Sunday, November 02, 2008

Sing Out The Vote

The vote gets sung out in Ohio. Photo by Michael Gruber.

My epitaph? My epitaph will be, "Curiosity did not kill this cat."
---Studs Terkel (May 16, 1912-October 31, 2008)
A school of trout
passed by:
the color of water!
People are like stained glass windows: they sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light within.
---Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
Maybe it was the Depression, and how all the people had to pull together to get us out of it. Maybe it was the New Deal, and all those agencies planting trees, building dams, cleaning up towns, cities, the countryside, encouraging art, literature, music, theater, movies. Maybe it was uprooted people, from the Dust Bowl and lost jobs, traveling around, bumming around, looking all over this great land for a new home. Maybe it was whole families of folk music collectors and performers: the Seegers, the Lomaxes, the Carters. Maybe it was radio, broadcasting jazz and country from small towns, heard by producers passing through, who stopped and brought them to the big cities for us all to hear. Maybe it was Woody Guthrie, riding the rails, writing down and singing out what he saw. Maybe it was World War II, making us all get together again to fight Fascism. After all that there was such relief, we just had to celebrate ourselves.
So it was that we kids, just entering school in the mid and late nineteen forties, got taught folk music in our classes. In my small city in western New York, where Sicilians and Swedes shared each other's very different cultures in order to manufacture furniture, we didn't sing that stuff every day. A few classes had pianos and teachers who could play them, but most of the time we had to depend on just one itinerant music teacher who visited each of our half dozen neighborhood grade schools once a week. But when she came she taught us the great American cowboy and folk songs those families of collectors had found in the mountains and prairies. We developed a pride in being American by learning our heritage that way.
By the early 1950s, folk music had gained such popularity we heard it on the radio. You could hear live performances like the Grand Ol' Opry and big bands and jazz groups from Chicago and New York and New Orleans at night, when AM radio carried a long way. But there were records on the juke box too. Probably most popular of all was a singing and playing quartet called The Weavers. Their records were on Decca, and they had big arrangements, with dozens of violins and choral singers, of tunes we had sung in 3rd grade. Wow! On Top Of Old Smoky...and then one we hadn't heard before, called Good Night Irene. And around that time, I heard them sing another "new" song, which was called This Land Is Your Land...and I loved it so much I was overjoyed to learn some people even wanted it to replace our National Anthem.
But then when I was in 6th grade, some kind of trouble came...and it lasted through the rest of my public schooling, and The Weavers disappeared and folk singing stopped being heard widely. We learned that underneath all those happy songs of celebration, those singers actually were being unAmerican. There was an UnAmerican Activities Committee in our Congress, and they had investigated The Weavers and a lot of other movie stars and radio announcers and people like that. They found those people had been involved in "Red tactics" all this time and so, especially in the schools and on the public airwaves, they weren't allowed to be taught or heard or seen anywhere anymore.
On our new televisions, the investigating committes held their hearings in our living rooms every afternoon. They even replaced the soap operas! A famous broadcaster named Fulton Lewis Jr. sent his son to my hometown to investigate our school libraries. He went on the Mutual Network every evening to report his findings. We had some questionable John Steinbeck for kids to read. He said The Weavers didn't choose that name because they were sitting around knitting sweaters. He said The Weavers were a communist labor movement in Europe that tried to take over the factories. Our superintendent of schools, Dr. Carlyle Ring, the father of a school friend of mind, was forced to resign. He died shortly after that. Pete Seeger refused to testify, but did offer to sing some songs to the Committee.
When I went off to college, I had met only one Democrat (that I knew of) in my whole life. He was Herbert Beckman, and had taught social studies in my high school. He admitted to me one day after school that he was a Democrat. I don't remember what we were talking about, but it may have been Harry Truman. I remember distinctly when he said it and how I felt. I admired Mr. Beckman but now he looked something like a creature from outer space. At the time I had no idea there were people in my own family who were Democrats...and the really Swedish ones were further to the Left than that! But many things were hidden in America now, not spoken about. "Under God" got added to the Pledge of Allegiance.
