Tuesday, February 25, 2014

...and You Are There

One of my favorite TV shows in the days of my youth was "You Are There" which featured re-enactments of famous moments in history with the addition of a TV newsman, I think the show was on CBS so Walter Cronkite Mike Wallace might be interviewing General Custer before his famous battle or something like that.  The idea of the show was wonderful, to put the viewer in the middle, as much as possible, or a history making event.  To me, that's the point of studying history, to put ourselves into those moments that create change and try to understand the factors at work and how we are impacted by those events today.
Over the years teaching school I've often heard students express disbelief or disgust when studying the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s.  "How could people be so cruel?" or "How could people be so stupid? Don't they know everyone deserves equal rights?" These are common questions and challenging ones too.  They are challenging because while you might be tempted to write off the bigots of the Citizen's Councils or the KKK as deviant members of society they represent the feelings and beliefs of a much larger, although not always as vocal, section of society.
As a teacher I have appreciated the current civil rights struggle for marriage equality on several levels.  First, of course is the fact that people are demanding their equal rights and at the moment things are going well in the fight for equality, at least in the courts.  Second, it gives today's students a chance to see a civil rights struggle play out.  The voices against equality chant the same slogans and invoke the same religious traditions as they did a half century ago.  The recent attempts at creating new laws that allow discrimination in states like Arizona even create the same photo opps of people being denied service at restaurants, hotels, and other public places.  Students who have asked those questions and expressed disbelief at the bigotry on display need look no further than the front page of the paper or the evening news.
As before, those who hope to discriminate and seek legal backing to do so, act as if they are the ones being discriminated against.  Talk to any true believer in the myth of the "Lost Cause of the Confederacy"and you'll get an earful about how terrible it was that they were denied the right to buy and sell humans.  As recently as this past year a congress person used the phrase "The war of Northern Aggression" to describe the Civil War that was started by the Confederate States of America over their desire to continue slavery.  Discrimination based on the color of one's skin was a time honored tradition sanctioned by religious beliefs that were near and dear to many people and this, I think, highlights another learning opportunity for us.
The leading voices against marriage equality all come from pretty much the same position, that allowing people the right to marry would infringe on the religious freedom of those who believe it is wrong.  The recent attempts at legalizing discrimination in Arizona and Kansas go even further by saying that you should be able to discriminate against anyone who lives in a way you find objectionable.  Of course a quick read-through of the Constitution should clear up any questions about making laws to enforce your particular religious beliefs on others and I would think a bit of common sense, if not common decency, would render the argument that your religious beliefs make it intolerable to encounter anyone who doesn't except your particular views as the gospel truth, seem rather ridiculous.
The opportunity that I see is for those students I've referred to and for those who support the founding documents and work for equality to develop some empathy for the bigotry.
I'm not talking about a free pass, I honestly believe that those claiming infringement of their religious liberties are misguided at best.  I'm thinking more of trying to understand what fuels this resistance to equality.  I realize that it may well come off as sounding patronizing and condescending "Oh those poor religious fundamentalists blah, blah..." If so, okay, that's my fault and I'll work on that, we don't all get things right the first time.  When I think of students asking me about the KKK and people screaming at the Little Rock students walking to school I want to find ways to make those faces from the old black and white newsreels come to life.  Today we have that opportunity.  The people who fight equal rights may indeed be lovely people to spend time with.  They might be your kind grandfather or your aunt, your mother or father.  They may indeed be frightened that something important to them is being taken away.  If you've grown up being taught that dark skin meant that the person was inferior and that it would threaten your world to allow them the same rights as you then to be told that your beliefs were bigoted, as true as that may be, would be a rude awakening.  I've spoken to many friends in the past few years who are mightily offended by the notion that their opposition to marriage equality for example makes them a bigot.  "Its not bigotry if you're discriminating because of a religious belief" one person told me.  It seems to be a rude awakening or maybe a nightmare to think that you might be a fellow traveler with those hurling insults at Ruby Bridges fifty years ago.
One of the teachable moments we have right now is to remember that people are not two dimensional characters, they are much more complex.  Those contorted faces screaming at African American children going to school have perhaps become more like fairy tale villains than real people who went to work, loved their families and lived real lives.  Bigotry doesn't always look like evil on the surface.  Sometimes it shows up as people who are friends or family who might belong the same church as you do who are expressing beliefs you have been taught to accept since you were a child.  I think that we will be able to move forward as a society embracing and promoting equality which benefits us all if we can learn to recognize when that equality is threatened because it won't always be obvious.
History is playing out in front of us every day and perhaps when people study this time in the future and students ask "How could people have been so cruel? Didn't they realize that we all deserve equal rights?" Some of us will be around to remind each other that its not always so obvious when you are denying someone else their civil rights, especially if they look and act differently than us,  and we'll encourage them to look around to see what, perhaps uncomfortable, opportunities exist to promote equality.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

