The leader of Memphis' Panther Burns speaks to Donald Trump and white supremacy on his recent "Cabaret of Daggers."
One thing can be said of President Trump: He can politicize anybody. Tav Falco of Memphis’ Panther Burns has only shown a political consciousness in the broadest terms throughout his musical career. Tav Falco plays d.b.a. on Thursday with The Royal Pendletons and Planchettes opening, and on his 1982 debut album Behind the Magnolia Curtain, he sang Leadbelly’s “Bourgeois Blues.” But that track only spoke to Reagan’s America in the vague way that old folk songs find resonance in new contexts; there was nothing pointed about it. The unruly version says more about his own unwillingness to fit easily into the culture than it does about money and power. Falco has made personal choices motivated by political changes and moved to France to get away from George W. Bush’s presidency, but politics haven’t shown up overtly in Falco’s music before his 2018 album, Cabaret of Daggers, which features “New World Order Blues.” In it, he sings:
America and Korea just itchin’ to light the fuse
the fuse our degenerate-in-chief, clown prince, god emperor
has already lit and there’s not a thing you can do
about his fascination with nuclear annihilation.
That is more direct than he’s ever been in a song. As the cadence and the structure of lines suggest, Falco’s sensibility is closer to Allen Ginsberg and the Beats than the folk song army, punks or hip-hop, but dangerous times call for head-on confrontation. “New World Order Blues” is about “the takeover of our country in Washington,” he says, “the coup d’etat by corporate interests pulling the strings behind this puppet head entrepreneur TV figurehead they’ve got in the White House. I’m talking about Robert Mercer corporations and many others benefitting massively from the takeover—the savaging of our natural resources, the exploitation of our public education, with Betsy DuVos put in there to defund it in favor of elite private schools. And the dumbing down of the rest of the population to fight the dirty wars and work the service jobs. Rapidly, it’s becoming a very Orwellian landscape.”
Falco answers questions in complete paragraphs as he ties the subject at hand to his roots in Arkansas and Memphis, which he explores in kaleidoscopic prose in Ghosts Behind the Sun: Splendor, Enigma & Death: Mondo Memphis Volume 1. He references his photography, his film work, and his life in music to contextualize and elaborate on answers, even when dealing with a topic as specific as the Trump Administration.
Falco prefers a more allusive exploration of his relationship with “The World We Knew”—a 1994 album title that could serve as shorthand for Panther Burns’ subject matter. He’s fascinated by what we traded for what we got, and as he flies the flag for days gone by, it’s clear he doesn’t think the deals all worked out for the best.
“We had a revolution in ’68,” Falco says. “A cultural revolution. A political revolution. And in part a revolution on the ground, sometimes armed. The Black Panthers were no slouch. But we sacrifice a lot in any revolution. We sacrifice parts of our culture we can never retrieve. There’s a certain attitude toward women that you won’t get back. Look at dancing. The embrace in dance is gone. The couples no longer embrace. It’s not part of the fabric of our culture anymore. We don’t have those big dances anymore.” Falco thinks about those trade-offs and countless others and wonders, “Was it worth it? It’s a thorny question.”
It would be dishonest to oversell the political side of Cabaret of Daggers. Most of the tracks do things that Falco has done on other albums he has cut under his own name or Panther Burns as it includes a tango, some country blues and rockabilly, and an improbable cover—in this case, the girl group pop of The Jaynettes’ “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses.” The album isn’t as scattered as that list sounds, though. Falco’s voice, performance style and sensibility pull everything together and sort out any contradictions. He considers that unifying perspective to be his chief selling point.
“The secret eye of the artist,” Falco says. “That’s all that interests people. That’s all that interests people in anything I do. Photography, writing, film, music—it’s all the same song.”
Still, the political songs stand out on the album because they’re the biggest surprises. Cabaret of Daggers also includes his unlikely cover of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” which speaks to a moment when white supremacy is shamelessly in the air in the U.S. Falco sings it with only the hint of accompaniment on piano and guitar, letting the words do the work. His voice doesn’t have Holiday’s musicality and because of that, the anti-lynching lyrics stand naked and have a lot of impact. It’s a vocal performance that he admits he couldn’t have done justice to earlier in his career.
“I was not equipped as a singer to even do most of the songs on the Cabaret of Daggers album until we walked into the studio in Rome, and even though I had not even attempted ‘Strange Fruit,’ I knew I could do them when I walked in the studio door,” he says. “I knew it was time. I knew I could do it. A year before, I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t ready.”
Falco considers the song “the ultimate American protest song, which is a dark celebration of our country. America is a sad country.” He contends that an anti-lynching song remains relevant because he sees the shootings of Trayvon Martin and of African Americans in churches and on the streets as lynchings in a different form, encouraged by cyber mobs online with the mob mentality.
“The fascist is always there,” he says. “We have to fight and we have to struggle or it will always overcome us. The fundamentalists never sleep. It’s time for the artist to stand up and be heard.”