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Posts Tagged ‘folk music’

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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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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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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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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Midwinter Music

We tend to get our Christmas tree early in our our household – this year we set it up on the first day of December.  We do this partly because we love the decoration, and want to make it last as long as possible, but also because of the nature of my work – I need to get myself in the spirit of the season as early as possible.  With our son, we talk about the solstice, the many different holidays celebrated this time of year, and those wonderful words from Sophia Lyon Fahs – that “every night a child is born is a holy night.”

We also listen to Christmas and solstice music – lots of it.  Or at least I do – I spend a lot of time driving alone, so my family gets to avoid being inflicted with wall to wall seasonal joy.

Now, my idea of Christmas music may be a little different from some – I grew up with the music of Nowell Sing We Clear – traditional English midwinter songs and carols, often with deep roots in the old pagan solstice traditions, Mummers plays, and sword dances to fiddle and concertina.  It has given me an intense and lifelong interest in the traditions and folklore of the Midwinter holidays, as well as the wonderful new songs still being written.

There is some fantastic music out there – some old, some new, some celebrating Christmas and some celebrating the season itself.  Here is some of the best.

Nowell Sing We Clear

Nowell Sing We Clear | The Best of Nowell Sing We Clear, 1975-1986

This is where it all began for me.  Nowell Sing We Clear is John Roberts, Tony Barrand, Fred Breuning, and Andy Davis (Steve Woodruff in the earlier years) are now in their 38th year of touring together, and they continue to make fantastic albums of Midwinter songs and carols.  Nothing can beat fun of seeing them live (if you have the chance, GO), but the CDs are a great second best.  There are many, but perhaps the best value is the compilation of songs from the first three albums, The Best of Nowell Sing We Clear, 1975-1986.

Magpie – Last Month of the Year

Last Month of the Year - A Celebration of the Solstice

Many years ago, my good friends Terry Leonino and Greg Artzner of Magpie sent me a home recorded tape they had made as a holiday gift for their friends.  Most of the songs were traditional, but a there were a few new gems as well, including their own powerful “No Room at the Inn” and a Chanukah ballad written by none other than Woody Guthrie, which tells the original story with a level of detail most of us have never heard.  Eventually they re-recorded the album and released it as one of the best seasonal albums I’ve ever heard.

Folk Legacy Records – ‘Twas On a Night Like This

Having grown up with the music of Folk Legacy Records, I admit to some bias in this, but I think Folk Legacy’s Christmas collection is my favroite.  It is simply a gathering of friends making wonderful music, and the warmth shines through on every track.  I’m not sure whether “Kentucky Wassail” or “The Chocolate Burro” is my favorite, or whether it’s something else entirely.  There are so many good songs on this album that you could listen to it again and again without getting bored.

Jean Ritchie – A Kentucky Christmas

Speaking of Kentucky – some of the best American Christmas songs have come to us through the great Kentucky singer, Jean Ritchie.  Jean says that “Brightest and Best” – a traditional carol sung in her family – is her personal favorite song, and she knows thousands.  My favorite is one of Jean’s own, which goes by teh refreshing title of “Wintergrace.”

John McCutcheon – Winter Solstice

Master singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and hammered dulcimer player John McCutcheon has any wonderful albums to his credit, but this time of year I tend to gravitate to Winter Solstice, a quiet and restful alternative to the generally ebullient music of the season.  The most famous song on the album comes from a true story which John wove into a song – the now classic “Christmas In the Trenches.”

Jennifer Cutting’s Ocean Orchestra – Song of Solstice

Jennifer Cutting's Ocean Orchestra | Song of Solstice

The most recent addition to my family’s Christmas collection keeps its roots in tradition, but extends its wings far beyond.  Jennifer Cutting is a folklorist, songwriter, accordion and keyboard player, singer, and talented arranger.  Her Song of Solstice – which celebrates the season with a more pagan orientation – combines Celtic and English folk music with trad-rock and steampunk.  Some of my favorite songs on this collection are Jennifer’s own – especially “Light the Winter’s Dark,” which celebrates the light brought into the world by the leaders of many of the major world religions, and the light we bring to each other’s lives.   This album is alternately meditative and electrifying.

This just a small list of my favorites – but the best kind of Midwinter music is the kind you make for yourself, in families, in groups of friends, and at gatherings.  Enjoy the music of the season!

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