GUANTANAMERA: JOSÉ MARTÍ TO FIDEL CASTRO
Revolutions don’t take place in velvet boxes. It’s only the poets who make them lovely.
~ Carl Oglesby, President of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), 1965-66
Imagine an American airport named for one of our great poets—like Edgar Allan Poe International Airport, or Walt Whitman Airport, or Emily Dickinson Airport; a pretty strange notion is it not? For the most part, in our country you have to be responsible for the deaths of thousands before anyone would think of naming an airport after you; think JFK in New York, or Ronald Reagan Airport in Washington, DC. Yet in a tiny island country just ninety miles away, their major airport is proudly named for their national poet: José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba. Who was José Martí?
At the September meeting of the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club, I sang a song I wrote about a few of the 217 murders of black citizens by white policemen in 2016, including 21 killed in Los Angeles alone; highlighting the first such case—of Michael Brown, unarmed black teen on August 9, 2014. What inspired me to write the song, above and beyond the obvious, was the unexpected involvement of 90-year old Holocaust survivor, Hedy Epstein, in the aftermath of protest in Ferguson, Missouri, a northern suburb of St. Louis. I was also thinking about the first popular blues song St. Louis Blues—written by “the father of the blues,” W.C. Handy.
HOW DID WOODY GUTHRIE WIND UP
IN A STORY ABOUT DONALD TRUMP?
How did Woody Guthrie wind up in a story about Donald Trump? The LA Times put him there—today (Aug. 15) as a matter of fact. It seems that Woody rented an apartment in Brooklyn from Trump’s old man Fred Trump, an apartment with the enticing name of Beach Haven. Woody called it “Bitch Haven.” The Times quoted Woody’s reworked Dust Bowl ballad I Ain’t Got No Home, written in reaction to the racist rental policies of Trump’s father—which prompted a major lawsuit by black families of the time—who would go to the complex thinking they had an equal opportunity to rent there, only to be told that none were available.
WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, JOE DIMAGGIO
Paul Simon has a new baseball song—unfortunately unprintable in a family paper—about Negro League centerfielder Cool Papa Bell. Peter, Paul and Mary recorded a baseball song about a hapless kid who always got assigned to play the least desirable position—Right Field. James Taylor has a new song about the Red Sox called Angels of Fenway.
Woody Guthrie at Folk Alliance 2016
Dateline, Kansas City, February 17, 2016; “We’re very sorry, Mr. Guthrie, but all the showcases have been taken.” “That’s OK; I wasn’t expecting to be here. I was sleeping under a railroad bridge in Cupertino, California when I overheard a hobo singing:
Going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come
Going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come
Got some crazy little women there
And I’m a-gonna get me one
So I hopped the next fast freight and here I am. I don’t have a cell phone or I would have called. No need to put me on; I know you have lots of talent here. Take it easy, but take it!”
WHY I WRITE
I was recently invited to go somewhere on the condition that I promise not to write about it—specifically for FolkWorks. I replied “I’m a writer; I can’t promise not to write.” She hung up on me and that was the end of it. Or so I thought. I decided to go to the place where I had initially been invited and try to discover for myself why I had been asked not to write about it.
THE HISTORY OF MY COLUMN
I wrote my first column, "How Can I Keep From Talking," in 2000, shortly before what became the great contested election that put George W. Bush in the White House. I told my small number of readers (rather prophetically, I now think) that it looked like it was going to be a very close election, so be sure to vote. It was published in the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club newsletter, The Cat & Banjo, for a membership of roughly fifty. My first FolkWorks column—under the same masthead—did not appear until January 2003—masquerading as a review of a concert at Royce Hall. It was titled “Dinosaurs and Troubadours”. That was my first appearance in FolkWorks and—thanks to my loyal editor/publishers Steve and Leda Shapiro—became my bully pulpit to this day. So having been your faithful correspondent for going on 13 years I thought it not amiss to look back and tell you something about how it all got started—a creation myth if you will—of this reporter’s opinion.
LEAD BELLY, DYLAN AND MARLEY:
SCANDALIZING THEIR NAMES
From the Los Angeles Times Calendar Section front page article by Sasha Frere-Jones on N.W.A’s nomination for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (October 9, 2015): “Leadbelly’s songs about cocaine and barroom shootings are now in the Library of Congress and Leadbelly was a posthumous inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. N.W.A released “F—the police” in 1988…There is little so-called protest music with that kind of footprint…If importance and impact and range are the metrics for artists in the Hall of Fame, N.W.A has to be inducted.”
THE OLDEST LIVING EMERGING MUSICIAN TELLS ALL
I got an email from “Cynthia,” editor of a new music magazine called “Music Emerging” letting me know she had seen my recent concert for the Centennial of Joe Hill’s execution at the Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest and wanted to interview me about musicians in the Santa Monica Mountains for an upcoming issue. She also wanted to know if I had any “pre-1980” photos of musicians in Topanga, or knew where she might get some. I wrote back and gave her a few leads, then I called her and left a message if she wanted to interview me. As I suspected, it was a temporary enthusiasm and I never heard from her again. But since the deadline for my column was fast approaching I thought why let a good opportunity go to waster? I’ll interview myself and see where it goes. So here is the imaginary conversation I almost had with Cynthia of Music Emerging.
BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME
THE ASH GROVE RETURNS TO WEST HOLLYWOOD
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
~T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
Can you keep a secret? Here’s one you didn’t get from WikiLeaks, or Edward Snowden, or the NSA: Big Bill Broonzy (June 26, 1893 – August 14, 1958), who died just one month after Ed Pearl opened The Ash Grove on July 11, 1958, will finally get to play The Ash Grove on its 57th anniversary. It’ll take two white guys to make one Big Bill, but Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin do a great job recreating some of his classic blues songs on their recent Grammy-nominated Common Ground: Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin Play & Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy, and they will be headlining the upcoming Ash Grove benefit concert to complete the documentary film about the greatest folk club of all time.
THE MAGNA CARTA TURNS 800
Epigraph: When tyrants tremble sick with fear/To hear their death knell ringing/When friends rejoice both far and near/How can I keep from singing?
DATELINE: Runnymede, England, June 15, 1215. 800 years ago, King John’s Barons forced him to sign the founding document of English liberty—“The Great Charter,” “The Magna Carta.” Written in Latin, it was the first organized effort to drive a wedge between Noblemen and the King, guaranteeing to British Nobility rights which had formerly been allocated only to the King. That was the beginning of such rights eventually making their way down to the bottom rung of the social order and permeating a democratic society.
That document now resides in the Bodleian Library of the British Museum; I have a framed replica which I found a number of years ago at an Out-of-the-Closet thrift shop. Outside of my Gibson J-200 guitar it is my most treasured possession—a daily reminder of the human rights that became the animating principle of the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
THE FIRST AMENDMENT’S A BITCH, ISN’T IT?
I received an email from my Israeli-American friend Louis Richter with the recent news that former UC Santa Cruz Professor Angela Davis was the official speaker at the University of California at Santa Cruz for Martin Luther King’s Holiday commemoration of what would have been his 86th birthday. The title of her speech was “Racism, Militarism, Poverty: From Ferguson to Palestine.” It was the keynote address of their 31st annual convocation on MLK’s birthday. The email contained an extended letter of protest from more than twenty organizations speaking as one who support Israel and were outraged that this “known anti-Zionist” who “supported boycotts against Israel” would be sponsored by the university—especially in connection with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In reply I wrote the following:
“This letter and subject raise so many issues I am afraid I don't have time to address them all, or even summarize them adequately.
REWRITING FOLK MUSIC HISTORY:
THE SOVIET UNION TAKES THE USA TO COURT
USSR: Uncle Sam, do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
UNCLE SAM: I thought you were Godless; but of course we are not; so yes, I do.
USSR: Good, now you have accused the Soviet Union under Communism of a number of crimes, including rewriting history, revisionism, and erasing names from the history books to suit our political ideology; is that not true?
FOR MERLE HAGGARD ON MY BIRTHDAY
A native of Oildale, California, graduate of several juvenile detention centers, postgraduate studies at a maximum security prison, his resume wasn’t exactly a career path to country music stardom. It’s very fashionable these days to call oneself an “outlaw,” but only one artist served real time—in San Quentin no less. He doesn’t live in Nashville, or even Texas, like all the other “outlaws,” so where does he get off calling himself a country singer? Well, for starters he writes as good as Hank Williams, sings as good as George Jones and picks as good as Merle Travis. So you know I’m talking about Bakersfield’s national treasure—Merle Haggard: the only country singer who, with a nod to Ol’ Blue Eyes, eschews cowboy hats and wears a fedora.
COUNTDOWN: THE COLD WAR HIT PARADE
We know of the great songs to have come out of the Civil War (We’re Tenting Tonight On the Old Camp Ground); and the Revolutionary War (Yankee Doodle), and the First World War (I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier) and the Second World War (The Sinking of the Reuben James), and the Vietnam War (Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation); but the Cold War? Since the battlefield was more like a chessboard, and the casualties were truth and faith in one’s government, what great songs would one point to give some kind of equal nobility to the cause for which so few died in vain?
That’s the question that vexed me as I spent several months preparing for a Pasadena library show on the subject of folk music during the Cold War. I knew the peace songs I had grown up on—Strangest Dream, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall—but I had no idea there would literally be hundreds more—on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and that they would lead me to a broader understanding of the cultural response to the looming Mushroom Cloud that overshadowed our childhoods in the 1950s.
DON MCLEAN: THE FOLKWORKS INTERVIEW
I happened to be at a roadside coffee stand yesterday where the radio was tuned to K-Earth 101; they were taking a commercial break to promote the station, and were playing two brief song excerpts to do so. The first was the Rolling Stones Satisfaction and the second was Don McLean’s American Pie. That’s all—no Beatles, no Madonna, no Elvis, no Rod Stewart, no Chuck Berry, and no Dylan; just the Stones and Don McLean. After the sound samples concluded the announcer breaks in and delivers the tag line: The greatest songs on earth—K-Earth 101. He doesn’t even bother to identify the artists or the songs, that’s how universally well-known they are. The Stones I got; but Don McLean? And then I connected the dots.
Twenty-five years ago this June 4 something happened in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, that put the last nail in the coffin of any pretense China had towards a commitment to human rights. At the order of leader Deng Xiaoping their “Peoples Liberation Army” massacred 3,000 students who had peaceably assembled on behalf of democracy—the most dramatic clampdown on demonstrations for democratic freedom since Mao himself launched The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966.
