Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

476. Youth (and Age) in a Changing America

In 2010s, Aging, blogs and blogging, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 30, 2020 at 7:04 pm

This is the twenty-fifth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

As I approach the finish line of this whirlwind review of the last 50 years in America, my face is way up close to the screen as I look around at things that are unfolding now and try to see ahead to the United States post-pandemic. As I do so find myself thinking about youth more and more; not my youth, not youth as a stage of life, but the youth of this country and what they are going to inherit. I’m also thinking about the relationship between youth and age, not as a generation gap, but as a collaboration.

In this past month’s daily posts I seem to have been relying on more and more hastily hyperlinked data, but today I want to keep it simple and you can call me on my claims if they’re not supported by facts. But in every opinion poll I’ve looked at, the youth across the country are more tolerant, more open-minded, more ready to embrace difference than any other age group. The youth are more politically liberal than any other group; restrictions on voting are one of the main obstacles to their playing a major role in the outcome of Presidential elections. The youth are the most concerned about the threat of unchecked climate change and the most willing to do something to do something about it. Finally, thanks to this generation of youth, America is only going to get more demographically diverse as time goes on.

‘Post-Millennials’ on Track to Be Most Diverse, Best-Educated Generation Yet (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

As for my generation, the Baby Boomers rapidly going into what may or may not be a prolonged old age (depending on whether COVID-19 or some other catastrophe wipes a large number of us out), our proportion of the population is projected to rise steadily over the next forty years. We vote in higher numbers, but we are also whiter, more conservative, less willing to accept climate change as a reality, more fearful of immigrants, and more resistant to the reality of an increasingly diverse America. Although a new wave of young people and women are being elected to Congress and are already making waves, wealthy old white men still dominate both Congress and the Senate; until they wake up or get out of the way, they are going to be an obstacle to the structural change needed to green the planet, reduce the wealth gap, and increase the security and quality of life for the rest of us.

Rally for Bernie Sanders in L.A.

I loved the relationship that Senator Bernie Sanders had with young people during his Presidential campaigns. The mutual love and respect was tangible. He refused to be a guru figure, lecturing or preaching to his disciples from a lofty height; young people ran his campaign and he looked to them to shape his policy and correct his course when needed. They joined him in much higher numbers than they did to young candidates like Pete Buttigieg.

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a rally in Wichita, Kansas, July 20, 2018. (J Pat Carter / Getty Images)

You don’t automatically get respect by virtue of age; you have to earn it. And the way to earn it is to learn how to listen, speaking to everyone as equals equally worth of respect, regardless of age; keep reaching out to people and sharing your skills and life experience with them; and as long as you have breath in your body, keep being willing to step up when there is work to be done, inspiring younger people to step up with you. Bernie certainly did, and still is doing so as a Senator, fighting for the working people of America  who are the most vulnerable to the ravages of the coronavirus in a society that values the Almighty Dollar more than human life. Not Me, Us was his campaign’s slogan, and he lived it; young and old alike recognized that and felt embraced, not shunted aside as they are so often.

To me that is the ideal relationship between youth and age, something to aspire to. Pete Seeger had that relationship with young people as well, insisting on going to elementary schools and singing with the schoolchildren into his nineties. Here they are together, making and singing  Bob Dylan’s Forever Young in a project by and for Amnesty International.

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Chronological Table of Contents





472. Under Pressure

In 2000s, 2010s, blogs and blogging, Immigration, Media, Music, Politics, Stories, United States on April 25, 2020 at 10:10 pm

This is the twenty-first entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

President Barack Obama, former President Jimmy Carter, first lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton wave at the end of the Let Freedom Ring ceremony, Washington, Aug. 28, 2013, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

I haven’t spoken yet about the Democratic presidents over the past 50 years. There was President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), an honest and decent man whose presidency was overshadowed by the hostage crisis in Iran. Then after two terms of President Reagan (1981-1989) and one of President Bush, Sr. (1989-1993) we had two terms of President Bill Clinton (1993-2001). He did fulfill his promises to balance the budget and strengthen the U.S. economy, but at the expense of welfare mothers (through his 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act) and a further widening of the U.S. and global wealth gap by his acceleration of neo-liberal economic policies such as free trade and deregulation of finance. Clinton also continued harsh sentencing practices like the “three strikes” crime bill that disproportionately targeted black and low-income people. After President Clinton we had two terms of President Bush, Jr. (2001-2009), marked in my memory by war and more war. So when Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, I felt a great sense of relief, and allowed myself to hope for better things to come.

