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Archive for January, 2013

Each year on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Kr. Day, we hear part of a great speech – perhaps one of the greatest speeches ever given – “I Have  Dream.”  Sometimes I get frustrated that Dr. King’s legacy gets reduced to one speech (and only the last few minutes of that one), when his work was much more far reaching and complex, and when so much of the work he gave his life to remains unfinished.  Those issues aside, it is a remarkable speech, made all the more so by the fact that it very nearly never got made.

To begin with, the Great March on Washington of 1963 almost didn’t happen.  Nobody had ever tried a demonstration on anything close to that scale, and most people thought it couldn’t be done.  The only way the march could work is if all six leading civil rights groups joined together, and they agreed on very little.  Several leaders viewed the march’s organizer, Bayard Rustin, with deep suspicion, because he had been a conscientious objector, a socialist, and was known to be gay.  Dr. Martin Luther King and others insisted that only Bayard Rustin could do this job, so it was agreed that while Rustin would do all the work, others would take on the official titles of leadership.  Leaders of the younger, more activist Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee worried that the March would be no more than a way of blowing off steam for the African American community, unless it involved some kind of civil disobedience.  The NAACP insisted they would not participate if any civil disobedience were involved.  The groups argued with one another about the texts and the tone of the speeches and several threatened to pull support.  While President Kennedy publicly praised the March and its goals, privately he worried that so many African Americans coming to Washington to protest would lead to rioting, and he asked the leaders to cancel the event.  When they refused, Washington DC declared a “state of emergency,” closing all of the liquor stores, mobilizing every police officer on the force, and deputizing thousands more, in preparation for the descent of one hundred thousand African American protestors on the city.

More than double that number gathered at the foot of the Washington Monument the morning of August 28, while Dr. King, Whitney Young and other leaders met with members of Congress.  At 11:30, somebody in the crowd started singing a freedom song.  Soon others joined in and all of a sudden the people were moving, out onto Constitution and Independence Avenues, walking hand in hand toward the Lincoln Memorial.  Bayard Rustin, looking down from the steps of the Capitol, shouted, “My God, they’re going!  We’re supposed to be leading them!”  So it was that Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, A. Phillip Randolph and all the rest of them ran after the people, eventually stepping into the middle of the march and stopping it so that reporters could take the iconic pictures.

The afternoon was a long series of carefully negotiated speeches.  Mahalia Jackson, the great gospel musician, sang “I’ve Been Buked and I’ve Been Scorned.”  And then Dr. King stood up to speak.  He must have been exhausted, but he read well from his carefully prepared text.  When he reached the end, he paused, and Mahalia Jackson, remembering the words she had heard Dr. King speak at so many churches and rallies across the south, shouted from her seat, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!”

Dr. King looked up from his text, written as it was in the context of all the contentiousness that had gone into this march, and he looked out at the people, so eager for freedom they had not waited for his leadership to move, and he said, “Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.”

The video below includes the entire speech.  It’s worth hearing.

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Three years ago a powerful earthquake in Haiti devastated an already suffering nation.  The world sent aid, but not nearly enough, and Haiti has largely receded from the consciousness of the world.

Shortly after the earthquake, I helped to plan and lead an interfaith service at the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, in Warrington, Pennsylvania, where I serve as minister.  Hindus, Christians, Jews, Unitarian Universalists and others gathered, raised awareness, prayed together, and most importantly raised funds to help Doctors Without Borders in their Haitian relief work.

We also sang together.  Haiti Cherie is one Haiti’s best known and best loved songs, and tells a different side of the story from the one we usually hear – this is not the Haiti of grinding poverty, oppression and violence, but of beauty, courage and community.  This is the Haiti of an African people who overthrew their European slaveholders a full sixty years before the American Civil War.  This is the Haiti of joyfulness and music.

It’s an easy trap to fall into – we imagine that the lives of people living in a place like Haiti are entirely defined by suffering – and somehow that lessens the impact of the current calamity.  But real people’s lives are seldom like that, and it’s important to remember that we, who would give our help, do so because we are privileged and we are able, but not because we are better or because our lives and nations are somehow set above others.  The Haitian people recognizes the ills their country has faced, and the far worse problems brought by the earthquake, but they are also proud of their country, and with good reason.  We would do well to learn from them.

I learned Haiti Cherie for the service, doing the best I could with the Creole, using an English translation from a  recording by Harry Belafonte, and adding a fourth verse (“you are never lost to sorrow”) written in the wake of the earthquake’s destruction.  When we came back to the first verse, I lined it out for the people gathered, and four congregations sang it well and loudly.