While the Soviet Union crumbled, and the Berlin Wall tumbled, the democratic winds of change in 1989 were stopped at China’s border, and their spontaneous youth movement so reminiscent of Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s was set back a generation. The great photograph that told the whole story in a single frame was of a lone Chinese student standing in front of a phalanx of tanks—the individual refusing to be intimidated by the state.
But it was another image that caught my attention as a songwriter, published in the LA Weekly around May 20, shortly before the military crackdown on June 4. It showed a student holding up a sign emblazoned with the words We Shall Overcome. Wow, I thought to myself, all the way from the March on Washington to Tiananmen Square. Can a song change the world? This one clearly did. In response I wrote Tiananmen Square, as a tribute to the Chinese students today—and American students who died at Kent State demanding the same thing—democracy—and the quarter million people who marched on Washington to hear Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of freedom and justice.
The Music We Danced To, Part 2
It turned out I picked a good time for an unemployed artist to look for work—Democrat Jimmy Carter had instituted a modern version of the WPA—the Works Progress Administration—which during the Great Depression put artists to work across this great land, writers, photographers, painters and musicians being called into service by FDR to use their art in service to their country. It was this program that employed photographer Dorothea Lange to take pictures of migrant workers in migrant camps in California—the place where she took her most famous photograph—Migrant Mother—which became one of the symbols of the Great Depression. Novelist John Dos Passos was hired to write travel guides for different regions of America—and they became indelible portraits of a nation caught—as the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney so eloquently put it—between hope and history. And eventually Woody Guthrie was hired for 28 days by the Department of the Interior to go up to Washington State and write songs for the Bonneville Power Dam Administration—which became his classic Columbia River songs and were finally rediscovered twenty-five years later and released on Rounder Records.
The Music We Danced To
On New Year’s Day in 1986, I woke up to the news that Ricky Nelson’s plane had gone down the night before after a New Year’s Eve show and killed him and his entire band. The tenor of the story and obituary was that he was a has-been and former teenage idol. The LA Times’ curt dismissal of the singer whose 1959 hits Travelin’ Man and Hello Mary Lou were the first songs I ever sang in public so outraged me I sat down and wrote a song for him, called Yours Was the Music We Danced To. It was my first new song since returning to Los Angeles in 1980 with a major case of writer’s block and going into psychotherapy to deal with it.
The Centennial of Woody’s Greatest Song
Woody’s greatest song? Hmm…them’s fightin’ words. But note: I did not say most popular, or best known, or most singable, or most patriotic; for which we all know the answer. So let me make my case: this sad lament and angry outcry against what happened in Calumet, Michigan on Christmas Eve, 1913 is to my mind the most complete statement of what Woody Guthrie stood for as a songwriter and folk singer—the voice for those who could not speak for themselves—73 children murdered as a result of the greed and inhumanity of the copper mine owners who ran their lives.
It would not have fit in the program I just put on for Daniel Pearl World Music Days—presented as one of their “Harmony for Humanity” concerts; for Woody’s song strikes a discordant note in that theme; it’s a “Disharmony for Inhumanity” song if there ever was.
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IN THE BLUES
If you want to learn how to make a bomb there are a number of obscure web sites on the Internet; terrorists seem to know where they are, and The Southern Poverty Law Center who tracks hate groups, and I assume the NSA, does too. But if you want to learn how and when to beat your wife, you don’t have to traffic in dirt; just go to your nation’s proudest repository of classic folk music—the kind of music that is often found in books with titles like An American Treasury of Folk Music by Ben Botkin—or John and Alan Lomax. But there is a difference between reading it between the covers of a dusty old library book, and hearing it burst out of your stereo system from a brand new CD sent to you from Smithsonian Folkways Records, Washington, DC. It’s called Classic Harmonica Blues.
The collection was co-produced and annotated by Barry Lee Pearson and Jeff Place. Pearson offers an excellent history of the harmonica from its invention in Germany in 1821 to its refinement by Hohner in 1857 to its successful importing to America around the turn of the 20th Century and absorption by African-American blues musicians—who figured out on their own how to adapt its European formulas to the blues—by playing it backwards, or second position, or more popularly cross-harp, so as to be able to bend the notes and mold it to the human voice. The first performer to record in that style was Burl “Jaybird” Coleman from Alabama who recorded some twenty sides from 1927 to 1930.
The Concert for Bangladesh
August 1, 1971, George Harrison brought together an all-star cast at New York City’s largest venue, Madison Square Garden, for two shows that raised a quarter of a million dollars for the impoverished people of Bangladesh. It was the first major rock benefit concert and paved the way for Live Aid, Farm Aid, Hands Across America, Rock the Vote and a host of others. Harrison tried to reassemble the recently divorced Beatles for the show, but could only get Ringo Starr.
John Lennon begged off because he was living in the Virgin Islands at the time and did not want to commute; also he wasn’t pleased that Harrison did not invite Yoko to participate—only John.
Paul McCartney begged off because he was still bitter about the feuding that led to the split and did not want to leave London.
