I have been away from the computer for a long while now as
my wife was recently quite ill. Everything else was put into
a very clear perspective and took a very distinct secondary
position during these last couple weeks.
I find I have missed a great deal of good posts. I find I
have been added to yet another list! I plan to contribute
to the "Functional versus Evolutionary Explanations" line in
the next week and will be posting my review of Angela Davis's
(relatively) new book on the blues, "Blues Legacies and Black
Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie
Holiday". Until then, a brief review of a c.d. I *strongly*
engourage people to purchase.
I have been an avid fan of Woody Guthrie's music ever since
I first gave it a serious listen. To me, if he was not THE
first, he was one of the first of a type of artist called
"singer-songwriters". The only other singer I can think of
who can write so eloquently and -- importantly -- simply
about relationships with others in one song and then struggles
against oppression in all its forms in the next song (with the
possible exception of Phil Ochs) is Billy Bragg. Fitting, then,
that the latest Woody Guthrie c.d. to be released is by Billy
Bragg and Wilco.
"Mermaid Avenue" is the name of the c.d.; Billy Bragg and Wilco
created the music to accompany lyrics of Woody Guthrie's that
he had written in his home at Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island.
Billy Bragg writes in the liner notes:
"Mermaid Avenue is the name of the street in Coney Island,
Brooklyn, that was home to Woody Guthrie and his wife, Marjorie
and their kids in the years that followed World War II. Here he
daydreamed about making love to Ingrid Bergman on the slopes of
an Italian volcano and wondered to himself what he would do if,
like fellow left-wing songwriter Hanns Eisler, he was called before
the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and here he wrote
songs. Hundreds of them. Nonsense songs for his kids like
"Hoodoo Voodoo", visions of his own Oklahoma childhood like "Way
Over Yonder in the Minor Key", mid-century love songs like
"Hesitating Beauty" and works of personal self-exploration like
"Another Man's Done Gone" that make him prime candidate as the
first in a long line of singer-songwriters.
Despite the fact that his recording career was more or
less over by 1947, he carried on writing songs until he became
too ill to hold a pencil [Guthrie had Huntington's disease].
The last years of his life were spent in the Brooklyn State
Hospital and when he died in 1967, the tunes that he had dreamt
up for these hundreds of unrecorded songs, tunes he had carried
in his head all his life, were lost forever.
Woody's daughter Nora Guthrie approached me in the spring
of 1995 with the idea of writing some new music to accompany these
lost songs. She runs the Woody Guthrie Archive in New York City
and offered me access to over a thousand complete lyrics of her
father's that are in her care. Handwritten or typed, often bearing
the date and place where they were written and sometimes accompanied
by an insight into the process at work, they offer us a broader
picture of a man who over the past sixty years has been vilified
by the American right whilst simultaneously being canonized by
the American Left.
In her original letter to me, Nora talked of breaking the
mold, of working *with* her father to give his words a new sound
and a new context. The result is not a tribute album but a
collaboration between Woody Guthrie and a new generation of
songwriters who until now had only glimpsed him fleetingly, over
the shoulder of Bob Dylan or somewhere in the distance of a
Bruce Springsteen song."
Woody Guthrie was not a great guitar player. He did not have
a great voice, for that matter. When his songs hit, however,
there is very little that is better. I have heard songs that
are just him accompanied by often simple chords on a guitar
with "This Machine Kills Fascists" scrawled on it. I have
heard songs that today might even be called "garage punk"
in how loud and raucous they are. He recorded with a huge
array of musicians, from Sonny Terry to Leadbelly. He sang
songs of fun, songs of love, songs of protest, and songs
of struggle. He bridged folk, country, and the blues. His
songs above all else praised and defended the lives of the
working men and women of particularly this country but that
also reached out to workers in other lands every now and then.
He lived several lives before Huntington's disease far too soon
cut him down.
"Mermaid Avenue" is a joy from beginning to end. My first few
listens to it gave me the impression that the songs in which
Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) sings were the weakest songs of the album,
but a few more listens rid me of that notion. The album
blends songs of social and political commentary with songs of
yearning, love, and, like Billy Bragg wrote above, daydreaming,
and remembering of times past. Of the latter, my favorite is
"Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key", which also includes a
*perfect* backing vocal by Natalie Merchant (and that is saying
something coming from me, no big fan of Merchant's).
