May 29, 2008

New Opera Hails John Brown!

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Last Friday, I posted a Take Five list of worthy music about abolitionist and revolutionary John Brown. I was actually inspired to do so by my inadvertent discovery that a new opera, entitled simply John Brown, received its world premiere earlier this month at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City!

Composed over nearly 20 years by Kirke Mechem, who also wrote the libretto himself, it received several deeply favorable reviews. One in the National Catholic Reporter closed,
Profound and haunting, it may be as close to an American epic as anything yet written.
To read the libretto--downloadable pdf available here--is to find great liberties taken with the details of John Brown's life, but it is very hard indeed to find distortion of the man or of his historic accomplishments. Mechem explains Brown and his battles without apology and in the afterward in the Lyric Opera program rejects modern charges that he was "a terrorist."
Need I say that the major premise behind my opera is that the abolition of slavery was the foremost issue of the nineteenth century and John Brown its most representative man?
And he adds:
It always amazes me to hear John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry denounced by Americans who glorify the colonial farmers who killed British soldiers on their way back from Concord. As if “taxation without representation” was in any way commensurate with slavery.
Interestingly, as with works by composer David Soldier and by singer/songwriters Greg Artzner and Terry Leonino of Magpie (both plugged here last Friday), Mechem uses the powerful words of Frederick Douglass to frame the closing of his story.

I can only hope that, like Mechem's earlier Tartuffe, this becomes something of a modern standard in the opera world, so that I may someday see its New York premiere. Or at least that somebody brings out a CD of John Brown most ricky-tick!

Until then here is the Central Connecticut State University Chorale performing "Dan-u-el" from Scene 2, Act 1.

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May 23, 2008

Take Five: Music About John Brown

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[From time to time Fire on the Mountain features, on Fridays, Take Five--a list of five cool things in some particular category. It's not supposed to be the only five, best five, top five or anything, just five items worthy of attention. The idea is you can chip in your own suggestions for the list in the comments sections below.]

I just learned, entirely by accident, about a great new piece of music about John Brown. I will be blogging about it in the next day or so, but in the meantime, I have taken the opportunity to revive the flagging Take Five franchise, by posting five cool musical tributes to the Old Man, to whom this country owes so much.


David Soldier—The Apotheosis Of John Brown

This is a cantata—that’s a classical music form, y’all, not a version of the macarena. That means that the trained human voice is privileged, and the chorale here is backed by a small baroque orchestra. (I personally did not catch much hint of Soldier’s background playing bass in Bo Diddley’s touring combo here.)

Nevertheless, and I write as one somewhat phobic about classical music, this is readily accessible. For starters, they’re singing in English, and Soldier provides the excellent Robbie McCauley to narrate and hold the piece together. The whole cantata runs 38 minutes, but is broken up into sections comfortably approximating the length of album cuts.

Mainly, though, Soldier benefits from having chosen to base his composition on incomparable source material—the writings of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a friend and admirer of John Brown, and a great writer. In fact, the closing song on the Magpie CD plugged below, draws from exactly the same well.

Magpie—John Brown: Sword Of The Spirit

This is a remarkable work, a composition in the folk music tradition that is in some ways similar one of those “rock operas” that started blighting the musical landscape in the late ‘60s. Only JB: SotS is a coherent work, musically and as a narrative, and it’s entirely about the 1859 raid on the US Arsenal in Harpers Ferry. Starting with their version of Si Kahn’s driving “Old John Brown,” they echo the new opera in using spirituals to set the stage.

Magpie, who are Terry Leonino and Greg Artzner (and have been so for something like 35 years), also include a Woody Guthrie number I’d never even heard of before, “The Ballad of Harriet Tubman.” Most of the other songs were written by the duo, who give musical shout-outs to each of the 19 men who joined the Old Man for the raid, with the songs about Shields Green, Dangerfield Newby and John Copeland particularly moving.

The thing I like most about it is that it is unapologetic. A deceptively simple song, taken from a story actually told by Brown’s daughter, “Pretty Little Bird” compares striking at the slaveocracy to killing a snake. Their friend Peggy Eyres’ “Mary Brown, Abolitionist” reclaims John Brown’s wife from both scholarly neglect and the picture too frequently painted of her as a passive victim beaten down by his unbending male fanaticism.

Over the years I’ve picked up several cases of this recording to sell on FRSO/OSCL literature tables, and given many to friends. I recommend it unequivocally, even if your musical tastes generally run louder and funkier than “singer/songwriter.” I don’t care. If you don’t have it, this should be the next CD you buy.

Paul Robeson--“John Brown’s Body”

I mean, I know there are other versions a-plenty, but how ya gonna leave Paul Robeson’s magnificent baritone out of this, even if the cut I’ve got only has a couple of verses, omitting both the earliest “folk” ones about hanging Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree’ and such favorites as

They hung him for a traitor,
Themselves the traitor crew.

The impact of the Harper’s Ferry raid is testified to by the fact that within two years, this song was sung universally in the Union Army and throughout the North. Itself derived from a camp meeting hymn called “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us,” it was gussied up into “Battle Hymn Of The Republic” by abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, Subsequently Wobbly bard Ralph Chaplin kyped the tune for "Solidarity Forever." Truly a revolutionary song.

