Category Archives: Music

Winning Hearts and Minds in August

It is in these bleak times that people need community and music more than ever — they just don’t tend to realize it.  The choir actually needs to be preached to on a regular basis, or it starts singing out of tune.

I heard some professional musicians on a BBC program talking about how their feelings of self-worth and general contentment in life are directly related to whether or not they’re working on a regular basis.  By “working,” they mean playing music in front of an  audience, which is what they all do to get by.  They were specifically talking about taking time off from touring because of having babies and raising small children.  There was a general consensus that while raising kids could be hard, they could deal with everything involved as long as they had access to the outlets of playing music regularly, and sharing it with people now and then.

I’m very familiar with this whole thing, being a professional musician with children myself.  I took a year off from doing any long tours when my first child was born.  At the time I was probably more focused on the financially disastrous aspects of unpaid paternity leave, but the psychological ones were intense, too.  It would have been too hard to ply all that apart from the emotionally overwhelming experience of raising a baby, but in retrospect it becomes clearer that these are different things, separate reasons for feeling small and inadequate.

If I had been one of the guests on that BBC show, I probably would have mentioned something about the cyclical nature of this self-worth phenomenon in the course of a typical year, for a touring musician.  I usually do long tours in the fall and spring, so it’s right around February and August that I’m generally in peak panic mode, wondering if this next tour will be the last tour I ever do, since maybe it will only have ten gigs in it and I’ll return home with more debt than I left with.  So far, most of the time in the end the tour pans out OK, at least since I stopped doing big driving tours around the US, where that was no longer reliably happening.  But this time of year, in August, I’m often a bit of a mess, looking at the empty calendar for the next few months, knowing that on the first of each of those months, the landlord will be demanding that I legitimate my existence by forking over yet another hard-earned $1,200.

Maybe, I always ask myself in August, it’s time to consider another line of work.  Actually this summer I am fully engaged in another line of work, running a small cafe with my family, and it is so much more work than I ever thought about.  I’m an espresso snob and I like making good espresso drinks.  My family is not big enough to satisfy my daily desire to extract a few more shots and foam at least a bit more milk than I can possibly consume in a day.  So when my friend Mette suggested I bring my family to Denmark and run the cafe for a summer, I more or less jumped at the opportunity.

I’m glad I did, but I was so naive.  There’s so much more to running a cafe than what happens, say, during opening hours.  Shopping, cleaning, fixing broken appliances like espresso machines and keeping them running well.  Paperwork, complying with health and tax authorities — all kinds of stuff.  And then there are those many, wonderful suggestions from friends and customers that usually begin with “you should,” as in “you should sell beer” — often it’s a suggestion related to things the cafe should sell that we’re not allowed to sell because we don’t have the right kind of license for that, such as alcoholic drinks or cooked meals.  Other suggestions include things like “you should be open for longer hours” or “you should advertise in the local paper.”

All these sorts of suggestions are very familiar to me in my life as a touring musician, too.  They’re just as common.  “You should play in that venue, they’d love you there.”  Who is they, exactly?  The audience that was at the last gig the person went to at that venue, who they’re assuming would show up for my gig there?  Or is they the people who organized and promoted that gig, who probably had no association with that particular venue, aside from the fact that they were using it to put on a show?  Yes, I generally agree.  I should play there — and I leave it at that.

In the depth of August I might be desperate enough to follow one of these suggestions.  I have barely any gigs for the fall tour, maybe they’re right. I should just email this venue and see if they want to have me open for that guy.  But it doesn’t work that way, and I know it.  I know a lot of things, because I’m an expert at this, even though in August I generally don’t feel expert at much of anything.  I’m trying to book a tour, but it’s not really working.  Maybe all these people who are on vacation are never coming back from vacation.  Maybe they’re just pretending to be on vacation because they really don’t like me anymore.

I wrote a song last week about the power of songs to win hearts and minds.  I’m a firm believer, but I wrote the song because I was still stewing on a conversation I had with a radio journalist I used to admire who made dismissive comments about music and the role of people like me in public communication, such as a radio news and information program.  “Just songs” is the phrase that has been ringing in my head for about a year since that conversation with that particular radio host.  So the song is a defensive song, a defense of what I do, and why it can be such an effective means of communication.

Probably I’m remembering that conversation so much lately because it’s August, and the fall tour is only in a very skeletal state of existence.  Probably by next month I’ll be feeling like the expert at public communication and popular education that I am.  I am, I remind myself.  This is why one of my songs is the centerpiece of Haskell Wexler’s last documentary.  This is why they use my songs as tools for teaching high school teachers in Germany and Sweden how to teach their students.  This is why my songs appear in songbooks put out by the national labor federations of several countries, this is why the unions and political parties in different countries employ me on a regular basis for the purposes of educating and inspiring their members.  Music is effective as a means of communication — my music in particular.

I’ll share a message, the sort of message I’m sure all kinds of people in the public communication fields get on a regular basis.  I found it only hours after I finished writing the song about that conversation, in one of the various inboxes that each of the social media platforms has.  Here are a couple excerpts:  “Thank you for making music and getting the good message out.  Your music taught me never to give up no matter how hopeless things seem.  Your music has gotten me through depression, protests that didn’t go smoothly, and many other hardships I’ve faced.  You’re a beacon of hope to me and even though we’ve never met you’ve made a huge impact on me and my life.  You’ll always be my comrade.”

These sorts of messages help a lot, especially in August.  Because it’s not enough just to write songs that I know are really well-written and probably effective at what they’re trying to do.  It only begins to be enough when you can bring the song to an audience that is affected by it in the ways you intended.  It’s only culture when it’s something people participate in together, in the same physical location.  That’s when people get the feeling that they’re in something together — when they’re together, doing the same thing, such as singing.  People know they’re in a struggle together when they laugh at the same jokes and cry at the same sorrows, and experience these things collectively.  These kinds of things have been studied and proven to be true in peer-reviewed publications, incidentally.  We’re fundamentally social animals.

We also hear differently and process information differently when the information is sung.  The reason music has been used as a tool for inspiration and education and for fostering a sense of community over the course of millennia by every form of institution that’s ever existed, from governments to churches to armies to labor unions, is because it’s so effective.

But for me to be effective, for me to have a chance at winning hearts and minds, at keeping people involved, to be able to share thoughts about tomorrow with people, I need an audience.  Just as with a cafe that barely has any reason to exist from a financial standpoint, “you should” statements don’t actually help.  Yes, I’d love to be open longer hours and to hire more staff and advertise in the paper.  I’d love to do all those things as a musician, too.  This isn’t how it works, though, in practical reality.  Those staff need to get paid, advertisements cost money.

When this goes out on my blog and in podcast form, I’ll undoubtedly get lots of well-meaning messages from people saying “if you come to my town, I’m looking forward to seeing the show,” and “you should check out this venue.”  Seriously, this is going to happen.  Maybe those people aren’t the ones who finished reading the column, but the messages will come.

There will also hopefully be a few messages from people who are members of organizations that have budgets who want to put together a paying gig for me somewhere, for a union, a political party, an arts center, or some other kind of community group.  Those are the messages that will once again restore my sense of self-worth, which is tied not just to being able to communicate well, but having access to people with whom I may communicate — in the same physical place, at the same time, somewhere in the world.

There is probably a nagging concern aside from the fact that it’s August and all the good folks in Europe who will probably be putting on gigs in various places are still on vacation and haven’t gotten in touch yet.  Maybe a couple nagging concerns.  One is that the social and political structures I used to rely on for touring in the US have since collapsed, three times, maybe four, depending on how you measure these things.  In Europe that hasn’t happened, things are much more consistent for many reasons.

But the other thing that keeps me up at night is this terrible conundrum:  I have noticed that when times are hard — when there are multiple massacres in one day, half the world is on fire and the other half is flooding, fascists are coming to power in major countries around the world, and so on — this is when a lot of people tend to stay home.  People don’t stick their necks out unless they’re feeling optimistic, and at times like these, optimism is scarce.  People stay home, which also means they don’t go out to concerts and they don’t organize them.  This is, fairly obviously, the opposite of what would be best for everyone.

It is in these bleak times that people need community and music more than ever — they just don’t tend to realize it.  The choir actually needs to be preached to on a regular basis, or it starts singing out of tune.  It’s not just about winning the hearts and minds of fascists and lemmings, but about dreaming of a better world.  And to dream, you must sing.  But if that singing is going to involve me, you need to do more than share this message on social media.  You need to be involved with an organization or other actual, real social network, not one that calls itself a social network, but which is actually a social network, and then you need to use this social network to do things like organize events that I sing at.  Drop me a line.  I’ll see you in the streets, and in the living rooms.

The Joy of Touring

I’ve been on a sort of paternity leave since last winter. I say “sort of” because it’s not like I have an employer or anything — taking a leave for me means not touring, and mounting credit card debt. The reality that it is time to book a major tour becomes undeniable, when the debt rises into the fifth digit to the left of the point. So lately, one of the balls I’m juggling is the tour-booking one, as I make plans to spend most of the autumn traveling and playing gigs around North America and Europe.

I’ve spent most of my adult life traveling the world and playing music. For many years I barely even had a home, aside from whatever guest room I was sleeping in, which was often my van or pickup truck parked in the driveway of that night’s gig organizer, especially when I was in my twenties and thirties. Since I had my first kid, thirteen years ago, I’ve toured a lot less, but I’ve still mostly been away altogether about half of every year. As a parent, not being able to take the kids with me most of the time I go, touring now has a dark side to it that it didn’t really have before. There was always the issue of wanting to be in more than one place at a time for a lot of different reasons, and never having enough time to do everything I wanted to do, but with kids, the equation changes for me, and on some level, wherever I am, if I’m not where my kids are, it’s not the place I want to be in, regardless of how wonderful the scene.

But having had a solid break from extensive traveling, for the first time in well over a decade, as I work on booking the fall tour, the feeling of dread that usually accompanies the thought of abandoning my family for two months is not so far returning. The emotion in place of the dread is, on one level, an acceptance that some jobs involve traveling a lot, and that’s OK. But mostly, the overwhelming feeling is one of eagerness. With apologies to all of those people out there who envy those of us who travel for a living, I’m really looking forward to traveling again.

While I’ve enjoyed doing the weekly columns and podcasts — and intend to keep it up if I can manage it while touring — writing about a world which I am mostly seeing through the filters of other people, be they journalists, friends, or whoever, is such a far cry from experiencing it myself.

There are many variations of the saying, but the idea always resonated with me that life is what happens when you’re on your way there — wherever “there” may be. Most of it isn’t about arriving at your destination, it’s about getting there. This applies very much in a very literal way, when it comes to actual, physical traveling. Certainly for me, for the kind of travel I do. I’m not locked in a tour bus going from stadium to stadium, only seeing the stadiums and little else. I’d take the gig if I were famous enough for it, don’t get me wrong. But that’s a far cry from my world. I know a couple of rock stars, but I only envy them a little. What they had to give up to take that gig is huge, it seems to me.

There’s a lot you can learn about the world without seeing it all, to be sure. Just as with learning about history, which you will never personally witness, you can learn about the world by reading lots of material from many different perspectives, until the history, or the event or place or people become more three-dimensional, even to the point where you feel like you know and understand it or them.

While I do believe this, I also have found that there are many more things than just pictures that are worth a thousand words. This is also true of smells, sounds, and so many other sensory experiences you only get when you’re really traveling in the physical world, when you’re immersed in it. And there are stories and anecdotes and phrases that you will encounter when you travel, that just don’t seem like things you’d have run across otherwise, though it’s always possible you might have.I don’t know if I have this in common with other chronic travelers, but my mind is subdivided geographically. When I’m in a certain part of the world, that’s when I’m most likely to remember people I know from that part of the world, experiences I’ve had there previously, places I’ve been in a given town or city or forest, venues I’ve performed in, cafes I loitered in, and stories about the place which local people shared with me before. To provoke my memory of a place — and also for very practical reasons, to remember where I played there before and who might have organized that gig — I often leave my laptop to go gaze at one of several maps I have on the walls of my apartment. In fact, I don’t really need the maps, since they’re all in my mind now, too, but I like to gaze at them anyway.

The sharpest memories jut up through the clouds, forming peaks that can be seen from a long distance. If I were flying like a bird across the landscape looking for those peaks, those memories, those images, flying over Alaska I’d remember what it was like to walk down the street, from my hotel to the supermarket, on a windy February day at minus 20 Fahrenheit, wondering how much longer I could have my cheeks exposed to the wind before I’d get frostbite. I learned on that trip that when it’s below negative 40 Fahrenheit, axes tend to split in two when you swing them to try to cut wood. Perhaps I might have learned that by watching a documentary, but I don’t think it would have stuck with me in the same visceral way as it has since I first felt the sting of a typical, windy winter day in Anchorage.

Flying across the continent in a zigzagging path, east, west and south from there through the map in my mind, like in a guided meditation, the next peak I come to is Prince Rupert, BC. There’s a fishing boat there that washed up all the way from Japan, that stands as a reminder for all of the dangers of the trade, and the solidarity that exists among the seafaring peoples of the world.

I’d land in Montana, where I was following my GPS blindly to get to the next gig on one tour, heading towards Wyoming, and I unexpectedly came to the sign, “entering Yellowstone.” I’ll forever remember only minutes after passing that sign, the buffalo that stood bigger than any horse I’ve ever seen, like a furry mountain, thick steam rising from its fur in the early morning light, stopping what little traffic was on that road, making all of us humans in our comparatively puny cars feel very small and vulnerable. Certainly the car I was driving could have been smashed in one stomp, I imagined, but the buffalo calmly continued down the road, ignoring the tourists.

I’d find myself on the Pine Ridge reservation, where I somehow ended up early one morning before a gig in Rapid City. I’m going to film a church-burning that day, my host informed me. I had the day free, so I made sure to haul ass to the east or west or wherever I was coming from, and get there a day early, so I could go, too. I spent the day watching an old church burn to the ground. Lakota people had bad associations with it, and a guy named Big Jim bought it, and burned it to the ground, with the Fire Department watching to make sure it was safe. An old white couple who had been married in the church also came to watch. The Lakota guys who were cheering when various especially offensive parts of the church had collapsed in ash on the ground quietly moved around the corner from the old white couple, to give them the space to have whatever less joyous experience they were having while watching the church burn.

I’d land in Colorado, where on the foothills of a mountain that once served as a watershed for all the farmers in the San Luis Valley I watched the pickup truck speed towards the forest defenders locked to a tripod on a dirt road leading into the largely denuded hillside behind them. I’d watch as the angry driver slammed on his breaks, stopping only a foot from the face of some brave, terrified people.