"I lived in a place called Okfuskee
and I had a little girl in a holler tree
I said, little girl, it's plain to see
there ain't nobody that can sing like me
She said it's hard for me to see
how one little boy got so ugly
Yes, my little girly, that might be
but there ain't nobody that can sing like me
Way over yonder in the minor key
Way over yonder in the minor key
there ain't nobody that can sing like me
We walked down by the Buckeye Creek
to see the frog eat the goggle eye bee
To hear that west wind whistle to the east,
there ain't nobody that can sing like me
Oh my little girly will you let me see,
way over yonder where the wind blows free
Nobody can see in our holler tree
and there ain't nobody that can sing like me
Her mamma cut a switch from a cherry tree
and laid it on to she and me,
It stung lots worse that a hive of bees
but there ain't nobody that can sing like me
Now I have walked a long long ways
and I still look back to my tanglewood days,
I've led lots of girls since then to stray
saying, ain't nobody that can sing like me"
The next song on "Mermaid Avenue" is slow and powerful, with
just Billy Bragg on guitar and Natalie Merchant singing. The
guitar lines, in fact remind me of Bragg's music for "There
is Power in a Union", while the song is one of yearning for
a lover -- a perfect union of the personal and the political,
"She Came Along to Me" is a song about sexual and racial equality;
"Christ for President", in calling for putting "the Carpenter in"
the White House, makes an implicit call for Christians to follow
the words and deeds of the radical Jesus, rather than the words
and deeds of Christian leaders; "I Guess I Planted" is a longing
ode for the fighting for the union; "Eisler On the Go" a song
of worry and wonder about one's fate in the face of impending
political oppression and silencing.
"The Unwelcome Guest" is the perfect ending for the c.d., as it
seems to link directly the songs of struggle of Woody Guthrie to
the songs of struggle of Billy Bragg. Some of the lyrics:
"To the rich man's bright lodges I ride in this wind
On my good horse I call you my shiny Black Bess
To the playhouse of fortune to take the bright silver
And gold you have taken from somebody else
I've never took food from the widows and orphans
And never a hard working man I oppressed
So take your pace easy, for home soon like lightning
We soon will be riding, my shiny Black Bess
I treat horses good and I'm friendly to strangers
I ride and your running makes my guns talk the best
And the rangers and deputies are hired by the rich man
To catch me and hang me, my shining Black Bess
Yes, they'll catch me napping one day and they'll kill me
And then I'll be gone but that won't be my end
For my guns and my saddle will always be filled
By unwecome travellers and other brave men
And they'll take the money and spread it out equal
Just like the Bible and the prophets suggest
But the men that go riding to help these poor workers
The rich will cut down like an unwelcome guest"
This song recalls a song off of Woody Guthrie's album, "Struggle",
about Pretty Boy Floyd the outlaw:
"I've seen lots of funny men
Some will rob you with a six gun
And some with a fountain pen
But wherever I have rambled
Wherever I have roamed
I have never seen an outlaw
Drive a family from its home"
I have been a fan of Billy Bragg's music for about 15 years
now, and was worrying these past few years that he had pretty
much finished recording. I am very happy to see that this is
not the case, and I am *very* happy to see what his latest
efforts have brought. This is a c.d. that is at times joyful,
at times bragging, at times quietly and achingly speaking to a
lover, at times a glorious noise, at times calling for struggle,
at times encouraging those in struggle, at times sad for days
long gone. Just like the songs of Woody Guthrie. One has to
think he would have been mighty happy with how "Mermaid Avenue"
Todd writes a fascinating post on Guthrie, which I have only skimmed so
far, but I wanted to add to one paragraph now. He writes:
"I have been an avid fan of Woody Guthrie's music ever since I first gave
it a serious listen. To me, if he was not THE first, he was one of the
first of a type of artist called "singer-songwriters". The only other
singer I can think of who can write so eloquently and -- importantly --
simply about relationships with others in one song and then struggles
against oppression in all its forms in the next song (with the possible
exception of Phil Ochs) is Billy Bragg. Fitting, then, that the latest
Woody Guthrie c.d. to be released is by Billy Bragg and Wilco."
I have been considering in my head for about 20 years a study of Guthrie
and Huey Ledbetter. Since I'm probably never going to actually write it,
I'd like to give the gist of it here. As a preliminary, I think it is apt
to be seriously misleading to consider either Guthrie or Ledbetter in
isolation from the other, for they profoundly illuminate each other by
showing what one might call specific variations on a a common genus. This
feature was in their work before they knew each other, so the
complementarity developed independently of any mutual influence. (It may
also throw light on the peculiar and powerful contributions to
working-class consciousness of the Black experience-- or one might say
potential contributions, since as the lbo-talk thread on the BRC showed
recently, too many white marxists are unwilling to honor that
In the most general terms, from different perspectives, Guthrie and
Ledbetter were both obsessed (both consciously and spontaneously I would
say, for both were powerfully self-conscious and sophisticated writers)
with the question of "who is 'we'?"
Guthrie responds to this question "positively" (the word is not accurate,
but I don't have a better one right not). Of his songs which I know well,
"Deportee" most profoundly explores this. In the first stanza of this
song, "they" refers to the deportees, "You" (and we = you + I as a
beginning formula) to those (whoever they are ) who are "flying them back
to the Mexican Border." This gets tipped upside down as it were in the
Chorus (I can't locate the text just now so I quote from memory):
Goodbye to my Juan, Goodbye Margarita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria,
You won't have a name when you ride the big airplane
And all they will call you will be Deportee
And then the second stanza, beginning "My father's own father he waded
And the third, beginning "My brother and sister came..." and the 4th,
"We died in your orchards, we died in your fields...both sides of the
river we died just the same." (Not quite accurately quoted: "WE died"
structures the stanza, but I can't remember right the variation from
"in" to "on" and the order of bushes, moutains, plains etc.)
