Sunday, July 14, 2019

Joan Baez's September 1966 `American Folk Scene' Interview Revisited : An Excerpt

Joan Baez at a 1960's Anti-War Rally
Following are some excerpts from an interview with 1960's U.S. anti-war/civil rights movement protest folk singer/activist Joan Baez that was conducted by telephone on Labor Day, Monday, September 5, 1966 by David A. De Turk and A. Poulin, Jr., which first appeared in the 1967 book that they editied, The American Folk Scene: Dimensions of the Folksong Revival:

INTERVIEWER: On the basis of what you have been discovering for yourself in the past year or so, what is your impression now of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement?
BAEZ: Well, as I look back, that movement was--not bad, but they didn't really know much of anything. I didn't know much, either! But, it was what we refer to now as an "unviolent" movement; that is to say, they used nonviolence because it seemed the most intelligent, but they would have been happy at any moment to switch to something else if they thought it would work better.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think it was very effective?
BAEZ:  Well, in a way, except that if each of those students really knew what he was doing and really knew what he was asking--if he was saying, "We're not going to take any more of this gas,' then he had to be ready to leave school. The problem was that most of them, I think, were not ready to leave school.

INTERVIEWER: Would you agree that it would be virtually impossible to bring about any lasting changes at the university?
BAEZ: Ummm--not if they were ready to leave! And they should be ready to leave because I don't think they should have been there in the first place!...

INTERVIEWER: You have said that you think one of the basic problems with the traditional college setting is that it still "tends to assume that war is okay," that there are "justifiable" wars. Do you see this among the faculty as well? Normally, aren't faculty thought of as being "liberal"?
BAEZ: Oh, good Lord, that word "liberal" is just, I mean, practically meaningless. Most good liberals still think it's okay to kill people.

INTERVIEWER: Under certain circumstances?
BAEZ: Yes, and they insist everything depends on the circumstances and those circumstances exist all the time; we just manage to create them...

INTERVIEWER: You've implied previously when we've talked that what you sing reflects the state of your thinking at the time; you choose songs because they are saying something to you. What kinds of songs are you singing now and is there any particular reason for this?
BAEZ: Well, that's sort of funny because right now in this unquenchable search for some kind of reality that I'm involved in I'm not terribly interested in music right now and it occurs to me I hadn't really realized what was happening. I tried a rock'n'roll record this year--and I really ended up that I don't want to put it out, and I'll tell you why.

INTERVIEWER: Was that Dick Farina's "Pack Up Your Sorrows"?
BAEZ: Farina's, yes...I realized when I was listening to the tapes and trying to put the record together that something was wrong. And I never could figure it out until we were reading Gandhi and he said something about art. He said how you could never accept art for art's sake. Then he said he rejected it, he didn't say it was necessarily bad, he said he rejected it because it didn't represent truth, it wasn't involved with truth, and I realized that that was really what was wrong with that record. Not that it was false or lies or anything, but just that it had nothing to do with anything meaningful, most of it...The rock songs are not necessarily untrue, but what Gandhi also said was that art must elevate the spirit. Rock'n'roll does not elevate my spirit...

INTERVIEWER: Have you felt that Dylan's newer material still says something to you?
BAEZ: It says something to me when I'm feeling at my absolutely most destructive. I think it is very, very destructive music--and quite beautiful, some of it, you know, but for me it's when I feel mopy and very unspiritual, or whatever you want to call it.

INTERVIEWER: Why did you call it "destructive"?
BAEZ: Well, that's all he's saying. I mean, up to a point, Bobby and I said about the same thing. What we both said was that everything is completely screwy and there just doesn't seem to be much reason to anything, and then we split when I said you had to find out whether there was a reason and you had to give something to the people who are starving and you have to try to stop murdering even though it seems impossible, but what he said was--`Screw it.' I mean, you can't do anything and just forget it and I'll get my kicks while I'm here. I mean, that's what I get out of the music even though some of it is--I mean, he's such a musical genius that it's so beautiful to the ear, except that it's very discouraging. I mean, putting out a song like "Everybody Must Get Stoned," that's just the opposite of helping anyone to care. I mean it's just so destructive somehow.

INTERVIEWER: Do you feel there's a kind of "retreat" involved here?
BAEZ: Oh, complete, yes. I think he doesn't want to be responsible for anybody, including himself.

