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--