Category Archives: Music

Taking On Spotify: Why We Need A Global Campaign



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somewhere On Spotify: My Own Industrial Collapse, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Seeger Was A Movement Musician


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Don McLean, American Pie (1971)

The snow was heavy on that night 60 years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two-minute masterpieces.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say No to Government Grinches and Corporate Scrooges

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

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

What a year!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First the movies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now for the music.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phil Ochs and the Crucifixion of President John F. Kennedy

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

— Phil Ochs, The Crucifixion

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

— Goethe, Faust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I’m Gone

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

Develop and Deploy Empathy

Here is a new song from Chris Time Steele called Develop and Deploy Empathy. It speaks on the prison industrial complex, drug addiction, issues of people experiencing homelessness, LGBTQ rights, and right to migrate.

calm. is time (rapper) and AwareNess (production).

Is Shocking People Revolutionary?

Image from Maria Online

White popular musicians rebelling against appearances

Recently I attended two music concerts in one of our local parks that were billed as a combination of soul, rhythm and blues and blues. The musicians were all white.

I am not going to argue that white people playing this kind of music is “cultural appropriation” and that they should not play it. There are wonderful white musicians historically and contemporarily who have played in all these musical forms. What I am more interested in is the appearance of the band members. Historically, music, like all the arts originally came out of sympathetic magical practices. In preparation for a magical ritual, the participants had clothing made for them or they made the clothes themselves. In addition, each participant had a very specific role. The ritual was intended to draw a line in the sand and say “what is going on here is beyond everyday life and we have to look and dress accordingly.”

In western religion, singing in church was and is accompanied by a choir who had roles to play and dressed according to their role so they distinguished themselves from their audience. Historically, when black musicians began to play secular music, they continued to carry forward the same things they did in church. They dressed for the occasion. Their dance moves and the outfits were choreographed with the background singers dressed in the same color. The lead singer would be dressed in a color that might be analogous or complimentary to the background singers. If any of you remember the Temptations, the Miracles, or Gladys Knight and the Pips you know what I am talking about. In the 50’s and the early 60’s the white Rock ‘n’ Rollers also dressed up for their performances: the groups Danny and the Juniors, Dion and the Belmonts both did this.

But somewhere in the late 1960’s white rock bands decided that dressing up for performances was somehow giving ground to the Establishment. So, the band members began to wear any old clothes: tee shirts, jeans, sneakers, anything that would level their relationship to the audience. In addition, each band member dressed in a way that was not coordinated with what the other band members were wearing. They made an extra effort to tell the audience, and especially whom they deemed the authorities, that they didn’t give a fuck about clothes or roles. However, the band still had to play roles, because, of course, they were specialists in what instruments they played. But as much as they could, they were rebelling against the concept of taking appearances seriously. I cannot track what has become of popular music since then because, frankly, I lost interest in the kind of music that was being played. But if my recent experience in the park is any indicator, there are at least some white musicians who operate with this same code of appearance fifty years later.

I am not trained as a musical critic but I spent three years working in music stores in Times Square in New York City and this job required you to become familiar with different types of music. In addition, many musicians came to our store and gave us tickets to the Apollo theater in uptown Manhattan so I’ve seen many musical acts. I was about 20 years old and working in a music store at the time the changes in appearance of the white musicians were taking place.

The western rebellion against appearances in philosophy

The predominant western tradition has been at war with the value of appearances for most of 2,500 years. Plato characterized appearances as deceptive, shallow, temporary and lacking of substance, while reality was true, deep and eternal. Socrates attacked the Sophists and rhetoric for very similar reasons. Mainstream Christianity, at least in theory, has seen the preoccupation with appearances as a sign of the devil’s work, associated with idolatry. A true Christian got beyond the surface appearances of this world to discover the true source of reality – God – on a transcendental plane. The major philosophers of the west have been hostile to appearances, whether it be Descartes, Kant, Bradley and to a lesser extent, Leibniz, and Hegel. Those who have taken appearances seriously have been few and far between, (Hume, Locke) and the Enlightenment philosophers.

Romantic Rebellion Against The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment and the Renaissance were two intellectual movements that appreciated the magnificence of nature, whether expressed through science or through art. Neither were interested in the above, the beyond, or the transcendental. They made clear distinctions between form and content in art. In terms of clothing, the Enlightenment, while rebelling against of foppishness of aristocratic appearances, still believed in the importance of clothing because they were linked to roles people played. Like those in the Renaissance arts, Enlighteners valued the power of illusion, whether it was in perspective painting or in creating distance between the stage and the audience in their plays.

