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Seeking Venues for the 2013 Dissident Arts Festival - February 24, 2013


About the Dissident Arts Festival…

Now, in the midst of right-wing fear-mongering and teabag hysteria, progressive artists speak out for social justice. The Dissident Arts Festival is a platform for cultural workers to emote, sing, recite, improvise, act, express and orate against war and inequity and in honor of the struggle of workers and the globally oppressed---and with an accent on an art that is as revolutionary and challenging as the politics of progressive change. Event producer John Pietaro, a mainstay percussionist on the new jazz/new music scene and a cultural organizer, has been proud to present the Dissident Arts Festival in conjunction with community organizations such as the Brecht Forum, 17 Frost Theatre of the Arts (Williamsburg, Brooklyn) and the Howland Cultural Center (Beacon NY) and sponsors including the Rosenberg Fund for Children.

The Festival began life in 2006; for that initial season and through 2009 it was based in NY's Hudson Valley before moving to NYC in 2010. Its primary goal was the establishment of an annual showcase of radical protest music, poetry and performance art--perhaps the only such fest in the nation. But this Festival has always sought to bring together a wide variety of sounds and styles, bending rules and breaking institutions whenever and wherever possible; among the past performers and speakers were celebrated actor/raconteur Malachy McCourt, world jazz icon Karl Berger, folk legend Pete Seeger, rad poets Louis Reyes Rivera and Angelo Verga, New Jazz guru Ras Moshe, international poet Erika Dagnino, flutist Cheryl Pyle, violinist Gwen Laster, hip hop ensemble ReadNex Poetry Squad, experimental fusion band Nick Gianni's Evolution, filmmaker Kevin Keating, indoe-rock band the Last Internationale, San Francisco-based jazz/poetry collective Upsurge!, folksingers Bev Grant and Judy Gorman, punk-jazz duet Faster, ‘Anti-Folk’ founder Lach, People's Cabaret artists Jennie Litt and David Alpher, performance artist Crystal Shipp, official ‘house band’ the Dissident Arts Orchestra and many more. We presented sessions of free jazz, militant poetry, ballads, revolutionary silent film with live improvised scores, and tributes to Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Bertolt Brecht and Phil Ochs along the way. We have also screened important films including 'Salt of the Earth', 'Giuliani Time' and Cultures of Resistance’. The Festival has also offered a voice to progressive political candidates of independent parties, labor leader Henry Foner and radical organizations including Occupy Musicians.

In preparation for this year’s Dissident Arts Festival, we are seeking venues for a series of banner events in Manhattan and Brooklyn for dates in late July-mid August. We plan to present a variety of artists of conscience, particularly those with in the experimental and free jazz realms, as well as poets and performance artists of protest. The line-up will be released as soon as we have secured the where and when----venue owners/managers: that’s where you come in. We are interested in assorted types of venues from small room to large spaces as our acts always range from solo performers to duos and small ensembles to the Dissident Arts Orchestra as it performs improvised scores for silent film classics. Our artists are acoustic and electric, loud and genteel, introspective and expressionistic, bold and pensive, lo-tech and amped up. Please stop by for info on this annual event as well as other performances that organizer John Pietaro is engaging in all around the NY area.

IFAR Compilation released: includes the Red Microphone's "Brecht Breakdown" - December 22, 2012

JUST RELEASED: IFAR Compilation of Dec 2012, "The Beat Sounds from Way Out", IFAR Label, UK. The entire album is available as a FREE download: new worlds of hip, experimental music and, hey, Track # 7 is "BRECHT BREAKDOWN" by THE RED MICROPHONE ( John Pietaro, Ras Moshe, Rocco John Iacovone and Laurie Towers ) -

'The Red Microphone Speaks' is now in the can! - December 16, 2012

My new band, THE RED MICROPHONE, spent the day at 17 Frost Theater of the Arts in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, recording our debut CD. Unfortunately bassist Laurie Towers (my much better half) had to drop out of the project so we were very happy when Nicolas Letman-Burtinovic was available to take on the roll. We need to mix the recordings and then ship them down to legendary producer/musician Kramer's NoiseMiami studio for final mastering. Hopefully the disc will be out by March!

1) Song of the United Front (music by Hanns Eisler; adaptation by the Red Microphone)
2) L'Internationale Redux (“L’Internationale” by Pierre Degeytor; adaptation by John Pietaro)
3) God to the Hungry Child (music by Janet Barnes, poetry by Langston Hughes; adaptation and additional music by John Pietaro) – spoken word by Ras Moshe

4) The Proof is Overwhelming (free improvisation incorporating statement by John Howard Lawson from the transcript of his hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee, 1947) – spoken word by John Pietaro
5) Freedom Theme (Rocco John Iacovone)

6) One for Robeson (free improvisation dedicated to Paul Robeson)
7) L'Internationale Reconstruct (“L’Internationale” by Pierre Degeytor, prose by Hanns Eisler: “Our Revolutionary Music”, 1932 and “The Crisis in Music”, 1935. Adaptation by John Pietaro; improvisations and impressions by the Red Microphone) –vocal by Nora McCarthy, spoken word by John Pietaro
8) The Times (inspired by “And the Times Are Dark and Fearful” by Hanns Eisler; adaptation by John Pietaro)
JOHN PIETARO –vibraphone, suspended cymbals, various bells, glockenspiel, snare drum, frame drum, tom-toms, lion’s roar, various percussives, spoken word (selections 4, 7),
RAS MOSHE –tenor and soprano saxophones, flute, bells, spoken word (selection 3)
ROCCO JOHN IACOVONE –soprano and alto saxophones, ocarina (selection 4), frog scraper (selection 4)
With special guest NORA MC CARTHY –vocal (L’Internationale Reconstruct)
--Recorded on December 16, 2012 at 17 Frost, Williamsburg, Brooklyn NY; Engineer: Natalie Scarborough. Mastered by Kramer at NoiseMiami Studio, Miami FL

Coming 1/20/13: DRUMS FOR WARREN! Benefit Concert - December 1, 2012

Here's a historic event NOT to be missed... SEE some of the legends of Free Jazz! SEE an endless line-up of many of the busiest new jazz and new music performers today! SEE how 'the new thing' remains fresh and vital! SEE one-of-a-kind combos! SEE the breaking of musical boundaries in a celebratory soundscape! SEE DRUMS FOR WARREN! and help raise funds for one of the best...

Media Contact: John Pietaro
(646) 599-0060

DRUMS FOR WARREN! A BENEFIT CONCERT FOR WARREN SMITH – Helping Warren to rebuild the priceless percussion collection lost to Hurricane Sandy
Sunday, January 20, 2013, 2PM - 9PM
The Brecht Forum 451 West Street, New York NY
Admission: $10.
Organizer/Hosts: John Pietaro and Ras Moshe
For more info see
New York, NY: Jazz, New Music and Free Improv musicians perform in a special fundraiser to help beloved percussionist, composer, teacher Warren Smith rebuild his priceless percussion collection lost to Hurricane Sandy’s flooding. Those instruments, obtained over decades worth of touring, include mallet instruments, numerous drums, timpani, a celeste and unique, hand-made percussives from around the world.


2:00 – doors open
2:10-2:30- NEWMAN TAYLOR BAKER, WARREN SMITH, washboards
2:35-2:55- DICK GRIFFIN, trombone, FRANCOIS GRILLOT, bass
3:00-3:20 – THURMAN BARKER, solo drumset
3:25 – 3:45 – WILLIAM TRIGG, solo vibraphone, hand drum duet, performance of Smith’s Samba
3:50 -4:10– WARREN SMITH, drums; ANDREW LAMB; BILL COLE , reeds
4:15 – 4:25 – ANDREW DRURY, solo drum
4:30-4:50 – CHERYL PYLE, flute; JOHN PIETARO, vibes; GERRY GIBBS, drums
4:55-5:25 – ROY CAMPBELL, trumpets; HENRY GRIMES, bass, violin; trumpets; ANDREW LAMB, reeds; NEWMAN TAYLOR BAKER, washboard; WARREN SMITH, drums/vibes; SYD SMART, drums/percussion.
5:30-5:50 - LARRY ROLAND, bass; JD PARRAN, flutes
5:55- 6:15 – ZANE MASSEY, saxophones
6:20-6:40– WILL CONNELL, alto saxophone/bass clarinet/flute, TOMAS ULRICH, Cello, and ANDERS NILSSON, Guitar.
6:45-7:05 – THE RED MICROPHONE: JOHN PIETARO, vibes/percussion/voice; RAS MOSHE, saxophones/flutes, + guests
7:10 -7:40– RAS MOSHE’S MUSIC NOW!: RAS MOSHE, saxophones/flutes; MATT LAVELLE, trumpet; TOR YOCHAI SNYDER, Guitar; CHARLES GAYLE, Bass
7:45-8:30 –JASON KAO HWANG/EDGE: JASON KAO HWANG, composer/violin/viola, TAYLOR HO BYNUM, cornet/flugelhorn, ANDREW DRURY, drum set, KEN FILIANO, bass

Warren Smith is known for his extensive work over more than five decades with artists such as M'Boom, Sam Rivers, Gil Evans, Muhal Richard Abrams, and many other jazz artists as well as a bevy of pop stars from Janis Joplin to Aretha Franklin, in countless studios and Broadway pit bands. He worked with Miles Davis as a vibraphonist in 1957 and played with Gil Evans in ‘58. In 1961 he co-founded the Composers Workshop Ensemble, and through the ‘60s Smith accompanied Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Lloyd Price, and Nat King Cole; he worked with Sam Rivers from 1964–76 and with Gil Evans again from 1968 to 1976. In 1969 he served as musical director for Janis Joplin and in 1971 also performed with Tony Williams Lifetime. He was a founding member of Max Roach's percussion ensemble, M'Boom. In the ‘70s and ‘80s Smith ran Studio Wis which hosted many New York jazz musicians, such as Wadada Leo Smith and Oliver Lake. Through the 1970s Smith played with Andrew White, Julius Hemphill, Muhal Richard Abrams, Nancy Wilson, Quincy Jones, Count Basie, and Carmen McRae. Other credits include extensive work with rock and pop musicians and time spent with Anthony Braxton, Charles Mingus, Henry Threadgill, Van Morrison, and Joe Zawinul. He continued to work on Broadway into the 1990s, and has performed with a number of classical ensembles. These days, he continues to perform with many artists and leads his own ensembles. He can also be found in the drum chair of Karl Berger's Improvisers Orchestra.


John Pietaro's new quartet the Red Microphone which recorded the piece "Brecht Breakdown" for the Jan 2013 IFAR Compilation of new music is now in rehearsal for a December recording session for its debut CD, 'THE RED MICROPHONE SPEAKS'. The band includes Pietaro's vibes, percussion and voice as well as Ras Moshe (tenor and soprano saxophones, flutes, bells), Rocco John Iacovone (soprano and alto saxophones) and Laurie Towers (electric bass) and their repertoire, steeped in Left politics and revolutionary heritage, is built upon free improvisation, reconstructions of earlier revolutionary music, original topical pieces and poetry from radical cultural movements over the past century. Several special musical guests will also be a part of this recording.

The album will be recorded at the studio of 17 Frost Theatre of the Arts (Williamsburg, Brooklyn NY), engineered by Natalie Scarborough. The tapes will then be sent to musician-producer Kramer for final mixing and mastering. Kramer, bassist with a groundswell of downtown artists of the 1980s and 90s, also headed up the Shimmy-Disc record label which unified post-punk experimentalism and avant new music. His deft use of dark textures in radical new sounds will be a welcome addition to the aural landscape of the Red Microphone.


THE RADICAL ARTS FRONT maintains that the arts are weapons of social change, engaging through Free Jazz, New Music, No Wave, and Post-Punk Song and Poetry as well as revolutionary Performance Art, Theatre and Film. THE RADICAL ARTS FRONT seeks to challenge audiences as much with our art as with our social and political actions. The collective stands in opposition to both arts conventions and right-wing politics; our dissidence calls for a bold egalitarian view of social justice, one that fights greed, racism, prejudice and homophobia. Ours is an agenda that insists on a socialist, feminist, multi-cultural, pro-worker, constantly creative and varied membership, one reflective of our audience and the people's community at large.

Precursors to this collective notion include other Pietaro-led associations the Composers Circle for Social Change (1997-2000) and the Cultural Workers Consort (2001-07). The Radical Arts Front developed organically in August 2012 from the actions of the improvisational music community in NYC, Left political activities in opposition to the ongoing threat of right-wing corporate-agenda politicians and activists, and the vitality of this year's Dissident Arts Festival--and the rush of other events many of the Fest's participants are planning on this revolutionary arts front. Among the artists affiliated with the Radical Arts Front are is noted reeds player and activist RAS MOSHE and celebrated bassists NICOLAS LETMAN-BURTINOVIC and TOM ZLABINGER. There is much work to do. Upward and onward.

- John Pietaro

THE PULSE OF REVOLUTION: Musicians as Cultural Warriors in the Occupy Movement - February 7, 2012

Musicians as Cultural Warriors in the Occupy Movement
By John Pietaro

For as long as there has been dissent, there has been the protest song. In the people’s history, the fight for social justice has always been accompanied by, inspired by the voices of outspoken songwriters, the daring harmonies of dissident composers, the passionate cry of radical poets and the compelling news reports of the topical balladeer. This is the drumbeat of radicalism. Phil Ochs told us that every headline can be realized as verse just as he cautioned us that, “a protest song is something you don’t hear on the radio”. But regardless of popular acceptance or not, the music of revolution prevails.
One can easily trace work songs back to the earliest toilers and songs of revolt directly to the movements to organize—in each era. Reviewing poetry or ballads composed on slave ships, within workers’ hovels or concentration camps, or in cold urban landscapes, we can not only gain valuable information about earlier uprisings against injustice, but develop a visceral understanding of them. Where progressive history books offer core stories and important dates, topical art-forms deliver the fervor, the agitation, the struggle of the embattled to survive and then to live. Bread and roses.
Often artists can become overwhelmed by the stressors in their midst. In the US, the creative community has never had adequate funding or respect, so in times of fiscal constraint, we can easily fall victim. Further, audiences during lean years find it easier to simply avoid. Popular culture reflects this in “the feel-good movie of the year” or the litany of Top 40 hits that are pure escapism.
After eight years of Bush and Cheney, with the rise of cowboy capitalism, first-strike offenses and a repressive economy, progressives of every shade began to build a protest movement of ebbs and flows. Many sought out change through the Obama candidacy. With the promise of the nation’s first African American president, one who’d had a background as a community organizer, countless among us were moved to rebuild a progressive base. But Obama’s drive toward conciliation with the forces of reaction for far too long turned many off. The teabaggers were all over the news and every brand of lunatic flooded the right-wing. Oh, there were pockets of celebrated rebellion: Wisconsin taught us all. But on the heels of that amazing takeover, Occupy Wall Street happened. And then nothing was the same.
In my own experience as a musician and a cultural organizer (one moved toward Left philosophy as a direct result of the first Reagan term!), I’d long sought out something—anything—like OWS. And here came a disparate group with no visible leader, one that united all facets of the Left, liberalism, and Labor, and not just the most progressive of unions. Yeah, it turned out to be this generation’s Popular Front. After my first visit to Zuccotti Park, I was drawn to return many times, usually carrying a drum. The first time I sat in with the pulsating mass of a drum circle, I realized the distance our message could carry. How voluminous the voice of a determined, unified group! We breathed as one through percussion and this was evidenced by the reactions of the beaming, dancing passerby, often wearing designer suits and Italian shoes but sharing in a historic moment with this band of rad rhythmatists.
Though drum circles are empowering and an excellent means to build still larger masses, there is a need for musicians of conscience to forge a more cohesive unit, a cultural arm of OWS. Rather than the occasional folksinger or rapper writing an anthem for the movement, why couldn’t there be, shouldn’t there be a solid, committed organization which would feed the protest, inspire creativity and then take it out to the wider populace? The Occupy Musicians group ( is an exciting means toward this goal. Hundreds of signatories and a series of events has fortified the organization’s dawning. Now what’s left to do is to draw on the considerable strengths of musicians of conscience; we must agitate, educate and organize through song, through verse, through shout and stomp, through musical weaponry.
Using earlier cultural movements as models, we can draw on the work of the bards, the songsters, poets, playwrights and journalists of the Industrial Workers of the World. This radical internationalist union counted artists in their front line of organizers. This spawned the likes of Joe Hill; no mean feat! And the Socialist Party in the first decades of the 20th century also laid the ground work for later models. It did so with the likes of Jack London and Carl Sandburg and by the 1930s founded the Radical Arts Group toward the establishment of a national cultural program. However it was the Communist Party which, in the 1930s and ‘40s, successfully founded a cultural commission of widespread proportions. It not only counted artists such as Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, Dalton Trumbo, Hazel Scott and the Almanac Singers in its ranks, but a massive list of fellow travelers across the country. Of important note are the arts collectives under CP cultural auspices which were both activist bases and educational seminars for all genres: the John Reed Club, the League of American Writers, the American Artists’ Congress, the Red Dancers, and the Composers Collective of New York which produced contemporary classical works that were at least as daring musically as they were politically!
The generation of folksingers in the 1960s became the very soul of the struggles of civil rights and peace. Immortal, moving works were created and tirelessly sang at each rally and march. Folk revival musicians such as Bob Dylan, Odetta, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez wrote the anthems that acted as shields against the assaults of the police and the national guard, as did the songs which had originated in southern Black churches. Performers like the Freedom Singers made all the difference in the world when staring down Bull Connor. And the Black Arts Movement offered creative guidance along with fiery radical sounds to urban centers. Avant garde jazz figured highly into this scene, as well it should in today’s movement. Legendary names like Amiri Baraka, the late Sam Rivers, the AACM and Black Arts Group were instrumental, so to speak, in countless seminars, rallies, gatherings and confrontations. There’s was a music which celebrated African culture as it fought for American rights through the most creative means.
The Punk movement often carried with it an anarchist message, or in the least an intolerance for mere compliance. While some aspects of Punk could seem right-wing due to the presence of fascist imagery (to shock) most Punks were drawn to the Left messages found in the music of the Clash and the fight against Reaganism launched by the Dead Kennedys. Punk also turned “DIY” into a freedom cry for all artists. Hip Hop has also stood out as a people’s movement which has called on multiple generations to speak out. For every gangsta rapper there are scores of Hip Hop artists who use their poetry and music as a means of unity and expression: life and survival in the ghettos, exposing social ills and the need for social change are mainstays. Some rappers are inspired by the Beat poets of the ‘50s, and most are well aware of the radical statements of Gil-Scott Heron. Rappers like Dead Prez and Immortal Technique have focused on a specific kind of topical Hip Hop.
MUSICIANS ALIGNED WITH THE OWS MOVEMENT need to make a close study of the history of cultural workers in building a lasting organization. Occupy Musicians should call on composers, improvisers, rappers, singers, songwriters and instrumentalists; there’s a need for pop singers, jazz and contemporary classical musicians, hip hop artists, world music performers, folkies, satirists, rockers, balladeers and punks. We must speak in every language, to every taste, to allow for the unrestrained flow of outreach. And we need to establish a series of awareness-raising concerts, to circulate recordings of OWS musicians and offer teach-ins and workshops to not only insure continuity of current artists but to inspire the generations to come. Occupy Musicians can not only offer a soundtrack to OWS but can drive it with Shock Brigade bands to descend upon rallies and marches. And to really be thorough, we need to do so in concert with radical poets, performance artists and other cultural workers.
Occupy Musicians can become an integral part of Occupy movements all over the nation, all over the world. And through both concert presentations and social media we can grow a network that will keep live music relevant even as it carries activists to the necessary next level, true social and political change. Upward, onward.
-John Pietaro is a musician, writer ( and activist from Brooklyn NY. He is the leader of Radio NOIR ( and the director of the annual Dissident Arts Festival.

