RIP TO MY FRIEND AND MY SISTER
Linda Huf, PhD (June 17, 1943—July 7, 2020)
Maureen Altman (June 17, 1948—July 15, 2020)
The Ninth Circle
Italian poet Dante Alighieri died September 14, 1321—six hundred and ninety-nine years ago this coming September 14. He wrote the Divine Comedy—a trilogy that starts with the Inferno, goes through Purgatory, and comes out in Paradise. There are certain touchstones in this unfolding epic, and none more so than the title of this column—The Ninth Circle. For that is where the twin deaths of my two dearest companions—my life partner Linda Huf this past July 7, and my sister Maureen Altman one week later on July 15, has left me. There is only one word to describe it: Bereft: The Ninth Circle of Hell.
I have written obituaries for both of them, in the Sunday Los Angeles Times California section (click on the links associated with their names!). But this is FolkWorks, not the LA Times, so I must recalibrate to justify telling their stories here. Since I can’t pretend to be interested in anything else but Linda and Mo, that’s exactly what I am going to do.
They both loved folk music—to be expected, Mo’s tastes were more conventional—as I indicated in my obituary her favorite folksingers were John Denver and Tom Paxton. Accordingly, I acquired many copies of both their records—and kept my eyes open for McCabe’s listings to take “The Mighty Mo” to see Paxton in person. (Denver was too popular to play McCabe’s.) We got to see Tom Paxton several times there, when he was in his most creative, productive periods, not the recent shows with the “Don Juans,” just Tom and his bottomless song-bag. I still remember some highlights—of songs he no longer plays because they are not in the Don Juans’ repertoire.
His song for a gay man who learns he has AIDS— Billy Got Some Bad News Today—was a revelation—the first song I heard with that theme. Of course, it was a Paxton song.
Billy got some bad news today, Billy better learn how to pray.
He went to the doctor, doctor turned away.
Billy got some bad news today.
Billy’s gonna need friends now, Billy’s gonna need friends now.
Doesn’t matter why, doesn’t matter how,
Billy’s gonna need friends now.
There were other times, God knows, there were other places.
There were laughing eyes, God knows, and beautiful faces.
Now they’ve disappeared from view, they’ve faded and gone,
They were lovers he once knew, now he’s all alone.
Another song of Paxton’s I was hoping to hear recently, and was disappointed he didn’t sing was his song for the ERA— Mary Got a New Job, which would have been most timely again, in that it coincided with the Centennial of the 19th Amendment this year, the Suffrage Amendment granting women the right to vote. I was so disappointed that he didn’t perform it that I didn’t review his concert. When you’ve written the best song on the timeliest topic—and you’re a topical folk singer—and you don’t bother singing it because it’s not in the repertoire of your accompanists, well, there’s no excuse for that. So I’m glad I have another chance to remind my readers of it due to Mo’s passing:
Mary Got A New Job
Mary got a new job workin’ on the line
Help to make the automobiles
It wasn’t very long ‘til the job was goin’ fine
And she liked the way it made her feel
It gave her independence
To pull into the lot
And pull her heavy work clothes on
She liked the rush and clatter
She liked her new friends
And her favorite was a man named John
John was like a brother workin’ at her side
And they both came on the job the same day
Learned the job together
How the ropes were tied
Went together down to draw their first pay
Opened up his packet Johnny dropped his cash
Money was all over the floor
Mary saw the money
Saw to her surprise
Johnny had a whole lot more
And she said
Who’s been matchin’ you sweat for sweat
Who’s been workin’ on the line
Who’s been earnin’ what she ain’t got yet
All I want is what’s mine
I’ve got eyes and hands and a back like yours
And I use ‘em hard the whole day
I stand here workin’ just as hard as you do
And I want my equal pay…
And I want my E. R. A.
This was first recorded way back in 1980 on The Paxton Report, and here we are forty years later and it’s just as timely today, because all these years later and we still don’t have an Equal Rights Amendment, the ERA. But Paxton has a lot of songs—including his standards. My sister would have loved to hear this one—and so would I. Now there will be no next time. For both Mo and my feminist sweetheart Linda Huf are gone.
Linda’s favorite folksinger was Victor Jara from Chile. It was she who introduced me to Victor Jara. In the 1970s, Dr. Huf had been a director of Amnesty International in Washington, D.C. I describe her influence on the organization whose motto “The spirit dies in all of us who keep silent in the face of tyranny,” further animated her growing commitment to justice, or “joostice,” as Sacco and Vanzetti called it. In the ten years she devoted to Amnesty she wrote letters on behalf of “Prisoners of Conscience” in all corners of the world including her own country who languished in dungeons and championed their release—occasionally even securing it.
