April 30, 2012

The Music of OWS! DJ D vs. Detroit Red

With May Day upon us and the semi-official Occupy! Spring Offensive starting. the two of us--Detroit Red and DJ D--have teamed up to crank out this overview of the music of OWS! Occupy! has no single anthem, no “We Shall Overcome”, no defining musical voice of the movement. Instead there has been a flowering of DIY music videos, Joe Hill-esque re-writing of pop songs, spontaneous rap battles in the encampments, and a parade of established musicians showing up at protests unannounced to lend their songs and support. Hell, even Miley Cyrus made a music video for Occupy Wall Street!

The two of us are stone revolutionaries--and deep-fried music geeks. We are both longtime activists, though from different generations— DJ D is 62, Detroit Red 34. Both of us have been totally jazzed by the transformation that the eruption of Occupy Wall Street! has already wrought in the political life of this country and in the tired, aging US left. Each of us took five songs (with a bit of dickering to avoid duplication) from among scores of worthy possibilities, five which we found particularly deserving of attention and comment. Then we wrote a short introduction and made some comment on each.

[Note: for those unfamiliar with current musical culture, that "versus" in DJ D vs. Detroit Red doesn’t mean we are enemies—it is used to label collaborative projects and mash-ups as well as musical throw-downs.]

[Now crossposted at Solidarity and Daily Kos.]

DJ D drops his five

One of the things that has most pissed me off about the movement against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan was all the folks, admittedly mainly ‘60s types like myself, always grousing about where are the anti-war songs. Damn, Neil Young started a page on his website which now has well over 3400 posted! (At, let's call it 4 minutes per song, that’s more’n two weeks of listening 24/7, just to hear ‘em all once.) 

At least anyone with the faintest actual acquaintance with Occupy Wall Street! and the Occupy! movement isn’t about to make that complaint! Even leaving aside the notorious drum circles, OWS! has been awash in music, with visits from famous artists and all kinds of playing and singing, planned and impromptu, at every encampment I know about. 

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April 26, 2012

Working Class Music: The US and the UK

When I published my liner notes here for the sampler CD I prepared for a session of Mark Naison’s class on the American Working Class at Fordham University a couple of weeks ago, I got several comments suggesting other tunes I ought to have included. All were good ideas.

At least two, though--John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” and the Clash, “London Calling”--are pretty explicitly not American. Yeah, yeah, I know that the proletariat is an international class and all that, but it does have national particularities. And the difference between how class is perceived and acknowledged--and lived--is very different in the UK than it is here.

In fact, I'm gonna post two songs here with similar titles and let them give a give a pocket seminar. “Living In The Love Of The Common People” is a song first recorded by the slick, pre-rock-style vocal quartet the Four Preps, but is most associated with Waylon Jennings, who cut it in 1968.

 I like it. For all of its sentimentality, it gives give a sharp depiction of how bad poverty can be in this country, and even starts with a nod to food stamps. But when it gets to the common people, it can only summon up family love and solidarity as defenses against poverty. Nor is there even a hint that another class exists, let alone that the singer’s poverty is a function of their existence. And, in true American style, there’s a hint of better things to come: “Daddy’s gonna give you a dream to cling to.” 

An attractive young English fella name of Paul Young took the song higher into the charts in the UK--#2 in 1983--than Waylon Jennings or anybody else ever managed here. That may be where another guy, Jarvis Cocker, got the catch phrase “common people,” not a conventional English usage, His band Pulp had a breakthrough album in 1995. Its very title, Different Class, suggests the distinction I am carrying on about here. 

The song starts with a slumming young heiress propositioning the singer and telling him she wants to “live like common people.” Note two things in particular: 1. How aware the singer is about the class privilege inherent in this kind of slumming. 2. There’s no warm fuzzy assurance that we’ll “get by” or praise of dreams. 

 Instead, the upper class tourist is told: 

You'll never live like common people, 
You'll never do what common people do, 
You'll never fail like common people, 
You'll never watch your life slide out of view, 
And dance and drink and screw, 
Because there's nothing else to do. 

