Thursday, March 15, 2018

Quotations From Pete Seeger: On The `Star System'

Pete Seeger in 1978 (photo: Brian McMillen

In an October 30, 1969 letter, Pete Seeger wrote the following in reference to the U.S. music industry's undemocratic "star system"--and its undemocratic influence on U.S. left-wing and left-liberal activists and organizers and in the world of U.S. folk music:

"...Unfortunately, the average person that calls me is just as much a prisoner of the `Star system' as anybody else, and they always want to get someone with a well-known name who can help fill the hall..."

( from Pete Seeger: In His Own Words, selected and edited by Rob Rosenthal and Sam Rosenthal and published in 2012 by Paradigm Publishers)

Friday, January 26, 2018

Gordon Friesen's `The Strange Death of Phil Ochs' `Broadside' Magazine Article of 1976 Revisited

(In the October-December 1976 issue of the now-defunct Broadside: the topical song magazine,” a founder and longtime editor of that non-profit folk music publication who died in 1996, Gordon Friesen, provided U.S. music fans with the following interesting alternative take on the 1960s topical and anti-war protest folk singer-songwriter Phil Ochs’s strange death to that presented in the 2011 documentary film about Phil Ochs, There But For Fortune, which was later broadcast in January 2012 on the PBS series, American Masters)

"It is indicative of the depth of the brainwashing to which the American people have been systematically subjected that too many of them accept Phil Ochs’ death as a not too uncommon breakdown of a personality. But the accumulated facts raise more than a suspicion that a plot existed leading to his deliberate destruction. Let us look at some of these facts which would impel the reactionary, fascist-type U.S. imperialists to reach the decision that Phil Ochs must die.

"The brainwashing of the people by the U.S. ruling class has created a tendency by artists, especially dissident songwriters, to underestimate the ferocious measures the ruling class will employ to destroy them. We know that the Wobbly balladeer Joe Hill was framed and executed by a firing squad (Phil knew this and even wrote a song expressing his admiration of Joe Hill). The woman radical songwriters, Fannie Sellins and Ella May Wiggins, were shot to death by police. Aunt Molly Jackson and her fellow songwriting relatives, Jim Garland and Sara Ogden, were forced to flee for their lives from the Harlan County, Kentucky, coal fields.

"A fascist vigilante mob, aided by N.Y. State and local police, tried to murder Paul Robeson at Peekskill. He was finally silenced and driven into exile by the U.S. government. Even Woody Guthrie stated in print he was under surveillance by what he called the F-B-Eyes. Many Pete Seeger concerts were picketed by John Birchers handing out inflammatory leaflets urging at least by implication, violence against him. In 1940 the Oklahoma Red Dust Players were raided and scattered to the winds.

"One can conclude that Phil Ochs was an even greater threat than these to the U.S. imperialists. In his early songs he defended Castro Cuba and the Vietnamese liberation fighters against the imperialistic designs of Washington. His songs became more and more pointed. “White Boots Marching In A Yellow Land”, “Santo Domingo”, “United Fruit” (where he approves of “young men going to the mountains to learn the way of the rifle” instead of slaving at pitiful wages for the American exploiters). But it was “Cops Of The World” with such lines as “here’s a kick in the ass, boys”, and “clean your johns with your flag” because “we’re the cops of the world”, and “Ringing Of Revolution” where he looks forward to the destruction of the last vestiges of the desperate decaying ruling class by the exploited masses, which really stuck like a bone in the throat of the U.S. imperialists.

"A special threat was the wide circulation of Phil’s songs abroad. Books containing materials about him and his work were published in Spain, France, and other countries. The Spanish book reprinted “Cops Of The World” for its example of an Ochs song and the author likened Phil’s guitar to a machine gun. The first edition sold out so quickly, mainly to students, that the Franco regime did not have time to suppress it, as it did any further reprintings. Individuals and groups sang his songs in Japan, Scandinavia, Holland, W. Germany and many other countries.

