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Pete Seeger once said about Woody Guthrie’s music, “Any damn fool can get complicated. It takes genius to attain simplicity.”

Saro Lynch-Thomason has written a simple song, and it’s genius.

I first heard the young Appalachian folklorist, ballad singer and songwriter last Fall at a Washington, DC area folk music retreat. In a mini-concert which featured a number of traditional and older songs, she ended with one of her own, leading the packed room in harmony.

There are more waters rising,
This I know, this I know,
There are more waters rising,
This I know.
There are more waters rising –
They will find their way to me,
There are more waters rising,
This I know, this I know,
There are more waters rising,
This I know.

As she led the crowd through verses about fires burning and mountains falling, I began to hear echoes of voices past – Jean Ritchie and others whose deeply rooted music documented the devastation brought by mountaintop removal mining, often falsely referred to as “clean coal technology.”

Then the song took a turn.
I will wade through the waters,
This I know, this I know,
I will wade through the waters,
This I know.
I will wade through the waters
When they find their way to me,
I will wade through the waters,
This I know, this I know,
I will wade through the waters,
This I know.

Saro Lynch-Thomason had not written a lament, as I originally thought, or even a warning. Hers is a song of resistance and hope. It stayed with me for a long time, and after the election last Fall, the song began to take on new meaning.

I will walk through the fires
When they find their way to me,
I will walk through the fires,
this I know….

When I finally asked Saro if she could send me a recording of her song, she did one better, creating a video for everyone to share. I thought of this song when I marched through the streets of Philadelphia the day after Inauguration, with my child beside me holding a sign that read: “March today and work everyday for justice, equality and compassion.” I remembered its words when airports filled with demonstrators, and immigration lawyers became the new heroes of the age. I heard its melody as I worked with my Unitarian Universalist congregation to reach out to immigrant communities made vulnerable by the government’s actions. Its echoes came to me as I watched the fires burn at Standing Rock. I sing it again today as we face the very real impacts of climate denial and environmental policies that place profit over responsibility.

We are all walking through fire.

There will be damage, it’s true. Many of us are learning what the people of Appalachia have known for decades – that we can’t stop all the harm done by those who act without regard for the land, the water and the people. It would be easy – too easy – to fall to hopelessness. But there is another lesson here – when the people stand strong, holding on to what is important, we can begin to repair what has been broken. We begin to make a difference simply by letting our voices be heard, and we are only beginning.

I will rebuild the mountains,
This I know, this I know,
I will rebuild the mountains,
This I know.

Saro Lynch-Thomason’s song ends as it begins –

There are more waters rising –
They will find their way to me….

– but somehow, having crossed waters and fires and rebuilt mountains, these words no longer feel like a cry of despair. Instead they are a call for resistance and resilience, an affirmation of what is possible when communities from across a country and a world come together in support of human decency. This we can and will do, although the task will be difficult. It always has been, but we will wade through these waters. We will walk through these fires. We will rebuild these mountains.

There are more waters rising!

This I know.

(This article has also been posted at The Huffington Post.)

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Last week I let loose with another stream of brilliant, or as my family calls them, awful puns.  Somehow, in the ensuing conversation, the three of us ended up writing this together.  This song is neatly adaptable, depending on who’s doing the groaning – it could be your son, daughter, true love, or anyone else who does not appreciate the higher forms of humor.  Consider it a Christmas present from our family to yours.  And yes, this song contains no actual puns.  It’s all about the reactions.

 

The Twelve Puns of Christmas

(c) 2016 by Dan Schatz and family

At the first pun of Christmas, my young son gave to me:

  1. A shrug and a look of pity.

At the second pun of Christmas, my young son gave to me:

  1. Two massive eye rolls

A shrug and a look of pity

(Similarly)

  1. Three paces backwards
  2. Four dirty looks
  3. Five tortured screams
  4. Six Mommy! Save me!s
  5.  Seven grudging chuckles
  6. Eight I can’t stand its
  7. Nine Dad, just stop its
  8. Ten I’m not listenings
  9. Eleven looks of horror
  10. Twelve Slamming doors

 

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George Stephens, Lisa Null, Saul Brody, Brendan Phillips, Terry Leonino, Duncan Phillips, Greg Artzner, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer "Singing Through the Hard Times"

George Stephens, Lisa Null, Dan Schatz, Saul Broudy, Brendan Phillips, Duncan Phillips, Magpie (Terry Leonino and Greg Artzner), Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer “Singing Through the Hard Times” in 2010

When I was a very small child and I needed comfort for whatever reason, sometimes my mother would sit up on her bed and take out her guitar. I would sit beside her and she would sing to me. It didn’t really matter what the song was; I sang with her, and we would make music together. It was closeness and connection, a reminder that not everything had to be hard. There was goodness to be found.