This is Pulp’s signature song. The video above shows tens of thousands of English kids pulsing to it at the first large festival the band ever played, Glastonbury in 1995. Today, more than a decade and a half later, they still get tens of thousands singing every word along with the band. 

 (In passing, let me note that what might be called "revenge hypergamy" (hypergamy being fucking someone higher on the class ladder) is not an uncommon theme in British pop. Check the early Stones, “Play With Fire.” In the US, you’re more likely to get the likes of the 1962 Dickey Lee weeper “Patches” in which the middle class protagonist falls for a poor girl and is forbidden to see her by his pops, who later tells him she has drowned herself.)

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April 20, 2012

OWS & the Hollis 99% Club Link Up To Rock Queens

[Just a few days ago I posted a piece here on the impact the eviction of Occupy Wall Street! from Zuccotti Park (and the attacks on other encampments around the country) has had on the Occupy movement. Here is another angle--long time Bronx activist Professor Mark Naison talks about Queens and some of the most exciting post-Zuccotti OWS! organizing in NYC.]


How Occupy Wall Street Has Revitalized Neighborhood Based Protest--The Hollis Example 

 by Mark Naison 

 In the Hollis Section of Queens, NY, a working class and lower middle class African American community, two blocks of apartment buildings owned by a multi-millionaire real estate operator named Rita Stark have sat vacant for more than 16 years on the community’s major commercial strip. Ugly and decayed, occasionally used by neighborhood drug dealers as a safe haven, they sit across the street from a junior high school and two churches. The local development corporation, elected officials, and ordinary citizens have tried to get these buildings fixed up for years by writing letters, filing petitions, organizing meetings with the owner, all to no avail--but now, all of a sudden, there is hope of action. Why? Because of the Occupy Movement and the example it has set.

 Let me explain. During January of 2012, education scholar and activist Ira Shor and I decided to try to create a support group for Occupy Wall Street at a predominantly African American Church in Queens where a dear friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. Mark Chapman was the pastor. The idea was to create an organization for people who supported the general goals of Occupy Wall Street, but felt uncomfortable sleeping in a park or risking arrest on a regular basis. The congregation of Hollis Presbyterian Church, consisting largely of senior citizens who had been civil rights activists, and remained active in community affairs, seemed ideal for this purpose, so with Rev. Chapman’s help, we set up a first meeting. More than 25 people showed up, indicating how much Occupy Wall Street had captured the imagination of people in this Southeast Queens community, and after agreeing a club should be formed, the 99% Club, they began debating what local issues they should take up. After a short discussion, the group decided to take up the cause of the 2 blocks of abandoned buildings on Hollis Avenue whose wealthy landlord had stubbornly defied community pressure to sell them or fix them up.  

What gave these long time neighborhood activists hope that they could now finally make headway in solving a festering neighborhood problem was the prospect of bringing the young activists from Occupy Wall Street into the community to shake up the landlord and local elected officials. They saw Occupy Wall Street as a new and welcome force, that could strike fear in the hearts of the wealthy, not only through a language that held them responsible for monopolizing the nation’s resources at the expense of the majority of the nation’s people (the 99 percent), but because of its capacity to mobilize hundreds, sometimes thousands of young people to take to the streets in support of economic justice. 

They decided on a step by step strategy to build support for a major protest, beginning with research on the abandoned properties, complaints to the department of buildings to insure violations on the properties were up to date, and the filming of a short video explaining why neighborhood residents were determined to get the buildings fixed up. All of these actions were undertaken, but it was the last one which had the most effect. Someone from Occupy Queens saw the video on Facebook and immediately asked Rev Chapman if they could come to the next 99% Club meeting to support the initiative.

When Rev. Chapman said yes, 15 activists from Occupy Queens came to the meeting, The chemistry between the two groups was extraordinary. Though the Hollis group was mostly senior citizens and almost all Black, and the Occupy Queens groups was mostly young and middle aged, and majority white, they possessed a shared understanding that working class and middle class people were suffering terribly in the current economic crisis and something had to be done about it. When Occupy Queens described how they were blocking foreclosures in the local courts by “singing in the courts”(!) people from the Hollis Group saw an immediate connection to what was happening in their neighborhood, where many homes were foreclosed, as well as the sign of the re-emergence of an energy and courage and tactical flexibility that had marked the civil rights movement in its glory days. 