day my freshman year at Bates College, way the heck up in Maine, I walked toward Parker Hall, where I was living, and to my astonishment I heard folk music playing from a little speaker a guy had pointed out the window of his room toward campus. Even more amazing, it was The Weavers...and they were singing alone, without the orchestra and chorus---and it was wonderful. Another time I went past that guy's room and Charlie Parker was playing in there. That did it, I had to find out who he was, and so I just walked in. I said, "I thought all you guys were squares in here!" The guy with the little record player looked up from his book and said disdainfully, "You sound like a square coming in here like that." And of course he was right.
It was 1958, and Fred was from Upper Manhattan. Paul, who didn't live in the room but was draped in a chair all the time, was from Greenwich Village. Nick was from the Boston area, and Gray was a kind of woodsman from the even further outer reaches of Maine. I was a hick from the sticks in the Midwest dairyland somewhere beyond the Appalachians. My limits and boundaries began to stretch and open up. A couple of years later we were picketing the local Woolworth's in Lewiston, Maine, because we heard the chain of variety stores had a policy of not serving black people at their lunch counters in the South. We began to attend rallies in Boston, and Pete Seeger was there leading us with folk songs, and Hubert Humphrey was there, and Steve Allen, and Erich Fromm got pelted with eggs.
Civil Rights, and the War Resisters League, the SANE nuclear committee, and Fair Play For Cuba, all came along in the early '60s. Rallies brought us a new generation of folk singers too. There was Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Folk revival was in the air, and we heard the music again...and many new songs. Rock 'n roll became affected, and Dylan plugged in. We picketed John Kennedy's White House in the slushy winter of '62, and he sent out greetings and hot chocolate. By the late '60s and early '70s, young people were "dropping out," going back to the land to make their own folk music and babies, or heading to ashrams to clean out their heads. We and the music were losing our political edge.
With the end of Carter and the beginning of Reagan, we all went underground again. The glitz of Las Vegas and the Crystal Cathedral of Evangelicals took over. "Family Values" were advocated, and eventually Lawrence Welk appeared every week on National Public Television. America was all flat and cardboard once more. Ugly, scowling faces told us what to do. Eventually the Supreme Court decided a presidential election and we got a man who celebrated ignorance and decision-making from the gut. Football triumphed over baseball. Big box stores offered ultimate convenience---as long as you had a car to get to them...and even then people hated to walk the distance of the parking lots. Local shops and inner cities died. We declared war on terror. Guns and gasoline-power on road and off road are sacred. "Ease your finger off the trigger" to achieve universal peace seems an insane suggestion.
That line in the last sentence is part of a lyric to a new song I heard last weekend. Through the whole ghastly period of recent history I've just described, from my point of view, that tradition of folk music and songs of social change has been carried on by "Woody's children," Arlo Guthrie being among the most visible from time to time. He and Pete Seeger even traveled and sang together sometimes. Most incredibly for a month or 2 in 1984, they even gathered Ronnie Gilbert, from the original Weavers, and another member of the new generation of singers, Holly Near, to form HARP and perform old and wonderful new songs here and there. In some ways HARP was just as wonderful as The Weavers, and certainly more so in that Pete and Ronnie passed on the tradition so visibly to Arlo and Holly. If you're curious about the group you may be glad to learn Holly Near recently reissued a glorious HARP concert in a double CD album, available on her own label.
Which brings me again to that song from last weekend. Four weeks ago Holly Near got the idea to gather a bunch of mostly new folk groups and individual singers that she knows about, and bring them "on their own dime" from all over the States to Ohio, from which many say the current election again may swing. A week ago Friday and last Sunday, my family got to see them here in Athens and over in Marietta, an hour to the east. I really was so preoccupied with other things I hadn't bothered to investigate Heather Cantino's announcement they were coming. Had tickets not fallen into my wife's lap, we might not even have gone. I learned Friday afternoon, the troupe was going to sing on a street corner in front of the county courthouse. I went down, spotted Holly at once, and got her to autograph my LP copy of the original HARP release. I didn't know anybody else among the group, but I liked the spirit.
Nothing could have prepared me for that rally Friday night, or for the quite different show Sunday afternoon! It was like hearing The Weavers again that afternoon in 1958. Joy stirred inside my body, and a song of hope came dancing out. My 17-year-old daughter was at work Friday night, so I made sure she was in the audience Sunday afternoon. She was jumping up and down and clapping her hands. Thankfully the torch got passed. Others have written now about the Sing Out The Vote Ohio tour, and I'll refer you to a couple of sites. Four of the songs, from the Columbus appearance, are at YouTube, and Holly is considering putting something together to release. Whatever happens Tuesday, songs of social change have happened here and will resonate through my being into my future and matter what!