And skipping to the last stanza, "Is this the best way we can grow our
good fruit?" This we is profoundly different from the earlier we's and
they's, for it is *OPEN*? All who read, listen to, or sing the song must
place themselves in or by a perverse act of willl exclude themselves in
that "we." It is the we of the future, the we of the finally
class-conscious proletariat, the we that is to be formed through action
and struggle. (All songs that are even faintly "working-class" must pose
in some form or other the refrain, "Which side are you on?" but few
writers pose that question with such tremendous depth and power as do
Guthrie and Ledbetter.
Ledbetter grasps the same theme, perhaps in some ways more profoundly,
*negatively* (again, wrong word but I can't just now come up with a better
one." His songs celebrate what it means to be excluded from "We," to be
isolated. This runs through both his overtly political ("Bourgeois Blues")
and his *seemingly* merely individual (as in his most famous song, at
least in its bowlderization by Seager & Co) "Goodnight Irene."
P.S. Notice incidentally the profound contrast both Ledbetter and Guthrie
offer to the central obssession of classical and modern bourgeois
literature (from Milton to Ginsberg and Judith Butler as it were) of "Who
am I?" (a most boring question ultimately).
I am sure he [Carrol Cox] is correct and that I did not give Huddie Ledbetter
(Lead Belly) justice in my talking about the "first" singer-
songwriter (if there could ever be such a thing). I am rather
ashamed to say that even though I am an avid blues listener and
have begun listening to "country" folk, I have only very recently
started listening to Lead Belly. If I ever get a reimbursement
check that I have been waiting for weeks to receive, I am planning
to pick up the second and third volumes of the Smithsonian Folkways
releases of some of Lead Belly's work -- I think they are the
Moses Asch recordings; one of them is entitled "Bourgeois Blues".
What would be interesting to do is to compare these Moses Asch
recordings for Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. I have the first two
of what is supposed to be a set of four for Guthrie. And this gets
to the final thing I wanted to bring up here for Carrol: write
that study of Leadbelly and Guthrie! -- I would offer up my
services in any way to help. Have you read Guthrie's
autobiography, "Bound for Glory", or the biography by Joe
Klein? I have read the former and just obtained the latter.
I feel that there is a real need to re-inject a musical tradition back
into the socialist and labour movements.
My comrade/partner/wife Megan Adam plays in a labour-folk band ("The
Flying Folk Army"), with a healthy mix of old Joe Hill tunes, other
labour and socialist standards (they do a rockin' swing version of the
Internationale). She and the band (7 members -- banjo, fiddle,
acordian, standup bass, guitar, hand drum, tin whistle) have been
surprised at the response that they have received -- they were the
featured performers for the Vancouver May Day celebrations and have
since played for several left groups, striking workers, and community
events. They are opening for Billy Bragg on August 2nd in Victoria, BC
and were recently booked for a major music festival outside of
Vancouver that brings together an audience of a few thousand.
Everywhere they play, people in the audience say the same thing -- why
isn't there more labour standards being played by younger people
(everyone in the band is under 30). Their motto: "Music that your
grandparents listened to, from the people your parents warned you
I strongly believe that music is very important in organizing. The
fascist right wing uses music very strategically to organize nazi
skinhead youth (we have had to demonstrate and shut down many nazi
skinhead "gigs" in the past few years) -- this was very apparent to me
this past weekend when six of us from Vancouver travelled to Coeur
D'Alene, Idaho to demonstrate against the Aryan Nations and the Ku
Klux Klan... we saw dozens of nazi skinheads who were wearing t-shirts
with the names of nazi hate-rock bands on the Aryan Nations "100 Man
March" in that city on Saturday.
We need to revamp a strong tradition of labour, anti-racist,
anti-fascist, and socialist music... this requires that many of the
old standards be re-arranged to be popular with a new, younger
audience (Billy Bragg was very successful with that in the 1980's...
one of my first introductions to songs like "Which Side Are You On"
came from Bragg's renditions in the early 80's).
In Britain in the late 70's, the Anti-Nazi League organized Anti-Nazi
"Carnivals" that featured anti-racist and labour music... musicians
such as Tom Robinson were involved in this project which successfully
brought tens of thousands of people together for a political event
which was also musically enjoyable.
In the past year, Ani DiFranco re-packaged some of Utah Phillips work
in CD... taking some of the speaking that he did between songs and
putting a new, funky beat behind it... many younger people who would
never have thought twice about listening to an "oldie" like Utah
Phillips were introduced to him through a currently popular musician.