The two groups decided to create a coalition centered on the transformation of the Rita Stark buildings into community space, building up to an April 21 demonstration at the buildings which was aimed to attract Occupy activists from around the city as well as Hollis Residents. The April 21 event will begin with a Forum at Hollis Presbyterian Church, sponsored by Occupy Queens, where speakers will discuss local and national initiatives to transform foreclosed homes and abandoned commercial and residential spaces into housing for the homeless, and to defend tenants and homeowners from evictions by landlords and banks. The participants in the Forum will then join Hollis residents for a six block march to the Rita Stark properties where a rally and demonstration will take place which includes an “open mic” for members of the community to say how they think the properties should be developed. This protest, expected to attract several hundred people, will be the first of many actions taken till the issue has a positive resolution. 

What is occurring Saturday is an example of how Occupy Wall street has not only changed the conversation about economic inequality in the United States, but given people around the nation hope that they can do something about it! It has done that not only by popularizing a language that puts the onus for the nation’s economic difficulties squarely on the wealthy and the powerful, but by showing that innovative protests that link new groups of activists to existing ones can win victories large and small, in neighborhoods as well as states, and municipalities, and eventually in the entire nation.

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April 16, 2012

What We Lost Five Months Ago

Five months ago yesterday, I awoke for some reason in the wee hours of the morning and checked my email—a police raid was underway at Zuccotti Park! Flinging myself onto the A train, I arrived to find the Park blockaded. Arrests, beatings and the police trashing of the Occupy Wall Street! encampment were well underway. Occupiers and supporters tried to regroup nearby.

What I remember most vividly, though, is not that chaotic night (and morning, and afternoon), but my visit to Zuccotti Park the day before. For me, it puts in bold relief just how much we lost when Bloomberg unleashed the NYPD on Occupy Wall Street! We lost a beacon, a base camp, a school of struggle, an experiment in social change and, perhaps most important, a huge intake valve for a broad new social movement.

The Last Day At Zuccotti Park

I showed up on November 14 late to a noon-hour talk my friend Professor Mike Zweig was giving. He spoke to dozens in the northeast corner of the park using the mic check method in explaining how class works in the US, He then delivered advance copies of his book, The Working Class Majority, to the professional and amateur librarians operating the library, 5237 volumes and counting, now in its own tent. The information, food serving and medical operations were all better housed and organized than they had been even a week before, and a Zuccotti Park Fire Department had popped up, staffed by volunteers with real firefighting experience.

Hundreds of people milled around talking or working on some project with a purpose--hard-core occupiers, frequent visitors like myself, folks there for the first time. An unofficial stencil and spray can operation put slogans on shirts on one side of the park and on the other, a full scale silkscreen operation was turning out free t-shirts, raising from donations the money the General Assembly had voted to front to buy shirts and supplies. On line to get one, I chatted with a retired Black clerical worker, 75 years old, making her third visit to the park from New Jersey. She agreed with me that right after actual tents had gone up in the park about a month ago, some of the openness and welcome of the encampment had been lost, and that it was now back.

Before I left, I chatted with a hard-hatted IBEW member and a dude from the Labor Outreach Committee. The three of us talking in our union jackets attracted several others who wanted to discuss potential labor participation on an upcoming November 17 action. We joked about the tour buses which kept driving by, having now added Zucotti Park to their lower Manhattan circuit. On my way out, I paused to join in on “16 Tons” and “For What It’s Worth” with four or five folks around a guy with a guitar. Occupy Wall Street! was in full flower.

That night, the hammer came down


One big loss OWS! suffered is obvious: visibility. Once the initial mainstream whiteout of the movement had been broken by the pervasive reach of the Internet and social media (and by the ham-handed early attacks of the NYPD), Zucotti Park and the scores of sister occupations it sparked around the country were all over the news.