Welcome to DISSIDENT ARTS - February 1, 2012

A quick announcement to all of the regular visitors to our old website have now become! In the coming months this website will offer information and announcements about cultural work and cultural workers, the annual Dissident Arts Festival and various other events and about the new band which burst from the head of the Flames of Discontent, Radio NOIR. The activism is still there, the songs of social change and the fervor of revolution, but in the guise of improvised music, Free Jazz, New Music and the symbolism of 1930s' sounds and unrest. Watch this space for news about Radio NOIR and the other cultural workers associated with Dissident Arts...................

FREE JAZZ AS CULTURAL REVOLUTION: Karl Berger & the Stone Workshop Orchestra in Review from the Inside - December 8, 2011

Free Jazz as Cultural Revolution:
Karl Berger & The Stone Workshop Orchestra in Review from Inside

By John Pietaro

The Stone stands quietly and without fanfare at the corner of Avenue C and East 2nd Street. The club is set in an old store front that still bears the markings of pre-gentrified Alphabet City. So unassuming is it that there’s no sign over its door proclaiming that a new experimental music space—one which features the free exchange of art and ideas--has taken back part of New York otherwise lost to the developers and yuppies. The Lower East Side , New York’s historic center of alternative arts and struggle, survived years of neglect and decay during which it was shunned by a larger society attempting to cut off its immigrant and poor population just until the ‘hood became fashionable. And as its boarded-up shops transformed into bistros, it ‘became’ the East Village and was sold to the highest bidder. And somehow post-modern saxophonist John Zorn made a grab to claim some of this prized territory for the movement. This community --where Beat poetry found its home, where the most radical of Left activists congregated, where jazz’s loft scene was birthed, where the punk movement began and where the post-punk avant garde coalesced into No Wave—has taken back one of its lost corners. There’s cause to celebrate but the Stone remains the Village’s best-kept secret. And the noise about it only seems to occur within.
Having enjoyed memorable performances in LES clubs and galleries back when there was a healthy scene harboring this kind of music, I well remember the once-affordable community and its phalanx of artists, anarchists, addicts, dealers, homeless, Hell’s Angels and poverty-stricken residents. No, they weren’t really good old times because there was too much hurt and yet the area held a strange beauty that’s long gone. Walking through the door of the Stone brings me back almost immediately. The space is tight, intimate. The lights are dim. The energy is whirling, barely contained in the walls about me. I felt it on my first visit: Musicians flow in, greeting each other with warm, jovial exchanges, laughs, and discussions about a recent tour with this or that one, the last gig with so-and-so, or baseball scores and small talk. Dressed down, unpacking their axes these men and women are as unassuming as the club itself. I walk over the uneven floorboards and find a spot near the back, next to the drummer and two upright bassists preparing for the evening’s excursion. I stand amidst a mini xylophone or glockenspiel, large and small frame drums, several small hand-held percussives, sometimes a dumbek, and a pair of crowded racks sporting woodblocks, temple blocks, cowbells and a triangle. Somehow I set it up in a manner that’s workable but not imposing to the tightly-packed band, which ranges from a minimum of 12 members to a more standard number of about 23. The immediacy of those around me seems to extend well beyond the physical.
Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso enter the room, gently reaching out to the musicians sitting in a two-rowed semi-circle. The band responds in kind, offering greetings, brief bits of humorous tales and other chitchat. But this is not a mere social call. Soon Karl seats himself caddy-corner at the piano and offers some basic ideas as to what the music will be like tonight. In some cases choosing pieces he’s worked on with the Orchestra before, in others, introducing brand new ones without warning, of course.
The compositions are often his own but just as likely penned by the Ornette Coleman or Don Cherry, or other past collaborators. Many are drawn from the repertoire of world folk songs (Karl is especially fond of Turkish music). But it can never be said that there is anything assumed or pre-planned about this band’s music. There is NEVER a written score and when the band needs to learn a jazz head or other melody, it is simply played at the piano, at times slowly and repetitively, until the musicians are comfortable with what’s to come. Karl offers some info on the particular mode or the tradition in which the piece was developed as his hands lightly run over piano keys. The musicians are all veterans and adept at this kind of performance, but Karl’s advice and philosophical guidance are never taken begrudgingly. “Please let’s remember to pay close attention to dynamics in this passage,” Karl is wont to explain as he demonstrates the importance of the phrasing in a piece. Standing now, he raises a hand and gently fans it downward: “You can almost leave that last note out completely. In fact, I would like some of you to fade the phrase just before it ends to really exaggerate the emotion. Deeee-da. Deeee-da”. And the music, already inspired and executed beautifully, comes fully alive. By design, this band is geared toward the highest level of creativity, and the tools of such creativity--free improvisation, on-the-spot composition, modernist harmonies, world rhythms, technical expertise, and latter-day angst—are in constant demand here.
The Stone Workshop Orchestra’s sound is born of the moment, founded by the players’ instincts, skill and need to emote----and it’s then organized by Karl’s artful hand and facial expressions. Sculptor-like, he molds and shapes the aural force emanating from this collection of brass, reeds, strings and percussion set before him. Refusing to consider his part in this as conduction (“really, this is not so specific, I just cue and offer guidance, you do the rest…”), Berger none the less has developed an incredible language of his own; never losing sight of the musicians’ individuality, he plays the orchestra. Karl’s unique hand signals--and welcoming eye contact---bring in sections, soloists or the tutti ensemble, and in doing so, establishes range, tempo, volume, timbre and vibe.
Through his cues the band knows the direction and shape as well as the duration of the notes to be played---but the specific notes remain our own. He guides orchestral accents behind the force of a soloist’s excursion, adding to the soundscape and fierce intensity. Karl then layers one solo over another and calls on this or that accompaniment—which ultimately is seen as just an important a voice in the mix and may very well take over the spotlight. Feel is paramount and interpretation is demanded. Its clearly there in the leader’s eyes each time he becomes engulfed in the tapestry. Leaning back into the sound in a moment of particularly rich improvised harmony, Karl adds: “It took Gil Evans two years to write a chord like that!”
So what of this orchestra? Since I began this weekly gig in early September 2011, it has proven itself as a wonderfully expansive vision of what a ‘big band’ could be. The line-up has often shifted in membership with a solid core of regulars and a series of guests who are passing through New York while on tour. Each Monday I have seen new faces, heard new accents and reveled in new and exciting musical concepts. The musicians qualify as a united nations of Free Jazz, among them Karl Berger - Piano and Conducting, Ingrid Sertso - Voice, Thomas Heberer - Trumpet, Brian Groder – Trumpet, Bob Selcoe - Trumpet, Herb Robertson – Trumpet, Steve Swell - Trombone, Rick Parker –Trombone, Avram Fefer - Soprano Sax, Stephen Gauci - Tenor Sax, Yoni Kretzmer - Tenor Sax, Darryl Foster – Tenor and Soprano Saxes, Esa Pietila - Tenor Sax, Dave Schnug - Alto Sax, Mercedes Figuera - Alto Sax, Blaise Siwula – Alto Sax, Mikko Innanen – Alto Sax, Jason Candler - Alto Sax/Alto Clarinet, Bill Ylitalo – Alto Sax, Welf Doerr – Alto Sax, Ricardo Tejero – Clarinet, Michael Lytle - Bass Clarinet, Ken Ya Kawaguchi – Shakuhachi, Sylvain Leroux - Flutes, Peter Buettner – Flutes, Frederika Krier - Violin, David Bakriges - Violin, Cecile Borche – Violin, Mossa Bildner - Voice, Kenny Wessel - Guitar, Harvey Valdes - Guitar, John Ehlis – Mandolin and Guitar, Adam Lane – Bass, Hilliard Greene – Bass, Dominic Lash - Bass, Dave Perrott - Bass, Ken Filiano – Bass, Lou Grassi – Drums, Harvey Sorgen - Drums, John Pietaro - Percussion, Philip Foster – ‘Odds and Ends’. And the many others whose names have escaped me and I hope to meet again.

The final performance of the Stone Workshop Orchestra—at least in this incarnation—occurred on December 5, during which time the Stone’s inner walls shook under the weight of the music. Two full concert sets (no workshop for this gig) left the room dank with perspiration and brimming with intensity. Guest soloists, to really drive the point home, were legendary avant alto player John Zorn and the brilliant trumpet and slide-trumpet player Steven Bernstein, and the band exploded under and about these two voices of unbridled improvisation. Zorn seeking no attention, remained reserved before putting horn to mouth, but wailed and shook over his instrument like a feverish, davoning rabbi when he played. The ensemble shouted accents as Zorn sonically fought back the depth hovering just above, drawing from and warding off the wall of music he encountered. From my spot near the back, with a line of winds and strings immediately in front, dual basses to my right and drums just behind, the room seemed to ascend with Karl’s conducting wizardy guiding the journey. And just then Steven Bernstein hollered across the thicket with a slide trumpet improvisation that should have lifted off the roof, polyrhythmic pulsations falling over the brass call to arms. New visions of a developed repertoire spoke volumes about the potential for this band. No one could accept that it would simply end; the rush to find a new site is on with plans being carefully laid for a new residency and a series of other performances to continue the mission.
As winter’s chill arrives on the Lower East Side, the echo of musical liberation descends over the luxury condos and gourmet delis, declaring the legacy of fearless creativity. And in its resonance, the music tears away the cloud of conformity and clears the path for further generations of New Music.

-John Pietaro is a musician and writer from Brooklyn, NY. His websites are and

Obituary of ABBEY LINCOLN - August 16, 2010


Obituary by John Pietaro

The struggle against racial injustice has lost a most stirring cultural worker; another artist of conscience is gone with passage of time. But wasn’t that a time?

Vocalist, actress and activist Abbey Lincoln captured the energy and drive of an era in the media of recording and film as few others could, staring down the camera’s probing eye and shouting back into the microphone with the sure-footedness of a warrior-woman. She refuted the oppression of Hollywood’s type-cast as boldly she rebelled against song’s harmonic structure, over and beyond the accepted norms. Lincoln’s art was indeed her most telling weapon and she brandished this with a certain fearlessness that would rock the white-dominated entertainment industry during years of social upheaval. Her most recalled work, ‘We Insist!: Freedom Now Suite’ angrily challenged those singing of overcoming some day; brimming with restlessness, her’s was not a protest art of patience.

Anna Marie Wooldridge was born in Chicago on August 6, 1930, when streams of unemployed workers roamed the streets and the African American population, already struggling against the heavy boot of apartheid America, knew burdens of untold proportions. For those already poor the Great Depression was a furtherance of the deprivation they’d experienced in the so-called boom years, but now with a new urgency, a new desperation. The entertainment industry was one means to economic salvation in the working class Black community and Chicago--the site of Jazz’ momentous development over the decade prior--was a hotbed of activity.

Though largely raised in a rural suburb, Lincoln absorbed through osmosis the fierceness of transplanted New Orleans. Her singing speaks of the ages, smoky-throated hipness informed by Billie Holiday, cool urban blues and raw field hollers by way of sumptuous ballads and sizzling swing.

The newly christened ‘Abbey Lincoln’, relocated on the west coast, became an in-demand performer on the nightclub circuit. A double threat, Lincoln recorded her debut album the same year she was cast in the Jayne Mansfield movie, ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ (1956) which also featured Little Richard and a bevy of popular musicians. With the hope of a glitzy film career waiting in the wings, the beautiful young actress instead refocused her efforts on collaborations with drummer-composer Max Roach, whom she would be married to from 1962 through ‘70. Starting with 1957, their projects together were revolutionary on several levels: woven not from the simple packaging of songs but with the serious intent of a singular, unified message, they recorded several concept albums, most powerfully the ‘Freedom Now Suite’ (1960), a hallmark of protest music. Air-borne melodies descend into guttural moans, interspersed with burning post-bop phrases and expansive harmonies.

But Lincoln stretched the scope still further; her speech-song vocal on “Driva Man” is a chilling lesson in the power of song as a force of social protest, a “Strange Fruit” for the Civil Rights era.
During the ‘60s Lincoln continued working with Roach but also took to the stage or studio with other Jazz legends including Sonny Rollins and Eric Dolphy. However by 1964 she had successfully brought the message back to the film genre, co-starring with the grossly underrated actor Ivan Dixon in ‘Nothing But a Man’, a bold depiction of the racism so rampant in the deep south. Shortly thereafter she was paired with Sidney Poitier in the moving ‘For Love of Ivy’ (1968), where Lincoln was cast in the titular role.

By 1970 Abbey Lincoln became a common sight on television and film, offering scant examples of her power as a vocalist, but in 1980 she had something of a musical resurgence. In the past three decades, Lincoln performed widely and recorded numerous collections of relevant Jazz works, often featuring her own compositions. Though her lyrics had been a part of several earlier collaborations, Lincoln’s focus on her own material began in earnest in 1972 while traveling through Africa. She came to see her calling as that of a story-teller and upon re-entering music performance full-time, encompassed a large catalog of original material. Over the course of a series of albums exploring her career’s expanse, she received much-deserved critical acclaim in recent years. To most in the crowded venues she played, Lincoln was at the zenith of her art. Abbey Lincoln remained a thriving, independent performer into her final years, never again allowing the gauntlet to slip away, never once refraining from speaking truth to the power that might otherwise have sought her silence.

No, Driva Man. No.

--published 8/16/10 in both People's World and Portside


By John Pietaro

Another December, another Phil Ochs birth anniversary. Wow, he would have been 69 this year. It’s also time for the stream of annual Ochs birthday concerts which have been occurring all over the nation each December since the singer’s untimely death in 1976. The movement has not had Phil Ochs to call upon for a long time, but none on the Left have forgotten his impact—and the impact his music continues to have upon us.

From the view of contemporary times, it is perhaps Phil Ochs (1940-1976), among other ‘60’s folkies, whom speaks most directly to us. His was a visceral kind of protest music. Ochs maintained an affiliation with the IWW throughout his adult life, though he was a self-described socialist who demonstrated an affinity toward anarchism; he detested the greed of capital and this poured out of his songs. Ochs was active in the fertile period that bridged the Civil Rights and anti- Vietnam War periods, with those of Women’s Liberation, Black Power, AIM, militant environmentalism and Gay rights. For an artist of conscience, there was much work to do, so Phil Ochs’ songs called for peace, equal rights and an egalitarian society. His songs damned the establishments that begat the murder of our progressive heroes and allowed organized labor to forget its true mission. He cried for our nation and praised its promise.

Ochs’ songs unashamedly revealed our faults but also offered the means to rectify them. Phil was a presence at demonstrations and other radical actions, not merely a voice on a record. He traveled to Hazzard, Kentucky during the bloody strikes in the earliest 60s, boldly performing for the pickets and in ear-shot of the threatening goon squads.