Bragg's (and Wilco's) recent release of Woody Guthrie covers will
serve the same purpose -- introducing the new generation of activists
and newly radicalizing youth to the music of someone that they might
have only known for the shortened version of "This Land Is Your Land".
A friend and comrade from South Korea, when he first came to Canada in
the fall of last year, asked me what songs we sing on demonstrations
(this was about a week before the large APEC demonstrations here,
which brought out several thousand people to be pepper-sprayed by the
riot cops)... I was somewhat embarrassed to admit that we didn't sing
*any* songs on our demonstrations, especially when he said that in
South Korea, there are two to three hundred songs that are regularly
sung in the midst of demonstrations against the state... songs which
the vast majority of the demonstrators know and which help them to
The music of people like Bragg, Pete Seeger (his song "Talkin' Union"
is an all-time favorite of mine), Woody Guthrie, Utah Phillips, Phil
Ochs, and others were very important to me in the mid-eighties in
developing an analysis of the system and understanding some of the
"culture" of working class struggle.
Anyway, just a few of my thoughts on the subject...
Solidarity (with a beat you can dance to),
On the way out of town...I was hoping to post a review of Angela
Davis's new book today, but it will have to wait until next week.
Until I return, I wanted to post the lyrics for a song I wore
the tape out on years ago, and just today obtained again. The
song is "The Red Flag", off of Billy Bragg's album, THE
INTERNATIONALE. The song's lyrics are by Jim Connell, written
in December 1889. The original music, according to the liner
notes, was based on the "old Jacobite air, 'The White Cockade'".
Hope you enjoy it.
THE RED FLAG
The people's flag is deepest red
It shrouded oft our martyred dead
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold
Their hearts' blood dyed to every fold
Ch Then raise the scarlet standard high
Beneath its folds we'll live and die
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer
We'll keep the red flag flying here
It waved above our infant might
When all ahead seemed dark as night
It witnessed many a deed and vow
We must not change its colour now
It well recalls the triumphs past
It gives the hope of peace at last
The banner bright, the symbol plain
Of human right and human gain
It suits today the meek and base
Whose minds are fixed on pelf and place
To cringe beneath the rich man's frown
And haul that sacred emblem down
With heads uncovered swear we all
To bare it onward till we fall
Come dungeons dark or gallows grim
This song shall be our parting hymn
I hope this message finds you all well.
The tune, of course, is Tannenbaum - Oh Christmas Tree.
The mention of it brings back an insignificant personal memory.
I was in New York many moons ago, staying on the upper West Side, with
people who I knew from my college days. To cut a long story short, we
all went to a concert by Aztec Camera, because one of the people - a
woman called Lisa Trey - knew Roddy, the lead singer.
It was the middle of the 1984-85 miners strike back home. At the end of
the gig, Roddy came back on for an encore, and said: "This one is for
Arthur Scargill and the National Union of Mine Workers".
The trendy Village audience listened at first with amusement as he began
what fr them had to be a rendition of Oh Christmas Tree. When it was
clear he was singing commie stuff, three quarters of the audience walked
But I loved him for it. Still do.
Jim is right of course that the tune overwhelmingly used now is O
Tannenbaum. No doubt someone on the labour networks knows why. But I too
recall a recorded version sung to the While Cockade, but with little
explanation why. The two tunes are very different in character.
I recently heard on the BBC that there has been a bit of a revival in the
USA for the music of Woody Guthrie. Is that so? Certainly he sounded
resilient in the interview. How can the time come when a large section of
an apparently progressive American audience will not walk out at a trade
union solidarity song?
And Paul Robeson, whose 100th birthday has just passed is still a prophet
without honour in his own country, much more loved in England, and
especially Wales. How many now know his at one time very popular "Ballad
Perhaps the anti-racist movement in Britain was more successful in linking
progressive causes with popular song whereas in the USA there is still a
lot of work to do to unravel the effects of McCarthyism, still distorting
things after more than 50 years. Perhaps music has a role here.
On Sat, 25 Jul 1998, Joco Paulo Monteiro wrote:
> My step-son (he's 16) has a big infatuation for this rock band [Rage Against the
Machine] and has
> been telling me some things about them that sound nice.
> He also tells me that some of it's members have served time in jail for
> (somewhat intemperate) leftist militant actions and the group has now
> been banned from recording in the USA.
The part about being "banned from recording in the USA" is certainly
wrong. It is completely impossible for the state to issue such a ban.
And if a corporation decided it would no longer promote a band, that
hardly means it would be "banned." There is an extremely vigorous
subculture of independent labels and studios, hundreds if not thousands
of publications produced by fans and independent journalists, and so on.
There are plenty of things to criticize about American society and
capitalist influence on culture, but the democratic aspects are not to be
ignored -- either in at the level of actually-existing formal rights or
the democratic currents within mass popular culture.