I’d spend another night at that Catholic Worker hospitality house with the art work in the backyard consisting of a hole with a toilet in it, and a bust of Richard Nixon sitting at the bottom of the toilet. I’d remember my friend who ran the place at the time telling me how one of the residents was so worried that the authorities would shut down the house if they found this terribly disrespectful scene, that he would go out at night and cover the hole with leaves and branches.

I’d watch the Northern Lights from the plane window over Halifax — it was like the Crystalline Entity from Star Trek, appearing to be below us, completely white, and very much alive. I’d see the lights again from the ground in Quebec, like a dark rainbow taking over the sky. I’d make love again in a tent in New Brunswick, the air outside the screen so full of mosquitoes, doing anything else seemed suicidal. I’d watch that police van try to run over my friends in Washington, DC. I’d be clubbed by the police in Pittsburgh again.

I’d watch the gay couple holding hands as they walked confidently through the streets of Birmingham, Alabama. I’d see the list of names written on the chalkboard in that church in the Ninth Ward, when no one knew if they’d all live or die in there, after being abandoned by the federal authorities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I’d watch the tumbleweeds blow across the prairies of West Texas, in the years before it was covered with fracking rigs, before it all smelled like burning oil. I’d hear the coyotes howling in the Sonoran, and see the pack together, clearly-outlined silhouettes, with the full moon rising behind them above the cactus-strewn, dry, sandy hills.

I’d hear the stories about the outlaws back in the day, when this was Mexican land, before the border crossed them, and they found themselves in the United States. I’d remember Steve, before he died so young of some disease, what was his last name? He and his comrades talked about la Raza Unida like it was an organization everybody knew about, because they did, at least around there. I had never heard of it until I got to Las Vegas. Not Nevada, but New Mexico. They had all heard of it because they lived it. I’d remember many things. Perhaps most of all, I’d remember the bones in the desert.

Romanticism and Music

Narcotic: drug that produces analgesia (pain relief), narcosis (state of stupor or sleep), and addiction (physical dependence on the drug). In some people narcotics also produce euphoria (a feeling of great elation).”

Introduction

Romanticism is a philosophical movement of the nineteenth century which had a profound influence on music which can still be seen right up to today. Its main characteristics in music are the emphasis on the personal, dramatic contrasts, emotional excess, a focus on the nocturnal, the ghostly and the frightful, spontaneity, and extreme subjectivism. Romanticism in culture implied a turning inward and encouraged introspection. As Hegel wrote: “The entire content [of romantic art] is therefore concentrated on the inner life of the spirit”.

Romanticist-influenced music increased its audience dramatically from the early theatres of the nineteenth century to the mass pop concerts of the modern era. Romanticism changed music from being a progressive force in society to being a narcotic and self indulgent individualist experience. In modern times it has been industrialised and commercialised and sells individualism and political impotence to the very people who turn to it for solace from desperation in a highly alienated society.

The most regrettable aspect of this alienation is that music has become more and more distant from people’s movements for progressive change. In the past, progressive music; i.e., music which was in tune with the history of people’s political struggles, tended to come from the people themselves, in the form of ballads or music from progressive composers and lyricists. With the commercialising of the pop music industry in the twentieth century, music moved from something to be consumed on a mass basis rather than produced by people on a local basis – by writing, playing or singing, as it was in the past with balladeers, choirs and progressive composers.

Here we will look at the influence of Romanticism on music from the Classical period in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through to the development of the pop music industry in the twentieth century. Also examined will be composers and singers who resisted the pressure of the Romantic influence and wrote and played music that was rooted in hardship and struggle and an awareness of international issues and crises as they affected the ordinary people of those countries.

Classical Music – ‘structures should be well-founded’

While classical music in general has a broad meaning the Classical period was an era of classical music between roughly 1730 and 1820. Enlightenment respect for the politics, aesthetics and philosophy of classical antiquity (Classicism) combined with the development of ‘natural philosophy’ – the precursor of the natural sciences – had a profound effect on music: “Newton’s physics was taken as a paradigm: structures should be well-founded in axioms and be both well-articulated and orderly.” The effect of Enlightenment ideas on Classical music was to mark a change to a lighter, clearer texture compared with the Baroque music that came before it.

Thus the findings in science broadly affected or influenced culture in general. At the same time technical developments in musical instruments and the increase in size and standardisation of orchestras changed the way music was played. The major composers of this time were Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Joseph Haydn, Christoph Willibald Gluck, Johann Christian Bach, Luigi Boccherini, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Muzio Clementi, Antonio Salieri, and Johann Nepomuk Hummel.

Joseph Haydn Playing Quartets

Romantic Music – ‘more explicitly expressive and programmatic’

Romanticism originated at the end to the 18th century mainly as a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution which were perceived to be using science to destroy nature and man’s traditional way of life. The Romantic emphasis on feeling was in direct contrast with Enlightenment ideas of progress with reason and science being the primary source of knowledge. The philosophers and scientists of the Enlightenment had desired to move away from the Feudalism and Scholasticism of the religiously dominated Middle Ages. Unfortunately, the Romantic artists, composers and poets took a new interest in aspects of medievalism that the Enlightenment philosophers had tried to defeat. Enlightenment ideas were also taken up by the new elites who used science in the exploitative ways so hated by the Romantics.

However, despite the impression one might get from the Romantics’ emphasis on emotion, Enlightenment ideas were not devoid of feeling. Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671 – 1713) believed that all human beings had a ‘natural affection’ or natural sociability which bound them together. Francis Hutcheson (1694 – 1746) wrote that “All Men have the same Affections and Senses”  while David Hume (1711 – 1776) believed that human beings extend their “imaginative identification with the feelings of others” when it is required. Similarly, Adam Smith (1723 – 1790), the writer of Wealth of Nations, believed in the power of the imagination to inform us and help us understand the suffering of others.1

The Romantic reaction towards Classical music and the ideals of the Enlightenment in one sense was not surprising given the failure of those ideas ultimately in the French Revolution. As Friedrich Engels wrote in Anti-Dühring in 1877:

The French philosophers of the eighteenth century, the forerunners of the Revolution, appealed to reason as the sole judge of all that is. A rational government, rational society, were to be founded; everything that ran counter to eternal reason was to be remorselessly done away with. We saw also that this eternal reason was in reality nothing but the idealised understanding of the eighteenth century citizen, just then evolving into the bourgeois. The French Revolution had realised this rational society and government. But, the new order of things, rational enough as compared with earlier conditions, turned out to be by no means absolutely rational. The state based upon reason completely collapsed.

As Engels notes this resulted in the Reign of Terror and then Napoleonic despotism. The ideals of the Enlightenment philosophers were destroyed by an intensification of competition. He writes:

The promised eternal peace was turned into an endless war of conquest. The society based upon reason had fared no better. The antagonism between rich and poor, instead of dissolving into general prosperity, had become intensified by the removal of the guild and other privileges, which had to some extent bridged it over, and by the removal of the charitable institutions of the Church. The development of industry upon a capitalistic basis made poverty and misery of the working masses conditions of existence of society.

How is it then that it is the Romantics that are more associated with the revolutionary ideas of the time? Why were they seen by critics and historians as reactionary or politically irrelevant? According to Max Blechman in Revolutionary Romanticism:

The early romantics were revolutionaries: not because they believed in a political insurrection in their homeland […] but because through public expression they hoped to redefine the meaning of progress and revolutionize the values of modern civilisation.” […] Romanticism in Germany (as in France and England) was a protean [ever changing] movement, and the writings of formative romantics were contradicted by those of late romantics, some of whom broke with the early romantics’ idealism for various forms of conservatism.2

The Romantics, instead of questioning the class basis of society, which was becoming more and more sharply delineated, reached back to the simpler life, religiosity and culture of the Middle Ages. The idea of chivalrous heroes, the mystic and supernatural, untouched nature and the security of spiritual beliefs formed the basis of a new culture of individuals and heroes battling against crass modernity. Romantic composers put much more emphasis on showing their innermost thoughts and feelings about love, hate and death through powerful expressions of emotion. Romantic music developed “the use of new or previously not so common musical structures like the song cycle, nocturne, concert etude, arabesque and rhapsody, alongside the traditional classical genres.”

In general, Romantic music was “more explicitly expressive and programmatic” and public concerts were held for the urban middle class compared to earlier periods when they were mainly the domain of aristocrats. The string section was enlarged and the piano took over from the harpsichord as an accompaniment to songs (lieder) such as Schubert’s Winter Journey. The main composers in the Romantic style were Schubert, Brahms, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Chopin, Grieg, Schumann, Rimsky-Korsakov, Liszt, Elgar and Wagner.

Many of these composers were also associated with that great combination of Romanticism and politics – Nationalism – and composed music using folk tunes, dance rhythms and local legends for this purpose. As nationalist leaders developed ideas of race and a unified nation (often based on territories containing many different ethnic and cultural groups) composers created the musical soundtrack to the burgeoning centralisation and homogenisation of modern states. One of the most negative aspects of nationalist political structures was the First World War, where the peoples of these relatively new states were set against each other in the style of the earlier feudal monarchies: in the interests solely of their leaders.

Hanns Eisler – ‘One cannot always write optimistic songs’

While Romanticism reached its peak during the period of 1800 to 1850, its influence continued on throughout the twentieth century. Hanns Eisler (1898-1962), an Austrian composer who fought in a Hungarian regiment during the First World War, resisted the debilitating effects of Romanticism in his music. After the war he became more and more radicalised and threw himself into the class politics of the day. Eisler had a long artistic association with Bertolt Brecht:

Eisler wrote music for several Brecht plays, including The Decision (Die Maßnahme) (1930), The Mother (1932) and Schweik in the Second World War (1957). They also collaborated on protest songs that celebrated, and contributed to, the political turmoil of Weimar Germany in the early 1930s. Their Solidarity Song became a popular militant anthem sung in street protests and public meetings throughout Europe, and their Ballad of Paragraph 218 was the world’s first song protesting laws against abortion. Brecht-Eisler songs of this period tended to look at life from “below” — from the perspective of prostitutes, hustlers, the unemployed and the working poor. In 1931–32 he collaborated with Brecht and director Slatan Dudow on the working-class film Kuhle Wampe.

Hanns Eisler (left) and Bertolt Brecht, his close friend and collaborator, East Berlin, 1950

Eisler’s connection with the class politics and struggles of the people is demonstrated in his awareness of the problems of composing in difficult times. He stated:  “It is: consciousness-reflection-depression-revival-and again consciousness … It must be done that way, otherwise it is not good. One cannot always write optimistic songs … one must describe the up and down of actual situations, sing about it and comment on it.”3  The dialectics of the process of consciousness and reflection helped him to work with ideas that are sorrowful without falling into a state of resignation. In one of his song series ‘Ernste Gesänge’ for baritone solo and string orchestra, Albrecht Betz notes:

The third song, ‘Verweiflung’ [Despair], is a fragment from Leopardi’s famous poem ‘A se stesso’; Eisler has condensed it and freed it of all its features of Romantic discontent. Sorrow, as well as occasional anger, is sublimated in the composition’.4

Similarly, in music practice, Eisler also avoided the Romantic element: “I am always horrified to hear a group of union workers, toughened by many class struggles singing, “La, la, la, la, la, la, laaaa, aaaa,” or “I am so lonesome when I remember you.”5    Eisler and Brecht had a lot in common. Both had “an anti-romantic attitude” and “a rejection of the psychological and the autobiographical”. Betz writes:

Both had in view the ‘avoidance of the narcotic effects’ of art, the aim to conduct experiments so as to bring it to the height of rationality which would correspond to the scientific age in which they lived, and above all to arm it with a theory which would rationalize the functions of this art.6

Woody Guthrie – ‘This Machine Kills Fascists’

Another singer songwriter who would also avoid the ‘narcotic effects’ of music was Woody Guthrie (1912 – 1967). Brought up in Oklahoma, USA, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was an American singer-songwriter, one of the most significant figures in American folk music. Guthrie wrote hundreds of political, folk, and children’s songs, along with ballads and improvised works. One of his most famous songs “This Land Is Your Land” was inspired by his reaction to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” on the radio.

Guthrie with guitar labeled “This machine kills fascists” in 1943.

Guthrie experienced hardship at first hand when he joined the thousands of migrants going to California to look for work during the Dust Bowl period. He became concerned by the conditions of life endured by working-class people and started writing songs about unemployment, migration, trade unions, labour struggles, and anti-fascist songs. All his life he believed in the power of music to change society and people’s attitudes. He performed regularly and wrote thousands of songs, poems and prose reflecting the life of working class people, neatly summing it up in the terse statement: “All you can write is what you see.”

Nueva Canción – ‘oppositional in every respect’

By the 1960s, a counterculture movement was making inroads into popular culture with movements like Nueva Canción (New Song) in Argentina, Chile and Spain, the General Strike centered in Paris in May 1968 in France as well as the Civil Rights Movement in the USA. The Nueva Canción (NC) movement started in Chile and soon spread all over Latin America. It went through three main phases in Chile: “The first was one of protest, the second of direct political engagement and the third moved away from direct political engagement to focus on glorifying and documenting the life of working people.” On a formal level Nueva Canción used “non-mainstream musical devices in their compositions such as traditional styles, and their rhythmic patterns, harmonic progressions and scales associated with folkloric music as well as Andean instruments in their arrangements. The songs were thus oppositional in every respect to the new ‘invading’ culture and embodied in sound and content something fresh but at the same time familiar which seemed to appeal to a mass of Chileans.”

Violeta Parra in the 1960s

Composers like Violeta Parra (1917 – 1967) [also songwriter, folklorist, ethnomusicologist and visual artist] and Argentine singer, songwriter, guitarist, and writer, Atahualpa Yupanqui (1908 – 1992) were two of the most important and influential figures in the Nueva Canción popular musical movement which “was anti-imperial in its stance against commercialised American and European music while its content covered many issues associated with the peoples of the region such as “poverty, empowerment, imperialism, democracy, human rights, religion, and the Latin American identity”.”

They led a movement which was anti-Romantic in that they fought back against the narcotic effects of individualist, self-absorbed, introspective music and instead they encouraged a turning outward, an openness and interest in society and their position in that society, a positive attitude towards how society could be changed for the better.

Jazz, Pop and Rock – ‘part of the entertainment industry’

Earlier in the twentieth century jazz had been a popular form of music among the oppressed but it to fell victim to commercialisation. As Tim Blanning says:

From the time it emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century, jazz fit very well with the Romantic aesthetic, for it was nothing if not spontaneous, improvisatory and individual. Its African-American origins also made it the potential ally of liberation movements. During much of the twentieth century, however, for all of jazz’s ability to express the suffering and aspirations of an oppressed community, the genre was very much part of the entertainment industry.”7

However, by the 1970s commercialised pop music had regained the upper hand again, starting in the late 1960s as the Beatles opened up the way for some of the most self indulgent, narcotic music ever composed, often described as ‘progressive’ rock.

