Saturday, May 20, 2006

Dangerous Songs

First, go here to read about how one Quaker is making herself dangerous.

Her piece reminded me of Pete Seeger's album, Dangerous Songs!? and a comment I left on a page several years ago about how dangerous singing can be.

I first heard of Pete Seeger through a right-wing Lutheran publication that complained that he had been invited to sing at a Walther League convention (the youth organization of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) in 1964 or so. I remember asking why everyone was so upset about a "former communist" singing to the Walther Leaguers. "How could singing songs hurt anybody's faith?" I asked. The insipid answer was that we should have found a good Lutheran folk-singer.

Years later -- April 22, 1971 to be precise -- I heard Pete sing "Last Train to Nuremberg" at the big pre-May Day rally in Washington, D.C. I was electrified, and began to realize how naive my question had been: Music CAN be dangerous, especially to those whose position and influence rests on violence, coercion, lies, and fear. The right wingers were exactly right to be afraid of Pete's influence on young people. Hearing him sing Malvina Reynold's "Little Boxes" and "God Bless the Grass" was like a hyper-link to the idea that the world could be a better place if only we took responsibility for making it so.
One of my small contributions to the undermining of the Empire is to sing these songs and teach them to others, to keep them alive.

Another one of my favorites on that album is this one. The song is an old one, dating back at least 200 years and perhaps to the Peasant Wars in the 1520s. It always makes me think of my older Quaker Friends, especially one who I could always count on hearing call into public radio talk programs or to write just the right letter to the editor.
Die Gedanken sind frei!
My thoughts freely flower.
Die Gedanken sind frei!
My thoughts give me power.
No scholar can map them,
No hunter can trap them,
No man can deny,
Die Gedanken sind frei!

I think as I please
And this gives me pleasure,
My conscience decrees,
This right I must treasure;
My thoughts will not cater
To duke or dictator,
No man can deny--
Die Gedanken sind frei!

And if tyrants take me
And throw me in prison
My thoughts will burst free,
Like blossoms in season.
Foundations will crumble,
The structure will tumble,
And free men will cry:
Die Gedanken sind frei!
I'm also reminded of a story about another dangerous song. My friend works for a state agency that grants clean air and water permits for construction projects. She once was feeling a lot of pressure to grant a permit for a new project even though the application wasn't quite right and didn't meet the appropriate standards. Even though the pressure was intense, she stood firm.

She says that singing this song from the Sacred Harp gave her the strength to persevere. The song is entitled "Confidence."
Away, my unbelieving fear;
Fear shall in me no more have place;
My Savior doth not yet appear;
He hides the brightness of His face;
But shall I therefore let Him go,
And basely to the tempter yield?
No, in the strength of Jesus, no!
I never will give up my shield.
One more story. In 1979 or so, the state of Indiana was preparing to execute a man convicted of murdering a mother and her children, Steven Judy. I joined a hundred or so of others in the parking lot of the state prison in Michigan City in the late afternoon and evening for a prayer vigil to protest the execution. It was a solemn assembly, mostly silent, no speeches, just a presence.

In the parking lot were a half-dozen TV trucks with their cameras, satellite dishes and bright lights, filming us for the 10 o'clock news. Not that we made for very good visuals -- all we were doing was kneeling and praying silently -- but it was something. (I remember meeting a college classmate who was then reporting as a stringer for National Public Radio's Chicago bureau that night. She actually talked to people instead of just filming them, and she ended up with a lot more material for her radio report than the TV folks did for theirs.)

All of a sudden, we heard a commotion near the fence, the sound of loud voices. Almost immediately, the cameras and the lights swung away from us and towards the fence where a little knot of five or six white men in brown uniforms and some Nazi-like insignia were holding up a bedsheet with the words "Fry Him" spray painted on it. They were chanting something, and one of them was trying to make a speech of some sort.

We were all of a sudden left in the dark, illuminated only by our candles. The tone of the voices of the guys by the fence was distrubingly ugly, but we stayed put, kneeling, and praying. After a minute or two, someone started singing "We Shall Overcome" very softly. Her voice was joined by the others and by the middle of the first verse we were all singing.

Then, just as suddenly, the lights and the microphones swept our way again leaving the Nazis looking almost naked and alone and even more stupid standing in the dark again by the fence. Then the guy who was giving the speech started screaming, "They're singing that song again! I hate that song! Whenever we do anything they sing this goddamn song!"

He was right, you know. Singing "We Shall Overcome" in a parking lot of a prison is dangerous.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Russ Feingold: Teller of Truth

From today's Daily Kos:

Senator Russ Feingold Objecting to the Judiciary Committee's Handling of the Constitutional Amendment on Marriage

Today's markup of the constitutional amendment concerning marriage, in a small room off the Senate floor with only a handful of people other than Senators and their staffs present, was an affront to the Constitution. I objected to its consideration in such an inappropriate setting and refused to help make a quorum. I am deeply disappointed that the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee went forward with the markup over my objection. Unfortunately, the Majority Leader has set a politically motivated schedule for floor consideration of this measure that the Chairman felt compelled to follow, even though he says he opposes the amendment.