I say this as someone who lives in Washington, DC -- home of Fugazi, a
leftist and very independent-minded punk band, famous for refusing to charge
more than five dollars for a show. Rage Against the Machine is okay, if a
bid didactic for my taste. Fugazi is not so given to slogans etc. but
perform a lot of benefit shows for community activist groups, and their
label (Dischord) is an important part of the non-corporate sphere of
music production that makes "banning" any kind of music a fool's errand
for the authorities (though they may dream of it).
in August of 95 I saw Rage Against the Machine open for Jesus Lizard in
New York city. I thought Rage was high on posture and low on substance. In
the genre of post-punk noise and ignorance Rage is nothing special. If you
are into noise and ignorance, the german band Atari Teenage Riot's "Burn
Berlin Burn" is like pouring molten steel on your skull - absolutely
brilliant - and all the usual anarcho/situationist laden lyrics are
"Wake up wake up, get off your knees
Where will the west strike next
The war is still between east and west
money talks, Money!!!
we're so bored and sick
Let's Burn Germany
Building up economy of dead bodies
Deutschland has Gotta Die
The time is right to Fight"
Yet, I'm generally suspicious of the idea that politicals gain can come
from anything that ever makes it on MTV. This is too behavioristic but
after the incessant exposure to images that serve no other purpose than to
stimulate sales and promote political lethargy, even an explicitly
communist band, song or video would be just another commodity lost in the
blur between commercials. Che posters and T-shirts as pop music icons are
more likely to be translated into a commercial for Taco Bell than any kind
of political action. That silly Taco Bell dog is actually a revolutionary
challenging the hegemony of McDonalds and Burger King. Pop culture
revolutions are for control of market-share and demographic coverage, not
control of the state or means of production. As Tom Frank says in *The
Conquest of Cool* trying to read political implications into the binary
consuming styles of "square" and "hip" is a pointless task because the
hip rebel consumer is just as much an expression of official capitalist
style as its ostensive opposite. So where can I get all the english lyrics
to the Internationale?
well (or should that be hell), RATM is on a major label: Epic...and they
will likely remain there so long as their product sells (packaged with the
obligatory parental advisory for explict lyrics which probably increases
sales)...Jefferson Airplane ("up against the wall motherfucker") was on
that most conservative of labels: RCA, the label that cultural radical
Elvis Presley left Sam Phillips & Sun for...As Tom Robinson said in
the early '80s: "Some people think rock 'n' roll is revolutionary music.
Well, rock and roll has been going on for 30 years and there hasn't
been a revolution."
of course, EP, JA, TR, & Rage were/are musicians, that's what they did/do
for a living...if you make music for a living in a craft-based way, you
accept that employs a certain exchange system...otherwise, making music is
like a hobby (which is the case for the vast majority of musicians who
don't actually get paid; who have day jobs and don't do it professionally,
or perhaps only on a semi-pro basis)...the reality is in contrast to the
myth that portrays pop musicians as eccentrics...they sell a service
which is their abiity to make music and their endeavors are made possible
by the agents, companies, lawyers, promoters, purchasers who turn the
ability into commercial product...
does such participation in commodity culture automatically invalidate
alternative propositions?...what about the paradox of a left-wing
band signing a major label contract?...and to what extent does the
'diy' decentralization of small independent firms represent an
alternative to the established music business?...after all, a rock
band is a capitalist enterprise (even one that functions as an
egalitarian collective)...the problem is one of sales and -
as the old adage goes - you've got to spend money to make money...
while I claim no knowledge of RATM's situation, I am aware of other
leftist bands on major labels whose members functioned as worker-owned
production teams for supplying their labels with ad copy, cover art,
sleve design, liner notes, and recorded music (Chumbawamba has
indicated they have more autonomy on the major than they did on their
indie label)...therafter, the companies use their public relations
departments and their monopoly positions in retail trade to sell
as much product as they can...
recognizing the contradictions of being a left-wing band in a capitalist
system is no guarantee of being able to negotiate the minefields of
art/politics/sale dialectics without self-destructing...potential
'organic' - in Gramscian terms - roles are difficult to realize...of
course, a 'Derridean extravagance' of multiple and unstable identities
is a problemmatic base upon which to build social movements...while
cultural populists have shown us that various subcultures use styles
of popular music for their own purposes, there has been limited
success in building what Lawrence Grossberg calls 'affective alliances'
between them...Michael Hoover
btw: if memory serves, New Model Army was denied visas under the
McCarran Act in the mid-80s...
When I used the term "noise and ignorance" I wasn't trying to be
derrogatory. Instead it refers to the genre of rock music that emphasizes
loud guitars, heavy rhythm sections and aggressive playing. It is my
favorite kind of music. Sorry for the communication breakdown. I've got
to keep in mind that local colloquialisms don't come off well in
cyberspace. Musically I like the style of Rage... but other bands do it
better, less earnestly, less over the top preaching for my taste and with
a sense of humor. I don't care for Rage's posturing, not because it is
fake, it just gets in the way for me.
