Monday, February 27, 2017

"Carnival of Hopes," Folk Alliance, Part 3

A compilation of weekend status updates--
My first showcase at this year's Folk Alliance featured Janice Jo Lee and Alysha Brilla. It was brilliant, very participatory including some Advil-as-shaker percussion. To say the set exceeded my expectations is saying a lot because I'd spent the night before working security and staring at the two artists' beautiful posters--each promising music that mattered. What I overheard in the hall before the set raised my hopes all the more. 
A man asked one of the two, "So what kind of thing do you do?" 
One of my new heroes replied, "Social justice." 
The man said, "That's really important these days." 
She said, "It's always been important; people are just thinking about it more."
I'll be ordering their catalogues, and I'll be writing more....
Meanwhile, Janice Jo Lee--

As my friend (OKC's Blue Door owner) Greg Johnson pointed out on his Facebook page, many songs took on new meaning in this political climate. It so happens that much of what I've posted so far illustrates that, but there are particularly relevant specifics that will be coming to mind for weeks. One was John Fullbright' s "Fat Man," which had made such a transition from a sort of "found song" about the 19th Century "Monopoly Man" Capitalist villain into something dangerous enough Fullbright assured his audience he didn't really want to kill anyone. Ariana Gillis also pointed out her two year old "Freedom" was written about inhumanity in the age before President Trump. However, she admitted it had new power now, telling a funny story about accidentally buying an Ivanka Trump shirt for a photo shoot....Instead of wearing it, she went without one. In the Gillis's sets, the song that seemed all-but-mystifying because it was so on point was David Gillis's giddily empowering, "I'm Walking Away from a Fight." Such a foot stomping celebration of precious-but-guttering values, it was breathtaking.
This is not from the conference, but of the versions I've found on line it best captures Gillis's defiant energy from last Saturday.....
Bonuses of that show, Ariana shouted "Mama" and "Papa" on the off beat answering the brilliant chorus. Plus, David claims to have remembered all the lyrics, which he apparently didn't in this video. Oh well....

At the more personal end of politics, I felt very fortunate to get to know Jane Kramer, who played this song and another powerful song "Good Woman" in a Saturday night songwriter's round. I was impressed by her voice, her imagery, her melodicism and her way of enjambing a lyric to allow one meaning to hang in the air before turning it with the following phrase.
Kramer does what all my favorite artists do, she validates our most deep seated fears about ourselves and uses vulnerability as the route to honest connection. That's the story of Jimmie Rodgers, Robert Johnson and Patsy Cline as well as Lou Reed and, yes, Mary J. Blige. And that's the story of compassion through confession that seems all but lost in today's politics. 
This is the title track of Kramer' s most recent album, which I've had on my car stereo, alternating with Ariana Gillis's new EP, since the conference. I'm not a big fan of music videos proper, but I was happy to find this because it suggests the beauties the album uncovers with the tender delicacy Kramer uses to unwrap these horses. Oh, and the line for me is, "Unfurl my fist--all you're gonna find is a fraying rope." It's certainly the linchpin for this song if not the album (I'll soon write about at some length)--clinging to hope in an era built by cynicism.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"A Small Circle of Friends," Folk Alliance Part 2

The hardest thing about this year's Folk Alliance was just how inspirational it was. Not because inspiration's a bad thing....God knows we could use more of that.... But, because, any sense of what's come before and what lies ahead insists that we shouldn't trust easy agreements.

When the world reaches the point where the two electoral parties find the future by looking backwards, it's pretty damn important that we don't forget folk music has a heritage based in the past, and its forward thinking hasn't always been assured. Some of the early "songcatchers," those wonderful folks who scoured Appalachia and the Deep South for culture that might be lost, were true visionaries of a future when classes have dissolved into fetters of the past. But some of those "songcatchers" were nationalistic, ethnocentric and not far removed from the kind of reactionaries that gave us Nazi concepts of purity. As beautiful as the Forbidden Folk conference was, I heard the term "authentic" at least once in a way that made my skin crawl.

