Category Archives: Music

Passing Behind Our Backs

I never met the great basketball player, Bob Cousy, the man known as “the Houdini of the Hardwood,” yet he somehow influenced my life in ways I never knew, or to be more accurate, in ways I didn’t reflect upon except in superficial ways.  He was the guy who brought professional basketball into the modern era with his bag of fancy tricks that included no-look and behind-the-back passes, uncanny dribbling, and a magical court sense that made the fast break into an exquisite art form.  The captain and point-guard of the Boston Celtics from 1950-1963, Cousy led the Celtics to six NBA titles, made thirteen all-star teams, and changed professional basketball from a stodgy, boring, and slow game into a fast-paced spectacle, entertainment as much as sport.  He was a wizard with a basketball and set the stage for Guy Rodgers, “Pistol Pete” Maravich, Bob Dylan, Magic Johnson, and Steve Nash, among other tricksters, modern Hermes.

Over the years I have written a great deal on a very wide-range of topics, but it wasn’t until a friend from high school recently sent me Gary Pomeranz’s fascinating book, The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics, and What Matters in the End, that something clicked for me.  A few weeks previously, as the weather had turned spring-like, I had started to shoot hoops at our basket in the driveway. The warm air, the feel of a loose flowing freedom as I dribbled and shot, brought me back to the days when I spent so many hours playing in the Bronx schoolyards of my youth, perfecting my skills in what I can only call a fanatical way. Rushing to the schoolyard after school and on Saturday mornings to be the first there, to command the court, to compete with the older guys and beat their asses. Traveling around the city’s best basketball neighborhoods to play and make my mark. The endless hours in gyms. The search for perfection.  The adrenaline rush, the thrill, the joy of the perfect pass, the sweet swish of the net from a shot you had practiced a thousand times. From the age of eleven until twenty-three, basketball was central to my life and identity.  It was my passion.

It was during these recent days shooting around that I started to have almost nightly dreams of my younger years, playing basketball in high school and then in college on a Division I scholarship.  They were very vivid dreams, and at the time, I didn’t understand why I was having them.  And they were starting to annoy me, as persistent and weird dreams can do.  Begone, dread spirits!  Yet I knew they were telling me to heed their tales told when no one was looking, only this dreamer in the night.

While this was happening, I wrote an article about Bob Dylan and his recent release of “Murder Most Foul,” his powerful song about the assassination of President Kennedy, wherein he brilliantly accuses elements within the U.S. government and intelligence forces of killing the president in cold blood, while framing Lee Harvey Oswald for the deed. I had written about Dylan before, loved his music, and found him an intriguing if enigmatic character, a Houdini of song. “Murder Most Foul” seemed to burst out of Dylan after decades of avoiding straight-forward political themes. It struck me that with this song he had ripped off the masks he had been wearing for decades, as if he were Odysseus at the end of The Odyssey, shrugging off his beggar’s rags and announcing to the suitors of his wife Penelope that the gig was up and they were going down. It seemed to me that Dylan was coming full-circle, as if he were coming home to take revenge on the killers who had scarred his youth, as they did mine and so many others’.  “Like a musician, like a harper, when/with quiet hand upon his instrument,” Odysseus lets the arrow sing, Dylan reaches back to sing:

The day they blew out the brains of the king
Thousands were watching, no one saw a thing
It happened so quickly, so quick, by surprise
Right there in front of everyone’s eyes
Greatest magic trick ever under the sun
Perfectly executed, skillfully done

Slowly it dawned on me that everyone’s life has a shape, as if it were a drawing or story or song. And that if we pay close attention and see through all the snares and temptations meant to divert us from our true paths, we will find our beginnings in our ends and without directions we will find our way home.

It is very hard to explain to someone who didn’t know you once upon a time long before you met, how important certain activities were to you, what they meant and still mean in the deepest recesses of your psyche.  How they shaped you, or better still, how you used them to bend your life when you strung your bow so effortlessly to hit the target that you aimed for. Or thought you were aiming for.  My life in basketball shaped the man that I became, but my wife only knows the aftermath since she met me when I had taken a long twenty-five-year vacation from basketball.  Like Cousy, sitting and talking with Pomeranz, or Dylan sharpening his arrows and letting them fly in his new song False Prophet, I could say:

You don’t know me darlin’ – you never would guess
I’m nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest
I ain’t no False Prophet – I just said what I said
I’m here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head

While I am half-way through reading the Cousy book, I get its drift, where it’s heading. In conversations with Pomeranz, he is hoping to be inspired to understand the journey that has left him, an old man, frightened, alone, and approaching death in a large house in Worcester, Massachusetts, trying to understand, not only his fraught relationship with his black Celtic teammate, Bill Russell, but what his life has been all about, the court wizardry and cheers, the years on the road, the applause and awards, the championships and the price they exacted. He went to the basketball wars and won, came home, but now wonders what home really means. Unlike Odysseus, he only has ghosts to slay.  His wife is dead, and no suitors occupy the great house of shades.  There is no one to kill except his regrets.

My friend, Wayne, who sent me the book, spent three years in high school with me studying Greek, and over the course of those years, we translated Homer’s The Odyssey line by line. We were also basketball teammates. Odysseus, of course, was the ultimate trickster, the man of many wiles and disguises, what the nymph Calypso, who held Odysseus captive for seven years on her island Ogygia, called “a rascal.”  Like Houdini, Odysseus was able to escape this phantom island with the help of the messenger and trickster Hermes. Like Cousy, Odysseus was the Houdini of the ancient world, the hero who could escape any trap and thread an arrow through the smallest space to defeat the enemy.  Cousy’s fierceness on the court is legendary; his poker face hid the killer instinct, like Odysseus with his wily habit of standing with downcast eyes to disguise his intent.  Cousy could thread a pass between an opponent’s eyes without them blinking.  They often never knew what hit them.

I was reminded of this as I was rereading bits of Bob Dylan’s fascinating and poetic memoir, Chronicles: Volume I, and came upon his memory of hearing the news of the death of “Pistol” Pete Maravich, the greatest scorer in college basketball history and a magician without par on the court. Maravich was Cousy’s heir, and the blood line connects to Dylan also, a Houdini with words.  It was January 5, 1988:

My aunt was in the kitchen and I sat down with her to talk and drink coffee.  The radio was playing and morning news was on.  I was startled to hear that Pete Maravich, the basketball player, had collapsed on a basketball court in Pasadena, just fell over and never got up.  I’d seen Maravich play in New Orleans once, when the Utah Jazz were the New Orleans Jazz.  He was something to see – mop of brown hair, floppy socks – the holy terror of the basketball world – high flyin’ magician of the court.  The night I saw him he dribbled the ball with his head, scored a behind the back, no look basket – dribbled the length of the court, threw the ball up off the glass and caught his own pass.  He was fantastic.  Scored something like thirty-eight points.  He could have played blind.  Pistol Pete hadn’t played professionally for a while, and he was thought of as forgotten.  I hadn’t forgotten about him, though.  Some people seem to fade away but then when they are truly gone, it’s like they didn’t fade away at all.

He goes on to write that after hearing the news of Pistol Pete’s sad death playing pickup basketball, he started and completed the song “Dignity” the same day, and in the days that followed song after song flowed from his pen.  The news of one creative spirit’s death gave birth to another creative spirit’s gift to life.  (I am reminded of Shakespeare writing Hamlet after his father’s death.) “It’s like I saw the song up in front of me and overtook it, like I saw all the characters in this song and elected to cast my fortunes with them …. The wind could never blow it out of my head.  This song was a good thing to have.  On a song like this, there’s no end to things.”

No one wants to end, to fade away. To not be recognized. To die and be forgotten. To fail to make their mark. Not Dylan, Cousy, Maravich, me, nor you. We all wish to become who we feel we were meant to be. To fulfill the creative dreams we had when young and not to waste our lives in trivial pursuits. Years pass and people often ask with Dylan in “Shooting Star”:

Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of me
If I was still the same
If I ever became what you wanted me to be
Did I miss the mark or overstep the line
That only you could see?
Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of me

I keep thinking: who is you for you?  For me?

When I was a young boy, I wanted to stand out, to be exceptional, to be one-of-a-kind, an individual.  Basketball became my obsession and Bob Cousy my idol.  I wanted to be a shooting star, a dribbling star, a passing star. I watched him on television, studying him. His every move inspired me to imitate it.  I would spend hours every day practicing behind the back passes, first right-handed, then left, against the wall where I had marked an x in chalk.  I worked on my peripheral vision, so I could see the whole court and control the show.  In the hidden recesses of my basement, I used tape to mark spots on the floor where I spent hour after hour dribbling behind my back, first this way and then that, past imaginary opponents.  I made dribbling glasses with black tape out of my mother’s old sun glasses.  Worked on circling the ball behind my back either way. Hour after hour, day after day, year after year, I devoted myself to perfecting my basketball skills as a point guard. Being like Bob Cousy. Being the one whose magic feats were the talk of the town the following day.

One day, I met and talked with Paul Newman on the street after high school basketball practice. When I was leaving, he called me Fast Eddie, which to my mind added to the mystique I felt as a trickster on the hardwood.  I felt fast and loose like Paul’s character Eddie Felson in The Hustler when he was on a roll with his cue stick, “You don’t have to look, you just Know.  You make shots that nobody has ever made before.  I can play that game the way…. Nobody’s ever played it before.” That was my goal and the impetus behind my fanatical devotion to practice. I loved it, there was joy in it, but there was also a driven quality to my quest.

For whom?  Only you?

I was easily bored by conventional life and conventional basketball.  But the conventional world surrounded me. It was in school, church, the way people talked and walked; it seemed like people were straight-jacketed, which they were.  Blake’s mind-forged manacles. I sensed people were dissemblers, and that lies were the essence of social life.

Nowhere was this truer than on the basketball court in high school and college where the coaches had their systems and their rules and discouraged innovation, as if it would reveal them to be artists in disguise, weird, less-than-manly men who couldn’t run a tight ship.  They always rewarded those who obeyed them and kept within the strict rules of the system. Creativity frightened them.  The old ways sufficed.  It was just like society, and though Cousy had broken through and been idolized for doing so, he had retired from the Celtics in the spring of 1963, while the high school and college programs were stuck in the past.

I felt imprisoned. I wanted to bust out and play free.  Be free.  It was like the classics that I studied in school: the lesson was always that the exploits you read about were things of the past, and now we were civilized gentlemen who must learn the rules of the game and play by them.  Tradition. But the rules were suffocating me.