I accept that Rage Against the Machine are genuine leftists both in their
lyrics and activism. But I do think that Andrew, Lou and yourself see Rage
Against the Machine through very different eyes than the students who wear
"Rage" t-shirts in the intro to sociology class I teach. Of the students
who wear Rage apparel, at least three quarters of the one's I talk to
don't know who Che is and know almost nothing about politics in general.
My sense is that these people see Rage Against the Machine as just another
flavor of youth rebellion. Behind this is the culture trust of Madison
avenue, major record labels and MTV whose only interest is in creating new
waves of cultural obsolescence in order to move product and realize value.
Pop culture today is very different from popular culture earlier in this
century. The social space for cultural production outside the
commodity-form was much larger for Bertolt Brecht, Woody Guthrie and
others than it is today. In the twenties and thirties socialists,
anarchists and communists had some vestige of an autonomous cultural
infrastructure. I could be wrong about this but didn't Brecht produce his
plays at KPD run theatres, with party money, players and audiences?
Without the support and context of political parties, unions, cultural
centers and clubs the occasional leftist band will tend to (1) sound like
a quaint anachronism (2) go the DYI route and probably never get heard in
the mainstream or (3) get lost in the business of the commercial music
I too hope that bands like Rage Against the Machine and Atari Teenage Riot
(who opened for Rage on their last tour) can promote an anti-fascist
cultural atmosphere in the high schools. But again my experience is that
most people in their late teens can't tell the difference between a nazi
and a communist. Their parents, teachers, preachers,TV and history
teacher/football coach has already convinced them that socialism and
fascism are mirror images of each other or at least that politics is a
boring game for the elite that they should have no interest in.
The thousands of people at the Rage Against the Machine concert outside
Kansas City last fall didn't have any problem listening to leftist lyrics
for a couple of hours, then going home and getting up the next day in the
exact same world they left the night before. If the contradiction isn't
perceived people aren't likely to act on it. Rock n' Roll has been
preaching revolution to the youth of America for 30 years and the prospect
of political revolution has never been further from the consciousness of
most people, even youth, than it is today.
I think it is cool that you, your son, Andrew and Lou like Rage Agaisnt
the Machine and that Doug posts Sonic Youth lyrics on LBO and that Scott
follows the Fugazi scene. But lets keep in mind that it's only rock n'
roll and that in 1998 pop culture is a business much like any other.
Otherwise we'll be no better than those in cultural studies who see a
counter hegemonic discourse under every nose ring.
Well put. In the absence, or at least the grossly reduced presence, of
left-wing cultural institutions, a radical band is inevitably going to
have a lot more impact as consumerist "lifestyle option" than anything
more substantive. But in acknowledging that, we are really close to a
vicious circle. At this point in the US anyway, most of said left
institutions are in a bad, bad state -- hell, all of them are, come to
think of it; there is no exception worth speaking of. Most of the left
groups here are into one variety or other of toy-town Bolshevism. Not a
lot of cultural nourishment there.
For a while in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a strange and
unstable relationship between the Revolutionary Communist Party (i.e., a
Maoist zombie cult) and the punk scene, at least in some cities. The
RCPers would all wear leather jackets and Palestinian scarfs, and in
Houston they organized punk shows. Gary Floyd of the Dicks -- a great
Texas band, best known for their theme song "Dicks Hate Police" -- was a
Maoist despite the RCP's anti-gay politics. So there was a kind of
working alliance between one radical organization and one scene. But
it was also somewhat opportunistic and robotic. (A friend who had been
a non-RCP Maoist said that one week they all started dressing like what
they imagined punks looked like, which was hard to take seriously given
that some of the cadre were unbelievably ancient, like thirty or forty
years old). In any case, that is hardly the same thing as a viable,
long-term, organized, leftist cultural presence. And it was a while
And now some indie acts consciously under-produce to maintain "street
cred"--limited pressings, limited distribution. I worked for an indie
distributor for a few months and there did seem to be a conscious
antagonism against culture industry stuff--MTV, David Geffen, Sony, etc.
A guy who was one of the original three, I think, who started the
business said it was different, much more DIY in the beginning, but now
it's more small-scale "musical darwinism". It seemed to me that some of
the unresolved contradictions that undermine such an operation lay in
the equivocations between "independent" and "individualist"--there's
always territorial disputes--taste-wise, personality-wise-- and social
heirarchies in the scenes to which the labels mostly cater, and which
can determine who gets distributed, etc.
For anyone that's interested in what I would argue was in many ways the
ideological groundbreaker for indie rock, the free jazz scene of the
60's to 70's, check out Valerie Wilmer's _As Serious As Your Life: the
Story of the New Jazz_. I think it's important not to overlook the
largely white cross-section of the indie rock scene. The black parallel
today would probably be hip-hop.
Wilmer's book is about Black music, and musician's movements in jazz and
improvised music to achieve autonomy of production and distribution,
cultural voice, and to break into the race, class hegemonies of the
culture industry (does this term still carry any ideological heft?).
