At Corazón Performing Arts in Topanga

Friday September 28, 2018, 9:00—11:00 PM

WHAT'S Past Is Prologue

By Ross Altman, PhD

David RovicsWhat’s past is prologue, says Antonio in The Tempest, implying history foreshadows the present and so the future. Hegel later observed that it also repeats itself, and Marx then commented, “Yes, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” However you want to see and interpret it, history has always appealed to novelists, essayists, poets and songwriters to say things from a distance that will resonate with their own audiences. Witness I, Claudius, by Robert Graves, Homage to Daniel Shays by Gore Vidal, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, by Longfellow, and To Helen, by Poe, for “The glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome.”

Put activist, anarchist, and singer-songwriter extraordinaire David Rovics in that company, for he has told many such stories from times past that provide a window into contemporary America. He brought his new show, The Musical History Tour—playing off the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour—into Topanga’s Corazón Performing Arts last Friday, September 28, 2018.

His two-hour show lived up to its name, taking us back to 1492 with irreverent historical/topical ballads that celebrate the outcasts, refugees (including his own great grandparents from Russia), rebels with causes and grassroots heroes who have stood up for human rights. He has a special regard for Palestinians struggling to create their own state against Israel. As a Jew he speaks with unique authority on their behalf—an unorthodox champion of the very people Israel declares to be its enemy. His song about massacres of civilians and children in occupied Gaza elicited the strongest response of the night from the audience you might expect to be laid back. They were anything but. Other songs stand up for civil rights and civil liberties, including a free speech anthem that got the IWW arrested in one of their many free speech campaigns. But he started on a more personal note, with a brand new song about being thrown out of the Louden Nelson Community Center in Santa Cruz where Rovics was scheduled to do a concert. This was the first time in his life he was ever thrown out of anywhere—despite his radical politics and confrontational songwriting. We think of Santa Cruz (for UCSC) as a friendly bohemian enclave but Rovics discovered its grim underbelly and systematic attacks on five small groups of homeless people. He was thrown out for staying in one chair for sixteen minutes when the limit was fifteen. To David it was a songwriting opportunity he couldn’t resist—police harassment of the most unexpected kind. Because of David Santa Cruz will be remembered—but not fondly and not the way it wants to be.

With that as his show opener from the realm of living history he took us on an extraordinary journey through both the American and European past that made each event come alive as if you were there in present time. You could almost hear Ed Murrow introduce every song with, “You are there.” One went back to 1831—the first time the red flag was ever raised—in Merthyr, Wales, one of the towns in Pete Seeger’s The Bells of Rhymney with words by Idris Davies, a friend of Dylan Thomas. Another took place a hundred years ago on September 28, 1919 with the Palmer Raids. Rovics’ genius is in finding one riveting human story to tell that embodies and symbolizes the entire event, battle or confrontation he wants to dramatize. Specificity is the hallmark of his song stories—the particular that reveals the universal—“To see a world in a grain of sand,” in Blake’s wonderful phrase.

That and the raw passion of his performances take on any number of shifting narrators and dramatis personae who come alive with smoldering ferocity recreate history in the present tense. David Rovics is a genuine American master storyteller and singer-songwriter who makes you feel what you are seeing and hearing. It was a bravura performance—even when he broke an A string near the end of a song about the St. Patrick battalion of Irish volunteers who fought for Mexico during the Alamo in 1836—a story you’ll never hear from Disney or in any high school in Texas. It took him two minutes to change the string—which he punctuated with a hilarious anecdote about the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune that attend a touring artist’s life. Like Josh White he quickly got the string wound up tight and retuned his vintage dreadnaught acoustic guitar—with a pick guard that was starting to show traces of Willie Nelson’s famed Trigger in the surrounding wood he had long since played through. Rovics is a great showman and entertainer as well as a great artist. And make no mistake about it, he is also a great guitarist—with both hard-driving hammering-on flat-pick styles and the most delicate complex finger-style arrangements along the entire fret-board on songs that are more quiet and reflective in mood. He is what Harry Chapin once called a “six-string symphony.”

