Sunday, November 19, 2017

Woodyfest #3, It's Up to Us

July's Woody Guthrie Folk Festival presentation on Daniel Wolff's book, Grown-Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913, took place on the front porch of the replica Guthrie family home in the Okemah Historical Society. The setting was entirely appropriate. For an hour, Wolff, Pastures of Plenty editor Dave Marsh and musicians Chris Buhalis and Michael Fracasso discussed what Marsh called the focus of Wolff’s book, “How do all these people fit inside that one question that animates ‘Like a Rolling Stone,” ‘how does it feel’? The answers came from somewhere near that front porch, Guthrie only being a year old when the events behind his “1913 Massacre” took place. The answers also came from each individual history in Wolff’s book, on that porch and in that room.                         

               Wolff started the talk the way the book starts, considering why his 13-year old self responded to the anger he heard in “Like a Rolling Stone.” He knew the world wasn’t fair, it wasn’t just, and he heard the appropriate response in that song. His book recalls the inadequate answers adults would give him to the questions of the day, “’Sure the present system is messed up,’ some grown-up would say in a sympathetic voice, ‘but it’s still the best that . . . .’ And so on, and so on, til I just wanted to change the channel.”
                Marsh’s talk began with the contrast between his background and Wolff’s, which in some ways paralleled the distinctions between Guthrie’s Oklahoman ‘middle class’ roots in the early decades of the century and Dylan’s more comfortable background in the middle of the century. Wolff’s father was a commuter who took the train into the city, and Marsh’s father was a conductor who carried commuters. What they shared, and what Guthrie and Dylan shared, was a sense of loneliness, even though Guthrie had a sense of community that sprung from the labor movements still alive in his day, and Dylan struggled to find community in the post-McCarthy era of his career.
                Once, when Marsh asked his mother about his grandfather’s politics (he lived on the other side of the Upper Peninsula from Calumet), she replied, “A lot like yours.” She then helped him piece together a story from his youth when he first met his Uncle Elgin on his grandparents’ farm. Elgin showed up one day looking for his grandfather, and Marsh remembered his grandmother dropping whatever was in her hands. She told her grandson, “Those two haven’t talked to each other in forty years.”   
During a railroad strike that would help ignite the anticommunist Palmer raids of the 1920s, Marsh’s great uncle crossed the picket. His grandfather painted his brother’s name on the side of a boxcar, calling him a scab, and rolled it down a hill so that the whole town would know. With this, Marsh underscored the importance of all that seemingly small stuff that people do because they don’t have control, want control and feel isolated.
This set up Michael Fracasso singing “1913 Massacre,” but he didn’t just start singing. He also began with his roots. Fracasso explained that this song always hit home because his father was a steelworker in Ohio, and Christmas time was always a special childhood memory for him. The workers would have a big Christmas party and all of the kids would get “a bag of candy with maybe a toy inside.” This is the setting for the song, described so eloquently in Wolff’s book, about just such a happy moment destroyed by “copper boss thugs” who shout fire into Calumet’s Italian Hall during the party and then hold the doors shut while seventy three partygoers suffocated and were trampled in the panic that followed. Listening to Fracasso’s sweet, heartrending vocals, it’s hard to imagine anyone speaking more forcefully for the fifty-nine children in that number killed on what should be one of the happiest nights of their young lives.
                Buhalis then sang Dylan’s version of the same tune, “Song to Woody.” With a nod to Fracasso, he also recalled the stockings of candy at the Christmas parties he went to as the son of a Detroit ironworker. As Fracasso had done with “1913 Massacre,” Buhalis personalized his tribute to Guthrie as well as “Cisco and Sonny and Leadbelly, too, all the good people who traveled with you.” The intensity of his voice told of the struggle to find a place to stand in a world that “seems like it’s dying but it’s hardly been born.” 