Paul Newman’s Greatest Scene
“You better kill me this time, Burt…you better have your goons go all the way with me; because if you just break my thumbs again, or my arms and legs, I’m going to wait until I’m all patched up and I’m going to come and find you and I’m going to kill you. Because if I just walk away then she never lived, and she never died; and we both know that isn’t true, don’t we Burt? She lived; she died. And I loved her, Burt; I loved her and I threw her away for a pool game.”
That was Fast Eddie Felson, played by Paul Newman, in his 1961 movie The Hustler, based on the novel by Walter Tevis. And it’s the greatest one-minute of film in his career; worthy of an Oscar all by itself, which of course he didn’t get. (George C. Scott played Burt.)
The Last Refuge of the Scoundrel
I attended a fundraiser for Progressive Magazine today at a local Westside private home enclave for the LA Left, an unofficial amalgam of media, electoral and grassroots political organizations that cater to a well-defined point of view represented most visibly by Nation Magazine and MSNBC. On Election Day they tend to vote Democratic, but on all other days of the year they fancy themselves to the far left of the political spectrum, of which Phil Ochs once memorably said, “In America there are many shades of political opinion; one of the shadiest of these is the liberal; two degrees left of center in good times, and ten degrees to the right if it affects them personally.” This by way of introducing his trenchant satire, Love Me, I’m a Liberal.
The Day the Music Died:
January 1, 1953
Before Buddy Holly, before Ritchie Valens, before the Big Bopper…there was Hank Williams. On New Year’s Day in 1953 the heart of country music was broken; the Shakespeare of Country Music died in the backseat of a powder blue Cadillac in Oak Hill, West Virginia on his way to a booking in Canton, Ohio. “Ol’ Hank” was just 29 years old when he died, the same age as English Romantic Poet Shelley when he drowned in the Gulf of Spezia.
But he had earned that nickname. “We’ll go Honky Tonkin’ round this town” wasn’t just a song; it was a way of life, and he lived it to the hilt until it made him old before his time and killed him. He died from the same lethal combination—prescription painkillers and alcohol—that got him unceremoniously kicked off the Grand Old Opry just a year before—the biggest star ever so disgraced. The pain Hank Williams became famous singing about wasn’t just psychological; he was born with Spina Bifada Occulta, which made him double over with sharp stabbing twinges of pain nearly every day of his star-crossed life.
The Oldest Living Hurricane Survivor Tells All
Author’s note: This is a work of fiction based on true events and real songs.
I faked my own death in 1997, at the age of 108; I had begun to be an embarrassment to my family as the oldest living survivor of the Johnstown Flood. Local media would trot me out on the anniversary every May 31, and I would be forced to relive the tawdry details then shuttled back to my studio apartment for another year of tedium. After my apparent demise I changed my name from Frank Shomo to Chester---(after President Arthur, who died soon before I was born) and lived happily and anonymously ever after.
Until now; my health is not what it used to be (I live on yogurt and green tea) but even so I can feel Time’s winged chariot nipping at my heels. So while I still have my faculties I want to get down some of these reminiscences for posterity. In all humility I have led a charmed life, the survivor of not one, not two, nor even three, but six major natural disasters—including Hurricane Sandy. I am sure that I must be a descendant of Noah.
Let me start at the beginning.
Back In the USSR
They may have won all the battles, but we had all the good songs.
—Tom Lehrer on the Spanish Civil War.
The judges have spoken: “morally reprehensible trash;” “openly Anti-Christian…nihilistic art;” “obscene and indecent…without artistic value…pornographic and shocking by any standards.” Was this their final verdict on the Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot, before sentencing them to two years in prison yesterday?
Not exactly: it wasn’t Russia, but America; it wasn’t yesterday, but 1987, 25 years ago; and it wasn’t Pussy Riot that elicited this condemnation, but artists Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, the photographer of the notorious Piss Christ. And it wasn’t Putin’s government that was offended, but Reagan’s, who with Senator Jesse Helms and House leader Dick Armey did everything in their power to defund the NEA for providing piddling (pun intended) grants of $15,000 to a number of avant-garde artists who offended mainstream sensibilities, including the Pussy Riot of their time performance artists Karen Finley and Annie Sprinkle.
Cotten Picking GOOD
She taught herself to play guitar when she was 12 years old, a guitar she had earned with wages of 75 cents a month cleaning a white woman’s home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; when she had been working for the better part of a year she got a raise—to a dollar a month.
She sent the money home to her mother who asked her what she wanted for her birthday; “a guitar, mama,” she replied; so her mother went to the music store in town and found the guitar her daughter had her eye on all that time. The storeowner sold it to her for $3.75, and she went home and started practicing all day and well into the evening, “much to my mother’s sorrow,” she would later say.
I Hate a Song…
When my Editor/Publisher Steve Shapiro suggested I write a column on protest songs of course my first response was to ask, “You mean to tell me I haven’t already?” To my surprise and embarrassment he assured me that I had not, and he thought it was high time. So here goes…and it is dedicated to Steve and Leda
Misogynistic, racist, homophobic, these are just a few of the adjectives that come to mind when I think of—Fox News? No; The Tea Party? No again; try traditional folk songs—like When I Was Single, The Days of ’49 and The Lavender Cowboy. There are also anti-Philipino soldier songs, anti-Semitic songs from the Southern Mountains, and many songs celebrating the destruction of the environment (Once More a Lumbering Go) and various forms of wildlife (Buffalo Skinners and Blow Ye Winds In the Morning). And these are just a few of the songs collected by John and Alan Lomax, America’s premiere ballad hunters.