Partly it was that the message resonated so clearly with millions across the US (and around the world). As the economic meltdown took a bigger and bigger toll on working people, the banks got bailed out and the rich got richer. Ordinary people told their stories of losing their homes, of being laid off and unable to find work, of being impoverished by medical conditions, of being burdened by massive student debt they have no prospect of repaying. They spoke to--and for—countless others in the same sinking boat.

Partly it was that the scene was so mediagenic. The visual contrast between suited, buttoned down Wall Street brokers and lively young folks had complimentary soundbites—“Get a job, loser!” versus “Ya wanna look at these copies of the 217 job applications I have submitted since I graduated college in the Spring? Not a bite so far.” Drum circles and bemused tourists from rural Finland, anti-capitalist occu-dogs and the busy library, crocheting classes and visiting celebs showing support—there were loads of human interest stories.

And, of course, producers at news shows could always hope that the cops would brain out again and pepper spray some more female undergrads or beat another city council member bloody. Zuccotti Park was on the news every day. The word spread, and interest grew. While the Occupy! memes—the 1% vs the 99% and the concept Occupy [fill in the blank]! survived the shutdown, media interest quickly petered out without the occupations as a focal point.

Base Camp

The principal target of OWS! was clear: the Wall Street banksters who had trashed the financial system and gone on to pocket obscene salaries and bonuses for their efforts, and the political system which did their bidding, most notably providing a government rescue because they were “too big to fail.” Still, there were plenty of other issues that folks there were incensed about. Many of us had histories of activism, going back decades in the case of some of the elders.

What we had a Zuccotti Park was a kind of base camp, in the military sense, located within easy striking distance of our enemy. It was a concentrated pool of hundreds of activists of varying backgrounds who could also be mobilized to support struggles by sections of the 99% around the city. In the early weeks, OWS! protesters headed out from the park to swell postal union rallies defending post offices in poor neighborhoods and to help infiltrate and disrupt ritzy sales of high end art in defense of locked out members of the Teamsters working for Sotheby’s auction house. These actions in turn helped sway the leadership of many NYC and even national unions to throw their support to OWS!

Other important struggles that drew serious support from Zuccotti Park-based fighters were the struggle against racist police violence, including the NYPD’s notorious “stop and frisk” policies, the fight against tuition hikes in the City College system and numerous tenant struggles and anti-eviction fights. Short term mini-occupations of banks, government offices and other targets started becoming common.

And like any base camp, it had a logistical operation, to keep the forces fed, healthy and supplied. It provided reinforcements in the form of medics to tend those injured in clashes with the police and lawyers to make sure nobody stayed in the hoosegow a minute longer than necessary.


Another thing any guerilla army worth its salt does is train and educate its combatants. OWS! did this in any number of ways. The library was just the best known. There were non-violence, first aid and legal know-your-rights trainings. There were classes and guest speakers.

But more than anything else, education came in the ongoing discussions that were at the heart of the OWS! experience. Folks talked and argued—one-on-one, in small clumps, in organized.working groups or at the General Assembly--about immediate issues facing the encampment and larger questions of direction and the goals of the movement. And, through this collective process they learned.

A case in point is the question of the police.

Many, many Occupy! newbies, caught up in the 99% concept, were convinced that the cops were our natural allies. The thousands and thousands of hours young occupiers wasted earnestly explaining to individual officers in the detail surrounding Zucotti Park why they should side with us are enough to make a stone weep. But the tide shifted—police attacks on the occupation probably played the largest role. Direct experience will do that.

Then there was the presence of Black and Latino high school students who were gravitating to the park and explained the facts of life to the na├»ve. So did the news that JP Morgan Chase just donated $4.6 million to the NYPD, a move they assured everyone had nothing to do with OWS! Nobody was paying to poll occupiers but I‘ll bet a shiny new quarter that understanding of the real social role played by the po-po was far deeper by November 14 than it had been only two weeks earlier. And it took another big jump that night.