Several songs document these struggles, including the hauntingly beautiful “No Christmas in Kentucky”. Shortly thereafter, Phil became entrenched in Civil Rights, traveling to many points on the Klan’s radar. His periods in the Deep South are chronicled in songs such as “Freedom Riders” and the brutally blunt “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” and “Too Many Martyrs, the Ballad of Medgar Evars”. His awareness of the power of song was keen, brazen.

In March of 1963, Ochs wrote in Broadside magazine of the importance of protest songs in the changing times of the day. It is amazing to note just how relevant this statement remains. Ochs described the core value of topical song—issue-based music relevant to progressive activism of the time in which it is created. But he also clarified, quite profoundly for such a young man, that the media stood in direct contrast to this music and that the songwriter needed to scour the news reports in order to find his or her material. It was—and is—a worthy duty. In this sense, Ochs’ statement lifted from the well of time stands as universal:

“The Need For Topical Music”
By Phil Ochs
Before the days of television and mass media, the folksinger was often a traveling newspaper spreading tales through music.
It is somewhat ironic that in this age of forced conformity and fear of controversy the folksinger may be assuming the same role. The newspapers have unfortunately told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the cold war truth, so help them, advertisers…
The folksingers of today must face up to a great challenge in their music. Folk music is an idiom that deals with realities and ever there is an urgent need for Americans to look deeply into themselves and their actions and musical poetry is perhaps the most effective mirror available…One good song with a message can bring a point more deeply to more people than a thousand rallies…
Every newspaper headline is a potential song, and it is the role of an effective songwriter to pick out the material that has the interest, significance and sometime humor adaptable to music. A good writer must be able to picture the structure of a song and as hundreds of minute ideas race through his head, he must reflect the superfluous and trite phrases for the cogent, powerful terms. Then after the first draft is completed, the writer must be his severest critic, constantly searching for a better way to express every line of his song.
I think there is a coming revolution (pardon my French) in folk music …The news today is the natural resource that folk music must exploit in order to have the most vigorous folk process possible. (1)

From Greenwich Village coffee houses to the national stage, Ochs sang his protest loudly. While his first two albums set the standard for topical singers henceforth, both All the News That’s Fit to Sing and I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore offer stark moments of beauty. “One More Parade”, “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” and, later, “The War is Over” gave us anthems that would carry the peace movement. “The Power and the Glory” spoke of his pride in our nation’s mission and greatness—even as the FBI began an investigation of him that would span a decade and fill 410 pages. “Cops of the World” spit back into the faces of the reactionary government. Ochs was nobody’s fool.

The music kept coming and Phil Ochs stood as a profound voice for his generation. Over the next few years, we’d hear the haunting “Changes” and on “Crucifixion” he emoted about the loss of John Kennedy, but wasn’t he also singing about the loss of innocence, perhaps conscience itself? When Bob Dylan had moved into other realms, focusing his lyrical content on matters of the personal as opposed to the social, Ochs maintained his stand as a topical artist, even as he dug deep inside. He never failed to strive for a wider sound, however, and in 1967 he relocated to the west coast, seeking change and the potential for a new scope both artistically and as a means toward the healing of his long-term emotional turmoil. Upon arrival, his producer paired him with pianist-arranger Lincoln Mayorga, already a fixture in LA studios as a member of the busy studio aggregation loosely known as the Wrecking Crew. The opportunity to work with Ochs posed an interesting challenge:

Phil wanted some kind of classical styles behind his singing for “I’ve Had Her”, one of the songs on ‘Pleasures of the Harbor’, his first LA album. I suggested that I would incorporate different composers’ styles, changing them up with each verse. You know, Bach behind one, Schumann behind another, and so on. He loved the idea (2)

From this start, Mayorga’s work with Ochs would be continuous. His keyboard playing and rhythm section arrangement helped Ochs to realize his visions, and he began to compose on piano, thereby incorporating more complex harmonies into his music. Mayorga often played a multitude of variations behind the folksinger’s endless streams of verses for each song. But he also contributed ideas beyond the styles of European concert music. On “Miranda”, the sound became that of the 1920s and to solidify this, Mayorga brought in a stream of great Jazz musicians from that era including the legendary reeds player Mattie Matlock and drummer Nick Fatool. Fatool’s syncopated services were retained for the song the album would perhaps become best known for, “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends”, which made wry commentary on the brutal murder of Kitty Genovese, which occurred in front of an apartment complex full of witnesses who refused to come to her rescue. Ochs used this vehicle to illustrate alienation in society and darkly mocked it by singing over ragtime piano, flailing tenor banjo and tap-dancing drum breaks. The song was a smash on college campuses across country, yet true fame eluded Ochs. This coupled with emotional turmoil wore him down over the next few years. As Mayorga explained, “Phil saw himself as the artist trying to destroy himself. He was in a bad place”.

Phil Ochs had been a major part of the protest surrounding the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago, performing his best topical material right in Lincoln Park. Later, he was called in as a witness for the defense on behalf of the Chicago 8, speaking sardonically of how he bought and paid for Pigasus, the pig he and the Yippies were nominating for president. But Ochs told anyone who’d listen that he felt he spiritually died in Chicago, as the police riot inflicted pain upon democracy itself. Working in concert with the Yippies’ vision of protest as a kind of theatre-of-the-absurd, Ochs was sure to help turn the defendants’ very trial into a spectacle.

The following excerpts of the actual trial transcript, wherein Ochs is questioned by defense attorney William Kuntsler need no doctoring for they reflect the spirit of the times—and of the revolutionary acts they were involved in—quite clearly:

MR. KUNSTLER: Now, Mr. Ochs, can you indicate what kind of songs you sing?
THE WITNESS: I write all my own songs and they are just simple melodies with a lot of lyrics. They usually have to do with current events and what is going on in the news. You can call them topical songs, songs about the news, and then developing into more philosophical songs later.
MR. KUNSTLER: Now, Mr. Ochs, have you ever been associated with what is called the Youth International Party, or, as we will say, the Yippies?
THE WITNESS: Yes. I helped design the party, formulate the idea of what Yippie was going to be, in the early part of 1968.
MR. KUNSTLER: Now, were any of the defendants at the table involved in the formation of the Yippies?
THE WITNESS: Yes, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. -------That’s Jerry Rubin with the headband and Abbie Hoffman--- with the smile.
MR. KUNSTLER:. Did there come a time when Jerry and Abbie discussed their plans?
THE WITNESS: Yes, they did, around the middle of January at Jerry's. Present there, besides Abbie and Jerry, I believe, was Paul Krassner and Ed Sanders. Tim Leary was there at one point. They discussed my singing at the Festival of Life. They asked me to contact other performers to come and sing at the Festival. I talked to Paul Simon of Simon and Garfunkel. I believe I talked with Judy Collins.
MR. KUNSTLER: After you arrived in Chicago did you have any discussion with Jerry?
THE WITNESS: Yes, I did. We discussed the nomination of a pig for President. We discussed going out to the countryside around Chicago and buying a pig from a farmer and bringing him into the city for the purposes of his nominating speech. I helped select the pig, and I paid for him.
MR. KUNSTLER: Now, did you find a pig at once when you went out?
THE WITNESS: No, it was very difficult. We stopped at several farms and asked where the pigs were.
MR. KUNSTLER: None of the farmers referred you to the police station, did they?
PROSECUTOR: Objection!
THE COURT: I sustain the objection.
MR. KUNSTLER: Mr. Ochs, can you describe the pig which was finally bought?
PROSECUTOR: Objection.
THE COURTI sustain the objection.
MR. KUNSTLER: Would you state what, if anything, happened to the pig?
THE WITNESS: The pig was arrested with seven people.
MR. KUNSTLER: What were you doing when you were arrested?
THE WITNESS: We were arrested announcing the pig's candidacy for President. Jerry Rubin was reading a prepared speech for the pig---the opening sentence was something like, "I, Pigasus, hereby announce my candidacy for the Presidency of the United States!"
MR. KUNSTLER: What was the pig doing during this announcement?
PROSECUTOR: Objection!
MR. KUNSTLER: Were you informed by an officer that-- the pig had squealed on you?
PROSECUTOR: Objection! I ask it be stricken.!
THE COURT: I sustain the objection. When an objection is made do not answer until the Court has ruled. . .
MR. KUNSTLER: Now, I call your attention to Sunday, August 25, 1968. Did you have any occasion to see Jerry Rubin?
THE WITNESS: We walked through the streets following the crowd.
MR. KUNSTLER: And can you describe what you saw as you followed the crowd?
THE WITNESS: They were just chaotic and sort of unformed, and people just continued away from the park and just seemed to move, I think toward the commercial area where the nightclubs are and then police clubs were there too, and it was just a flurry of movement of people all kinds of ways.
PROSECUTOR: If the Court please, the witness was asked what he observed and that was not responsive to the question. If you would simply tell the witness to listen carefully to the question so he can answer the questions.
THE COURT: I did that this morning. TO OCHS:You are a singer but you are a smart fellow, I am sure.
THE WITNESS: Thank you very much. You are a judge and you are a smart fellow.
MR. KUNSTLER: Did you sing a song that day?
THE WITNESS: Yes, "I Ain't Marching Anymore."
MR. KUNSTLER: I am showing you what has been marked at D-147 for identification and I ask you if you can identify that exhibit.
THE WITNESS: This is the guitar I played "I Ain't Marching Anymore" on.
MR. KUNSTLER: Now, would you stand and sing that song so the jury can hear the song that the audience heard that day?
PROSECUTOR: If the Court please, this is a trial in the Federal District Court. It is not a theater. We don't have to sit and listen to the witness sing a song. Let's get on with the trial. I object.
MR. KUNSTLER: Your Honor, this is definitely an issue in the case. Jerry Rubin has asked for a particular song to be sung. What the witness sang to the audience reflects both on Jerry Rubin's intent and on the mood of the crowd.
THE COURT: I sustain the objection.
MR. KUNSTLER: Your Honor, he is prepared to sing it exactly as he sang it on that day,
THE COURT:I am not prepared to listen, Mr. Kunstler.
MR. KUNSTLER: Where did you see Abbie Hoffman first that night at the Coliseum?
THE WITNESS: When he raced in front of me on the stage when I was introduced to Ed Sanders. He said, "Here's Phil Ochs," and as I walked forward, Abbie Hoffman raced in front of me and took the microphone and proceeded to give a speech. I was upstaged by Abbie Hoffman.
PROSECUTOR: You say it was at the Coliseum, Abbie Hoffman upstaged you, is that right?
THE WITNESS: Yes. I was walking toward the microphone and he raced in front of me.
MR. SCHULTZ: And he led the crowd in a chant of "Fuck LBJ" didn't he?
THE WITNESS: Yes, yes, I think he did.
MR. SCHULTZ: Now in your plans, did you plan for public fornication in the park?
THE WITNESS: I didn't.
MR. SCHULTZ: In your discussions did you plan for public fornication in the park?
THE WITNESS: No, we did not seriously sit down and plan public fornication in the park.
MR. SCHULTZ: That is all, your Honor.
THE COURT: You may step down. Don't forget your guitar.
THE WITNESS: I won't. (3)

Not only the authorities, but Ochs toyed with fans too. He also mocked his own sense of doom when he titled his 1968 album Rehearsals for Retirement. Its cover depicted his own gravestone with the year of death listed as, of course, 1968. Continually plagued by demons, both inner and outer, Ochs struggled with bi-polar disorder, anxiety and alcohol dependence. Often, his performances became strained as lyrics were increasingly forgotten and melodies faded. In his later period, gigs became arguments with the audience. Ochs would see the end of the decade as a metaphor for the demise of the movement.

Ochs had become very pessimistic by 1970. The series of mishaps at his Carnegie Hall concert that year would eventually be released on record as Gunfight at Carnegie Hall due to Ochs’ verbal sparring with the audience as he tried desperately to play popular songs from his past, sporting a gold lame` suit and singing songs by Elvis, Buddy Holly and others. “Phil thought that America had no future—any good would come from its past, so he celebrated this earlier time”, pianist Lincoln Mayorga offered.

He wore the Elvis suit, but it was more inspired by Liberace, who was so flamboyant in Vegas, but so popular. Phil was trying to find the answer. He even endorsed the music of Merle Haggard, the darling of the Right-wing at the time. He realized that Haggard had become a more effective voice for the Right than any so far on the Left, and he wanted to capture that. We played “Okie from Muskogee” and the audience just hated it. (4)

Mayorga’s primary memory of the event was the bomb scare that was called in half-way through the concert. Phil, who’d been drinking wine to wash down uppers all evening, was onstage for an acoustic segment, alternating with the full band’s sets, and a police officer informed Mayorga about the bomb threat. He ordered that Phil close up early and tell the audience to exit. Mayorga went onstage and sat at the piano to get Ochs’ attention:

Phil came over to tune his guitar and I leaned over and whispered in his ear, telling him about the seriousness of the situation. Phil slowly looked up at me, looking deep into my eyes and then put on his shit-eating grin. He slyly asked, ‘Are you prepared to die for rock-n-roll?’. And then he went and sang another song or two before coming off stage

To the point of Ochs’ desperate need to reach back into the past—his own and that of the nation—we find his final album, Phil Ochs Greatest Hits of 1970. Not a ‘Best Of’ collection at all, but ten new songs, many of which indicate the genres of his youth. One can hear strains of Conway Twitty, the Everly Brothers, Hank Williams, even a Chevrolet commercial, all bracketed by the telling “One Way Ticket Home” and the very somber “No More Songs”.

The album cover, of course featured Ochs in his Elvis suit and inside the liner notes jibe ‘50 Phil Ochs fans can’t be wrong’, a self-deprecating take on the claim by Elvis’ record label that ‘50,000,000 Elvis fans can’t be wrong’ in that artist’s press. By contrast, Phil’s record sales were pitiful and his contract was quietly cancelled. Mayorga reports that the last time he saw Ochs was in 1973, when he was called to perform with him at the Troubadour, an unrehearsed gig which was not without problems. “But I never dreamt that it would be the last time I’d see Phil; I thought it would go on forever”, Mayorga recalled soberly.

As the Vietnam war slowly came to a bloody, grinding halt, Ochs staged several ‘The War is Over’ concerts which featured many name performers in both folk and rock music, the largest of which occurred in New York’s Central Park in 1975. He would also travel to Chile and befriend the great songwriter Victor Jara. Shortly thereafter, the CIA-backed coupe would take the lives of Jara and thousands of others; this was a terminal assault to the faltering Ochs. By 1976, unable to prevail in this battle on every front, Phil Ochs would die by his own hand.

The protest song’s grandest voice dared to speak back to the criminal Nixon administration, uncovering and exposing with anger and wry humor. He alerted his audiences to corruption and brutality and especially to the right-wing’s manipulation of ‘the American dream’. Ironically, he also warned us that, “a protest song is something you don’t hear on the radio”. He dared us to care, at the expense of himself. And now, the silence has become deafening.

Noted folksinger Holly Near, who’d worked with Ochs on a number of occasions, recently spoke of her feelings about the star-crossed topical singer:
The world hurt him. Artists who do this work must figure out how to articulate the broken heart of humanity—but do so without hurting themselves, without losing themselves in the process. (5)
(1) Ochs, Phil, “The Need for Topical Music”, Broadside #22, March 1963; source: Cunningham, Sis, Red Dust and Broadsides: A Piece of People’s History in Songs, Poems and Prose, self-published, 1990, page 37
(2) from the author’s interview with Lincoln Mayorga, Chatham New York, 6/19/09
(3) excerpts, court transcript, Chicago, 1968
(4) from the author’s interview with Lincoln Mayorga, Chatham New York, 6/19/09
(5) from the author’s interview with Holly Near, 11/7/09

---John Pietaro is a cultural worker and labor organizer from New York City. This article is an excerpt from his forthcoming book ‘THE CULTURAL WORKERS: RADICAL ARTS AND REVOLUTIONARY ARTISTS IN THE USA, 1900-TODAY’ -


Bess Lomax Hawes, 1921-2009
Obituary by John Pietaro

Portland, Oregan: Bess Lomax Hawes, a member of the esteemed Lomax family of folklorists and part of the seminal urban folk music group ‘the Almanac Singers’ died on November 27. She was 88 years old.

Ms. Lomax Hawes, born in Texas, began her journey into folk song through her father John Lomax’s important work of collecting rural musics throughout the US. The Lomaxes relocated to Washington DC during Bess’ teen years and her father, and soon after her brother Alan, began to work for the Library of Congress, chronicling the music of the nation and offering the young Ms. Lomax a visceral education into the power of culture.

She’d begun playing the guitar at 15 as a means to get through the long hours as she and her parents traveled Europe. Adapting to a wide array of music in various languages, Bess was able to develop both her repertoire of “peoples’ songs” and her guitar technique simultaneously. Within two years, she’d become an in-demand guitar teacher and to meet the needs of the many students seeking tutelage, Lomax created a curriculum for seminar-style lessons to teach large groups. This type of music education would serve her well in later years, particularly after she’d moved to the west coast.

But by 1940, Ms Lomax became further entrenched in folk song when she was recruited by her father and brother to help catalog material for a book entitled Our Singing Country. At this time, Woody Guthrie was brought to DC to record for the Library of Congress and Pete Seeger was now on staff for the season, cementing their relationship. Bess’ brother Alan Lomax was now seen as the major link among this new breed of radical folksingers which grew to include Guthrie, Leadbelly, Aunt Mollie Jackson and others. He and Leftist actor Will Geer organized a New York event to benefit migrant workers, “A Grapes of Wrath Evening” which featured the growing stable of this first generation of folk revivalists; Bess Lomax a stood among those performers.