INTERVIEWER: He has said as much in various interviews.
BAEZ: Yes, he's pretty straight about that. I just think it's rather--I can't help thinking it's sad. Because he's so powerful.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think he would be happier if he could find the strength to go back to attempting to fight it rather than not?
BAEZ: Something like that, yes. I mean, it's hard to judge who's going to be happiest now, but he doesn't appear to me to be a very happy young man...
(end of excerpt)

Monday, July 8, 2019

Irwin Silber's 1965 Newport Folk Festival Program Booklet `Topical Song Revolution at Midpoint' Excerpt

1965 Newport Folk Festival Program Booklet
In an article that first appeared in the 1965 program booklet of the Newport Folk Festival, titled "The Topical Song Revolution at Midpoint," then-Sing Out! magazine editor Irwin Silber wrote the following:

"The profit-motivated formula songs that have been spoonfed to the American people by both Tin Pan Alley and Nashville for the last half a century make up, as a body of expression, one of the most flagrant insults to human intelligence in recorded history...

"But topical songs are not the invention of the twentieth century. The idea was not patented by Sing Out! or Broadside magazine. They are not the brain-children of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan or the civil-rights movement...

"The tradition of topical song is as old as human communication--for wherever art has been central to life and to the needs of society, artists have commented upon and attempted to affect the events of their time and the human condition...

"The tradition, no matter how dormant, had never died. Before World War I, the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) had fanned the flames of discontent with their insurrectionary propaganda songs and ballads. In the Depression years, textile workers in the South and garment workers in the North put their protest into songs. The line of continuity embraced Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl. The Almanac Singers and the C.I.O. organizing drives of the late 1930's, the topical Broadway stage and the meaningful music of Earl Robinson and Marc Blitzstein and Harold Rome.

"In the postwar years, People's Songs was the rallying point for the topical song. Even in the intellectually barren decade of the 1950's, dedicated partisans of unpopular causes sang out for civil liberties and peace. And through it all, over all the decades of this century, the blues developed as a magnificent creative expression so based on the reality of Negro life in America it needed no categorization to define its status...

"Topical song has proved its worth and strength many times over these last years. But perhaps the time is due...for some careful evaluation of where it's all at right now. There are some signs of danger blowing in the wind.

"Not the least of these has been the emergence of cults of deification around our most popular singers. The personality cult is the very antithesis of a meaningful and continuing expression--for it cuts the artist off from his roots and his strength, the contact with everyone else's reality. The idolization of the `artist as hero' has been the ruin of more good poets than one would comfortably choose to name--and the application of this circumstance to the topical song movement of our own time is not hard to find...

"Another danger in the current picture is the process whereby listening to `protest' songs replaces the act of protest...

"The most urgent danger sign, however, is the dollar sign. What with hit records, TV appearances, major concert halls and folk-festival spectaculars--the financial worth of protest is only one step removed from being measured in the Dow-Jones average. It must strike some observers as ironic and odd that the most earnest endorsers of the `new' protest are Columbia Records and Time magazine...

"Let there be no mistake...Our artists, our singers, our writers who try to sing of life...are our voice, our conscience...But we must constantly be demanding of them else their art will rot and be turned against them and us.

"Perhaps by way of conclusion, we should abandon the concept of Topical song. It is not enough that a song's subject matter be of topical concern. We should demand insight and partisanship and protest and affirmation from our songs--no matter whether we call them topical or not. For, in the final analysis, it is not art that is our ultimate goal--but life."

Sing Out! Magazine Editor Irwin Silber with Pete Seeger

Saturday, July 6, 2019

How Commercialism Affected 1960's Protest Folk Song Writers

In his 1965 book, Freedom In The Air: Song Movements of the Sixties, Broadside magazine Contributing Editor Josh Dunson indicated how the commercialism of the U.S. corporate media conglomerates' hip capitalist music industry subsidiaries apparently affected the artistic and political direction of 1960's protest folk and topical song writers, by writing the following:

"The years 1963-1964 proved in the breakthrough of `Blowin' in the Wind' that a great deal of money was to be made from songs of the protest movements. The fact that freedom songs and topical songs were, and to some extent still are, highly profitable, had a dual effect. It circulated the songs over a large area, but at the same time the meaning of many of the songs was toned down to suit the managers, agents and disc jockeys. As Barbara Dane said exaggeratedly: `Just like people who are not in love write love songs, now topical songs are the big thing, so people who don't particularly care about freedom are writing freedom songs.'