“I hate a song,” wrote Woody Guthrie, “that makes you think you are not any good; I hate a song that makes you think you are just born to lose, bound to lose, no good for nothing and no good to nobody, because you are either too old or too young, too fat or too slim, too ugly or too this or too that; songs that poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I’m out to fight those kinds of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I’m out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work…”
Ice Age Survivor Coming to McCabe’s?
Tyrannosaurus Pax, better known as T. Pax, may soon be sighted along the Pico corridor in Santa Monica lumbering towards McCabe’s Guitar Shop, where he is rumored to star in a Cretaceous Age Exhibition at the end of March. Emanating from a distant Eastern village known as Greenwich, where in the early 1960s it reigned supreme with its close cousins B. Dylan, P. Ochs and D. Van Ronk, T. Pax somehow managed to evade the encroaching ice formations of Disco, Heavy Metal and Glam Rock that cut down the peaceful easy singer-songwriters of the 70s.
Half a century later, almost alone amongst its mostly extinct brethren, the cumbersome T. Pax continues to amaze audiences with its ancient birdlike brilliance that towers over more modern creatures only able to reach above its bony webbed claws and spindly legs.
With just another throwback to an earlier age, the nearly extinct all-wooden instrument known as Acousticus Guitarus for accompaniment, T. Pax stands like the sentinel meerkat before a single microphone and gurgles its tuneful news reports to the local citizenry, sounding for all the world like the Town Crier of the Middle Ages.
Sometimes referred to as a wandering minstrel, stone-age troubadour, folk singer or worse, the bald-headed (disguised for many years by a tell-tale Greek fisherman’s cap) T. Pax has a hatful of songs and social commentary to rile the somnambulant, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Still Scandalizing Paul Robeson’s Name
The sorriest chapter in the long sad history of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was those black artists and athletes who denounced Paul Robeson in order to save themselves from further scrutiny, and thereby contributed to HUAC’s organized campaign to destroy America’s voice of a century and civil rights pioneer and make him a non-person in his own land. By and large they succeeded: Robeson’s books (such as his autobiography Here I Stand) were taken off the shelves; his records (such as Ballad for Americans) were nowhere to be found; his concert dates (such as Carnegie Hall) were summarily cancelled; his films (such as The Emperor Jones of Eugene O’Neill’s play) were removed from theatres. Moreover, his name was struck from the official records of the All-American football teams of 1917 and 1918. And shortly after their testimony his annual income plummeted from $104,000 in 1947 to $2,000 in 1950.
All the while, folk and blues singer and informer Josh White’s career thrived; and Dodger third baseman and informer Jackie Robinson became an American hero. They climbed to the top on the back of an artist whose shoes they were not fit to carry, let alone fill.
Prophets of 1989:
What Did Neil Young and Tom Petty Know
That the CIA Didn’t?
Five weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, Neil Young released his landmark album Freedom, book-ended by acoustic and electric versions of Rockin’ In the Free World. On its face it was a thinly veiled diatribe against the cliché’s and hypocrisy of the George H.W. Bush administration, contrasting his “thousand points of light” with a homeless man for whom they were invisible, and his “kinder, gentler America” with machine guns used to enforce it.
But the real enemy of freedom lay deeper and just around a bend in the road: only to become visible a month later, as on November 9 the Berlin Wall caved in to the demands of the German people who had been trapped inside since it was erected in August of 1961, fifty years ago this year.
Lynching on the
Maryland Courthouse Lawn
Part 2 of the Polly Stewart Interview
RA: Well, let me resume this conversation with the other subject of your research that grabbed my attention and that’s a book that you were a part of called “Out on the Courthouse Lawn.” Refresh my mind as to the subtitle of it?
PS: Well, I’ve got it right here. The title is “On the Courthouse Lawn – Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century” by Sherrilyn Ifill.
RA: Well, that seems to be a pretty far stretch from being interested in itinerant folksingers except for the fact of a song that Time Magazine voted the best song of the 20th century being about lynching, which was, of course, the song that Billie Holiday sang, Strange Fruit. But you had a very local interest in that subject and that’s how she came to interview you for this book, because you had actually become aware of lynchings that had taken place right near where you were teaching on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. So I wonder if you could spend a few minutes going back in terms of what first brought your attention to that part of our history and how you came to want to study it in a way that eventually put you in the real line of fire . . .
PS: Dog house.
Folk Revival in Salt Lake City?
Folklorist Polly Stewart talks about
Utah Phillips and Rosalie Sorrels
photo by John Schaefer
I’m here with folklorist Polly Stewart at USC during the Western States Folklore Conference – on April 15, 2011. I’ve asked Professor Stewart to talk to me about a paper she will be presenting at the conference entitled “Itinerant Folksingers and Other Communist Threats on Chief Skousen’s Watch, Salt Lake City, Utah 1956-1960.” Well, you see a title like that in an otherwise innocuous looking program schedule and you just naturally find yourself getting curious as to what lay behind this paper. After all, there is a well-traveled narrative of the Folk Revival that starts back east in Greenwich Village with Bob Dylan and in Cambridge with Joan Baez, yet here we have a folklorist who found herself in the middle of a very different Folk Revival in Salt Lake City. Let me just start off with a couple background questions before we get into the subject of your paper. You are now a retired professor of English from Salisbury.