                After some discussion of Dylan’s question—what do we do today as opposed to what made sense in the past—Buhalis sang Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson’s “Joe Hill,” the tribute to the great folksinger martyred in 1915, a song that insists Joe Hill isn’t dead. It’s hard to imagine a sound more convincing than Buhalis’s plainspoken baritone, but after the song ended, he admitted he struggled with the “ridiculous optimism” over those sorts of labor songs, those ones about winning in the face of one hard loss after another. Buhalis added, “I know it’s metaphorical—“
                To which Marsh responded, “It’s musical too….I mean, you’re only about 3/4ths from putting Jimmy LaFave in the room.”
                “No,” Chris nodded, “Jimmy LaFave’s in the room.”
                For those who might not know (and unfortunately, that’s most of the world), Jimmy LaFave was a great Texas-born/Oklahoma-formed songwriter who was unrivaled as an interpreter of just about anyone he set out to interpret, but for our purposes, it’s easy to say he was unmatched for the way he made Guthrie and Dylan his own. He was a dear friend to the members of this discussion, performing with Buhalis and Fracasso many times, and he'd only just died two months before Woodyfest.
                Marsh continued, “I was thinking about that as you sang the song today. I never heard Joe Hill that way . . . the understanding that there are people that this will happen to in any person’s lifetime, and it isn’t because Joe Hill was a hero (although he WAS a hero), it’s because….Martin Luther King said that the problem with communism was that it forgot that life is individual and….”
                At this moment, Marsh choked up a little, thinking of LaFave. “Shouldn’t have brought up Jimmy,” he said.
                He went on. “The problem of capitalism is that it forgets that life is collective . . . . and everything my brothers have been saying today, and everything this festival’s about, that’s what it says”—Life is collective.
                Fracasso then delivered a gorgeous reading of Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.” The inescapably vivid lyrics being “No martyrs among you now whom you can call your own. Go on your way accordingly, but know you’re not alone.” Wolff called it an answer to Joe Hill, reading his book’s opening John Berger quote, “How do the living live with the dead.”
                Wolff emphasized the point. “We continue to live with them. How do we do that? How do we honor them? How does this what I call ‘line of anger’ that goes back in time continue? And it was never easy. [He pointed at Buhalis.] As you say, Joe Hill didn’t have an easy route and neither did Woody Guthrie or a whole bunch of other people.”
                In that room, at that moment last July, Jimmy LaFave was, in fact, present, as was Joe Hill, as was Woody Guthrie, as were the seventy three whose Christmastime deaths inspired this particular cry. Dylan was there, too, as was every one of us who found our way down to Woody Guthrie’s hometown to celebrate the great collective fight for justice Guthrie’s career represents.
                The question how the living carry on that fight was indeed the question at the heart of it all. What worked for Guthrie, in the end, couldn’t work for Dylan, and Dylan’s lonesome search for meaningful community presaged the isolation that today threatens to swallow us whole even in the midst of intense political uproar. Talks like this are groundwork for further discussion on what to do with our anger and our desire for justice when the world doesn’t look like it did in the past. The strategies and tactics are no easy prescription because they’re as individual and ever-changing as the lives we lead, but at least one point made that day is inescapable and, if we can grab hold of our own strength, inspiring.
                Recalling the moment the memory of Jimmy LaFave halted his speech, Marsh said, “You know, what I got so weepy about is the fact that it’s up to us.”