The book includes chapters on how black women were further marginalized
in a scene where black male artists are marginalized, and how women have
fought that marginalization.
The book includes stories of collective action, like when the Jazz &
People's Movement, lead by the likes Rahhsan Roland Kirk and Lee Morgan,
physically and sonically disrupted shows like Dick Cavett, Johnny
Carson, Ed Sullivan. I think it was Ed Sullivan who, asked by Kirk why
he didn't have John Coltrane on his show, reponded, does he have any
There are chapters on such forerunner figures as Ornette Coleman, Cecil
Taylor, Sun Ra, John Coltrane. And some examinations of why many black
artists became expatriates, being more welcome in Paris, particularly.
The book gives a good look at culture as a site where political,
economic, social and ideological issues are lived and worked on. It's
interesting how the New Jazz--Black music--influenced European and
Scandinavian improvised music (the likes of Derek Bailey, Evan Parker,
Irene Schweizer, Han Bennick--a good angle into this music is the FMP
(Free Music Productions, from Berlin) label).
A note on hip-hop culture, and indie music in general.
As far as the production of race/gender/sexuality ideology via the music
Matt Wobensmith made solid space for lesbian and gay male indie rock
and punk rock--Queer Core and Homo Core--with his Outpunk label (Team
Dresch, Pansy Division). Now he's moving on, interested in doing the
same in hip-hop, popularly constructed as young black heterosexual
The CD is an example of a commodity that is more or less explicitly
about commodifying identity via pleasure and "group consciousness",
whether it's culture industry or indie or whatever. It's a commodity
that can contribute, even if provisionally, to constructions of
race/class/gender/sex/sexuality/age/"beautiful" body types. One
valuable thing about indie and punk rock is that at its best it tends
towards the inversion of such culture industry constructions. It's
still largely identity through fetishism, but the route Matt Wobensmith
is taking seems to me to be one good technique on a level of immediate
praxis (in this case of gender, sex and sexuality), and an example for
further implications, for deconstructing and separating the
identity-ideological operations of fetishism around and through such
commodities. Gads! Am I digressing into commodity aesthetics?
I have been following the threads discussing science - where I generally
agree with Jim Heartfield, who has explained himself at length although
others seem to be argueing at a tangent - racism and "Rage Against the
It is the last mentioned thread that provokes me to this contribution.
I do not know the group in question although I have been following jazz and
blues and its progeny since the around 1939 - but the generality of the
subject crosses all three threads.
In those days - when the Melody Maker was *the* music journal in UK - and
the _Top Ten_ listed the top sheet music sales rather than the latest pop
records - and the record catalogues issued by the main record journal The Gramophone
listed the _discography_ for each jazz record issued and put (N) against the
name of a negro (and most negro jazz and blues were issued in USA on _Race_
I was then a member of Ilford Jazz Club and used to join in _jam sessions_
on clarinet. (Later due to science studies taking up most of my time I
concluded that my best instrument was the gramophone and concentrated on my
record collection - amassing 78s galore).
AND they were mainly by negro artists - Duke Ellington, Jelly-Roll Morton,
Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, John Kirby, Fats Waller, and on the vocal
side Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday - and I was convinced the only good
jazz came from someone labelled (N) - but the collection was wider than
that, it included Benny Goodman (but he had a negro pianist - Teddy Wilson);
Jack Teagarden (but I found he had a Red-Indian mother); and Django
Reinhardt (but he was a gypsy - so clearly qualified by default).
Was I am racist??? I certainly thought a black face on a musician was
something of a guarantee of high talent at improvisation. I never thought
of this as something to *prove* scientifically...
And, incidentally, on the Uncertainty Principle - is it not true that study
of isolated communities by anthropologists has _changed_ (or at least
contributed to change in) those communities? And does not participation in
a market survey alter the conception by the interviewee of the product
concerned (same applies to political surveys) - one might *almost* say - if
not, why bother....
Of course this concern for (N) after the name only applied to American
Jazz - we were attempting jazz in UK, (though we had some excellent (N)
musicians, such as the West Indian Ken Johnson - whose band were nearly all
killed in an air raid in London in 1940/1 when the Cafe de Paris received a
direct hit; and there was a sprinkling of (N) musicians in the RAF Dance
Orchestra - one name I remember was Carl Barriteau). In the 1940s the BBC
had a Radio Rhythm Club Sextet led by Harry Parry on clarinet), sometimes
with George Shearing on piano - and there was 30 minutes (I think) of jazz
per week in the BBC Radio listings - and regular _Jam Sessions_ were
organised by the Young Communist League at the Conway Hall in Central London
(one of which was recorded on 16 Nov 1941 - and several discs were issued,
which I still have, on His Master's Voice - the major record label, one with
Leslie Hutchinson (N) soloing on trumpet in St Louis Blues) and these
sessions later continued at 100, Oxford Street (100 Club) until the mid-50s
In the army I carried everywhere a portable typewriter and a portable
gramophone and often gave jazz recitals, when I could find some unbroken
records (very fragile those 78s unfortunately). After the war, in Italy,
these became regular events and I used the American Army record library at
their headquarters in Miramare Castle near Trieste. I am sure the librarian
(white) thought he had a queer English officer coming to browse the _race_
section (I never saw a black face in that library, but they had a glorious
collection - even new ones - I was in to Pres (Lester Young) and Hawk
(Coleman Hawkins) but also there was Dizzy and Miles Davis (I do not think I
had heard of Charlie Parker then) - but BeBop was starting before I left the
Nowadays the Melody Maker repels me as does the whole _heavy metal_ scene
and its progeny, and my music information is confined to BBC Music Magazine
(which *does* have a jazz section and occasionally references the more
*musicianly* kinds of pop - and I suppose the last CD I bought of that
character would be by either Santana or Dire Straits.)