The Bread and Roses Centennial: 2011
As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!
As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.
As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.
As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days,
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses.
--James Oppenheim (December, 1911 The American Magazine)
Triangle: The Fire Last Time
The Sidewalks of New York, Give My Regards to Broadway, New York State of Mind, New York, New York—the city that never sleeps has inspired more popular songs than any other this side of Paris. They all have one thing in common; they booster the Big Apple, and would never run afoul of the Chamber of Commerce. But folk singers, as we know, march to a different drum, and I come for to sing a different song, a song with social significance. Written by Jewish-Canadian folklorist Ruth Rubin in 1968, it tells a story that the Chamber of Commerce would prefer to forget—Ballad of the Triangle Fire.
The event it describes took place in New York’s Greenwich Village, famous as a home for bohemians of every stripe, a block away from Washington Square Park. The park has a storied past; in the early 1960s one would hear folk singers of every description holding forth on a Sunday afternoon—including a disheveled Woody Guthrie in the throes of Huntington’s Chorea, who had penned the classic labor anthem Union Maid back in 1940: Oh you can’t scare me/I’m sticking to the union/…till the day I die.
Ham on Ry
Cooder (w/o Guitar) Steals Show
“I’d say he’s so good he doesn’t have to prove it,” said John Wayne of Rick Nelson’s young gunslinger “Colorado” in Howard Hawks’ masterpiece Rio Bravo—the one gunfighter who is not looking for a showdown, until it comes looking for him. That’s how good a guitarist Ry Cooder is—at number 8 on Rolling Stone’s list of the100 All Time Greatest Guitarists, he doesn’t have to prove it. And try as I could and did I was not able to get a guitar in his hands the other night at a private party convened to celebrate the birthday of a touring jazz musician from Cuba. But listening to Ry was still more entertaining than anything coming out of the piano or vocal boom box of the guest basso profundo he accompanied.
The John Lomax Cowboy Songs Centennial
This essay is dedicated with love to Marjorie Meghrig, founder of Bloomsbury Book and Art Gallery in Los Angeles, who in 1980 gave me a rare book by John Lomax, thinking I might need it one day. She also produced my first concert here-at Bloomsbury. Without realizing it, she started me on a two-fold path as performer and writer.
When did the 20th Century folk revival begin? Baby Boomers argue that it began in 1963, at the Newport Folk Festival, when a young Bob Dylan (who turned 69 on May 24) performed Blowing in the Wind with Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and the Mississippi Freedom Singers on closing night, a moment captured by Vanguard Records and released in their Newport Folk Festival series.
Who Wrote Dylan?
Joni Mitchell's charge in a recent interview with the LA Times that Bob Dylan is "a fake and a plagiarist" casts a long shadow over his claim to have written many of the greatest songs of our generation. Principle among them is Joni's reminder that Bob Dylan is not really Bob Dylan; he was born "Robert Zimmerman" to a middle-class Jewish family in Duluth, Minnesota and raised in the small town of Hibbing on the northern iron range, far from the finer schools in New York, Boston and Chicago, where someone might have reasonably acquired the kind of education implied by such masterpieces as Blowing In the Wind, The Times They Are A-Changing and Like A Rolling Stone.
We now know that Dylan's later work, written under the full glare of world-wide fame, and thus indisputably his own, bears no resemblanceto the early songs which seem to have sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus himself.
Sarah Palin's Eureka Moment
Sarah Palin's long-anticipated $75,000 speech at Cal State University at Stanislaus is now in the bank; and yielded a $200,000 payday for the university, over and above the check they gave her for appearing. The only news it made in terms of the mainstream media was her gaffe in claiming that Ronald Reagan was a Californian native son, in that he had attended Eureka College in California. No wonder he was so popular here, she added, and became our governor before becoming president.
A De-fanged Woody Guthrie Becomes American Masters
I finally caught up with the American Masters' tribute to Woody Guthrie, made in 2006 and just rebroadcast on the small PBS educational outlet KLCS (the LC for "Learning Channel"). So what did I learn?
The ultimate outsider has now become so much a part of the American iconography machine that it almost makes one wonder what all the fuss was about. With Bruce Springsteen heading a cast of hi-placed hagiographers, from Time Magazine's Joe Klein (author of Woody Guthrie: A Life), to a kinder, gentler Pete Seeger than the one who told HUAC to go to hell, to Smithsonian Folkways' bearded archivist Jeff Place, to Woody's Praetorian Guard daughter Nora Guthrie, it became clear that in this sanitized Americana portrait of a take-no-prisoners, no-holds-barred radical American artist, all of the controversies that made his hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma refuse to honor or memorialize him in any way were safely nestled in a distant, dusty past-long burned-out coals that had been raked over so many times there was no danger of picking one up and finding that its still-smoldering underside had burned your fingers to a crisp.
Patti Smith's Magical History Tour
The day President Barack Obama gave his State of the Union Address to Congress, historian Howard Zinn dropped dead of a heart attack in The People's Republic of Santa Monica. I'm not sure what line of the address it was that pushed Zinn over the edge into eternity-perhaps the litany of tax cuts Obama stressed to appeal to the Republicans in the audience, or his proud defense of our escalating war in Afghanistan, or the near total neglect of his once-vaunted Health Care Reform package that now seems to be DOA.