Soon after, Seeger, Lee Hays and playwright Millard Lampell formed the nexus of the Almanac Singers, the first urban folk ensemble. The group performed traditional music presented with new, revolutionary lyrics, and incorporated into their sets older songs of dissent and their own topical compositions, too.

Based in a communal living space in Greenwich Village, the Almanac Singers performed throughout 1940 and ’41 for Communist Party functions, May Day parades and radical cabarets. To the Almanacs’ surprise, the group was courted by the William Morris Agency, Decca Records and even the Rainbow Room as they toured the sites of countless CIO organizing campaigns.

By 1941, the group had expanded to include Bess Lomax, who’d graduated from Bryn Mawr College and moved into the group’s townhouse, often supplying the only regular income to their communal fund. But Bess was also seen as an important musical force, offering strong guitar playing, harmony vocals and an innate understanding of the folk process. Another new member, the illustrator Butch Hawes, would become Bess’ husband soon after; their union would produce three children over the years. Photos in this period depict a youthful but intense coalition of performers brandishing guitars and banjos as weapons of this cultural front, with Lomax Hawes looking younger, perhaps more vital, than the rest. Bess, with the Almanacs, recorded several historically powerful albums for the independent Keynote label including 1941’s ‘Talking Union’ , which produced the legendary versions of “Union Maid” and “Which Side Are You On?”, and the post-Pearl Harbor ‘Dear Mr. President’ which featured the powerful anti-fascist theme “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave”. She was also present for the sessions which produced the ‘Citizen CIO’ wartime collection, select Guthrie recordings and an important set of Spanish Civil War songs, among others.

Regardless of their strong anti-fascist output, the Almanac Singers were cited in the fury of reactionary suspicion and were branded as “Moscow agents” due to their earlier anti-war music of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. All offers for national radio broadcasts and record contracts were now off the table. Blacklisted, their engagements became scarce and the group fell apart. Worse, Bess lost her government job and in the post-war years would experience harassment by the FBI and various Rightist organizations. By 1950, Bess and songwriter Jackie Steiner would compose “The MTA Song” for a Boston mayoral candidate running on the Progressive Party line and this reflected Lomax Hawes’ continued radical leanings. Ironically, it became a major hit for the Kingston Trio in ’59; this group served as the portal for many of the next generation to discover the kind of folk singing the Almanacs had brought to wider attention, though the latter ensemble rarely if ever featured the protest core which was a staple of the Almanac Singers.

Later, Bess would move to the west coast where she’d teach American folklore in colleges before serving, for many years, as director of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Folk Arts Program. In 1993, a year after here retirement, Lomax Hawes was granted the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton for her work on behalf of American culture. In her latter years, Lomax Hawes continued speaking about folklore, ethnomusicology and the power of folk music as a force for social change. She is survived by her three children and six grandchildren.

CD Review: 'WE CAME TO SING!', Holly Near/emma's revolution - December 1, 2009

CD review by John Pietaro:

We Came to Sing! Holly Near with emma’s revolution, Calico Tracks Music, 2009,
Perhaps the term “contemporary folk” is an oxymoron; what do I know? But the apparent conflict in such a description speaks volumes about We Came To Sing!, an album that pairs an acoustic stalwart whose been at the top of her game since the early ‘70s with a duet that stands on the cutting edge of protest song today. Here’s an ensemble of equal parts ideology and raw musicality.

Over the years, singer, actress and activist Holly Near has been a stirring voice for peace, women’s rights and the LGBT community, first leaping into the movement as the Vietnam War raged and its fallout permeated all walks of life. With news of the Kent State massacre arriving at the Broadway theatre where Near was then performing in the musical ‘Hair’, she and the rest of the cast took part in a job action wherein the show was stopped just before the finale in order to speak directly to the audience about the awful injustice in Ohio—and that going on a world away. This led her to embark on the ‘Free the Army Tour’ organized by Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, performing songs of peace outside of military bases. The media all but ignored this tour in order to effectively disappear it, this as reactionary television broadcasts nightly paraded footage of anti-war protests, fomenting fear of radicals and maligning activists at every turn. No matter, Near also performed in Vietnam at the behest of the Hanoi Musicians Union and sang with the cultural workers of a people known in this nation as “the enemy” at best; damn the evening news. Since that time, Holly Near has made a habit of singing the songs that would lift us to action and social awareness. “These songs get through borders”, Near reiterated recently.

Holly Near’s latest release is one recorded in partnership with Pat Humphries and Sandy O, better known to progressives as emma’s revolution. In recent years the duet, so named in accordance with the famed Emma Goldman quote (“If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution”), has graced many a demonstration and performed for an endless stream of progressive events, touring the nation with their songs of justice. The combination could not be better suited.

We Came To Sing! offers the listener an amazing tapestry of sound, at once beautiful and agitating. One can hear strains of classic Folk Revival here, but then there’s also the obvious influence of Sweet Honey in the Rock on “Study War No More”, strains of pop, R&B, perhaps calypso; there’s singing inspired by both Odetta and Anne Murray, and there’s trad country which could have climbed out of the soundtrack of ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou’. More so, out of the legacy of Sis Cunningham, Aunt Mollie Jackson and Mother Maybelle Carter.

“Listen to the Voices” opens up the disc with only the first glimpse of acapella we’ll get here, but surely not the final example of it. Moving easily from tonal droning to melisma, the trio fills the soundspace with strength as they sing of the First Nation and its legacy. This is followed by the old-time standard “Sail Away Ladies” in which the vocalists present mountain music for contemporary ears, and then move on to a song by Native American poet Jimmy Durham and Puerto Rican composer Roy Brown, “Sky Dances”, which allows the vocalists to cascade and merge in glorious harmonies. This is not just didactic verse recited for our moral betterment; the listener is treated to a tight harmonious presentation throughout, that which envelopes the radical cultural work herein.

Another selection, “Ministry of Oil”, stands as a greatly relevant topical song of this time. Written by Rick Burkhardt (of the duet the Prince Myshkins), it speaks of the invasion of Iraq with a stark reality, blatant and pointed, regardless of which administration leads the charge. The group performs it with a sense of ownership:

“The medicine has all been confiscated and soon there won’t be water left to boil,
and one might wonder who’d think up names like ‘food for oil’
when what they mean is ‘ministry of oil’”

Many of the works represented were composed by the performers, as with Pat Humphries’ lilting “Swimming to the Other Side”(where the influence of Bev Grant appears evident) and Near’s own “1000 Grandmothers” which is performed here almost like a madrigal, with inner rhythms and lines moving through the gorgeous ‘early music’ harmonies. The song’s lyric is very strong, a portrait of the wisdom and struggle of women in society. But then we’d expect nothing less from such a gathering of voices.

In the midst of economic disaster, these ladies share their sonic offerings as just so much social change. And damn don’t we need it just about now.



By John Pietaro

Let there be a “free speech fight” on in some town, and the “wobblies” converge upon it, across a thousand miles, and fill the jails with champions.
And singing. Remember, this is the only American working class movement which sings. Tremble then at the IWW, for a singing movement is not to be beaten... They love and revere their singers, too, in the IWW. All over the country workers are singing Joe Hill’s songs, “The Rebel Girl”, “Don’t Take May Papa Away From Me”, “Workers of the World, Awaken”. Thousands can repeat his “Last Will”, the three simple verses written in his cell the night before execution. I have met working men carrying next their hearts, in the pockets of their working clothes, little boxes with some of Joe Hill’s ashes in them. Over Bill Haywood’s desk in national headquarters is a painted portrait of Joe Hill, very moving, done with love…I know no other group of Americans which so honors its singers… (1)
-John Reed, ‘The Liberator’ magazine, 1918

Joel Emmanuel Haaglund (1878-1915) was—and remains--the guiding force of the Industrial Workers of the World and stands as a vision of revolutionary arts for all of the labor movement. His execution at the hands of a corrupt reactionary force is recalled each November 19 and Hill’s legacy is preserved with each strike, each job action and every time radical labor sings out against injustice as a unified choir.
A model for the fighting cultural worker, Joe Hill wrote globally relevant, militant topical songs and biting parodies in support of the union cause and in the process, spawned a legend. Among his most lasting pieces are “The Preacher and the Slave”, “Casey Jones, the Union Scab”, “There is Power in the Union”, “Mr. Block” and “Where the Fraser River Flows”, in addition to those cited by Reed in the above article, amidst an stream of others. He performed on piano, guitar and various other instruments, composing songs in bars and IWW halls at night, so that he would have them ready for union meetings, pickets and other functions the next day, spreading the word of this international industrial union through music. Hill came to the US from Sweden as a young man and saw firsthand the terrible conditions workers had to endure in the first part of the twentieth century; shortly thereafter he pledged allegiance to the cause of the IWW. He became a mythic character in all Left factions when he was silenced by the state of Utah via his unjust execution. Famously, his last written statement was “Don’t mourn for me---organize”. Hill, for all the mythology that surrounds him, has been the subject of numerous biographical sketches; his life and the frame-up which ended it have been principal to the labor historians’ repertoire.
IWW members Dean Nolen and Fred Thompson’s detailed booklet on the Wobbly bard offers considerable insight, even if some of it remains shrouded in the Joe Hill legend. While they cite that Hill’s first years in the United States were often a rather desperate attempt to find employment (he became something of a “wharf rat”), their first accounts of his cultural work date back to 1906. Hill was then living in San Francisco and chronicled the great earthquake for his hometown paper. Living in New York later, he worked as a porter by day and played piano in downtown saloons by night. But much more to the point,
The earliest parody written by Hill that we know of went to the hymn “In the Sweet Bye and Bye”, a Salvation Army favorite. It was already in circulation before it appeared in the 1911 edition of the IWW songbook (2)
The IWW’s official historical document, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology describes Hill’s cultural work thusly:
Hill’s songs and writings articulated the simple Marxism of the IWW Preamble and the Wobbly philosophy of “direct action…Wobblies, socialists, communists, AFL-CIO members transcend sectarian differences to sing Joe Hill’s songs and share his lore.” (3)
John Greenway’s groundbreaking study American Folksongs of Protest tells of Hill’s first possible encounter with the Wobblies as well as his presentation of “The Preacher and the Slave” to the IWW:
One evening late in 1910 Joe Hill walked into the Portland, Oregon IWW hall with a song he had written to the tune of the popular Salvation Army gospel hymn, “In the Sweet Bye and Bye”. He gave it to the secretary of the local, George Reese, who handed it to Mac McClintock, the local’s “busker” or tramp entertainer. Mac sang it to the men idling in the hall and the tremendous applause that greeted its rendition convinced Reese that they had something. He and McClintock revised the song, and printed it in their little song leaflet which two years later was adopted by the IWW as the official songbook of the union. Hill was invited to join the Wobblies, and so began his fabulous career. (4)
Greenway rather notoriously derided Hill in this 1953 book, which—in the midst of the McCarthyism surrounding radical movements of the time-- offered a rather dogged criticism of some of the edges of Left music history. He describes Joe Hill as one “who was responsible for his own beatification” and with “an almost unparalleled flair for self-dramatization” (Greenway page 189). However, within the negativism of Greenway’s curmudgeonly viewpoint, he offers examples of other perspectives, namely that of Ralph Chaplin, perhaps the Wob’s second most important cultural worker. Greenway quotes from Chaplin’s 1938 autobiography, Wobbly, in which he describes an encounter with Hill’s cousin in a Cleveland, Ohio. Chaplin wrote that it was past midnight when
…an IWW lake seaman tapped me on the shoulder as I was leaving and he asked me if I wanted to get the full story of Joe Hill’s life. “Joe’s cousin is here”, he said. “His name is John Holland. Buy him a drink and he’ll tell all”…John Holland turned out to be deeply-bronzed and somewhat inebriated deep-sea sailor whose blue eyes and blond hair contrasted strikingly with his complexion. He had a true mariner’s taciturnity, plus a classic Swedish accent. Word by word and drink by drink, I got the story out of him and wrote it down in my notebook… (5)
Chaplin, via John Holland’s account, explained that Hill came to this country from Sweden in 1902, when he was twenty years old. He’d left Sweden after the death of his mother and, landing in New York City, found work as a porter in a Bowery saloon among other odd jobs. Hill and his cousin made their way to the West Coast, with a stop along the way in Chicago. Residing, finally, in San Pedro California, Joe Hill worked as a longshoreman as well as on steam freighters and it was at this time that he was said to have first joined the IWW. Chaplin, of course, also wrote about Hill the musician:
He could play almost any kind of musical instrument and delighted in improvising satirical parodies of well-known songs. At the Mission Church, 331 Beacon St, San Pedro, he struck up a friendship with Mr. Macon, the director. There was a piano in the mission, where Joe Hill, between jobs, would sit by the hour picking out the words for his parodies line by line, to the amusement of his fellow maritime workers. He would polish up the verses at night and eventually assemble them into songs. (6)
Chaplin’s source clarified that Hill was unlike most of his co-workers in that he spent little time carousing in bars or dating women. Holland would come home at night after socializing and Hill would be, scribbling verse, “twisting the hair on his forehead with his finger as he figured out the rhymes”, Holland told Chaplin. And in 1910, during the Southern Pacific Railroad strike, Hill was inspired to write his “Casey Jones the Union Scab”, which first brought him into prominence as a radical songwriter. Chaplin added that Hill was always surprised that his songs would in any way have become popular with the workers. (7).
Joe Hill was a self-taught, fairly rudimentary musician and considering the circumstances in which he learned to play music, as well as the limited time he had to compose it, his output was surprisingly thorough. Joe Hill did not begin writing this music till approximately 1910; he was arrested in 1913, hence he experienced some three years as an active Wobbly songwriter. For a rustic musician, who labored at physical jobs and then served in the all-consuming role as union organizer, there couldn’t be any time to study music theory and harmony, or to ponder over melodic motifs and hooks. His music was born of the moment in which he lived—and he fought.
Celebrated labor movement figure Philip Foner, who authored a multi-volume set on United States labor history amidst a catalog of other such texts, first published a work on Hill in the 1960s. In The Case of Joe Hill, Foner clarified Hill’s music education as it were. He quoted an excerpt from a letter that Hill wrote to Katie Phar, a ten year-old girl who’d written him during his 1915 incarceration, telling the Wobbly songwriter that she sang his songs and was now studying music formerly. Hill responded with encouragement for the child’s interest and told her
…I wish I had a chance to take music lessons when I was a kid, but I was not fortunate enough for that because I had to go to work at the age of 10, when my father died, and I had no money to spare for music lessons, but by trying hard I picked up what little I know about music without lessons. You see I’ve got music in my blood and it just comes natural to me to play any kind of instrument. (8)
Hill also spoke of his own lack of musical training in a 1914 interview. Foner quotes him as stating that:
There are some defects in the harmony of my compositions, but that is because of my lack of technical training. I am a man of little education and my modest accomplishments are due to a natural taste and some native talent in that direction. I have written lots of verse and songs and composed the music for some of them. Most of the poems are of a revolutionary character and have been adopted by the revolutionary forces, such as the IWW and the Socialist organizations. (9)
And Foner, too, wrote of Hill within the realm of the IWW songbook, clarifying that the song book was an outgrowth of the Wobblies’ leaflets brandishing radical cartoon, poems and slogans produced by the IWW’s Propaganda Leagues and Industrial Education Clubs. The song books, in the form we know of today, were first mass-produced in 1912 and Hill was well represented therein. Foner quotes Hill’s endorsement of the song collections:
…if a person can put a few cold, common-sense facts into a song and dress them up in a cloak of humor to take the dryness out of them, he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read a pamphlet or an editorial on economic science. (10)
As has been widely told, Joe Hill was accused of murder and armed robbery in a Salt Lake City case which remains fogged by inaccuracies, coercion, a corrupt police department and a manipulative single-minded press reporting on this trial held in a kangaroo court. Hill was convicted after a lengthy trial (during which he was confined) and sentenced to death by firing squad. During Hill’s murder trial, the self-righteous prosecutor was sure to cite his songs’ inclusion in the IWW Song Book as seeming evidence of his guilt, if only by association with the then-feared organization. In an article in the Salt Lake Tribune, a reporter described Hill’s character via his music, stating that his “songs and verses have been adopted by the national organization and are used as revolutionary songs”. (11)
And then, in another edition of the same paper, continued in this vein:
The song book of the IWW, under the captions ‘Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent’, contains a total of thirteen songs by Hillstrom. All are parodies of either popular or sacred music and all are of an inflammatory nature. (12)
Hill’s legend loomed large over this brief period of time. According to Foner, he became immediately successful with the publication of “Casey Jones, the Union Scab” and by the book’s 1913 edition Hill was not only its leading contributor but remained at the top of the group of Wobbly musicians. His songs were so widespread that they were cited in court during an earlier trial, that of the Wheatland hop workers. In this case, the strikers were loudly singing Hill’s “Mr. Block”--a song about predatory employment agents and a trusting, passive worker—on the picket, and were violently attacked by a sheriff’s posse. The workers of course were on the defensive in both the assault and then during the trial, charged with rioting. The district attorney trying the case stated that Joe Hill’s song, “itself was a disgrace to organized labor and a slam at the name of Samuel Gompers” (13). This in a time in which the American Federation of Labor was still seen as a rogue organization by business interests and reactionaries, and twenty years before federal protections for union organizers would become legislation, yet the powers that be heartily embraced the FAL union in contrast to the revolutionary Wobblies. Foner also reminds us that the press was wont to describe Hill’s songs as “sacrilegious” and “inflammatory”, on a regular basis, and often used these descriptions during the time of his murder trial as a means to accuse him of murder. That is the extent of the impact of material penned by Joe Hill.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, famed radical, union organizer, Wobbly and (by 1919) a founder of the Communist Party, was a serious proponent of Hill’s works; he wrote “Rebel Girl” in her honor, but actually dedicated it to the cause of all women workers. Foner quotes Flynn’s 1915 statement about Hill, one written with eloquence and appreciation shortly before Hill’s execution:
Joe Hill writes songs that sing, that lilt and laugh and sparkle, that kindle the fires of revolt in the most crushed spirit and quicken the desire for fuller life in the most humble slave. He has put into words the inarticulate craving of ‘the sailor, and the tailor and the lumberjack’ for freedom, nor does he forget ‘the pretty girls that’s making curls’. He has expressed the manifold phrases of our propaganda from the gay of Mr. Block and Casey Jones to the grave of “Should a gun I ever shoulder, ‘tis to crush the tyrant’s might’. He has crystallized the organization’s spirit into imperishable forms, songs of the people—folk songs. (14)
Eugene V. Debs, the nation’s most celebrated Socialist and radical of the 1910s, offered the highest praise to Hill during the time of the Wobbly’s imprisonment. He wrote in an article in the American Socialist:
Joe Hill is of a poetic temperament and is the author of songs of labor of genuine merit; he is of a tender, sympathetic and generous nature and utterly incapable of committing the crime charged against him (15)
Hill’s last written statements, composed of course in his final hours awaiting his execution, are perhaps his best loved. As he was interviewed by a reporter on November 18, 1915 he was asked about his possessions. Hill replied that he needed to write a will, that which has become seen for the poetry inherent in it, “Joe Hill’s Last Will”. He sent it out to his defense committee with a note that read, “Tell the fellow workers for me to waste no time in mourning, but to organize our class and march to victory” (16). He also wrote to Big Bill Haywood, where he included the classic line: “Goodbye Bill. Will die like a blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize”. His gallows humor also shown through the moment when he asked Haywood to have his body transferred as, “I don’t want to be found dead in Utah”.
Most touching is Hill’s communiqué with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, where he wrote, “Composed a new song last week, with music, dedicated to the Dove of Peace. It’s coming. And now, Goodbye, Gurley dear. I have lived like a rebel and I shall die like a rebel”(17)
Ever the radical, Hill actually spoke directly to the firing squad just seconds before his execution. Standing blind-folded, apparently filled with the burning anxiety one would associate with such a moment and in preparation for the hail of bullets about to be released, Hill angrily shouted out at the marksmen, “Yes, aim! Let her go! Fire!”. One wonders what went through the minds of the militia as they fired through this bold exclamation.
Hill’s sad and unjust execution was condemned widely. Upon learning of his death, Emma Goldman, the anarchist leader in New York, contemptuously wrote: “the state of Utah has polluted itself with the blood of Joe Hill” (18)
As per Hill’s last request, his remains were brought to Chicago for the funeral and later cremated. His ashes were separated into small containers and dispersed to every state in the nation---all except Utah, of course. Local press incredulously wrote of the funeral service, with one newspaper reporter commenting on how his “death was celebrated with songs of revolt”, while another added:
The funeral was unlike anything held in Chicago before. The red flag floated unmolested at every turn. …There were no prayers and no hymns, but there was a mighty chorus of voices joining in on songs written by Hillstrom. (19)
Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology offers historic information from the pages of the program for Joe Hill’s funeral of November 25, 1915, West Side Auditorium, Chicago:
An unspecified vocal quartet opened the proceedings with “Workers of the World, Awaken”, and this was followed by “Rebel Girl” performed by Jennie Wosczynska. And then “Fellow Workers” performed three numbers, “There is Power”, “Stung Right” (Hill’s anti-war song) and “The Preacher and the Slave”. An unspecified song was next sung by John Chellman and then this was followed by the funeral oration (by Judge O.N. Hilton of Denver). An unspecified song in Swedish followed (uncredited singer) and then there were two spoken addresses—one by James Larkin (of Dublin, Ireland), the other by Bill Haywood. The memorial service was closed off by Wobbly musician Rudolf von Liebich performing Chopin’s Funeral March on piano.
The proceedings next moved to Graceland Cemetery, where addresses were heard by none speakers in as many languages, clarifying the global mission of the IWW and Hill. Unspecified songs by Hill were then performed by uncredited vocalists and then this was followed by instrumental music supplied by the Russian Mandolin Club and the Rockford IWW Band. (20)
Ralph Chaplin later described the memorial and funeral march, as well as the strength found in Hill’s music for the occasion:
The funeral exercises were opened up with the singing of Joe Hill’s wonderful song “Workers of the World Awaken—members of the IWW leading and the audience swelling out the chorus. This was followed by Jennie Wosczynska’s singing of “the Rebel Girl” written and composed by Joe Hill, after which came two beautiful tenor solos, one in Swedish by John Chellem, and one in Italian by Ivan Rodems…The funeral procession took complete possession of the streets…thousands marched. Songs were sung all along the way, chiefly Joe Hill’s, although some were of the foreign-speaking workers sang revolutionary songs in their native tongues. As soon as a song would die down in one place, the same song or another would be taken up by other voices along the line. Upon reaching the cemetery…a constant stream of people poured into and out of the semi-obscurity of the tiny room, while the great crowd gathered close around outside joined in one swelling, mighty chorus of song. Each one of Joe’s songs was sung over and over again…Three ringing cheers were then given for the Social Revolution and the IWW and then more songs.. The singing and cheering was something the old cemetery had never witnessed before… (21)
The funeral of Joe Hill, beyond an emotional memorial for a fallen comrade, was all the more a symbol of international solidarity. While the many were touched by the presence of Joe Hill the man, the vast majority was moved toward action—and continue to be moved in this manner-- by Joe Hill the legend. And this is why the labor bard’s ashes could be scattered about the country in 1915 yet he remains with us as a concrete, material reality.
1. Reed, John, “The IWW In Court”, The Education of John Reed. NY: International Publishers, 1955, pp 179-181. Originally entitled “The Social Revolution in Court”, The Liberator, September 1918
2. Nolan, Dean and Fred Thompson, Joe Hill: IWW Songwriter. Chicago General membership Branch, IWW, 1979, pp 4-5
3. Kornbluh, Joyce L., editor, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. NY: Charles H. Kerr, 1998, page 131-132
4. Greenway, John, American Folksongs of Protest. NY: AS Barnes, 1953, page 185
5. Chaplin, Ralph, Wobbly, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938; source: Greenway, John, American Folksongs of Protest. NY: AS Barnes, 1953, page 190
6. Greenway,page 190
7. Greenway page 191
8. John Takeman, “Joe Hill’s Sister: An Interview”, Masses and Mainstream; Joe Hill to Katie Phar, 1915, Wallace Stegner Collection, Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace Library, Stanford University; source: Foner, Philip S., The Case of Joe Hill, NY: International Publishers, 1965, page 9
9. Hill interview by unnamed journalist, Salt Lake Tribune, June 27, 1914; source: Foner, pp115-116
10. Hill, Joe, Solidarity, December 23, 1911; source: Foner, Philip S., The Case of Joe Hill, NY: International Publishers, 1965, page 11
11. Salt Lake Tribune, June 21, 1914; source: Foner page 48
12. Salt Lake Tribune, June 28 1914; source: Foner page 48
13. Foner, page 13
14. Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley, Solidarity, May 22, 1915: source, Foner page 15
15. Debs, Eugene, The American Socialist, August 28, 1915; source: Foner, page 117
16. note to Phil Engle, a member of Hill’s defense delegation, published in the Industrial Worker, January 20, 1917; source: Foner, page 96
17. Foner, Philip S, editor, The Letters of Joe Hill, New York, 1965, page 42; source: Foner, page 96
18. Goldman, Emma, in a letter to Agnes Ingles, November 23, 1915; source: Foner: page 126
19. Desert Evening News, November 26, 1915; source: Foner, page98
20. Kornbluh, Joyce L., editor, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. NY: Charles H. Kerr, 1998, page 152-153
21. Chaplin, Ralph, International Socialist Review, December 1915; source: Kornbluh, Joyce L., editor, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. NY: Charles H. Kerr, 1998, pp 153-154