During the early 1960s the Beatles continued a rock and roll lively, dancing style developed by singers like Bill Haley and Elvis Presley. However, by the late 1960s, under the influence of the burgeoning drug culture, the tone changed and Romanticism gained the upper hand. Their music became “a music of introspective self-absorption, a medium fit for communicating autobiographical intimacies, political discontents, spiritual elevation, inviting an audience, not to dance, but to listen-quietly, attentively, thoughtfully’.”8

While the Vietnam war was the basis of many radical outpourings during the late 1960s and had even influenced the pop music industry charts, by the 1970s the entertainment industry had recovered to produce some of the most ‘tune in and drop out’ music ever produced by prog rock bands such as Pink Floyd, Genesis, Led Zeppelin etc. During the 1970s, artists like David Bowie and Eric Clapton overreached, when Bowie gave a ‘Nazi salute’ in London and Clapton stated that Britain was becoming a ‘black colony’ at a concert in Birmingham, both in 1976.

Indeed, in relation to Clapton, Blanning writes:

Arguably the greatest living master of the electric guitar, Clapton personified the Romantic aesthetic: ‘The classic Clapton pose-back to the crowd, head bowed over his instrument, alone with the agony of the blues-suggests a supplicant communing with something inward: a muse or a demon … his entire career can be seen as a search for a form in which he could express the staple blues emotions-fear, loneliness, anger and humour- in a personally valid way’.9

Fear, loneliness and anger became mainstays of Romanticism in the pop music of the 1970s and 1980s music with Punk (‘anger is an energy’), Morrissey (‘the pope of mope’) and U2 (‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’), not to mention the New Romantics and Heavy Metal. In more recent years, U2’s albums Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience directly reference William Blake’s illustrated collection of poems of the same name. Blake was an English poet, painter, and printmaker who is considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. Blake held visionary religious beliefs and opposed the Newtonian view of the universe.10

Blake’s Newton (1795) demonstrates his opposition to the “single-vision” of scientific materialism: Newton fixes his eye on a compass (recalling Proverbs 8:27, an important passage for Milton) to write upon a scroll that seems to project from his own head.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – ‘Classicism is health, romanticism is sickness’

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832), the German writer famous for the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) is considered to have been one of the originators of the Romantic movement but in later life he described Romanticism as a ‘disease’.11  The effect of the Romantic ‘disease’ on music has been to turn it inward and convert its listeners into modern lotus eaters.

Mendelssohn plays to Goethe, 1830: painting by Moritz Oppenheim, 1864

In The Odyssey, Book IX, Odysseus is blown off course but reaches a land inhabited by people who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. He sends a few men to investigate but upon tasting the lotus they fall into a peaceful apathy and lose interest in going home until Odysseus drags them out and leaves at once. Similarly much modern music has a narcotic effect on mass audiences who are overwhelmed by emotion while at the same time attain personal catharsis.12

Odysseus removing his men from the company of the lotus-eaters

Conclusion

The current geopolitical crises involving Venezuela, Syria, Yemen, Iran, Palestine and China are in need of mass political campaigns to bring about awareness and pressure against the drumbeats of a third world war. Building collectivist movements with a radical collectivist culture and moving away from the individualism and irrationalism of Romantic culture of the nineteenth and twentieth century is a necessary step towards real political change. Music, of all the arts, can be a powerful force in the creation of a collective consciousness. Composers of music and song highlighting the various issues affecting people today are necessary. Therefore, examining the issues around the form and content of music in society is an urgent requirement if music is to have an important cultural role in the future.

  1. The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters, Anthony Pagden (Oxford Uni Press, 2015) pp. 72/3.
  2. Revolutionary Romanticism: A Drunken Boat Anthology, Max Blechman (City Lights Books, 1999), p. 5.
  3. Hanns Eisler Vokalsinfonik – Vocal Symphonic Music Berlin Classics CD, Sleeve notes, p. 24.
  4. Hanns Eisler Political Musician, Albrecht Betz [Trans Bill Hopkins] (Cambridge Uni Press: Cambridge, 1982) pp. 235/7.
  5. Hanns Eisler: A Rebel in Music: Selected Writings, Hanns Eisler (Author), M. Grabs (Editor) (Kahn and Averill, London, 1999) p. 143.
  6. Hanns Eisler Political Musician, Albrecht Betz [Trans Bill Hopkins] (Cambridge Uni Press: Cambridge, 1982) p. 92.
  7. The Triumph of Music: Composers, Musicians and Their Audiences, 1700 to the Present, Tim Blanning (Penguin Modern Classics, 2008) p. 114.
  8. The Triumph of Music: Composers, Musicians and Their Audiences, 1700 to the Present, Tim Blanning (Penguin Modern Classics, 2008) p. 121.
  9. The Triumph of Music: Composers, Musicians and Their Audiences, 1700 to the Present, Tim Blanning (Penguin Modern Classics, 2008) p. 118/9.
  10. The Romantic Rebellion: Romantic Versus Classic Art Illustrated, Sir Kenneth Clark (John Murray Pub., 1973) p. 167.
  11. The Roots of Romanticism by Isaiah Berlin (Princeton Uni Press, 1999) p.130.
  12. Homer The Odyssey (Penguin Classics, 1988) p. 141.

SPECIAL EDITION: Songs For Today, an Album Tour



Note to readers of my column:  I normally organize my weekly missives in such a way that they work almost as well in written form as they do in podcast form.  This week is a bit different — this week’s podcast doesn’t just involve a song at the end that’s related to the subject at hand, but the podcast is about the album, and includes all 13 songs on it, interspersed.  But if you want to read all about the album without listening to it, keep reading!

*****

From 10 am until about 9 pm on Wednesday, May 29th, I was working with an award-winning musician, producer, engineer and studio owner named Billy Oskay, along with his assistant engineer, Peter Wells, to record 13 songs.  We took a few minutes off to chat or have a snack or make some coffee now and then, but otherwise it was noses to the grindstone.  The result, by the end of the day, is my latest solo acoustic studio album, titled Songs For Today, in the form of 13 very high-quality WAV files that I put into a Dropbox folder.  For now, I’m making the album exclusively available to members of my CSA, or Community-Supported Art program, where everyone who signs up gets access to a folder with 42 albums in it, some of which are only available to CSA members, such as my latest.  But if you don’t mind listening to me ramble on about each song before you hear it, you can also take in the album by listening to this special edition of my weekly podcast — This Week with David Rovics episode 44.

I’ve never done a tour of an album in a podcast, but I also wasn’t doing podcasts when I made any of my previous 41 albums, and it seemed like a good idea.  For a variety of reasons, but partly because it works well with the theme of several of my recent missives related to the economic and other logistical realities of being a working, independent musician.  What, exactly, goes in to making an album?  Where did these songs come from?  What was involved with writing and recording them?  It seems like a worthwhile topic to explore, using this album to do it, one song at a time.

Before I continue, for people who enjoy this podcast and the music within it, if you’re able to join my CSA that would be amazing, and you can do that by going to davidrovics.com/subscribe.  If that’s beyond your means, don’t worry about it, but feel free to tell other folks about it who you may know, who like my music and also might be more gainfully-employed than you or I are.  Also please feel free to let folks know that they can hear this podcast by searching for This Week with David Rovics on any of the usual podcasting platforms.

The album is called Songs For Today, but I almost called it Somewhere On Spotify.  I decided against that title, not exactly sure why, but anyway, the album both begins and ends with songs related to a particular struggling profession with which I am most intimately familiar — the independent, touring, recording musician.  Most of the songs on the album were written over the course of the past 9 months or so, but the first and last songs on the album are both songs I wrote the most recently, during the past month.

What predicated both of these songs, along with other songs I’ve written on related subjects, is decades of experience as a touring musician, working in a collapsing industry.  Having been on Spotify and most other streaming platforms since they came into existence, it was fairly obvious that this was going to be the music industry’s game plan to do what they could to recoup their losses and that it would be their newest method of screwing struggling independent artists around the world.  Recently I’ve read extensively on the subject and have discovered that my suspicions are shared by many people who know much more about the details than I do.*

A little over a year ago I got word from folks in Manitoba that plans were afoot to commemorate the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.  The folk festival organizers and labor organizers in Manitoba who had brought me there on a couple occasions in the past were planning to do it again, for the first time in at least six years, as far as I could recall.  This gave me plenty of time to read up on the history of the strike, and write a song about it, which I eventually did last December.

I was already familiar with a lot of the context of the heady times the strike took place in — the 1910’s, with the backdrop of wars, revolutions, and many other general strikes in many other countries, including in other cities in Canada.  Reading the many accounts of the strike which emphasized the total solidarity in the city of Winnipeg among native-born Canadians, immigrants of all kinds, veterans of the First World War, non-veterans, unionized and non-unionzed workers, and even ultimately the police themselves, the chorus hit me.  I wrote the song as if I had been there, and obviously I wasn’t, so on a couple different levels one’s disbelief must be suspended, but that’s how it is when you’re writing from someone else’s perspective, which is a fine thing to do on a regular basis, I find.  And although I wasn’t there myself, I can be sure that when I say “if you weren’t there you’ll never know just what it was like when the whole city went on strike,” this is true — for me, too.  I can only dream — and write.*

As a regular consumer of lots of world news in various forms, I’ve been closely following the ongoing and worsening economic situation in Venezuela that has been unfolding over recent years, particularly since the death of Hugo Chavez, who I opened for in Copenhagen in 2009, and who I wrote a song about before that.

Without, if possible, tooting my own horn in some narcissistic way, I think it’s interesting to briefly explore what exactly goes into writing a song like the third track on the album, “In Venezuela.”  How would we break it down?  Partly I just find it an interesting question because Spotify values one stream at one one-tenth of one cent, which strikes me as elitist.  Also because I, along with lots of other musicians, am often in the position of being asked to do a gig and being told that we will be paid “traveling expenses.”  I always wonder exactly how this amorphous concept is defined, especially when they know they’re talking to a musician who is not from their country.  Traveling expenses from the last city I played in to the city you’re in?  Or traveling expenses from Oregon to Europe?  Do these “expenses” include food and lodging?  How about paying the rent back at home and feeding the kids?  And so on.

On the surface, obviously the song was written after extensively following developments in Venezuela, amounting to hundreds of hours of news programs from many different news outlets from many different countries and many different perspectives, as well as a similar amount of written material from a similar variety of sources.  The perspective behind the song, though it’s a short song, also required that I understand the nuances involved in terms of the current government of Venezuela not being without fault, but also not being primarily responsible for the current mess.  Nowhere in the song do I present a black and white perspective, though this can obviously be inferred by anyone who really wants to infer one, given the small amount of information that you can really have in a decently-written song.  Equally, the perspective in the song also required an extensive knowledge of Latin American history and the history of US imperialism in the world more broadly and in Venezuela in particular.

As with all of the songs on this album, I’m using an open tuning called DADGAD, which I first learned from listening to the Scottish musician, Dick Gaughan, and then later discovered among many other players in the Scottish and Irish traditional music scenes especially.  The dissonant chords that feature prominently in this song are ones I adapted from listening to, touring with, and learning from Scottish master guitarist, Alistair Hulett, before his untimely death.*

There are many songs about events that took place which I never would have heard about if I didn’t travel so much.  It also helps that at least some people know I’m always interested in hearing about things that someone thinks would make a good song.  Last year was when I first learned of the trial of the Rotherham 12, in the small, struggling, post-industrial northern English city of Rotherham.

Still today, if you mention the town of Rotherham in England, if anyone has heard of it, it has been in the context of tabloid press stories about Asian men grooming children to become victims in a pedophilia ring.  To read the English tabloids, you would think that all the Asian men in Rotherham were pedophiles, though obviously we’re talking about a tiny minority, and no larger percentage than there is within the broader population.  Groups of Nazis capitalized on the situation by holding monthly anti-Asian rallies in Rotherham.

The fact that the police steered an anti-Nazi march directly in front of a group of Nazis, essentially forced a confrontation, and then went about actively vilifying and prosecuting the Asian men who defended themselves against Nazis, is still little-known in England, or anywhere else in the world.  But in the town of Rotherham, the trial saw many people from all walks of life mobilized in defense of these innocent men, who were ultimately acquitted.

I only heard about the Rotherham 12 last year, from Love Music, Hate Racism organizers in the area who were putting together a gig for me, who were also very much involved with the solidarity campaign.  The song went through several revisions before it got to its present state, as I checked with LMHR organizers as well as one member of the Rotherham 12 to make sure I was getting all my facts straight, and just as importantly, to make sure I was accurately representing the emotions behind the whole situation, particularly given that I’m again writing this song from the first person perspective, and I am myself neither from Rotherham or of Asian descent, and I was not on trial, either.

Musically, the song’s chords and structure once again owe a great debt to Alistair Hulett.  Fans of Alistair’s who are also serious guitarists might notice the unusual, dissonant chords in DADGAD in the song.  The other musician who was very influential in the guitar style employed in this song is Ani DiFranco.  I fell in love with her intense, percussive guitar style when I first heard her, in the 90’s.  I developed my own right-hand thump technique, to keep a steady rhythm in between chords and riffs, around 2011, I guess, and it started finding its way into many of my songs, especially ones I wrote around 2011 and 2012, but it crops up again frequently in more recent songwriting efforts to varying degrees.*

Jeremy Corbyn is the elected leader of the biggest political party, by membership, in all of Europe — the British Labor Party.  As an avid listener to BBC World Service and active consumer of other British media, I might have been forgiven for thinking that Jeremy Corbyn was either a pitchfork-bearing anarchist with a recently-contracted case of rabies, or some kind of a clown.  As a regular visitor to the island that contains England, Scotland and Wales, I know differently.  Jeremy Corbyn is a brilliant and morally upstanding human being.  Not only does he have a stellar voting record and great eloquence when it comes to explaining his very sensibly left wing positions on most everything, but he is a personal friend of friends of mine, and one of my best former gig organizers in England is now in his shadow cabinet.  I wrote this song last November.*

I have been writing songs about refugees for a long time now.  Partly this is because I write songs about historical and current events, and refugees figure prominently into them, in many different ways.  Also the reality of refugees and what people go through to get out of war zones is a phenomenon I have intimate second-hand experience with, being close friends with many refugees from many different war zones, from Guatemala to Afghanistan to Palestine.

