Tag Archives: music

Across America’s Racial Divide: Michael Jackson, Rest in Peace

michaeljackson.01Barack Obama has certainly brought Americans together in unprecedented ways, but America’s black and white racial divide still exists.

And every once in a while, an event happens that starkly reveals how just deep this racial divide remains.

The untimely death of Michael Jackson is such an event.

Last week, at a meeting of progressive Democrats in Southern California, I heard speaker after speaker bemoan the fact that Michael Jackson’s death had taken over the cable news, shunting to the side what they believed to be obviously more significant topics – the revolt in Iran, the fight in Congress for new health care legislation, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I see similar comments from many of my politically progressive Facebook friends.

None of them seems remotely aware that their disdain for the wall-to-wall news coverage of Michael Jackson’s death is a reflection of their own racial perspective – or that black people might view it differently.

For many, perhaps most, white people, Michael Jackson was, at best, a fading pop star and entertainer, someone whose music and persona they may have liked in their childhood but not now.

For black people, Michael Jackson was, and remains, a cultural figure of heroic, almost mythic, proportions, someone who changed not just music but the world, and who tirelessly worked for African and African-American causes and charities.

Today Michael Jackson will be honored and memorialized as a hero.

As a white American, I may not really get it.

But I get why I don’t get it.

And for that reason, I give my respects today and I say:

Michael, Rest in Peace.

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Turn! Turn! Turn!: School Board Apologizes to Pete Seeger!

“To everything (turn, turn, turn)
To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time for every purpose, under heaven
A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time to love, a time to hate
A time for peace, I swear its not too late”
Turn! Turn! Turn!
by Peter Seeger, adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes.

This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender
Inscription on Pete Seeger’s banjo.

The Obama inauguration had an unexpected consequence this week as the San Diego School Board formally apologized to folk-singer Pete Seeger for attempting to force him to sign a loyalty oath nearly fifty years ago.

banjoseeger

In May 1960, Seeger was scheduled to perform at Herbert Hoover High School. Already a controversial figure as a supporter of unions, civil rights, and racial justice, Seeger was anathema to the right-wingers on the San Diego School Board.

In addition, Seeger was facing federal charges for his 1957 refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee: “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs.” Seeger told the committee. “I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.” (Seeger was convicted of contempt in March 1961 and sentenced to 10 years in jail; an appeals court overturned his conviction a year later.)

The local chapter of the American Legion heard about the concert that Seeger was scheduled to give at Hoover High School and told the School Board to stop it.

The San Diego School Board then told Seeger that the concert would be cancelled unless he signed a statement saying that it would not promote communism or an overthrow of the government.

When Seeger refused to sign the statement on First Amendment grounds, the School Board cancelled the concert. Seeger then got a court order allowing the concert to proceed.

Last month, San Diego School Board member Katherine Nakamura watched Pete Seeger perform Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” at the Lincoln Memorial during the Obama inauguration and decided to right the wrong that her predecessors had done to Seeger (and the Constitution) so many years ago.

On Tuesday, Nakamura introduced a resolution declaring that the San Diego School Board “deeply regrets its predecessors’ actions” and offering an apology to Seeger, whom it described as “one of our dearest national treasures.”

The apology resolution passed 5-0.

“It just seemed to me to be the right thing to do, and I had an opportunity to do it,” Nakamura said. “You don’t always get a chance to reflect on these things and the way they might have been or should have been.”

Nakamura and her colleagues on the San Diego School Board certainly deserve our praise for being inspired by Barack Obama’s inauguration to make amends to Pete Seeger.

Even more praise should go to the brave students of Hoover Senior High School’s Class of 1960 — who invited Seeger to perform at a time when an African-American President of the United States did not seem possible and people went to prison for insisting on racial equality, workers’ rights, social justice, and the freedom of speech guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Now Ain’t The Time For Your Tears: The Lonesome Death of William Zantzinger

The New York Times reports today on the death of William Zantzinger, whose murder of a black barmaid named Hattie Carroll inspired one of Bob Dylan’s most haunting and politically acute ballads.

hattie-carrol

On February 9, 1963, Zantzinger, the 24 year old son of a wealthy and politically well connected tobacco farmer, attended a white tie ball at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland.  Already drunk before he came to the hotel, Zantzinger became enraged when he thought that 51 year old barmaid Hattie Carroll did not bring him his drink faster enough.  Zantzinger called her a “nigger” and a “black son of a bitch” and hit her on the head with a cane. 