John Lennon: Popular Icon and Revolutionary - October 6, 2009

By John Pietaro

On the 9th of this month, the late John Lennon would have celebrated his sixty-ninth birthday. A deranged assassin’s bullet in 1980, of course, forever sealed him into a certain age, place and time. The John Lennon of 1980 was a husband and a father and a quite touchable New Yorker who’d just released his first record album in several years. Those who knew him said he was staring down a long, positive road ahead, planning a world tour with Yoko and watching his latest single race up the charts. But none of us who lived through December that year shall forget where we were when we learned of his passing. The loss was not only of a popular icon or a rock star, but also of a man who’d struggled against injustice, war and Nixon and lived to tell the tale. The imprint of John Lennon the revolutionary is also sealed forever in our minds and our hearts.


In 1969, as the Beatles were in the process of going through a slow, painful disintegration, John Lennon began to loudly voice his protest against the Vietnam War and speak out in support of social change, even as he experienced the full wrath of the Nixon Administration’s ire. Lennon’s songs such as “Power to the People”, “Give Peace a Chance”, “Working Class Hero”, “Woman is the Nigger of the World” and especially “Imagine” opened up, for mainstream audiences, new realms of progressive ideals and angry dissidence. Though a ‘legitimate’ rock star, Lennon by the early 1970s could be found performing at large peace rallies and also the benefit concert for anti-war activist John Sinclair’s defense, following the latter’s framed arrest for drug possession.

Working closely with the Left-wing radical artist Yoko Ono, his life mate, Lennon replaced his mop-top image with that of a bearded, long-haired, counter-cultural force to be reckoned with. Lennon’s voice in support of Sinclair, Angela Davis and the Attica Prison rioters, as well as time spent in the company of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and other members of the Yippies, was of great importance to the movement, adding a credence that lesser-known artists could not have.

Lennon’s endlessly long FBI file clarifies the US government’s belief that he was a political revolutionary, and his eventual ability to secure citizenship and rebuff the forces of reaction which tried desperately to deport him were a testament to the power of the youth culture and the New Left. His crowning achievement of protest art is the album Sometime in New York City, which includes songs about the Attica uprising, the Yippie movement, the case against Angela Davis, the trial of John Sinclair, the struggle for women’s equality, the Black Panthers’ fight for survival, the imperialistic violence in Northern Ireland and other issues of great importance to the political Left-- Old and New.

The rock star’s battles with the Nixon Administration and the agents of J. Edgar Hoover were well-documented in the 2006 documentary ‘The US vs John Lennon’. The film depicts the machinations of Nixon’s increasing paranoia as well as the continued hysteria of the Cold War, a virtual minefield of Rightist reaction for Lennon as he sought citizenship. The underground, arch-Right working with elected officials was a constant threat to any progressive, let alone one of such high notoriety (we’d seen the same happen some twenty years earlier as the neo-fascists closed in on movie actors, writers and directors). Hoover remained closeted, as the case may be, but all-powerful. COINTELPRO was operating at full force and Washington was run by this secret government not seen before in the annals of American history—at least not until Cheney went into hiding in his bunker.

Lennon’s songs heard in the film, and also seen in historic performance footage, stand out as deeply relevant to the people’s fight-back.
“Power to the People”, a song from his Plastic Ono Band period, stands out as anthemic. With this piece, Lennon was responding to his own trepidation of just three years before; his Beatles release “Revolution” refused to actually commit to the action of its own title. By 1971, he was more than ready. And while “Power” was a great rallying cry, it went even deeper. This song also addressed the sexism that is often evident in the movement, so it offered empowerment—and exposition--beyond the obvious. Once this song actually went to the pressing plant, there was no turning back for Lennon.

While ‘The US vs John Lennon’ soundtrack includes the usual suspects, so to speak, special attention has been placed on rarely heard numbers. And herein lies the treasure. “Gimme Some Truth”, a Plastic Ono Band number from ’71 is a classically angry protest song though it is slow and deliberate in nature and artfully arranged (including George Harrison’s soaring slide guitar). Surely this selection could be about rebellion from anyone’s perspective, especially that of a teenager. In this sense it’s timeless, yet it’s also very much a timely song, what with the politics Lennon encountered.
“Attica State” is a recording made as Lennon and Yoko Ono performed at the Michigan rally in support of Sinclair. Supported by acoustic guitars and, apparently, a thumping foot, Lennon and Ono sound about as raw as can be expected.

Unwelcoming feedback from the sound system creeps up more than once, but this just adds to the immediacy. Lennon is even heard commenting on the stripped-down nature of the performance: “I haven’t done this in years”. Another song from the same concert, “John Sinclair”, offers some specifics on the case of the peace activist. But most important is Lennon’s opening statement to the crowd: “We came here not only to help John, but also to say to all of you that apathy isn’t it. We can do something. Okay, so Flower Power didn’t work—so what? We start again”. With this, Lennon gave acknowledgement to the gorilla in the parlor—the reality that the youth movement did not immediately change the nation’s direction—but in identifying it, he also insisted on the need to maintain the fight. This is the difference between a musician of social commentary and one of social protest.

Also present on the CD is “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama, I Don’t Wanna Die” from 1971. Credited to “John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band with the Flux Fiddlers”, here one can appreciate Ono’s effect on Lennon: repetitive motives with an almost droning harmonic structure, improvisations atop that structure, with extra musicians added for an orchestral feel, and emotive vocals all point to Yoko’s own experiments in the Fluxus art movement.

1969’s “Bed Peace” is a brief slice of Lennon and Ono’s campaign of ‘bed-ins for peace’. Most profoundly is the song “Give Peace a Chance”, a work which has since become immortalized due to its use at major anti-war rallies during the Vietnam era and today. As Nixon and Hoover both knew, a globally popular rock star with political awareness is perhaps the most dangerous weapon against the confining, repressive grip of the status quo.


CD Review: MY OLD DUSTY ROAD, Woody Guthrie - October 2, 2009

Music Review by John Pietaro:

MY DUSTY ROAD, WOODY GUTHRIE, Rounder Records 2009

The elusive spirit of Woody Guthrie, mired by the echo of decades-old record pressings and multi-generational copies of scratchy discs, has finally emerged--and just in time to offer a soundtrack to today’s activism. With the discovery of original 78 RPM metal masters of the legendary folksinger’s mid-1940s recordings, contemporary listeners can finally hear exactly what Guthrie sounded like in his prime. Untouched over the decades, thought lost but discovered in a Brooklyn basement, these tracks take us to the period of Woody’s life when he was playing a Gibson decorated with “This Machine Kills Fascists” splashed across its soundboard.

With the break-up of seminal urban folk group the Almanac Singers, and with World War 2 raging in Europe, Woody answered the call and joined the United States Merchant Marines. While the labor movement and most of the American political Left pledged to make the anti-fascist fight paramount, Woody remained a zealous activist for workers’ rights (evidenced here by the presence of many union songs). But like progressive activists all around him, he recognized that the big fight was one in response to the ultimate repression, fascism. In between Merchant Marine trips, whenever Woody returned home he would head for Moses Asch’s Folkways studio. Asch generally gave him free rein and Woody responded by laying down a wide array of tracks, often with Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry in tow. As Asch later wrote, it was as if Woody was trying to record everything, uncertain as to the outcome of his next naval sojourn. While he came back from his trips at sea relatively unscathed, we are a much better people for all of his prolific anxiety.

The four compact discs that comprise My Dusty Road are not only of alarmingly good sound quality—there’s nothing like hearing Woody take a breath in between verses!—but its also a definitive “greatest hits” collection. If you have been waiting to buy a Guthrie Best Of, wait no further; this set includes most all of his major compositions and covers. However, this collection reveals even more than great music: here you’ll find a 68-page color book including detailed liner notes, some of Woody’s lyric sheets and artwork, and rare or never before seen photographs.

The actual box of this boxed set is designed to look like the beat-up suitcase of a beat-down traveler, a migrant worker who’d been through it all but looked toward better days to come. Guthrie was among the thousands who made their way to California from the depressed Dustbowl of the Southwest. While he never worked in a fruit orchard as did most of his newly transferred cohorts, Guthrie’s music became one of the sparks of life for the huddling masses from Oklahoma and Texas, after they’d lost all and arrived in the seeming promised land of Los Angeles. There was no welcoming committee, save for Woody’s songs being broadcast over the local radio airwaves. As many later said, he gave their ragged existence a sense of being. He wrote topical songs which told of the hardships of “the Okies”, the cruel opportunism of the orchard owners and employment agents, and the brutality many migrants experienced at the hands of the police, “railroad bulls” and goon squads. These were hard, hard times.

