Thursday, April 28, 2011
A TALE OF TWO MAY DAYS---JOINING IN SOLIDARITY
by John Pietaro
This coming Sunday is MAY DAY, THE INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE WORKER. After more than 50 years of red-baiting against this global labor holiday, last year organized labor finally shook of the fear and marched in many cities along with comrades from the immigrants rights community and the wider Left. In NYC we had an amazing turn-out but the presence of two different May Day rallies, one specifically in honor of immigrant workers in Union Square and the other being simply worker-based and located in Foley Square, saw an uncomfortable rift in solidarity---what May Day is supposed to be all about. Happily, this year we are seeing a powerful alliance between the two organizing committees. I have been excited to be a part of the steering committee over the past few weeks, representing my union DC 1707 AFSCME, and watched as the plans have grown. This week there was a special joint press conference in which organizers from the two rallies sat together and offered a joint plan.
May Day in New York has an amazing heritage. In the 1930s and 40s, hundreds of thousands marched and rallied and the turn-out featured rank-and-file members as well as staff and leaders from all of the unions. Powerful cultural workers such as Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger offered rousing soundtracks to the proceedings and brilliant leaders and heads of state were counted among the guest speakers. The more moderate participants stood shoulder to shoulder with communists, socialists and anarchists (as they most surely did at work, anyway) and a decidedly radical message was the order of the day. Working people marched militantly and with great pride in their jobs, their unions, their progressivism!
The first blast of cold war chill changed all of this drastically and grand May Day parades quickly shrunk to small marches throttled by neo-fascist rhetoric and at times their violent assaults. The Left came under fire and was subject to HUAC hearings, blacklisting, public humiliation, detentions, and the worst kind of reactionary opportunism. The conformism of the 50s saw purges in the most radical of the CIO unions and by the time of the AFL and CIO merger, there seemed to be little chance of organized labor ever walking in the May Day light again. The Communist Party maintained annual May Day gatherings in Union Square Park but these too faded out by 2003. Several years ago, immigrants rights groups, under fire from Bush-era xenophobia, began to march and rally on May Day. Not subject to the average American fear of things "communistic", the immigrant activists reclaimed this day of the worker, recalling its significance in their homelands and teaching us a lesson in turn. By 2010, organized labor finally took the hint and lower Manhattan hosted a large and inspiring rally which, joined by some of the immigrants rights groups fresh from reveling in Union Square, forged a union, if you will, that was but a seed of what's to come.
This brings us to the here and now; radical arms of labor are working closely with highly active immigrants rights organizations in celebration of May Day. The Union Square rally will begin at noon and it will focus on radical calls for immigration reform; speakers, singers, poets and dancers are on the bill. But by 1PM, a large contingent of this group will march down to Foley Square---Worth St, near Centre St---where a mass gathering will be occurring. The forces of labor will be there alongside student groups, Left political parties and coalitions, feminists, peace activists, the No-Wal-Mart-in-NY collective and, yes, a swath of immigrants rights organizations. Speakers will come from all of these organizations and while progressive politicians are invited to be present, none will be allowed to speak on this event, by and for workers. And there will be music, including my own Flames of Discontent, plus an African drumming group, 1199's dance band GQ, the Reverend Billy and more. Here's a new, concerted vision for May Day in NYC and it will call on elected officials to end the attack on unions, immigrants and the poor. Sure, there may still be a level of division, but here's the first major vehicle for a united progressive stand, one which is inclusive and goddamned proud to be radical. It's a new day, comrades.
This Sunday, May 1st, join us as we celebrate May Day 2011!
This year, more than ever, the message of May Day as the Workers’ Day is timely. Attacks on public services and the pension and health benefits of those who provide them continue unabated with some governors going so far as attempting to outlaw public sector unions.
Construction trades continue to suffer huge and long term unemployment with too many workers going months without work. Now the employers association has declared war on the trades in advance of June contract talks.
Private sector union members are finding their standards held blackmail to the threats of employers to outsource or move their jobs overseas. With more states attempting to emulate the viciously anti-immigrant legislation passed in Arizona even as the problems of wage theft from immigrants undermine the rights of all workers, immigrant workers continue to require our defense, as we struggle for a fair immigrant policy.