So the challenge of the conference, in many ways, was to steer the social justice elements of folk toward the present and the future, with a long memory of the warts-and-all past. I wasn't everywhere, and I had other work during some of the political sessions, but I heard the saving vision of the conference most clearly at the censorship panel. It was at that panel--featuring Si Kahn, Moddi, Dave Marsh and Lynne Margolis--that the challenges were most clearly expressed--we needed to remember who wasn't in the room, we needed to remember the media's ongoing complicity in a blackout on any point of view that truly challenges the system, and we needed to prod one another to speak out and sing out with a bravery that's never been called on before.

My strong sense of alienation--even among "my people"--musicians and writers--was galvanized by that last idea. I rarely feel safe talking about my politics. I'm not some stereotype of the past, but I am a new kind of communist, someone who is convinced we have no choice for the future that doesn't reject fascist control of unneeded labor and instead fight for a cooperative society that struggles against the global apocalypse upon us.

So my insecurity means I find myself apologizing to a folk musician from my hometown when he asks about my blog because "I've only written about politics lately," knowing full well that my blog displays my politics most nakedly, even, at times, most naively, but always most bravely. I find myself thinking about a number of new and old friends at the conference who perhaps don't know my motivations are as radical as they are.

Don't get me wrong. I think art is, first and foremost, an intuitive and highly personal means of communication. But, that said, I think art past the age of patronage and value-based labor has to find some way to raise awareness of the human sacrifice that lies behind the nightly news. In simple terms, I trust that a great lonely love song can speak to the greatest political challenges that face us.

That's a long way around to say the tribute show that most spoke to me was a tribute to Phil Ochs, the only one of the three artists celebrated (unlike Woody and Pete) who I didn't know at all a decade ago.

The show was run by Zachary Stevenson, an actor/musician who previously made his place doing a one-man show dedicated to Buddy Holly. But inhabiting Phil Ochs is another matter, and Stevenson did it at least as convincingly as Warren Beatty captured John Reed. At this show, he sang a devastating "I Ain't Marching Anymore" alongside beautiful covers by Tom Paxton and Joe Jencks. This was wonderful music, and it made me realize how close Ochs' anger and frustration (especially with sympathetic people) parallels and validates my own feelings. As a college teacher, I dialogue openly and learn from people of every political stripe. That's not too hard, and it's very satisfying. But, that said, I come close to losing my head talking to people who sympathize with my opinions but so half-step the issues that I feel self-censorship is my main mode of discourse.

This isn't to say I'm right and they're wrong. It's to say how I feel honestly. If there was a value to the 2017 Forbidden Folk Alliance that was unique to this conference, it was the call to be unabashedly honest, or at the very least strategically honest. My strategic honesty stayed very much in check, and that disturbed me more than anything. We're talking about ourselves like we are of and among the visionaries who can save the humanity of humanity and we're not all that honest with each other. At least I wasn't, and I think most people who really know me know it doesn't take much to get me to open up.

So maybe that's why SONiA Disappear Fear's version of Och's "Small Circle of Friends" hit me as hard as anything at that conference. While I have deep-seated bonds with brothers and sisters across the nation and across the world, I yearn for a small circle of friends  less alienating than Ochs' portrait, and I've never had that, really. I feel lucky to be welcome in any clique that will have me, don't get me wrong, but I always feel like that Ochs character, knowing that I'm rationalizing cries from across the fucking street in order to hang onto the social connections that I've got.

My future has got to be different. These posts are meant to accelerate that change.

I'm posting another version of SONiA doing this song in order to speed that right along. This was close to how she did it when I heard her, and I knew nothing else but that I was going to have to write about this performance immediately after the conference. Again, if you read my other post, I'm working my way through a lot of things....

The other revelation of this performance was that the punk and the New Wave that I grew up with stemmed from this 60s folk movement. I mean, I knew Joe Strummer was a leftist busker and that some of my 60s friends were even turned off of punk and New Wave because of the folkie influences. Still, when I heard Disappear Fear do Phil Ochs and sound like Elvis Costello collaborating with Nick Lowe, some scales fell from my eyes.

And of course the most important thing is the portrait of the clique group-minding it's way out of every responsibility, making me think of the current blind rush to the Democrats as well as my own sense of an elephant always in the living room. I thank Phil Ochs by way of SONiA Disappear Fear for all of this.