The rules of the game had almost brought the world to an end during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The rules of the game had created a system of war and racism that was badly broken, resulting in the savage killing not only a President who had undergone a radical spiritual conversion toward peace-making, but four little black girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on Sunday September 15, 1963, a year to the day after I started college with my trivial young man’s dreams of being the Cousy of college hoops.  The rules of the game would soon be violated by Dylan at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, when he would shock Pete Seeger and others with his song, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” a radical break with strictly political songs in favor of pure dazzling poetry in song.  That was a Cousy moment, poetry in motion, Houdini out of the locked box, dancing “beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.”

Bob Dylan, whose life and career follows Odysseus’ trajectory, ended his 2017 Nobel Award Lecture with the first line of the Odyssey: “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”  My friend Wayne and I, together with all our high school classmates, had memorized those lines in Greek.  They were ingrained in us for life, as they have been for Dylan.

But tell what story?  For whom?  Only you?

Dylan has told so many.  Here’s one I have for you, one you never heard. Here are the opening lines; let’s call it Book I, not that a Goddess intervened, but it was, in Odysseus’ words, the beginning of the end of my “clean-cut game.”

A month after the Cuban Missile Crisis, I played my first college basketball game.  In those days, all freshman were required by the rules of the game to play one year of freshman basketball before playing varsity.  This was the day I had been waiting for since the sixth grade when my dedication to basketball began.  My blood was flowing fast, I had no fear, and was ready to use all the skills I had spent years honing.  The stands were packed.  My proud family sat a few rows up behind our bench, my parents and four of my sisters, two of whom were quite young at eight and eleven years old.

The game was close, back and forth it went.  With about a minute and a half left, we were leading by two points.  The other coach called a time out with the ball in their possession. In the huddle, our coach assigned me to guard the opponent’s best player, a six-foot-four inch jumping jack who was highly acclaimed and a very good player by the name of Albie Grant.  I was five-foot-eleven, and beside my offensive skills, was a tough and tenacious very well-conditioned defender who took pride in sticking to an opponent like glue.  They threw the ball in and screened for Grant.  He got the ball and I got in his face.  He went up for a jump shot from about 20 feet out, and since I was not going to block his shot, I did what all good defenders do, I got my hand in front of his eyes.  But he made the shot anyway, and the referee called a shooting foul on me.  But I never touched him.  It was a terrible call, but I could do nothing about it.

Behind my back, I could hear my coach cursing me out with every name in the book – you fucking bastard, you shit, etc.  He could be heard throughout the arena.  The crowd went silent.  He kept cursing me out and my already sweaty, red face must have turned purple.  I felt on fire.  He took me out of the game, a game I had played throughout.  He kept cursing at me.  I sat away from him on the bench and he came down and stood over me, calling me every name in his limited vocabulary, you fucking this, you fucking that.  I looked at him in rage.  The game continued.  Grant made the free throw and we lost by one point.  As we walked off the court to the locker room door at the end, he kept screaming invective at me.  I could feel my rage swelling. My family was descending from the stands and could hear it all.  I noticed others staring in disbelief. To say it was humiliating barely captures what it felt like, but just as I played the game fiercely, I was not one to take such abuse.  But I kept telling myself to control myself.  It was the coach who was making a fool of himself.  Then, when we entered the locker room, he let loose at me again, you fucking idiot, you fucking bastard….when I snapped and grabbed him by his shirt and tie, my hands around his neck, I threw him up against the wall and let him have it, screaming that I’d had enough of his shit and I would kill him if he ever did it again.  All hell broke loose as people were pulling me off him, and my father, who was outside the locker room, came rushing in to intervene.

Years of passionate dedication to becoming the best basketball player I could, came to this.  I had reacted in fury to being humiliated “in my own house” in front of my family.  I think now of Odysseus when he stood on the broad door sill and killed AntÍnoös, the worst of the suitors of his wife, Penelope.  “Odysseus’ arrow hit him under the chin/ and punched up to the feathers through his throat.”  How dare he take revenge and defend his honor, came the shouts from the easily offended but secretly guilty. The other suitors screamed at him: “Foul!  To shoot at a man!  That was your last shot.”

It wasn’t mine, but that is the rest of the story.  My craft changed in the following years.  I no longer tried to imitate other tricksters like Bob Cousy or Bob Dylan. They have their own tales to tell and dwell upon. Their words are not mine.

Now I play with words in my own way.

But like Bob Dylan, “I return once again to Homer who says, ‘Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.’

Our stories often happen behind our backs where we can’t see them. Telling them is the trick.  You need to turn around and see what’s behind you to pass them around.

These Songs Kill Fascists

These Songs Kill Fascists, my latest album,  is an ode to Woody Guthrie, a call to fight fascism outside and internally.  Featuring Mick Jenkins, Psalm One, Denver jazz legend Ron Miles, and platinum producer DJ Pain 1, the album tackles issues such as the murder of Heather Heyer, Denver’s history with the KKK, gentrification, rape culture, migration, abolishing ICE, the alienation of technology, and my friendship with the late Lonnie Pops Lynn. All  proceeds from the single “Seeds” will be donated to Jeanette Vizguerra’s movement Sanctuary For All.  Ms. Vizguerra is an undocumented mother currently in sanctuary in Denver.

Bob Dylan’s Midnight Message to JFK’s Ghost

For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ.

— Hamlet

On May 1, 1962, President John Kennedy was meeting in the Oval Office with a group of Quakers who were urging him to do more for peace and disarmament.  As he kept explaining the great political opposition he was facing within his own government, they kept urging him to do more.  He listened very closely to their words and finally said, “You believe in redemption, don’t you.”  By the next spring he had turned decisively toward the peacemaking the Quakers had urged upon him, resulting in his murder in the fall by treacherous government forces, led by the CIA, that opposed him all along.

Now that Dylan has burst forth from behind his many masks and gifted the world with his incandescent new song about the assassination, with a title taken from Hamlet, from the mouth of the ghost of the dead King of Denmark –“Murder Most Foul “– we have entered a new day in an odd way.  For those who have wondered over the years if Dylan had “sold out,” here is their answer. For those who have wondered if he would go to his grave reciting the words of T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock – “I am no Prince Hamlet nor was meant to be” – here is Hamlet’s booming response. Not only does this song lay bare the truth of the most foundational event in modern American history, but it does so in such a powerfully poetic way and at such an opportune time that it should redeem Dylan in the eyes of those who ever doubted him.

I say “should,” but while the song’s release has garnered massive publicity from the mainstream media, it hasn’t taken long for that media to bury the truth of his words about the assassination under a spectacle of verbiage meant to damn with faint praise.  As the media in a celebrity culture of the spectacle tend to do, the emphasis on the song’s pop cultural references is their focus, with platitudes about the assassination and “conspiracy theories,” as well as various shameful and gratuitous digs at Dylan for being weird, obsessed, or old.  As the song says, “they killed him once and they killed him twice,” so now they can kill him a third time, and then a fourth ad infinitum.  And now the messenger of the very bad news must be dispatched along with the dead president.

The media like their Hamlets impotent and enervated, but Dylan has come out roaring like a bull intent on avenging his dead president.

He has the poet’s touch, of course, a hyperbolic sense of the fantastic that draws you into his magical web in the pursuit of deeper truth.  In many ways he’s like the Latin American magical realist writers who move from fact to dream to the fantastic in a puff of wind.

Dylan is our Emerson.  His artistic philosophy has always been about movement in space and time through song.  Always moving, always restless, always seeking a way back home through song, even when, or perhaps because, there are no directions.  “An artist has got to be careful never to arrive at a place where he thinks he’s at somewhere,” he’s said.  “You always have to realize that you are constantly in a state of becoming and as long as you can stay in that realm, you’ll be alright.”

Sounds like living, right?

Sounds like Emerson, also.  “Life only avails, not the having lived.  Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim.  Thus one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes.”

“Murder Most Foul” is Dylan’s soul becoming

“A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true.  They’re like strange countries that you have to enter.  You can write a song anywhere …. It helps to be moving.  Sometimes people who have the greatest talent for writing songs never write any because they are not moving,” he wrote in Chronicles. 

“Murder Most Foul” is a moving song in every sense of the word – a trip to truth.

Dylan has long been accused of abandoning his youthful idealism and protest music.  I think this is a bum rap.  He was never a protester, though his songs became anthems of the civil rights and anti-war movements.  There is no doubt that those songs were inspirational and gave people hope to carry on the good fight.  But in turning in a more oblique and circumspect musical direction, following his need to change as the spirit of inspiration moved him, Dylan’s songs came to inspire in a new way. You could always tell his sympathies lay with the oppressed and downtrodden, but for decades he didn’t shout it, with perhaps the one exception being the powerful, hard-hitting, and mesmeric Hurricane in 1975.  With that one he stepped into the ring to brawl.

But for the most part over the years, a listener has had to catch his drift. If you go to the music, and dip into his various stylistic changes over the decades, however, you will find a consistency of themes.  He deals with essentials like all great poets.  Nothing is excluded.  His work is paradoxical.  Yes, he’s been singing about death since twelve, but it has always been countered by life and rebirth.  There is joy and sadness; faith and doubt; happiness and suffering; injustice and justice; romance and its discontents; despair and hope.  His music possesses a bit of a Taoist quality mixed with a Biblical sensibility conveyed by a hopelessly romantic American.  He has fused his themes into an incantatory delivery that casts a moving spell of hope upon the listener.  He is nothing if not a spiritual spell-binder; similar in many ways to that other quintessential American – the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, whose best work was a poetic quest for an inspired salvific poetry.

While speaking the unspeakable truth about President John Kennedy’s murder might seem hopeless, it is actually a sign of great hope.  For our only hope is in telling the truth, which Bob has done.

This is art, not theory, and art of a special kind since Dylan is an artist at war with his art.  His songs demand that the listener’s mind and spirit be moving as the spirit of creative inspiration moved Dylan.  A close listening will force one to jump from line to line, verse to verse – to shoot the gulf – since there are no bridges to cross, no connecting links.  The sound carries you over and keeps you moving forward. If you’re not moving, you’ll miss the meaning.

I have no wish to explicate the poet’s brilliant work.  It speaks for itself.  It says far more than it actually says about a system rotten to the core, a country where everything went wrong since “The day the killers blew out the brains of the king/Thousands were watching, no one saw a thing.”

If you listen to Dylan’s piercing voice and follow the lyrics closely, you might be startled to be told, not from someone who can be dismissed as some sort of disgruntled “conspiracy nut,” but by the most famous musician in the world, that there was a government conspiracy to kill JFK, that Oswald didn’t do it, and that the killers then went for the president’s brothers.

Your brothers are comin’, there’ll be hell to pay
Brothers? What brothers? What’s this about hell?
Tell them, “We’re waiting, keep coming,” we’ll get them as well

This is an in-your-face tale, set to music with a barely tinkling piano, a violin, and a soupçon of percussion, whose lightest words, as Hamlet’s father’s ghost said to him:

Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,
Thy knotty and combinèd locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.