"There is some truth in this statement, especially in the case of commercial song writers. The difference in approach between the freedom singer who has risked his or her life while singing and the producer who sees a potential profit in these songs is too great to be ignored. Situations are not necessarily black and white, but the clash between the topical singer and the Artist and Repertoire man exists and is real...

"This more disastrous when in topical songs a singer who is writing essentially to express himself is swamped with `success.' Irwin Silber maintains this is essentially what interfered with Bob Dylan's growth as a song writer. With hundreds of kids wildly following him down the street for autographs, he could no longer remain an observer. Instead he became an idol, to be observed and followed. I think this explains a great deal, but even more cogent is the fact that there seemed to be no real alternative in the directions to which he turned for help. If there is nowhere to go, the only place left is one's self, and that is where Bob Dylan and his songs are now. Many of them are good, but not one of them measures up in breadth or beauty of form to his earlier writing...

"Song writers who are constantly traveling on tour to various folk-song night clubs and coffee houses are always in danger of thinking entirely in terms of their profession. They tend to lose contact with the movements and the emotional identification that inspired them to write songs during the years they lived in New York's slums..."

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Revisiting UK Protest Folk Songwriter/Miner Tommy Armstrong

UK Miner/Protest Folk Songwriter Tommy Armstrong
As John McDonnell noted in the 1979 book, Songs of Struggle and Protest, which he edited:

"The songs of workers composed and sung sometimes in the workplace itself, are...different...They express the feelings of...workers...The mining industry has been particularly noted for its fine songs. Probably the harshness and isolation of the conditions of work, and the danger which fostered the spirit of comradeship among the miners, have contributed to this creativity..."

And in the same book, McDonnell explained why he thought a UK miner named Tommy Armstrong was considered to be a great writer of protest folk songs:

"The greatest songwriter among miners must surely be Tommy Armstrong born in 1848 who started work at the age of nine and spent most of his long working life at Tanfield Lea...He had a real sense of responsibility to the miners...and felt a deep obligation to record the landmarks in their history...He entertained at concerts given to raise money for the victims of pit disasters, for strike funds, for reading rooms and for the miners' union. He is one of the best of all worker poets and A.L. Lloyd has described his work as `characterized by a profound class consciousness and a notable faculty for criticism of society.' Most of Armstrong's strike ballads were made during the 1880's and 1890's..."

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Hard-Hitting Labor Songs Revisited In Mat Callahan and Yvonne Moore's `Working-Class Heroes' CD

If you were inspired by Mat Callahan and Yvonne Moore's updated 21st-century musical arrangements for and spirited singing of protest folk songs (that IWW organizer/Irish socialist labor organizer and 1916 Dublin Easter Rising executed leader James Connolly wrote in the early 20th century) in their 2013 Songs of Freedom  cd, you're likely to also be moved and inspired by their latest cd, Working-Class Heroes: A History of Struggle In Song.

As the liner notes for their 2019 Working-Class Heroes cd (which is being distributed in the USA by both PM Press and Free Dirt Records) observes:

"The most essential music is conceived by real human beings: ordinary, anonymous, often poor-people who stood up and joined together to fight injustice and institutional oppression. This is the story of  Working-Class Heroes: A History of Struggle in Song, a collection of American working-class, pre-World War II folk songs revived by Mat Callahan and Yvonne Moore. Here the duo presents 20 songs written by both folk canon heavyweights and lesser known but equally gifted songwriters...The album is a collection of stories as much as songs--stories of the women and men who (sometimes literally) gave their lives to emancipate the working-class.

"Heroes featured in this collection: Sarah Ogan Gunning, Ralph Chaplin, Woody Guthrie, Ella May Wiggins, Joe Hill, Paul Robeson, John Handcox, Aunt Molly Jackson, Jim Garland, and several more anonymous proletarian songwriters, whose names have been long forgotten but their words immortalized."

Most of the labor movement songs written by working-class labor movement organizers and/or working-class songwriters featured on Working-Class Heroes were included in the Hard-Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People songbook compilation, of Wobbly and 1930's Depression Era protest folk songs, that Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger put together in the early 1940's--which didn't get published until 1967. But some of these featured songs may not have been heard much by either older 20th-century or younger 21st-century labor movement activists, labor union members and U.S. working-class protest folk music fans--like "Come All You Coal Miners," "Come On Friends And Let's Go Down," "I Hate The Capitalist System," "The Mill Mother's Song" and "The Commonwealth of Toil."