This recording was done rather hastily that week – I had a bit of a cold, so I won’t pretend it’s the best recording I ever made, but it may be one of the most heartfelt.  The link should take you to the song.  Enjoy it, and if you can spare a little, donate again to earthquake relief.

Dan Schatz sings Haiti Cherie

(NOTE:  Pleased ignore any video ads below – they have nothing to do with the post or this blog.  The link above will take you to the song.)

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Yesterday I shared a blog post about the anniversary of the shooting in Tucson. It was pointed out to me later that I had made a rather embarrassing typo in the title (“Tucson” in in Arizona; “Tuscon” is Italian), so I’ve reposted with a new permalink. The issue remains a serious one, with over 2,000 American children EVERY year murdered by gun violence. And Tom Paxton’s song, linked to in the post, is powerful and deeply moving.

The Song and the Sigh

Today is the second anniversary of the mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, in which six people lost their lives and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head.  In the intervening years we have seen similar shootings at an Oakland, California college, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and, most horrifically, a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school.  Sadly, the actual list is far too long for me to recount – the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence lists over 70 mass shootings since Tucson, and that only tells a small part of the story.  Every day in the United States, gunfire kills 87 people – 8 of them children, 5 of those murder.  That’s over 100 Newtowns every year, and most of us don’t even notice it.

After the Newtown shooting last month several gun control opponents cited a mass stabbing in  China, correctly pointing…

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Today is the second anniversary of the mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, in which six people lost their lives and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head.  In the intervening years we have seen similar shootings at an Oakland, California college, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and, most horrifically, a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school.  Sadly, the actual list is far too long for me to recount – the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence lists over 70 mass shootings since Tucson, and that only tells a small part of the story.  Every day in the United States, gunfire kills 87 people – 8 of them children, 5 of those murder.  That’s over 100 Newtowns every year, and most of us don’t even notice it.

After the Newtown shooting last month several gun control opponents cited a mass stabbing in  China, correctly pointing out that no amount of gun control could not prevent violence or keep someone whose heart is bent on mayhem from committing it.  In doing so, they made the case for gun control far more effectively than I could have, because of the 22 children stabbed in that assault, not one died.

Guns do not cause violence, it is true – but they make it far more deadly and dangerous.  Suicides attempted with guns do not allow for second thoughts.  Violence committed with guns – especially with automatic and semi-automatic weapons – kills.  Too often it kills the innocent.  I understand the desire for freedom, for protection, for recreation.  I understand that the overwhelming majority of gun owners are decent, law abiding people.  But 2000 dead children every year is too high a price to pay.

It is also true that gun bans will not by themselves immediately fix the problem.  Our laws have been so lax, for so long, that the guns are readily available for those who would obtain them illegally.  Buy back programs help, but it will take a long time to solve the problem we have created for ourselves.  In the meantime, licensing can help, waiting periods and background checks can help, keeping the most dangerous guns limited to sporting facilities can help, and education can help.

Tom Paxton often writes what he calls “short shelf life songs” – songs in response to world events that he doesn’t expect to be relevant once the news cycle has shifted.  Two years ago he wrote “What If, No Matter” in response to the shooting in Tucson.  Sadly, the song remains all too relevant.

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About five years ago I was sitting around with a group of good friends, all of whom were first rate musicians, talking about another musician, Utah Phillips. At the time Utah was ill, and folksingers around the country were putting benefits together to help pay his expenses. I’ve always like that about the folk music community – it may be a tough way to make a living, but it’s a real community, and we take care of each other.

I floated the idea that maybe we could put together a CD of some of us singing Utah’s old songs, and within about 30 minutes we had our first seven tracks spoken for. Over the next year, I spent much of my spare time working with dear friends Kendall and Jacqui Morse, engineering wizard Charlie Pilzer, and the good folks at Ani Difranco’s Righteous Babe Records to put together a two CD set honoring the life and music of Utah Phillips – Singing Through the Hard Times.

Utah never lived to see the final product, but he knew it was happening and was grateful. His death that May left us all in tears, but it was a comfort that he left the world knowing his music would continue, and grow, even after he was gone.

One of the good friends at that gathering was Will Brown – one of the best and most unassuming musicians and human beings I know. Will prefers to work with other folks when he sings, so he asked Cindy Kallet and Grey Larsen to join him in the most beautiful and haunting version of Utah’s “Going Away” I have ever heard.

Last week I discovered Will’s recording had been made into a video, and with Will’s permission, I share it with you. It’s a beautiful piece of work, simple and elegant – just like the song and just like Will’s arrangement of it.

You may want a hankie for this one. It’s a thing of beauty.

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