Petri Dish

Not only did occupiers, full time and sometime, learn by doing, they learned by doing new things. The creation of a living community and all its institutions, from scratch, by people who not only didn’t know, but often had, at least on the surface, little in common with, each other was an amazing process to experience.

The General Assemblies with their democratic debate and near-consensus decision-making took place very night. Anyone could come, anyone could speak. This gave participants an enormous investment in the project. Yet the social pressure of the collective—and the ban on amplification and the resulting development of mic checking—meant that folks from some outfit with a name like the Proletarian League for the Immediate Reconstitution of the Fourth International (Bolshevik Fraction) couldn’t derail the proceedings with a lengthy explanation of how OWS! should concentrate planning the insurrection.

And the practical problems we faced were, some of them, very deep and involved conflicting interests among the people, like individual power-tripping, factionalism, drug abuse in the encampment and the harassment of women occupiers. The last two were severely exacerbated by the police and shelter personnel, who directed homeless folks and people just released from prison to the Zuccotti Park. I can’t claim these problems were handled impeccably, but for the most part we did a better job than the larger society whose laws and norms we were challenging with our practice.

Some dynamics seemed built in, and in our two month stay in Zuccotti Park were never perceived as grave enough to demand the full focus of the group. One was the question of white privilege: whose upbringing, assigned role in society and assumptions about how the world works, and should work, made it relatively easy to take part. Another was the fact that longtime, fulltime occupiers saw themselves as the movement and, on the other hand, even frequent visitors would talk about OWS! in terms of “they” and not “we.’

Could all this daunting stuff have been worked through? I don’t know, but in the effort a great deal would have been learned—about how to build a different society, where other values than greed and commodity fetishism reign.

Strange Attractor

The most important thing that the encampments did was to provide a steady influx of new people into the Occupy! movement, many of whom had never even thought of engaging in active protest before. Zuccotti Park during the daytime and evening hours was always full of visitors. Sure, some folks came to scoff and a few, the sorry souls, in the hopes of seeing a real live female nipple. Most arrived supportive or genuinely curious, and left apparently little changed. But every single day, folks came for whom their visit was a transformative experience. I know because I spoke with them. Some became full time or sometime occupiers in the shadow of the Wall Street towers, others went home to other cities to get involved there.

Zuccotti Park and the other encampments around the country became a port of entry, the Ellis Island for a New Left in the United States. The constant influx of new folks kept the movement yeasty and vital. They came because they felt that here was an alternative to living in the old way, an alternative they were welcomed to, an alternative they could have a hand in building. They identified with the Occupy movement because it held the promise of a better world,

The constant inflow of new people, frequently very naive and often with odd ideas about the nature and the source of the real problems in this society, also kept the movement inoculated against a very real problem. This is core cadrification—the tendency for leading elements in a social movement, especially in times of high conflict and rapid change, to outstrip their base and jell into a small group with more advanced analysis and more militant tactics. This can easily result in the phenomenon of “slamming the door behind you”—scorning as hopelessly backward folks who hold the same views people in the core may themselves have held not so long ago.

Tactics And Strategy And The Big Question Now

The attack on Zuccotti Park and the nationally coordinated attacks around the same time on other Occupy! encampments in city after city were more than an effort to reinstitute the social order, business as usual. They targeted the encampments precisely to disrupt the effects just discussed.

When you don’t have a strategy, your tactics become your strategy. And Occupy Wall Street! was from the outset a tactic—admittedly the most successful tactic in recent memory. It was simple: occupy a public or semi-public space in a well-traveled area close to the centers of financial and political power and create an alternative center there where ordinary people can gather to challenge the powers that be.

Now Zuccotti Park and most of the other centers have been taken from us. And as various recent efforts to rebuild—Union Square in NYC, the abandoned warehouse in San Francisco—show, the enemy will not make it easy to repeat the tactical triumphs of last fall.

So where do we go from here? I don’t pretend to know, but I suggest that one yardstick by which to evaluate any of the possible futures being discussed and debated for the Occupy! movement is to what extent they can perform some of the functions that the Zuccotti Park encampment and its sisters coast to coast did.