“Murder Most Foul” truly startles.  It is a redemptive song.  Dylan holds the mirror up for us. He unlocks the door to the painful and sickening truth.  He shoves the listener in, and, as he writes in Chronicles, “your head has to go into a different place.  Sometimes it takes a certain somebody to make you realize it.”

Bob is our certain somebody. In these dark times he has offered us his voice.

You believe in redemption, don’t you?

Bernie Songs and Revolution-Making

I’ve been writing these Future Hope columns for 20 years, and several times I’ve quoted James Connolly, Irish labor, socialist and independence leader over a hundred years ago, on the importance of singing:

No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetical expression. If such a movement has caught hold of the imagination of the masses they will seek a vent in song for the aspirations, the fears and the hopes, the loves and the hatreds engendered by the struggle. Until the movement is marked by the joyous, defiant, singing of revolutionary songs, it lacks one of the most distinctive marks of a popular revolutionary movement, it is the dogma of a few, and not the faith of the multitude.

This profoundly important insight of Connolly’s was published in Dublin, Ireland in1907 in an introduction to Revolutionary Songs.

I have no idea if Bernie Sanders has much of a singing voice. My guess is probably not. But his speaking voice, his words, his speeches, as well as his heart and soul and passion for justice, have inspired some creative, moving, powerful songs already, and I am sure there are more to come.1

I remember the anti-war movement during the Vietnam war, and I’ve learned about the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s, and I know that music and song were part of both of them. For the civil rights movement in particular, though, my understanding of history is that singing was an essential ingredient of the major victories won by the movement in 1964 and 1965 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, passed because of the irresistible force of a powerful, massive, singing, broadly-based, morally-driven movement.

Bruce Hartford, deeply involved as a young person in the civil rights movement in Mississippi and Alabama in 1965 and 1966, said this about the importance of singing in his valuable book, Troublemaker:

“Sometimes I’m asked, how did we endure? And what kept us going? My answer is — freedom songs and freedom singing. Freedom songs and freedom singing were our most effective nonviolent weapon, and the songs and the singing were the psychic threads that bound us into a tapestry of purpose, solidarity, courage, and hope. The songs spread our message. The songs bonded us together. The songs elevated our courage. The songs shielded us from hate. The songs forged our discipline. The songs protected us from danger. And it was the songs that kept us sane…

Song was one of our most powerful and effective organizing tools. All human communities are riven with divisions – personal, social, religious, cultural, class, gender, age, sexual-orientation and of course race. Building unity across these many divides is hard. Really hard. Rich and poor, elite and ‘no account,’ don’t mingle easily. Individuals might be at odds with other individuals. Someone from one race or culture may feel unwelcome or out of place in settings dominated by a different race or culture. Singing our songs helped break those barriers down.

Over the last year I’ve become part of the Solidarity Singers, a group sponsored by the NJ Industrial Union Council made up of grassroots people who sing all over New Jersey at rallies and demonstrations and events. The music of most of our songs comes from the civil rights movement, while the words are updated to be relevant for the present. Without question, I have seen how this singing, these songs, have done some of the things which Bruce Hartford wrote of in Troublemaker.

I haven’t really looked, but my guess is that there’s no other Presidential campaign that has inspired what the Bernie campaign is inspiring song-wise. In addition to all of the many other reasons why this campaign is surging, this may end up being one of the most important. Let’s sing, sisters and brothers, let’s sing!

  1. Here are links to five of them: https://youtu.be/LyzSAHCE88I
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zD3xY4zCP7E
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BX216znrtP0
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5W3fbfHYgg
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOCz9ytXbwY.

“Artistic-Humanistic” Creativity (1960-65)

Lately, in my ongoing exploration of the artistic movements of the American past, I’ve noticed that, in a mere half-decade (1960-65), creative achievements in the performing arts — music, drama, film — were so outstanding as to never to be equaled again (in my opinion).  What are my criteria for such “greatness” in these art-forms?  Basically, powerfully humanistic and vigorously executed creations, works that express — often subtly and with considerable nuance — ultimate human values.  Both rational and emotional, such a work must exhibit coherent, unified structure, as well as an authenticity of insight which transcends stale platitudes and hackneyed sentiments.  The viewer/listener is not only genuinely moved but also energized by the vigor and creative originality of the work.

If my thesis is justified, why did this short period exhibit such a creative-artistic efflorescence?  My impression is that, starting around 1960, a subjective feeling of a gradually expanding “liberation” was occurring.  As someone who still acknowledges the importance of such post-Freudians as Wilhelm Reich, I would insist that improved contraceptives (notably, “the pill”) was a key factor, as well as the gradually liberalizing norms regarding sexual behavior, divorce, and (a few years later) abortion.  But this feeling — a sense of a more humane, livable Zeitgeist emerging — was also mostly dramatically evidenced by the victories of the Civil Rights movement, victories which catalyzed a hopeful, guardedly optimistic vision of a freer-world-to-come.

Another factor was demographic: in 1960, 50% of Americans were under 18.  Such sheer numbers of young people, often disaffected and dissatisfied with the racist and blandly consumeristic status quo, pressed — with youthful vigor and idealistic enthusiasm — against the reactionary stagnation of their elders.  However, I’m more inclined to look to the 30-somethings of 1960-65: people already inclined to a more progressive-humanistic vision because of some first-hand experience of the Depression–or, at least, of its humane, artistic depiction (cf. Steinbeck, Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” etc.).

Who were these creators — to name a few, representative examples — and what did they create?  In drama, I’m thinking of Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, a powerfully moving, convincing drama of one black family’s pain-and-struggle against segregation (far superior as drama, in my opinion, to the relentlessly over-hyped Death of a Salesman and adapted into a fine 1961 film).  In music: not only the boldly raw, vigorously impassioned hard bop jazz created by inner-city black musicians such as Lee Morgan and Miles Davis, but also the genre-transcending, freshly challenging jazz experiments of Dave Brubeck and others.  A key facilitating factor here was the existence of independent record companies and producers with a genuine interest in artistic innovation (Blue Note records, Columbia Records producer Teo Macero, etc.).  Even book publishers were, at that time, mostly small, independent firms (e.g., Knopf), still more interested in real quality than in maximizing sales (i.e., “the profit-margin”).

The film industry in the early Sixties?  Many talented writers — some newly-emerged from the HUAC blacklist — were unapologetically committed to some form of socialism or “social democracy,” a conviction which embraced human equality and dignity, and condemned exploitation of wage-laborers and racial/ethnic minorities.  I’m thinking in particular of the epic drama Spartacus (1960) — based on a novel by the Communist Howard Fast and scripted by ex-listed Dalton Trumbo — which earnestly and powerfully depicted the Roman Slave Revolt, ca. 71 B.C.  The synergy of talents exhibited in the film — writing, directing, acting, music — is probably unparalleled in the history of American film.  But, most importantly, the film was a powerfully dramatized treatment of an ultimate theme of human consequence: the value of the individual, free and undominated, as against the changing forms of historical tyranny and subjection.

The early Sixties also saw a burgeoning awareness of Freud’s often-disturbing insights into irrational, malignant human motivations.  Thus, for instance, the film adaptation of Melville’s Billy Budd (1962) unflinchingly probed the repressed Claggart’s sadistic intentions toward Billy.  In black-comedy — a subversive genre which came-of-age in this period — we see the paralyzed, impotent Dr. Strangelove rejoicing in a “cosmic orgasm” of global, nuclear armageddon (Stanley Kubrick’s 1963 film).

Nowadays, unfortunately, the enlightening perspectives of both Marxist and Freudian explanations have almost entirely disappeared — as what remains of an intelligent, searching public understanding is submerged ever-further into the confused blind-alley of “identity-politics.”  And, as for the often malignant motivations of many present-day filmmakers, I refer you to an earlier article, “Reviving Radical Populism in Films.”

Autumn 2019 Tour Reflections

The last of a series of gigs I’ve been doing over the past six weeks on the road was last night.  I don’t always manage to collect my thoughts on the experience into a blog post, but I will this time.

For a very long time now I have usually been doing two tours of this length or longer, every spring and every autumn.  Sometimes my lack of a blog post at the end is because I have no particularly new or trenchant observations to make about the places I’ve just been — at least not ones that are so distinct from the sorts of observations I made on my last pass through a given place.  Other times, I just don’t find the time.  It is frequently the case that the morning after my last gig on a tour, I’m flying home.  I tell myself I’m going to write in the plane, but then I usually find the conditions are too cramped, and the prospect of a nap and a couple of movies is more attractive, under the circumstances.  Then, getting home, I have several children to reconnect with after their father’s long absence, and the tour fades away from the sharpest parts of my memory, replaced with slides, swing sets and climbing walls.

The fact that I have two days free at the end of this tour to spend on a travelogue is part of the story of the tour, to be sure.  The length of the tour — a little over six weeks — was shorter than my usual two months.  This was intentional from the start.  Two months is too long to be away from young children, I decided a while ago.  But even filling these six weeks up with gigs proved to be a challenge, one which I failed to meet.

I don’t want to dwell on this depressing point, but it’s actually worse than it sounds.  Spending a week working on my upcoming album in Ireland was already part of the tour plan.  So really it was more a five-week tour.  Despite the fact that it had been about a year since I had been to any of the countries I toured in this time, I wasn’t even able to fill every available Friday and Saturday night with gigs.  In the end, I had 15 paying gigs, along with several protests to sing at, the album project, etc.  This was a good ten fewer gigs than I was originally hoping to have, and which I certainly could have fit in to my schedule, if they had materialized.

I won’t try to analyze why the tour went this way, because, thankfully, in Europe at least, this is not a trend, it’s just how the cookie crumbles sometimes.  If it happens again in the spring, I’ll call it a trend — and a devastating one at that.  If it is a trend, then it will be following in the wake of what has already happened in the United States, for me.  Despite the fact that around half of my listeners in the world are located in the US, according to all the online platforms where people find my music these days, and despite the fact that I live in the infamously artistic and theoretically progressive city of Portland, Oregon, I’m barely ever able to find anyone in the country who is able and willing to organize a gig that I can afford to do without losing money in the effort of getting there.

And while that trend also most certainly continues, that’s the last I’ll say about it.  Now, we move on from the “poor me” section of the travelogue, to other things.

Illinois

The tour began with a flight to St Louis, a night in a Motel 6, a rare phone interview with a community radio station the following morning, and a drive in a rental car several hours to the southeast, to Carbondale, Illinois.  Two organizers I’ve known for a long time, Anne Peterman and Orin Langelle, and the organization they have been spearheading for many years, the Global Justice Ecology Project, were part of a collective effort to attempt to rise to the occasion, in this age of flood and fire.

