January-February 2021

ODE TO DEMOCRACY:

A CAUTIONARY TALE

By Ross Altman, PhD

democracyEpigraph: “We think that anybody who’s committed to democracy is a radical now, because democracy is a radical idea here.”—Carl Oglesby--1965

Like Mozart’s Requiem, thank God Democracy has outlived the death of its composer. Or as Mark Twain said, “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Or W.H. Auden in “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” “The death of the poet was kept from his poems.” And finally, Will Rogers, “I’m a member of no organized political party; I’m a Democrat.”

In sum, my previous column, Requiem for Democracy In Memoriam Linda Huf, PhD, June 17, 1943—July 7, 2020, was premature. And thus a new column was born; here it is:

ODE TO DEMOCRACY: A CAUTIONARY TALE, and it takes me back to 1962—and the birth of SDS—Students for a Democratic Society.

SDS was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Al Haber and Tom Hayden came up with the radical idea of “Participatory Democracy.” Tom Hayden drafted SDS’ founding document The Port Huron Statement in 1962. They were community organizers, and they both believed in one simple idea—that ordinary people should make the decisions which affect their lives: “Let the People Decide.” I have been living by that principle ever since. It was a long time coming, but in 2008 we finally got a community organizer in the White House—Barack Obama. His Vice President Joe Biden just won the election and will be heading for the White House on January 20. How wonderful is that? Well, we’ve seen the alternative these last four years.

Carl Oglesby was president the year Mike Davis recruited me to join SDS at UCLA—1965. No sooner had I agreed to join than Mike told me I was president because he had to go and run the regional office downtown near USC—in for a dime—in for a dollar. That’s how I wound up going to the National Conference in Clear Lake, Iowa, where I heard Carl give the speech that opened my eyes to the real meaning of democracy—and made me more than simply a passive believer. Because he showed me what it meant—and didn’t just tell me. There was considerable pressure on him to stay on as president—even though it was supposed to be a one-year term.

Just as we were about to vote, Carl suddenly jumped up on an unoccupied table in the dining room and started to give his final talk as our president; he reached back to the founding of our Republic to put this in proper historical perspective: “George Washington was offered to be made ‘President for Life,’ after serving two terms. His farewell address to the country said that while he was honored by the gesture and sentiment it expressed, we had just fought a revolution to get rid of one king, and didn’t need to install another. With that he went back home to Mt. Vernon, Virginia.” That was Carl’s farewell to us, and to see him walk away from power made me respect him even more, and fall in love with history to understand the present in light of the past. As William Faulkner said in his 1948 Nobel Prize speech: “The past isn’t dead—it isn’t even past.”

Well, Democracy has withstood not only the test of time, but the test of an authoritarian, would be-dictator who has filed more than 50 lawsuits across the country to overturn the results of an election that he lost “fair and square” in John Prine’s words, including the Supreme Court’s most recent unanimous rejection of a lawsuit that would have used Texas to overturn four key battleground states that the outgoing president lost—Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—to prevent their electors from filing the actual election results in the Electoral College. But the Supreme Court—including Amy Coney Barrett who was supposed to guarantee the president would get the results he paid for—unanimously turned him down. And that’s how Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was forced to declare yesterday that “The Electoral College has spoken.” And Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had finally been declared the election winners.

President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris will enter the White House on January 20, 2021. Don’t expect the former president to concede before then. But Democracy will prevail.

Leonard Cohen was right—Democracy Is Coming to the USA! I’ve never been so happy to be so wrong.

This was his one cheerful song—but it was worth all his downbeat songs, Anthem: “There’s a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in;” and The Future “I’ve seen the future, brother, it’s murder,” Leonard Cohen was so isolated not even Hank Williams would talk to him in Tower of Song:

I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?

Hank Williams hasn't answered yet

But I hear him coughing all night long

A hundred floors above me

And so on: “Music to commit suicide to,” as someone once said—but not in Democracy.

Democracy is coming to the U.S.A. (Leonard Cohen)

Democracy

It's coming through a hole in the air,

from those nights in Tiananmen Square.

It's coming from the feel

that this ain't exactly real,

or it's real, but it ain't exactly there.

From the wars against disorder,

from the sirens night and day,

from the fires of the homeless,

from the ashes of the gay:

Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Speaking of Democracy, as I mentioned in my Dedication to my Requiem, “Dedicated to Ludwig van Beethoven, “The first great democrat of music,” born 250 years ago, December 16. 1770.”