My Greatest Teacher

I heard the songs he wrote, adapted or otherwise shared with the world long before I knew there was a guy named Pete Seeger who was a famous singer. In later years as I learned more about him and had the chance to spend some time talking with him I realize that’s exactly the way he would want it to be. It seemed that for Pete fame was a useful, if sometimes uncomfortable, way to get songs out into the world to do the good work that needed to be done.
When I worked in radio our station had a closet filled with promo records that the program director had decided we were never going to play. DJs were able to sift through these piles of albums and take whatever we wanted. One day I found a batch of Pete’s Columbia releases and took them home. I was aware that he was the guy who had written “If I Had a Hammer” and some other tunes but not much else. I started listening to the albums and I was transfixed. I felt like I had opened a magic door to an amazing world that was hiding in plain view. It was as if the songs on those albums were diamonds that had been laying on the ground all around me and I had seen them a thousand times, just never really noticed them. I also discovered that he was a brilliant instrumentalist on 12 string guitar and banjo, I dug out an old 5 string banjo from my parent’s house and started trying to play like Pete. Just one of a couple million other pickers who have fallen under that simply beautiful spell.
As I began to seek out all things Pete I discovered that those old albums in the public library with the thick cardboard covers were indeed Pete Seeger’s old Folkways albums and once again I tumbled into another wonderland. There was, and is, such power in the simplicity of his arrangements of traditional folk songs often accompanied by only his banjo sketching out the melody under his voice. Soon I was filling up notebooks with the words and chords to hundreds of folks songs that I learned from listening to those albums over and over and over again.  In those long lost days before the internet, YouTube, mp3s and such seeking out those recordings was something akin to an archeological expedition.  One of the many things I discovered about Pete over time was his incredibly pragmatic optimism.  Anyone who lived so long and experienced so much could be excused for longing for the good old days or griping about the way things are today but Pete seemed to always be looking for what was good and possible all around him, maybe that looking is what helped him find so much good and do so much.  To hear him talk, the world was constantly in need of good deeds and the possibilities for how we could accomplish those good deeds was always increasing.
The first time I met Pete was at a gathering of The People’s Music Network for Songs of Freedom and Struggle. There were workshops and song sharing sessions and I had been taking pictures at one of Pete’s workshops. Another attendee came up to me and told me that Pete really didn’t like people taking pictures during the workshops. Later in the day I found Pete and asked him about the photos. The first thing he said was “Aren’t you the guy who sang that song about living on a farm last night?, that was great”. He then said “You know, I used to think that music was the universal language but I’ve come to believe its photography because pictures are instantly understandable to anyone anywhere.” We then talked for an hour or so about photography and ways to use images in conjunction with music. He told me he was writing about this gathering for Sing Out and asked if I would send photos to them for his article.
I learned over time that this was pure Pete. If someone came up and told him they loved his music or thought he was the greatest banjo player he’d be polite and friendly but if you came up and said something like “Pete, I just found an old garage full of tractor tires what do you think we could do with that?” His eyes would light up and he’d be tossing out twenty ideas to the dozen.
I often admired his energy and I think he was a master at soaking up the energy of the people who were around him and radiating it back ten-fold.
As a writing teacher I often talk about finding a “mentor author” to study, Pete was my mentor songwriter for sure. When I play a song of mine like “One New Road” and see people singing along the first time they’ve heard it I know Pete’s lessons are coming through. I listened to many of his songs when I was writing “Paul Robeson Song (Powerful Voice)” and had the somewhat scary experience of playing it for the first time in public with Pete sitting in the front row. When I finished the song I stepped off stage and was kneeling down to put my guitar in the case when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned and there was Pete “Now, that’s a damn good song!” He said. That was just pure Pete.
Of course Pete would die someday. I often wondered about how I would feel. I did have a little practice though. I remember waking up to the radio when he was given the Kennedy Center Honors award. I woke up to the sound of President Clinton’s voice talking about Pete and saying all kinds of wonderful things. “Oh no, I thought Pete must have died, the President is saying all these wonderful things about him” I couldn’t imagine the President of the United States saying something nice about Pete Seeger unless he had died. A few months later I was able to share this experience with Pete who thought it was pretty funny.  I only met him a few times, played music together once or twice, just like ten thousand or more other pickers and singers.  However I'd be willing to bet that anyone who has been touched by his music felt they knew him as a friend.  From what I saw he would get a group of people singing spontaneously at some gathering and he would also work hard with a group getting every note just right.  He began his work as a songwriter when standard musical notation was the form to share songs and lived to see digital files of his songs flying around the world, and always was delighting in whatever way the songs could do the work they were meant to do in this world.
That old physical part of Pete is gone but so much is still here. When I read the news this morning I felt sad but not overwhelmed. Maybe because it was morning and I was getting ready to take my son to school and get to work myself I was rushing around and the news was still sinking in. We went out and got in the car. I turned the key, the radio was on and instantly the car was filled with the chiming electric twelve strings of The Byrds playing “Turn, Turn, Turn” from the back seat I heard my son singing along and that’s when I really cried. It was pure Pete, one of his many gifts being passed along to the next generation.
To everything there is a season, indeed and we’re so fortunate to have been here for the Season of Pete.
He once sang “To my old brown earth and to my old blue sky, I’ll now give these last few molecules of I”. Pete truly gave every last molecule of “I”. He’s a part of my world as much as sun and sky and always will be my greatest teacher.