I can’t say, from my limited vantage point, how this extended weekend of workshops and meetings and such went, overall.  What was abundantly clear was the organizers had managed to bring together a collection of some real heavy-hitters from all over North America and a few from even further afield.  People who were or had recently been on the front lines of local, national and international campaigns of civil disobedience in defense of their threatened homes and homelands.  Water protectors from Lakota lands and from the bayous of Louisiana.  People trying to protect forests, forest people and forest economies in Brazil from massive corporations intent on assassinating leaders and razing everything around them for short-term profit, while doing it all with a bizarre eco-friendly fig leaf.  People trying to prevent logging and mining operations from destroying the last of the privately-owned forest lands, along with all the clean water in places like southern Illinois.

It was, for me, a reunion with many environmental activists I had not seen in ten or twenty years, who I used to see more often, when times were different, when there were student organizations with budgets to organize gigs of the sort that used to keep many of these activists on perpetual speaking and organizing tours, along with many like-minded musicians, such as me.  (Oops, I said I was done with that topic.)  Despite the many recent battles fought, we’re unquestionably losing, again and again, and the feeling of defeat among the ranks of those in attendance was pervasive.  I would rather say something different, and I know the organizers would surely rather I did, but that would be lying, and there’s no point in that sort of deceit.  There was little optimism anywhere to be found that weekend in what was once Shawnee country.  I was not there to attend meetings, and I did not attend any of them, but I was on the periphery of them enough to feel the treacherous, divisive winds of Extreme Identity Politics blowing from many directions, the toxic ideology of many lost people, particularly among the youth.  It’s nothing new, though the words change.  Me and many of my friends were similarly lost when we were young, suffering from the same lack of intergenerational coherency of radical thought that most of the US has been suffering from for most of the past century.  It’s also nothing new that in the absence of an optimistic, forward-looking social movement, we tend to turn in on each other.

In stark contrast to this air of defeat, strangely enough, was Mike Africa, Jr.  He and I were two of the musical guests for the weekend.  Sometime in the late 1990’s was the last time I had seen Mike, and it was from a distance.  It was in his home town of Philadelphia, and he was on a flatbed truck of some kind, part of a march in solidarity with death row prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal.  Someone pointed him out to me at the time.  “Those are Move kids,” I remember someone saying.

I was probably around thirty then, and Mike would have been around eighteen.  At that time, his parents had spent eighteen years in prison.  They would go on to spend 22 more years in prison between that day in Philadelphia and the next time I would see Mike, in Illinois, this time much more up close.

I spent most of two days talking with Mike, rediscovering his brilliant poetry and music, which, I learned, had been basically on hiatus since the last time I had seen him, so long ago.  After raising several children and ultimately, in 2018, seeing his parents finally freed from prison in Pennsylvania, Mike is ready to start touring again.  We talked about politics, life and history, but mostly we talked about the logistics of being an independent touring performer and how to attempt to make a living at it in the modern age, while remaining firmly connected to social movements — a tricky thing in so many ways (and I’ll leave it at that).  We quickly decided we should tour Europe together in the spring of 2020.

Aside from the logistical aspects — that I think I can interest people in Europe in organizing stops on such a tour, because Mike is a great hiphop artist with a fascinating life story that is, I can already report, of great interest to many people in Europe and elsewhere — what is also so compelling about Mike is the optimism in his words.  The importance of optimism in times like these cannot be overstated.  It’s the only thing that can change the world.  Not that optimism alone can change the world — just that without it, we’re surely doomed.

Germany

After my few days in Illinois, the tour took me to Germany, Ireland, Scotland and England.  I’ve noticed an increasing number of people on Twitter refer to themselves as “space travelers, like you.”  It seems appropriate to use a term that is evocative of another, fictional kind of travel, because space travel can often be a lot like time travel.

It’s not that Germany in 2019 feels exactly like traveling in time to somewhere else.  But it bears many similarities, along with the differences.  Singing at massive rallies organized by unions, that’s something I’ve never experienced in the US, which is a fairly common part of my experience of Germany (not that there were any on this particular trip).  Other things, like singing at a small protest through a sound system in solidarity with a Latin American country — in this case Venezuela — was an experience I used to have frequently in the US, but not since 2006 or so.  Singing at such a protest while someone was filming it, who then put the video up on YouTube, was an experience that has long since gone out of fashion in the US, in my little world.  It’s been years since anyone did that, that I can recall.  It used to happen almost daily.

In Freiburg, the Squatting Days series of events folks were having at the venerable KTS squatted social center beside the train tracks on the outskirts of the city were going to culminate in the squatting of a new building.  The organizers decided, if I was up for it, to change the plan for the concert, so instead of  having it at KTS, we’d do it at a newly-squatted building.

The building in question was a three-story structure with six two-bedroom apartments, very solidly built, as is typical in Germany.  Because of some kind of legal dispute involving the building, it had been vacant for years.  This band of squatters intended to change that, at least temporarily.  As it turned out, very temporarily.  The occupation lasted about a half hour before most of the occupiers, including me and my musical collaborator on the occasion, vacated the premises.  I am happy to say that it took several cops a very long time to look the foreign musicians up in their computers, which may very well have allowed a lot of squatters to casually leave the area without being noticed.

It was my first visit to the Hambach Forest, or what little is left of it, there beside the biggest coal mine in Europe, since Steffen Meyn fell to his death a year earlier.  More time travel — to two years earlier in the same place, or to the early 1990’s in California or Idaho.  The death of Steffen Meyn, combined with the rising activism around climate chaos that has been sweeping Europe and elsewhere in recent years, bears more and more resemblance to what we might call the heyday of what was known as the radical environmental movement in the US circa thirty years ago.  It also bears much of the same disconnect between punk, cop-despising treehuggers, and many average people who don’t understand their priorities.  These are not the Yellow Vests, or their German equivalent.  Many of them, like their Earth First cousins in North America, would not be embarrassed to admit that they prefer the company of squirrels to that of most people.  Their experiences with the police has not helped with their misanthropy at all.

Ireland

Although I have deep affection for humanity in every society in which I have encountered the species, very much including both Germany and Ireland, there are so many contrasts.  In Germany, as in the US and other countries with a deeply imperial imprint on the planet, to be a nationalist is to be a racist and a xenophobe.  In Germany, if you have too great an interest in the folk music of your region, you will draw suspicion from people who identify as left-wing.  Anyone who wears those traditional German trousers is assumed by any black-clad resident of Kreuzberg to be a closet fascist.

In Ireland, it may be a complex and fraught thing for someone from a Loyalist neighborhood in the northern Six Counties to have an interest in the Irish language or in Irish music, but for most anyone else on the island, having an abiding interest in your native language, your native music, your native country, and your native culture is to a very large extent wrapped up in the concept of Irish nationalism, which is itself completely historically wrapped up in internationalism and international solidarity.

The deep interest in Irish culture that is pervasive in Ireland has none of the flavor of identity politics that you’ll find throughout North America, and none of the genocidal intentions that can be lurking in the shadows — or often very much in the open — in German, US or British nationalism.  It is the nationalism of a people who have been told for centuries that they are not a people, or if they are, they are an inferior sort of people who should change, and stop speaking their language, singing their songs, playing their music, dancing their dances — for a long time, on pain of torture, imprisonment, death and/or exile.

Being there among my friends and within their communities, I feel like I can breath fully.  Which could be a strange thing to say, when you consider the fact that most of my friends in that part of Ireland have had friends and relatives tortured, killed or imprisoned for decades.  This is not so much history, as very recent, living memory, and also a simmering back-burner sort of present.  Rumors are everywhere, including in the press, that Loyalist militias are stockpiling weapons again.  Throughout the Cooley Mountains, where the album project was taking place, the metal signs are riddled with high-caliber bullet holes, along with the low-caliber ones.  (It’s easy to tell the difference.  The high-caliber bullets go cleanly through the metal, while the other ones just make dents.)

Despite what to many might feel like an ever-present threat of violence, there is, for me, a much more powerful presence of a deeply felt identification by a people with their own culture, history and place.  A culture which at least some people on the island have managed to not only preserve, but which continues to evolve, to interact with other cultures freely, and to continually produce world-influencing content (to use a modern term) of all kinds.

I was in Ireland this time for one purpose — to make an album.  I had run into Pol Mac Adaim in the summer in Denmark, which is when he mentioned that he had access to a home recording studio in Ireland.  Given that the musicians I most wanted to make an album with live in Ireland and Scotland, and included Pol, and given the fact that Pol was making this offer out of a desire to promote what he calls folk music (which is not defined the same way by the music industry, let’s just say), it was an easy decision for me to make.

Lorna McKinnon, Kamala Emanuel and I landed in Dublin, rented a car, and headed north to Ma Baker’s Pub in the ancient Norman village of Carlingford, in County Louth, just south of the border with County Down, and what people refer to as the North, the Six Counties, the Occupied Six Counties, or Northern Ireland, depending on who you’re talking to.  It was after midnight by the time we managed to get there, and Pol’s gig was over.  We followed him home, deep into a network of narrow little roads, eventually ending at a house surrounded by forested hills and fields dotted with sheep, quietly munching the grass around them.  This would be where we’d spend six 13-hour days recording guitar and vocal parts for the album, for which Pol has since been laying down pipe and whistle tracks, in preparation for the final phase of the process, that of mixing and mastering.

The recording experience was magical.  Or at least that’s what seems like the most appropriate word to use, when the sum of the parts equal so much more than any mathematical calculation would ever deliver.  Lorna and Kamala’s months of work on creating complex vocal arrangements, combined with Pol’s insights and abilities as a producer and engineer, were together creating a musical experience that was nothing like what any of the songs could ever have accomplished with just my voice and guitar as vehicles.

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When we weren’t recording, we were often talking.  Pol is the only one among his brothers who has not spent decades in prison.  He and his siblings grew up in Ardoyne, a particularly hard neighborhood in Belfast to grow up in, surrounded as it is by often very hostile Loyalist neighborhoods.  The conversations, along with some refreshing of my knowledge of certain events in recent Irish history, led to a song that I finished soon after I left the island.

Scotland

The beautiful northern region of the larger island to the east, Scotland, is a place of many contradictions, all of which seem to be at the very forefront of people’s attention these days.  This is also very much the case lately in England.  Most of the fissures in society and politics are the same, but they play out somewhat differently.

Scottish society was recently riven by the question of Scottish independence, which the voters ultimately voted against.  Then came Brexit, which most Scottish people also voted against, but which they are now stuck with, along with Northern Ireland and, for obvious reasons of history, sovereignty, culture, trade, geography and politics, the rest of Ireland as well.  Brexit may not be itself a massive dividing issue in Scotland, since most Scots opposed it.  But what is almost as divisive in Scotland as it is in England in recent months is how you stand on voting for Jeremy Corbyn and the British Labor Party.