Recently many of us have needed that kind of comfort. The rise of open race hatred, misogyny and religious intolerance in the United States and elsewhere is terrifying. For many it has been a wake up call, bringing new clarity to the work we have before us. There are entire communities at risk, and it is up to each and all of us to be allies to these communities and to one another.  There are principles of human rights, human dignity, and respect for the environment which will need defending.

But it can be hard to get started in that work when the weight of it seems so heavy. After all, the usual day to day events of our lives go on – school, work, getting ready for the holidays, and everything else that fills our attention.  When we combine all of these things with the national mood, it becomes easy to get depressed or defeated, or to turn our attention entirely away from the need that seems so much greater than our ability to help.

That’s where the singing comes in. Several years back, when I was producing a CD to honor the folksinger Utah Phillips, I learned a relatively unknown song of his called “Singing Through the Hard Times,” which eventually became the title of our album. “We are singing through the hard times,” he wrote, “working for the good times to come.” These were exactly the kinds of times he was thinking about when he came up with this verse:

And when the war clouds gather, it’s so easy to get angry
And just as hard not to be afraid.
But you know in your own heart, no matter what happens
You just can’t turn your back and walk away.  

Our “singing through the hard times” may take any number of forms; it doesn’t need to be musical. We might share food, do art, or enjoy conversations with people we love. We might come together in congregations, gatherings or holiday celebrations. Whatever it is that we do, it will be important to keep our spirits whole and strengthen our hearts as well as our communities for the work ahead of us.

Then we do the work.  Bringing “the good times” will take the dedicated effort of a great many people, and we know it won’t be easy. It will be up to all of us together to protect those who are unsafe, speak up for those whose voices are taken away, rebuild broken relationships and begin to create new and stronger ones with all kinds of people. That’s our task, and as daunting as it is, others have done this work before, and successfully. Now it is our turn.

So hand in hand together, we help each other carry
The light of peace within us every day
And if we can learn to live it and walk and talk and give it
The world of peace won’t be so far away.

Sing through the hard times. Work for the good times to come.

“Singing Through the Hard Times,” from the Righteous Babe CD, with footage from U. Utah Phillips

 

 

 

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Another pipeline burst this week – Santa Barbara, this time. It’s big news, and of course the web is filled with pictures of ruined coastlines. But there’s more to oil spills than beaches – Santa Barbara is home to a substantial fishing fleet, and there are many families who have made their living from these waters for generations.

Five years ago, when the BP oil rig Deepwater Horizon dumped 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, I sat down with my guitar and wrote:

Down to water’s edges in the first light of the sun
Where the fishermen are gathered by their moorings
Another day of labor on the waters off these shores
Is another week of food to raise your children
But the river’s running empty and the seas are growing warm
And the oil they spilled has poisoned all the fisheries
The catch is growing smaller ‘till there’s nothing left to find
But a job at some big box store in the city

And remember the years when the waters ran clear
And the fields restored the promise of the sowing
And the breezes blew clean and the warmth of Summer’s green
On ancient hills gave strength to keep us going

By comparison, the current is small at a nevertheless massive 105,000 gallons – still devastating to fish populations and the people who harvest them.

Refugio Oil Spill, May 19, 2015 photo by Zackmann08

Refugio Oil Spill, May 19, 2015
photo by Zackmann08

This is an old story, repeated all over the world – our thirst for cheap energy out competes small scale fishing and farming families who depend on a clean environment. The result is pollution from oil spills, leaky pipelines and dangerous oil rigs, coal ash from exploded mountaintops, toxic groundwater from fracking and steadily increasing global temperatures born of our dependence on fossil fuels.

Out among the furrows we’ve plowed these fifty years
My father’s hand and mine have made a living
Silver Queen in even years and soybeans in the off
Fed by waters rippling clear from Eastern mountains
But the hills are being leveled for the coal that lies within
And the brooks are flowing black with nature’s refuse
The soils are wrecked with cadmium; they’ve stripped the ridges bare
And we’ve watched our family’s pride all turned to wasteland

The destruction of local cultures and livelihoods doesn’t tend to get much press in the wake of a catastrophe like this, but it’s a real and lasting impact of our energy practices. We cannot separate sustainable food production from sustainable energy production – the one depends on the other.

One of the principles of my religion, Unitarian Universalism, speaks of “the interconnected web of all existence of which we are a part.” We forget the last six words at our peril – of which we are a part. Human beings do not simply impact the environment; we are impacted by the world we help to create. That our lives can never be separated from the whole is a truth both sacred and practical.

Despite the difficult news of the day, there are good reasons for hope. Awareness of our interdependence is growing, despite backlash from those who have the most to lose from a sustainable civilization. An increasingly connected world has led to more organizations, stronger networks, and better advocacy. More and more people try to eat locally and ethically, and sustainable energy is increasingly common.