But particularly since what became known as the refugee crisis of 2015 in Europe — which hit me hard, you could say, because Europe is where I do most of my touring these days, and being in the little niche I’m in, I did a lot of gigs in 2015 throughout Europe, and even a few in the US, with and in solidarity with refugees from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, and elsewhere — I became increasingly aware that what hit me so hard about this situation is partly how closely it resembled the kind of situation my own ancestors were in, when they fled wars in Europe for the relative safety of New York.

Shortly after writing the song, “My Great Grandparents,” last fall, I learned that at least on my father’s eastern European Jewish side of the family, I have a lot in common with Donald Trump’s xenophobic immigration czar, Stephen Miller, and Stephen Miller’s uncle, who so eloquently denounced everything his nephew stands for in an open letter he published soon after I wrote it.*

I guess track 7 is the only song on the album that was written more than a year ago.  I wrote “Is That A Girl Or A Boy” in 2015.  I don’t even have to look it up, because 2015 is the year I was mainly writing songs using an electric cello instead of a guitar as my main instrument for playing chords on, or some approximation thereof.  It was one of many “cello songs” that never made it on to the one album of cello-backed songs I made, Punk Baroque.  But pretty much every time I make a new album, I take some time to go over songs I’ve written over the past few years that have never made it onto an album.  There are many others I considered, but this is the only one I chose.  There were also many songs I wrote in the past year that also didn’t make the cut — not because they weren’t well-written songs, but mainly because I’m looking for a nice selection of different themes and different musical styles when I’m putting together an album, and a good album, like a good song, is generally best when it’s neither too short or too long.

The song was inspired by kids I’ve known who have preferred to dress in clothes that are popularly identified as belonging to a gender other than the one that they are generally identified with.  It’s a song for all the boys who like to wear dresses, and all the other gender-nonconformists.  It was also inspired by the beautiful children’s book, Jacob’s Dress, and by other experiences in my own personal exposure to and slow development of an understanding of what so many people around me have been going through for so long, just because they don’t conform to patriarchal gender stereotypes — gender norms and expectations which we would all be better off throwing out, I have come to believe.  My own teenage daughter, Leila, has been a big part of my education on that front as well.*

I was once again thinking so much about my daughter — at the time I only had one, now I have two daughters, as well as a son — last September, during the Supreme Court hearings and related activities going on around Brett Kavanaugh, who, of course, was confirmed as a member of the Supreme Court, where he now presides over us all.  Hearing the testimony of Dr. Blaisey-Ford, hearing his pleas of total ignorance, it brought me back to my teen years, growing up around the same time as they did, in the same culture, in which teenage male football players are given a massive carte blanche to behave in whatever misogynistic ways they want to, with no repercussions, leaving a trail of destruction, pain and anger in their wake.

Long before these particular hearings, though, I struggled with the idea of writing a song like the one I ended up writing, “Behind Closed Doors.”  My own feminist education has been a gradual one, and I didn’t want to write a song that somehow left me off the hook, or implied that I have always lived up to my own standards of behavior, or that my standards have always been what they are now.  I grew up in the same sorts of suburbs as they did.  I never behaved the way Brett Kavanaugh did, but I knew a lot of guys who did, like the entire football team in my high school one year.  They talked about ending the football program and suspending the entire team.  As I recall, they did neither, and the idea of criminal prosecutions wasn’t even on the table.

But listening to the way Blaisey-Ford described the party she was at, and the cultural environment and extreme forms of male entitlement around the football team in her suburb, in my suburb, I kept thinking of this one football player I knew from another town who bragged to me about how he got drunk and raped a fellow drunk teenager at a party they were both at one night.  He thought that his actions made him both cool and funny.  I didn’t think he was either cool or funny, but it wasn’t until last September that I started really wondering who was the girl he raped, and how has her life been over the past 35 years or so, since that kid told me about his horrifying accomplishments.  Then I thought about my own daughter, already in Middle School, soon going off into the world.*

The astute observer may have noticed thematic connections between songs appearing on the album.  Sometimes I opted for musical diversity and the changing of keys from one song to the next over thematic connection, while other times all those factors came together fine.  Tracks 4 and 5, about the Rotherham 12 and Jeremy Corbyn, are both about England, for example.  Tracks 7 and 8 are both related to gender and gender roles.  Tracks 2 and 3 are both about epic, world-historic struggles of the working class on Planet Earth.

Tracks 9-12 are all directly related to war and peace.  Track 9, “In ’68,” is an overview of some of the key events of 1968 on the streets of the US, France, southeast Asia and elsewhere.  The guitar part employs a bit of that thump I mentioned earlier, and some dissonant, Hulett-esque chords, played with a slightly funky right-hand part.

As with many other songs, this song was probably mainly written as a response to media coverage of 1968 that I was listening to throughout 2018, which did usually touch on protests as well as sex, drugs and rock and roll, but most of the coverage of the protests minimized them in terms of how much support the movement had, how global it was, how threatening it was to the powers-that-be around the world, and how much it changed the face of so many societies, despite the fact that the movement in the US, France and most other places was ultimately beaten back.  It may not be much consolation, but if not for certain social movements, things might be even worse now than they are.

The basic knowledge of history involved with writing a song like this involves a lifetime of reading history, news stories, traveling to key destinations, and personally knowing many of the people involved with this particular struggle, most of whom are still alive and currently in their seventies or eighties.*

I studied Political Economy at the Evergreen State College for a few months in the fall of 1993.  I was apparently unsuited for academia, and I didn’t last long, but I had a lot of nice walks through the beautiful, forested campus, I met a lot of nice people, and I attended a lot of fascinating lectures about politics and economics by Pete Bohmer, some of which I understood.  I wrote this song as a surprise for his 75th birthday, but after I wrote it I liked it so much that I had to put it on the album, so I might lose the element of surprise before his actual birthday party.*

A man from more or less the same generation as my professor, but on exactly the opposite end of the spectrum politically, was the late Senator John McCain.  He was celebrated by liberals and conservatives alike, for very mysterious reasons.  To me, he was nothing more or less than a war criminal.  Not just because he flew bombing missions over Vietnam as a young man, but because in his long life as a politician, he supported every war that ever came across his desk, and every military expenditure, at the expense of humanity — including his own.  This is my remembrance of Senator John McCain, who died last August.*

One of the biggest supporters of arming the criminal regime of Saudi Arabia and aiding the Saudi royal family in its apparent goal to completely destroy Yemen and kill all of the country’s inhabitants was Senator John McCain.  His own death came twenty days after the Saudi Air Force bombed a bus parked in a crowded outdoor market in Yemen, killing 44 children, among many others.  They were all from the same school, out on a school trip.

There were a couple songs on the album that were significantly reshaped by my producer for the album, Billy Oskay, and “Today In Yemen” was one of them.  Those of you who want to hear the difference can check out earlier versions of the song that you can find on the very first episode of my podcast, This Week with David Rovics.*

The last song on the album is, like the first one, about the struggle of the working musician in the post-piracy, for-profit streaming age.  It is my musical effort to encapsulate what it is we need to do — not to form an alternate platform or boycott the incredible infrastructure that we all now have at our fingertips in the form of platforms like Spotify, but to organize as a class against the ruling elite of Big Tech, as represented by predatory corporations such as Spotify, and their predatory companion corporations such as Uber and Facebook.  It is the theme song for the campaign I’m trying to get off the ground, which I’m calling the Penny Campaign for Streaming Justice.*

Taking On Spotify: Why We Need A Global Campaign



How should independent musicians survive in the streaming age? There seems to be mostly a lot of hopelessness, along with a few dead-end ideas. I have another idea: demand streaming justice. Fight back against the vulture capitalists of Stockholm. How did we get to this point? Here are my two cents.

Extinction Rebellion is challenging the workings of modern capitalism and the ecocidal society it has tortured into existence. They say we must find a different way to live before our species — and so many others — is extinct. Meanwhile, this same system of unregulated global capitalist insanity has, in the name of modernity, technology, freedom and smart phones, duped so many of us into believing that there is something positive and futuristic about viciously predatory, completely destructive vulture corporations such as Uber and Spotify. Just as cab drivers around the world are organizing on behalf of what’s left of their profession, and Uber and Lyft drivers are also organizing, waking up to the realization that they are a super-exploited work force who are increasingly unable to make a living, since they were never an important part of the business model in the first place, me and my fellow musicians need to organize for streaming justice.

Spotify has behaved in exactly the same ways as Uber on the global corporate and political stage, pouring unbelievable amounts of money into a platform in order to make it totally dominant, at which point they go in for the kill. It is a debt-based form of vulture capitalism that is leaving the entire indy music industry in a shambles, benefiting only a handful of pop stars, so-called legacy acts, or their record labels, and viral sensations, while everybody else moves into their cars and signs up for Food Stamps.

The final straw that led to my realization that the only way forward is a global campaign targeting Spotify and other streaming corporations until they transparently meet our demands for a minimum rate per stream, was learning from veteran music journalist Anil Prasad that the payout rate per stream from Spotify was actually decreasing, rather than increasing. More evidence that Spotify is committed to the same predatory business model as that practiced by Uber.

With the extreme speed at which everything constantly changes these days, it’s impossible to keep up, and there’s a huge lag time between when everything breaks and when most people realize it broke. To use some good old Marxist analysis of the trends, different situations involve different sets of contradictions, and depending on what those contradictions are, different sorts of tactics are called for. The tactic that is called for now, most especially, is not forming alternate platforms, or embracing a life of poverty. What is called for now is direct confrontation — independent artists organizing for our class interests, against the interests of our class enemies, represented in their most devastating form (for us) by Spotify and other “budget” streaming platforms.

I’ll explain my thoughts. I think the best way to go about that is first to back up and take a little look at where my fellow musicians have been in, say, my lifetime. Being a musician, especially an independent one, has never been an easy profession, regardless of the mythology and the small handful of superstars. But certainly in my lifetime there has never been a more difficult time to be a singer/songwriter than now — despite what you will hear all over the corporate press about how things are starting to look up for musicians. This statement is only true if you think, or want us to think, that the interests of the Big Three record labels have anything to do with the interests of the vast majority of working musicians in the world alive today. But they don’t.

Once upon a time, the interests of musicians, record labels and music-lovers were a bit more aligned. Few people in society or in the music business in the US were fully cognizant back then that if the music business ever had a golden age, it was largely due to government regulation. For most of the radio age there were laws in the US that severely limited how many radio stations a person or corporation could own, and what they could do with them. This allowed for a local music scene to exist in every region of the country. Similar laws in other countries fostered local music, and at the same time helped prevent local radio in, say, Canada, from being dominated by artists from the much bigger US music scene.

In the US, the Reagan administration changed all that as soon as it came to power in 1981. What changed for independent artists? Well, before 1981, life wasn’t fair and neither was the music industry, but there were local music scenes, there was relative musical diversity between them, different genres and different local styles within those genres. The genres were too strictly defined by the corporate industry, artists were always being put into boxes they didn’t want to be in, pushed to create art they didn’t want to create and not make the art they wanted to make. Things were very imperfect. But despite that, there were legitimate avenues for independent artists to sign deals with independent record labels, get local radio play, tour, and have a career of some kind, maybe even a really good one. Lots of great artists fell through the cracks, but enough didn’t that for most musicians wanting to pursue a career as touring performers, the path of least resistance was to line up some kind of record deal.

Enter the 1980’s. Independent commercial radio and, with it, independent record labels, began their rapid decline. With these avenues now cut off, more and more artists gave up on the idea of finding a record deal, gave up on the dream of being “discovered,” and started doing it themselves. There was a flourishing of a new DIY culture, with new tape-pressing outlets opening up all over the place, with artists forming lots of one-person record labels, releasing their own recordings, spreading the word about gigs, tours, and recordings through word of mouth, zines, underground press, community radio, mixed tapes, and by other means.

The flourishing of DIY culture in the 1980’s has often been explained by technology — specifically the popularity of the cassette tape and the photocopying machine, which made self-recording and self-publishing especially accessible. I think this aspect has been wildly exaggerated, however, and the main reason for the growth of DIY culture in the 80’s was a consequence of the closing-off of all other reasonable avenues. DIY became the path of least resistance because it was basically the only path available. If we weren’t using cassette tapes, it would have been something else.

Soon it was — it was CDs. Enter the 90’s. Now we’re talking about my own lived experience, because that’s when I started making a living as a singer/songwriter and touring all over the US, Europe and elsewhere. It was a lot like the 80’s, but far more so in many ways. The corporate record industry overall was more insular, elitist and bland than ever in the history of the music business. But the independent music scene thriving on self-made and self-distributed recordings was doing even better than it had been a decade earlier, with the advent of the internet, email lists, bulletin boards and other forms of online publicity. The idea of seeking a major label record contract was as distant an idea as it could possibly have been for me, but it also didn’t interest me at all, knowing that no major record label would ever want to sign someone like me in the first place. But it was also a distant idea because I was doing just fine, selling several thousand of my self-produced CDs on tour every year, making tens of thousands of dollars on CD sales alone — after the expenses involved with recording, mixing, mastering, artwork, duplication, etc., were covered.

This was the period when the corporate music industry was at its most monopolistic peak. It has since been in a state of free-fall, up until the past couple years. And what has happened to independent artists during this period of industrial collapse?

Let’s examine this carefully — which is hard to do, because statistics are often unavailable or misleading, often intentionally. Universally, record industry executives will lament the Naughties, the period during which they were basically suffering colony collapse, lost at sea, with the future completely uncertain. The reason? Well, their whole business model had fallen apart.

Namely, you spend lots of money to sign an artist, spend lots to record them, spend far more to promote them, and then once you’ve spent all this money and done all this work so that everybody has now heard of this pop star you’re pushing, you then reap your rewards in the form of millions of CD sales. But by now we had MP3’s. So what most people were now doing, come the early 2000’s, was hearing from the TV or radio about this band’s new album, but then instead of going to buy it at Wal-Mart, they were downloading it for free on Napster or somewhere else on the internet.

This is the phenomenon that caused the corporate music industry to collapse, and this is why they are so happy about streaming platforms that pay them something — billions, in fact — unlike the illegal ones of the Naughties. Their executives will talk about the Naughties as the Dark Ages of their industry, and they almost always make the unspoken assumption that this was also true for independent musicians.

That assumption, however, is wrong, from my own copious experience of making a good living touring all over the world throughout the Naughties, selling thousands of CDs every year as I had in the Nineties, but also developing a new and bigger following globally as a direct result of the increasing popularity of the internet and the free MP3. I gave away all my music online in MP3 form throughout the Naughties, yet I sold as many CDs as ever.

Why did I and many other people voluntarily give away all our music during this period? There are many different reasons for doing this, and they differ depending on who you ask. For me, it was about many things — getting the music out there to the widest possible potential audience, discovering new places to tour as a result, and other practical considerations, but most especially, giving away your music was now a new way to challenge the hegemonic dominance of the Big Three record labels and other hegemonic corporate entities such as the evil Clearchannel. We could do an end run. For us, the act of giving away the music was the promotion. For them, they already spent millions promoting the album, which is why people heard about it, so then they got it for free, rendering all that promotion useless.

