Dear Friends: I just returned from a month in the United States. The trip was in three parts, each part different from the others. I will summarize them separately.
The first part was our visit to Berea College in Berea, Kentucky to record a major portion of the repertoire for our Songs of Slavery and Emancipation project. Thanks to the inspired leadership of Dr. Kathy Bullock, the recording was a tremendous success. Words cannot express the depth of feeling we all shared singing and hearing songs performed for the first time since being composed and sung by slaves-in some cases, more than 200 years ago. The enduring power of the music, the fighting spirit of the texts, resonate profoundly, as these songs once again, come to life.
We have much more to do before the project is complete but, with what we accomplished in Berea, I can say with confidence we will get the job done.
The plan now is to record the six remaining songs from our thirty song repertoire, finish the film and write the accompanying book. The music will be approximately two hours long and will be published in a double-cd format. The film will be a documentary of the project’s genesis and execution, including the research, assembly and recording of the music. Also included will be interviews with participants in the singing as well as historians and present-day activists. Finally, the book will explain the process of uncovering and documenting the songs, the historical context in which they were composed and sung as well as the reasons they lay hidden for so long. We will, of course, present the words and music so that people today can learn and sing them. It may surprise some people to find how relevant the song texts are to contemporary problems.
Our target date for publication is Martin Luther King’s Birthday, January 15th, 2020.
Part Two-Philadelphia, New York City, Marist College
I was invited by Aaron Leonard to join him presenting a program called Music, Resistance, Repression. Aaron is the author of two important books: Heavy Radicals https://www.amazon.com/Heavy-Radicals-Revolutionary-Communist-1968-1980/dp/1782795340 and A Threat of the First Magnitude, https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks-intl-ship&field-keywords=A+Threat+of+the+First+Magnitude both of which deal with the role of the US Government in suppressing dissent in the Land of the Free. More specifically, Heavy Radicals deals with the role of the FBI in infiltrating and subverting the work of American maoists, particularly those involved with the Bay Area Revolutionary Union (BARU) which went on to become the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). A Threat of the First Magnitude, goes further in exploring the relationship between the FBI (and other agencies) and revolutionary organizations from the Bolsheviks to the Communist Party USA to the RCP. The research for both books required plowing through mountains of documents acquired through Freedom of Information requests, compiling and cross-referencing field reports from agents, informants and others and drawing some conclusions as to the relative success or failure of the government’s efforts. Aaron’s research led him to the discovery of files on a number of musicians and other artists. This work will eventually lead to a new book tentatively titled: The Bureau and the Folksingers. (He’s chosen to focus on folksingers but, truth be told, the evidence he’s gathered includes a much wider range of people than those specifically linked to “folk music,” i.e., Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, et al.)
I was asked to participate because my book, The Explosion of Deferred Dreams, covers some of the same ground but from a different angle. Basically, my book is about the Sixties after the Folk Music Revival. So, my research offers the perspective of what happened as a result of the FBI’s efforts or in spite of them. I comment on how strengths and weaknesses of social movements and musicians either overcame or played into the hands of the authorities during the Sixties.
At both the Wooden Shoe Bookstore in Philadelphia and the People’s Forum in Manhattan, we had decent turnouts and lively discussion. It’s hard to say what the outcome might be, but Aaron and I were encouraged by the interest people expressed in our work.
I then traveled to Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY for a talk to a class in contemporary history. I might have gotten more out of the talk and discussion than the students did. Several points arose in the Q&A that were quite revealing. All the students confirmed that the very falsehoods I am debunking in my book are what are taught in their high school history classes. The picture of the Sixties, the Counterculture, the music, etc. is largely the one painted by the counterrevolution, Ronald Reagan, etc. The students further remarked that the prevailing notion among their generation is either one of envy at what a great time it was or disdain for how little was ultimately accomplished. None disputed the continued relevance of the period; it’s almost an article of faith that the 1960’s and 1970’s were somehow world-changing. But for these students it was unclear what, exactly, could account for that. They wonder, furthermore, what exactly the change consisted of. All acknowledge the gains made by black people and women but wonder to what extent these gains alter the more fundamental power dynamics of society. Of course, these questions do not suggest any uniform, generational position. Indeed, the absence of a self-conscious “my generation” attitude-at least one that confronts the status quo-is remarkable. But I sensed that at least some of these young people are conscious of that lack and are at least contemplating its implications if not actively seeking to unite and fight for a better future.
Part Three-the West Coast
I then traveled to the West Coast for a string of events commemorating the 50th anniversary of 1968. I won’t go into too much detail since the subject is well covered elsewhere (my book, for example). Suffice it to say the events consisted of several speakers, each presenting brief synopses or overviews of the period. The presentations had the merit of sparking some lively discussion but they were no substitute for serious inquiry.
I was encouraged by younger activists trying to grapple with questions of organization vs. movements; the need for long-term commitment and the building of institutions lasting more than a short time. Questions of political power and how to attain it (or destroy it) were also raised. I found it troubling that little attention was paid to other questions such as the limitations of “political theater” or the publicity stunt, on the one hand, and art and art-making, on the other. A crucial theme of how art, coupled with education and grass-roots organizing, (such as Teatro Campesino or the SF Mime Troupe) was barely mentioned. If anything, such subjects continue to be sidelined in the manner they often were in the Sixties. In other words, the “important” questions are politics, narrowly defined, and the “unimportant” ones are left to artists to figure out.
Many young people today are far better equipped theoretically than I was at their age. At the same time, they seem blissfully unaware of the traps and snares being laid by the music industry, Hollywood and, of course, the Tech biz. Possessive individualism, private property, money and fame are subjects for discussion but they seem not to be viewed in the critical manner they were in the Sixties. Our generation failed, no doubt, but these questions at least were seriously considered by tens of millions of people. Furthermore, our failure would more accurately be portrayed as defeat by a more powerful enemy, which in turn demands a weighing of contending forces. These and related issues still require careful re-examination leading to a concrete analysis of concrete conditions today.
While I enjoyed the discussions and appreciated the chance to engage with an attentive audience, I nonetheless feel as I did when I wrote the introduction to my book: philosophy is dead. It’s rarely mentioned, let alone discussed, and the effects of philosophy’s absence are visible for all to see, though few acknowledge that that is the case. What might philosophy’s presence entail? Method, for one thing, world history, for another. Generally speaking, people are not trained in methods of inquiry nor do they think in the broadest possible terms about our species, its place in the universe, let alone its having come into being or the inevitability of its passing out of existence. These questions are before us today in no uncertain terms. Indeed, annihilation is a practical matter for my grandchildren. Yet I would argue that if we are to extricate ourselves from the dilemmas we face we will need the tools philosophy-and only philosophy-provides.
What comes next? In December I plan to announce the next steps in completing Songs of Slavery and Emancipation. I will definitely announce the details of our other current project, Working Class Heroes.