Sunday, September 19, 2021

Does Anything Ever Change?

In the late 1950’s and early 60’s I loved to go down to Greenwich Village in New York and go to the coffee houses, where no alcohol was served, and listen to the folk singers who adopted the Village as the home for their art. There were many coffee houses to choose from. At one of these, the “Café Wha?” Mary Travers may have actually served me a coca cola and fries! I went with friends wherever our favorite singers were performing, Joan Baez, John Denver, Judy Collins, Odetta, Pete Seeger, Josh White, Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. The latter two even sang together. Their songs were not necessarily dissimilar, but only one of them made it big.

The songs that always got the most attention were the protest songs, and then as now there was plenty to protest. I might have mentioned this before, but my younger son asked once whether things were as bad then as they are now. I reminded him that the 60’s are remembered for war and assassinations, JFK, RFK and MLK ---if you are too young for the initials to be familiar look them up!

I will give a few examples and let you judge the protest songs for yourselves. Some started out as poems to which the music was added later by another. All the folk singers sang each other’s songs but where possible I have tried to find performances by the original lyricists.These songs involved issues that are still relevant today: Civil Rights from segregation to George Floyd, endless wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan, and through it all, there is always politics.

In 1948 Pete Seeger, (1919-2014) adapted a song with a long history dating back to the eighteenth century which was published as a gospel song in 1901. Seeger made it a mainstay of the Civil Rights movement under the the title “We Shall Overcome”, recording it with added verses and the banjo background that he was so well known for. Have a listen.

In 1965 Tom Paxton (1937- ) wrote “Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation” as a protest song about Vietnam. Until I started this missive, I did not remember that Vietnam was also a 20-year war. The then arch conservative Barry Goldwater who ran against Johnson in 1964 wanted us to stay strong in Vietnam while Johnson promised not to send more young men to be killed over there. We know what happened in the end.

Woody Guthrie’s (1912-1967), “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)” is about a 1948 plane crash that resulted in the deaths of 32 people, 4 Americans and 28 migrant farm workers who were brought into the country in order to harvest the crops and then were being deported from California to Mexico. Guthrie became upset when the New York the Times published the news but none of the names of the workers, identifying them only as “Deportees”. I found a comment on line posted below this song that seems perfect for our time: “Sure, you can secure a border. However, you can never stop the human desire to have a better life by any means necessary. I hope that we can remember that while we fence ourselves in.” Here, Arlo Guthrie’s, Woody’s son, sings his father’s, “Deportee”.

Phil Ochs (1940-1976) did not make it as big as Bob Dylan, but he did have a following. He wrote what is in my opinion one of the most powerful protest songs, “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” released 1965. Though the song is focused on Mississippi and the murder of three Black men, to me it shows how little has changed, e.g.George Floyd. It also shows the continuing division between regions, as well as the left and right, on so many issues. Substitute any state or states you wish for Mississippi.

Sadly, as the French say, “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.” The more things change the more they remain the same.


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