Carroll died eight hours later of a brain hemorrhage.

zantzinger1

Zantzinger was arrested and charged with murder. The change was later reduced to manslaughter and assault.  On August 28, 1963, Zantzinger was convicted and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and fined $500.

 

Dylan recorded the song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” for his third album,  The Times They Are a-Changin’, on  October 23, 1963.

The song’s lyrics are:

William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger
At a Baltimore hotel society gath’rin’.
And the cops were called in and his weapon took from him
As they rode him in custody down to the station
And booked William Zanzinger for first-degree murder.
But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face.
Now ain’t the time for your tears.
William Zanzinger, who at twenty-four years
Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres
With rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him
And high office relations in the politics of Maryland,
Reacted to his deed with a shrug of his shoulders
And swear words and sneering, and his tongue it was snarling,
In a matter of minutes on bail was out walking.
But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face.
Now ain’t the time for your tears.
Hattie Carroll was a maid of the kitchen.
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children
Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage
And never sat once at the head of the table
And didn’t even talk to the people at the table
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level,
Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane
That sailed through the air and came down through the room,
Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle.
And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger.
But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face.
Now ain’t the time for your tears.
In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught ’em
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom,
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’.
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished,
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance,
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence.
Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears.
Zantzinger later said “I should have sued him [Dylan] and put him in jail.”

The Times article on Zantzinger’s death includes a six minute and twenty-seven seconds video clip from YouTube of Dylan singing “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” on the Steve Allen Show in 1964. 

Where on television today is there anything as politically or artistically powerful?

Davy Graham (1940-2008), Guitar Legend

Legendary acoustic guitar player Davy Graham died today.

He was 68.

davygraham

As his official website notes, Graham was “Revered by several generations of guitarists, he invented the Folk -Baroque style, invented a modal tuning system for the guitar called DADGAD and composed the signature tune of the sixties folk revival, Anji” (most famously recorded by Paul Simon on the album The Sounds of Silence; my personal favorite version is by fellow British guitar wizard Bert Jansch).

While many celebrated guitar players, including Jimmy Page, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Martin Carthy, and Richard Thompson, acknowledged Graham’s playing as a primary source of influence and inspiration, Graham never achieved (or sought) wide popular recognition or commercial success.  His style combined a mastery of the blues and traditional English folk music, and if you’ve heard any of the musicians listed above, you’ve heard the influence of Davy Graham.

Though he was generous and open with fellow musicians, Graham was often also cranky and cantankerous, and his decades-long struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction made him undependable and unpredictable as a live performer.

You can watch a video tribute to Graham from the Guardian here.

I’ve been listening to his music all afternoon.

If you love the sound of the acoustic guitar, if you’re a fan of the blues or traditional folk music, and if you’ve never heard of Davy Graham, this would be a good time to seek out his music and give it a listen.

If you know Davy Graham’s music, this would be a good time to listen again.

Best American Car Songs (Now with Video Links!)

pink-cadillac-car-posters

The news about the death of the U.S. auto industry has gotten me thinking about all the great music that American cars have inspired.

Here is a list of some of my favorites:

Pink Cadillac (Bruce Springsteen)
Fun Fun Fun (Beach Boys)
Little Deuce Coupe (Beach Boys)
You Can’t Catch Me (Chuck Berry)
Brand New Cadillac (The Clash)
Mud on the Tires (Brad Paisley)
Long White Cadillac (Dave Alvin)
Mercury Blues (Alan Jackson)
Little Red Corvette (Prince)
Guitars, Cadillacs (Dwight Yoakam)
Hot Rod Lincoln (Junior Brown/Commandor Cody)
Mustang Sally (Wilson Pickett)
Ball and Chain (Social Distortion)
Thunder Road (Bruce Springsteen)
Pontiac Blues (Sonny Boy Williamson)
Racing in the Streets (Bruce Springsteen)
Rocket 88 (Jackie Brenston with Ike Turner)
Chevrolet (Donovan)

1951oldsrocket881

409 (Beach Boys)
Dead Man’s Curve (Jan and Dean)
Surf City (Beach Boys)
Blue Chevrolet (Beat Farmers)
Gun Street Girl (Tom Waits)
16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six (Tom Waits)

Feel free to add your own.

One rule:

The song must mention a particular American car or car company.