This month, announcements are in order. First off, there is the completion of my book on San Francisco in the Sixties. While there is finishing work to do the basic manuscript is complete and sent to my publisher, PM Press. The title is: The Explosion of Deferred Dreams (musical renaissance and social revolution in San Francisco 1965-1975). The publication date is yet to be determined but one should be announced soon. Still, after eight years of work-and repeated questions about the project’s status-I am happy to report that it will soon see the light of day.
Meanwhile, Yvonne and I have been invited to perform at the Brooklyn Folk Festival in April. We will be giving a workshop on Songs of Freedom, the James Connolly Songbook. We want to share the music, of course, but also the process that brought this project to fruition. Many historical, musical and political questions were raised that have broader implications than our specific effort. People have asked how the songs were written in the first place and how they were originally received by the workers to whom Connolly directed them. The choices we made regarding musical accompaniment, instrumentation and “traditional” vs. original composition are also important points to be discussed. We are very happy that our dear friend Eli Smith, producer of the festival, thought it fitting to hold this workshop. We share the concern that those who are serious about music, particularly folk music, have an opportunity to think through all the problems and promise that making it entails.
Which leads me to the next big project I will be working on in the coming year: Songs of Slavery and Emancipation. Upon the discovery of an obscure book called “Mr. Brough’s Musical Lecture on the United States”, I began investigating songs written and sung by slaves. Curiously, “Mr. Brough’s Lecture” was published in Dublin in 1847. The only existing copy is in the Dublin National Library. The coincidence was uncanny. I had similarly found James Connolly’s Songs of Freedom in that very same library. But in the case of Songs of Freedom, a book of Irish songs had been published in New York, while “Mr Borough’s Lecture” was American songs published in Dublin! The date of publication was especially significant. How far back did the collection of slave songs go? I knew, for example, that William Francis Allen’s Slave Songs of the United States had been published in 1867. In his introduction Allen notes that already at that date such songs were disappearing. When I later found texts written no later than 1813 it was clear that both the temporal and lyrical depth of this legacy was very great indeed. Furthermore, the oldest texts I found were not only highly literary in form but explicitly revolutionary in content. This was not coded speech or religious metaphor disguising the yearning for freedom. This was an overt call to arms, obviously inspired by the Haitian Revolution. Herbert Aptheker’s renowned study, American Negro Slave Revolts, confirms both the existence of such songs and the social conditions that led them to be written and sung, namely, the struggle of the slaves to emancipate themselves. This convinced me of the pressing need to bring these songs and their history to contemporary audiences. To complete the picture, however, another vital component has to be included. That is the songs of abolitionists. There are in fact many such songs, often written and sung in Protestant congregations devoted to ending slavery. Together, the songs of slaves and the songs of abolitionists, combine to produce a radically different view of American history. I will furnish updates on my progress in the months to come. Stay tuned!