Rovics is the answer to what the venerable Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse once critiqued as a One-Dimensional Man—there is humor as well as anger in his musical palette, including both children’s songs and two of the most exquisite love songs I have heard. The emotional range of his music finally even embraces the inspirational Magical Mystery Tour. His children’s song uses a child’s confrontation with bullies as a parable for the inequities in C. Wright Mills’ Power Elite that run the world of adults too. It was truly magical. My friend Veteran for Peace organizer Kathleen Hernandez requested his song 1492, and couldn’t stop cheering for his unorthodox portrait of Columbus and its quiet, determined optimism at the end—“Keep going forward…forward…forward…not one step back!” The audience—about fifty enthusiastic people packing the extraordinarily beautiful room at Corazón—with warm-hued rugs used as wall-hangings to highlight the stage, and an amazing gaily bedecked couch off to the side with Persian pillows piled high for comfort—all assembled and designed by owner Giovanna Brandi. She requested the love song Nothing’s Changed for Me during the second set—a song he wrote “for my broken heart.” Then he added A Kiss Behind the Barricades, uniting the personal and political. The lighting and sound were both wonderful—a beautiful performance space in a room devoted to art both visual and aural. It was everything you imagine what Rovics called “This lovely hamlet” Topanga to be— haloed place America’s Ur-folk singer once called home—“Woody’s shack” he called it, and it remains just as Guthrie left it in the front yard of Theatricum Botanicum, the garden theatre Will Geer and Herta Ware created in the 1940s.

And speaking of history, the night of Rovics’ concert was also the day after the historic confrontation in the Senate chambers between the president’s Supreme Court nominee and his accuser—Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Her name never came up in Rovics’ concert, nor did the current White House occupant, but Rovics’ sympathies are vividly demonstrated in the songs The Failed States of America, which rhymes Make America Great with Failed State, and The Man Who Burned the White House Down. He was British general Robert Ross, and the date was August 25, 1814—and it wasn’t only the White House he burned to the ground, but the Supreme Court and the Congress as well. Rovics looks at contemporary struggles through the prism of an event that captures Kenneth Burke’s Attitudes Toward History. Rovics’ concert flyer headline is WHITE HOUSE TORCHED—speaking for the secret hopes of many in the audience as well—and suggesting why the study of history can be so contentious; the prologue to his encore: Burn It Down!

His comic masterpiece is I’m a Better Anarchist Than You, a not-so-subtle dig at those who continue to one-up their fellow activists with every kind of self-promoting superiority regarding the difference between vegetarians and vegans, and even some acquaintances in Belgium who refused to allow mules to be used on a peace march caravan because the mules would be abused by being used for what they were bred for. Rovics, of course, took the side of the mules, but couldn’t avoid seeing the other side as well—which led to his tongue-in-cheek song. That sense of what Keats called “Negative Capability,” the ability to identify with sensibilities not your own, and to hold two opposing ideas in your mind simultaneously, is what distinguishes Rovics’ songwriting from more pedestrian and polemical efforts at using songs to promote political points of view. In a word, it’s what distinguishes art from propaganda.

His parting song is an encore for the Danes, and their heroic effort to save Jews during the Holocaust in 1943—when they wore the yellow star of David on their sleeves to identify with the victims of Nazism, and to protect them from deportation, saying, in effect, “You’ll have to deport all of us.” Like the hero Spartacus in ancient Rome, first brought to modern audiences awareness by Howard Fast’s historical novel, they refused to let their fellow citizens be separated from them on the basis of race or religion. “We are all Spartacus!” they proclaimed to the Romans, as did the Danes to the Nazis. It was Denmark’s finest hour, and Rovics does a beautiful job paying tribute to them—and then mentioning that he would be hosting and running a café in Denmark next year—and presenting folk music—on the shores of the Baltic sea—a long way from his home in southeast Oregon.

Earlier in the concert he brought down the house with a brilliant ballad—again about one woman named “Rosita”—whose baby was torn from her arms in Brownsville, Texas on the border where current American immigration policy has shamefully torn families asunder and put 2,341 children in cages, ice boxes and even dog pounds under arrest facing deportation. David focuses on one human tragedy and lets it speak for them all. Title: ICE; hear it and weep for your country.

David Rovics has what Utah Phillips called The Long Memory, putting his guitar on the line again and again—even when it brings him face-to-face with police who put him out on the street just an hour before he is scheduled to go on stage. He is on my shortlist of “Gatekeepers of Freedom” as I look back on a year of resistance to a regime that has inspired folk singers nationwide to take up the mantle of Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs—and none with more committed and consummate musicianship than David Rovics. How lucky we are to have him—still on the road. “Keep going forward! Forward! Forward!” as Kathleen said, “Not one step back!”

And as Faulkner added to Shakespeare in his 1948 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, “The past isn’t dead—it isn’t even past.” In David Rovics’ songs, it’s alive and well.

Three postscripts: To keep up with David’s on-going take on the news you may now tune in to his weekly podcast “This Week—5 minutes of rabble-rousing music, history and current events every Friday at www.DavidRovics.com/THISWEEK.”

Finally, Happy 90th Birthday on Monday, October 1, 2018 to our mutual friend Jim Radford in London, who at 15 was the youngest volunteer for England’s landing on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Jim wrote the classic song about it—The Shores of Normandy.

With thanks to David and Giovanna Brandi for the last-minute press pass!

Los Angeles folk singer Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton; belongs to Local 47 (AFM); may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.