The romantic rebellion in the early 19th century was a new kind of rebellion against appearances. The importance of a person’s inner essence required that they dispense with roles and appearances in order to get to the essence of the person’s soul. When they did that they were being “sincere”. The romantics were about tearing down boundaries: the boundaries between form and content; picture plane and reality; stage and audience; roles and inner state; the objective world and the subjective world. This boundary trampling characterized modern 20th century music, the symbolists, the Dadaists, the surrealists and the abstract expressionists.

Romanticism and the Early New Left

Beginning in the early1960’s the New Left rebelled against the Old Left in a similar way as the romantics rebelled against the Enlightenment. Identity politics, with the focus on individual experience, replaced class politics; the “subjectivity” of the situationists replaced the economic analysis of capitalism. Infinite diversity replaced unity. By the mid 1970’s to call for unity within diversity was seen in some sense as imperialistic. From the Frankfurt School, to postmodernism, boundaries between disciplines or genders were all signs of the Old World. But to rework the title of James Hillman’s book One Hundred Years of Therapy and the World is Getting Worse, we’ve had One hundred years of Romanticism and Capitalism is Getting worse.

The rebellion against appearances and roles of the musicians in the introduction to this article is part of a larger New Left movement rebellion against the Old Left and a continuation of the romantic rebellion against the Enlightenment. But here is the problem. It is one thing to wear whatever you want if you are content to exist for your entire adult life at a university as a professor or work with a liberal non-profit which prides itself in “diversity”. If all the members of the New Left wanted was some kind of “lifestyle” politics, than there wouldn’t be a problem. But there is a big problem. The New Left socialists are increasingly cut off from mainstream Americans and capitalism is getting worse for 90% of the population.

The New Left and the Shock Value of Appearances

The New Left in the US understands that it must reach sectors of the population that are not on board with its romantic roots. For almost 50 years the New Left has ignored its working class and dismissed them as stupid, bought off, simpletons and Archie Bunkers. What is its strategy? To shock people. So, by the multiplication of half shaved – fluorescent colored hair, body piercings and tattoos along with compulsive black attire, it tells the authorities and mainstream Americans to drop dead. The problem, however, in the case of the working class, is that you are telling the same people you need to make a revolution with to drop dead. It would be naïve to think that working-class people in the United States, at least in their thirties, do not also color their hair, have tattoos and more. However, the working class is also composed of people in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s who are still working, have the power to stop capitalism with strikes and boycotts, and they don’t particularly like all the New Left garb.

On the one hand New Lefters think appearances are phony and don’t really matter. In true romantic style, what is of substance to them is an inner essence beyond those appearances. But on the other hand, in trying so hard to rebel against traditional appearances they develop a new set of counter cultural appearances that they work very hard to maintain, scrupulously crafting the appearance that “appearances don’t matter”.

The psychology of shock value

As a social psychologist I say the desire to shock people by appearances is not a desire to extend and move people to join in a common project. Rather it is a haughty, in-your-face “we don’t give a shit what you think” stance. I also have suspicions that the people this hostility is really directed at are not as much the general public but the bankers, and other elites (whom they naively imagine are paying attention). Just as likely as a target, this shock therapy of appearances might be directed at their parents. Given the age of the people who are in the business of shocking people, I see this as a developmental issue of people in their late teens or early 20’s. I would be happy to admit I was wrong if I could find a substantial number of people over 40 who continue to dress this way.

You have to meet people where they are if you expect to take them where you want to go

Let me use my own experience as an example. I have been a “full-time” adjunct college teacher for 27 years. I have taught in universities: mainstream and alternative. I’ve taught for the Air Force and the Navy, I’ve taught in prisons and I’ve taught in community colleges. All these students have a great deal of differences in how they expect their teachers to dress. I also have my own agenda about how I prefer to dress. My goal in teaching is to appear in such a way that gives students a sense that I respect the role I am in, and gives them clear messages that the role I am in has something significant to do with what I am wearing.

I have had about 1-½ years of training in figure drawing and color theory based on the Old Masters approach. From studying the Old Masters, I came to appreciate earth colors – yellow ochre, olive green, burnt sienna, burnt umber – and I try to incorporate these colors into how I dress. I also like two-toned shoes, like the old-fashioned wingtips. I also like to wear the caps that were commonly worn in the 30’s by the working class. I also wear colored bandanas which I have been wearing all my adult life. Lastly I have a pirate earring, which I started wearing ten years before other straight men invaded the earring departments in the early 80’s.