"It was naïve on Phil’s part to think when he undertook several jaunts in the early seventies to foreign nations that he would be treated like an ordinary tourist. He was met at two South American airports by police who arrested him, jailed him overnight and deported him the next day. From recent revelations it becomes obvious that the local authorities were acting under orders from the C.I.A. He was welcomed only in Chile where he sang together with Victor Jara, the popular Chilean peoples’ singer (Jara was destroyed in a bestial fashion when the C.I.A.-Ford-Kissinger sponsored Chilean fascists overthrew Allende in 1973. The police smashed Victor’s hands with their rifle butts, gave him his guitar and taunted “Now play and sing.” Then they murdered him).

"When Phil tried to visit his ancestral Scotland the London police intercepted him and put him on a plane back to the United States. He got off at Dublin. Here communications between the C.I.A. and the Irish authorities seemed to have lagged, for Phil was allowed to stay all of two days in Dublin before being deported to New York.

"On an African trip he was set upon by three thugs who paid special attention to crushing his voice box. Again the participation of the C.I.A. seemed unmistakably obvious. He came home barely able to croak and could never again sing like in the old days.

"Meantime the activities and programs of the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. were slowly coming to light through hearings in Washington and books by former agents who could no longer endure the inhumanity of these secret organizations—their assassination plots, poison dart-guns, drugs to induce incoherency, burglaries, arming foreign fascists to overthrow their democratic governments, the use of informants and disrupters, spreading of lies, clawing through personal mail, bugging telephones, planting listening devices in citizens’ cars. And so far this seems only the tip of the iceberg.

"The F.B.I. even had an elaborate program designed to induce dissidents to commit suicide. They confessed they had tried it on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In this instance they failed. But who knows in which cases they have succeeded. In 1965 another Broadside songwriter “committed suicide.” He was Peter La Farge, adopted son of Oliver La Farge, first winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature—the book was “Laughing Boy,” a sympathetic treatment of the Navajo Indians. The F.B.I. took an interest in Peter and began hounding him when he organized FAIR (Federation for American Indian Rights). Several months before he died, the F.B.I. raided his New York apartment at midnight. They scattered and tore up his papers; they put handcuffs on him and dragged him to Bellevue in his pajamas. They put pressure on Bellevue to declare him insane, but Bellevue could find nothing wrong and turned him loose.

"When Phil came back to New York last summer [in 1975] he was still full of plans. He was arranging to go to a place in New Jersey for a six-weeks “drying out” period under supervision by medical experts. Then he planned to set up what he called Barricade House, where he would issue a newspaper, record protest singers and make films. He already had the building picked out in SoHo.

"People ask us what motivation would the F.B.I.-C.I.A. have in wanting to see Phil dead when he could no longer sing or write. We answer that this was their motivation: Phil still had tremendous organizing ability, as witness his organizing the Chilean benefit. Barricade House would have been a great threat to the ruling class. We can visualize the F.B.I. doing one of their infamous psychological profiles on Phil Ochs. They asked the computer, what is his greatest weakness? The computer spat back: ALCOHOL! The next step of the F.B.I. is to assign agents to exploit this weakness in their intended victim; I would be very suspicious of the “friends” who attached themselves to Phil and kept plying him with alcoholic drinks.

"I am afraid we didn’t take to seriously Phil’s daily insistence that the C.I.A. and F.B.I., and later with the collaboration of Mafia hit men, were out to murder him. He sought a place to hide and tried to hire a bodyguard; he carried an iron bar, a big scissors and other means with which to defend his life.

"Where did these threats come from? What really happened? Perhaps some commission five or ten years from now will bring out the true details of how Phil Ochs met his strange death. We should finally learn how the great song-poem “Crucifixion” became a personal prophesy of the fate of its author. 

--Gordon Friesen (Broadside, 10-12/76/issue 133)

Broadside magazine co-editors Sis Cunningham and Gordon Friesen

Monday, January 15, 2018

`American Folk Songs of Protest' Author John Greenway's Late 1940s Visits To Woody Guthrie Revisited

In his 1953 book, American Folk Songs of Protest, John Greenway recalled his late 1940s visits to U.S. protest folk singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie:

"When I first visited Guthrie in 1946 he was living in a crowded apartment in Coney Island with his wife and 4-year-old daughter, Cathy Ann...