A last brief point - shortly after the war I was also convinced that the
American Labour Movement (mainly white) was much better at using music than
we were in the UK - and I was much taken with Woody Guthrie, Peggy Seeker
and such for the political dimension of their songs. Now it rather sounds
as though to an extent the _boot is on the other foot_ with such as Billy
Bragg, the Dubliners, etc etc.
Regards to all.
> Charles Brown writes:
> >McCoy Tyner's brother is Jarvis Tyner, a leader of the CPUSA.
> Gee, you learn something new every day. I know McCoy had played a
> concert in support of imprisoned Black Panthers (including, I think,
> Newton), but I wasn't aware of his relations to that "other" Tyner.
I spoke briefly to Jarvis Tyner about a year and a half ago. He said that
neither his brother McCoy, nor Coltrane were deeply involved/interested in
politics, but that Coltrane was a "good man." He did say however, that
Coltrane's recording of "Alabama" was a conscious response to the bombing
of a black church in birmingham (Jarvis was present at the recording
session). According to Jarvis Tyner, Archie Shepp was in the CP.
> I think Sonny Rollins and Max Roach (legendary tenor saxist and drummer,
> respectively) have made their leftism fairly explicit.
In 1951 or 1952, Charlie Parker and Max Roach played a benefit dance in
Harlem's Rockland Palace for Communist leader Ben Davis (Gerald Horne
_Black Liberation/Red Scare_, 259; Gary Giddens _The triumph of Bird_ 113.
Giddens puts the concert in 1952, while Horne puts it in 1951 ). Paul
Robeson also sang at the event. According to Gary Giddens:
"The event was a benefit for Benjamin Davis...who was the last Communist
to hold elected office in the United States. In a trial that flagrantly
violated due process, Davis was sentenced to five years for advocating the
violent overthrow of the country. The case became a cause clbre on the
left. Bird played four of five sets that night, with his quintet as well
as the strings, and he was robust" (Giddens _Celebrating Bird_ 113).
According to Gerald Horne, the presence of leading jazz figures at the
"was not atypical. Just before this event [the benefit at Rockland
Palace], Miles Davis's Orchestra, with J.J. Johnson and Sonny Rollins,
played at the preconvention dance of the New York Labor League, a
fraternal organization allied with the party. Miles Davis was blunt about
this group: 'They're on the ball. They know what's happening.' But his
other comment, 'This country is beginning to make me neurotic,' captured
the intensifying sentiments of many blacks" (Horne _Black Liberation/Red
On this theme, does anyone know anything about the trumpeter Frankie
Newton? According to jazz writer Dan Morgenstern, discographer and New
York Radio host Phil Schaap, and historian Eric Hobsbawm, Newton's
connection to the Communist Party was "well known," but nobody knows how
to confirm his involvement. Jazz writer John Chilton, in his biographies
of Sidney Bechet and Billie Holiday says the same thing, but provides no
citations. However, there is ample documentation to prove that Newton was
regularly featured at Communist sponsored dances.
I spoke to bassist Johnny Williams, who played in Newton's band at the
Cafe Society (which incidentally, was also associated with the CP, and was
Manhattan's first major nightclub with an uncompromising policy of racial
integration. Unfortunately Williams was unwilling to talk about Newton's
politics, or the left wing ambience of the Cafe Society, repeatedly saying
"I wouldn't know about that."
Hobsbawm made reference to Frankie Newton by writing his book "the jazz
scene" under the pseudonym "Frances Newton."
The connections between New York's jazz community and the left wing
movement is a fascinating, and largely hidden story that goes back at
least to the early Depression years. For example in 1930 Duke Ellington
provided the music for a large Communist rally held at the Rockland
Palace, and between 1932 and 1934 the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Cab
Calloway's Orchestra, W.C Handy, Fats Waller, Fletcher Henderson, were
among the jazz artists who were featured at Communist sponsored Scottsboro
benefit concerts (See Mark Naison's _Communist in Harlem during the
Depression_, 72, 105).
Charles, was your cousin Lawrence Brown politically active?