Also, a great version by Ochs--

Monday, February 20, 2017

My Sixth Folk Alliance International, Part 1, "Bigger Than That"

My Sixth Folk Alliance International each one, a set of entirely new experiences (and, yes, comfortingly familiar ones). But unforgettable things! I have at least a dozen stories I want to write now why Americans diminish music as some concept of entertainment removed from art. I can't write it all at once. I can maybe list people and moments I know I would write about.

One would be Nora Guthrie getting everyone on their feet and hand signaling cues to a "This Land Is Your Land" ("no trespassing" verse and all) led by Jimmy LaFave and Betty Soo. 

Another is hearing Si Kahn's call to "generate mountains of material to be censored," and Moddi's horror at the BBC wanting to cover his anthology of censored songs but not to allow him to discuss sex, violence, drugs, religion or anything actually censored by the BBC, and Dave Marsh's call for us to educate one another and, if we're serious, we reach out and never stop reaching.
I would write about a ferocious political set by Bruce Sudano that made me want to find everything he's ever written but also has me hungering for the latest release in a five decade career. For that matter, I'd have to talk about how and why Bobby Rush held the second most crowded ballroom I visited absolutely riveted.
I could blog about this feeling the Oklahoma Room just got taken to heights even the regulars hadn't quite found here (or maybe the best time in the Okie Room is the most recent)....anyway, thanks to Susan Herndon, Jacob Tovar, Chris Lee Becker, Kayln Fay, Jesse Aycock, Lauren Barth, Travis Linville, Carter Sampson, the Annie Oakleys, Wink Burcham, Paul Benjamin, Ellis Paul, and Trout Fishing in America, the Oklahoma Room was a life saver.
Then I'd have to tell what it was like hearing David Gillis and daughter Ariana Gillis give a back to back set that only amplified my sense of how important they both are, as a team and separately. And that's something to compare anyone, nevermind a dad, to Ms. Gillis, who is simply-put one of the most striking artists I've ever seen and would ever hope to see.

In that sense, she's a lot like John Fullbright, who was never better Friday night, proving once again to stand apart from and unite the crowd like nobody else...nevermind that he did this playing almost entirely new material and confronting the politics of the moment like only he can at this moment in his career, the show a revelation.
I was thrilled to learn that Jane Kramer, a great new friend I'd made from Asheville, North Carolina turned out to be an artist who could not only hold a room riveted but take all of us to our most vulnerable spaces willingly, and to the feeling of love for humankind that sets the concept of "folk" apart from so many exclusive musical genres.
I can write about how I heard Michael Fracasso as fired as ever after the release of his stunning new album Here Come the Savages.
I was taken away by the Bean Project's ability to find a place where folk and bluegrass had a pop baby that may just be reincarnated Burt Bacharach.
I was reassured about everything I find most important in art by Eliza Gilkyson, Rod Picott, Ayllu, Bobby Rush, SONiA Disappear Fear, Billy Bragg (even though I had to miss his actual set--he was literally in the air)....and then there was Jimmy, Jimmy, always the great Oklahoman Jimmy LaFave, bringing home great songwriting in ways even Woody and Dylan couldn't manage.
If you look at what's above you see over 30 pieces of the conference that could lead me to write about distinctly different and equally important ideas.
Meanwhile, I should end this status by mentioning the first songwriter circle, a sort of duo, of artists Alysha Brilla and Janice Jo Lee, who together may have made the most overtly political music of the conference. Jo Lee finding a way to get a room to sing about water poisoning, Brilla offering a kind of child-like clarity (much like Woodrow Wilson Guthrie) with her track "Bigger Than That" (
I start fighting my way to write with this recommend. I'll be going back through everything above, over and over again.

It's never been more important to learn.

"Bigger Than That" written/arranged by Alysha Brilla Shot at my apartment/studio. With these amazingly talented folks: Tabla: Sarah Thawer Bass: Maxwell Roac...

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Objectivity and Possibility

Earlier this week, I exclaimed to my class my thanks for the thousands of people who made my teaching possible that day, through their sense of objectivity and their ability to cooperate. Without those people, no one would have built my car, I would not have survived the drive into school, and we would not have wiring to light our lights and fire my computer. Thank you, world, for in general agreeing on reality and working together to make it easier to stay alive than it was, say, even a hundred years ago.  