For us, people were hearing our music who never would have heard it otherwise. For them, everyone knew their music through “conventional” means. For us, giving away our music was generally something we did ourselves, by uploading tracks to platforms that we had control over. By the early Naughties people had downloaded more than a million of my songs, just on one now-extinct platform alone. If I came out with a new CD that I didn’t upload myself to the internet, however, generally no one else would bother ripping it and uploading it themselves. People did this with pop stars on a daily basis, but with artists like me they didn’t bother — it was just a little bit too much trouble to go doing something that took some time, and that most fans of my music wouldn’t want to do in the first place. Paths of least resistance, once again.

Enter the 2010’s. This is the decade when everything changed for me and other independent artists in the most profoundly negative way. This is also the decade when things started looking up for the very shrunken but still surviving corporate music industry. What changed? In a nutshell, the record companies, at about one fifth the size they had been in the Nineties, made peace with streaming. Now it’s not just the indy artists, but the big record labels that are giving everything away. Well, not giving it away, but selling it for a fraction of a cent per song streamed. Which, of course, only works on a practical basis if you are getting hundreds of thousands or millions of streams per month on the full-spectrum dominant platform of Spotify — not tens of thousands or fewer, like me and the vast majority of working singer/songwriters on the planet. And with the new deals the industry is making with Spotify, the percentages for indy artists are set to get worse, as the percentages for the big record companies get better — as those with the most influence make the best deals with their new, vulture capitalist puppet-masters from Stockholm.

Now the central contradictions have changed, and we must change with them. Now, the path of least resistance for people — by far — is to listen to free music on their phones. Spotify Premium comes bundled with many cell phone accounts. People are led to believe they are helping artists by listening to their music on the platform, and helping us even more by getting a Premium account. It is actually much easier to find an album on Spotify than it is to stick a CD in a CD player which you no longer own. No need to look around on the Dark Web for bittorrents that may be infected with malware. And we cannot possibly compete with free.

This is exactly why crowdfunding took off in the 2010’s, and not in the Naughties. The concept has existed for a very long time, and has been successfully implemented by NPR and Pacifica Radio for many decades, along with the Girl Scouts and loads of other organizations. It’s not new, and although the technology of the internet is very helpful in setting up a crowdfunding operation, it’s far from necessary. Crowdfunding became popular in the 2010’s for the simple reason that independent musicians could not afford to record albums or otherwise survive by any other means, unless they quit doing music or got a second, or a third, job.

Most crowdfunding campaigns fail, however, and so many others never happen because musicians don’t feel comfortable with the idea. They never used to have to beg. Most of them have never even been buskers. Suddenly it seems to have become the only way to survive for so many of us in the so-called gig economy. I’m sure that in the very near future, Uber drivers will be doing crowdfunders to buy their next car, since their wages as drivers won’t possibly allow them to save up for one — just as our income from streaming doesn’t even come close to covering the cost of making the next album, unless you’re making it with your cell phone. And forget about paying the rent.

And just as the idea of forming an alternative company to compete with Uber’s race to the bottom is a dead-end idea, just as the idea of forming an alternate social media platform to the completely dominant Facebook hasn’t worked, the idea of forming a different platform to compete with Spotify’s race to the bottom is a pointless undertaking. Spotify is the infrastructure for streaming. Me, you, no one has the means to create a new one. We can keep crowdfunding, sure. We can roll over and play dead, or look for other ways to get by.

Or we can fight. We can organize, and we can win. History shows that memes can spread and have a huge impact, when they are spread in the form of art, music and lots of civil disobedience. The contradictions have changed. This is not the time for entrepreneurial innovations. This is not the time for more venture capital. This is not the time for making peace with a new form of serfdom. The new system, the infrastructure for music distribution on the planet, is now here. It is streaming, it is “free,” and it is led by the vulture capitalists of Spotify, devouring the corpse of an industry they have destroyed — but in such a hip and fashionable way, with an aperitif in between courses.

Fighting back against Spotify means demanding streaming justice. My suggestion is that our initial demand from these corporate vermin be that there be a minimum payout per song streamed of one US cent, without exceptions. A simple demand. Consistency, predictability, something we can understand, not a mysterious algorithm with a payout that radically changes month to month, despite our listenership increasing. If a streaming platform’s business model does not start with paying artists at least a penny per song streamed, then screw their business model and their business. They can go out of business, and return the internet to the pirates, if a tiny fraction of a cent is what they think is acceptable.

A relatively small number of very committed people can, history indicates, change everything. Fellow artists and those who care about the survival of artists, and by extension other people victimized by the same sort of predatory practices of corporations like Uber and Spotify, and anyone else with a conscience, I ask you: who will join me in a campaign of music, art, and civil disobedience against Spotify? The beta version of the Penny Campaign is up at davidrovics.com/penny. Check it out and tell me what you think.

Musicians of the world, unite! We have nothing to lose but our chains. I’ll meet you in Stockholm.

Somewhere On Spotify: My Own Industrial Collapse, Part 2

Spotify is not single-handedly responsible for my relatively impoverished financial state as a working musician.  But it is certainly one of the most prominent reasons for it.

Somewhere on Spotify:  My Own Industrial Collapse, Part 2.  I could agree with myself on the heading for this one, but I’m having trouble with the subheading.  This is the kind of thing writers, and editors, agonize over for some reason.  Nobody else probably cares or notices, or at least that’s what they think.  There are so many things like that.  But I digress.  The subheading to follow up Somewhere On Spotify:  How To Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater was one idea.  How To Become A Dinosaur was another.  But then this is basically a followup to missive #27 from a few months ago, My Own Industrial Collapse, so, My Own Industrial Collapse, Part 2 made sense.

Listeners of my podcast will be aware that I always end it with an original song relevant to the subject at hand, sometimes one I just wrote.  Often it’s a song related to recent events somewhere in the world — Gaza, London, California, or wherever else.  This week I’ll stay closer to home — my own, specifically.  And by extension, millions of other people in the world who used to make a living traveling, playing music, and selling their recordings at their shows and through the mail.

The song I wrote that predicated this missive was not inspired by international, national or even local news.  Maybe local, but really, really local.  The news of my windowsill, in front of which sits a laptop on a desk, through which I have access to so much of the world’s knowledge, art and music, basically for the cost of the Xfinity corporation’s usurious monthly broadband fee.  I got one of those emails from CDBaby that I get every three months, telling me I can use their platform to upload a new album to all the various music streaming services — use this code to get their fee waived, because I use them for web hosting, and that’s part of the deal.  Then that email reminded me that I intended around now to make my most recent album, Historic Times, available on Spotify.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve put an album up on Spotify.  The last one was Ballad of a Wobbly, in 2017.  With that recording and several others before it — Punk Baroque, Live in Rostrevor — over ten thousand dollars altogether went into making the recordings I made between 2016 and 2017, and I never had any intent of making that money back, or turning a profit on it, or releasing the recordings in physical form.  For two of the aforementioned recordings, I crowdfunded the recording costs, as I have done on many other occasions, with varying degrees of success.

The album I’m about to put up on Spotify, however, is a bit different.  It was, it is, a vinyl record — my first and last.  I’m guessing I will have boxes full of vinyl records sitting on top of my closet, along with the boxes of CDs under my daughter’s bed, for years to come.  The broad lack of interest in vinyl appears to me to be just as total as the lack of interest in CDs or any other kind of merch I might try to sell at shows or on my website.

Which makes perfect sense from a consumer viewpoint, and, of course, we all do it every time we search on the internet — find free information, news, music, art, movies, podcasts, whatever else.  But from the vantage point of those of us who are what they call “content creators” it’s an unmitigated disaster at this point.

Those of us born yesterday might take heart at recent Spotify-related news.  Spotify has invested half a billion dollars into becoming a major podcasting platform.  I don’t know if this is related, but my listenership on Spotify has recently doubled — up from 2,700 monthly listeners to over 5,000, each of whom are streaming about an album’s worth of music about once a month.  My monthly revenue from Spotify has risen from a three-digit number beginning with a “1” to a three-digit number beginning with a “2.”

In the business cycle of a touring musician there are times when you’re making money and times when you’re spending it.  Well, you’re always spending it, but there are times when you’re also making it, and other times when you’re just spending.  Like when you buy lots of plane tickets for tours coming up that you haven’t done yet, so you haven’t actually made any money yet, you’ve just put a whole bunch of plane tickets on your credit card.  The hope, and sometimes the reality, is that at the end of the tour, you’ve paid off your credit card and you’ve even got some money in the bank.

So as I was contemplating uploading my latest album to Spotify, I actually found myself looking at my $9,000 in credit card debt after all those plane tickets and everything else, contrasting it with the $2,000 currently in my bank account after having just paid rent for the month of May, and thinking, if I upload this album now, maybe by next month there’ll be an extra $50 coming from Spotify.

That’s when I was suddenly overwhelmed with the kind of emotion that leads a songwriter to write a song, let’s just say.  Sometimes it seems too dangerous just to let yourself feel what you’re feeling, and to acknowledge it to yourself.  You can always put a positive spin on most things, if they’re not totally dire — I’m putting my album up on Spotify, cool, now I’ll make an extra dollar a day for a little while, in ten years or so I will have paid for the cost of the recording, and hey, all those people out there who are too lazy or otherwise will never bother downloading the album for free on my website can now get it the way they prefer to consume all of their music, on Spotify, without leaving that particular Swedish corporation’s now-ubiquitous platform.  I might get dozens of new fans around the world because of this album being on Spotify.  Maybe some of them will even come to my shows, on the unlikely occasion that I happen to be playing wherever on the planet they happen to live.

Sometimes my internal voice of motherly optimism just gets squelched by the reality of my collapsing industry.  The act of putting this album on Spotify, which I invested so much time and money and effort into, this album that represents everything that went into four different recording projects, including a days-long session to record new songs specifically for this album — it hit me that the feeling was almost exactly like how I felt as a kid on behalf of my friend whose parents forced him to “give away” his dog to someone who lived on a farm in the countryside, because the dog would be happier there.  In retrospect, they probably made up the bit about the farm in the countryside.  But, assuming, as we did, that it was true the dog was going to live out the rest of its days on a nice farm somewhere, romping around in the fields, our overwhelming sense as children was one of loss.  We wanted to keep the dog, even though we only lived in the suburbs, not the countryside, where dogs apparently belonged, according to my friend’s parents.

This record isn’t alive, but I raised it.  I wrote all those songs.  Each one represents a day or several days or sometimes weeks of spending much of my time reading, writing and playing to get the song right.  Most of the money for making most of the recordings was crowdfunded, it’s true, but the idea of being compensated in some real way for my time and effort in this whole process, the idea that there’s any direct relationship between making these recordings and paying my rent, is at this point a cruel joke.  If the money for the recordings weren’t crowdfunded, where would it possibly come from?  There are no sales.

Putting the album up on Spotify feels like nothing more or less than an admission of this fact.

I had a wonderful concert at a labor history conference last weekend in Portland.  These are my people — I recognized a lot of the faces in the room, labor organizers and leftwing academics from all over western Canada and the US.  There were 130 people at the show, I believe.  An enthusiastic and appreciative crowd in the triple digits.  A decade ago at a show like that I would have easily sold enough CDs to pay that month’s rent.  As it is, I was happy that I sold a handful of recordings.  Let’s see, I still have the cash right here, let me count it — $110.

I know that depending on what you do for a living, whether you’re paid by the hour or on a salary — or not at all — it’s hard to get your head around the workings of someone else’s profession, and the expenses and costs involved with it.  But you probably get the basic idea.  I made a lot more money at gigs when I was in my thirties than I do now, in my fifties.  I didn’t crowdfund for making expensive recordings because I didn’t need to.  Now it would be impossible any other way.

But wait, people say, when I whine about the state of the profession I’m in.  There’s home recording — you can get a nice microphone and set up a studio in your nonexistent extra room in your overpriced apartment or perhaps somewhere in between the cribs and the diapers.

Which brings me to the bits about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and being a dinosaur.  I am, I now realize, a dinosaur, and I presumably will be for the rest of my life.  Because I remember what it was like to make a living as a touring musician, largely from income derived from selling your physical recordings to people who liked your music so much they wanted to listen to it at home, which more or less required that they buy physical albums.  I remember those days, and I always will, and so will everyone else who had that experience, which now seems like a fantasy.  Hard to believe that there was once a time where it made sense to spend thousands of dollars of your own hard-earned money on making another recording every year, because if you made it, you’d sell more during that year of touring than you would otherwise, such that it would easily make up for the expenditure involved, and then some.

I’ll be the dinosaur who remembers the days before we embraced USB mics and technological optimism at the expense of recording studios with engineers and producers in them.  My well-meaning fans, friends and acquaintances on Facebook and Twitter give me advice — cut costs, record at home.  Some of them are even musicians, most of whom are too young or outside of the realm of more professional music circles to have ever worked with a professional engineer and producer in a real studio.  If even musicians don’t know the difference, why would anyone possibly expect music consumers to know how much of a difference such professionals can make?  One of the fantasies currently being promoted by the pop music industry is about this one young woman who supposedly makes her recordings in her brother’s bedroom.  Maybe they live in a mansion somewhere in Beverly Hills and her brother is a producer.

You’ve probably heard about George Martin, the producer who was behind many of the Beatles’ albums.  He’s one of those producers that people have heard about.  One of those producers where people might have some idea that his contributions to the music of the Beatles were as incalculable in their impact as the contributions of any of the actual members of the band.  They call him “the fifth Beatle” because he was.  Now multiply George Martin by thousands and thousands.  Behind most great albums is a great producer.  That is certainly true of anything I’ve ever recorded with other musicians.

I was recently stranded at the Los Angeles airport overnight by a late flight and a tight connection.  Exhausted, I booked a nearby hotel room, though it was outrageously expensive on my budget, rather than spend the night as a zombie wandering the airport until my new flight left at 6 the next morning.  I wanted to get to the hotel, and I didn’t see any taxis anywhere.  I asked someone who worked at the airport where the taxis were to be found.  He looked at me, confused.  “Oh, you mean like Uber?”

I lived with two cab drivers in San Francisco for years, and I have never yet paid to ride in an Uber.  But I discovered that near where the Ubers were, there was still a taxi stand.  It had three taxis in line — a far cry from the dozens that would have been in the line there years ago.  I know that those taxi drivers have all been told by their friends, why don’t you just drive for Uber?  It’s something about the tens of thousands of dollars they spent on those medallions that are now worthless, that keeps them from driving for Uber.  Others give up on cab-driving, sabotaged and betrayed by capitalism, technology and government corruption, and drive for Uber, as the debt they incurred from the medallions that they never finished paying for now mounts, since they don’t make enough on Uber to keep making those payments.  In the space of eight months, six such cab drivers in New York City killed themselves last year.