1 comment:

jazzolog said...

Shortly after noon, during urgent yesterday, a friend at Harvard sent me this music video link, called American Prayer, which I think continues to inspire today~~~

After McCain conceded, Barack Obama sent out this email~~~

Richard --

I'm about to head to Grant Park to talk to everyone gathered there, but I wanted to write to you first.

We just made history.

And I don't want you to forget how we did it.

You made history every single day during this campaign -- every day you knocked on doors, made a donation, or talked to your family, friends, and neighbors about why you believe it's time for change.

I want to thank all of you who gave your time, talent, and passion to this campaign.

We have a lot of work to do to get our country back on track, and I'll be in touch soon about what comes next.

But I want to be very clear about one thing...

All of this happened because of you.

Thank you,


Another old friend sent along this joyous dance video yesterday to inspire your celebration~~~

And what a speech it was! I was on the point of despairing I'd ever hear such language again in this country, it being just a memory in the fading minds of us old fogies.

I heard the speech on the radio, and did not see televised coverage. My wife, however, was downtown in front of a big screen and told me at one point there was footage of Jesse Jackson among those in the crowd, tears streaming down his face. Yesterday, Jesse had posted a wise warning to us all, in the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times. Sometime after or during this day of rest and celebration, we need to consider it. Here it is~~~

Bush's last 100 days the ones to watch
November 4, 2008

The air crackles with anticipation. Fingers are crossed. It gets hard to breathe. Hope, for so long locked in a closet, begins pounding on the door.

And throwing caution to the wind, many already are talking about Barack Obama's first 100 days. Will he move directly to the Apollo investment agenda, providing money to refit buildings, implement the use of renewable energy and generate jobs in the drive to reduce our dependence on foreign oil? Will he put forth a comprehensive health-care plan or begin by covering all children? Will workers finally be given the right to organize once more? How will he handle mortgage relief and/or help cities burdened by poverty?

But even as our minds, against all discipline, look beyond this day to the possible victory and change, we'd better start paying attention to another 100 days -- President Bush's last months in office.

Bush and Vice President Cheney represent a failed conservative era -- and they know it. As the administration moves into its last 100 days, there seems to be a flurry of activity: regulations to forestall Obama's new era of accountability; a flood of contracts to reward friends and lock in commitments; a Wall Street bailout that is pumping money out the door.

Consider: Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is handing out $350 billion to the banks, drawing a special circle around nine banks -- including Goldman Sachs, the firm he previously headed -- as clearly too big to fail. The money apparently has no conditions, even though the entire purpose was to get the banks to start lending once more to one another and to companies and individuals.

Now it appears that banks plan to hoard the cash, to use it to help pay for mergers with other healthy banks (not weak ones), or to pay out dividends and bonuses. And Paulson, instead of publicly rebuking them, has let it be known that mergers would be a good thing.

Instead of getting the banking system working for small businesses and people again, our money is being used to consolidate the strength of a few megabanks.

There has been a rapid increase in military outlays over the last few months. Is the Pentagon being called on to help bolster the economy -- and perhaps McCain -- in these final weeks? Or, more likely, is the Pentagon pumping out money to reward its friends and lock in spending before the new sheriff gets to town?

The Washington Post reports that the White House is "working to enact an array of federal regulations, many of which would weaken rules aimed at protecting consumers and the environment, before President Bush leaves office in January."

About 90 new rules are in the works, and at least nine are considered "economically significant" because they would impose costs or promote societal benefits that exceed $100 million annually. Many will make changes that the new administration will find it hard to reverse for years to come. More emissions from power plants; more exemptions from environmental-impact statements; permission to operate natural gas lines at higher levels of pressure -- the changes could be the last calamities visited upon us by the Bush administration.

Congress -- the old one, not the new one just elected -- comes back into special session right after the election. Representatives Henry Waxman and John Conyers would be well advised to convene special hearings to try to curb what Bush has cooked up for his last 100 days. Let's not let the new dawn that is possible be dimmed by clouds left over from an old era that has failed.,CST-EDT-jesse04.article

I even heard that among Bush's flurry of last-minute pardons of his various friends, he will include a pardon of himself...just in case. Don't put it past him.