The issue in both Scotland and England is distressingly and confusingly not a simple left-right issue.  To dip into it a little:  most, but by no means all, Scottish left-wingers supported Scottish independence.  But even if they didn’t, they still are interested in political devolution, or local autonomy, whatever you want to call it.  So they’re interested in promoting Scottish political parties that will look out for the Scottish working class, among other things, naturally enough.

But many radicals in England have joined the Labor Party in the very recent past, because of the new leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, which many people in England are wildly excited about, quite understandably, since he represents the most left leadership to challenge the neoliberal status quo of the party, and the government overall, since the 1960’s, at least.  Scotland now has plenty of Labor Party organizers trying to convince people who would normally vote for the Scottish National Party or another Scottish party, to hold their noses and vote Labor.  They are viewed alternately as pragmatists or traitors, depending on who you talk to and how much they’ve had to drink.

The contradictions of life for many people in Scotland, for Scottish history, to some extent, seem to be fairly well represented in the family history of one young man I met in Dundee, at my first of four gigs in Scotland on the tour.  He was related to two of my songs.  One of his relatives was a factory worker in East Kilbride who refused to repair the Chilean Air Force jet engines.  And one going further back was a member of the Scottish military regiment that put down the Welsh uprising of 1831.

England

First of all, I need to share my favorite songs that I heard people sing while I was there.  I had opening acts at most of my gigs, many of whom seemed to think their main job was to depress the audience in preparation for my set.  In stark contrast to these depressing, preachy left-wing guys and sometimes gals who kept on opening for me in various places, the best musicians I heard in my travels were at the two open mics I played at, where I was the feature act.  Here’s one I had to record, after getting her to do it a second time, a brilliant song about gentrification in London, recorded with my phone at Archie Shuttler’s open mic at the Telegraph.

One of the other highlights of the tour on a musical level was hearing a musician I’ve now known for many years who is currently going by the stage name, Morning Crush, singing one of my songs on the streets of Kingston-Upon-Thames, where he can frequently be found busking.  He first heard my music when he was 14 — one of several folks I met at various gigs who first heard me when they were 14.

England, more than anywhere I’ve been lately outside of the US, is in some kind of convulsive state.  It’s infinitely exacerbated by the entirely servile media, from the Guardian to the BBC to the rampant Murdoch tabloid press and tabloid TV, which continually paint Jeremy Corbyn alternately as a clown, a terrorist sympathizer, an anti-Semite, or some other such nonsense.  As with the US media and bipartisan political establishment and its relationship with Bernie Sanders, the British media and establishment would prefer to have some form of fascism over having anyone in power who dares to talk about nationalizing industries like health care or — gasp — housing.  The need for people to have medical care and housing are massive industries — nationalize them, and anything could be next.  Which is true — and the rich are aware of this fact, unfortunately.

Complicating matters massively is, once again, Brexit.  The much-hated current Prime Minister, Boris Eton Johnson, has long been championing the Brexit cause, which most of the population of the UK voted for in 2016.  Although Corbyn and many other socialists have long been more interested in a government that serves the interests of the working class and the environment rather than banks and oil companies, whether it’s a government based in London or in Brussels, he has effectively been shoved into the Remain box, becoming the de facto representative of the European Union, an institution which is about as popular as Boris Johnson.

The widespread optimism that characterized England a year ago, the last time I traveled in the country, is gone.  The love of Corbyn among his base, the recent Labor Party converts from the left, and most of the Labor Party members, is still there, but the optimism that accompanied his unexpected election to party leader, that this might somehow be transformed into a Labor majority in parliament and a Corbyn-led government, is no longer.  Perhaps he’ll win in the upcoming general election, but if he does, it will be a surprise to the entire political spectrum in the UK, as it is currently constituted on paper.

Despite the glum mood, and the fact that so many people I know are canvassing for the Labor Party, starting just before I landed in Britain, all of the gigs that I had in England were really good.  Some of the venues were too small to fit everyone who wanted to come, partly because we’re losing some of the bigger venues.  The Islington Folk Club in London was packed as it always is, but since it was forced to relocate to a smaller space, packing the club now requires about a third as many people as it used to (and, of course, the gig pays much less than it used to as a result).

One of the new and very poignant experiences of playing in England on this tour involved the reactions by audiences to my new song about the pogroms in 1969 in the Six Counties.  There were various interesting aspects to the experience.  Audiences were always listening extra intently to that song.  Many times, applause afterwards was more sustained than usual, as if to quietly make the point, we understand.  Many English people thanked me for writing about this important subject, specifically.  Many people from Belfast, Derry or other northern Irish towns who were at gigs in England shouted their approval, talked to me after the show, and told me how moved they were, how important it was that this was being talked about, and how much they had suffered from discrimination in England over the decades that many of them had been living there.

Pol Mac Adaim had talked to me about how well the British establishment had kept the truth of the occupation of Ireland and other brutally occupied colonies of the empire hidden from the average British subject.  But, he added, some people know the truth.  The soldiers who occupied his country live there, and they know.  It was these ex-soldiers that I also kept meeting at every gig where I sang that song.  They’re everywhere, and many of them, even though in many cases they’re in their sixties and seventies by now, they’re still too traumatized by the experience to talk about it much beyond letting me know they were there, and thanking me for the song.  The remorse is palpable, though apparently unexpressable.

The last time I had been in London I sang at a vigil outside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where Julian Assange was then essentially imprisoned.  Some great filmmakers present that day made some great clips on Twitter out of the event.  I contacted one of them to see if he wanted to do some kind of thing in front of Belmarsh Prison, where Assange is now being held, as they consider extraditing him to the United States.  I realized the best thing would be for me to write a new song for the occasion, and the resulting music video that came of this collaboration is already a highlight of my career, such as it is.  I’ll sign off with that, in case you missed it…

Opera in Crisis: Can it be made relevant again?

Introduction

Opera productions depend on much state support, which is in decline, as states themselves go further and further into debt. To try and overcome these problems there have been many attempts at changes in form and content and even transmission in recent years. But these changes do not solve cost or accessibility issues especially in an era where it is difficult to get people to go out to the much cheaper cinema house, let alone a phenomenally expensive opera production. Although nowadays one is more likely to experience opera as cinema than theatre. Can such an expensive medium become popular again? What makes an opera popular? Can opera be relevant to people’s struggles today?

Here I will look at the origins and history of opera from the late 1590s until today. Like other forms of culture, opera was initially influenced by Enlightenment ideas in its Baroque (1590-1750) and Classical periods (1750-1820), while the Romantic (1800-1914) reaction predominated in the early nineteenth century up to the early twentieth century. Enlightenment and Romantic influences could still be seen throughout the twentieth century with Verismo (c1890-1920) and Modernism respectively. The twenty-first century has brought interesting changes in form and content and a global appreciation of opera but it remains an essentially elite form of entertainment in terms of cost and audiences.

Early opera – ‘did not normally furnish half the expense’

Jacopo Peri is credited with developing the first operas. His earliest surviving opera Dafne exists mainly as a libretto and fragments of music. The earliest surviving full opera is Peri’s Euridice which was first performed in 1600. Peri worked with Jacopo Corsi, also a composer of the time, both of whom were influenced by classical Greek and Roman works. They worked with the poet Ottavio Rinuccini, a member of the Florentine Camerata, who wrote the texts. The Camerata were a group of humanists, poets and musicians in late Renaissance Florence who sought to produce new works more in keeping with the spirit of humanism in the form and style of the ancient Greeks.

Renaissance humanism was a revival in the study of classical antiquity, at first in Italy and then spreading across Western Europe from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Their aim was to educate people and create a participatory citizenry through the study of the studia humanitatis, today known as the humanities: grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy. The Renaissance contributed heavily to the spread of Enlightenment ideas which was a much broader movement.

In France, the Enlightenment is traditionally dated from 1715 to 1789; i.e., from the beginning of the reign of Louis XV until the French Revolution. Enlightenment ideas focused on reason as the main source of knowledge and propagated ideals of liberty, progress, toleration, constitutional government, and separation of church and state in opposition to absolute monarchy and the dogmas of the Catholic church.

The intellectuals of the Enlightenment believed that “humanity progressed through the rational acquisition and organization of knowledge, and that real knowledge resulted from observation and logic rather than tradition, speculation, or divine inspiration.”

Enlightenment ideas also had a profound affect on different forms of culture, particularly in the creation of opera.

The Florentine Camerata were influenced by the historian and humanist Girolamo Mei who believed that ancient Greek drama was mainly sung rather than spoken as the Greek Aristoxenus had written that speech should set the pattern for song. The Camerata were also critical of contemporary polyphony which was felt to be overused and obscured the words and their meanings. Therefore:

Intrigued by ancient descriptions of the emotional and moral effect of ancient Greek tragedy and comedy, which they presumed to be sung as a single line to a simple instrumental accompaniment, the Camerata proposed creating a new kind of music. Instead of trying to make the clearest polyphony they could, the Camerata voiced an opinion recorded by a contemporary Florentine, ‘means must be found in the attempt to bring music closer to that of classical times.’

These musical experiments were called monody and Peri’s operas had the entire drama sung in monodic style with gambas, lutes, and harpsichord or organ for continuo as the main instruments. Thus we see a radical development in musical form along with content coming from Greek mythology. This new ‘music drama’ was called ‘opera’ (work). Over time other composers took up these new ideas and eventually synthesised monody and polyphony.

Orpheus, the hero of the opera, with a violin, by Cesare Gennar

Peri’s opera Euridice tells the story of Orpheus (Orfeo), a great musician, who journeyed to the underworld to plead with the gods to revive his wife Euridice after she had been fatally injured. Orpheus uses his legendary voice to convince Pluto, the god of the underworld, to return Euridice to life. He is successful and they return from the underworld and rejoice. The use of this particular story from Greek mythology in 1600 showed the growing divide between the humanist intellectuals and the church. This was at a time when “the persecution of witches was the official policy of both the Catholic and Protestant Churches.” According to Helen Ellerbe in The Dark Side of Christian History:

Around 1600 a man wrote: Germany is almost entirely occupied with building fires for the witches… Switzerland has been compelled to wipe out many of her villages on their account. Travelers in Lorraine may see thousands and thousands of the stakes to which witches are bound.1

The fear of the devil and hell had reached terrible proportions and any reasonable call for mercy or reconsideration, like the theme of Euridice, most likely would have been dangerous at that time, except in allegorical forms. Not long after, the Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi (with a libretto by Alessandro Striggio) brought out an opera based on the same story in 1607 entitled L’Orfeo, an opera which is still regularly performed.