Scarily, the White House is currently calling into question the very things that get me to work each day. And it’s being done on purpose. The Steve Bannons of this world understand reality and the need for cooperation just well enough to destroy both for a quorum—just enough people to bring the pressure of the United States government into a series of power struggles based on a denial of that reality and a need for cooperation. 

Ironically, Bannon only gained power because he understands both concepts better than whatever ideological resistance has been positioned to stop him. The Left (in the main Liberalism in America) has been vulnerable precisely because the Right focuses on material conditions. In the 1970s, when Right Wing think tanks thunked up Reaganism to preserve capitalism despite a declining future for industrial production, it was because they were strategically thinking about long term strategies and end games. Liberals tend to take a values-based approach to such ideas—we should all want the world to be a healthy green planet—while ignoring the reasons such ideals demand a revolution in the way we produce and distribute goods. I know that really hit home for me when I was reading a letter by Karl Marx in which he—somewhat viciously—scolded someone for being so na├»ve as to think that mechanization was going to create better jobs for those thrown out of work. His sentiment was, to paraphrase, the economy has never worked that way—when the ruling class finds ways to cut the cost of production, no new value (being a concept based in the amount of labor expended) has ever been created. We are right to think automation makes our lives easier; we are foolish to think that has no cost in a capitalist (i.e. late agrarian to industrialist) economy.

There’s tons of truth to the old axiom, “The best defense is a good offense,” so it should be no surprise that post-industrialist capitalists like Bannon are attacking the philosophical outlet that gives them an advantage. It’s called pulling the ladder up behind you. If you determine that this is a last stand for an “America First” strategy, it is essential that you erase the intensive study of material conditions and social behavior that has led you to the conclusion that this would work. You want an advantage in the objective motion toward globalization? Convince your people that globalism is an evil ideology. American capitalists are thrilled to be offered a way to profit from such nationalism--it will give them a global propagandistic advantage.

This is why I joined the Institute for the Study of the Science of Society over a decade back. We were (and are) a bunch of cultural workers and activists who agree that the only way we win the fight for a humane future is to build upon and maintain an objective (and scientific) approach to the politics of the heart. I think the thing that most haunts me of the many great things Howard Zinn wrote is in his now (inexplicably) out of print, Declarations of Independence, in his essay on objectivity and education. He argued that it was an unreasonable expectation that journalists and teachers be objective, but that doesn’t mean it's not possible to have opinions and still be fair to those who disagree with you. (I immediately think of how many reactionary students have intellectually kicked my progressive students' butts and how their grades have reflected it. Our faith needs to lie in conscientiousness despite our bias.) Zinn argued that history is never objective, written by the victors as it tends to be, but he did think an objective perspective (i.e. a realistic perspective) could be gained by reading as many different perspectives as possible of any historical event and even by favoring minority perspectives because they were far less likely to be expressed. A plurality of subjectivities, Zinn wrote, is the best we can hope for when it comes to a scientific understanding of the world around us.

So I’ve been a teacher of writing and a freelance journalist for a long time, and after reading about countless false headlines in the past few weeks, I feel compelled to bear witness to my experience. The author of a story rarely writes the headlines. And in this world of clickbait hysteria, it seems pretty obvious, the people who write the headlines often don't understand the story or, even more likely, they do not care deeply about the truth. In a world where we can't tell Reality TV from any of the rest of it, where we have an expanding market for deliberate "fake news" and "alternative facts," it seems more important than ever that we find ways to strive for something that approaches objective truth. The appearance of truth, after all, is being used against us. Everyone in power is pandering to their audience one way or another, but the truth is out there. It’s up to us to be the scientists to save our future.

So, I end where I began. The only way I can do the work I do is because of a certain degree of collectivity and objectivity. When those concepts are under attack, it’s more important than ever that we find ways to collectivize around our study of the news and our determination of reality. It is not being handed to us as it is, but, as every fiction writer since Edgar Allan Poe has been able to prove, we are smart enough to analyze subjectively recorded information and determine context and truth for ourselves, if we work together.

I hear the American scientific community plans to march on Washington this Earth Day. I will be there with them, one way or another. I think the most subjective rewards—the love and beauty and excitement that keep us going—depend on a grasp of reality more than ever before in our history. May we all rise together and transform this world into the beautiful possibilities the human mind has shown us, time and time again.