"I asked if he agreed with a more famous contemporary who said that folk songs were gaining popularity because city people were bored with screen glamour and soap operas...

"He did not: `The unions started the boom,' he insisted. `The workers wanted to sing about their fight, but they couldn't borrow popular tunes because the moneymen who own the big monopoly on music would sock them with copyright laws. They had to go where they should have gone in the first place--to the old songs made by workers years ago...'

"He pushed a two-inch thick book of bound typewriter papers toward me. `Look,' he said, `there's more than 300 songs I've written, most of them to the old tunes. You won't hear the night club-orgasm girls singing these songs.'...

"Since that meeting Guthrie has been exceptionally prolific in song writing, and probably his stack of compositions now is three or four times as thick...His songs are likely to be...versified paraphrases of newspaper accounts of injustices perpetrated on individuals or groups...The inspiration and feeling of protest are still there in sufficient quantity...Of an estimated thousand songs in his manuscript collection, I found...about 140 whose basic theme was one of protest...

"...Like the IWW, which never copyrighted their songbooks, Guthrie...seems content to let them [his songs] fall into the public domain...

"...Guthrie never uses the tune of a popular song for his compositions."

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Peggy Seeger: A 1996 Interview--Conclusion

Since the 1950s, Peggy Seeger ( has been performing before audiences in the United States and Britain. During this period she has recorded over 14 solo albums and many joint albums. After living in England between 1959 and 1994, Seeger moved back to the USA and lived in Asheville, North Carolina until early 2006. Following is the conclusion of a 1996 interview with Seeger.

As far as the festivals you’ve been performing at in the Nineties. Is there any difference between the audiences and the performers, compared to the Eighties? In what people are singing about? What response you get?
Peggy Seeger: I’m not much of an authority on what’s happening in America. I really haven’t been here long enough. Ewan MacColl and I didn’t do festivals. Because we didn’t like the “stop-start,” “stop-start” thing that goes on in festivals. I compare it to greyhound racing. You know, the gun goes and you have 5 minutes to do your bit and that’s it. Generally, I prefer concerts. I’ve been doing festivals because I think it’s an important discipline to have. And, probably apart from anything else, it gives me a chance to hear other performers, which I love to do.

I am very impressed at what’s going on at a lot of the festivals. There’s a lot of young people. Quite a lot of children. And it’s an audience with a very catholic taste. They seem to be able to take almost anything that you give them.

Have they heard of you? The U.S. media doesn’t seem to give you much airtime?
 No. The U.S. media has not given me much airtime. I hope to remedy that. I don’t know that I’m popular stuff. My songs have a lot of words. And some of them take a lot of thinking about. I think I’m probably not “sensational” enough. I’m not “smooth” enough. I don’t know. There’s something that I’m “not enough of.”

What about public television? I know whenever they’ve needed to raise funds, they invite a lot of the folksingers from the Sixties who allegedly are excluded from the commercial stations because they have “no commercial appeal?”
Seeger: I don’t know that I’m excluded. When I do sing on television and radio I seem to get a lot of appreciation. There’s a lot of us out there, you know. There’s a lot of people vying for these spots. I’ve been on “Prairie Home Companion.” I’ve been on “Mountain Stage.”

I was out of the country for so long. And also my name was tied to someone else’s, as part of a duo. And people get used to saying “Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger.” And when Ewan MacColl dies—I actually met people who said they didn’t know I was still alive. You know, I’m only 61 [in 1996].

So, it’s a very fickle audience. But there are a lot of people who have followed the stuff that I have done over the last 30 years. And I get quite a lot of nice pats on the back when I go to festivals and concerts. And I’m very happy getting concerts, as I have been doing. I’m getting a reasonable amount of work. And I’m learning also that I can teach. Which is something that I wasn’t aware of until Ewan MacColl died. Since then I’ve been teaching songwriting and been talking about the position of women in Anglo-American folksongs. And been giving seminars on ballad-singing and on what makes folks songs so powerful, and all these kinds of things.