Mat Callahan & Yvonne Moore—“Old John Brown”

This has more than a title in common with the Si Kahn’s tune that Magpie covers. It, too, look at how the Harper’s Ferry raid broke the stasis of the slave system in the mid-1800s, using the music to convey a sense of power restrained and ready to erupt to underline its point. It closes with a reminder that Brown’s work is not complete.

A confession: I actually have Mat’s permission to post this song right here on FotM. I’d been sleeping on this post until I could figure out how to post music here, but the news of the John Brown opera premiere pushed me into premature action. Get me your email address and I’ll see that you get an MP3 of the sucker.

Rancid—"Meteor Of War"

I finish with this in part to atone for the length of some of the earlier choices. Tim Armstrong and crew bring this punk celebration of John Brown in at a brisk 1 minute 20 seconds. And they make the essential point, loud and fast. Twice (I told you it’s fast):

John Brown set the tone, he was a meteor in a guilty land.
Abolitionists understand freedom to the despondent man.

Your turn, dear reader. What John Brown cuts ring your chimes? (NB: Please limit it to cuts about this John Brown—no Dylan, no Masters Of Reality, no Huey “Piano” Smith, etc, eh?)

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May 13, 2008

Subscribe To R&RC, Dagnabbit

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Pardon my French.

Now, one more time for the slow ones: You really ought to subscribe to Rock & Rap Confidential. Rock & Rap Confidential is a great online magazine, successor to the dead tree Rock & Roll Confidential which emerged in the 1980s. The latest issue just showed up in my in-box, chock full of interesting left political takes on music, a very nice annotated list of people's hiphop numbers and a bunch of thumbnail reviews of cool new (and reissued) music you'd love to own.

Because the damn thing comes out so infrequently, I recommend that you also sign up for a little email list they run. They forward articles and other goodies a couple of times a week and some are bound to intrigue you. They just pulled my coattail, for instance, to this video of Woody's "This Land Is Your Land" being sung at the immigrant-centered May Day March in Chicago this year. It's hardly a stellar version, the recording is strictly Amateur Hour and I could live without the Richie Daley cameo, but you do get to see Tom Morello, Perry Ferrall (who gets the best verse), Boots Riley and Wayne Kramer (Wayne Kramer, y'all!).

"Okay, Jimmy," I hear you whine. "Ease up. I'll subscribe. What do I do?"

Easy-peasey. Send an email to rockrap(at) and tell 'em to subscribe you to R&RC and/or the email list. Even you technophobes should be able to handle that.

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May 7, 2008

Bite Size Bad News 4--Candy

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Mars just bought out Wrigley in a merger that creates the world's largest candy company with 14% of the global market. This has attracted a lot of attention because financing from the world richest man, Warren Buffett, made it possible.

So this news fits the "bite size" part of the feature like a glove, but where's the "bad news" come in? Well, Buffett is one of the canniest investors ever, and famously stayed away from a lot of the fancy "investment vehicles" which have been imploding so spectacularly over the last year.

Obviously he likes putting together a firm that is the big dog in a monopsonized global market, but a Financial Times columnist, John Gapper, points out that Buffett is also walking the walk on his predictions about the severity of the unfolding recession:
Famously, confectionery companies are often good investments in recessions as people cut back on big luxuries and seek comfort with such small indulgences as chocolate bars.

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May 5, 2008

In an Amazing Breakthrough, Scientists Discover Dialectics

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An article titled "Frustration in Complexity" (sorry, they don't make the full article available to the public) in a recent issue of the prestigious scientific journal Science examines the characteristics of a number of complex systems and attempts to identify features common to them with the goal of uncovering principles that may in fact be common to all complex systems.

As the article notes, one basic feature has been considered to be cooperation, defined here as "complicated global patterns emerging from local or individual interaction rules between parts of a system." (This is obviously somewhat of a recursive definition, trying to define complexity using the word "complicated.") Basically, to boil it down, it's talking about situations in which big fancy things arise out of the mutual interaction of repeated occurrences of seemingly simple things.

This article makes a broader assertion that the most general common feature of complex systems is not cooperation but "frustration." The term is not being used here in the sense of "Crap, my paper was rejected for publication yet again," but in a sense that those of us who have studied Marxist philosophy might find just a little familiar. As the article summary states: "The common thread between all complex systems may not be cooperation but rather the irresolvable coexistence of opposing tendencies."

Wow--the unity of opposites! Twenty-first-century complexity theory discovers 19th-century Hegelian and Marxian philosophy! The detailed scientific arguments in the article will be particularly resonant for people who have read The Dialectical Biologist by Marxist scientists Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin. Too bad the author of this article didn't give credit where credit is due, but that's probably an indicator of the Left's lack of influence within mainstream science rather than of the author's purposeful narrowness.

As a final point, it's important to note that Marxists view "the irresolvable coexistence of opposing tendencies" not merely as an emergent property of complex systems but as the fundamental character of everything in the universe. But that's a lesson for another time.

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