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April 12, 2012

Working Class Music: Playlist Supplement

A few days back I posted the liner notes of the CD I burned as homework for Professor Mark Naison’s Fordham University course on the American working class, when he invited me to take a session and reflect the course in music. Here’s an addendum, four cuts I hadn’t given the students in advance, but showed instead, projected on the classroom’s large video screen.

First I have to say that, though fun, it was pretty daunting, packing the history of the US proletariat in music from the 1929 Crash to the present into an hour and a quarter presentation, especially since the CD was about that long.

I opened by doing a little categorization, saying that the songs I had picked fell into four categories, rough and over-broad, perhaps, but useful.

Work songs—songs that are sung as part of the labor process itself

Songs about working—songs that are about the labor process itself and/or the social relations in a particular job, often about its hazards

Songs about working class life—this can get pretty broad; I mean, technically, “Maybelline” is a song about working class life and so is “Rockaway Beach.”

Songs about working class struggle—Mark had already spun ‘em some Woody Guthrie, and I didn’t lean too heavy on these

So where I had included a recording of work songs by menhaden fishermen from the Virginia/Carolina coastal waters, I showed this nifty short clip of railroad gandy dancers. The men who heaved the hugely heavy rails onto the crossties and positioned them used songs to enable them to coordinate their collective efforts and avoid any excess in the killing exertion they were putting out.

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April 11, 2012

Success on Many Fronts: POP's People's Daily Campaign for Jobs & Justice shows how to carry out multiple struggles

A massive turnout from labor and the community made the April 4th march a significant remembrance of Dr. King on the 44th anniversary of his assassination
On Wednesday, April 4, 2012, the People's Daily Campaign for Jobs, Equality, Peace & Justice honored the 44th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s murder in Memphis, TN. But our general demand for 'justice' was specified slightly to highlight the singular example of the murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL.
"Justice for Trayvon Martin" formed the particular of the justice demand on our Peace, Jobs, & Justice march on April 4, as well as the at special Justice for Trayvon march POP sponsored days before on a rain-soaked Saturday
Last July, shortly after the Daily Campaign for Jobs and Justice began, this blog hailed POP's organizational maturity as we carried out the recently launched daily campaign and successfully held our annual event remembering the victims of police violence during the 1967 Newark Rebellion without interrupting the picket lines that day, the previous day and the day after (see Playing the Piano… People's Organization for Progress ups the ante of struggle in NJ). But during the week of April 4 this years POP proved that we possess true organizational maturity! Not only did the daily campaign continue without missing a beat, we held two large mobilizations of more than 200 activists as part of this campaign, led a campaign that stopped an eviction, and travelled to Raleigh, NC for the Black Workers for Justice's 29th Annual MLK Support for Labor Dinner where POP statewide chair Lawrence Hamm was keynote speaker.
Larry Hamm energized the participants at the Black Workers for Justice banquet
"This march honors the two Martins, Martin Luther King and Trayvon Martin," Larry Hamm, chairman of the People's Organization for Progress noted at the Wednesday demonstration and rally. "Our general demand for justice becomes much more specific in the wake of young Mr. Martin's murder, even as we recall the murder 44 years ago of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr."
Despite the weather, Saturday's march was invigorated by the youthful energy of the Shabazz high School marching band
"Dr. King did not die in bed, in his sleep, he was protesting in the streets, as we are doing today. He was supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN, planning to go to DC for the Poor People's Campaign. His plan was to build a tent-city of 1 million poor people on the lawn of the US capital, to expand his campaign for labor rights, against the War in Vietnam, and for economic justice at the time of his murder! This is why we remember him today," Hamm concluded on Wednesday, April 4, 2012.
Elders of the people's struggle in Newark, Amina and Amiri Baraka also spoke at the rally after the March 4 march
People's Organization for Progress members who traveled to North Carolina for the Black Workers for Justice banquet were pleased to learn about that similar organization of 30 years, even as we spread the word about POP's nearly three decades struggle.