                Spurred on by Jimmy, Joe, Woody, Bob and all the others “who come with the dust and are gone with the wind,” no one left the room without feeling that call.

P.S. The video is on YouTube and well worth watching, here--

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Reflections on Our Subscription Drives

Some thoughts on the subscription drives for Rally Comrades, the People's Tribune and Tribuno del Pueblo--

 Anger’s all around us today. On social media, we don’t just disagree; we often attack. And while some attack the larger forces that are making our lives increasingly miserable, most of us lash out at whoever's handy—the people who have elsewhere loved us, supported us, nurtured us, helped us solve problems from time to time and often helped us simply get through our problems. On Facebook, which some shrewdly avoid, we tend to lash out at our “friends,” sometimes directly but more often in some passive aggressive flailing declaration. I’ve certainly been guilty of this. When I realize I’ve done this, I take those comments down.

 But that doesn’t make the anger go away. It’s simply not smart or strategic or, when I get right down to it, kind. In these tender times, that consideration of others and their vulnerability certainly matters (at least to me) in new ways every day.

 Of course, it’s not just social media. Virtually every form of media is filled with hostility, and anger’s close to the surface almost anywhere. People cut in line and rail at people who cut in line. I feel it in my car driving to and from work. People begin frantically honking when someone drives too slowly. Others dart back and forth through traffic like they’re shooting The Fast and the Furious. I brake for them and swerve so they won’t hit me so that they can race ahead only to be sitting next to me at the next red light.

 At that light, the anger still exists, as a contagion, in both of us. But, usually, we don’t look at each other. As angry as we know the world to be today, we don’t want things to escalate. We both simply want to get to work on time.

In the end, the anger isn’t the real problem. Anger is a natural response, albeit not always the healthiest one but sometimes absolutely involuntary, to the frustration of our hopes and dreams and desires, even the simplest ones. You take away a child’s ice cream cone, and it’s liable to come out in screams and tears. You take away an adult’s ice cream cone, and, if you get a more mature response, the difference comes from some learned way to distance oneself from the impulse.

 I am thankful for the work I get to do in this world because it all helps me find a distance on my most childish impulses and tackle the underlying causes of the problems in front of me. This is how I get through my days in the classroom, which fortunately offer all kinds of unforeseen rewards. (People working face to face with each other tend to find a way to resolve their differences.) But it’s also how I’ve manage to gain a practical perspective outside of the classroom.

In my college years, my anger at the KKK on my campus, the reasons Central Americans sought refuge in my neighborhoods because of wars my country funded, the loss of thousands of jobs in my hometown and the vanishing certainty of anything like stability in even my own future led me to work with a series of organizations—on campus, the African-American Student Organization, Amnesty International and various organizations fighting for peace and justice. After school, I started a music and politics newsletter in Oklahoma called The Red Dirt Runner, which would become A Sign of the Times in Kansas City, both based on the national music and politics networking newsletter Rock & Rap Confidential. I worked with In Defense of Music, the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, the Greater Kansas City Coalition Against Censorship, the Music Alliance, the KCMO Union of the Homeless, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, my teacher’s union and many other organizations, increasingly focused on the reasons we all have to be justifiably angry at the way the world works.

 At least since 1993, the through-line (my lifeline?) for all of this activity has been my membership in the League of Revolutionaries for a New America (LRNA). While the world seems filled with people both at each others’ throats and avoiding one another, the League focuses on building a practical unity that can carry us forward. We do this by examining what we really know about root causes for the conditions we live in and how that can help us reach across ideological divisions. People who have not engaged with our ideas sometimes react to our assessments as if they are utopian, but I don't see it that way. A group of people active in today’s struggles on every front you can imagine, League members come together and gain our conclusions methodically. We collectively study our personal experiences as well as scientific and written history. We study technology and today’s headlines, particularly those buried on page 6. It’s the best liberal arts education I’ve ever been engaged with, and it never stops because conditions never stop changing. Perhaps most importantly, this education brings hope.

 The League focuses on common denominators. There are baseline reasons the world has become so unstable and will continue to grow more unstable until it transforms into something more humane. These changes are rooted in changing technologies that are currently being used against us. We famously repeat the notion that the world is going through objective revolutionary change because, without that recognition, we can’t begin to think in new ways to deal with a new world.

 Mainstream thinkers have been talking about our post-industrial future for about four decades, and mainstream art and literature is filled with dystopian nightmares of various kinds of dictatorship that will destroy quality of life for the great masses of the people. The LRNA recognizes the profound technological revolution that is transforming our society, and we work in agreement that it can be steered to serve the people. We can live in a better world, but the great masses of people will have to find ways to come together as one in order to midwife that world into existence.