My own contribution to this movement has been through music, and a new CD I’m just finishing. (If you would like to help with the CD, you can contribute to the funding campaign through June 3.) The idea is to bring together songs of farmers, fieldworkers, and fisherfolk, emphasizing the importance of sustainability, cultural heritage and social as well as environmental justice. For me these songs are a reminder of the common cause to be found across issues and cultures.

I won’t pretend to understand the reasons for it all
But I know we’ve wasted years in wrong directions
If the nourishment is stolen from the waters and the soil,
How are we to feed the generations?
But the answer lies within us and it’s only common sense –
To soil the pond we live in is disaster
Alone we’ll only crumble, but together we have power
To lift our hands and voices for the future

And to work for the years when the waters run clear
And the fields restore the promise of the sowing
And the breezes blow clean and the warmth of summer’s green
On ancient hills gives strength to keep us going

And keep us sowing

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Eberhart

Jonathan Eberhart 1942-2003

Lately I’ve been thinking about Jonathan Eberhart. Jonathan was a singer, amateur folklorist, gourmand, polyglot, and widely esteemed science journalist (he was the space exploration editor for Science News, and today there is an award in his name). He was also a family friend who I knew and admired from the time I was born. When I was five, he started teaching me Japanese, and I still remember a few words.

As a songwriter Jonathan was a true poet. One of his best songs, “Dawn,” retells the biblical story of creation – “not for religious reasons,” he wrote, “but simply to suggest the beauty and importance of a long-awaited occasion.” The lyrics are stunningly beautiful:

I’ll tell you a tale of the way the world grew
If I had the power I’d give it to you.
On the first day was nothing, neither left nor to right,
Till a voice rang eternal, saying “Let there be light.”

Yet the light omnipresent little wonder did yield.
‘Twas the coming of darkness light’s glory revealed.
One turn of the wheel, and daylight is gone,
But it’s night that enables the birth of the dawn.

That song helped me find a way into a part of the Bible that made no sense to me as a Religious Humanist. When I was younger, and thought of such texts as serious attempts by our ancestors to understand how the world came into being, I thought the creation stories worse than pointless, because they seemed to undermine anything worthwhile I might find in the rest of the book. They were magical, they contradicted each other, and they just didn’t make sense. That some people use these stories as justification for denying the truths of science bothered me even more.

Jonathan, who was in no way religious, found wonder and poetry in that old story, and as I listened to that song through the years, I began to find it too. I learned, as I have so many times before and since, that there are more kinds of truth than facts. There is insight, beauty, a sense of wonder, and an honoring of the world.

Jonathan’s song helped inspire a service I’m putting together this week on creation stories from various traditions, something Unitarian Universalists rarely talk about.  I’m learning “Dawn” for the occasion. It feels good, after so many years, to give voice this part of my spiritual journey and our religious heritage. It feels right to find new truths in old stories, to tell them again, to let the mythology be what it is and search for deeper truths.  It makes sense in every way to sing the beauty of the dawn.

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This morning I read an eloquent and powerful article on Cinco de Mayo by Sudie Hoffman at the Zinn Educational Project.  In this must-read blog post, Hoffman correctly names the damaging ethnic stereotypes embodied in the commercial appropriation of this day as it is celebrated in the United States.

I remember discussing Cinco de Mayo in a Mexican Studies class at the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute of Latin America Studies, back in 1992 when I was a student there.  Henry Selby, then the Director of the Mexican Center, went over the history of the holiday – the 1862 Mexican victory in a battle with France, which delayed (but did not prevent) the French march into Mexico City.  The details of this battle are still celebrated in the state of Puebla, but largely ignored in the rest of the country.  “Now why, ” he asked, “would a minor military victory become a national holiday?”

The answer lies in the name of one of the principal Mexican officers in that battle – General Porfirio Díaz.  The elevation of Cinco de Mayo was an essential part of his political rise to power, and fourteen years later, Díaz seized control of Mexico, beginning the Porfiriato – a brutal thirty-five year rule that ended only with the Mexican Revolution.  Perhaps it is not so surprising, then, that relatively few actual Mexicans pay much attention to the day.

Cinco de Mayo in the United States recalls none of this.  Instead, people here drink large amounts of beer, wear fake sombreros, eat North American versions of Mexican food that would never be served in most of Mexico, and imagine they are celebrating “Mexican Culture.”

Why do we do this?  Why do good, thoughtful people who would never think to celebrate African American culture with fried chicken, watermelons, and Sambo figurines nevertheless feel it perfectly appropriate to “honor” Mexico with racist stereotypes?

I don’t have an answer to this.  I hate to think people actually believe those stereotypes, but it’s likely many do.  Or maybe they simply don’t stop to think about how hurtful and damaging those kinds of images can be.