Unlike with the medallion system, with all its flaws, recording studios with engineers and producers didn’t exist just as some kind of control on the industry.  It’s not like, get rid of medallions and you have freedom — get rid of medallions and you have total unregulated capitalist insanity in the form of the terribly exploitative Uber corporation.  By the same token, it’s not like you get rid of recording studios and then you get lots of great home recording.  You get rid of recording studios and people will still write songs and make recordings.  However, they certainly won’t be nearly as great as they could be.  But there will be fewer and fewer people alive who know that to be true as the years go by, and people like me will seem more and more dino.

And, of course, although the great producers we are losing may never be replaced, the skills of the engineers in the real studios are gradually being replaced by technology.  As the software improves, it can increasingly compensate for everything — background noise, bad microphone technique, bad microphone placement.  We have more and more control with software over making adjustments to pitch and rhythm and so much else.  I’m sure that someday soon the idea that anyone used to go through the trouble of soundproofing rooms for recording purposes will become as obscure as the notion that cars once had drivers, or that there were once people who made a living by recording albums and selling them at their concerts.

I’m one of the lucky dinosaurs.  One of the ones who was lucky enough to record a dozen albums back in the days when they paid for themselves, who developed a following around the world because of those albums and the fact that they paid for themselves, and who can now beg my relatively numerous fans for support in the form of the Patreon-style program I run from my website — I call it my CSA, which stands for Community-Supported Art.  To really make the whole thing work without needing to crowdfund for recordings and such, I would need four times as many CSA members than are signed up at present or at any given time.  But the support I do get has allowed me to at least stay in the running as someone making some kind of a living from making music.

But before I put the next album up for adoption, out to pasture on the Spotify ranch, I will memorialize it first, too, and all the time and effort I put into creating the next album that I will give away — whether or not it involved a producer, an engineer, an assistant engineer, seasoned studio musicians, soundproofed isolation booths with really thick windows, or if the next album is made somewhere in between the cribs and the diapers, while carefully avoiding the days when the guys with the leaf-blowers are outside my window.

Pete Seeger Was A Movement Musician


If Pete Seeger were still with us, how would he be celebrating his 100th birthday?  Probably by chopping wood.

On May 3rd, 1919, Pete Seeger was born. Many people in the more musical regions of my social circles are currently celebrating his life, for the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday, had he lived past the age of 94. Among people I know, so much has already been said about Pete, that I’m hesitant to say any more. But on fairly obsessive reflection around the subject of Pete Seeger myself in recent days, I realize I do have thoughts that might be worth sharing, despite the quantity of verbiage already cluttering the web.

So much has been said and written about him over the course of the past 83 years or so, it’s very easy to blend fact with fiction. This is perhaps especially true for people who knew him, but only a little. Does reading a book and having a short conversation with the author give you much more insight into the subject of the book than you would have had without that conversation? Probably not. But it’s been six years since Pete died, and I’m six years older. And I’ll just say up front here that it’s not my deeply intimate familiarity with Pete that makes me feel like I have something to say here — I barely knew the guy. But we had a lot of mutual friends and acquaintances, and most importantly, we shared the same profession — I am, and he was, a musician, among other things, but specifically a musician with deep social movement roots. He was a fish swimming in a sea of social movements throughout his life, and he navigated the waters as best he could, to be a helpful, musical part of those movements.

Anyone who visited him at his home mentions the wood-splitting right away. I never visited him at home or split wood with him, though I did sweep a floor with him once. I know how the wood-splitting thing can be, though, having grown up not far away from Beacon, New York, myself, in a wood-heated home in Connecticut, very close to another river that had, like the Hudson, long ago also been poisoned by industry — the Housatonic. You split a lot of wood to keep a wood stove hot through a northeastern winter. Or up in the hills, through the spring and fall, as well. Pete was reputed to live a very simple life, to the extent that he could manage it, as a relatively famous, at times chart-topping musician.

As far as I know, he never resented the fact that he did well enough as a musician to tour the world and feed his family. But Pete talked on so many occasions in so many ways about how profoundly uncomfortable he was with all the attention. When I was younger I assumed this was just him being humble — that secretly, he really enjoyed the fame and wealth. But later, on reflection, it’s very clear to me that he meant what he said — and pretty much everything he did in his life as a musician and organizer reinforced his words.

Pete certainly believed in the power of music, and surely wished music, including his music, would be used in many different circumstances — for the love of music, and for movement-building and community-building of all kinds. But throughout his life, though the spotlight repeatedly kept turning to him, among others, he was working for the movement.

By no means am I suggesting that Pete was anything less than a great musician, musical interpreter, and songwriter — he was all three. But his desire to just be an effective, musical part of a social movement, and not to be a shining star floating somewhere above the movement, was real.

When Pete Seeger was conceived, millions of people were slaughtering each other in Europe in the First World War. When Pete was a baby, the radical labor movement in the form of the IWW was being brutally destroyed in a concerted national campaign of arson, lynchings, arrests and deportations of union activists, carried out by the federal government. By the time Pete was a preteen, the Great Depression was in full swing, and the heir to the IWW, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, was organizing the working class, this time with much greater success than the IWW had had, partially because the federal authorities under FDR were sympathetic to unions. The CIO was led in no small part by Communist Party members. At that time, when people talked about the labor movement, the term was as inclusive as the term “the movement” later became in the Sixties. It was certainly meant to include the farmers and the unemployed, and many others.

By the time he was 17, with the Great Depression still raging, Pete was playing his banjo for the movement, back in the Thirties. Pete and I had a mutual friend named Bob Steck. Bob used to tell me about the movement in the 1930’s that he was an active part of, being a few years older than Pete (and also long dead). The Communist Party of the day focused a lot of energy on culture, what Bob called “the culture department.” He talked about how while organizing workers into unions was a major emphasis for Party organizers and sympathizers, of similar emphasis was the importance of communication — and using music and theater and other forms of culture to do that.

The CIO and the Communist Party were building on ideas and tactics that were well-worn, used with fairly spectacular success by the IWW, with its most well-known cultural import from Sweden, Joe Hill. When Pete Seeger was taking the subway around New York City singing for multiple labor and Communist Party events per day back when he was a teenager, Joe Hill had only been executed a little more than twenty years earlier. A typical day in the city Pete lived in at that time involved hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, protesting against capitalism, often being savagely beaten by police. When Pete was a teenager, many of his friends — including the aforementioned Bob Steck — went off to Spain, volunteering to fight alongside the anarchists there against fascism. Many of Pete’s friends never returned home. Many more would die in the far bigger, global war that occupied much of Pete’s twenties.

In the sea that Pete swam in, he was already feeling very lucky to be alive by the time he was a young adult. A child of privilege, but not living in what you might call a privileged time or a privileged position in it, partially by choice, but in any case, long before many other people would be thinking of mortality, Pete’s friends were dying, fighting for a cause they, and he, passionately believed in. Call it what you will, Pete disliked labels for his politics as much as he disliked labels for his music. But something involving egalitarianism, liberty, dignity, where everybody has a place to live, enough food, health care, clean water, etc. — that sort of thing.

He would see the lives of many of his friends and colleagues ruined by McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt, but Pete was, it seems to me, emotionally well-disposed to weather that storm, since he hadn’t been looking for the stardom he had just then been experiencing with his first big hits in the early 1950’s. He was blacklisted from TV and from lots of other venues, but he could still get gigs on the college campuses. Back during the blacklist, my mom was a student at Oberlin College, which is where she first heard a Pete Seeger concert.

As the Civil Rights movement got off the ground, Pete was there, naturally, going where the movement was. Same for the movement against the war in Vietnam, the movement against nuclear weapons and nuclear power, the environmental movement more broadly, the movement against intervention in Latin America, against invading Iraq, and, not long before he died, even Occupy Wall Street.

But it was natural for Pete to do these things, not because he was such a special guy with a heart of gold or whatever else — though he surely was — but because that’s what you do when you’re in the movement and you’re a musician. Pete was just a person. He was born into one of the greatest periods of social upheaval in the history of civilization — the 1930’s in New York City. He stood on the shoulders of the IWW, along with everyone else in the movement at the time, and he swam in the waters of the CPUSA, the CIO, and the social movement more broadly that these organizations were also just part of. Pete learned during that incredibly exciting, incredibly deadly period of history what the struggle was all about, what it meant to be a movement musician, and the role that music played in building and maintaining social movements.

What Pete learned from people like Bob back in the 1930’s was wisdom from a social movement that he spent the rest of his life sharing in so many ways. So did millions of other people who had the great privilege, or the curse, to be young American communists in New York City during the Great Depression and the world-historic social movement that it helped to bring into existence. Millions of lives were profoundly impacted by that thriving social movement, about which so much has been said, about which so much more needs to be said.

Bob Steck got home from Spain, after serving 16 months in one of Franco’s concentration camps. He became Director of Activities for Camp Unity, where he spent a lot of time hanging out with Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Clifford Odets, Paul Robeson and other musicians and playwrights, who spent summers there along with lots of leftwing families from the New York region, performing, doing workshops, writing songs, skits and plays. In addition to his work at Camp Unity, Bob taught history in the New York public schools for thirty years.

I mention Bob only because I think that people like him, who were the people on the streets of New York who were largely responsible for imbuing Pete with his awareness of the world and his place in it, were serving the movement with the same sort of humble spirit that Pete gave to the movement. For Bob this meant running a summer camp and teaching history to poor kids in New York for most of his working life. For Pete it meant making a lot of music and doing a lot of organizing over the course of his life — which only coincidentally put him in the spotlight a hell of a lot more than any high school history teacher is ever likely to be in.

Both Bob and Pete were raised by progressives, so they likely would have been progressive anyway, had history unfolded differently than it did. But they were fundamentally shaped by the 1930’s and the social movements of the period. If you knew many other leftwingers from Pete’s generation, the signs of a movement organizer are obvious.

What I think confuses people to some extent is that, for one thing, we live in a society where the cult of the individual is a dominant force. But also, the movements and organizations that existed when he was young have changed over time, and in most cases don’t exist anymore. The character of movements change, too, in different times and places — there are a lot of notable differences between, say, the labor movement of the 1930’s and the environmental movement of the 1970’s, as well as a lot of similarities that could be easily overlooked.

Some movement organizers in the 1930’s were on the payroll of organizations that later ceased to exist, or from which they were purged, or from which they developed political differences. For some, that’s when the organizing ended. But for many others, their movement orientation wasn’t tied up with the Communist Party, the IWW, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or any other organization, celebrity or political figure. They were movement organizers, movement musicians, and if the movement didn’t find them, they kept doing their thing as best they could until the next wave came along, trying in various ways to poke the water and make it happen. That was Pete’s orientation, quite clearly.

Most of what I’ve written so far are conclusions I could have reached from reading Pete’s Wikipedia entry. But my own personal experiences bear out these sorts of impressions very clearly, of Pete as popular educator, organizer and promoter of things bigger than himself. The best way I can think of to summarize my personal experience of Pete Seeger, which also confirms all of my suspicions about the man, is that I essentially met him for the first time on at least three different occasions. Each time we met, it had been long enough since the last time that he clearly wasn’t making the association, or had forgotten about the last time. Each time was an entirely different context, and each time his response was consistent — to use his knowledge and position to promote the movement, to promote good communication, and to promote other artists.

Pete was only in his seventies when we first met. He looked old — white people who spend a lot of time outdoors are especially prone to wrinkling — but he was still very energetic. I sent the lyrics to a song I had just written, back in 1995, about the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma. His response was to call me at my mother’s house and invite me to perform at the Clearwater Festival. Years later I sent him another lyric, and his response was to send me back sheet music for it which he had just written, for me to use if I wanted to. But then, during the course of what many of us were calling the Global Justice movement, when I was getting a lot of interesting gigs in the late Nineties, I had a show with Pete Seeger at the Grassroots Radio Conference. When we met again there in Jefferson, New York, it was evident that Pete had heard of me before, but didn’t realize we had already met several times. (Not that I asked, but it was clear that he thought we were meeting for the first time.) Once again, years later, a check arrived in the mail for $100 and a note indicating he had just discovered my music, and requesting that I send him all the CDs I had ever recorded.

Without, I hope, appearing to brag, the point is that Pete had his finger on the pulse of social movement activity. The reason why we saw each other and had other forms of contact on so many occasions in the late Nineties and early Naughties was specifically because those were the years when I was very much plugged in to two different overlapping social movements active around that time, which we could roughly characterize as the Global Justice movement and the Antiwar movement. He was hearing about me because he was plugged into those movements, too, just as he had been with previous movements. There are many other artists who can share similar stories about Pete.

I believe the last time I saw him in person was on February 15th, 2003. I guess he would have been 83. He was with his wife, Toshi, who I had briefly met before at the Beacon Sloop Club and maybe elsewhere. We were behind the stage at the antiwar rally which the antiwar coalition, United for Peace and Justice, had organized. We were waiting to do our bits, each of us were to do one song. It was way, way below freezing, with a harsh wind whipping between the skyscrapers of Manhattan. My friend Brad Simpson was rushing around — he was one of the organizers, at the time working for the War Resistors League. His former employer, Amy Goodman, was there, along with former South African Archbishop and anti-apartheid organizer Desmond Tutu and a bunch of other folks, including my singing partner at the time, Allie Rosenblatt.

Loads of mainstream media were there, too, but without exception, they were all glued to every word and every facial movement of Danny Glover, who was there, too, looking magnificent and impervious to the cold, unlike the rest of us shivering mortals. (In retrospect, those camera lights may have been very warm, and he may not be superhuman after all, but who knows.) Pete and Toshi were sensibly dressed in warm winter jackets, but I was concerned about the very red bits of exposed skin on his face, as he sat on an uncomfortable little chair in this very cold, dimly-lit tent.

I don’t remember what we talked about. I’m sure I was trying to be cool, and not slobber. I was just glad that Pete wasn’t currently in the limelight enough to warrant the cameras of the TV stations when Danny Glover was standing five feet away, and we could just chill, if you will, and be anonymous together. Bruce Springsteen’s album, the Seeger Sessions, would come out three years later. Pete was reportedly annoyed by Mr Springsteen’s choice for the title.

The Day the Music Died: Remembering Buddy Holly (1936-1959)

I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.

— Don McLean, American Pie (1971)

The snow was heavy on that night 60 years ago.