 The sins of our fathers loom large. Ten thousand years ago, our hunter-gatherer society transformed into more sedentary structures that allowed for the accumulation of wealth. The ancient divisions of labor within the social structure (which took many forms by age and gender and varied abilities) were, in terms of human history, replaced fairly quickly by male dominance in the politics of commerce, which relegated women to positions of less power. National racial identities formed which, after thousands of years, were supplanted by imperialist power and the slave trade which based identities on skin color. The political maneuverings of the capitalist era gave birth to most of the ideological divisions we still suffer today. None of those division are going away any time soon, and we still have to fight on those ideological battlegrounds, but the underlying structure of society has changed in ways that give us advantages.

Even as it was exploited against us, technology has always offered ways to liberate individual human existence. The birth of the printing press in the 1400s led to the European renaissance and scientific and political propaganda that would increase our life spans and help us understand the world around us and how we fit into this world. Since the 1950s and the invention of the transistor, technology has allowed us to eliminate the objective need for much of our human labor. It is much more than coincidence that, in 2017, the world rests in the palms of our hands, and we are perhaps angrier than ever before.

Deep down, we know a better world is possible, and we each have pieces of the puzzle, but the power structure tends to turn us against each other so that we cannot come together constructively. We live in a world of mass incarceration with neverending wars where people who do try to do a little good are often attacked for those efforts. When I was a child, I could not have imagined, in my 50s I’d live in a world where people could be arrested for feeding the homeless or housing others who are running for their lives.

 We will not gain a more humane future without struggle, but we will not gain that future by attacking everyone else struggling to pay their bills and put food on the table. I believe we have more than a good chance if we come together and share what we know and strategize a way forward. As a member of the LRNA, I collectivize what I know with others for just that reason, and our paper, Rally Comrades, is the place where League members share that information and strategy for further study. We also support and distribute The People’s Tribune and Tribuno del Pueblo, to publish the stories of people fighting for their human rights in their own words, often from varied ideological perspectives. It is the practical need for unity that concerns me, and it’s that call that concerns the LRNA, which is why I am calling for my friends and loved ones to do what they can to help support our presses. You can support the League paper here-- The People’s Tribune here-- and Tribuno del Pueblo here-- You can donate as little or as much as you want to in order to help us achieve these goals.

After a quarter century doing this work, I know we’re approaching the day with a focus that’s needed now more than ever before. I hope some of you will hear my appeal for the sincere summation of my experience that it is and consider helping out. It’s been a great gift in my life, and I ask because we need it, certainly, but also because I want to share this gift with others.

As my friend Ron Casanova used to sign off, “Through Peace, Love and Understanding,”


Thursday, September 28, 2017

Love and Everyday Hope: The Wickham Brothers Go Solo

          Though they both have moments reminiscent of their great band Hadacol, this year’s two solo albums by Fred Wickham and brother Greg are a study in contrasts. Being brothers is no doubt polarizing, but being bandmates, it’s amazing they still work together two decades down the road. The great news is they’ve each found their own voices, intertwined by that Hadacol sensibility, but expansive in their distinction. A crude way to say it would be Greg goes big with a rare, brave excellence while brother Fred fingers heartache with quiet, heartrending precision. Another crude way to put it is Greg’s If I Left This World is a pop album, a pop album about death, and Fred’s Mariosa Delta is a blues album, a blues album about the promise of love.

           But all that’s too simplistic. Fred Wickham’s album is firmly rooted in a pop sensibility almost a century old while Greg’s album focuses on more recent sounds. They both reach wide for listeners, and the spindle of these two albums is mortality, the big tent anthemic album revolving around silent grief, and the humble swing record spinning round a tale of cold blooded murder.

            If I Left This World has been out half a year, so let’s start with that one. It’s a big record, but grounded. Greg starts and ends the record with prayers for his daughters. “Angel of Mercy (Song for Sophie)” uses a waltzing wall of sound to drive off his daughter’s pain and to encourage a life truly lived—“let her dance through the shadows til she finds her way home.” Closer “Elsie’s Lullaby” dreams equally grand dreams with a quieter, string-laden touch.

Sounds and styles shift gracefully--from the fiery bluegrass prayer of “Oh Me Oh My” to the rock anthem call for hope (against hope), “Waterfall,” to the dark blues of “Clear,” and the quiet country ballad “If I Left This World.” Greg Wickham sings of people befuddled, defiant, extraordinarily loving and somewhat suicidal. Whatever Greg is singing about at any given time, he’s singing life and death stakes with a sense of humor and a vision big enough to be his final act.