Guthrie carried the lessons learned in Los Angeles to all points he’d travel to over the next decade or so. Whenever he’d lose a job due to broadcasters’ or club owners’ reactionary responses to his songs of pride and protest, Woody would simply seek out another; Guthrie refused to compromise his social justice morays. His personal contradictions--leaving behind one family in the thicket of dust and poverty and ultimately building a new one he could ill care for--remain a part of his legend. But Guthrie, who’d been preaching radical politics for years before becoming a member of a cultural branch of the Communist Party USA in New York City, seemed to move through his own contradictions as he did the challenge of working toward industrial unionism, civil rights and social change in the face of rabid reactionaries.

The music speaks for itself: “This Land is Your land”, “Philadelphia :Lawyer”, “The Sinking of the Reuben James”, “Pretty Boy Floyd”, “Hard Travelin’, “Jesus Christ”, “A Picture From Life’s Other Side”, “Hard Ain’t It Hard” are just a few of the familiar titles. But then there’s the stirring anti-lynching piece “Hangknot”, the powerful “Union Burial Ground” and a wealth of rare material such as “Harriet Tubman’s Blues”--and six previously unreleased songs including “Tear the Fascists Down”. In evidence in ‘My Old Dusty Road’ is Woody’s time spent riding rails as well as the cargo ships of his war-time service. You can feel the sweat, the struggle, the urgency. And if you listen especially closely, you can almost see him singing from the podiums of William Z Foster and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Here is the sound of a musical revolutionary, in living color.

For more information go to

Paul Robeson Tribute Concert review - September 5, 2009

Performance review by John Pietaro:

An Evening with Friends: A Celebration of the Legacy of Paul Robeson--A concert featuring: David Amram, Roy Haynes, Randy Weston, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Kenneth Anderson, Ty Jones, the Ray Blue Ensemble, and special guests.
September 4th 2009, Paramount Center for the Arts, Peekskill NY
The avenues of downtown Peekskill rang out with the spirit of Paul Robeson, sixty years to the day of the infamous concert which devolved into an all-out assault on performer and audience alike. The specter of Peekskill-1949 hung over the city’s historic Paramount Theatre throughout the proceedings, but couldn’t thwart the powerful feelings of celebration within. While many unionists, activists and at least a few Communists were in the nearly filled house, none felt the need to form a protective line around the stage area--as their counterparts did sixty years ago.

An Evening with Friends was not just a concert featuring gifted artists, nor simply a remembrance of the tenacity of the Left during a dark time, but a salute to one of the greatest Americans. The event’s organizers, Arne Paglia and David Rocco, said that they wanted to focus not on the neo-fascist assault of ‘49, but on the feelings of unity and solidarity which created the movement itself. Talking to the performers backstage, this message was clear. Here was a swath of faces and colors, accents and auras ranging in age from octogenarian to teen.
"I am very excited to be a part of this important occasion", said Kenneth Anderson, the 80-something bass-baritone whose voice bears an uncanny resemblance to Robeson's. "Paul was a giant. He was a renaissance man. An artist, a statesman. He spoke truth to power. He was unafraid".

When asked about Robeson's greater cause of social change he immediately spoke of the People's World newspaper. "I am SO very glad that you are covering the concert for such a great paper. I am so happy that the People's World is here”. Mr. Anderson has been performing his own tribute to Paul Robeson for years, often in the company of Pete Seeger (Anderson’s work has been captured on YouTube , with nearly 4000 viewings). He added that Paul Robeson’s is the music of human rights and progressive activism and must be recalled as such.

Noted multi-instrumentalist David Amram, whose resume includes gigs with Jack Kerouac, Thelonious Monk, Leonard Bernstein and Langston Hughes, as well as the composition of noted film scores, was adamant about Robeson’s role in society. He noted that, “Robeson was able to bring the genius of European classical culture to the genius of African-American culture. He was a quintessential American. People say he was ahead of his time but really he was right on time. He could move a generation”.

Guitarist John Basile, of Ray Blue’s band, nodded in agreement, stating “I am fascinated by the scope of his influence. He was like superhuman in his vision”.
Commenting on the variety of sounds scheduled for this show he added, “It mirrors the breadth of Paul Robeson”. Bassist Ratzo Harris, also with Blue’s band, echoed the guitarist’s thoughts and happily said, “I am so glad to be here tonight. Peekskill is the place to be right now”.

Tao Rodriguez-Seeger spoke with the enthusiasm one might expect from Pete Seeger’s grandson. “Robeson was an American hero. During a time of witch-hunts, he showed us what could be done. He put his career on the line, regardless of the fear of repercussion. It’s one thing to be brave when you say the right things, but it’s another to be brave when you DO the right things. We need such examples of human pride right now”.

As the house lights dimmed there was plenty of pride in evidence, producing stirring performances to recall over the next sixty years: Rodriguez-Seeger, David Amram and Ray Blue’s rhythm section, playing the Jim Garland classic “I Don’t Want Your Millions, Mister”. Amram’s solo on the tune—playing two tin whistles simultaneously—added a Celtic touch to Tao’s countrified arrangement, even as it recalled Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s innovative technique. This kind of surprise marked the entire evening. Other standout performances included Kenneth Anderson’s set, accompanied by the masterful pianist Doug Smith, where the sound of Robeson was momentarily resurrected for all of us too young to have gone to the original concert. Like Paul did sixty years ago, Ken sang a telling “Let My People Go” and then presented a series of African-American spirituals, filling the old theatre with sounds at once traditional and vibrantly alive.

The evening included spoken word performance as well. Ty Jones of the Classical Theatre of Harlem dramatically read an excerpt from his play “Emancipation: Chronicles of the Nat Turner Rebellion”. He was joined onstage by soprano Angela Polite who sang a lilting “Wade in the Water” behind—no, alongside—Jones’ spectacular presentation. Earlier in the evening Jones spoke about the legacy of Turner living within Robeson: “Nat Turner led the first great slave rebellion in 1831; one hundred years later Robeson was fighting the same institution”. He added that African-American artists continue to struggle with the limitations imposed, but, “Robeson fought for us to become contributing citizens”, he added. Ms. Polite said that she’d visited the Paul Robeson Museum in the former East Berlin and was deeply moved by that nation’s respect for this Black American figure, but also the prospect for progressive change internationally.

Danny Glover, not initially scheduled to be on the bill, spoke of Robeson, too: “He is an inspiration to working people and all people in the midst of struggle. There’s no one like Paul. All artists walk in his shadow”.

The youngest performer of the evening was sixteen year-old Marcus Franklin, who performed tap-dance which resonated with the pulse of Bill Robinson and Gregory Hines. Franklin offered syncopated steps which more than hinted at the sound of a swing-era drum solo.

But the good vibrations of Jazz were prominent in the Be-Bop heart of legendary drummer Roy Haynes who has performed with practically every groundbreaking musician from Charlie Parker and John Coltrane to Sarah Vaughn and Louis Armstrong. When pressed to think of career highlights, he smiled and said, “I played with Billie Holiday for her very last club date---that was 1958. Yeah.”. His performance at the Robeson celebration consisted of a solo drumkit piece, “Shades of Senegal”, which rocked the house with polyrhythms and lightening chops.

The Jazz tapestry was shaped by the evening’s Artistic Director, Earl Powell, son of the late Jazz giant Bud Powell. In addition to Haynes he brought forth the Ray Blue Ensemble (featuring Blue’s Latinesque compositions, the searing bass work of Ratzo Harris and brilliant musicianship all around) and noted veteran pianist Randy Weston who performed an impressionistic, expansive improvisation inspired by his memories of Robeson.

Guest speaker Connie Hogarth, a celebrated activist in New York progressive circles, reminded us of the crimes of the Right-wing in Robeson’s day---and how dangerous a model this is for the country at present. Hogarth, who’d lived through the spectacle of the Red Scare (her husband was called before McCarthy’s Senate Sub-Committee on Investigations), told of, “the good people who’d represented the American ideals of civil liberties and social justice and became targeted by the real un-Americans. This corrupted the American atmosphere”.

“Ol’ Man River” closed this show, as it did for Robeson sixty years ago. Ken Anderson’s voice resounded through the theatre as he sang Robeson’s poignant re-writing of key lines, replacing Oscar Hammerstein’s affected southern Black vernacular with a tenacious, prideful rebellion. Peekskill has grown wise with the passage of time and the memory of one who stared down the powers that be, yet with the recent clamors of the radical Right nationwide, the words “I’ll keep on fighting until I’m dying” carry a weight far beyond the reach of this city at any time.


Ramblin Jack Elliot--performance review - August 21, 2009

Performance review by John Pietaro:

RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOT, The Colony Café, Woodstock NY, 8/21/09

It’s a muggy late August evening in Woodstock. The scent of hours-old summer rain breathes new life into the earth around the Colony Café. As I walk up to the Spanish-style façade of the club I see a group gathered in the alley. They’re standing around a smallish man recognizable by his large, white cowboy hat. It’s Ramblin’ Jack Elliot.

As I approach he stops his conversation and looks at me warmly. “Hi, I’m Jack”. We speak ever so briefly and throughout he offers one-liners of a dry, biting type but they are wrapped in a glowing smile. However at this point Jack cannot be pulled away for an interview. He’s catching up on old times with old friends including John Sebastian and Happy Traum.

Apropos to tonight’s headliner, the Colony Café is a welcoming place—an old fashioned ballroom with a classic wrap-around balcony, wonderful acoustics and so many good vibes that they spill out of the tall juiliette windows. The room is filled as the first act, Nathan Moore, takes the stage. Moore offers a tight, clean, well-performed set of Dylanesque songs that surely would have been welcomed at the old Café Espresso or Café Wha. He was very well-received, but the crowd’s polite anticipation made it clear that it’s just not easy opening for a legend.

Ramblin’ Jack, introduced by Happy Traum, took the stage to the accompaniment of thunderous applause, but the crowd became hushed with the first utterance of a blues progression played on the sparkling strings of his guitar. Jack’s reedy voice wailed out, wafting up to the balcony and beyond. In it one can here the powerful influence of Woody Guthrie, whom Jack traveled with and who left an indelible imprint upon Elliot. Lo, so many years later, Jack Elliot carries with him the wisdom of the years. And damn if he still doesn’t sound like Woody. He sings the blues like he was there when they were created: equal parts shout, holler, jubilation and lament. Filling each space with runs up and down his fret board, Jack demonstrated the unique guitar styling that’s part of the myth about him. A bit stiffer now, but the chops are still there, and not all that different from back when Phil Ochs held up a major label record date to wait for Jack to get to the studio. Yes, he played with most of the legends.

Elliot’s performance at the Colony offered an intimate look into the man who carries with him the residue of his endless musical encounters. When he called John Sebastian up to the stage to sit in on several numbers he clarified that the two had known each other since at least the days of the Gaslight Club in Greenwich Village. Sebastian, still looking boyishly spry, carried several harmonicas up with him, adding something so authentic that it bypassed the folk revival and sounded vaguely reminiscent of a distant past. The two played “I Ride an Old Paint”, a cowboy song and part of Guthrie’s repertoire from the ‘40s. Here, Elliot and Sebastian seemed to have climbed out of the soundtrack of an old western movie, what with Jack hunched over his guitar, donned in cowboy hat and bandana.

To add to the authenticity, they played “Koo Koo Bird”, with its lonesome, ringing harmonies and sobbing harmonica, and “Freight Train Blues” which featured Jack’s yodel and John bending the notes of his blues harp, growling behind him. With eyes closed one could easily imagine Woody and Sonny Terry sitting onstage as they would have some sixty years before. But watching these two improvise through several unrehearsed folk songs together, it was easy to see that this music---like Ramblin Jack Elliot—is truly timeless. Elliot has become part of the fabric of folk song, not just an elder of the genre but a section of its foundation. Stories abound of how Ramblin’ Jack used to follow Woody around, in awe of the folk giant, copying his every mannerism. Woody would tell people, “The only guy that sounds more like me than me is Jack”. But by this late date, Elliot doesn’t have to put on an affected southwestern accent---this is part of who he is. Jack, with head thrown back, eyes closed and hands caressing the blue seventh chords out of his old guitar, feels every nuance. Folk music—the songs of the commoner, the worker, the prisoner, the traveler-- runs through the blood of Ramblin Jack. He’s the real deal.

Ramblin Jack Elliot’s latest compact disc, A Stranger Here, is now available at record stores near you.

-This article also appeared in Political Affairs online and Hudson Valley Music online.

Book Review: THE PROTEST SINGER, Alec Wilkinson - June 10, 2009

BOOK REVIEW by John Pietaro:

Alec Wilkinson, 2009, NY: Knopf

The Protest Singer is a biography of Pete Seeger unlike most any other. Reading more as a recorded conversation than a biographical portrayal, Wilkinson based most of his little book on a series of visits to the Beacon NY home of his subject. Pete’s recounting of important social justice battles, musical interactions and historic moments are, as always, fascinating and serve as an affirmation of Pete’s place as a legend of not only folk song but progressive political action.

What makes this account so unique, though, are Wilkinson’s descriptions of his time spent in the company of not only Pete but Toshi, his wife since 1942. To many, Toshi remains Pete’s heart, indeed his spirit, as she has been at his side throughout most of the intense periods he’s been a major part of. Laid out here are not only the stories as told by Pete and commentary by Toshi, but also the quiet moments that go on in their home daily: Toshi tells Pete that she is leaving a lunch and apple tarts in the oven for them and the writer and folksinger continue their discussion over lunch and desert; the reader feels almost as if they are a part of this meal. In this respect, the book’s subtitle remains true—this is about as intimate a portrait of Pete as one could get, as he’s often protective about his private life. Now, in his 90th year, Pete allows the reader not only facts and memories but a bit of the insider’s view. Seeger’s only requirement for agreeing to this biography is that it be a document that could be read in one sitting; this book comes very close to that as it tops out at just 119 pages, followed by two wonderful Appendix pieces.

This biography opens with some background info on Pete, good stuff for those less initiated, and then moves forward before returning to background info---at two separate points. But rather than serve as redundant filler, this device lays out the foundation for the conversational style herein. But admittedly, this historic information on the man is presented in a careful manner which could initially be off-putting to those on the Left. While the book’s title indicates that it is a view of Seeger’s more radical moments, in the opening section when Pete’s close ties to the Communist Party are first discussed, the author initially glosses over this in a parenthetic statement. Wilkinson writes “Seeger knew students at Harvard who were Communists, and, idealistically, he became one for several years too”.

This is a curious choice as Seeger later speaks openly about his membership and many of the cultural actions he engaged in on behalf of the Party, including extended information about his battle with HUAC. As has been documented elsewhere, Pete refused to name names and did so without invoking the Fifth Amendment, bearing the weight of a Contempt of Congress charge. And for the sake of completion, Wilkinson includes the entire transcript of Seeger’s 1955 testimony in front of the Un-Americans, er, rather the House Committee on Un-American Activities. This is a welcome addition which gives but one example of the valiant fight progressives engaged in against those who attempted to quell our dissent and silence us with fear.

The Protest Singer offers today’s reader strong recollections of events, both legendary and infamous, including the Peekskill Riot, an array of civil rights marches, anti-war rallies and the fight for labor rights. Sadly, contemporary youth not raised in progressive households may have had no exposure to these pieces of embarrassing US history and this friendly, often first-person account is an excellent means to fill in the gaps left out of our educational system, one that is dangerously avoidant of such elements of our past.

But the author chose to write about Pete with apparently little prior knowledge and states in the body of the text that he saw him perform only once, when he was about five years old, and has no recollection of that performance. It seems odd that he would approach a subject without having investigated a little closer. Perhaps his intent was to sit down to write this study with a blank slate and this is notable, but the book comes across to the informed reader in a manner which reveals the writer’s lack of fore-knowledge. And while this allows for Pete’s conversational approach to shine, the historic sections Wilkinson includes feel sketchy, almost like he’s grasping. Facts are thrown out more as an outline, skipping from one part of Pete’s life to the next, and usually with little to thrive on.

Bringing it all back to the intimate portrait which this book has as its goal, Wilkinson’s description of Seeger’s actual responses and facial expressions in one-on-one conversations are dead-on:

“When he speaks at any length, he tends to look into the middle distance, as if addressing an audience there…His eyes are blue and heavily lidded and so small that he seems to be regarding a person from some remove. His gaze is surprisingly fleeting and indirect for someone whose manner is so straightforward.”

Happily, the author offers many such close-ups of Pete, who’s usually regarded as such a legendary figure that few look closely into the man, preferring to stand at distance enough to retain our own version whom we want him to be. Nearing a century old, Pete deserves to be seen up front and this book does offer us this important gaze---even if it is but a fleeting one.


Book Review by John Pietaro:STUDS TERKEL'S WORKING-A GRAPHIC ADAPTATION - June 2, 2009

Book Review by John Pietaro:
STUDS TERKEL’S WORKING: A GRAPHIC ADAPTATION Adapted by Harvey Pekar, edited by Paul Buhle. NY/London: The New Press, 2009
Studs Terkel was synonymous with the everyman, heart of the hoi polloi. In one of his last interviews he repeated a story he enjoyed telling about encountering a couple of vocally anti-union Young Urban Professionals in his hometown of Chicago. Studs, then already into his nineties, stared down the latest denizens of the ruling class, profoundly finishing them off in a manner which they probably never forgot. That was Studs.

