What is it about Republican presidential candidates and their inability to choose a proper campaign song? It’s as if conservative ears have a special filter that only allows the words of an ironic chorus to make it into the candidate’s head while stripping out a song’s true meaning along the way. We’ve seen the result and it isn’t pretty — think Ronald Reagan kissing babies while Bruce Springsteen’s anti-war, anti-military-industrial-complex, anti-the-wayour-governmenttreats-our-soldiers, anti-everything- Reaganstood-for “Born in the USA” blasts away in the background.
The infamous music thieving McCain- Palin team was even worse. They got hit with cease and desist orders from Foo Fighters, John Mellencamp, Van Halen, Jon Bon Jovi and Heart for using their music without permission, which, of course, the artists refused to give. Heck, even Mitt Romney had to deal with pissed off Somali-Canadian poet/ rapper K’naan after his campaign coopted his song “Waving Flag.” By the way, the definition of trying too hard is Mitt Romney and Rap. Awkward.
Well it’s happened again here in 2015. According to the Washington Post, Jeb Bush has been using Joshua Davis’ song “Workingman’s Hymn” at his campaign stops. The song’s upbeat and optimistic chorus declares, “I know we can turn it around.”
But remember that filter? Had the Bush team done a little research they would have realized that singer/songwriter Joshua Davis is a self-declared “liberal guy” who grew up in a union household in Michigan. Even a quick glance at YouTube and Jeb would have seen Davis introducing the song at his shows as a tribute to the power of collective bargaining. But the irony doesn’t stop there.
When I called Davis a few days ago at his home in Traverse City, Michigan, he didn’t know that Bush was using his song. After a good laugh, I said, “I bet you weren’t thinking about Bush when you wrote that song.” His response, “Well, actually… I was.”
Davis wrote the song toward the end of Jeb’s brother’s second term as president, so the song’s admonishment to “turn it around” is at least in part talking about the policies of the George W. Bush presidency. You can’t make this stuff up.
So how did the Jeb Bush folks stumble onto Davis’ “Workingman’s Hymn” in the first place? Chances are someone was watching The Voice last year.
The Voice is NBC’s wildly popular show wherein celebrity judges such as Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine, country star Blake Shelton, producer/ singer Pharrell Williams and popstar Gwen Stefani listen to contestants sing without being able to see them and then choose their season’s team by turning their chairs around during a live performance. They refer to this process as the “blind auditions.”
The judges then “coach” their team members through each week of the season’s performances along with help from some of the industry’s best-known vocal instructors. The level of talent among the show’s contestants is staggering and getting to the final episode of the season — contestant’s are eliminated as the show progresses — is an impressive feat that pretty much guarantees a successful career will follow. Or in the case of someone like Joshua Davis, an already successful career will become an even more successful career.
Davis has been a respected singer/songwriter for years. He was a member of the Lansing, Michigan-based band, Steppin’ In It, which played the Telluride Bluegrass Festival back in 2004, and has recorded and played around Boulder and the Front Range from time to time. But for his entire career until The Voice, he thought of himself as a songwriter who played guitar pretty well and could sing when needed.
But that changed when The Voice called him to be on the show.
“I’d never seen the show before they called,” Davis says. So the first thing he did before accepting the invitation to the blind auditions was to sit down with his family and watch a few episodes. “A lot of these shows are about tearing people down and embarrassing them,” he says. “I didn’t want any part of that. But The Voice really seemed positive. It really built people up so I agreed to do it. I thought I’d be out after the blind auditions.” He was wrong.
Davis brought his polished roots folk/rock style to whatever song he was singing and surprisingly, at least to him, week after week he was still standing. He says he enjoyed getting to sing a duet with Sheryl Crow, as well as working with his coach Adam Levine, who he now considers a friend. “He was great,” Davis says. “We connected. I can still call him if I have questions about my career or things like that.”
But perhaps the most important thing the show did for Davis — it helped him find his voice, literally. Not his voice as an artist or a songwriter, Davis has long had that well in hand. But he says that working with the amazing voice coach at the show for hours a day throughout an entire season helped him learn to sing in a way he hadn’t done before and gave him a new confidence. “She helped me see my voice as an instrument I had to learn to play like any other. I became a better singer and it’s changed my career.”
When it was finally over, Davis made the finals and came in third on the show. Along the way he also added a first to The Voice. Davis fought hard to perform one of his original songs on the program, something that had never been allowed before. It took weeks of lobbying the producers and the network before they finally gave in. Davis performed “Workingman’s Hymn” and the song charted on iTunes, apparently with the help of at least one download by Jeb Bush.
Davis has recorded three solo albums to go along with the five he’s made with Steppin’ In It. His most recent solo effort, 2013’s A Miracle of Birds, is a perfect example of the songwriting skill that Davis can bring to bear when the subject inspires. The album sprang from the songwriter’s experiences while traveling in the Palestinian Territories for an organization called On the Ground, whose Project Palestine works to raise awareness about the difficulty facing 1,700 small Palestinian fair-trade olive farmers in the West Bank who are losing access to their lands due to the politics of the region.
Davis is Jewish and admits to being apprehensive when first approached about the Project. “I wasn’t sure about it, but I’ve always used my music to try and bring people together,” he says. “It turned out to be a really positive time.”
Davis says that he understands the political situation is very complicated and difficult and that’s why he would never try to create an album that would attempt to tell people what to think about the ongoing conflict. He says A Miracle of Birds is more of a portrait of his emotional, personal journey through a troubled land where he found good and kind people at every turn.
Whether you’ve been a fan for years, or like Jeb Bush, only recently discovered Joshua Davis on The Voice, his upcoming appearance at the Wildflower Pavilion at the Planet Bluegrass Ranch in Lyons is sure to be a great show. And you’ll be able to get a first-hand update on what Jeb had to say this week when confronted with stealing a song that was really about unions and banding together to get past his brother’s crazy time as President. Can’t wait to hear that one.
ON THE BILL: Joshua Davis. 7 p.m. doors/8 p.m. show. Friday, Oct. 16, indoors at Wildflower Pavilion, Planet Bluegrass Ranch, Lyons. With special guest Danny Shafer. $20 advance. Tickets available at shop.bluegrass.com or 800-624-2422.