Inauguration Day

Barack Obama was the first President who was younger than I was, seven years younger. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had been born in 1946. Obama, born in 1961, was only 47 when he took the reins, the first child of the 1960s to enter the White House, and of course, the first black President. Like me, he was born of parents from different countries, and had even spent four years living in Asia as a child. Not only that, he had been a college friend of the sister of one of my best friends from school in India, and she and her husband were very active in his election campaign. After Barack Obama had won the election I remember going to a party thrown by friends of mine who had campaigned for him and people were in a state of euphoria that I had never seen before in connection with party politics. There was a large American flag in the room, and people took it in turn to hold the flag as they went round the circle talking about what this election meant to them. As I recall, one even wrapped the flag around him as he spoke, which, as someone who is very leery of nationalism, even at its best, I found disturbing. However, It was the first time that many Americans of my generation were able to identify themselves positively with the United States at the national level.

Given such high expectations of change, Barack Obama’s Presidency was bound to disappoint; from Day One he and his administration were under tremendous pressure. There was no honeymoon period with Congress; Republicans were determined to cross him at every step, and they did. Every single initiative he brought forward, they voted down. If he said Yes, they said No. If he reached out to them with a No–and he did reach out, again and again–they switched to Yes. And this was a President who had run as a centrist, even slightly Right of center, who was committed to reaching across the aisle and healing the national divide.

As the first black President and First Lady, Barack and Michelle Obama were under intense pressure and scrutiny, and remained calm and dignified, even while facing down a steady stream of vicious racist attacks. Conspiracy theories proliferated. There was the claim that he was a secret Muslim because his middle name was Hussein, when it was well known that he and his family were devout Christians who had been attending the same church for nearly twenty years. (In fact, that too, had been controversial, because it was an African American church whose pastor, Jeremiah Wright, had made what were condemned as anti-American and racially charged remarks during his sermons. Pressure on this front caused the Obamas to leave the church in May 2008, because it had become such a liability to his candidacy.)  And who can forget the Birther Movement conspiracy, peddled by Donald Trump, among others, which insisted with no evidence to support the claim that Barack Obama had not been born in the United States and therefore was an illegitimate President? As late as September 2016, only one-third of Republicans believed that President Obama was U.S.-born.

Every little thing President Obama–that model of moderation and product of interracial love–did or said was seized upon as evident that he was driven by racial hatred. I particularly remember the fallout after an incident in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the summer of President Obama’s first year in office, when the eminent scholar and Harvard professor Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates, Jr. was arrested for disorderly conduct after the police were called to his house at the report of a break-in, when Professor Gates had just returned from a trip to China and, finding his front door stuck, had enlisted his taxi-driver’s help in forcing it open. Even proving that his house was his own by showing his Harvard ID and Massachusetts driver’s license was not enough, and his outrage led to his spending the night in jail.

When asked what he thought of the arrest at a news conference (on health care) later than week, President said, in part:

“I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that [Gates case]. But I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.” (McPhee & Just, CNN)

The white backlash sparked by the President’s having said that the police acted “stupidly” was out of all proportion to his reaction. American police unions demanded an apology And such was the self-control that President Obama had to exercise every minute of his eight years in the White House, that, under pressure, he actually retracted the remark.

Walking back his sharpest criticism but stopping just short of a direct apology, the President said:

“In my choice of words, I unfortunately gave the impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically. . .But. . .I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling Prof. Gates out of his home and to the station. I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Prof. Gates probably overreacted as well.”

As Ta-Nehisi Coates commented in his 2016 story, My President was Black:

Obama’s embrace of white innocence was demonstrably necessary as a matter of political survival. Whenever he attempted to buck this directive, he was disciplined. His mild objection to the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2009 contributed to his declining favorability numbers among whites—still a majority of voters.

Meanwhile, in self-described White America, in stark contrast to the President’s measured response to racism, a very ugly, unapologetic racial hatred was smoldering, and being kindled and re-kindled. I witnessed an everyday instance of it inadvertently, through the feature on Facebook that allows one to see photos that one’s Facebook friends have “liked.”

One day, browsing through the Facebook photos of a young relative based in the American Midwest, sometime during President Obama’s first term, I came upon some photos that I thought he had taken but it turned out were from an album posted by a friend of his. They were from a child’s birthday party, but started in the trunk of their car on the way back from shopping for the party, where they had bought a piñata. Father and son bundled it into the trunk and then took it out together and hung it up high, for the party guests to swing at. All this was lovingly documented. When the time came, in another moment of father-son bonding,  the father blindfolded the child, perhaps five years old, helped position him with the bat in his hand, and showed him how to swing. The child was a fast learner and the piñata was soon cracked wide open, its content strewn all over as the children rush to pick up their spoils.