So, compared to most college teachers, my appearance is outside the norm. At the same time, I always wear a sports jacket, sweaters and cotton or wool pants. Although I like all these things, I am also aware that that they fulfill the role of a respectable looking teacher. Overall, I’d say I look more like a musician in a soul band than I do a college instructor, but because of the sports jacket, sweaters and pants, I get a pass. I’d say I am unusual enough not to be seen by students as “establishment” but not so “out-there” that students or faculty don’t know what to make of me. My message to students is something like “I have my own life and tastes but still intend to play my role as a teacher.”

Other instructors, especially at community colleges, don’t see it that way. Many of the male teachers go out of their way to look as much like the students as possible so that an outsider cannot easily tell from walking around the campus who is a student and who is a teacher. These teachers keep up with students not only with scraggly beards, colored hair, nose rings, tattoos and earrings, but they sometimes out-do them. I can only guess that it is confusing to students that these same people who act like they are showing solidarity with students, then act like authority figures who discipline them for lateness, absences, missing papers and low grades.

Shocking people is cross-culturally individualist

Cross-cultural research shows that 80% of the world population, mostly outside the U.S and Western Europe, are collectivist. “Collectivism” means that the needs of the group come before the needs of the individual. Collectivists very clearly link up clothing worn to the role that is being played.

The problem for those teachers who are wearing clothes that confuse or deny their role is that the people from other parts of the world who are their students as sojourners studying abroad lose respect for them. I base this on both cross-cultural research and my experience as a college instructor. Secondly, they are likely to put off college students within their own country who are in the military. The military is a very clear collectivist institution within the individualist U.S with the ranks, clothing and roles that goes with it. Lastly, these individualist teachers who are on a “shock mission” are also confusing and turning off first and second-generation students who come from collectivist countries and are immigrants and refugees. If these liberals or socialist teachers think they are “building solidarity” they will be doing so in spite of their appearances.

The dilemma for New Left

Since the middle 50’s when the Socialist and Communist parties were destroyed in Yankeedom, the New Left has existed on the margins of student life and identity politics with little relationship to the working class. Whether they be social democrats or anarchists, if they wish to reach the 60% of the poor and working class, most of whom don’t vote, they must be careful about how far out they go. These are matters of degree. There need to be some concessions in appearance that imagines what these classes think is normal. Appearances have to be sensitive enough so people don’t have to withstand your appearance in order to listen to you.

Conclusion: Appearances as a means – not an end

Talking about socialism and capitalism is easier now than it has been in well over 70 years. So to the New Leftist I say – “Why make these conversations more difficult because people are put off by your appearance?” I am not proposing which part of appearances should be changed. It is not a question of picking a part of identity and saying, “don’t wear this or that”. It is more a question of quantity and intensity of the hair color, body piercings and clothing that matter.

The heart of Christmas is the Christmas tree. The tinsel and the ornaments are subordinate. Past a certain point, if there is too much tinsel and too many bulbs on the tree, the tree becomes lost in the shuffle, or as the Christians might say, the meaning of Christmas is lost. Talking about socialism and creating a new society is like recognizing we are part of the Tree of Life, the tree whose sap produces all the wealth. We must focus on strengthening the tree, not on becoming preoccupied with the decorations. Our appearances must invite people to come and look at the tree of socialism and it must be an invitation for them to stay and get lost in its branches, twigs and leaves. The New Left is mired in tinsel, bulbs, and darkness and this must change if it is to ever join a working class which will mobilize without them.

• First published at Planning Beyond Capitalism

Rim Banna and the Cultural War that Palestinians Must Win

Rim Banna passed away at the age of 51. Her death on March 24, after a decade-long battle with cancer, brought grief to Palestinians everywhere.

Rim, a Palestinian Christian from Nazareth, united the Palestinian people across political and geographic divides.

When she sang for the Homeland, nothing mattered but Palestine. Christians and Muslims, Fatah and Hamas, Gaza and Ramallah, all became one.

Through her soulful and warm voice, she imparted sorrow, yet celebrated life. Her songs ‘Fares Odeh’ and ‘Sarah’ were poetic interpretation of precious young Palestinian lives cut short by Israeli soldiers.

The butterfly will carry you to the back of a cloud
The gazelle will run with you to a hollow of syamore
The scent of bread will take you, a martyr, to the embrace of your mother
The star said to him, “Bring me to the courtyard of my house”
“Take me to the mattress of my slumber”
Sleepiness climbed up my sides
And settled in my head.

Music unites Palestinians when politicians fail. In fact, while for years the collective calls for ‘Palestinian unity’ has gone unheeded, Palestinian music has continued to bring Palestinians closer.

Deep-rooted Palestinian culture is what makes Palestinians who they are, a people with a unique and lucid identity, despite 70 years of exile, ethnic cleansing, sieges, numerous borders and wanton killings.

