ghost of Tom Joad” album on working-man classics “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” and “Which Side Are You On?” He also makes sure to dig up the most caustic (if often overlooked) verses in Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” reminding listeners that the troubadour’s anthem was as much a protest as a promise.