It was an effigy of President Obama swinging on the tree. Father and son had brought it gleefully home and strung it up together. The goodies were inside the head, the contents that spilled out were the brains. This was what some parents in the Midwest were teaching their children. For Americans, the figure of a black man strung up on a tree cannot fail to evoke the hideous history of public lynching in America after the end of slavery, between 1977 and 1950, used as a tool of racial terror to assert white supremacy over African Americans. It was sickening to see that some Americans were teaching their children to think this way about their President, even if only in effigy, and to think that this was an acceptable way to express opposition in a democracy. This was not a game; it was a ritual.

One line stands out to me in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, My President was Black.  Speaking of President Obama’s  high-minded refusal to respond to the racists on their own terms, Coates is awed by his skillful negotiation of the impossible position he was put in:  “But through it all, for eight years Barack Obama walked on ice and never fell.”

This is not to say that I personally agreed with all the actions and initiatives of President Obama’s administration; I didn’t. Just to name a few, I didn’t agree with the way he hired foxes to guard the chickens, appointing Tim Geithner, President of New York Federal Reserve Bank, as his Treasury Secretary, and Larry Summers as President of the White House National Economic Council. With these men at the helm, the Obama Administration’s economic bailout bailed out the banks and financial institutions from the subprime mortgage crisis without helping the people who lost their homes to foreclosure. It did pull the economy out of the tailspin it inherited, but at the expense of an even greater gap between rich and poor. It did end the war in Iraq but it reopened U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan, killing hundreds of Afghan civilians with a previously unmatched number of drone bombings.

There are many smaller, positive achievements of the Obama years. This article, and this one, enumerate some of them; chief among them for me as an immigrant was his executive order to establish the DACA program, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, to protect from deportation a group of aspiring but undocumented young people who had immigrated with their families as children. In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, it bought time for these young people to pursue a path to citizenship. Some other achievements: his commutation of sentences of people serving long prison sentences for nonviolent drug possession; his trip to Cuba to begin the process of normalization of relations between the two countries; his passing of the Affordable Care Act, for all its flaws (and there were many); his role in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal; his appointment Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The mass shootings that punctuated the Obama Presidency were heartbreaking, as were the failures of his administration to enact significant gun control legislation in the face of the gun lobby—most powerfully, the National Rifle Administration (NRA). President Obama wrote and delivered many powerful speeches during his two terms in office, but of his most moving was his eulogy at the funeral for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the congregation members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where, on June 17, 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof shot 12 people, killing 9 of them in cold blood during a Bible study. His aim, he said in his confession, was to start a race war. It’s not possible for me to start a discussion here about what drove the white supremacists out of the woodwork during this time, but perhaps they realized that America was changing, and that there would soon be no tolerance for their hateful ideology.

Executive Director of Let’s Move! and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy at The White House

Looking back now, from the ever-deepening depths of horror of the Trump Administration, I think of the moments of joy that I felt during the Obama Administration. First Lady Michelle Obama turned part of the White House lawn into an organic vegetable garden as part of her project to educate children on the value of healthy eating and exercise. Thousands of children from inner-city Washington DC and around the country were welcomed into a very open White House and were able to meet a black First Family up close and personal. President Obama gave the 2014 National Humanities Medal to Indian American writer Jhumpa Lahiri. I awaited the release of his summer reading list every year as he prepared for his short summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Actor and comedian Kal Penn, famous for the Harold and Kumar movies and his role in Mira Nair’s The Namesake, served as President Obama’s associate director of public engagement. Far from slashing support for the arts and humanities as the current administration is doing, the Obamas’ In Performance at the White House concert series screened on PBS were a joy to watch, especially seeing musicians, singers, and poets welcomed into the White House as if it was theirs, the people’s house. Especially touching were the tributes to black artists whom President Obama introduced–as he introduced all the performers–as quintessentially American, as having created the best of what this country has to offer the world. Here’s a link to Love and Happiness: An Obama Celebration, the final White House concert in the BET-sponsored series and here is the President himself in another concert finale with Buddy Guy and Ensemble (including Mick Jagger), singing Sweet Home Chicago.

Grace under pressure.

              President Obama hosting In Performance at the White House (PBS)

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

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461. John Prine

In blogs and blogging, Family, Immigration, India, Music, parenting, postcolonial, singing, Stories, storytelling, United States on April 12, 2020 at 3:40 pm

This is the tenth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

John Prine.