The only alternative to riding all night long in a dirty, unheated bus to the next concert gig was a tiny airplane.

Shortly after takeoff, however, the plane carrying Buddy Holly, along with Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, disappeared into a snowy cloud.

Holly’s torn, mangled body was found a few hours later in a frozen Iowa cornfield a little past midnight on February 3, 1959.

I was a 12-year-old kid at the time.

For Buddy Holly fans like me, it seemed that all was lost, a feeling immortalized in Don McLean’s classic song.

As an artist, Buddy Holly was only with us for 30 months, between 1957 and 1959, but in that short period, Holly’s innovation and keen musicianship made him the Mozart of rock music and one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.

Virtually everything we hear on recordings and see on video and the concert stage can be traced to two icons: Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly.

Elvis, the quintessential star, soon forsook rock for slow ballads and mediocre musical films.

Holly, by contrast, was an adept musician and an artist who was devoted to his craft. He was a true pioneer, a revolutionary, a multi-dimensional talent. As Philip Norman writes in his insightful book Rave On: The Biography of Buddy Holly (1996):

He threw back the boundaries of rock’n’roll, gave substance to its shivery shadow, transformed it from a chaotic cul-de-sac to a highway of infinite possibility and promise.

To call someone who died at the age of 22 “the father of rock” is not as farfetched as it might seem.

The songs Holly wrote and performed are rock ’n’ roll classics.

Two-minute masterpieces.

They remain as fresh and potent today as when they were recorded over 60 years ago.

“That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue,” “Rave On,” “Heartbeat” and others have been springboards of inspiration for countless budding musicians.

As a songwriter, performer and musician, Holly is the acknowledged progenitor of nearly every world-class rock talent to emerge in our lifetime: The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and others admit his influence.

“His voice,” as Norman notes, “is the most imitated, yet inimitable, in rock music.”

Holly was one of the first musicians to produce his own work. This allowed him to pioneer various techniques, including being one of the first to accompany the rock beat with strings. He also pioneered double tracking, which future stars capitalized on. Double tracking, which uses two tape recorders, allowed Holly to sing harmony to his own lead vocals and play both lead and rhythm guitar. This rendered the layered Holly sound particularly remarkable.

Unfortunately, the complexity of Holly’s songs was not fully appreciated by American audiences, but songs that didn’t make the American charts were often major hits in Great Britain.

One crucial detail sets Holly apart from Presley and other rock progenitors. Whereas they had all become solo performers by the time they emerged on the scene, Holly came to stardom fronting a group, the Crickets. He and the Crickets’ guitar/bass/drums lineup became the prototype for every rock band that followed.

In March of 1958, Holly and the Crickets toured Great Britain (something Presley never did), bringing him face to face with many of his disciples. His famous television appearance on Sunday Night at the London Palladium held some budding musical talent in a trance.

As Norman writes: “Up in Liverpool, John Lennon and Paul McCartney both had their noses practically touching the screen.”

Several years later, Lennon and McCartney formed the Beatles (originally the “Beetles” in honor of the Crickets) and wrote and performed their own songs, as had their hero, Buddy Holly.

In fact, the first recording the Beatles made, at their own expense, was Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day.”

Holly was the first rocker to break through based on ability, energy and personality. Whereas Elvis attracted a mostly female audience, Holly’s fans were equally mixed between the sexes. Holly was homely and wore glasses. And Reginald Dwight (better known as Elton John) ruined his eyesight wearing black horn-rims in imitation of Holly.

As he took steps toward creating revolutionary music, Holly also rebelled against the apartheid that had divided white rock artists from blacks. He recorded one track (“Early in the Morning”) with a full gospel choir and another (“Reminiscing”) with the blues saxophonist King Curtis.

Shortly before his death, Holly was planning to produce other artists (such as Ritchie Valens, Paul Anka and the newcomer, Waylon Jennings) and open a recording studio in London.

After his death, Holly’s influence and songs remained pervasive.

The Beatles continued what Holly had begun, multiplied his effect and became the greatest entertainment act of all time. Paul McCartney later acquired the publishing rights to all of Holly’s songs and inaugurated the celebratory Buddy Holly Week.

In 1963, the Rolling Stones transformed themselves from a backwoods group to a commercial chart topper with Holly’s “Not Fade Away.”

Buddy Holly died with little realization of what his legacy would become. Yet he changed the course of history and filled our torn times with melodies that transcended the era in which they were written.

Say No to Government Grinches and Corporate Scrooges

Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child’s cry, a blazing star hung over a stable, and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven’t forgotten that night down the centuries. We celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, with the sound of bells, and with gifts… We forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled, all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we’re celebrating. Don’t let us ever forget that. Let us ask ourselves what He would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share, loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

What a year!

It feels as if government Grinches and corporate Scrooges have been working overtime to drain every last drop of joy, kindness and liberty from the world.

After endless months of gloom and doom, it’s hard not to feel like Charlie Brown in A Charlie Brown Christmas as he struggles to feel happy and find the true meaning of Christmas in the midst of rampant commercialism, political correctness and the casual cruelty of an apathetic, self-absorbed, dog-eat-dog world.

Then again, isn’t that struggle to overcome the darkness and find the light within exactly what Christmas—the celebration of a baby born in a manger—is all about? The reminder that we have not been forgotten or forsaken. Glad tidings in the midst of hard times. Goodwill to counter meanness. Innocence in the face of cynicism. Hope in the midst of despair. Comfort to soothe our fears. Peace as an answer to war. Love that conquers hate.

As “fellow-passengers to the grave,” we all have a moral duty to make this world (or at least our small corners of it) just a little bit kinder, a little less hostile and a lot more helpful to those in need.

No matter what one’s budget, religion, or political persuasion, there is no shortage of things we can each do right now to pay our blessings forward and recapture the true spirit of Christmas.

For starters, move beyond the “us” vs. “them” mentality. Tune into what’s happening in your family, in your community and your world, and get active. Show compassion to those in need, be kind to those around you, forgive those who have wronged you, and teach your children to do the same. Talk less, and listen more. Take less, and give more. Stop being a hater. Stop acting entitled and start being empowered. Learn tolerance in the true sense of the word. Value your family. Count your blessings. Share your blessings. Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and comfort the lonely and broken-hearted. Bridge bridges, and tear down walls. Stand for freedom. Strive for peace.

One thing more: make time for joy and laughter. Shake off the blues with some Christmas tunes, whatever fits the bill for you, be it traditional carols, rollicking oldies, or some rocking new tunes. Watch a Christmas movie that reinforces your faith in humanity.

Here are ten of my favorite Christmas movies and music albums to get you started.

First the movies.

It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). An American classic about a despondent man, George Bailey who is saved from suicide by an angel working to get his wings. This film is a testament to director Frank Capra’s faith in people. Sublime performances by James Stewart and Donna Reed.

The Bishop’s Wife (1947). An angel comes to earth in answer to a bishop’s prayer for help. Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young help energize this tale of lost visions and longings of the heart.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947). By happenchance, Kris Kringle is hired as Santa Claus by Macy’s Department Store in New York City for the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Before long, Kringle, who believes himself to be the one and only Santa Claus, has impacted virtually everyone around him. Funny, witty and heartwarming, this film is stocked with some fine performances from Maureen O’Hara, John Payne and young Natalie Wood. Edmund Gwenn won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role as Saint Nick.

A Christmas Carol (1951). This is the best film version of the penny-pinching Scrooge’s journey to spiritual enlightenment by way of visits from supernatural visitors. Alastair Sim as Scrooge gives one of the finest film performances never to win an Oscar. The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017) provides a wonderful glimpse into how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol.

A Christmas Story (1983). Ralphie is a young boy obsessed with one thing and only one thing: how to get a Red Ryder BB-gun for Christmas. Ralphie’s parents are wary, and his mother continually warns him that “you’ll shoot your eye out.” Based on Jean Shepherd’s autobiographical book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, at the heart of this timeless comedy is the universal yearning of a child for the magic of Christmas morning. A great cast, which includes Darren McGavin, Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon and a voice-over narrative by Shepherd himself.

One Magic Christmas (1985). If you grew up in a family where times were tough, this film is for you. A guardian angel comes to earth to help a disillusioned woman who hates Christmas. This tale of redemption and second chances is a delight to watch. And Harry Dean Stanton makes a first-class offbeat angel.

Prancer (1989). This story of an eight-year-old girl who believes that an injured reindeer in her barn is actually one of Santa’s reindeer is one of the most down-to-earth Christmas films ever made. It’s a testament to the transforming power of love and childhood innocence. Sam Elliott and Cloris Leachman are fine in supporting roles, but Rebecca Harrell shines. Filmed on location in freezing, snowy weather, this film is a treat for those who love Christmas.

Home Alone (1990). Eight-year-old Kevin, accidentally left behind at home when his family flies to Paris for Christmas, thinks he’s got it made. Hijinks ensue when two burglars match their wits against his. A funny, tender tribute to childhood and the bonds of family.

Elf (2003). Another modern classic with a lot of heart. Buddy, played to the hilt by Will Ferrell, is a human who was raised by elves at the North Pole. Determined to find his birth father, Buddy travels to the Big Apple and spreads his Christmas cheer to everyone he meets. This film has it all: Santa, elves, family problems, humor, emotion and above all else, a large dose of the Christmas spirit. One of the best Christmas movies ever made.

The Christmas Chronicles (2018). The story of a sister and brother, Kate and Teddy Pierce, whose Christmas Eve plan to catch Santa Claus on camera turns into an unexpected journey that most kids could only dream about. Kurt Russell’s star turn as Santa makes for movie magic.

Now for the music.

Out of the hundreds of Christmas albums I’ve listened to over the years, the following, covering a broad range of musical styles, moods and tastes, each in its own way perfectly captures the essence of Christmas for me.

It’s Christmas (EMI, 1989): 18 great songs, ranging from John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” The real treats on this album are Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas,” Kate Bush’s “December Will Be Magic Again” and Aled Jones’ “Walking in the Air.”

Christmas Guitar (Rounder, 1986): 28 beautifully done traditional Christmas songs by master guitarist John Fahey. Hearing Fahey’s guitar strings plucking out “Joy to the World,” “Good King Wenceslas,” “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,” among others, is a sublime experience.

Christmas Is A Special Day (The Right Stuff, 1993): 12 fine songs by Fats Domino, the great Fifties rocker, ranging from “Amazing Grace” to “Jingle Bells.” The title song, written by Domino himself, is a real treat. No one has ever played the piano keys like Fats.

Christmas Island (August/Private Music, 1989): “Frosty the Snowman” will never sound the same after you hear Leon Redbone and Dr. John do their duet. Neither will “Christmas Island” or “Toyland” on this collection of 11 traditional and rather offbeat songs.

A Holiday Celebration (Gold Castle, 1988): The classic folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary, backed by the New York Choral Society, sing traditional and nontraditional holiday fare on 12 beautifully orchestrated songs. Included are “I Wonder as I Wander,” “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” and “The Cherry Tree Carol.” Also thrown in is Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

The Christmas Album (Columbia, 1992): Neil Diamond sings 14 songs, ranging from “Silent Night” to “Jingle Bell Rock” to “The Christmas Song” to “Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Diamond also gives us a great rendition of Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” A delightful album.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy, 1988): 12 traditional Christmas songs by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. The pianist extraordinaire and his trio perform “O Tannenbaum,” “The Christmas Song” and “Greensleeves.” Also included is the Charlie Brown Christmas theme.

The Jethro Tull Christmas Album (Fuel Records, 2003): If you like deep-rooted traditional holiday songs, you’ll love this album. The 16 songs range from “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” to Ian Anderson originals such as “Another Christmas Song” and “Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow.” With Anderson on flute and vocals, this album has an old world flavor that will have you wanting mince pie and plum pudding.

A Twisted Christmas (Razor Tie, 2006): Twisted Sister, the heavy metal group, knocks the socks off a bevy of traditional and pop Christmas songs. Dee Snider’s amazing vocals brings to life “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” “Deck the Halls,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” among others—including “Heavy Metal Christmas (The Twelve Days of Christmas).” Great fun and a great band.

Songs for Christmas (Asthmatic Kitty, 2006): In 2001, independent singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens set out to create a Christmas gift through songs for his friends and family. It eventually grew to a 5-CD box set, which includes Stevens’ original take on such standards as “Amazing Grace” and “We Three Kings” and some inventive yuletide creations of his own. A lot of fun.

Before you know it, Christmas will be a distant memory and we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming of politics, war, violence, materialism and mayhem.

As I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, there may not be much we can do to avoid the dismal reality of the American police state in the long term—not so long as the powers-that-be continue to call the shots and allow profit margins to take precedence over the needs of people—but in the short term, I hope you’ll do your part to “spread a smile of joy” and “throw your arms around the world at Christmastime.”

As Frank Cross, the Scrooge character in Scrooged (1988), remarks:

I’m not crazy. It’s Christmas Eve! It’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be! It’s a sort of a miracle because it happens every Christmas Eve. And if you waste that miracle, you’re gonna burn for it. I know what I’m talking about. You have to do something. You have to take a chance. You do have to get involved. There are people that are having trouble making their miracle happen. There are people that don’t have enough to eat, and there are people that are cold. You can go out and say ‘hello’ to these people. You can take an old blanket out of the closet and say, ‘here.’ You can make ‘em a sandwich, and say ‘Oh, by the way, here!’ And if you give, then it can happen. Then the miracle can happen to you. It’s not just the poor and the hungry, it’s everybody that’s gotta have this miracle! And it can happen tonight for all of you! If you believe in this pure thing, the miracle will happen and then you’ll want it to happen again tomorrow! You won’t be one of these bastards who says, ‘Christmas is once a year and it’s a fraud.’ It’s not! It can happen every day! You’ve just got to want that feeling! And if you like it and you want it, you’ll get greedy for it. You’ll want it every day of your life, and it can happen to you! I believe in it now. I believe it’s gonna happen to me now. I’m ready for it! And it’s great. It’s a good feeling. It’s really better than I’ve felt in a long time. I’m ready. Have a Merry Christmas, everybody.

Phil Ochs and the Crucifixion of President John F. Kennedy

They say they can’t believe it, it’s a sacrilegious shame
Now, who would want to hurt such a hero of the game?
But you know I predicted it; I knew he had to fall
How did it happen? I hope his suffering was small.
Tell me every detail, I’ve got to know it all,
And do you have a picture of the pain?

— Phil Ochs, The Crucifixion

You are aware of only one unrest;
Oh, never learn to know the other!
Two souls, alas, are dwelling in my breast,
And one is striving to forsake its brother.

— Goethe, Faust

President John Kennedy was assassinated by the U.S. national-security state, led by the C.I.A., on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas.  That is a fact beyond dispute, except for those who wish to engage in pseudo-debates to deny the obvious.  I prefer not to, since there is nothing to debate.