Fred Wickham plays at equally high stakes but he plays them closer to the vest. It takes a while listening to opener “Big Fat Moon” to realize this c’mon the singer’s making is to a memory in his head. For all his swagger, he may well be the saddest of the hard cases that follow.

            And there’s some pretty hard cases. The rockabilly grind of “Rock Bottom Again” promises that the worst so far is nowhere near the worst that’s yet to come. The stubbornly clear vision of the lost soul in “Red Light” promises no hope or redemption. The ‘Better Man’ of “You Don’t Need Me’s” only plan is to “get stoned.” There’s a murder at the heart of this story, and you find yourself wondering how close other fingers are to other triggers. 

Both albums are gorgeous, and daring. Both singers have astounding voices. Both emerge absolutely themselves, using strings and horns over hard-hitting combos that couldn't sound more different.

And they’ve both got me writing tonight at a point in my life where writing doesn’t come easy. There’s times when you’ve lost too much to count and yet you still can't help but count the losses. There's times when you can't remember why you do the things you do, but you still know you need to do them. Both If I Left This World and Mariosa Delta are albums that know how to take that loss and confusion and turn it into a way to keep going. I don't know whether to sing praise or give thanks.

A spare live version of Fred Wickham's "You Don't Need Me"-- featuring Fred and bassist Richard Burgess.

Greg Wickham's "Waterfall" from last March's record release-- featuring guest/co-producer Kristie Stremel. Springfield, Missouri's legendary producer Lou Whitney took the helm on the Fred Wickham record.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Love in Need of Love Today: Greetings from Kitchener-Waterloo

The leap going on in our society has convinced me to turn my attention to my eleven-year-old blog as the main story I am trying to tell. Occasionally, I will post stories here that were originally published elsewhere. Last spring, I posted at some length about Janice Jo Lee and Alysha Brilla, two Kitchener-Waterloo musicians I first heard at the 2017 KC Folk Alliance Conference, "Forbidden Folk." Their music has been central to my year so far, and I did brief profile interviews on both of them for The People's Tribune. I'm reposting these below. 

Covering the stories of those entirely left out of the mainstream media and deepening the understanding of headline struggles through the stories of the real people fighting for our survival all over the U.S. and the world, the People's Tribune has been central to my grounded understanding of conditions in America since 1990. Check out the paper here--

If I have any artist or musician friends who would like to do a similar profile for this forum for everyday fighters' hopes, dreams, struggles and triumphs, please let me know. You can write me directly at

Alysha Brilla's New Album Envisions a Future Founded on Love, PT, May 2017

Editor’s note: Multi-instrumentalist songwriter Alysha Brilla’s new album, Human, has the power of a unifying manifesto. Inspired by singers Selena Perez, Amy Winehouse and Bob Marley, Brilla’s vocals are, at once, fun, soulful and exciting. The music she makes is every bit as remarkable as that mix. A Canadian of Tanzanian and Indian heritage, Brilla weaves a tapestry of sounds from every reach of the African diaspora. With eclectic hip hop-flavored mixes, R&B and jazz horns vamp off Indian tabla over reggae and African rhythms, creating a sound both inviting and invigorating. Thematically, Human climbs the walls people try to build between one another (“Bigger than That”), dreams of a future founded on love (“No More Violence”) and embraces the process of change before us (“Change the World”). In an interview with the People’s Tribune’s Danny Alexander, Brilla explains her vision, a brilliant counterpoint to that of our corporately-run government and media.