Such a proponent of the working people was Studs that he gave us Working some thirty-five years ago. The book, an oral history—no, really an oral contemporary account---of various worker’ lives continues to be cherished by the Left as a document of who we are. While the original book remains just that important, it’s been realized anew by the creative collaboration of underground comic book guru Harvey Pekar and rabble-rousing historian Paul Buhle, as well as a series of gifted illustrators who move these stories into an astonishingly visual realm. Stud’s Terkel’s Working: A Graphic Adaptation maintains all of the grit, energy and honesty of classic Studs , but with the 20/20 hindsight that’s been at the heart of every Buhle tome thus far. I have lost count of the amount of titles Buhle has authored and/or edited. After dozens of texts on Left history, he’s been focusing his attention on comic art graphic histories of same, but these are far from the comics we read as kids.

Buhle’s partner in this endeavor is the rather legendary Harvey Pekar, who also served as the primary writer of Buhle’s Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History. Pekar, of American Splendor fame, describes his chosen role as one who writes of the “quotidian life”, that which is usually overlooked. If anyone could adapt the plainspoken tales of Working, it’s Pekar, and he does so here with all of the visceral edge he‘s known for.

Stand out segments include Bill Talcott, Organizer, with art and adaptation by Peter Kuper, another underground comic stalwart. The story of Talcott reveals the inner world of labor organizers, perhaps the ultimate among the overlooked. It brazenly presents Talcott’s gnawing need to fight injustice, an integral component of the job but one which can be seen as quixotic if not obsessive by browsers. Kuper’s dark world, thick with barriers in every direction, depicts both the miners’ lives and Talcott’s tireless work to help the rank-and-file to realize its own strength.

In another segment, Lance Tooks breathes life into the noted tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman. No record company glitz here, Freeman was a regular guy who helped to create the “Chicago school” of Jazz in the ‘20s and then performed with an endless array of big band legends. Tooks’ use of multi-media ranges from Hirschfield-style drawings to photos of album covers and old performance posters, interspersed with chunks of text and collage-like pastiche. All of the sense of motion offers a visual approximation of the collective improvisations Freeman was an integral part of throughout his career. One can almost hear “That’s a’ Plenty” or “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” soaring off of the pages. Tooks also brings us the story of another musician, but this one is a local talent whose career was spent playing hotel piano bars. A self-taught player, Hots Michaels tells us that he considers himself to be a, “whisky salesman…I never thought of myself as an artist”.

All walks of life, from the glamorous to the painfully ordinary, Working also brings us the story of Nick Salerno, Garbageman (adapted by Pekar with art by Steve Thorkelson). Salerno speaks about his job of eighteen years, one that his children are ashamed of but which has allowed him to provide well enough for his family. His is a prideful tale, though its visuals largely depict the otherwise unseen world of back-alleys. Eye of the beholder.

While one may imagine that a book such as this—one which marries the stories of workers filtered through a Left icon, with the harsh visuals of underground art edited by a radical historian—as one brimming with social uprisings. Surprisingly, this is not the case, and it’s a better book for it. Though Marxists and other progressives like to see the proletariat as the core of revolutionary possibilities, working people are often just trying to get by, week to week. This book reminds us of the contributions of the overlooked, the very important “average” workers who keep society running, whether they pick up the trash, create art and culture, do domestic work, style hair or organize workers into unions. These are the stories—in startling words and pictures--of everyone from professional athletes to waitresses, stock brokers to postal workers, coal miners and farmers to box-boys and prostitutes. None of these workers are treated with the indignity they may encounter in their daily work-life. None of these people‘s stories are editorialized, brightened up or—worse—offered in a falsely “lumpen” fashion for the sake of radicalism. This is simply Life for most of us.
As Studs intended it, this is a portrait of everyday work and everyday workers presented to us in the immediacy of the moment. This graphic adaptation does Terkel proud and brings this brilliant study of the pre-eminent champion of the working class into the hands of a whole new generation.


PETE SEEGER: Elder Statesman of Topical Song
By John Pietaro

Born 90 years ago this May 3, Pete Seeger has been a tireless performer of topical song and a champion of global folklore, focusing his strongest efforts on that which was created by, for and about, the so-called common man. The product of a Left-wing composer father and a concert violinist mother, Pete almost singlehandedly resurrected, of all things, the 5-string banjo and introduced its application as a fiercely American instrument, one derived from African origins and developed by the sweat and blood of the oppressed. In his wake, the banjo—or at least his banjo-- became a symbol of the power of song and an icon of more than one "folk revival". It still sings with pride in light of the passage of time…even Bob Dylan's decision to go electric. No matter what, Pete and his music were always there and continue to ring out today.

During the depth of the Great Depression, Seeger took to folk song collecting with his father, Charles Lewis Seeger, a member of the Composers Collective of New York who saw the need for the dissolution of the Modernist, experimental music Collective once he became convinced of the revolutionary potential of traditional song. The mission was clear: American workers needed to hear accessible music with radical content; he never looked back and clearly neither did Pete. In the 1930s, Daily Worker arts columnist Mike Gold wrote of the need for, “a Communist Joe Hill”, to offer musical organizing on the front lines: a few years later Woody Guthrie came to prominence in the political Left. Guthrie, a firestorm of creative energy and radical philosophy was introduced, in 1940, to a young Pete Seeger by folk archivist Alan Lomax and the two became inseparable. Once Woody had taken up Pete’s offer to join him in the Almanac Singers, they wrote and performed music together and Seeger, through musical and political osmosis, rapidly morphed into a new kind of cultural force.

Early on Pete developed a strong kinship with the political Left and quickly became a first-call performing artist for May Day parades in New York City and radical Labor unions around the country. Seeger became a prominent part of Communist Party cultural organizations, anti-fascist collectives and American Labor Party rallies throughout the 1940s and into the ‘50s, even as the specter of HUAC haunted his musical groups, the Almanacs and then the Weavers, as well as his organization People’s Songs. By 1961, he too would be subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee which riddled him with questions that scandalized not only his patriotism but that of the many he’d been associated with. To his credit, Seeger refused to name names, but he did offer to sing for the HUAC inquisitors. They refused his offer and called it contempt of Congress.

A victim of the same tenacious Blacklist that had torn apart Hollywood and the CIO in the post-war period, Pete sang for college students and children, when no one else cared to listen...or, rather, when no one else could hear. And when he could not sing for them, he sang for the trees and forest life about him. Seeger was hell-bent on allowing music to touch deep, whether as a weapon or as a healing force. Uniquely, he almost always achieved both in tandem.

By the time folk music became an area of commercial success for the record business during the 1960s, Seeger was seen as a founder, an elder, but still a contemporary. If the forces of reaction shut him out of broadcast television or commercial radio, his voice resounded loudly as a songwriter. Pete's songs "Turn, Turn, Turn", "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", "If I Had A Hammer", "The Bells of Rhymney", among others, were smashing successes for other artists, all of whom paid tribute to the composer during their performances. As has been widely reported, it was left to the Smothers Brothers and their irreverent, cutting-edge television program, to break the Blacklist. When the networks refused to allow Seeger on to perform his "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy", a stinging anti-war song driven by Pete's grinding 12-string guitar, the Brothers fought back. It may have been a death-blow for their show, but they ultimately prevailed; Seeger was seen by millions on that historic night and the Blacklist, this terribly fascistic device used to silence so many, was effectively killed off.

With the wisdom of a sage, Seeger has made it a mission to keep the older songs of struggle alive, even through adversity. In performances all over the world, Pete presents the songs of Guthrie and Wobbly icon Joe Hill alongside the music of slaves, native peoples, workers, immigrants, farmers, men and women. He offers us the lost union songs and the disappeared music of repressed peoples. Pete taught us traditional songs of the Spanish Civil War--in Spanish. He sang the praises of Leadbelly, who never got to hear his song "Goodnight Irene" become a Weavers hit in 1951. Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter had died the year prior, but Seeger made sure that his widow would continue to receive royalties, as he did for the family of Solomon Linda, the composer of "Wimoweh", an African song which immortalizes the symbol of the sleeping lion as an avenger-in-waiting, contemplating the atrocities committed by white imperialists.

While it is true that Pete has become a beloved figure with the passage of time, one celebrated at Madison Square Garden this May, and was given Kennedy Center honors a decade ago, his radical heart remains integral to his spirit. Performing for President Obama’s inaugural celebration this January, Pete sang Woody’s anthem, “This Land is Your Land” along with Bruce Springsteen and Seeger happily led the crowd on some of Guthrie’s lesser-known, revolutionary verses including the one about that damned symbol of the high wall tagged “Private Property”. In his lifetime, Pete stood onstage with Paul Robeson during "The Peekskill Riot" and marched with Dr. King through the bloodiest of Civil Rights battles. He was a loud opponent of the Vietnam War and a prime voice of the environmental movement. In more recent years, Seeger could be found, during the entire sickening debacle of the Bush Administration as an active part of protest actions, and still stands each week at a peace vigil in New York’s Hudson Valley, through broiling heat and frozen winds.

Pete's songs are truly the story of 'the folk', and so they tell the people's story. Long before Howard Zinn wrote his 'A People's History of the United States', Pete Seeger sang it. He stands then and now as the very model of the cultural worker. Taking the distant advice of Joe Hill, he recognized long ago that more can be said in one topical song than in a hundred pamphlets. But, even in silence, Pete's philosophy can be understood by anyone who gets close enough to read what he long ago adorned on his banjo head: 'This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It To Surrender'.

-Published by Portside 5/1/09


Paul Robeson: Standing Tall Now, as Then
By John Pietaro

“The artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery.
I have made my choice; I had no alternative”
-Paul Robeson

The conception of art as a weapon has been promoted during various trying times in the people’s history. Within the twentieth century, the period bridging the early 1900s and the end of the Great Depression is most often cited for its protest arts. While many voices rose to prominence during that time, none have experienced both popular adulation and systematic governmental assault like Paul Robeson. Robeson embodied the “cultural worker” by choice and necessity as he fought for his own civil rights while struggling for global justice.
Some today wrongly see Robeson as a marginal figure, lost to the shadows of decades past; in this sense he is an enigma. That he was marginalized, indeed erased from much of our collective memory, was purposeful and a product of those who sought to silence him. Here was a figure beyond categorization. Robeson never forgot that his father was born into slavery and this shaped much of his future philosophy. Even in the adversity of his youth, Robeson strove to great heights. He attended Rutgers University, graduating in 1919, and there became an award-winning athlete. His achieved status of All-American on the sports field, however, did not eclipse his other areas of study: the young Robeson also became a champion of the Rutgers Debating Team, won Phi Beta Kappa honors and actually graduated as Class Valedictorian. His graduate studies would lead him to Columbia University law school and, though he achieved attorney status, all the while his heart led him elsewhere.
Though he would have surely obtained historic success as either an athlete or an attorney, Robeson’s calling was the world of the theatre. He engaged in numerous productions during his college years, turning professional as an actor and vocalist by 1925. His breakthrough role was that of “Joe” in the operatic Broadway musical Showboat, a work known as much for its early commentary on race relations as it is for its brilliant score.
“Old Man River”, always the showstopper in Showboat, became Robeson’s signature song beginning with the initial run of the show. He embarked on a series of solo concert tours, usually performing with piano accompaniment and always taking on a huge range of material, from opera to spirituals to folk songs. “Old Man River” remained in his repertoire throughout his career, albeit adapted to its times. Over the years Robeson would modify the lyrics to better signify the struggle for the rights of Black Americans, changing “You gets a little drunk and you lands in jail” to the telling “You show a little spunk and you land in jail” (not so subtle commentary on the Red Scare as well as the Southern resistance to civil rights). More to the point, he altered “Tired of living and fear’d of dying” to the staunchly courageous “I’ll keep on fighting until I’m dying!”.

Robeson---Pietaro, Page 2

Robeson was a heroic figure to the American Black population, during decades in which a civil rights movement was but a wish for the future. Perhaps more than any other figure, he stood as a model to not only African-Americans, but to the white population as well. As much as he posed a threat to the powers that be, his image was that of a highly respected performer and thinker. The Left embraced him as both artist and activist, particularly during this period prior to the folk music revival. Robeson’s schooled, classical approach and performance practice fit into the 1920s and 30s intellectual Left as an American original. Rather than taking advantage of his supposed naïveté, as the Communist and Socialist parties had been accused of, they met Robeson exactly where he was. This man needed no encouragement to defy the standards that had created oppression, only a forum in which to stage his protest. Much of his activism was drawn from personal experience, that at home as compared to the treatment he received abroad. In contrast to the racial hatred he saw in the US, European audiences and particularly those in the Soviet Union, greeted him like royalty. He stood with and performed for striking British miners and he would continue to speak out for Labor and other progressive movements all over the world.
It was during these global tours that Robeson became deeply interested in other cultures and languages. He learned folk songs in many languages, and then made a serious study of linguistics, eventually having conversational command of many languages. There never could be more of a “people’s” artist. And whether on these shores or overseas, Robeson brought his own culture to his audience. He introduced powerfully rebellious slave songs to mixed audiences, interspersing them with patriotic American works, as Robeson had a deep love of country, as much as he fought the separation and repression of its people.
However, popular acclaim would not elude him either! In the later 1930s to earliest 1940s, Robeson took on what is viewed as his greatest role, “Othello”, and he also became a film actor of note. Concurrently, he recorded several songs that became hit records, including compositions by Earl Robinson “The House I Live In” and “Ballad for Americans”. Both offered a strong visualization of American ideals and pride. Though the Cold war was dangerous to the Left as a whole, it hurt Paul Robeson in a most profound way. Opportunistically using the fear factor of the hour, Right-wing zealots pursued him, inasmuch charging Robeson with speaking out while Black. Immediately after the War, he began building a committee to sustain peace and he became targeted. Within a few years, the McCarthyites had something tangible-- a 1949 interview he engaged in with a French journalist. His comments concerned the invalidity of a US government that would call on its Black citizens to fight in war when they had no real rights at home. Reactionaries immediately branded him as “anti-American”. That same year, he performed at the concert that would be recalled only as the Peekskill Riot. Due to the slander of his own government, Robeson’s presence gave racists, many of which were Klansman and American Nazis, a chance to attack him as a “traitor”. The violence that ensued is legendary, with performers and audience members alike bearing the brunt of a brutal assault with clubs and rocks. Quickly, Robeson would see the walls of the Blacklist begin to surround him and do what no one else could----silence him.

Robeson---Pietaro, page Three

What Red-baiting, physical assault and censorship could not fully achieve, the revoking of Robeson’s passport could. Beginning in 1950 and continuing for nine years thereafter, this international voice of the people was prohibited from travel. It was this lasting wound that would rupture contact with his audience and begin to see his erosion. How insidious the attempt to silence Robeson was can be seen in the Executive Order inflicted by President Truman in 1952 which stated that should Robeson attempt to exit the country, US border personnel were instructed to apprehend him, “by any means necessary”. It was this same order which was read aloud to him when, in 1952, he was scheduled to perform a concert at the Peace Arch in Canada. Unable to cross the border into British Columbia, he set up a stage on a flat-bed truck, performing to the Canadians from the edge of Washington State, while Border patrol officers stood cocked and ready.
Robeson remained a fighter and released his autobiography Here I Stand in 1958. Though systematically ignored by all US major media, foreign journalists hailed it as a great and noble work. An Indian tabloid’s review called it “The Black voice of God”. He continued intermittent performance for several more years, through bouts of major depression and several physical illnesses. Worn from many years of battle, he left public life in 1964. By the time of his death in 1976, Robeson was but a shadow of his former self . Few could believe that he had commanded such international renown. Far ahead of his time, he was perhaps the ultimate victim of a frightened, racist system hell-bent on maintaining the status quo, suppressing rebellion and preaching hatred where and when its needed.

John Pietaro is a cultural worker and labor organizer from New York. (this article was published in 'Political Affairs' magazine online, 3/09)


By John Pietaro

In the annals of film and television history, the name Rod Serling usually conjures up visions of fantastic realities and unsettling characters from within “The Twilight Zone”. But a glimpse beneath the surface of the man, let alone his masterful writings, exposes the depth of social consciousness, of political commentary and a bold outspokenness rarely seen at the height of the Cold War. The ultra serious, cigarette wielding image of the man in the black suit and skinny tie emerging from the shadows to offer a story for our consideration is but one tiny segment of this revolutionary author’s make-up.

Rodman Serling was born on December 25, 1924 and raised in the northern reaches of upstate New York. By all accounts he lived a rather unspectacular early life, summering at Cayuga Lake with his family. Short in stature, the teenage Serling gravitated towards the unlikely sport of boxing before joining the military during the Second World War. Apparently as a means to test of his own machismo, he served as a paratrooper and would later be awarded both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. His experiences overseas would later manifest in his fantasy-related writing, yet this was not enough to exorcise the demons of battle from his mind. Serling suffered from nightmares for decades after VE Day.

Serling graduated Antioch College in 1950, brandishing a literature degree and seeking work almost immediately in the expanding medium of television. After some initial successes outside of the major networks, he became a staff writer with CBS TV in New York and soon came to prove his mettle. The teleplays he authored contained numerous layers of probing, intelligent content; always, the ingredient of irony spoke loudest. His protagonists were subjected to trying expositions and challenged on psychological or sociological levels, often both, frequently simultaneously. A common theme for Serling, who’d later become a member of the Universalist Unitarian order, was one’s aloneness in the throes of struggle. Throughout his career, his tales reflected growth through strife and were guided by a powerful morality.