John Prine’s music is so much a part of me that upon hearing he was in intensive care I felt a blow strike my very core. It was the first time that the enormity of the coronavirus pandemic hit me personally. When he died last Tuesday after 13 days on a ventilator I was gutted, as they say in England. I haven’t been able to write the tribute that he deserves because nothing I can say could possibly measure up; but I must, because in my fifty years living in this country, John Prine’s songs have probably done more than anything else to make me feel that I belong here. I could write a book about what they mean to me, but for now I’ll focus on what they mean to me as an immigrant.

At age three, in 1987 or 1988, my son Nikhil’s first joke was sparked by John Prine’s Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone, a song with that distinctive blend of pathos and quirky humor. Of course Nikhil was too young to know anything about the 13-year-old Indian boy’s induction into a string of stereotyped Orientalist roles in the British and American film industries until they didn’t need him anymore;* but something in the song made an impression on him. Here are the lyrics:

 The movie wasn’t really doing so hot
Said the new producer to the old big shot
It’s dying on the edge of the great Midwest
Sabu must tour or forever rest.

Hey look Ma here comes the elephant boy
Bundled all up in his corduroy
Headed down south towards Illinois
From the jungles of East St. Paul.

His manager sat in the office alone
Staring at the numbers on the telephone
Wondering how a man could send a child actor
To visit in the land of the wind chill factor.


Sabu was sad the whole tour stunk
The airlines lost the elephant’s trunk
The roadie got the rabies and the scabies and the flu
They was low on morale but they was high on …


That day we were recording Nikhil and Eric on cassette tape. I remember our friend Bill Beardslee commenting that Nikhil must be the only three-year-old who knew all the words of John Prine’s Paradise (that devastatingly beautiful anti-stripmining anthem), and it was true of the Elephant Boy as well. He started out, performing in his inimitable toddler’s accent, with all the ‘l’s replaced by ‘y’s.

By the time he came to the second verse, he knew he had a captive audience, so he decided to play us a little. He sang the first line:

The manager sat in the office ayone

paused as if to make sure he had everyone’s attention, and continued:

Staring at the numbers on the teye. . .

Then he went silent. We were unable to say a word since the tape was running, as Nikhil waited; so did we. We were eating out of his hand. Had he forgotten what came next, I wondered? But no, here it came:

. . .tree!

And he went off into peals of three-year-old laugher. One of the principal elements of comedy is the unexpected, and of course we had expected him to finish the line with, “…phone.” He had got us grown-ups, all right!

All this is just to say that John Prine was practically a member of our family. Andrew and I saw him in concert several times over the years, starting with Passim’s in Harvard Square, Cambridge in 1972, on tour for his very first album; later, in 1973, outdoors at the Music Inn in Lenox, Mass, still later at the Calvin Theater in Northampton sometime in the early 2000s. I’m so glad that Nikhil was able to join us once to see John Prine in concert, in 2007 while he was still in college.

It had never occurred to me how sad most of John Prine’s songs were until my cousin Jacky remarked on hearing a JP cassette that I had made for her; I just knew how often they got it exactly right: about how I felt in a whole gamut of moods (mostly sad, I’ll grant) about small-town small-mindedness (The Accident), about self-destructive bloody-mindedness (My Own Best Friend, Sweet Revenge), about the glorification of war (Take the Star Out of the Window), about love, longing, and loss ( “Wait a while, Eternity” from Christmas in Prison), respect for marginalized people (Forbidden Jimmy) and yes, about being an immigrant, even though this was not part of his own direct experience.

In my view, a few lines of John Prine’s Common Sense explode the myth of the American Dream like nothing else:

They came here by boats, they came here by plane
They blistered their hands and they burned out their brain
All dreaming a dream that’ll never come true
Hey don’t give me no trouble or I’ll call out my double
We’ll play piggy-in-the-middle with you
. . .
It don’t make much sense that common sense
Don’t make no sense no more.

My all-time John Prine favorite, if it is possible to say that I have one, is the song about the longing and dread of a lonely migrant in Mexican Home, whose chorus goes,

Mama dear, your boy is here, far across the sea
Waiting for that sacred core that burns inside of me
And I feel a storm all wet and warm not ten miles away
Approaching my Mexican Home.

How did he get it so right, I often wondered. Several years ago I came upon a one-and-a-half-hour “literary evening”with John Prine that Ted Kooser, then-U.S. Poet Laureate, had conducted in 2005 for the Library of Congress. At 47:05 minutes, Ted Hooser asks a question from the audience: “What is the song ‘Mexican Home’ about?” and then asks John Prine to play it. Here’s what he replied, as he introduced it:

It was just a feeling I was trying to capture in “Mexican Home.” Actually, the song began with one of those spells I used to have. And I hadn’t had one in years and years and I had one when I was about 23 or so. I pulled the car over and tried to write down what I was feeling, because it was such a strange way to look at the world.