Notes On a Decade Ready for the Dustbin
Author's note: The title comes from an essay by Carl Oglesby on the 1960s.
On September 11, 2001, Bob Dylan released his new album, Love and Theft. Needless to add, it wasn't the most earth-shaking news of the day. But ten years after, it was the only one of Dylan's albums released since 9-11 that made Billboard's recent list of the best-selling albums of the decade. Like that infamous date itself, the album that led off with his acerbic comment on American politics-Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee-had staying power.
Johnny Cash's List,
Topflight rock musicians Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy and-hang onto your cowboy hats, buckaroos-Rufus Wainwright all take turns as Rosanne Cash's sidekick on her just-released return to the thrilling days of yesteryear in country music, but I'm not convinced they know how to ride this particular horse.
Folk Music and the Culture War
I was born about ten thousand years ago, sings Doc Watson; there ain't nothin' in this world that I don't know / I saw Old King Pharaoh's daughter / Find little Moses on the water / And I can lick the man who says it isn't so.
An astonishing 46% of the American people believe that's when the world was created-just like the song says. Evolution? Forget about it! The only time evolution comes up in traditional music is to poke fun at it: Evolution mama-don't you make a monkey out of me, sings an old-time string band from the 1920s, inspired by the 1927 "Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tennessee, when Clarence Darrow defended high school biology teacher John T. Scopes' right to teach Darwin's theory of natural selection in his class. (Despite Darrow's memorable cross-examination of opposing counsel and Bible-thumping former presidential candidate William Jennings Brian, he lost the case. Nearly eighty years later there were still cities (including in California) trying to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools.)
Abbott and Costello at Woodstock
Costello: Hey Abbott!
Abbott: Hi Lou!
Costello:Where are the Rolling Stones?
Abbott: They weren't invited.
Costello: How about the Beatles?
Abbott: John Lennon couldn't get them to give peace another chance.
Costello: Is Dylan coming?
Costello: Then who's on first?
Abbott: That's right.
Between 1965 and 1969 America gave over 100,000 draft dodgers, war resistors and general malcontents to Canada, seeking refuge and sanctuary from the empire. In exchange Canada sent us Neil Young, Ian and Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, seeking fame and fortune. I think America got the better of the deal. The first five artists, as identifiably individual as they are, are in some fashion of a piece: They are first and foremost musicians, secondarily singer-songwriters and have all created a catalogue of songs over the past forty years that are recognizably modern in their themes and variously connected to folk, country and rock traditions.
BOB DOES PEPSI: THE SURREAL THING
I got the following email from one of my column'scorrespondents, pedal steel guitarist Mike Perlowin, with a one-line subject:It's Over; The World Has Come to an End. The reason for Armageddon is inthe one-line text of message: "Bob Dylan appears in the new Pepsi commercial!"There was no Aesop's Fable moral at the bottom, but it was clear enough withoutit: Bob Dylan has sold out (again).
Odetta and Obama
One of America's great folk singers passed away last week, perhaps the only American folk singer known simply by her first name-Odetta. Known to millions as "the voice of the civil rights movement," she was trying her hardest to make it to next January 20, when she was scheduled to sing at Barack Obama's Inauguration. But her kidneys failed a month ago, when she was admitted to a hospital in New York for congestive heart failure, and dialysis could not spare her life long enough to fulfill her one last dream-to bring the voice that had inspired Bob Dylan to take up folk singing to the inauguration of the first black president in U.S. history. Whoever winds up taking her place will not be able to fill her shoes-let alone her breathtaking voice.
Ten Songs That Shook the World, Part 2
Author's note: Ten Songs That Shook the World was originally published under the title, This Machine Kills Fascists: the Stories Behind Ten of America's Greatest Protest Songs. It was published in 1994, in volume 51, number 2 of the journal, The Guild Practitioner, by the National Lawyer's Guild, and edited by Jan Goodman. Ross Altman and FolkWorks are grateful for permission to republish the essay.
Ten Songs That Shook the World, Part 1
Author's note: Ten Songs That Shook the World was originally published under the title, This Machine Kills Fascists: the Stories Behind Ten of America's Greatest Protest Songs. It was published in 1994, in volume 51, number 2 of the journal, The Guild Practitioner, by the National Lawyer's Guild, and edited by Jan Goodman. Ross Altman and FolkWorks are grateful for permission to republish the essay.
During World War II, the workers at California defense plants used to hang signs on the machines in their shops: "This Machine Kills Fascists." Even though they were not flying the planes and shouldering the rifles themselves, they felt like they were an essential part of the war effort, as indeed they were, and their signs said so.
A Korean War veteran turned pacifist, a non-voter who ran for US Senate, a songwriter who turned down Johnny Cash when he called for permission to record his songs, and the greatest American storyteller since Mark Twain, Utah Phillips was Kris Kristofferson's description of Cash: A walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.
That's the year I first saw him perform, at Café Lena in Saratoga Springs, along with his performing partner at the time, Rosalie Sorrels. They made quite a pair in concert, each introducing the other, and each combining songs they had both written and picked up along the way with stories that lifted you out of your seat with laughter. I started learning Utah's songs right then and there, and have been singing them ever since.