Is that why you’re living in North Carolina [in 1996]?
 Oh, I just picked that out of a hat. Because I wanted a place that was in the South, that was in the mountains, that had good music and warm weather. And that wasn’t too near the rest of my family. Because I just wanted to see what would happen if I landed in a place by myself, without any connections.

If people want to get your cassettes or CDs, where would they go about getting them?
 My web page is open now—you might find it of interest: The best place…just go into a record store.

One of my records I like best is really hard to get. And you can really, I suppose, only get that from me. Which is one called Almost Commercially Viable. I made that with my friend Irene, when we were “No Spring Chickens.” Made it in England and never managed to get it sold to anybody over here yet. Mind you, I haven’t pushed hard. That’s one that I really like. Probably Internet, Worldwide Web.

In terms of the future. What’s your sense? What’s going to be happening in the United States and in England?
 England I can’t say very much about. Because I haven’t really been in contact with what’s been happening in England since ’89. I took a couple of years out to write a couple of books and I hardly sang at all in England.

What books?
Seeger: I finished a book of my own songs—140 of them. And a book of Ewan MacColl’s songs—200 of those.

Some readers might not have heard much of Ewan MacColl for some of the reasons you indicated, like blacklisting. From an artistic point of view, what is going to be his place in history?
 Well, in England he is regarded as one of the architects of the British Folk Revival. There was Alan Lomax, Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd: who were largely responsible for starting the English revival as we know it. And he was one of the main singers and theorists, teachers, and critics in that. He was a superb unaccompanied singer. And he was a person who opened up the English and Scottish repertoire of songs. I would say he probably has recorded about 100 albums. And many of them were songs that he just literally revived out of books. Because if they died, nobody knew them anymore.

He was a theorist of the revival, in that he worked out ways by which singers who were, say, brought up in different musical traditions, could approach singing of folk songs without ruining them. He also kind of kept the British Revival’s nose to the grindstone, as far as understanding the relationship between folk song and the working-class.

So he was like a Woody Guthrie, right, for Britain?
Seeger: Kind of.

But what are the differences?
Seeger: He came from the same kind of background as Woody Guthrie did: a working-class man. He was also uneducated, like Woody Guthrie. I would say he was probably a more skilled songwriter than Woody Guthrie. Ewan didn’t write—now this is my personal opinion: I don’t think he wrote any bad songs. And I think Woody Guthrie did. And I think Woody Guthrie wrote some absolutely superb ones. But he also wrote some stinkers. And if Ewan wrote stinkers, he kept them quiet. He was lucky enough to keep them quiet.

Ewan was also in theatre, which Woody wasn’t. He was responsible with his first wife, Joan Littlewood, for forming Britain’s best recognized revolutionary theatre: Theatre Workshop—which in the late 1940s and right through the Fifties was regarded as a pacesetter for activist theatre. He left that to stir-up the folk revival, which he did. And made a lot of enemies.

If you were in England and were in the folk revival and spoke of Ewan MacColl, anybody would have heard of him. He also is known for writing “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” And for writing a number of songs which many people in the folk revival over here think are folk songs. Like “Dirty Old Town.”

Is there an autobiography or biography of him [as of 1996]?
 There’s an autobiography of him. But it was published in England and then taken out of publication. I’m trying to get it done again. It was never released here. And I’m trying to get it released over here. I will get it done. It’s called Journeyman. And I think it’s a wonderful book. An excellent book.

He wrote plays. And then the two books that I’ve done are kind of historical surveys, telling what was happening at the time when the song was written, making comments about the songs. With discographies and prefaces. Oh, you know, the whole thing. They’re huge books.

Getting back to your own performances. What do you hope to achieve when you perform before a live audience?
 Oh, I want to entertain them and make them think. I firmly believe that I have a great deal to learn from any audience that I sing for. And the folk revival generally gets an awful lot of really thinking people to it. I would like to, if possible, move them on from where they are and to draw on their experience to move me on. I’m very much invigorated by most of the people that I meet at the concerts that I give.

I suppose you might say I probably appeal more to their thinking faculties then I do to their emotional ones. But I try to make a good combination.