After he put his guitar down, he continued,

A lot of times after I write a song it’s not until I put it on a record that anybody ever asks me, How come you wrote that song?, ‘cos I never figure out an answer until somebody asks me. . . . I was just trying to capture an emotion that was very strong to me.

The answer to the question remains a mystery, but he sure did capture that emotion; he nailed it. And that feeling expressed by a migrant in this song is quintessentially American, quintessentially human, so that hearing it and singing along, too many times to count, this immigrant felt less alone, because John Prine got it.

Thank you for the huge body of music you have given us, and for the soundtrack to my fifty years in America.** As you asked us to in Please Don’t Bury Me, we’ll pass you all around, and not just in this country, but the world. And I’m so glad that you found love, and happiness. I want to close with Spanish Pipedream, the favorite of Andrew’s cousin Mischa, who first introduced us to you, way back at the beginning.

* Sabu was the son of a mahout working for a maharaja in a princely state in Mysore, India, who was literally scooped up from a stable at age 13 to star in a series of Orientalist roles (a mahout in Robert J. Flaherty’s Elephant Boy (based on Rudyard Kipling’s “Toomai of the Elephants,” Mowgli in the Korda brothers’ Jungle Book, Abu in The Thief of Baghdad, Ali Ben Ali in The Arabian Nights–you get the idea) in 1930s and 1940s films by British and American filmmakers, until they didn’t want him anymore. John Prine captures with perfect economy the incongruity and desolation of this Indian child star at the mercy of heartless minders, a beautiful young man cast in the stereotypes of their tawdry colonialist imagination and forced to traverse the frozen wastelands of the American Midwest to market a failing movie.

** Doing a search, I find that there at least 14 stories in Tell Me Another that quote or refer to John Prine, at least as often as my closest friends.

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450. A Virtual RUSH

In Books, culture, Music, singing, Stories on March 14, 2020 at 11:10 pm

Nearly every month for nigh on ten years I have been heading up to the Pelham Free Public Library of a Saturday night for RUSH, Rise Up Singing in Harmony, founded by Roger Conant, who passed away less than nine months ago. RUSH is based on the group singing songbooks compiled by Peter Blood and Annie Patterson which have given rise to hundreds of groups like ours all over the world. You show up, with or without musical training, with or without a musical instrument, with or without the Rise Up Singing (1988) and Rise Again (2015) songbooks (there will be extra copies on hand if you don’t own one), and go round the circle singing your hearts out for as long as the group agrees to stick around.

We all count on RUSH for camaraderie and courage through good times and bad. Roger passed the baton to Dan and Nancy, and they have faithfully carried it forward, until just yesterday, when the coronavirus shut just about everything down, including the library. We received two messages from Dan and Nancy, the first one saying stoutly that we would meet as usual and just sit a little farther apart; and the second, just a few hours later, sighing, “The guitarist is willing but the library is closed.” And with it, RUSH. I suppose it’s just as well, since it must be said that most of us are in getting up there in age, and therefore in the population most vulnerable to the virus.

Today, as the afternoon wore on, I found myself singing on my own and lamenting the sad, RUSH-less state of affairs,
until I decided to take matters into my own hands by selecting a handful of songs from each songbook—a baker’s dozen in all—and sharing them below with hyperlinks. Many of the Youtube listeners have posted the lyrics, so perhaps some of you will click on a few and sing along in the spirit of RUSH, even if you don’t have the books.

From the Old Blue Book (Rise Up Singing):

Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore (p. 6)
This is the original, by John Prine, from his first album.
Pack Up Your Sorrows (p. 67)
Richard and Mimi Fariña with Pete Seeger on his television show Rainbow Quest. (Check out Mimi’s beautiful descant.)
Banks of the Ohio (p. 99)
Doc Watson sings with Bill Monroe. (Oh, the harmonizing!)
Catch the Wind (p. 122)
Donovan (at 19).  And here’s Sara Lee Guthrie’s cover.
Shake Sugaree (p. 185)
Elizabeth Cotten on the guitar, with her granddaughter singing.
John O’ Dreams (p. 133)
Christy Moore sings Bill Caddick’s beautiful lullaby.