Monteverdi constructed the opera score out of a daring use of many different existing forms – the aria, the strophic song, recitative, choruses, dances, dramatic musical interludes. While there was an actual written score, instrumentalists were allowed freedom to elaborate musically and singers to embellish their arias. While the work was admired up to the 1650s it was soon forgotten until the 19th century due to changing styles and tastes. When first performed it was in front of a a courtly audience of nobility and intellectual aristocrats. However, with the spread of interest in opera throughout Europe, public opera houses were built to hold larger and larger audiences by the end of the seventeenth century. Yet the expense of producing opera was becoming apparent as a French commentator noted in 1683:

The nobility of Venice patronized the great opera theatres more for their divertissement particular that for any financial profit that might accrue, since income from opera did not normally furnish half of the expense’.2

Thus we can see that opera was born in a time of church hierarchy and power, determined to wipe out dissent resulting in widespread fear and danger while Renaissance humanists were focusing on ancient Greek ideas of democratic society, and values like mercy.

Classical – ‘divesting the music entirely of abuses’

It was the German classical composer, Christoph Willibald Gluck who reformed opera in the 1700s as the freedom allowed to musicians and singers to extrapolate was seen to have gotten out of hand. His first reform opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, was premiered in Venice in 1762 and then in Paris, in a revised French-version, in 1774. In his own words, Gluck sets out his reasons:

When I undertook to set this poem, it was my design to divest the music entirely of all those abuses with which the vanity of singers, or the too great complacency of composers, has so long disfigured the Italian opera, and rendered the most beautiful and magnificent of all public exhibitions, the most tiresome and ridiculous. It was my intention to confine music to its true dramatic province, of assisting poetical expression, and of augmenting the interest of the fable; without interrupting the action, or chilling it with useless and superfluous ornaments; for the office of music, when joined to poetry, seemed to me, to resemble that of colouring in a correct and well disposed design, where the lights and shades only seem to animate the figures, without altering the out-line.

Gluck, like other classical period composers, sought to simplify music emphasizing:

Light elegance in place of the Baroque’s dignified seriousness and impressive grandeur. […] Composers from this period sought dramatic effects, striking melodies, and clearer textures. One of the big textural changes was a shift away from the complex, dense polyphonic style of the Baroque, in which multiple interweaving melodic lines were played simultaneously, and towards homophony, a lighter texture which uses a clear single melody line accompanied by chords.

Gluck, Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were all major composers of the classical style. These composers were on the cusp of a major change in society with burgeoning capitalism changing the balance of power in the feudal aristocratic societies of Europe.

In the past the role of music was to entertain the wealthy and powerful in their mansions and castles while praising the glory of God in the churches. Composers, if they were lucky, had the job of Kapellmeister, or church composer, who worked as artisans producing mainly hymns and oratorios or in-house for a noble patron.

Mozart sought to move away from this life to compose for a more bourgeois audience and become an independent contributor to intellectual life. This was a developing attitude of the intellectuals of Enlightenment Europe who believed in the improvement of humanity and civil society through increased secular knowledge.

Portrait of Francisco D’Andrade in the title role of Don Giovanni by Max Slevogt, 1912

Mozart’s Don Giovanni was written in 1787, two years before the French Revolution, when there was an antipathy to the aristocracy and a growing perception of them as a parasitic class. Don Giovanni, as James Donelan notes, gives audiences an exaggerated version of ‘an aristocrat who does nothing but consume, and does so almost joylessly’. He writes:

As the curtain opens, we see Figaro and Susanna; Figaro is counting off the measurements necessary for fitting a bed in his new room, and Susanna is admiring how she looks in the new hat she made for herself. You can already notice several things that indicate that something different from standard opera buffa is going on: this scene of domestic tranquility emphasizes Figaro’s and Susanna’s capabilities as the makers and doers of this world. You can assume he will build his own bed; Susanna has made her own hat, and this opera, based, as you know, on a subversive play, appeared at precisely the time in history when a new bourgeois class of traders, bankers, craftsmen, and merchants were gaining power and significance in European society, and the necessity of having a noble class was being questioned very seriously for the first time. The workers of the world and the bourgeois created wealth, and got things done; the sovereign provided them with a stable government, but what did the aristocracy do any more except hoard valuable resources and put on airs?

The world of the aristocracy was in decline and a new world led by the bourgeoisie was in the ascent with its emphasis on emotion and individualism. The Romantic reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the scientific rationalization of nature produced a new culture that opposed the aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment.

Romanticism – ‘mysticism and turbid emotionalism’

This change in attitude was noted by Arnold Hauser in The Social History of Art. He writes:

Since the advent of romanticism all cheerfulness seems to have a superficial, frivolous character. The combination of carefree light-heartedness with the most profound seriousness, of playful exuberance with the highest, purest ethos transfiguring the whole of life, which was still present in Mozart, breaks up; from now on everything serious and sublime takes on a gloomy and careworn look. It is sufficient to compare the serene, clear and calm humanity of Mozart, its freedom from all mysticism and turbid emotionalism, with the violence of romantic music, to realize what had been lost with the eighteenth century.3

The Romantics’ attitude to modernity was one of outright rejection. They were radical and individualistic enough to lead bourgeois revolutions but soon saw the abyss and the potential for their own loss of power and dissolution as a class. So, the Romantics looked backwards to medievalism instead of forward to proletarian revolution. Rather than questioning the organisation of society and who should own and control the new means of production in the ‘dark, satanic mills’ they chose to revere an ideal that society could return to peasant culture.

In Germany, Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz (1821) started the style which became known as Romantische Oper along with other composers like Albert Lortzing (e.g. Undine, described as a romantische Zauberoper ‘romantic magic opera’), Heinrich Marschner (e.g. Der Vampyr and Hans Heiling) and Louis Spohr (e.g. Faust). These composers based their operas on typical Romantic themes such as nature, the supernatural, the Middle Ages and popular culture, specifically folklore, culminating in Wagner’s ‘romantic operas’, Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman, 1843), followed by Tannhäuser (1845) and Lohengrin (1850).

Wagner’s operas grew in scale with more nationalist overtones but focused on myths, legends and nature, such as Der Ring des Nibelungen (the Ring or “Ring cycle“), a set of four operas based loosely on figures and elements from Germanic mythology. As his fame and influence spread throughout Europe other composers took on board some elements of his style and rejected others.

As nationalists moved away from universalist enlightenment ideas such as equality of all before the law, opera became a powerful tool to promote the idea of ethnic groups as the true basis of the nation state. Folk songs and folk dances as well as nationalist subjects formed the new content of the new operas. In Italy, Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Nabucco contains the lyrics, “Oh mia Patria sì bella e perduta (Oh my Fatherland so beautiful and lost!)! In Russia Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar (1836) tells the story of the Russian peasant and patriotic hero Ivan Susanin who sacrifices his life for the Tsar by leading astray a group of marauding Poles who were hunting him. In Brazil, Carlos Gomes’ (1836–1896) opera Il Guarany (1870) used references from the country’s folk music and traditional themes while the Czech composer Antonín Leopold Dvorák used the Czech language for his librettos to convey the Czech national spirit.

Verismo – ‘focusing on the hard-knock lives’

In Italy, the growth of Realism in art and literature was making itself felt among opera composers such as Pietro Mascagni (Cavalleria Rusticana, 1890), Ruggero Leoncavallo (Pagliacci, 1892), Umberto Giordano (Mala vita, 1892), Francesco Cilea (L’arlesiana, 1897) and Giacomo Puccini (La bohème, 1896) and they developed their own style called verismo (Italian for “realism”, from vero, meaning “true”). Realism opposed Romantic idealisation or dramatisation and focused more on working class people instead. The popularity of Wagner’s work with its social and political mythologising had had its effects. As Adam Parker notes:

The Italians took notice and, coping with their own political, economic and social upheavals, began to embrace a more realistic operatic style that strived to show aspects of everyday life and convey basic truths about human struggles. The music, too, changed. Standard arias — pauses in the action that showcased the talents of singers — gave way to a more unified structure and constant musical flow. Italian composers cast aside romantic fairy tales and stopped short of embracing Wagner’s mythical realms, preferring to focus on the hard-knock lives of characters who often were simple village-dwellers, impoverished, lovelorn and prone to make mistakes.

Giacomo Puccini, one of the composers most closely associated with verismo.

The Italian Verismo composers were highly influenced by the realistic literary works of Émile Zola, Honoré de Balzac and Henrik Ibsen and sought to bring opera down to earth by examining the lives of ordinary people, the lives of the poor, with themes such as infidelity, revenge, and violence.

The Verismo singing style brought in big changes from the elegant bel canto style of the 19th century. Verismo singers adopted a more declamatory singing style with a vociferous, passionate element to increase the emotional content of the opera.

20th Century – ‘losing much of its narrative power’

The twentieth century led to many changes as Modernism and Postmodernism, descendants of Romanticism, settled into Western culture while Realism and Social Realism, descendants of the universalist ideas of the Enlightenment, became state styles in the East. The Modernist composers rejected traditions such as classical ideas of form in art (harmony, symmetry, and order). As in literature and art, Modernist emphasis on new forms had their effect on opera as atonal, and then twelve-tone techniques were developed by Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, while later in the century Philip Glass and John Adams became known for a pared-down style of composing called Minimalism.

Atonality, which describes music that lacks a key, became became used from the early twentieth-century onwards and began a breakdown of the forms of classical European music which had existed from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries.

The knock-on effects were profound, as Andrew Clements writes:

With the collapse of tonality, music had lost much of its narrative power, they reasoned, and so storytelling need no longer be a prerequisite of opera either. The music would still contain, support and reinforce the onstage drama, but that drama didn’t need to be linear: scenes could proceed simultaneously (as in Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten, 1965), present different versions of the same story (Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus), tell no story at all (Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach) or dispense with a text altogether (Wolfgang Rihm’s Séraphin, 1995).

Meanwhile, in Russia there were many successful composers. Mikhail Glinka’s (1804–1857) A Life for the Tsar was followed by Alexander Dargomyzhsky (1813–1869) and his opera Rusalka (1856) and revolutionary The Stone Guest (1872), Modest Mussorgsky’s (1839–1881) Boris Godunov, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s (1840–1893) Eugene Onegin (Yevgeny Onegin), (1877–1878) and The Queen of Spades (Pikovaya dama) (1890) and the prolific Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908) who completed fifteen operas.

The Soviet state encouraged opera and many new operas were produced by a new generation of composers. While the early operas were influenced by Modernism, things started to change as the 1934 Soviet Writers Congress instigated a policy of Socialist Realism and by 1946 the Zhdanov Doctrine was proposed which opposed  “cosmopolitanism” (which meant native Russian accomplishments were to be emphasised more than foreign models) and the “anti-formalism campaign” (which saw “formalism” as art for art’s sake and did not serve a larger social purpose).