Technically, you’re considered quite skillful compared to most musicians. How did you get so good?
 Well, I’m not as good as I used to be. Because I have arthritis in my left wrist, which is hampering me rather a lot.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Peggy Seeger: A 1996 Interview--Part 2

Since the 1950s, Peggy Seeger ( has been performing before audiences in the United States and Britain. During this period she has recorded over 14 solo albums and many joint albums. After living in England between 1959 and 1994, Seeger moved back to the USA and lived in Asheville, North Carolina until early 2006. Following is part 2 of a 1996 interview with Seeger.

Your artistic work seems to have reflected movements and cultural trends more than the stuff we hear on the radio more frequently. In what ways do you think your artistic work has been influenced by the movements of the last 30 years and the cultural trends—your songwriting, presentations, concerns?
Peggy Seeger
: I think folk music has always reflected a very large spectrum of human activity. Chiefly, because the folk songs themselves are about so many different things. Popular songs have generally been about love and love lost, for the most part. I mean the really popular songs. The high-selling stuff. I’m not talking about music hall and background popular songs. I mean the stuff that really gets the main attention. It’s usually been sad love songs or things like that.

But folk music, right throughout its history—because it has come not as a commodity music, but as a music which has been produced purely and simply because people felt that they just had to make it—has been about so many different things that it has reflected what has been happening in the so-called “lower-strata” of society. And that is the industrial struggles and many of the subjects which aren’t mentioned at all in popular music: like violence against women, like child-beating. And like orphans and nagging wives, violent husbands. And happy love songs, too, I suppose. Folk music is very versatile in what it chooses to reflect. And I think many of the songwriters now, because they’re writing about things that are happening now, they choose an idiom which is already there—which is folk music. And there are some wonderful songs being written on the folk circuit.

You mentioned your drift away from old left kind of labor stuff, more turning towards a feminist orientation, green concerns. When did that start and to what degree has that reflected shifts in the world or your own personal shifts?
Seeger: Well, it definitely reflects shifts in the world. I began to get interested in it in the mid-Eighties. I began writing feminist songs—well, my first one was 1970, when I wrote “Gonna Be An Engineer.” And I wrote that for a stage play that we were doing. And it just rolled-out of me, although I’ve had a relatively easy life as far as gender-discrimination was concerned. I just literally produced that in an evening, which surprised me. Then I found that because of it I was being asked to sing at women’s functions. When I went along to sing at these functions I found that I didn’t have any songs that dealt with the issues that they were talking about: like abortion, like rape, like strife between mothers and daughters, women’s position in unions, contraception. Things like that.

So I started to write songs consciously about these issues. And that was in the mid-to-late Seventies.

So I guess that would answer the question why you started writing your own songs?
Seeger: Yeah. Now I ran this side-by-side with the left-wing politics at the time. Because I was a socialist-feminist. I’m moving over quite quickly to radical feminist and to feeling that the way politics are organized, what we recognize as politics, is something that is determined by the patriarchal structure that we have. And that many of the politics are really meant to bolster up the System that we have, which is a patriarchal one: heavily centralized, heavily industrialized, highly competitive and aggressive. And many of these are principles that feminists feel are not part of what women want to be part of or what women want to be like.

This patriarchy, and the industrial complex that goes with it, is what is responsible for the rape of the Earth. And so that is why I’m moving around to a different kind of politics and to a different activist sphere. It seems that many women and many men are also moving around to this.

A kind of drift towards eco-feminism?

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Peggy Seeger: A 1996 Interview--Part 1

Since the 1950s, Peggy Seeger ( has been performing before audiences in the United States and Britain. During this period she has recorded over 14 solo albums and many joint albums. After living in England between 1959 and 1994, Seeger moved back to the USA and lived in Asheville, North Carolina until early 2006. Following is part 1 of a 1996 interview with Seeger.

I was in the bookstore looking at the magazine section, and I noticed a lot of glossy magazines featuring people who were singing folk music in the 1960s and 1950s. You know, an article like “Generation X and Joan Baez.” Also books. Like When We Were Good: The Folk Revival. What’s your explanation?
Peggy Seeger
: Who was that by?