On the other hand, there is a reason Cinco de Mayo came to the United States, and it wasn’t to celebrate a dictator.  In the 1960s Chicano activists thought that this day might become a bridge to better understanding and acceptance of Mexican Americans in the United States, and a window to authentic Mexican culture.  It didn’t turn out that way, but there is no reason we cannot return to that initial intent.

If you want to celebrate Mexico on Cinco de Mayo, here are some things you can do:

  • Read up on Mexican history – there are lots of good primers online.
  • If you want Mexican food, try to find a good non-chain Mexican restaurant owned by people actually from Mexico – otherwise look up some authentic recipes online.
  • Read a classic Mexican novel – Pedro Páramo or Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) are readily available in translation – or see the movies.
  • Listen to authentic Mexican music.
  • Set yourself firmly and publicly against racist laws and policies that target Mexicans and other Latino people.
  • Learn about Mexican Americans in the United States.
  • Support organizations that work for immigrant justice.
  • Consider celebrating 16 de Septiembre – Mexican Independence Day – instead.

What ever you do, think about what you are doing and leave the racist stereotypes behind.

Here, to give you a taste of the beauty of Mexican culture, is the legendary Mexican group Los Folkloristas, in a 2011 performance on tour in (of all places), Wisconsin.

 

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When I was growing up, I wanted to be Pete Seeger.  I loved the songs, the harmonies he drew out of people, the banjo he played, the way he brought people together and got them singing.   My mother made me tapes of some of his concert albums, and I listened to them over and over again.  I learned every song.  And when I sang, I used to look up into the air and shout out the high notes, just like he did.  It was a real disappointment to me when my voice changed and I discovered I wasn’t a high tenor.

To be honest, I still want to grow up to be like Pete.  Through the years I have learned as much from him – through music, writings, the example of his life, and the few conversations we shared – as from anyone else I can think of.  Yes, he was a musical genius – I found that out the first time I sat next to him at a People’s Music Network Gathering and heard his impromptu harmonies and counterpoint – but he was also a deeply thoughtful, ethical man who made it his mission to bring people together.  In his courageous testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he said,

I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life.  I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody.

Pete attached every bit as much importance to a performance for a classroom full of children as he did to one at Carnegie Hall.  He got people singing with each other and listening to each other, and he taught generations of us to do the same.

I won’t pretend that I knew him well.  If the people who have mentored me in music are the children of Pete, I am a grandchild, influenced as much by the music he inspired in others as the songs he performed himself.  In recent years I had the privilege of working with him on some projects, and through that work we shared a few conversations.  Our interactions were almost all over the phone, and I always felt privileged if he called, or if I happened to reach him on a day when he felt like talking.

And oh, what conversations they were.  I used to take notes, which is not something I would normally do – but there was so much wisdom in everything he said that I knew I didn’t want to let it slip away.  He talked about community and the connections people of different cultures were able to make with each other, more and more across the world, and how much hope it gave him for the future.  With typical modesty he never once mentioned that he was a pioneer in making those kinds of connections; I don’t think it even occurred to him.  He said that if the human race survives another hundred years, it will have been the arts that saved us – music, visual art, theater, dance, and especially laughter.  “If we can get the whole world laughing,” he told me, “we can move the world along.”

Pete was a Unitarian Universalist, and I’m sure he is one of the reasons I went into the UU ministry. It wasn’t anything he ever said to me – instead it was the lessons I learned listening to those records and singing his songs.  I learned to care about ordinary people, to value freedom and justice, to work for what is right no matter how daunting it seems, to bring people together, to listen and value the voices of others.  I learned to respect all people, no matter who they are and where they come from.  I learned the value in a story.

Last week, my six year old son came back from school telling me they had talked about Pete Seeger and sung his songs.  He knew some of the songs already, of course, and had often listened to the CD of Pete’s Children’s Concert at Town Hall, or some of the music that Pete helped to influence.  Whatever direction his own life and music take as he grows up, he’ll be part of another generation touched by the musical and spiritual gifts Pete gave to us.  And what a gift that is.

In an interview for BeliefNet a few years ago, Pete was asked if he thought there was an afterlife.  He said,

Well, you might consider this. When Toshi and I had our first child who died when it was only six months old, I was in the army, my father wrote me and said, “I don’t think I could cheer you up in the usual way. But remember this, that something good that has happened can never be made to unhappen.” That’s a nice way of putting it, don’t you think? Something that has happened can never be made to unhappen.

Pete’s life was unquestionably good, and it can never be made to unhappen.  Knowing that brings comfort and tears.  They are good, healing tears, and when they are done, Pete will still be with us – in the ways we sing, the work we do for justice, the care we take of this old brown Earth, and the community we live with one another.

Rest in peace, Pete.  Thank you.

 

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