Constitutional amendments deserve the most careful and deliberate consideration of any matter that comes before the Senate. In addition to hearings and a subcommittee markup, such a measure should be considered by the Judiciary Committee in the light of day, open to the press and the public, with cameras present so that the whole country can see what is done. Open and deliberate debate on such an important matter cannot take place in a setting such as the one chosen by the Chairman of the Committee today.

The Constitution of the United States is an historic guarantee of individual freedom. It has served as a beacon of hope, an example to people around the world who yearn to be free and to live their lives without government interference in their most basic human decisions. I took an oath when I joined this body to support and defend the Constitution. I will continue to fight this mean-spirited, divisive, poorly drafted, and misguided amendment when it comes to the Senate floor.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Some questions for the President's next town meeting

Here is a the complete text of Iranian President Ahmadinejad's Letter to U.S. President Bush earlier this week as posted at

As Tikkun's prefatory note says, "Despite the White House's one-word denunciation of the Iranian President's letter as 'rambling,' upon closer inspection, this fascinating piece of writing demands far more critical an analysis than that offered by the US government."

[Let me be absolutely clear that I am not defending Ahmadinejad's statements calling for the destruction of Israel or anything else he might be saying, doing, or preparing to do. I'm moved to post this more to expose how misleading the U.S. government and the mass news media have been in reporting on this letter.]

While I must admit that parts of the letter reminded me more of the manic, breathless label of a Dr. Bronner's soap bottle than of a serious diplomatic communication, Ahmadinejad asks a lot of questions that deserve answers. E.g.:

Mr. President,

In countries around the world, citizens provide for the expenses of governments so that their governments in turn are able to serve them.The question here is “what has the hundreds of billions of dollars, spent every year to pay forthe Iraqi campaign, produced for the citizens?”

As your Excellency is aware, in some states of your country, people are living in poverty. Many thousands are homeless and unemployment is a huge problem. Of course these problems exist – to a larger or lesser extent – in other countries as well. With these conditions in mind, can the gargantuan expenses of the campaign – paid from the public treasury – be explained and be consistent with the aforementioned principles?

What has been said, are some of the grievances of the people around the world, in our regionand in your country. But my main contention – which I am hoping you will agree to some of it – is: Those in power have specific time in office, and do not rule indefinitely, but their names will be recorded in history and will be constantly judged in the immediate and distant futures. The people will scrutinize our presidencies.

Did we manage to bring peace, security and prosperity for the people or insecurity andunemployment?

Did we intend to establish justice, or just supported especial interest groups, and by forcing many people to live in poverty and hardship, made a few people rich and powerful – thus trading the approval of the people and the Almighty with theirs’?

Did we defend the rights of the underprivileged or ignore them?

Did we defend the rights of all people around the world or imposed wars on them, interfered illegally in their affairs, established hellish prisons and incarcerated some of them?

Did we bring the world peace and security or raised the specter of intimidation and threats?

Did we tell the truth to our nation and others around the world or presented an inverted version of it?

Were we on the side of people or the occupiers and oppressors?

Did our administration set out to promote rational behaviour, logic, ethics, peace, fulfilling obligations, justice, service to the people, prosperity, progress and respect for human dignityor the force of guns. Intimidation, insecurity, disregard for the people, delaying the progress and excellence of other nations, and trample on people’s rights?

And finally, they will judge us on whether we remained true to our oath of office – to serve the people, which is our main task, and the traditions of the prophets – or not?

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Fierce Altos

I want to make a few brief observations of the amazing weekend Gerry and I had at the Midwest Sacred Heart Singing Convention in Chicago this past Saturday & Sunday (Apr. 29-30). The only thing I regretted was that I didn't bring my camera to take pictures of my own of the mural in the third floor theater of Ida Noyes Hall on the University of Chicago campus. (The photo is one panel, about 1/24th of the whole thing.) The weekend was packed with interesting and amazing moments, but here's one I remember most vividly.

On Sunday, after an afternoon recess, I was sitting in front row of the bass section. I looked to my left, and saw the most outrageous front row of altos I’d ever seen or hope to see.

My friend Mary Rose O’Reilley (a formidible alto in her own right), in her wonderful book The Barn at the End of the World described what she called the “six elements of a Sacred Harp alto: rage, darkness, motherhood, malice, and sex,” and there they were, in the flesh.

I knew most of them from past singings and knew they were strong singers, but putting them together in the front row was like nuclear fusion: there was a lot of energy that was going to be released and God help you if you got in the way.

Once we got singing, they just roared. Song after song they the carried entire group along with them. It was like being in a tornado. A strong treble or tenor section can pierce you with their strength, but these altos with their lower register carried us on their backs. They made everyone sing stronger until there was a wall of sound where the physical vibrations of the music enveloped me like a pulsing wall of electrical energy, not knocking me over but going through and filling every cell with the energy. Such singing feeds itself, with each singer trying to give all he or she had, holding back nothing. The song ends, there's a moment of awesome silence, and then the next one starts and carries you higher than ever.