Robert Cartwell. So it seems like every decade there’s a revival of interest in the folksingers of the 1950s and 1960s and in folk music in general. How do you explain the cross-generational appeal?
 When you say “cross-generational appeal,” do you mean “why is it appealing now to younger people?”

Seeger: Are you sure that it is?

That’s what these articles are saying. In the early Nineties—no. But now, in the last few years—yes.
: Well, then the young people now are getting romantic about the Sixties. They’re not listening particularly to folk music now. You go to the festivals now and there aren’t all that many. Probably at festivals there are younger people. But at the concerts there are more older people, generally speaking. Although I went to a Joan Baez concert down in Asheville and there were a terrific number of women there—young and older women.

So maybe that’s where it’s centered? Among women.
Seeger: I think we’re hungering for a more innocent period, to be quite honest. I think many people feel that folk music has an innocence about it. That the music that we’re being presented with now, as pop music, doesn’t. It’s interesting that there wasn’t a folk music revival back in the Thirties and the Twenties when there was a lot of really innocent, quite joyful, music.

So many movements seem to run almost in pendulum-like form. Look at the way the working-class movement and the union movement spurs up every now and then. And look at the way feminism is spurred up every now and then. The ecological movement as well. Although I hope the pendulum is going to stay where it is and move even further over.

But I think, certainly, as far as the Fifties and the Sixties are concerned, it was a kind of glowing period. People kind of look on it as—even though it included things like the Vietnam War—if we still had a kind of innocence about us then.

You lived in both the United States and in Britain during the Fifties and Sixties?
Seeger: I lived in England for most of that. I was abroad for most of that time. From 1955 onward I was abroad.

You’ve been back in the States in the Nineties. Is it much of a culture shock?
 Yes. Although I had been back several times before then. I was blacklisted in early days, even though I hadn’t done very much. Or at least, if not blacklisted, it was very difficult to get in. You had to hire a civil liberties lawyer to kind of plead your case. And you had to get work permits and special visas and all those kind of things

But coming back now, despite the fact that I have come back about eight or ten times between 1960 and 1990, yes—quite a culture shock. But not as much as if I had been a foreigner. I’m quite comfortable with American people. Always have been. Not all. The ones that are the kind of people that I meet I’m quite comfortable with.

Why would you be blacklisted as a musician? I thought that was only political people. I thought artists weren’t blacklisted?
 No. No, no, no. My brother, Pete [Seeger], wasn’t allowed to leave the country for a long time in the Fifties. Or early Sixties. And to be a folk musician, was to be regarded as quite “left-wing” and “red,” in the Fifties and Sixties. Definitely.

In the 1990s, what have you been up to artistically?
Seeger: I performed by myself up to 1958 or ’59. And then I joined with Ewan MacColl and sang with him for over 30 years. And when he died in 1989, I swung immediately to singing with my old comrade, Irene Scott. We formed a duo called “No Spring Chickens.” And we sang together for 4 years. And then she decided she didn’t like touring life. And I decided to come back over here.

And so I have been learning to sing by myself again. And it was extremely interesting. Because working with Ewan MacColl it was very, very serious. And fairly static onstage. Working with Irene, she wanted to bring humor onto the stage. So I started using a reasonable amount of humor and being lighter onstage, in terms of presentation. Although not necessarily in terms of the kinds of songs being sung. And, of course, the big difference now is that I’m swinging over to ecological and feminism politics, rather than the old left-wing politics of the jobs and the unions.

This is not to say that I don’t find them important. Because they are. But I believe that the major push, the most important push now, is ecology. And feminism goes hand-in-hand with that, because so many of the feminist principles are ones that mesh in perfectly with ecological action. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

SNCC Freedom Singer Matt Jones: A 1994 Interview--Part 3

The Summer of 1994 marked the 30th Anniversary of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee [SNCC]’s Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964, in which over 1,000 student volunteers from around the U.S. participated, after attending training sessions in Oxford, Ohio. But in 2018, a former chairman of SNCC, H. Rap Brown (n/k/a Jamil al-Amin) is still imprisoned for life in a Georgia prison.