And from the New Brown Book (Rise Again):

Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie (p. 9)
I love Sweet Honey In the Rock’s rendition, and their harmonies.
Dump the Bosses off Your Back (p. 284)
from the Wobblies’ Little Red Songbook (“to fan the flames of discontent”)
Dear Abby (p. 90)
John Prine again (I can’t help it), a bracing tonic for these hard times: get over yourself!
Many Rivers to Cross (p. 136)
Ah, Jimmy Cliff, from The Harder They Come.
Don’t Worry Be Happy (p. 104)
Bobby McFerrin, with some advice we could all use.
On the Sunny Side of the Street (p. 145)
Billie Holiday’s version has always been the only one for me.
Iko Iko (p. 105)
A New Orleans favorite, sung here by The Dixie Cups (1965). (And here’s another, grittier, version, by the late Dr. John.)

Until we meet again, take care of yourselves and let’s take care of each other.

P.S. Here are a couple more RUSH-related stories from the TMA archives:

No Rush (May, 2015)
“I never died,” says he (August, 2019)

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449. The Farthest Field

In Aging, Books, Childhood, Family, Music, Nature, parenting, people, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases on February 15, 2020 at 11:47 am

painting by Jim Turner

As I advance farther and farther into the territory of old age, I notice that time is doing funny things. It’s a truism that time speeds up as one gets older, and so far I must report that it appears to be true. (It’s mid-February already; weren’t we just marking New Year’s Eve? My friend’s granddaughter is ten already? Surely not; didn’t we only just celebrate her third birthday?) The events that follow inexorably upon each other—daily, weekly, semester after semester, annually—seem to be scrolling by until they are almost a blur. I used to be pretty good at anticipating, preparing for, and keeping track of them; now I can barely nod to them as they gallop by, while—unless I exert a tremendous effort of will—I am increasingly a bystander rather than a participant.

It’s not just the pace of life that I notice, but also the problem of desire. Increasingly, if I miss a meeting or a deadline, I find that I don’t much care. As Arundhati Roy wrote (in a very different context) of her main character Rahel (at the “viable-dieable” age of 31) in The God of Small Things: “Nothing much mattered. And the less it mattered, the less it mattered.” Am I letting myself go, as my mother would have put it? Succumbing to inertia, as my father warned me when he was the age I am now? (See TMA 19, Lively Up Yourself.) Is this a phenomenon I am simply to stand back and observe, or do I force myself to jump back into the fray?

The thing is, I do care, deeply, and have never stopped caring, about the people whom I love and the struggles and injustices in this world. I want to keep acting in it until I can do so no longer. But, as John Prine wrote in the voice of an old man in Hello in There, “all the news just repeats itself like some forgotten dream”(see TMA 333).  As I watch history repeating itself I’m still trying to sound a warning note, but increasingly allowing myself to let younger people take the lead.

I realize that the mere fact of getting older doesn’t let me off the hook. I have responsibility for those around me. Roy’s “the less it mattered, the less it mattered” is a real thing, and at the core a symptom of depression, as indeed it was in Rahel’s case. Surfacing from those depths requires more than an  act of will. But there’s another responsibility I have now that I am officially an Elder, and that is to step back and take a long view of the frenetically unspooling action of the world. As long as I am alive I can’t stop acting, and I certainly can’t stop the world, but it is high time that I gave as much time and attention to reflecting upon action, most especially my own.

If I can’t stop the world, I can endeavor to slow it down, at least long enough to hold it for a moment in my mind’s eye. Looking back at the events of the past month, decade, fifty years—for February 6th marked the 50th anniversary of my first arrival in this country—not with nostalgia, but with as much honesty and insight as I can muster—I must try to learn something from it all while I still can. Last month I found a bag full of diaries, including my schoolgirl diaries from 1966 and 1968, and hardly dared read through them in my jaded hindsight, to look with compassion on the mostly-clueless young me, emoting and reacting and taking so much for granted. I made myself do it, though, and among the typically adolescent banalities, found threads that carry forward to the person I still recognize today, in all her flaws and fierceness. I see now why people of a certain age write their memoirs, not so much for others—although no doubt they hope to be able to pass on something that they have learned—but for themselves, as they try to make sense of all that has unfolded in their time and their place within it.

Two more observations before I put the laptop away, dress, and plunge into this busy Saturday.

I want to note the distinction between the words farther and further. In the United States, according to Merriam-Webster, “farther” tends to refer to physical distance while “further” more often refers to metaphorical distance. “Further” also means “moreover” or “additional”, depending on whether it is used as an adverb or a verb. But Merriam-Webster further observes that the two words have been used interchangeably for a long time, and the distinction is by no means a clear-cut one. While The Cambridge Dictionary (U.K.) makes similar but more nuanced distinctions between farther and further, it ultimately maintains their interchangeability. In its book, “farther” is used to refer not just to distance (for which it says the more common word is “further”) but to distance away from the speaker. Since we experience the past and project the future in terms of their distance from ourselves, “farther” is the operative word here, for my purposes. But why does this matter here?