Ajamu Dillahunt of BWFJ addresses the dinner

This week of activism was also highlighted by the POP Coalition to Save Our Homes ability to turn back the Essex County Sheriff's department in Wells Fargo Bank's attempt to evict Susie Johnson, a 77-year old Orange, NJ woman (see People power stops unjust eviction in Orange, NJ for more information and photos).  

To view additional photos from these events, click Justice for Trayvon Martin, April 31 in Newark, April 4 Daily Demonstration for Jobs & Justice, and BWFJ Annual Awards Dinner 2012.

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April 3, 2012

Working Class Music: A Sampler

Last week I had the opportunity to take over a session of Professor Mark Naison's Fordham University history class on the American Working Class. In advance I prepped a CD of songs and burned a copy for each student to listen to before the class. Most of 'em did, too.

I am posting here the brief "liner notes" I handed out with the tunes. To make it easy on you, I have included links to online versions of most of them, I have linked only the original artists for the versions on the CD I created, either in the originals or or reasonably close alternates--some live. Some of the others you can probably dig up on Spotify or other music sites.

And if anyone wants th' whole damn thing, I'd be glad cut you a CD of yer own. Music wants to be free. Also, it gets lonely when nobody is listening.

Just hit me up with a Facebook message (if we are "friends") or blip me at doneil@freedomroad.org with your snailmail add'y and I'll send it off as soon as I can get around to it.

Hezekiah Jenkins--"The Panic Is On" (1929)

This is not a blues by any means, more of a rag. Jenkins deals with the miseries of the just unfolding Depression—still called after the stock market panic that triggered it—with humor:
All the landlords done raised the rent,
Folks that ain't broke is badly bent,

and a certain grim prophecy:
So if luck don't change, there'll be some stealing done,

The Bright Light Quartet--"Menhaden Chanteys" (1959)

A nifty sampler of work songs, songs sung while working to provide the rhythm for the work process itself. This was not recorded on the small skiffs used to fish menhaden with nets in the coastal waters of Virginia and North Carolina. These guys were a semi-professional gospel quintet from Virginia, who also worked as menhaden fishers. One thing you’ll notice right off is that groups of men working together don’t only sing about the work process.

The Dixon Brothers--"Weave Room Blues" (c. 1935)

This is not a work song, but a song about working. Dorsey Dixon and his brother Howard spent most of their adult lives working in Carolina textile mills, because they made so little money from performances and the dozens of records they cut.

Ella Mae Morse--"Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet"

Cut with Freddy Slack’s Orchestra, this tune highlights the war production that ended the Great Depression and drew millions of women into industrial production for the first time. A word of explanation: milk used to come in bottles and be delivered right to your home in the wee hours of the morning by a milkman, who also picked up the empties.

Big Bill Broonzy--"Black, Brown And White" (1951)

This blues, one of Broonzy’s best known, was unusual for its blunt depiction of racism:
If you was white, should be all right,
If you was brown, stick around,
But as you’s black, hmm brother, get back, get back, get back"

Often overlooked is that it’s about racism in work—-he sings about discrimination on the job and trying to get one.

The Coasters--"Wake Me, Shake Me" (1960)

Early rock & roll was the music of working class youth. Working class kids made it and they were the market. Can you imagine a million-selling group today releasing and pushing a cut about working on a garbage truck?

Bob Luman--"Poor Boy Blues" (1965)

Luman got his start as one of the rockabilly cohort, like the early Elvis, Gene Vincent, and Jerry Lee Lewis. As rock changed in the early ‘60s, he shifted toward country, but kept a bit of rock’s rhythm and sly humor in this cut, which addresses the Great Society programs which spread the county’s wealth more broadly across the population.

Dick Curless--"A Tombstone Every Mile"

Truckers’ songs are a whole sub-genre of country music. Any guesses why that might be? This one, like a lot of songs about mining, logging and working on the water, emphasizes the dangers inherent in the work.

Lorraine Lee--"H

ighway Crew" (1990?)

This woman was my baby-sitter when I was in elementary school, but that’s not why the cut is here. This, too, is a look at hard and dangerous work, but it’s matter-of-fact, not overblown, and conveys something of rural working folk in the North.