Most famously Dmitri Shostakovich’s (1906–1975) Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (performed in 1934) was criticised by Pravda in an article entitled Chaos Instead of Music in 1936. The story centres around a lonely woman in 19th-century Russia who falls in love with one of her husband’s workers and is driven to murder. While there doesn’t seem to have been any problem with the content, however, one can see the reaction to Western Modernism playing out in the description of the opera:

From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sound. Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this “music” is most difficult; to remember it, impossible. Thus it goes, practically throughout the entire opera. The singing on the stage is replaced by shrieks. If the composer chances to come upon the path of a clear and simple melody, he throws himself back into a wilderness of musical chaos – in places becoming cacophony. The expression which the listener expects is supplanted by wild rhythm. Passion is here supposed to be expressed by noise. All this is not due to lack of talent, or lack of ability to depict strong and simple emotions in music. Here is music turned deliberately inside out in order that nothing will be reminiscent of classical opera, or have anything in common with symphonic music or with simple and popular musical language accessible to all.

When an editor of Pravda was asked why Shostakovich was targeted, he replied:

We had to begin with somebody. Shostakovich was the most famous, and a blow against him would create immediate repercussions and would make his imitators in music and elsewhere sit up and take notice. Furthermore, Shostakovich is a real artist, there is a touch of genius in him. A man like that is worth fighting for, is worth saving … We had faith in his essential wholesomeness. We knew that he could stand the shock … Shostakovich knows and everyone else knows that there is no malice in our attack. He knows and everyone else knows that there is no desire to destroy him.4

Indeed, Shostakovich was awarded the USSR State Prize in 1941 (Piano Quintet), 1942 (Symphony No. 7), 1950 (Song of the Forests – The Fall of Berlin for chorus) and 1952 (Ten Poems for Chorus opus 88).

The first time the USSR State Prize was awarded for opera was to Uzeyir Hajibeyov for the opera Keroghlu in 1941. It was the first opera in the Muslim East. Koroghlu was based on a regional legend about a young man who organized a rebellion against the khan (king), who had blinded his father out of spite. Hajibayov uses the rhythms of Azerbaijan’s Yalli dance in the choir’s singing to reflect the strength of the people and their yearning for freedom. The large choir conveys the unity of the people and glorifies their rebellion.


Koroglu is a “classical opera complete with arias, choruses and ballet, but like so much of Hajibayov’s work it also includes traditional rhythms and melodies. […] Hajibayov included folk instruments such as the tar, zurna (pipe) and nagara (drum) in the orchestra to heighten the sense of place. […] The opera quickly gained popular acclaim and was performed widely.”

Thus we can see the huge gap that opened up between modernist opera in the West, its influence in the East, and the kind of opera that was promoted in the Soviet Union.

Twenty-First Century – ‘no use pretending something’s not broken’

A couple of years ago Classical-Music.com asked leading opera singers to list their top operas. Five were composed in this century: Jake Heggie, Dead Man Walking (2000), Mark-Anthony Turnage, The Silver Tassie (2002), George Benjamin, Written on Skin (2012), Thomas Adès, The Exterminating Angel (2016). Despite the variety of themes and historical periods – showing that opera composition and production is alive and well, in the words of Graham Vick (thestage.co.uk): “we need to bend – there’s no use pretending something’s not broken.”

Recent writers on opera are well aware of the issues involved and have come at the problem from differing perspectives. For Vick, issues of form were uppermost in his thoughts. In an article entitled Opera needs radical overhaul to survive, he writes:

We must stop believing that, if we work really hard, we might be almost as good as the legitimate theatre. Our agonising nostalgia for class (Downton Abbey only the most recent example) perpetuates philistine values. Crippled with self-doubt and privilege, the art form can hardly be heard in the wider society. A charge often levelled against it is that it is ‘owned by the few’. It is this sense of possession and superiority that is its greatest enemy.

He suggests different ways that opera companies can overcome these problems such as having touring versions and lowering seat prices by lowering performance costs.

For writers like Richard Morrison (chief music critic of the Times) content is a determining factor for future survival. In a recent article he discusses Anthony Bolton’s The Life and Death of Alexander Litivinenko (spy killed by polonium), John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer (hijacking of a cruise ship), and Tansy Davies’s Between Worlds (about five people trapped in the World Trade Centre on 9/11). He questions the subject matter of recent operas which seems to be almost a strategy of using shock tactics to get punters back into the opera house:

Can anything and everything be turned into art? Is the entire human condition fair game for a writer, painter or composer? Or are some real-life subjects so horrific or still so fresh that they should be off limits, at least until those caught up in them are no longer around to be offended?

Both of these are valid and important perspectives on the ongoing problems of the opera business. However, like cinema, the more expensive a cultural medium is, the more its ideology is tightly controlled by those who hold the purse strings. The mass media corporations control how everything is seen and understood, saturating the media with ideologies that favour the world outlook of the neoliberal elites. This allows them to promote conflicts that suit their agenda (e.g. the bombing of Libya) and neutralise the ones that are not going their way (e.g. the attacks on Syria).

Conclusion

For culture in general to inspire future interest and support it must move away from the narratives and objectives of the elites. Working class struggles have shaped the world and any improvements in living conditions have been won after years of often violent conflict and sacrifice. These stories, histories and even allegories of these stories have formed the basis of culture in the past. Ordinary people do not own their own mass communications media or opera houses but know art made in solidarity with their plight (whether it be local or abroad) when they see it. Therefore, yes, anything and everything be turned into art, that is, if it is made in such a way that empathy, solidarity and progress is the result of the work and not just a distant spectacle as a vehicle for shock-horror or laughs. For opera to have distinctive, compelling, and meaningful engagements with people in the future it must first invest in its most important component: its audiences.

  1. Helen Ellerbe, The Dark Side of Christian History (Morningstar and Lark, 1995), p. 136/7.
  2. Daniel Snowman, The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera (Atlantic Books, London, 2010), p. 36.
  3. Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, Vol. 3 (Vintage Books: New York, 1958), p. 225.
  4. Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Harper Perennial: London, 2009), p. 249.

An electronic umbilical cord

The lifeblood of alternative radio is sometimes the celebrity that they create among themselves. And on Monday, October 7, Lincoln County’s KYAQ radio station will welcome one of the biggest stars from the bottom of the dial as David Barsamian visits Newport, Oregon on his Rise Up and Resist tour.

Barsamian grew up in New York, the son of Armenian refugees who fled the genocide unleashed in Turkey by the Ottoman government from 1915 to 1917. More than 1.5 million people were murdered.

191004_oct_David-Barsamian-speaking-at-SLO-Grange-Hall.jpg

The 74 year old will be at Oregon Coast Community College talking to the Central Coast as part of his contribution to an evening of “inspiration.”

I will be drawing on not only my experiences, but those historical examples of people fighting back with sometimes dangerous and deadly consequences.

Barsamian and I talked via phone while he finished his regular bike ride and settled into one of his favorite Boulder, Colorado, coffee shops, Beleza, which in Portuguese means beautiful.

From growing up in the neighborhoods of New York, where he tells me he ditched school and barely graduated from high school, Barsamian enrolled in San Francisco State before dropping out after a year and then signing up to crew a Norwegian freighter out of San Francisco. He ended up in East and Southeast Asia for two years and then three years in India.

He learned the sitar, and embedded himself in the cultural cornucopia of India.  “I was surrounded by some of that country’s greatest musicians and poets”, he said. “I learned so much, including Urdu, Hindi and Bengali. It was like getting a graduate education in South Asian Studies.”

He got back to the US in 1970, finding work in Pakistani and Indian restaurants playing sitar, as well as teaching English to private students first in Rockefeller Center and later in the World Trade Center.

While David Barsamian is not a household name, his Alternative Radio out of KGNU-Boulder is syndicated to more than 250 stations in the country. He has interviewed heavy hitters of the intellectual, writer, scholarly variety, again, many not household names.

Barsamian is a touchstone for most supporters of alternative radio — sort of like IF Stone for some, or Studs Terkel for others, and really more like a cross between Edward R. Murrow and Gore Vidal.

Mile High With a Sitar and Eastern Sensibility

We are talking 1978, when he ended up in Boulder just after the radio station opened. Barsamian volunteered at the public station, making a living teaching ESL, Hindi and performing music. His first show was a music program, “Ganges to the Nile.” His sitar playing and knowledge of India and Eastern music helped.

Alas, when I ask Barsamian if there was a moment in his life when he realized he would be following a path less traveled in the US, he tells me there isn’t.

I’ve been a rebel since I can remember. I’ve always questioned authority, beginning with my parents. With the shadow of genocide hanging over our family, I wanted to learn more.

That included reading books at a young age, and listening to talk shows on the radio coming from his hometown, New York City.

Radio back then was quite a sober affair. Nothing like what we have now with all this shouting and screaming.

He has stated many times that founding Alternative Radio was his personal attempt to meet the goals of public broadcasting:

To serve as a forum for controversy and debate. To provide a voice for groups that may otherwise be unheard.

As an activist myself, I am always challenged with bringing voices like Barsamian’s to my communities – homeless veterans, just-released prisoners, students in military compounds, adults in night school at the many community colleges where I have taught.

In a kind of parallel universe, David Barsamian states the same rational I have used to bring great voices and minds – many times very alternative, outside the box – to my clients and students as he too purports his battle is against mainstream media oversimplifying debate and shutting out so many important voices. “It was unacceptable that many of this country’s greatest and most articulate radical voices had no forum on public radio”, Barsamian said. “Alternative Radio was created to be the vehicle for progressive perspectives that are otherwise ignored or given short shrift.”

Radio Waves on the Pacific

For Franki Trujillo-Dalbey, board president of KYAQ-91.7 FM and sponsor of Barsamian’s trip to Newport, there are not enough alternative voices out there giving listeners a sense of other countries’ perspectives and the unfiltered history of our own country.

Trujillo-Dalbey proudly states this is the third trip to the Central Coast for this radio personality who also has more than 20 books and a few documentary credits to his name.

A regular contributor to Sun Magazine, Barsamian just finished an interview of Bill McKibben, author of the 1989 book, The End of Nature, and one of the co-founders of 350.org.

Drawing from that October Sun Magazine interview of McKibben on the heels of the release of this environmentalist’s new book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? Barsamian poses a rhetorical point sure to be broached liberally at his October 7 talk in Newport:

In your new book, Falter, you talk about how scientists at both Exxon and NASA confirmed that climate change was occurring back in the 1980s.

The radio personality declares he has limited time for a telephone interview, as he is working on an essay by an Iranian writer for a new book of essays ReTargeting Iran — interviews with Ervand Abrahamian, Christopher de Bellaigue, Noam Chomsky, Nader Hashemi, Trita Parsi and Laura Secor. “At the Newport event I hope to be drawing on the energy and strength from voices like these and others questioning authority and the status quo”, he said.