And when Rim sang, her voice penetrated through the seemingly impregnable Apartheid walls, checkpoints, military curfews and unbridgeable distance.

It was during the First Intifada (popular uprising) of 1987 that Rim gained access to the hearts and homes of many Palestinians; initially in Palestine and, eventually, all over the world. Her voice, soft and reassuring, gave hope to those who lived under a 7-years long relentless Israeli military campaign. Israeli tactics, then, aimed at breaking the spirit of the rebelling Palestinian people.

Rim’s music offered new, modern renditions of Palestinian traditional songs, but without erasing the historical and cultural identity of that music.

Her music belongs to the Palestinian music genre of nationally-driven and culturally-centered art form, aimed at reintroducing – and, sometimes reinventing – the past in a more relatable fashion.

While Israel is doing its utmost to deny and erase Palestinian culture, such cultural icons, as Rim Banna, but also Reem Kelani, Kamilya Jubran and Shadia Mansour, among others, have reasserted Palestinian culture, thus identity, around the globe.

Although a rarely publicized form of resistance, cultural resistance is at the heart of the Palestinian fight for freedom.

Italian thinker, Antonio Gramsci, who was imprisoned by fascist Italy for much of his life specifically because of his ideas on cultural resistance, had warned of how cultural hegemony is as much the enemy as outright dictatorship.

Palestinians contend with cultural hegemony, not as an academic notion, but as a daily reality.

Israel has spent decades launching and perfecting its cultural war against Palestinians, aimed at erasing Palestinian culture, on the one hand, while imposing its own cultural alternatives on the other.

Oddly, much of what Israel brands as Israeli culture is, in fact, the very Palestinian and Arab culture spanning millennia; from food, to music, to fashion and everything in between, the ‘Israel brand’ is essentially a Palestinian, Arab brand, stolen and rebranded.

But, unlike military and political war, cultural wars are often invisible and incremental. While the Israeli government is now busy replacing Arabic street names with Hebrew ones and outlawing the commemoration of the Nakba – the destruction of the Palestinian homeland in 1947-48 – it also aims at breaking the unity of Palestinian culture altogether.

Historically, early Zionists promoted the false idea that Palestine was a land with no people and that the natives of the land were nomads, passers-by with no cultural roots, no identity, thus no collective political aspirations.

Such propaganda was essential to promote the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine. The supposed ‘nomads’ who existed in Palestine eventually evolved to become the ‘refugee problem.’ To this day, Zionists and their right wing supporters still encourage the cruel idea that Palestinians are an ‘invented people’.

So, when Rim Banna, Reem Kelani, Mohammed Assaf, and numerous others – joined by poets, artists, and other Palestinian cultural warriors – celebrate the traditions, music and culture of their people, they stand at the frontlines of fighting a violent Zionist discourse that has, for over a century, been committed to the total erasure of Palestine.

In her music, Rim fought against the Israeli attempts at the cultural dispossession of the Palestinian people, while humanizing the likes of Fares, Sarah and many others.

This is why many Palestinians wept when Rim died; it is also why millions wept tears of joy when Mohammad Assaf – a refugee from Gaza – won the ‘Arab Idol’ competition in 2013.

It was not merely because Mohammad had a beautiful voice and that he deserved to win, but because of the representation of that thundering, self-asserting voice, his lyrics and, of course, the singer himself.

Assaf is a Gazan refugee. His family was driven from historic Palestine during the violent Zionist ethnic cleansing campaign of 1947-48. He was born in shattat (diaspora) and eventually returned to Gaza, only to live under a hermetic Israeli siege. He broke the siege to participate in the competition.

When Assaf sang, millions watched in wonder as he skillfully demolished all the walls, erased the checkpoints and bridged all the distance. Suddenly, Gaza, Ramallah, Nazareth, Haifa were once more united. Those in diaspora returned. The homeland became one.

Rim too offered that multi-layered representation, which supersedes politics and geography into a realm in which the Palestinian nationhood was made of shared culture, grief, resistance, poetry and hope.

Rim has died, but the generation of artistes she patiently nurtured will continue to sing, to celebrate a culture and a civilization that cannot be tamed by guns or imprisoned by walls.

Rim Banna was the voice of Palestine that can never be muted.

Animals

This is our anti-poaching/animal slaughter anthem. It’s almost Christmas 2017 and nearly every iconic animal on Earth is in dire straights. To their survival we give this gift, please get involved, donate $1.00 to World Wildlife Fund and tell them we sent you.

Thank you — Patrick Henry from One Earth Music