Joy Of Cooking--"Too Late, But Not Forgotten" (1971)

One o’ them SF hippie bands--and one of the best. Notable for being led by two women, Toni Brown and Terry Garthwaite, in a period where women in rock tended to be pigeonholed as “chick singers.” This is noteworthy for the evocation of working class life for a single woman, and reflected the changes in women’s consciousness as the modern women’s movement caught fire.

The Statler Brothers--"Class Of '57" (1973)

These guys are arguably the finest vocal combo country music has ever produced. Most of their stuff tends to be either comic or sentimental. This leans into both, but never falls in, and presents a good look at life (for white folks, anyhow) during the era when a lot of your grandparents were coming up. Looking back at this high point of the US Empire, the song has a fatalistic undertone, a sense that the American Dream is somehow flawed.

Loretta Lynn--"The Pill" (recorded 1972, released 1975)

By the 1970s, the trend of women entering, and staying in, the workforce was changing the face of the US class structure and gender relations within the family. One of the things that made it possible was the birth control pill, first introduced in 1960. In the very conservative world of country music, this song by the top female star was banned on many stations.

John Mellencamp--"Pink Houses" (1983)

Like “Class of ’57,” this is about the American Dream, but with an even harsher look. I include it, instead of something by, say, Bruce Springsteen, who plays in the same ballpark, because it hints at some answers to a question that has plagued political scientists—and Marxists: Why is there no strong socialist tradition in the US?

The Valentine Brothers--"Money's Too Tight To Mention" (1982)

A soul outfit out of Columbus, Ohio. Unlike the Statlers, and like the Dixons, leaders Billy and John Valentine actually were siblings. This great song observes the Reagan Recession with a mellow vocal and a bitter eye. It also observes the decline of the Black liberation movement, which had been the driving force in social change in the US at least since the early 1950s.

Fountains Of Wayne--"Bright Future In Sales" (2003)

These guys belong in a serious look at class in the US, because they have staked out New Jersey’s suburban middle class as their turf. This, for instance, is a song about guys who have trouble growing up, but it is also about the meaningless and precarious nature of life in middle management. (And it’s a tip of the hat to Timbuk 3’s ironic 1986 hit, "The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades")

Afroman--"Graveyard Shift"

“(Dedicated to all the blue collar workers strugglin', strivin', throbbin', and thrivin'.)” There’s plenty of hiphop dealing with the underground economy of drug dealing, some real as death, some made right up. Afroman goes another route here is one of the best songs so far about legal work in the 21st century in any genre, period. It captures late night, low wage work--and more important, the relations among the workers on the job.

James McMurtry--"We Can't Make It Here (acoustic)"

James McMurtry is one of the best songwriters working today. This song foreshadows the coming of the Occupy Movement, with its clear look at the collapse of the old industrial economy in this country and the slow burning out of Rust Belt cities and towns. He’s doesn’t bite his tongue when it comes to calling out those responsible either.

Pretty Girls Make Graves--"Parade"

Ah, hell, I can’t do this without at least a couple of union songs. This one, by a sadly defunct post-punk band out of Seattle, is a rocking tribute to labor organizing and paints a picture of last winter’s Battle of Wisconsin before the fact.

Tom Morello--"Union Town" (2010)

And speaking of the Battle of Wisconsin, here’s Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine, The Nightwatchman, Street Sweeper Social Club,… that Tom Morello) doing his anthem written during the high point of that struggle. Like "Parade," it looks forward to a revival of the trade union movement.

Leslie Fish--"Curse of the Drinking Class"

Leslie Fish made her name as a founder of filk music (you do not want to know, trust me on this), but she’s also an anarchist and wrote this modern day version of the work songs I highlighted at the beginning. Oddly enough, she doesn’t limit herself to singing about the work process either…

Dave Lippman--"Occupation Is On" (2011)

And to complete the symmetrical reflection of the first two cuts, here to close things out is a nifty—and timely--update of the Hezekiah Jenkins song this CD starts with.

[A follow-up post to this one appears here.]

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