In that spirit, Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released was chosen as Amnesty’s theme song a number of years ago. Under her leadership Amnesty went from a fledgling little-known organization in the D.C. area (which started in London in 1961) to the flagship standard-bearer of resistance to tyranny. She joined the L.A. chapter in the 1980s; and became a member of PEN International.”
Amnesty was instrumental in championing Jara’s music, along with the songs of Violetta Para and others in the Nuevo Cancion or New Song Movement—after the tragedy of “The Other September 11” in 1973, and the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile by General Pinochet. Paxton also wrote a song for Allende called The White Bones of Allende that I would have loved to hear him sing. Jara was trapped in Estadio Chile, their national stadium, along with thousands of other students and workers. Victor’s precious hands—that played his handmade guitar—were smashed by Pinochet’s soldiers who knew what it meant to destroy the hands of their national folk singer—“Now play!” they shouted at him.
Linda gave me her large poster of the photograph that they smuggled out of the stadium after they murdered Victor on September 16. It shows the students and workers on the benches, adorned with a poem by their national poet, Pablo Neruda. It’s the proudest possession I own—an actual replica of the original photo given to her by one of those heroes from inside the stadium. She had it framed where I can see it from my computer. I am looking at it now, as I write these chilling words. That’s who Linda Huf was—my girlfriend, my partner, my life. It still brings tears to my eyes. That stadium—title of the last poem he wrote while trapped inside (later set to music by Pete Seeger) was renamed in Victor’s honor after Pinochet was overthrown—is now Victor Jara Stadium..
44 Bullets: A Love Story (Words and Music by Ross Altman)
44 bullets, that’s what it took
To murder Victor Jara
They smashed his wrists and broke his neck
And told him to play his guitarra
Then they shot him in the back of his head
But still his heart kept beating
His last song Estadio Chile
Was written while he was bleeding.
Chorus: He left a note for his widow Joan
Told her where he had parked their car
Told her he loved her before the generals
Silenced his guitar.
They met at the University of Chile
He was an actor and she was a dancer
The future was theirs to be won
The same year Amnesty International
Was born in London like she
Joan left England for her new life
As Victor’s wife to be. (Ch)
She had a daughter Victor loved
As if she were his own
They started a theatre in Santiago
And Nuevo Canción.
He built his guitar from a walnut tree
To sing his unfinished song
For Chile’s new leader Salvador Allende
To right his country’s wrongs. (Ch)
44 bullets, that’s what it took
To murder the future of Chile
Joan’s life was beyond repair
But she survived to relay
Victor’s songs to a new generation
And a new flag yet unfurled
So here’s to Joan and Victor Jara
Who gave birth to a better world. (Ch)
© and (p) Grey Goose Music (BMI) 2016 on It Can’t Happen Here by Ross Altman
The other folk singer Linda treasured was Phil Ochs, who produced a concert “An Evening With Salvador Allende” after Allende’s murder, and was the author of I Ain’t Marching Anymore, Draft Dodger Rag, There But For Fortune and Power and the Glory, all songs I used to do before my stroke made it impossible to play guitar. That is what first drew us together. We met at the Socialist Community School in the basement of the First Unitarian Church on West 8th Street in downtown Los Angeles, where I first heard Paul Robeson sing back in the 1950s. It was the night of April 4th, 1981, or the 13th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. A number of us put on a show called “Songs of Labor and Liberation.” And Rose Fine, a mutual friend, decided that we should meet and introduced us. That’s when my life began, thanks to Rosie. Linda and I were together ever since, through thick and thin, until her death last July 7. Then Mo passed away June 15.
I took Mo to see John Denver at the Greek Theatre. He sang his hits, such as Rocky Mountain High, Back Home Again, and the megahit he wrote with his band-mates Bill and Taffy Danoff, Take Me Home, Country Roads. That was Mo’s favorite song, and how delightful it was to see her enjoying it so. I’ve sung it at hundreds of nursing and retirement homes, and never failed to see the residents singing along. Take Me Home is also the title of Denver’s autobiography, which I got for Mo at a book signing we went to (and actually got to meet him). It’s hand-signed “Maureen, Peace!—John Denver.” What a treasure to have now. The line was all the way around the block when we got there.
I always remember Denver making a point of letting people know that he and the band were on time, and he had no patience for audience members who weren’t there on time interrupting them when walking in late. He expected us to be on time too. Roll on, John, and thank you for a great performance. You gave my sister a night to remember. You come to appreciate these things when you are no longer able to see them.
They were the sunshine of my life, my deep heart’s core; Linda was my shining star; Mo was my pride and joy. This column is dedicated to them with love—Linda and Mo. For as Dante said, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton (1973). He is a member of Local 47 (AFM) and heads the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club. He writes for www.folkworks.org and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org