PT: When I first heard you sing “Bigger Than That,” I was in awe of how you could say so much so playfully. How do you remember music shaping your perspective as a child?
Brilla: Music was a huge life source for me as a child. I was always the odd one in my family and in general, so music became a language with which I could translate my thoughts and feelings, and one that people would respond to positively. My mom sang to me, making up lyrics, and my father played guitar on occasion. I was completely fascinated.
PT: How would you describe your approach?
Brilla: Growing up near Toronto, in a mixed household, I heard a lot of different music. I have always loved rhythm. Good rhythm. Good melody. Good lyrics. A song doesn’t need to be complicated. My love for pop music is that it embraces simplicity, as does most folk music around the world. It’s music for people to sing along to, and gather. It connects us to ourselves, each other and a greater unifying force.
PT: What is the story behind your decision to write “Human,” a song about being one of 7 billion others?
Brilla: I like the idea of objectivity. I like the idea of humans having a capacity to zoom out, over ourselves, and look from a bird’s eye view. To look at where we fit in our families, societies and in the world. I think there is nothing more important at this time in history than understanding ourselves and each other. It’s our only hope.
PT: You seem to be a part of a strong, nurturing community of musicians. How did that community and/or that approach develop?
Brilla: I was welcomed by different communities, especially in K-W (Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario). I have a friend and artist named Janice Lee [a wonderful musician herself] whose love for community always inspires me. Without community we feel empty.
PT: If you could change the world, what do you imagine that world might look like?
Brilla: It would look balanced because humanity would collectively be doing the work to ensure that voices formerly silenced now have a platform to express and teach us.It would be a lot greener, too. Borders wouldn’t be so strict because nationalism would be a dated value.

Without Justice There Can Be No Love, PT, June 2017

Editor's Note: Janice Jo Lee’s album, Sing Hey, begins with three deep breaths, as if she’s thinking through what she has to say before launching into a kind of slam-sung poem of tough self-talk. That opener, “All the Times You Were Silent,” kicks off a seamless and stunning mix of soulful folk, blues and hip hop about struggling to pay the bills, standing up for one’s self and fighting for justice and community. Known for her music, poetry and theatrical work in Kitchener, Ontario, Lee offered great insight into her work when she spoke with the People’s Tribune’s Danny Alexander.

PT: “Why do you focus on social justice?”
Janice Jo Lee: “When we talk about social justice, we are talking about society, which for me is made up of the relationships between people—friendships. I believe strongly in what Bell Hooks says, that without justice there can be no love. If you love me, and I love you, we must be dedicated to do the work to build bridges across our differences so that they do not become issues. This is what I write about in my music, the struggles of loving the people around you.”
PT: “And music’s role?”
Lee: “Music can transcend words because you feel music in your body, in your ears, in your head, in your heart, in your chest. There’s so much joy in music, and I think that’s necessary to prioritize as we build communities. To remember why we’re doing this. It is very celebratory.”
PT: “Many of our readers have suffered from the poisoning of their water supply, and you sing about this subject. What inspired it?”

Lee: “The song is called “Oil in the Grand.” It’s a new song.  It will be on my new album Ancestor Song. My song is directly tied to the oil spill in Michigan. There’s a pipeline that crosses the Grand River called line 9. It will be carrying diluted bitumen from the tar sands in Alberta all the way across Southern Ontario to Montreal. It crosses our watershed in Waterloo Region, the Grand River. It crosses Six Nations Treaty territory. And there has been a lot of organizing around stopping this pipeline and the reverse of its flow.”
PT: Your album begins with a kind of political toolbox, but climaxes with some gorgeous pop music, like the wonderful “40 km to Pickle Lake.” How did you see it fitting together?
Lee: My intention with the album was to put the songs I think are the most urgent at the front. Organizing, politics and education is the means, and living a fulfilled joyous wonderful life full of friendship is the ends.
“Pickle Lake” [a song Lee wrote about a time in her life when she had to walk all day to reach a store] ends with a sing-along on the oohs. I’m a folk musician. I want everyone to sing along always. It’s a love lullaby for friendship…
My art is embedded in my community. Building relationships takes time, building trust takes time. I think if we were able to communicate and not be afraid about what we feel, be patient and understanding with each other instead of suppressing our feelings, we could be so much closer.
Janice Jo Lee photo: Hannah Marie

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Final Note: Alysha Brilla has just finished recording a new album, Rooted, to be released at the end of September. Certainly more of what the world needs right now. Janice Jo Lee will also be playing the album release party.