Well, guess what, today is December 16, Beethoven’s 250th Birthday, and I have been listening to KUSC’s (91.5 FM) All-Beethoven Birthday program. I’m now in the middle of the 9th Symphony—and it’s been glorious—all day long. They have just started the magnificent closing Ode to Joy chorale. The voices just entered the music—they’re incandescent. And he was deaf when he wrote it! I also got to watch it on KCET on Southland Sessions, played by the Pacific Symphony.

The poem was written by German poet, playwright and historian Friedrich Schiller in 1785. It’s a celebration of the brotherhood of man. There is some speculation that it was originally conceived as “Ode to Freedom,”—which inspired Beethoven—and then was changed to “Ode to Joy.” By then Beethoven had already adapted it into his Symphony. (Wikipedia)

Over the years, Beethoven's Ode to Joy (the fourth and final movement of the 9th Symphony) has remained both a protest anthem and a celebration of music. Workers and students in Chile sang it during demonstrations against the Pinochet dictatorship in 1973, and Chinese students broadcast it at Tiananmen Square in 1989. It was conducted by Leonard Bernstein on Christmas Day after the fall of the Berlin Wall replacing "Freude" (joy) with "Freiheit" (freedom). (Wikipedia) Those who heard it where only six weeks before the Wall had stood were moved to tears of joy, for they understood the significance of Bernstein’s one-time word change.

The 9th Symphony had its premiere performance on May 7, 1824 in Vienna. Beethoven had not appeared in public in twelve years, so the theatre was packed to the rafters. After the symphony was over Beethoven kept on conducting because he couldn’t hear that the music had ended. One of his assistants had to help him off the stage and then make it clear to the maestro that the audience was cheering him effusively. Only then—when Beethoven realized that they were not disappointed—was he satisfied that he hadn’t failed. In fact he had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. The 9th Symphony is now considered one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. (Wikipedia) Having just listened to it I can see why. It is transcendent.

In that same Requiem for Democracy, I also asked, “Where is Pete’s banjo now, when we need it more than ever?” Well, guess what again, it’s right here, for Pete played Ode to Joy on his banjo!

The words to Pete Seeger’s version go like this:

Pete Seeger playing Russian Song / Ode to Joy

Build the road of peace before us

Build it wide and deep and long

Speed the slow, remind the eager

Help the weak and guide the strong

None shall push aside another

None shall let another fall

Work beside me sisters and brothers

All for one and one for all

Album: Pete Song: Russian Song / Ode to Joy

Pete played it on his long-neck banjo, fretted two steps down so you can play a combination of Seeger-style, frailing, and hammering on in Pete’s distinctive “C” position—and still sing in Bb. It’s worth learning if only for this one song—because after all the music was composed by Beethoven. It’s one of Pete’s finest banjo pieces. The music is transcribed in the 2nd People’s Songbook—Lift Every Voice (Jan 1, 1964 edition)

This is Pete Seeger’s Ode to Democracy.

And finally, I asked in Requiem for Democracy, “where is Woody’s old Gibson guitar, where he stenciled on his manifesto, This Machine Kills Fascists—my requiem for democracy—unless you vote on Nov. 3rd!”

Well, it turns out you did vote on November 3rd, in mighty numbers all across this great land of ours, and when all your votes were counted, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the election! So here is Woody’s old Gibson guitar, or at least the part that matters:

Then at the very end I happened to mention, “As Ben Franklin replied when asked “What have you given us?” upon the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention at Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 1787—that led up to that first election of George Washington in 1789—“A Republic—if you can keep it!”

Well, thanks to Ben Franklin, Carl Oglesby, Leonard Cohen, Beethoven, Pete and Woody, you voted and we kept it—so thank you and Happy New Year!

Linda Huf, PhD wrote A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman: The Writer as Heroine in American Literature, published by Frederick Ungar Publishing, New York in 1983—and still in print. Her manuscript Andy’s Shoes: An Auschwitz Survivor’s Story, co-written with Andy (Abraham) Nord, awaits publication; as does her novel Lily Whimple; cf. Legacy.com for her complete obituary. Rabbi Marx’s service was entitled Linda Huf’s Unfinished Song. It is now on FolkWorks front page. With thanks to my recording engineer Scott Fraser for sending me the Woody Guthrie pencils.

Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton (1973); belongs to Local 47 (AFM); heads the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club (now on Zoom); and writes for FolkWorks. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

  

All Columns by Ross Altman