Roger, the beloved founder of RUSH, the singing group I participate in every month, recently passed away, to our abiding sadness. In the last couple of years he had introduced us to a number of songs that looked ahead to the as-yet-uncharted territory of death and dying, and retrospectively I see that he had been preparing himself and us all to face what was to come with courage, and even with gladness. One of those songs was The Farthest Field, which I now sing with gratitude for his farsightedness. Death is not metaphorical.

And a memory of my dear mother, who died nearly two years ago. As the Alzheimer’s advanced, that dreadful disease that progressively blocked her cognitive pathways and ultimately took away her voice, all time seemed to her to fold, like a closing concertina, into the present. Of course I can’t know exactly how she experienced it, but one Christmas season found her taking out all the old cards sent over the years by her distant family members and lovingly displaying her favorites all over the house. Our first reaction was one of annoyance: why was Mum taking out all these old cards, and mixing them up with the new ones that were starting to arrive? How would we be able to tell who had sent us cards this year? But upon reflection I thought differently: Mum had always treasured the Christmas cards sent to us by her family in England, no matter where in the world we were living. Now, as the significance of any time of year— indeed, of Time itself—was fading rapidly, what mattered to her what the joy which welled up in her as she handled each of these precious expressions of love. Increasingly, I too find myself sharing Mum’s feelings about these cards. It is February, and I have put away the cards with overtly Christmassy images on them, but have left some of the others up, simply because they are beautiful and continue to bring me joy.

Oh my dear friends/I truly love/to hear your voices
Lifted up in radiant song;
Though through the years/we all have made/ our separate choices
We’ve ended here where we belong.

There are further adventures ahead to which I look forward with anticipation and, of course, with some quickening of the heart. As the songs tell us, this path is each of ours alone but also, that we are all on the journey together, and I take heart from that fellowship. Until Time folds up like a concertina for me I will make the effort to stay engaged, but must increasingly take time out to pause and reflect on what it all means and how far I have come.

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447. Christmas is Coming

In Aging, Britain, Family, Music, seasons, Stories on December 11, 2019 at 1:18 pm

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat,
Please to put a penny in an old man’s hat;
If you haven’t got a penny a ha’penny will do,
If you haven’t got a ha’penny, God bless you.

Whether or not one celebrates Christmas, the season comes around every year without asking for permission and there ain’t nothing anyone can do to fend it off. It doesn’t come quietly, but bold as brass, with all the attendant noise and paraphernalia of a traveling circus. And all over again one sighs, acquiesces, and gets with the program.

For academics in my field it’s the worst time of year bar none, with end-of-term grading followed in short order by back-to-back conferences as often as not in a distant city (for me Seattle, Washington this year), followed immediately by the start of the Spring semester which is always much more hectic than the one before. Such are my gloomy and self-involved thoughts in the fall semester’s last week of classes with the holiday season knock-knock-knocking at the door.

2019 Christmas Lights, Regent Street, London’s West End (photo: Jeff Moore)

In England, or at least in the England I know, which is, admittedly, a Ghost of Christmas Past, one can’t help but get into the spirit this time of year. The Christmas lights have come on in London’s West End (in my time the magic date was December the 6th; now, ridiculously, earlier and earlier in November), the children have written their lists and sent them off to Father Christmas, the parties at work ensure that no work gets done, Auntie Bette’s Dundee cake  has been made weeks ago and is richly beckoning in its special tin. But most of all, no matter where we are in the world, Mum is in Christmas mode.

Whether we were children in India or teenagers in the United States. as Christmas approached that magical feeling would descend upon our home. Cards would arrive from our far-flung friends and family, each one lovingly opened, pored over, and displayed to best advantage, family cards given pride of place. Mum was not much of a baker the rest of the year, but now delicious aromas would waft through the house as she made her legendary chicken pies with the flakiest of crusts, mince pies (in later years made with hard-to-find vegetarian mincemeat tracked down especially for Andrew), and for Christmas Eve, shortbread and sausage rolls. Most thrilling of all, the house would fill with whispers and secret places and rustlings of wrapping papers, as Mum would come home late, laden with bags and boxes from after-work shopping, and slip into her bedroom. She would shop for every single child in our lives, no matter how far away, painstakingly picking out something she knew that they would delight in (never anything merely useful), wrap, package, and rush to get it to the post office before the last safe mailing date for Christmas delivery. For picky people like me, who highmindedly pooh-poohed commercialism but in actual fact had rather expensive tastes, she would fret over getting just the right thing, often driving to the mall more than once to take it back and exchange it for something closer to perfect.