But there is everything to mourn, even after fifty-five years, first, of course, for the man himself, then for those who have suffered and died for bearing witness to the truth about his assassination, and finally for the consequences of his murder, because it cut savagely into any pretense of American innocence and set the stage for the nihilistic tragedies that have followed, including the murders of Malcolm X, MLK, RFK, the September 11, 2001 attacks, and the ongoing “war on terror.”

Today, JFK’s killers have tightened their choke-hold on the country and on the throats of those wishing to tell the truth.  Their penetration of the corporate mass media is wide and deep, and the narratives they spin can make an innocent soul’s head spin.  Everything is twisted to serve their interests.  With a click of a finger, truth and falsehood rotate like spokes on a rapidly turning wheel – spooks turning spokes in a game of hide and seek meant to confuse and derange the public. Constant befuddlement is the name of this racket.

It’s a melancholy task to contemplate the parts played, consciously or unconsciously, by various actors in this deadly game, not least because one’s own naiveté prompts one sometimes to question or abandon those one once admired and to dive deeply into the twisted minds and hearts of fellow humans.  What follows concerns one such man’s strange story as told by another man, whose story is perhaps stranger, and what their relationships with U.S. intelligence, if any, might suggest about our situation today.

Oh I am just a student, Sir, and only want to learn
But it’s hard to read through the risin’ smoke of the books that you like to burn
So I’d like to make a promise and I’d like to make a vow
That when I got something to say, Sir, I’m gonna say it now

Those are the words of the folk singer, Phil Ochs, from his 1966 song I’m Going To Say It Now. Ochs wrote and performed passionate protest songs during the 1960s that inspired many to speak and act in opposition to the Vietnam War and many other injustices.  He was a fiery, sardonic activist whose music, such as I Ain’t Marching Any More induced many to refuse military induction and to burn their draft cards.  He, not Bob Dylan, was the committed voice of the 1960s radical anti-war folk music world, singing at events and rallies across the country, culminating at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago when the Chicago police rioted and savagely beat anti-war protesters, and Yippies and Hippies gathered in Lincoln Park to listen to Ochs sing defiant songs to keep up their spirits. But Ochs’s own spirit was broken that terrible year of so many deaths, which started his long descent into alcoholism and mental chaos that ended with his suicide in 1976.

I was one of those who was inspired by his music. I still am.  Soulful and satiric, biting and beautiful, stirring and inspiriting, it has a power few can equal.  But I have come to a point where I feel compelled to broach a mysterious story involving Ochs, something that when I first heard it in passing shocked me terribly. No, I thought, that can’t be true; it’s impossible.

But the more I have researched it, the truer it seems – with emphasis on the word “seems” – for there is only one source for the story, a source I don’t doubt but can’t confirm.

But either way, I have come to see the story as emblematic of the treachery and confusion sown by the CIA, its Operation Mockingbird, and its so-called Mighty Wurlitzer that have played so many for fools through its control of the corporate mass media and the production of narratives that run like little movies too perfect to be true, but too true to be false – even when they are.  Screens within screens within screens.  Efforts to fuck up as many people as possible in operation chaos, to derange and cleave them into split personalities within and without, and to mystify as many minds as possible.

I think Phil Ochs was one so mystified. I am wondering if in life and death he was used and abused by radically evil forces, whomever they may be.

According to Phil’s best friend from college at Ohio State, the man who taught him to play guitar, his singing partner, best man at his wedding, constant pal in their days in Greenwich Village, and life-long friend, Jim Glover, Ochs was in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, standing outside the Dal-Tex building in Dealey Plaza when JFK was driven by to be killed. Glover says Phil told him he went there as a “national security observer.”

I had read about this on some off-beat websites, but never in biographies of Ochs, or in the latest documentary about him, There But for Fortune. There seems to be an “official” ban on mentioning Glover’s claim, even though Glover appears in the books and the documentary, has been interviewed by the authors and filmmaker, and is considered by them, as Phil’s old and close friend, to be a reliable source.

Jim Glover, who was one half of the well-known folk duo, Jim and Jean, back in the 1960s, and is now an anti-war activist in Florida, says that he has told Ochs’s siblings and biographers all the details, has also reported it recently and as far back as the early 1990s to the FBI, and has put these claims out on some internet sites and openly spoken about it. These disclosures have resulted in silence from Ochs’s family and biographers.  There have been no efforts to refute it, and so it circulates far outside the mainstream.  Since Glover speaks of it openly and in great detail, and since it is a shocking claim with serious implications, one would think it worthy of response.  But it is only greeted with silence.  It seems perhaps like another example of what Thomas Merton called “the unspeakable” – “the void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said.”

So I contacted Glover and asked him about it.  He told me that Phil had told him months before the assassination that he was “working for National Security, something like the C.I.A.”  Then, he later told him he had gone to Dallas with one of the Gambino boys as “a national security observer” and had been standing in Dealey Plaza outside the Dal-Tex building where he was filmed when JFK was shot.  Jim Glover has sent me photos that he discovered decades later that he says are photos of Phil in Dealey Plaza at the exact spot he mentioned and also in the movie theatre where Oswald was arrested.  He thinks they are very conclusive, especially because of the Dealey Plaza location, despite their blurriness.  While I think they are not dispositive, they do look like Ochs in a fuzzy sort of way.

 

The first two photos are outside the Dal-Tex building, after and before the assassination.

Inside the movie theatre where Oswald was captured and taken out the front door, while the second Oswald was led out the back door.

And the last is a photo of Ochs at Ohio State in 1961 for comparison purposes.

Whatever you think of the photos, they are one piece of a larger mystery, a tale stranger than fiction.  They may or may not show Ochs, as Jim Glover is certain they do, but if Ochs’s biographers trust him on other matters, why would they doubt him when he says Ochs told him he was in Dallas that day?  He says they are afraid to entertain the possibility.

So we might ask the question: If Phil Ochs was in Dallas that day, what was he doing there?

Let me reiterate: The murder of President Kennedy is not a mystery, and I am not exploring it.  We know he was killed in a coup carried out by the national security state led by the CIA.  If you want to know why, and if you want to know why this Thanksgiving, November 22, we should give thanks for John Kennedy’s life and witness, read JFK and the Unspeakable by James Douglass.  It’s the only book you need to read on the assassination.

Phil Ochs is the mystery in Glover’s telling, and I am wondering about him (and Glover), what he thought he was doing getting tangled up with shadowy intelligence operatives, how that awakening knowledge subsequently affected him, how he responded, and what place guilt and fear played in his post-1963 life and death.  I am proceeding as if Ochs went to Dallas at the naïve age of 22 not to harm Kennedy, but as Glover said he said, to investigate the threats against Kennedy that he had heard of in NYC through V. T. Lee of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC) and others. (This is the same V.T. Lee who received a letter from Lee Harvey Oswald, who was proposing a FPCC chapter for New Orleans in May 1963, where he was performing his theatrical stunts.  Lee warned Oswald not to provoke “unnecessary incidents which frighten away prospective supporters” in a place so hostile to Castro.  But Oswald, of course, did the opposite to establish his fake support for Castro.)

Glover says he also knew of the plots against Kennedy that were widely circulating in leftist circles, and afterwards felt Phil and he were being set up to be implicated in the assassination in case the official cover story fell apart since he and Glover were sympathetic to Castro and Cuba. He says their phones were tapped and they were being surveilled.  At this time Glover and his partner Jean were persuaded, against Ochs’s advice, to go on a Hollywood Hootenanny Tour of southern college campuses, a surreal trip that made stops in Dallas and Houston and seemed clearly connected to the Kennedy assassination as strange people got off and on the multi-bus caravan, talking about Kennedy being killed.  Glover says these included George and Barbara Bush and J. Edgar Hoover, who were picked up by the bus at the Houston airport late in the day of November 22.

You would have to have a fantastic imagination to make this stuff up.  Why would he?   Yet his tale is truly bizarre, revealing the intricate nature of the government conspiracy to kill Kennedy and to create multiple tales of plausible deniability when others failed.

He told me that he doesn’t know who told Phil to go to Dallas, but he is unequivocal that he did.  He said:

I don’t have all the answers.  All I know is what Phil told me to keep us both as safe as possible.  He told me I’ll never lie to you but there are things I can’t tell you.  Knowing I had a big mouth if he told me things you [me] are asking, I might not be alive.  His purpose as I see it was to observe, and being set up if Oswald lived, he could have been used as, ‘See a Castro sympathizer knew and was involved.’  And that would apply to me also [learning what he did on the Hootenanny Tour] and they would stop at nothing to have us both silenced permanently if Oswald or Kennedy lived because we knew too much.

Once, he said, as an example of his big mouth, he was performing at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village and told the audience that Phil had been in Dallas as a national security observer.  He thinks Ochs’s manager, Al Grossman, and Bob Dylan heard it, “because Phil came over and said, ‘Are you trying to get me killed?’”

Phil, he said, was a super patriot and would never have done anything to harm Kennedy, but was tricked into going to Dallas under the assumption that he was working with those trying to prevent the assassination by investigating the plot or trying to infiltrate it and perhaps stop it. But when Ochs returned to NYC later that day,  according to Glover, he was devastated by Kennedy’s assassination and at the realization that he had been used and was now compromised.  That is why he cried so terribly that night and wanted to die.  His youthful innocence had died.

Phil Ochs was a man of two minds and inclinations, not unusual for a coterie of musicians of that era who knew and associated with it each other, had military/intelligence family backgrounds, and were never drafted like so many young men not in college. Like so many of these musical icons – Jim Morrison, David Crosby, Frank Zappa, “Papa” John Philips, Stephen Stills, et al (as Dave McGowan chronicles in his book, Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon, where he questions their public personae and the strange ways they gathered from far distances at one time into Los Angeles’s Laurel Canyon, at the heart which was a covert military film facility, Lookout Mountain Laboratory)  – Ochs had a military background.  He was a conservative rebel who suddenly transformed from a conservative to a radical at Ohio State in his last year, according to Glover. He attended Staunton Military Academy with Barry Goldwater’s son and John Dean of Watergate fame and was a sergeant in the ROTC at Ohio State where at the least he was aware of military intelligence spying on radical students; he idolized John Wayne, James Dean, Marlon Brando and the American western film mythology of the cowboy and soldier; he loved John Kennedy; he sang powerful anti-war songs and would jokingly say to his audience that now that they had listened to his anti-government songs he was turning them in to the government; he was a drama king who loved heroes and wanted to be one; he was a left-winger who mocked liberals; he was a folk singer who loved Elvis.  In short, he was a man of many contradictions, of highs and lows, hope and despair, driven to stop war and injustice and to become a star in the superficial entertainment culture, etc.  As he fell apart in his last years, it became easy to categorize him with the facile term “manic-depressive” or “bipolar.”

I think that misses the heart of the matter, as if a term explains its reality, as if his paranoia had no basis outside his mind, as if he was just nuts to think the CIA was out to get him, as he did regularly and especially after he was attacked and choked while walking alone on a beach in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, when his vocal cords were ruptured and his voice permanently damaged.

My guess is that he was driven by guilt and fear and that his suicide at age 35 was connected to being in Dallas on the day JFK was assassinated.  I think he died that day too, and that the next 13 years of his life were courageous attempts to quell his guilt for being gulled into going to Dallas and fear that he might be killed for doing so by singing out his rebellious songs in the face of his ghosts. He was a haunted man, and produced haunting songs in response to exorcise his demons, including the songs The Crucifixion and That Was the President, both about John Kennedy.

In his last years he said he was John Train (sometimes John Butler Train), not Phil Ochs, and that John Train had killed Phil Ochs in the Chelsea Hotel on the summer solstice in 1975, the solstice being a significant turning point.  His biographers give various explanations for his adoption of this pseudonym, all of which, I believe, miss the mark.  To say he took the name from his heroes John Wayne, John Ford, John Kennedy, and William Butler Yeats, avoids the key word: Train. It’s as if the word is unimportant or unspeakable, or the name John Train is a common name that “crazy” Phil just made up.

As he was unravelling in fear and trembling, I believe he was referring to a real John Train, a CIA operative, when he metaphorically said “on the first day of summer 1975, Phil Ochs was murdered in the Chelsea Hotel by John Train….For the good of societies, public and secret, he needed to be gotten rid of.” Train assassinates Ochs.  Then the following spring Ochs assassinates Ochs by hanging himself.

Could it just be a coincidence that there is a real John Train who from the early 1950s onward was connected to the CIA and the covert state in various activities as an asset or an agent?  This John Train, who was one of the founders and funders of The Paris Review, its first managing editor, who together with the CIA’s Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton started the magazine for the CIA under its propaganda front, The Congress for Cultural Freedom.  This John Train, who ran cover corporations for the CIA and was connected to George Herbert Walker Bush through the CIA’s Thomas Devine, who was involved in setting up Bush’s company Zapata Offshore.  This John Train, who was deeply involved with the CIA’s activities in the early 1980s backing the CIA-supported mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan.  This John Train who….1

It is farfetched in the extreme to think that Phil Ochs just plucked the name John Train out of thin air. But the fact that this is asserted by his biographers makes sense when we realize that Jim Glover’s claims are ignored by Ochs’s family, his biographers, and the makers of the documentary about him.  That there is a real CIA-affiliated John Train and that Glover insists Phil told him he was in Dallas on November 22, 1963 seem clearly connected.  But these facts are unspeakable.  I think they need to be explored.

Like Jim Glover, I don’t have all the answers about Phil Ochs.  My guess and my hope is that Phil was used and was not complicit, that he naively thought by going to Dallas he was working with the good guys to protect the president from the killers, and when he witnessed the brutal murder, he felt compromised, and felt so overwhelmed with guilt and fear that life eventually became too unbearable for him.  Clearly this is Glover’s story.  I think it is incumbent on those who don’t believe it to explain why Glover would fabricate such an intricate tale that glorifies his friend as a true patriot,  whom he claims was used by intelligence operatives and who therefore suffered for the rest of his life for trying to protect President Kennedy.

Whatever the truth in this age of “not knowing,” I think his story is a parable for our times.  Whenever you think you’re getting the straight scoop, think again, and then again.  The CIA’s Operation Mockingbird is still singing its siren song to convince us that the crucifixion was a one-time event, when Phil knew otherwise, right from the start and right to the end. I think he tried to warn us and wouldn’t be silenced, even in death.

When I’m Gone

  1. See Joel Whitney’s Finks, Russ Baker’s Family of Secrets, David McGowan’s Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon, and Bill Kelly’s http://jfkcountercoup.blogspot.com/2013/05/phil-ochs-at-dealey-plaza.html