I've had similar experiences before, but this one, with the raging altos, will stand out for a long time.

* * * * *

I got to lead three songs over the weekend. On Saturday I led #63 Coronation in honor of my mother’s 79th birthday. On Sunday, I led #198 Green Street, which has the same text but is a fuguing song that is a lot of fun; it requires each singer to stay on their toes and count the beats in order to come in at the right time and is really fun to sing with an experienced group. A little later, I led #49b Mear, a slow, dignified lament with the text by Isaac Watts based, on Psalm 77, a kind of lament. I always think of Paul Wellstone when I sing it (“No prophet speaks to calm our grief and all in silence mourn, until the hour of our relief, the hour of thy return”). The class sang it beautifully, giving it all they had, and I was left escatic and exhausted.

* * * * *
Finally, I need to report about the Megabus.

(not our bus)

Schedule and timeliness. Our bus picked us up at the appointed place on the University of Minnesota campus a few minutes after midnight, roughly as scheduled, and deposited us next to Union Station a little before 7 that morning. I’d have to give it an A for schedule.

Comfort. Yes we slept. No, it wasn’t comfortable or restful. The bus was of a previous generation, before the big luxury touring coaches you see. It is more like the Greyhound busses you remember from college years, but a little shabbier and louder. I give it a B- on the comfort scale.

Price. We paid $15 on the way there, $8 for the way back. (It’s weird to pay more for breakfast than we paid for a 400 mile trip home.) Prices vary by time of purchase (the sooner the cheaper), the number of seats remaining on the bus, expected load (e.g., holiday weekends), and probably other factors. I think we got what we paid for, certainly, and maybe a little more. A.

Company. Each way, the bus was half full or a little less. Mostly younger folks, college student age, but a few geezers like us. All pretty quiet; none drunk as far as I could tell. A.

Customer service. What service? The driver drove that baby like the wind, and that was about it. The driver on the way home was a substitute for another driver (maybe he was lost in Fargo?) and a little gruff in Chicago, but mellowed out by the time we got home. Again, we got what we paid for. B+

However. Another singer came down on Saturday midnight and had a mini-nightmare caused in part by the late arrival of the Chicago-Minneapolis bus because of heavy weather and winds in Wisconsin, and in part by a driver who headed west to Fargo instead of east to Chicago initially. So I’d have to give reliability and incomplete at this time.

This has been a long post, but it was a great weekend and I wanted to note at least some of it.

An interesting fact I didn't know (but probably should have)

From a "dialogues" entry by Amartya Sen* in on the so-called clash of civilizations:

"[T]he vast majority of Indians come from a Hindu background—more than 80 percent, in fact. And yet, if you look at the three principal governmental positions in India, none of them is held today by a Hindu: The president is a Muslim (Abdul Kalam), the prime minister is a Sikh (Manmohan Singh), and the leader of the ruling party (Sonia Gandhi) is a Christian of Italian ancestry."

He then writes, hopefully:

"Not only is this situation the result of a democratic electoral process, you will detect no sense of the country being in a state of explosion for this reason. This despite the fact that there have been systematic attempts at cultivating the divisions of religious identity, often quoting [the author of Clash of Civilizations] . There were even killings of minorities in the riots of Gujarat in 2002, which ended up, in the Indian general elections of 2004, as a major vote-loser for the party that seemed implicated in that violence."

* Lamont University Professor at Harvard, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics, and author of Identity and Violence.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Happy Birthday, Pete

This is being posted late in the day, but let it be known that May 3, 2006, was the 87th anniversary of the birth of Pete Seeger. No one has done more to make this country something to be proud of than this man. And no one in public life has been more influential on my own life. Here is one of my favorites of the songs he has written, and an apt one on his birthday.

(He wrote this for Otto Preminger's movie Tell Me that you Love Me, Junie Moon, starring Liza Minnelli, not available on DVD, alas.)

Old Devil Time
Old devil time, I'm gonna fool you now,
Old devil time, you'd like to bring me down.
When I feel low, my lovers gather round,
And help me rise to fight you one more time.

Old devil pain, you've often pinned me down,
You thought I'd cry and beg you for the end.
At that very time my lovers gathered round,
And helped me rise to fight you one more time.

Old devil fear, you with your icy hands,
Old devil fear, you'd like to freeze me cold.
When I'm afraid, my lovers gather round,
And help me rise to fight you one more time.

Old devil hate, I knew you long ago,
Before I learned the poison in your breath.
Now when I hear your lies my lovers gather round,
And help me rise to fight you one more time.

No storm nor fire can ever beat us down,
No wind that blows but carries us further on.
And you who fear, oh lovers gather round,
And we will rise to sing it one more time.