A Treasury of American Fauxlk Songs
He drew a circle that shut me out
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout
But love and I had the wit to win
We drew a circle that took him in.
Michael Cooney said it first and said it best, "If you know who wrote it, it's not a folk song." But he goes on to say that just because you don't know who wrote it doesn't mean it's a folk song-you may not have done enough research. Recent commentators in the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club newsletter-The Cat and Banjo- have made a number of invidious comparisons between real folk songs, i.e. traditional songs the author of whom is anonymous, and modern "singer-songwriter songs" that are mistakenly referred to as "modern folk songs."
Paul Robeson and the Jews
A uniquely American artist, born the son of a freed slave near the turn of the 20th Century, Paul Robeson was for many years a man without a country. The combined forces of the Department of State, the House Committee on un-American Activities and the FBI had succeeded in nearly erasing our already feeble historical memory of the singer many considered "the Voice of the Century." But in the end, to borrow Faulkner's words in Stockholm in 1950, Robeson did not merely endure: he prevailed.
The Ash Grove Turns 50
Fifty years ago, the major leagues moved to Los Angeles. Under the auspices of a visionary owner, who ignored the well-meaning advice of every practical mind that said it couldn’t be done, some of this club’s greatest players became hometown heroes, and LA became the center of a big league renaissance. No longer just the province of New York’s boroughs, LA could now hold its head up high and shout from the rooftops, We don’t have to wait ‘til next year—here comes…The Ash Grove.
The Salon Des Refuses
In 1863, the same year Lincoln freed the slaves, Bonaparte's nephew, the Emperor Napoleon the III freed the artists in Paris from the tyranny of the Academy Francais. After receiving many complaints from both the artists and the public that the official French Salon had refused to exhibit paintings that did not conform to Academy rules of acceptable art, Napoleon went down to take a look for himself. That's when he saw for the first time the early paintings of Renoir, Degas, Pissaro, Cezanne and Manet.
Phil Ochs' Greatest Song
Phil Ochs was composing The Power and The Glory at his sister Sonny Ochs home in Far Rockaway, New York in 1963, when his sister came into his room and asked him what he was doing. He announced in no uncertain terms, "I've just written my greatest song." She asked him what it was titled. Phil replied, "I don't know yet-I haven't written the words."
You would never have heard that answer from any other protest singer-not Woody Guthrie, not the early Bob Dylan, not Joe Hill, and certainly not from any of the so-called modern inheritors of Phil Ochs songwriting legacy-names withheld to protect the talent-challenged.
Bob Westbrook: The Life and Death of a Troubadour
Beat the drum slowly, play the fife lowly, play the death march as you carry me along; put bunches of roses all over my coffin, roses to deaden the clods as they fall. The man who was singing that cowboy classic, Streets of Laredo, was no cowboy, singing or otherwise. He was a city kid, born and raised on the streets of Hollywood, son of the legendary WW II flying ace Bob "Westy" Westbrook, a man who lived the life that Errol Flynn portrayed on the silver screen.
But put a guitar in Bob Westbrook Jr.'s hands and you would swear he had learned it on the Chisholm Trail. Bob knew about death better than anyone should have to, after losing his father at the age of five and his mother at the age of twelve. Like the character in perhaps the greatest cowboy song of all, Bob could say as if it were his own life, "Once in the saddle I used to go dashing, once in the saddle I used to go gay; first down to Rosie's then down to the card house, got shot in the breast and I'm dying today." Bob was dying too, and he knew it, of emphysema-for which there was no cure except a new lung. So Bob got on a transplant list and waited his turn. Death had other plans.
Advice to Bob Dylan
The greatest American songwriter of the 1960s met the greatest American songwriter of the 1930s when he was a tousle-haired 20 year-old kid from Hibbing, Minnesota who still, in Joan Baez's words, had his baby fat. Woody Guthrie, in Dylan's as yet unwritten immortal words, was busy dying (of Huntington's Chorea), while Dylan was busy being born. Dylan came for inspiration and Guthrie, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, offered him the best advice he could.
To have been a fly on the wall in Woody's room in Greystone Hospital in New Jersey, with Dylan playing Woody's songs back to him "like a Woody Guthrie jukebox," as Dylan would later describe himself at that age, would have been like seeing Socrates talk to a young Plato, like Dr. Samuel Johnson meeting Boswell for the first time, like Wordsworth meeting Keats, or Emerson meeting Thoreau-a moment to remember.
Did Woody tell Bob how important it was to come up with a good hook for a song-both melodic and lyrical? Did he pass on the wisdom he had adapted from the French Impressionists: All you can write is what you see? Did he tell him to throw out his first draft?
The Hunger Artist
Franz Kafka’s darkest fantasy it turns out was no fantasy at all. His painful allegorical self-portrait, The Hunger Artist, one who starves himself for the amusement of onlookers, is in fact based on real freak show circus performers of the time in Prague who offered themselves up as masochistic subjects for the crowd of sadists who paid to watch them suffer.
Hey, Mr. Manilow,
Don't Play a Song For Me
Barry Manilow and the 1960s. T-t-t-talkin’ bout my g-g-g-generation. Is it a perspective by incongruity, critic Kenneth Burke’s term for shedding light on one realm of experience by reference to a deliberately incongruous point of view, like “the war between the sexes,