We hope you will join us in the fight for Labor Rights, Immigrant Rights, Jobs for All.
Barbara Bowen, Sonia Ivany, Wilfredo Larancuent, Kevin Lynch, Larry Moskowitz
Monday, April 25, 2011
Sunday, April 10, 2011
Paul Robeson: Standing Tall Now, as Then
By John Pietaro
“The artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery.
I have made my choice; I had no alternative”
The conception of art as a weapon has been promoted during various trying times in the people’s history. Within the twentieth century, the period bridging the earliest 1900s and the close of the Great Depression is most often cited for its protest arts. While many voices rose to prominence during that time, none have experienced both popular adulation and systematic governmental assault like Paul Robeson. Robeson embodied the “cultural worker” by choice and necessity as he fought for his own civil rights while struggling for global justice.
Some today wrongly see Robeson as a marginal figure, lost to the shadows of decades past; in this sense he is something of an enigma. That he was marginalized, indeed erased from much of our collective memory, was purposeful and a product of those who sought to silence him. Here was a figure beyond categorization. Robeson never forgot that his father was born into slavery and this shaped much of his future philosophy. Even in the adversity of his youth, Robeson strove to great heights. He attended Rutgers University, graduating in 1919, and there became an award-winning athlete. His achieved status of All-American on the sports field, however, did not eclipse his other areas of study: the young Robeson also became a champion of the Rutgers Debating Team, won Phi Beta Kappa honors and actually graduated as Class Valedictorian. His graduate studies would lead him to Columbia University law school and, indeed attorney status. But at the dawn of his New York law career he was confronted by an openly hostile and racist secretary who sought to humiliate the firm’s first African American. Robeson angrily resigned and while he recognized that he had another calling, he was sure to carry the emotional tumult throughout his life, seeking broad creative expressions of it daily. As he put down his briefcase and reached out to the stage lights, Paul Robeson as we know him came to be.
Always driven toward the theatre, he’d engaged in numerous productions during his college years. In 1925 Robeson leapt wholeheartedly into it, and turned professional as an actor and vocalist, rapidly achieving critical acclaim. His breakthrough role was that of “Joe” in the operatic Broadway musical ‘Showboat’, a work known as much for its early commentary on race relations as it is for its brilliant score. “Old Man River”, always the showstopper in ‘Showboat’, became Robeson’s signature song beginning with the initial run of the show. He embarked on a series of solo concert tours, usually performing with piano accompaniment and always taking on a huge range of material, from opera to spirituals to folk songs. “Old Man River” remained in his repertoire throughout his career, albeit adapted to its times. Over the years Robeson would modify the lyrics to better signify the struggle for the rights of Black Americans, changing “You gets a little drunk and you lands in jail” to the telling “You show a little spunk and you land in jail” (not so subtle commentary on the Red Scare as well as the Southern resistance to civil rights). More to the point, he altered “Tired of living and fear’d of dying” to the staunchly courageous “I’ll keep on fighting until I’m dying!”.
Robeson was a heroic figure to the American Black population, during decades in which a civil rights movement was but a wish for the future. Perhaps more than any other figure, he stood as a model to not only African-Americans, but to the white population as well. As much as he posed a threat to the powers that be, his image was that of a highly respected performer and thinker. The Left embraced him as both artist and activist, particularly during this period prior to the folk music revival – Robeson was the theatre component alongside other progressive ‘higher-art’ figures such as Stuart Davis, Eugene O’Neill, Langston Hughes and the Composers Collective of New York. Robeson’s schooled performance practice fit into the 1920s and 30s intellectual Left as an American original. On multiple levels, he stood as revolutionary.
Rather than taking advantage of his supposed naïveté, as the Communist Party had been accused of by reactionaries, American Communists met Robeson exactly where he was. He became a cherished comrade even if the specifics on his membership have never been made clear. But this man needed no encouragement to defy the standards that had created oppression, only a forum in which to stage his protest. Much of his activism was drawn from personal experience, that at home as compared to the treatment he received abroad. In contrast to the racial hatred he saw in the US, European audiences and particularly those in the Soviet Union, greeted him like royalty. He stood with and performed for striking British miners and he would continue to speak out for labor and other progressive movements all over the world. Thus, the entirety of the global Left, regardless of partisanship, held him in highest esteem.
