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Ani DiFranco Embodies The American Ethos

Ani DiFranco
Ani DiFranco plays the Castle Theatre in Bloomington on Wednesday, June 6.

Independent singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco has been tackling difficult social and cultural issues for three decades. So it’s no surprise songs she wrote years ago are still relevant, and still stir strong emotions.

For example, the title track to her 1999 album “To The Teeth.”

The sun is setting on the century/And we are armed to the teeth We're all working together now/To make our lives mercifully brief And school kids keep trying to teach us/What guns are all about Confused liberty with weaponry/And watch your kids act it out - From “To The Teeth” by Ani DiFranco

"I believe it was the Columbine shooting that directly preceded that song,” said DiFranco, who recalled an escalating gun epidemic even then.

“It’s amazing now to hear that song and to check in with the fact that, yeah, 20 years ago I thought it had gone way too far,” said DiFranco.

A couple years later she was bumped from an appearance on "Late Night with David Letterman" because she wouldn’t budge on her song choice, “Subdivision.”

White people are so scared of black people/They bulldoze out to the country And put up houses on little loop-dee-loop streets/And while America gets its heart cut right out of its chest The Berlin wall still runs down Main Street/Separating east side from west - From “Subdivisions” by Ani DiFranco

“I still feel like we live in a hyper-segregated country,” said DiFranco, who thinks cell phones have helped “white America” understand what black Americans have been facing (and saying) for decades.

“Middle American eyes are finally being opened to the reality of how deep racism really goes in this country … how much it affects people on a subconscious and conscious level, and how dangerous and unequal the lives of African-Americans are,” said DiFranco.

She recalls trying to write racism through her own experiences growing up in Buffalo, New York, where she witnessed the white flight to the suburbs during her childhood.

“When you look at education today, you can see the effects of racism. When you look at the environmental crises and there’s no more countryside … there’s racism there too. So I was just trying to speak in that song to the way racism and negative forces bring us all down and make us all weaker,” said DiFranco, who still feels she was bumped from "Late Night" because of the lyrics.

“The show said we’d like something a little more upbeat,” said DiFranco. "You can interpret that any way you want."

DiFranco continues to prod listeners on social issues on 2017 album “Binary.” “Pacifists Lament” is a gorgeously musical song that asks why society is sends hypocritical messages to its children.

But there is nothing harder than to stop ... in the middle of a battle and say you're sorry But we ask it of our children to just stop ... in the middle of a battle and say you're sorry Which one of us is ready to just stop? - From “Pacifists Lament” by Ani DiFranco

Are those sentiments naïve?

“Only as far as peace on earth is naïve,” countered DiFranco. "I think it’s something to strive for. The song is talking about how really easy it is to fall into adversarial relationships on every level. I think it’s one of the noblest of struggles. I’m not saying I’m any better at it than the next guy.”

DiFranco emerged on the national stage in the early 1990s at a D.I.Y. artist when not many of her contemporaries were. She built her career from the ground up, releasing albums on her own “Righteous Babe” imprint to avoid major label interference with her music.

In a way, she’s the poster child for the American ethos; someone who figuratively picked herself up by her bootstraps and made something out of nothing. She agreed with the sentiment, and pointed to another song on her “Binary” album:

I was done at 16/Showing up for class I was out there in the ring/Learning how to kick some ass I was done at 16/Using my momma's key It was all on me/It was all on me - From “Play God” by Ani DiFranco

“That song talks about how I don’t feel I should be treated as a child by the mechanism of government because I’m not. I’m very much a contributing member of society. I’m not a dependent, and I know what I’m doing. You know I trust women, they are equally just in society. They are also representatives of nature, they are choosing as nature chooses women on how to reproduce,” said DiFranco.

Avoiding profit as an only motive was what kept her away from the shark-infested waters of the music business. Because they did come calling after she achieved success on her own. But she said they didn’t feel like “her people,” her teachers.

“I found them in the wild and wholly underground of folk music. I found Pete Seeger, Utah Phillips and others who were also standing at the intersection of art and activism," said DiFranco, who added she’s extremely pleased she took the independent path.

“Those people have made my life so much richer,” said DiFranco.

Ani DiFranco plays the Castle Theatre in Bloomington on Wednesday, June 6.

Listen to the entire GLT interview with Ani DiFranco.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.