Serling’s scripts for the live TV drama anthologies “Playhouse 90”, “Kraft Television Theatre”, “Lux Video Theatre” and “Studio One”, among others, produced some of his greatest writings. The power inherent in these pieces easily revealed the progressive in Serling, for the basic plot of most was the plight of “the little guy”--the proletariat in any case, regardless of social standing--in the face of an oppressive power. His Emmy-winning script for Patterns told the story of a young upcoming business executive who moves rapidly up the corporate ladder, relocating from a suburban Ohio branch office into the Wall Street limelight. Quickly he learns that even valuable, successful executives are just so much chattel for the insatiable greed of the corporate structure; they are used up until too old to produce, and then simply and coldly replaced. Perhaps Serling never did read Marx, but one would not know that from the brash anti-capitalist opinion expressed in this brilliant piece. The manipulations of the company CEO, the disregard for the needs of the elder partner and the depiction of a brutal business ethic stand out in stark contrast to the era’s usual white bread storylines.

'Patterns' was first produced for television in 1955, around the time the Korean War was concluding and shortly after the televised Army-McCarthy hearings put an end to the infamous senator. Still, few writers would have ventured into this territory. Most Left-wing writers had become victims of the blacklist as early as 1948, so such topics were scarce. Yet, 'Patterns' was so highly acclaimed that it was also made into a feature film one year later, securing a legendary status for Serling who was now a hot property in the business of television and film.

Of note is Serling’s 1956 piece, 'Noon on Doomsday', which was openly inspired by the racist murder of Emmet Till. Though his story depicts the murder victim not as a young African-American man but an elderly Jewish pawn shop owner, Serling maintained the vital aspect of the community’s closed-mindedness which resulted in their refusal to acknowledge the guilt of one of their own. As it had occurred in the all-too-real Till case, the murderers are never convicted. The writer was later to state that, “the antagonist was not just a killer, but a regional idea” (Serling, Introduction to paperback edition of Patterns, 1957, Bantam Books). Thousands of letters of protest from White Citizens Councils and other conservative and racist groups were sent into the network prior to the play’s airing and Serling’s script was forcibly doctored. Countless threats of boycott by southern-based organizations had the network executives fly into a frenzy and the ultimate show, airing months late, was barely recognizable. No allusions to anywhere near the south could be made (thus it became a New England locale) and the Jewish victim became a faceless immigrant. It took all of Serling’s fortitude to prevent the network brass from transforming the murderer into a good boy caught up in one wrong moment. Still somehow, his brilliance as a writer showed through and allowed him to conquer new ground.

Serling’s next offerings included teleplays 'The Rack' (about the torture of a Korean War vet) and his most famous story from this period, 'Requiem for a Heavyweight '(1956). Even among Serling pieces, Requiem stands out as a heart wrenching masterwork. Starring Jack Palance as a boxer who experiences a career-breaking injury just before he has the chance to achieve his dream of becoming heavy-weight champion, this piece viscerally moves the viewer into the sad, short career of the nation’s gladiators. One is moved to tears as the lead character, ‘Mountain’ McClintock, is torn down and cast aside before taking steps forward into another chapter of his life, one which contains newfound hope. Requiem won a prestigious Peabody award was also realized in television productions in the UK (starring Sean Connery) and Holland. This teleplay was also offered the second life of a full-length film version starring Anthony Quinn and a uniquely vicious Jackie Gleason. The expanded script redoubles Serling’s imagery of the main character’s inner loneliness and the industry’s greed. There was no room for another chance for ‘Mountain’ this time around; Serling’s film script was a tragedy in the classic sense. In addition to the masterful craftsmanship, the author’s plea for the proletarian is clear. And to further enhance this, both scripts call for the use of real boxers in walk-on parts. Always, Serling’s genius had not only his characters on the edge, but he spent much time there himself.

In order to secure creative control, Serling successfully pitched his idea for “The Twlight Zone” to CBS’ brass. With this show, which debuted in 1959 and ran through 1964, Serling served as executive producer and head writer as well as host. What made “The Twilight Zone” so brilliant was the element of fantasy, science-fiction and horror that allowed him to present progressive, even controversial ideas masked enough to avoid the furor of the reactionaries. While not every episode had connections to a socio-political issue, most did, even if through symbolism. The show featured a wealth of actors, apparently clamoring for a part on this hip, intelligent show, among them Jack Klugman, Ed Wynn, Burgess Meredith, Agnes Morehead, Robert Duvall, Elizabeth Montgomery, Lee Marvin, Cliff Robertson and Dennis Hopper. The show also hired some of Hollywood’s greatest composers including Bernard Herrman, (usually associated with the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles), Jerry Goldsmith and Franz Waxman. Serling sought artfulness in all aspects of “The Twilight Zone”.

While Serling’s writings in all genre contained parables and symbols we can derive an almost Marxist message in, outstanding progressive statements in “The Twilight Zone” include:
1) I Am the Night, Color Me Black, the story of an unjust execution scheduled for a dawn which never arrives. Sober acting, tense direction and a ravenous, blood-thirsty town make for a powerful statement on violence, lynchings and xenophobia. Serling’s original script featured an African-American prisoner awaiting the gallows, but the final version included a white man condemned to die and a Black preacher caught in a crisis of conscience, tearfully standing with the lynch mob in view of his own precarious status in this otherwise homogenous one-horse town.
2) The Big Tall Wish: a Black cast stars in this moving drama about an aging boxer (Ivan Dixon) who loses faith. The symbolism of the young boy who ultimately loses hope in the future and especially in his power to change his destiny is startling in light of the fledgling civil rights movement of the time. The child inevitably stands for the fragility of the hope in all of us as much as it does for the fight against institutionalized racism.
3) Night of the Meek, starring Art Carney as a Bowery dweller who experiences the hardship of despair, poverty and alcoholism on Christmas Eve, before realizing the possibility of giving to the poor in his community as a real-life Santa Claus. Serling’s scripting for some of Carney’s speeches are nothing short of revolutionary.
4) The Obsolete Man features Burgess Meredith as a former librarian condemned to die as “obsolete” in an Orwellian society. Here, the power of literature and the liberation of the mind take center stage as the mild protagonist turns the tables on the state prosecutor who so coldly sought his termination and laughed at his lack of usefulness.

Page 4—ROD SERLING, Pietaro
5) The Shelter tells of a close-knit community torn asunder by the perceived threat of a nuclear assault. The kindly doctor who refuses to let his neighbors into his bomb shelter at the height of the hysteria is as glaring in this tale as is the phalanx of friends who turn on the doc and break down his lead-lined door with a battering ram. In the process, one of the cardigan-wearing suburbanites turns into an arrogant America Firster as he assaults another neighbor, an immigrant.
6) A Quality of Mercy is a morality play about the demonization of the enemy during wartime. Here we see an obnoxious young officer (Dean Stockwell) brutally leading an exhausted World War 2 platoon into battle against a Japanese enclave, even as the war is fading to a close. His merciless view of the Japanese becomes his own fate as the story fantastically transforms him into a Japanese officer looking out at a bloodthirsty American platoon intent on killing him. Serling was to use this type of vehicle several times over the years, but always to a powerful end.
7) Four O’Clock features none other than Theodore Bikel as Oliver Crangle, a paranoiac reactionary who’s a perfect depiction of what the editor to ‘Red Channels’ or some other red-baiting periodical must have been like. His character keeps files on hundreds of people he classifies as “evil” and engages on a tireless campaign to harass them and ruin their careers and lives. Serling’s opening monologue described the antagonist as “poisoned by the gangrene of prejudice”, but Crangle falls victim to the power of his own hate by story’s end.
8) The Gift also symbolizes a right-wing assault on reason, albeit in the form of a small, impoverished Mexican town reacting to “a stranger” in their midst. Said stranger tries to offer them a gift he brought with them, from either his home planet or perhaps a more spiritual place, but they reject it out of ignorance and xenophobia. The man they try to mark as a devil quite possibly may have represented the second coming and the gift was a cure for cancer.
9) He’s Alive was plagued by Serling’s occasional use of preachy morality but needs to be cited here for its clear anti-fascist imagery alone (the “he” in the title is Hitler). It tells of a young man (Dennis Hopper) who becomes entangled in a neo-Nazi movement even as it belies the many years he spent under the protective wing of an older Jewish neighbor. Classic Serling was evidenced in the closing narration which stated:
“Anyplace, everyplace, where there's hate, where there's prejudice, where there's bigotry. He's alive. He's alive so long as these evils exist. Remember that when he comes to your town. Remember it when you hear his voice speaking out through others. Remember it when you hear a name called, a minority attacked, any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being. He's alive because through these things we keep him alive”.
Page 5—ROD SERLING, Pietaro
10) The Brain Center at Whipple’s offered Serling’s most clear-cut statement on behalf of the working class of any Zone story. It concerned a business in an unnamed factory town which was coldly installing robotics and dismissively laying off hundreds of workers without notice. Factory foreman Dickerson (Ted De Corsia) offers an impassioned speech where he shouts back at the silver-spoon exec (Richard Deacon): “I’ve worked here for thirty years, and I’ve been a foreman for seventeen of ‘em! In my book that gives me some rights…Men have to eat and work! I’m a man and that makes me better than that hunk of metal!!”.
11) The Encounter is a startling tale of two men trapped in an attic who engage in a grudge match, not only with each other, but their inner-most ghosts. One man is a bitter racist and World War 2 veteran (Neville Brand), the other a Japanese-American (Geoge Takei), each of which have lost a piece of their souls during the attack on Pearl Harbor some twenty years earlier. Another amazing irony in this drama is the lead actor’s status as the fourth most decorated US Army soldier in the second World War.
12) The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street remains Serling’s finest moment in presenting a progressive, even radical message during a Red Scare period. Here’s the perfect small-town street on a calm summery weekend afternoon, where neighbors enjoy a warm relationship. However, soon into the story, fear of other plagues them and the close-knit community devolves into hysteria. Taken as metaphor, the tale of a strange power-outage accompanied by isolation reveals much about the human condition. The vision of neighbor turning on neighbor in response to a perceived alien threat could only have been a Milleresque symbol. Here were all of the trappings of McCarthyism in one 30-minute drama. The final scene’s inclusion of space aliens structuring the manipulation of the people notwithstanding, Serling was sure to tell us how easily we as a society fall prey to the machinations of power. His closing statement was so strong, that I’d like to conclude this essay on the man with it in its entirety:
“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosives and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own; for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to The Twilight Zone.”
-John Pietaro is a cultural worker and labor organizer from New York – (this article was published in 'Political Affairs' magazine, 1/09)

THE LOSS OF ODETTA - December 20, 2008

An Obituary by John Pietaro

Odetta had hoped to sing at the January 20 inauguration of Barack Obama. After decades of performing and fighting for civil rights, human rights and the right to speak her mind, this beautiful sister to us all recognized that the struggle itself could now be put into a new light. History would be made, but this time for all of the best reasons. This time she wanted to be there and bask in it a little. John Henry had vanquished the machine and we all stand a lot taller for it.
Even if Odetta now stands there with us in spirit only.

Odetta Holmes was born in Birmingham Alabama on New Year’s Eve, 1931, a time when little prospect could be expected for a Southern Black American baby girl. If those were hard years for most all of us, they were truly the times that tried the souls of the oppressed. Her father’s death just a few years later could have shut out hope for a lesser personality, yet the youthful singer had the uncanny ability to express and release that pain. The sounds that emitted from the society around her—church music, blues, country tunes, work and prison songs—echoed back all that she felt and allowed her to find her voice. This is the voice that has guided people of conscience for over half a century.

Her natural gifts led Odetta to music studies, though the formal operatic training which is evidenced in her performance of even the most rural tune was not something she could truly relate to. Still during the 1940s she completed her degree at Los Angeles City College and then began touring in theatre troupes. But her musical self would not really be born until 1950; Odetta’s involvement in the 1950s folk music revival allowed her to re-experience the music of her roots and she quickly become a force to be reckoned with. The alto that could fixate noisy nightclub audiences soon caught the ear of leaders in the genre such as Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger.

Odetta never just sang a song, she seemed to experience it viscerally at each performance. Stirring could only begin to describe her version of “John Henry”, a piece she ultimately stopped singing for some years as its message touched her so deeply that it took on a life of its own. When Odetta sang about that hammer, you could feel its very weight, when she cried out in anguish, we felt the breath of her sighs in our own heaving chests. She called this “Liberation Music”, yet the tightly shut eyes, furrowed brow and emotive mouth seemed locked in emotional battle through every phrase, every song.

Her commitment to the music’s rage and glory naturally led her to those of the movement. By the earliest 1960s, she was performing for civil rights rallies, singing with the freedom riders and for President Kennedy, and marching with Dr. King. Odetta’s voice rang out over the capitol at the 1963 March on Washington and apparently in the ears of civil rights activists for years as they engaged in prideful civil disobedience.
“This Little Light of Mine” could never shine brighter than in Odetta’s masterful interpretation. Listening to Odetta’s albums brought Bob Dylan into the folk genre, and allowed Janis Joplin to sing from the heart, the abdomen and the soul. Odetta’s was the soundtrack to the movement years and for decades after the Voting Rights Act was passed, Nixon had resigned in shame, the Vietnam War had fired its last shot and Jim Crow evaporated in the hot Alabama sun.

Odetta never slowed down, she never retired from the music which carried her. Those closest to her report that her hope to perform at the 2009 inauguration kept even death at bay. The power of song, in the hands of a cultural warrior such as Odetta, is unceasing. Her loss is vast, but the reverberations of her songs have long been etched into the core of our dissent.

(this obituary was published in 'Political Affairs' magazine, 12/08)

Book Review "CHE" - December 2, 2008

Book Review by John Pietaro

Che: A Graphic Biography by Spain Rodriguez

Edited by Paul Buhle
2008, Verso Books

After the cult success of “The Motorcycle Diaries” and an endless assortment of products brandishing the image of iconic revolutionary Che Guevara, what possible biography of the man can live up to his celebrity? Comic book artist and writer Spain Rodriguez attempts to answer this question in a new graphic biography. Edited by historian Paul Buhle, Che offers an exciting visual component via the language of the underground comic. Its befitting that Rodriguez would present a biography of Che, as the former was as active within the counter-culture of the late 1960s as the latter was within a political revolution leading up to that same period.

Ernesto Guevara was born on the Bastille Day, 1928, to parents who were strong Leftists and supporters of the Spanish Republic in its battle against fascism. Raised in Argentina, he would attend medical school and then embark on several trips throughout Latin America, offering medical services to destitute communities and seeing for the first time the powerful connection among the Spanish-speaking people, as well as their grief at the hands of global capital. Nicknamed Che, or “Kid”, along the way, Guevara came to understand the impact of poverty and oppression on the people who shared his heritage. Che began to advocate for the struggle for freedom against imperialistic forces that had invaded Latin America, raping the land and abusing the citizenry. He began to see the need for a united South America as a means to stand up to the forces of military and corporate rule.

This graphic biography brings the story of Che into dazzling visuals, as the art of Rodriguez leaps across panels and pages into the reader’s own desire for social change. From the cover’s underground comic depiction of the most famous photo of Che—eyebrows arched and black red-starred beret tilted slightly—throughout the hundred-page bio within, one comes away from this book with a real sense of knowing Guevara. We see his childhood rapidly progress into his young adulthood and then lead right into the period in which he wrote the Motorcycle Diaries, that which was composed while on a sojourn throughout the region. This segment of his life easily compares to Gramsci’s Prison Diaries, as both offered a picture of the revolutionary in progress. Naturally, Che’s diary encompasses the visions of an outdoor trip, while Gramsci’s was written from within the somber grey walls of a fascist prison. But Che’s sense of captivity was empathetic, realized via the oppression of the people whose homes and work places he visited. Often, he and his companion were the first doctors any of these people had ever seen, even as the wealthy jet-setted their way through the casinos, country clubs and high-priced brothels of Latin America.

Rodriguez also offers the connection Guevara developed to the fledgling Cuban liberation movement. Clearly depicted is the bond he had with Fidel Castro, and how the two went from being leaders of a populist uprising to becoming leading Marxists and the core of Cuba’s communist movement. Nakedly, Rodriguez exposes the greed and brutality of the Batista regime and the response of the Cuban poor. He is also sure to explain how corporate America reacted to the Cuban revolution and the many years of manipulation and demonization that followed on the part of the US government. One can see the parallel of the US treatment of Castro’s Cuba and that of Lenin’s Soviet Union, regardless of the approximately 50-year span of time. Neither the money changers nor military industrial complex has ever offered the slightest tolerance to socialist nations, near or far.
Closing out this book is an all-text segment co-written by Paul Buhle and Sarah Seidman which explores Che as an icon within the realm of the turbulent 1960s, and beyond. More than forty years after his assassination, Guevara remains a larger-than-life figure and his story is simply a fascinating one. This latest addition to the radical icon series of book-length underground comics edited by Buhle is welcome and just in time for a holiday present. Buy it for every angry young man and woman on your gift list. But don’t forget to keep a copy for yourself so you can relive, recall or just find out why ‘El Che’ remains so vividly in our revolutionary hearts and minds.

(published in 'Political Affairs' magazine, 12/08)
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