It was during international tours that Robeson became deeply interested in other cultures and languages. He learned folk songs of various peoples, and then made a serious study of linguistics, eventually having conversational command of many languages. There never could be more of a “people’s” artist. And whether on these shores or overseas, Robeson brought his own culture to his audience. He introduced powerfully rebellious slave songs to mixed audiences, interspersing them with patriotic American works, as Robeson had a deep love of country, as much as he fought the separation and repression of its people.
However, popular acclaim would not elude him either! In the later 1930s to earliest 1940s, Robeson took on what is viewed as his greatest role, “Othello”, and he also became a film actor of note. Concurrently, he recorded several songs that became hit records, including compositions by Earl Robinson (another CP-oriented musician) “The House I Live In” and “Ballad for Americans”. Both offered a strong visualization of American ideals and pride. Though the Cold war was dangerous to the Left as a whole, it hurt Paul Robeson in a most profound way. Opportunistically using the fear factor of the hour, Right-wing zealots pursued him, inasmuch charging Robeson with speaking out while Black. Immediately after the War, he began building a committee to sustain peace and he became targeted. Within a few years, the McCarthyites had something tangible-- a 1949 interview he engaged in with a French journalist. His comments concerned the invalidity of a US government that would call on its Black citizens to fight in war when they had no real rights at home. Reactionaries immediately branded him as “anti-American”. That same year, he performed at the concert that would be recalled only as the Peekskill Riot. Due to the slander of his own government, Robeson’s presence gave racists, many of which were Klansman and American Nazis, a chance to attack him as a “traitor”. The violence that ensued is legendary, with performers and audience members alike bearing the brunt of a brutal assault with clubs and rocks. Quickly, Robeson would see the walls of the Blacklist begin to surround him and do what no one else could----silence him.
What Red-baiting, physical assault and censorship could not fully achieve, the revoking of Robeson’s passport could. Beginning in 1950 and continuing for nine years thereafter, this international voice of the people was prohibited from travel. It was this lasting wound that would rupture contact with his audience and begin to see his erosion. How insidious the attempt to silence Robeson was can be seen in the Executive Order inflicted by President Truman in 1952 which stated that should Robeson attempt to exit the country, US border personnel were instructed to apprehend him, “by any means necessary”. It was this same order which was read aloud to him when, in 1952, he was scheduled to perform a concert at the Peace Arch in Canada. Unable to cross the border into British Columbia, he set up a stage on a flat-bed truck, performing to the Canadians from the edge of Washington State, while Border patrol officers stood cocked and ready.
Somehow Robeson remained a fighter in the face of this assault. Subpoenaed before HUAC in 1956, he angrily lashed back at his accusers, spitting back their own insults to them, reminding them that his father was a slave and that his people had died coming to this nation. He offered no space for the HUAC chair’s pounding gavel to interrupt him as he told the Committee that they were the unpatriotic ones. Famously, Robeson ended his statement with “You are the un-Americans and YOU should be ashamed of yourselves!”
He released his autobiography Here I Stand in 1958. Though systematically ignored by all US major media, foreign journalists hailed it as a great and noble work. An Indian tabloid’s review called it “The Black voice of God”. He continued intermittent performance for several more years, through bouts of major depression and several physical illnesses. Worn from many years of battle, he left public life in 1964. By the time of his death in 1976, Robeson was but a shadow of his former self. Few could believe that he had commanded such international renown. Far ahead of his time, he was perhaps the ultimate victim of a frightened, racist system hell-bent on maintaining the status quo, suppressing rebellion and preaching hatred where and when it’s needed.
--An earlier version of this article was published in Z Magazine in 2004 --
Saturday, April 2, 2011
MATTHEW JONES, FREEDOM SINGER, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: 1936 - 2011
By John Pietaro
Somehow the reports were too slow to come in; a quick note on the internet, a bare posting on a folksong blog, but no details, no sense of the powerful life and legacy left behind. The social fabric that Matt Jones helped to re-shape hadn’t bothered to note his passing. Sitting at my keyboard in cool early Spring, in the hours after just reading these sparse notices, I type with care, vexing over the disturbing lack of news. It simply wouldn’t do to leave it at that. We cannot accept silence in memory of a man who made a joyful, intense, indeed agitated noise throughout his life….