In 1994, Downtown spoke with former SNCC organizer and Freedom Singers Director, Matt Jones, about the Freedom Summer, the Freedom Singers, SNCC and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Jones lives in Manhattan and for many years has generously donated his time to sing at many human rights and peace benefits. At The People’s Voice Café  in Manhattan, a celebration of his 70th birthday took place in 2006. Following is part 3 of an interview with Jones that first appeared in the September 21, 1994 issue of the now-defunct Lower East Side alternative newspaper, Downtown.

What was daily life like in Mississippi? You mentioned how, when you were in Ohio, right before the Freedom Summer was to start, you had certain concerns. Now, when you got down there—in terms of what you recall—what was life like? I mean, people talk about a “Freedom High” that people experienced there. And some people say they were never the same. What happened down there?
: They were never the same because their lives were in danger. It was so odd. Because it was really, really like being a race car driver and you were in a car and you didn’t know where the curves were. You had no idea what was going to happen to you from one day to the next. The fellows had already been killed. People like Lawrence Guyot had been caught in Ku Klux Klan rallies in Mississippi. And Medgar Evers had already been killed. And a couple of people had died in other sections of the South.

So you were talking about people being in an area where they were totally frightened. But I think that after the three fellows got killed, people were more apt to listen to some of the SNCC veterans. If they were going to drive in a car, they would listen to a fellow named George Green, who was our best driver. He was sort of like Roy Rogers on a horse. I mean, he knew how to get away from the Klan.

So after people got killed, we put radios and walkie-talkies in all our cars, so people could get in touch with each other. And people were taught that, if they were in a car, they would never let the Klan pass them. And if they were in jail, they would never let the jailer put them out of jail at night. They would always wait till the following morning and be sure that some people were coming to pick them up. And they would never let any jailer tell them “O.K., it’s 11:30 at night. You can go home now.” That was the last time that was done. People were very careful from then on out. And that’s why we didn’t have any of the rest of the kids get killed. Because they knew that the Mississippi racists were sincere about killing people and it changed even the way I dealt with law enforcement.

I remember when I was leaving Meridian—going to Jackson [Mississippi]—and I had to go through one of the counties. And our car broke down. And this fellow named “Flukie” Suarez from CORE went into Jackson with the tire, and I was left in the car till he came back. And we had SNCC and CORE literature in the car.

And when I saw the sheriff come down to check on me, with this big shotgun, I immediately hid all of the CORE and SNCC literature under the seat. And when he came in and asked me why I was there, I told him I was just there waiting on a friend of mine to come and bring a tire. And I didn’t say I was in SNCC or anything. I mean I knew to be cool. I knew that I couldn’t decide to discuss the Movement with that sheriff. And it was very clear in my mind that my job was to try to get that car back into Jackson and wait for the man to come to pick me up.

So it put a little fear in us. But we continued to work. We didn’t let that stop us from working. In 1963, we had a mock election and Aaron Henry had run for governor. Since the people in Mississippi couldn’t vote, we had our own election. The mock election in 1963 set the stage for the Mississippi Summer.

So we were, I think, “high” because for the first time in our lives we were moving to free people and, by trying to free people, we were freeing ourselves. We would always stay in the homes of some of the local people, and we would learn from the people. And the people grew. And we grew. I mean you had whites who had never been around blacks, and blacks who had never been around whites. So both groups grew.

Some of the blacks had never known whites. If a white person would come up and say “Will you come to register to vote?”, they would say “yes, sir” because the person was white and they had never said “no, sir” to a white person. So some of the students would come back and say “I got so-and-so to register to vote and the people never came.” They didn’t realize the reason they didn’t come is that the people, just said “yes” to them because they were white.

There were a lot of things that the people had to learn. And everyday somebody was getting beaten or something was happening. Emmett Till had already died. So we had a lot of death already in Mississippi and across the South.