In her spirited and passionate singing of the songs featured on Working-Class Heroes at a June 2019 performance of the duo at Encuentro 5 in Boston, Yvonne Moore showed that she's able to sing labor songs in as moving and intense a way as Hazel Dickens, Barbara Dane, Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Bev Grant were able to sing labor songs in the second half of the 20th-century. And, at the same event, Mat Callaghan was able to explain the historical context of the labor songs in the 21st-century that the duo sang as well as Pete Seeger did in the 20th-century; and  also to sing a great, entertaining version of Woody Guthrie's "Mama Don't `Low No Bush-Wahs Hangin' Around," that most Woody Guthrie fans in USA probably have never heard performed before.

Yvonne Moore and Mat Callahan

The duo has also edited an accompanying 96-page songbook for their new cd (that PM Press is also distributing), titled Working-Class Heroes: A History of Struggle in Song: A Songbook. And as the blurb for this 2019 songbook notes: 

"Most of the songs collected here are from the early twentieth century, yet their striking relevance to current affairs invites us to explore the historical conditions that inspired their creation: deep, systemic crisis, advancing fascism, and the threat of world war. In the face of violent terror, these working-class songwriters bravely stood up to fight oppression. Such courage and heroism is immortal, such heroes should be celebrated and their songs can still lift our spirits, if we sing them today..."

Sunday, April 21, 2019

`We Shall Overcome! Songs of the Southern Freedom Movement' 1963 Introduction: An Excerpt

In 1963, the introduction to the We Shall Overcome! Songs of the Southern Freedom Movement songbook (that was compiled by Guy and Candie Carawan for SNCC and published by Moe Asch's Oak Publications) indicated how non-commercially-motivated Freedom Movement protest folk songs, that working-class people of various racial backgrounds and Movement activist/organizers collectively created in 20th century, differ from most of the commercially-motivated pop songs that get played on corporate media conglomerate radio and television station programs in 21st-century, in the following way:

"Freedom songs today are sung in many kinds of situations: at mass meetings, prayer vigils, demonstrations, before Freedom Rides and Sit-Ins, in paddy wagons and jails, at conferences, work-shops and informal gatherings. They are sung to bolster spirits, to gain new courage and to increase the sense of unity...

"The freedom songs are of many kinds and range through many moods. The important ones are the old, slow-paced spirituals and hymns (some in the minor mode) that sing of hope and determination, and, the rhythmic jubilee spirituals and bright gospel songs that protest boldly and celebrate eventual victory. These are in the majority and usually have new or revised words to old tunes...Finally, there is a small miscellany of songs imported from the north, including a couple of revised union songs and a handful of newly adapted folk songs. These have come from exchange students, freedom riders, folk singers and hit records...The students have been responsible for making up most of the new lyrics and singing new life into the old songs...

"...No other songs have been able to express so closely the feelings of the participants or have been so easily adapted to fit current situations as some of the old spirituals. When sung with anything approximating the old time style and spirit, they are unbeatable..."

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Irwin Silber's 1966 Foreward To `Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People' Book: An Excerpt

In 1966 Sing-Out! folk music magazine editor Irwin Silber wrote the following about the Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People book, whose text Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax first put together in the early 1940's, that was finally published in book form by Moe Asch's Oak Publications in 1967:

"...This book is all about--the despair, the struggle, and the dreams of the working people of the United expressed through the songs the people themselves made up and sang.

"There aren't many professional song-writers represented in these pages. Mostly, the writers and composers, where we know their names, are people like Aunt Molly Jackson, Jim Garland, Ella Mae Wiggins, Sara Ogan, John Handcox. Or blues singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red. For these and all the anonymous picket-line poets of the time, there was no intellectual problem of `commitment' or whether or not `protest' was `art.' When you sing because your life depends upon it, when you sing out of the very bowels of your being with a scream of anguish or when you sing out with a yell that demands and proclaims and asserts your rights as a man or a woman and as a human being--when you sing this way, where the song is an extension of your own life as it is inter-connected with the lives of others, there is no need to weigh the advisability or artistic worth of songs of protest..."