Matthew Jones was already a schooled, experienced musician when he became active in the fight for civil rights by joining the Nashville Student Movement in 1960. He also became an outspoken participant in the struggle in Danville, Va., for which he organized a vocal group, the Danville Freedom Voices, in 1963. Shortly thereafter, Matt relocated to Atlanta, Ga., with his brother Marshall and the two became affiliated with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and their powerful music ensemble, the Freedom Singers. This legendary group was actually born via a series of meetings held between Cordell Reagon, SNCC Executive Secretary Jim Foreman and Pete Seeger, already viewed as an elder of the protest song. In 1964, Matt, a SNCC field secretary, became a Freedom Singers member and then the group’s director.
That year, the Freedom Singers toured the country as part of the wide organizing drive to build the Friends of SNCC, initially focusing on northern states to build the movement’s momentum. Of the Freedom Singers, Matt has said, “We were organizers first, singers second.”
During such tumultuous times, the fight for equality in the Jim Crow South could often be terrifying. Matt faced down the Klan on many occasions and endured 29 arrests. His experiences developed him into a “freedom singer” in the most visceral manner.
“I don’t think of myself as a cultural worker,” Matt said. “I am a freedom singer; a freedom fighter. I’ve always been a freedom fighter; I’ll probably go down that way, too. Freedom songs are different than other protest songs because they are really a mantra. The use of repetition allows for the message to be understood. If we sing a powerful statement enough times in a song, like ‘This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,’ then we can internalize it”.
Matt maintained his role as an artist-activist even as SNCC broke apart, performing his radical repertoire around the world, including alongside freedom fighters in Northern Ireland.
During the struggle against the Vietnam War, he recorded a 45 that has become quite legendary, “Hell No, We Ain’t Gonna Go” backed with “Super Sam.” For this occasion, Matt worked in collaboration with lyricist Elaine Laron to produce two powerful selections accompanied by a muscular rock band complete with a horn section. It stands out as an exciting moment and its antiwar message is still relevant today.
Matt’s experiences included performances alongside such luminaries as Seeger and the Reverend F.D. Kirkpatrick. He worked with Barbara Dane and performed at the legendary Vietnam Songbook concert. He sang at the Highlander Folks School. He became a frequent contributor to Broadside during that magazine’s far-too-brief run, working closely with its founder, legendary protest singer Sis Cunningham, a dear comrade. He’d been a participant in the annual Phil Ochs Song Nights from the start and his music has been heard in such lasting films as ‘The Ghosts of Mississippi’. And in Harlem he organized an annual tribute to Dr. King which was never without the body of song that Matt had always marched to.
Over the decades he continued to perform for numerous rallies throughout New York and beyond including several of this writer’s May Day concerts and the 1998 ‘Hanns Eisler Centenary Festival’, tributes to Woody Guthrie and of course Sis, when that icon was lost to us. But Matt could be found at any number of events where people gather for an important cause. Starting with 1986 he led a weekly song circle at the Advent Lutheran Church on 93rd Street and Broadway. This series, dubbed the Open House Coffeehouse, was not just any vehicle for folksingers and poets, but a venue that encouraged original music with a strong message. To Matt, there was little space between the song and the activism. In this sense he was sure to reach out to younger generations of singer-songwriters, shepherding in as he taught; his respect for new songs of struggle was only matched by his need to preserve older forms including spirituals and ballads. In the latter decades he’d returned to his prized nylon-string acoustic guitar, that which he seemed to barely tickle most of the time, the softest accompaniment to a hushed, thickened voice--but the notes played where always the necessary ones, those which would touch us deepest. Matt called out to the muses with open hands, conjuring up just what was needed to be heard. And the audience always left feeling terribly, wonderfully moved.
Matt never ended a gig without “The Freedom Chant,” an affirmation he based on a famous quote by Fannie Lou Hamer and his own many years of direct action. It, more than anything else, speaks volumes about this musician of the people who refused to tire:
“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.
I will not allow anybody at any time
To violate my mind or my body
In any shape, form or fashion.
If they do they’ll have to deal with ME immediately!
Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!”
---Surely Matt ‘went down’ as a freedom fighter and it is certain that he’d like to always be recalled as such. Let’s not forget. Let’s not ever forget.