Not only in Mississippi was there a lot of activity. There was activity across the South at the same time. People don’t know that, because people are so tied into Mississippi because the white civil rights workers got killed there. Therefore, there’s a lot of writing going on about Mississippi. But that’s because people still move in racist lines and they don’t realize. They don’t realize that they are really not interested in other sections of the South, even though they’re interested in Mississippi because three civil rights workers got killed, two of them white, and a lot of whites worked there. But a lot of whites worked in other sections of the South. But we don’t have a history of those sections.

But some of the white students from the South had more extensive training because they had gone to schools in the South and they also had worked. And they understood the people. So they could move better. People like Bob Zellner and Sam Shirah. And these people could move a lot better than the Northern whites. They knew the area. They knew the blacks and the whites. So they could just move. They couldn’t work in the white community, but they could work in the Black community. They understood the people and the conditions they were working with.

And you find that those of us who worked in Mississippi will never be the same. It changed our lives. Working with SNCC changed my life. It’s changed everybody’s life. Everybody I’ve met that ever worked there, it changed their life. Some people try to forget it, but they can’t ever really forget it. You know it always stays upon them because they were living on the edge of death. It’s like when you’re almost in a car accident and you can see your whole life before you. They could see their whole life before them. They didn’t know whether they were going to die or not, but they knew what they were doing meant something.

And that’s why I, at this age, at 57-years-old [in summer 1994] still move in a freedom kind of way, because of what happened to me during those formative years in my life when I was in SNCC, in the Freedom Singers and also a Field Secretary for SNCC in Tennessee, Virginia, Mississippi and Georgia. So I can remember those different areas.

What have you been involved with since Freedom Summer and in recent years [prior to 1994]?
Jones: Well, after Freedom Summer I was going to go back on the road with the Freedom Singers. But I got caught in a Ku Klux Klan rally July 4, 1964, which caused me to be laid-up for a month or two, until I got better. [Segregationist Alabama Democratic Governor] George Wallace had a political rally. And we went there because we didn’t want the whites in the rally to think that they could meet like that and we not be there.

But when we got there, we found out it was a meeting of all the heads of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens’ Councils in the South. And so when we got in there, we found out that we were in a lynch mob. When a policeman turned his back on me, I was saved by a Japanese photographer that took a picture of the policeman with his back turned. And that action itself caused the policeman to jump across me and save my life.

But that experience made me realize how sick racism was in the South. I had a direct personal confrontation within a lynch mob situation. Somehow I lived to talk about it.

So after then, we continued to work in the Freedom Singers, and go around the country and sing, and raise money for SNCC. After I left SNCC, I came to New York City and got involved—during the Poor People’s Campaign—in the “Hey Brother! Coffeehouse” movement with F.D. Kirkpatrick. And we began to sing freedom songs and get involved here in the late 1960s and the very early 1970s. And I continued to do that. I also helped to free the Birmingham Six in England. And also did some work with an African nation called Sierra Leone. Then finally, I set up the Open House Coffeehouse in the Fall of 1986. And I’ve been going with that since then.

Where does that coffeehouse meet? And how can readers check it out?
Jones: That Open House Coffeehouse meets at 93rd and Broadway at Advent Lutheran Church on Monday nights. From 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Now we try to encourage people to write songs with a message. Some people have been able to write freedom songs. Other people don’t. But we make it open, so that people will do whatever they want to do. But, hopefully, they will write songs with a message.

Now you had a record, Matt Jones: Then And Now? Is it still possible to get that record? In which you sing some of your freedom songs?
: Yes. My record is called Matt Jones: Then And Now. People may contact me and I’ll be able to get it to them. Also, some of my music can be found in Peter Seeger and Rob Reiser’s book Everybody Says Freedom, and in the prize-winning documentaries: Eyes On The Prize, BBC’s Murder In Mississippi and a prize-winning student video: Road To Mississippi. And in the recent film: Freedom On My Mind. Also two of my songs can be found on a new [in 1994] CD, Freedom Is A Constant Struggle, along with some of the greatest singers of the 1960s such as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, Peter, Paul and Mary, Tom Paxton, the Freedom Singers.

But the main thing that people need to know about the Freedom Summer is that it was a time when young people all over the United States got together and there was a way for them to express themselves in a Movement. And a lot of them took advantage of it.

(end of interview)