An electronic umbilical cord

I had just listened to Vijay Prashad, director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and chief editor of LeftWord Books, on Democracy Now, aired daily on KYAQ. His latest article for Salon is headlined, “World leaders gather at the UN in the face of war, climate catastrophe & global worker exploitation.”

That was a 10-minute interview. David Barsamian just completed a two-hour interview with Prashad, talking about Kashmir, the eco-crisis, neoliberalism’s attack on all sectors of the world, “and a whole range of international issues.”

We talk about Vijay being one of the amazing contemporary voices with deep intellectual acumen and knowledge of a vast range of issues.

“Vijay is in the same mold as Tariq Ali and Edward Said.” Tariq is a British political activist, writer, journalist, historian, filmmaker and public intellectual. He is a member of the editorial committee of the New Left Review and Sin Permiso. Said (1935-2003) was a professor of literature at Columbia University, a public intellectual, and a founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies. A Palestinian American born in Palestine, he was a citizen of the US by way of his father, a US Army veteran.

There is no mincing words when one broaches the Donald Trump presidency and chaos to Barsamian:  “Trump is taking up too much oxygen in the room,” he said. “I am more concerned with Christian radical Mike Pence (Vice President) waiting in the wings.

For several decades, 90-year-old Noam Chomsky — author of more than a hundred books, MIT linguistics scholar and considered the left’s go-to public intellectual – has been featured on Barsamian’s shows and in the related books of collected Chomsky-Barsamian interviews.

I was just with him in Tucson, and Noam didn’t miss a beat. He was razor sharp in 80 minutes.

The Chomsky-Barsamian radio relationship started more than 33 years ago, with Barsamian’s show, “Hemispheres,” a political program. It was a two-and-a-half-hour program with Noam Chomsky which Barsamian uplinked to the public radio satellite. Back then, most radio stations preferred half-hour or one-hour segments, although a few stations picked up the program. It was that long conversation with Chomsky that birthed Alternative Radio.

For many followers of Barsamian, they know he has accolades for Bernie Sanders, presidential candidate and senator from Vermont. “I interviewed him when he was first elected to the House of Representatives, when he was still mayor of Burlington.” Barsaminan, however, doesn’t spend much time interviewing politicians because, in his words, they already have a platform and bully pulpit.

Country Roads, He Calls Home

Boulder, Colorado, has been more than a radio station location for Barsamian. He calls it home, and is seeing more locals developing socialist collectives, community supported agriculture and farmers markets, co-housing, or collective housing.

For Barsamian, it may be two steps forward and three steps backward for progressives. However, he sees righteousness in the struggle. He quoted American statesman Daniel Webster:

Justice, sir, is the great interest of man on Earth. It is the ligament which holds civilized beings and civilized nations together.

The list of people on Barsamian’s radio show is impressive – Vandana Shiva, Arundhati Roy, Ralph Nader, Edward Said and so many others. Interviewing his mother, Araxie, and other witnesses of the Armenian Genocide was a pivotal moment.

The genocide trauma his mother expressed was what Barsamian calls the most difficult interview of his life. However, that discomfort helped him heal and his mother deal with difficult personal and political history.

From that day forward, Barsamian dedicated his life to listening to unheard voices. While those voices are definitely important to true democracy, as Howard Zinn wrote in the Peoples’ History of the United States and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes in  An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, this retelling gives the narrator holistic healing through the very conduit of communication. “I have been lucky to have connected with a whole galaxy of social activists and authors”, Barsamian tells me. “It is a kind of a gift of an electronic umbilical cord.”

For anyone interested in a deeper look at the construction and deconstruction of American democracy, David Barsamian has had a front row seat with history makers. He has been one of the clearer voices critiquing American media, also known as the press:

Corporate media are largely weapons of mass distraction. Language is manipulated to manufacture consent and to limit the bounds of permissible thought. A golden Rolodex of so-called experts produces a mono-chromatic one-note samba of drivel. That’s one reason I started Alternative Radio out of my house many years ago. You can’t simply whine and complain. You need to come up with positive alternatives that give people hope.

Note: For anyone willing to take a ride on the alternative side, and push aside American exceptionalist mythology, curb blind patriotism and listen to someone who has been with history’s great minds, coming out to the Newport, Oregon, event, 7 p.m. on Monday, October 7, at Oregon Coast Community College, 400 SE College Way, will be well worth the suggested $10 donation at the door.

The Making of an Album

As my regular readers and listeners are aware, I tend to go jaggedly back and forth in these missives between discussions of geopolitics and world history, and explorations of the minutiae of the daily life of the working musician. This one belongs in the latter category.

It’s been years since I’ve had much time for watching movies — there was a brief period between children when there was a bit of time for that sort of thing, but not much. When I’m on long plane flights is when I get to catch up on a little bit of movie-watching. The noise-canceling headphones I had the good sense to buy a long time ago help a lot with the din of the airplane engine constantly in the background, but they don’t come close to getting rid of it. Despite the adverse viewing and especially listening conditions, I often watch movies about musicians.

I’ve never been a rock star and I’ve only known a couple of them, a little bit, so whether the movies about rock stars are realistic is hard for me to know. The movies about working musicians who aren’t rock stars are more the ones I can relate to, the ones that are depicting what we might call working class or middle class musicians. The movies about these musicians are often just a good vehicle for telling the story of loneliness, to explore the creative tension inherent in the contrast between the excitement of the gig and the alienation of the highway truck stop.

While they sometimes get that part right, the sort of essence of the story, they rarely get the details. You can forgive them when it’s obvious that the actors are not the ones playing the instruments. But other times it’s harder to suspend one’s disbelief, if you’re a working musician watching a movie that’s supposed to be about other working musicians. There was an especially memorably cringe-worthy scene in what was an otherwise charming love story called Once, about an Irish guy and a Czech woman falling in love on the streets of Dublin.

They’re both musicians, but how this classically-trained pianist is so good at improvising is never explained or explored, it just is. For anyone who is familiar with classical music circles, that needs to be explained. But then they’re in a studio together, recording an album without a producer, and the engineer tells them to listen to the click track, but there isn’t a click track. There was so much wrong with that scene, it would be hard to know where to start.

If you’re recording an album without a producer, the engineer is unlikely to suddenly assume the role of producer and tell you to listen to the click track. And if they do this, then there will presumably be a click track to listen to. Of course, most viewers of most movies wouldn’t know this, or even know what a click track is, and they don’t need to. If you don’t know what a click track is, there’s nothing to cringe at in this scene, it’s just fine.

Of course, movies like this are not made for the tiny minority of the general population who are working musicians. Just like the articles in Forbes or on the BBC. It just so happens that I am right now in the midst of a crowdfunding campaign to record an album, which I will hopefully be making with a bunch of other musicians in Ireland later in the fall. And then yesterday, listening to BBC Newshour as I often do, came another story about the death of the album.

Sure enough, Forbes agrees, album sales are a tiny fraction of what they once were — not just in physical forms, but in any form. It’s all about streaming, all about singles, or shuffle play, or playlists. The big hiphop artists, they say, are abandoning albums altogether, and just releasing singles, in more of a trickle, so each one will get a bit more attention along the way, is the idea.

Reading this music industry reporting is interesting, partly because of the assumptions that are made. For example, if albums aren’t of interest to consumers anymore, says the press, artists will naturally make the transition and start recording singles, and releasing songs one at a time every couple weeks, rather than a new album once or twice a year. And when we talk about releasing singles, it needn’t even be said that we’re not talking about recordings you made with your iPhone, we’re talking about professional-quality, produced stuff.

What they don’t mention, or don’t know, or don’t care to figure out because it doesn’t matter for the top 1% of the scene that they’re actually covering, is that this kind of transition is relevant mainly to the stars with huge budgets for recording — and for those way on the other end who are playing all the instruments themselves and recording everything on their laptops with ProTools and a USB mic. You’ll find little or no mention of the middle class of working musicians, those of us who, if we do keep on recording albums, even though there is basically no direct money to be made in recording either albums or singles in the free streaming era, we will be making them not just because it’s a wonderful, transcendent phenomenon, the album, but for very simple practical, and totally overlooked reasons.

If you’re going to record your music — and you’ll be forgiven for not knowing this if you’re not in certain niche professions — it’s much more economical to do it in bunches.

If you’ve ever made an album in a studio, you’ll be very familiar with the sight of a collection of musicians sitting around on couches with laptops, phones or other devices, quietly whiling away their time, waiting to be called on to do something. This is partly because playing music is only a small part of the process of making an album. So much of it is getting the sound right for each instrument. Just getting a drum set well miked for recording can take several hours. The drummer and the folks at the studio know this in advance, and this process is scheduled in to the whole thing. Studio musicians are usually hard-working people who put in very long days and show up early. They’re accustomed to doing exactly what they’re told to do by producers with high expectations. The good ones rarely complain.

When you’re one of the regular working musicians who used to populate the recording studios of the world that are now rapidly closing shop — when you’re one of the ones who didn’t have unlimited budgets to spend months or years working on an album, but who took a break from touring for a few weeks each year to focus on making a new album — the idea of hiring a drummer, a bass player, a keyboard player, and whoever else you might be hiring for a recording project, just to record one or two songs, is completely ludicrous. It makes no economic sense. If you’re going to spend four hours just getting the drummer miked, you want to then use the rest of the day, and the next day, recording with the drummer. If you’re working hard and just getting decent takes of songs you’ve spent plenty of time rehearsing together, you might record the basic parts for two or three songs each day — after spending all the time setting up for each new instrument you’re recording.

The same is true for the mixing process, which often takes almost as long as the recording process. For many albums of other artists, I hear it takes longer. Any element of the recording or mixing processes can potentially go on forever. As with other things, it’s sometimes just a matter of stopping when you’ve got something that’s good enough, rather than aiming for perfection, which would simply take too long, it would require more time and effort than is available given your limited resources. But once you’re set up to start mixing an ensemble you’ve recorded, it will take less time to mix the second and third song than it will take to just mix one. Much of the setup you do for one song might be the same as the setup you’ll do for other songs, so again doing more songs will certainly take longer, but it will take less time per song to mix ten of them than if you just mix one.

Once you make that album, you may decide to release one song at a time on streaming platforms as they recommend these days, but there will still be basic logistical reasons why the album is likely to stick around as a phenomenon long past the time no one is buying them at all anymore. Because actually we’re already at that stage, and I’m still making another one.

For those of you listening to this in podcast form, I’ll close with a song that’s going to be among the songs to be recorded for this next album, if all goes according to plan.

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.