Teenagers are the hardest people to shop for. Not that they don’t want things—they absolutely do, no matter how much they may sneer and turn their noses up at the efforts of the clueless oldsters—but they want exactly what they want and will take no substitutes. Mum knew this, and was determined that no child of hers (and this was very broadly defined) would open a Christmas present and be disappointed; so she annoyed the rest of us to no end as she dashed back and forth to the shops, fussing and fretting over whether a particular pair of jeans, say, was the right brand and model and size and cut, to be sure that the Landlubber low-rise corduroys or Levi 501s or shrink-to-fits would fulfill our hearts’ desires on Christmas Morning.

All Mum’s racing about as Christmas approached had at its core what it had meant to her as a child who grew up in poverty but with the riches of a big family, and as someone who had left her childhood home and family after marriage, never returning to live there again for any length of time. She was determined to recreate that spirit for us in our home, and went on doing so as long as she possibly could. It could be infuriating for us as adults to have to try to live up to her impossibly high standards for the season. But the externals, though they seemed to be desperately important to her, didn’t in fact mean a damn thing. It was the Christmas Spirit she was rekindling, it was the loving connections with distant family and friends she was maintaining, it was everything she held dear that she was honoring, and, to her mind, it was what would keep our family strong in a strange land.

Now that Mum is no longer with us in person, it’s down to me whether or how I choose to celebrate the season, which will surely come and go whether I enter into it or not. All the rest of life’s commitments—student papers and recommendations, committee work, application deadlines, taxes taxes taxes—are of course there as always, however much I may try to clear them away in time. But so are they for everyone else. Hono(u)ring the season is not about duty, or religious observance (for Mum was secular to the core), or keeping up with the Joneses; it is about opening up your heart and your home and making room for who and what matters most to you. Dare I say it: Christmas is about love and hope springing eternal. At the darkest time of the year comes a shift, invisible but no less real, and we, in the northern hemisphere at least, begin moving toward the light again. So all over the world around this time of year we humans celebrate new life, the hope for redemption, even in the mess we’ve made of this beautiful planet we’re privileged to inhabit for a time.

For Dad, Christmas wasn’t Christmas until we had all watched Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the 1984 version starring George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge. No matter how many times he’d seen it before he would get misty-eyed at Scrooge’s awakening in the proper spirit on Christmas Morning. He especially approved of the moment when Scrooge instructed (and liberally tipped) the street urchin to buy the biggest goose hanging in the butcher’s window and deliver it to Bob Cratchit’s. Because for Dad, besides indulging Mum in celebrating it as she saw fit, the Christmas spirit meant Giving. Spend as much as you want, Darling, was his silent message to Mum as she raced about, perennially unsatisfied, because perfection is not something that clicks its heels on command; one can only do one’s best to prepare for it, and hope that it will come.

So here I am. Now I need only please myself. I don’t believe in wallowing in nostalgia, but certain things mean what they mean to me. Probably the carol that best embodied both Mum and Dad’s idea of Christmas was Good King Wenceslas (sung here by The Irish Rovers). When we sang it on Christmas Eve, we women would sing the page’s part and the men the King’s. Dad the inveterate meat-eater always delighted in booming out, “Bring me flesh and bring me wine,” as the King commanded his page to prepare a feast for the poor man. Mum’s favorite part was the moral at the end, although she disregarded the religious part of it:

Therefore Christian men be sure
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

One year, when Mum’s Alzheimer’s Disease no longer permitted her to prepare for Christmas as she had done all her life, we went to the Pelham Library for their annual holiday tea, English Mummers’ play (complete with fighting the Saracen, which always makes me wince), and Christmas caroling. She could still read then, albeit with difficulty, and joined in, clutching the song sheet in her hands. When we got to “Good King Wenceslas,” she welcomed it like an old friend and sang along heartily.

After those closing lines she turned and looked at me, as if for affirmation: “That’s good, isn’t it?” My heart melted. “Yes Mum, it certainly is.”

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444. Mind Cleanup

In Aging, blogs and blogging, Family, Food, Music, people, reflections, seasons on October 30, 2019 at 9:34 pm

By this time of year I’m pretty ragged around the edges and this year those edges feel raggedier than usual. It’s late October, with a full month to go until Thanksgiving and six weeks until classes end. Student essays are getting the better of me and sleep deprivation has become my default mode. Thank goodness Daylight Savings Time is ending this weekend and we’ll gain another precious hour. There’s such a fog churning around in the world at large and in my own head that I can’t see my way forward, not even to make a To Do list. Even our usually peaceful neighbourhood has turned against me: there’s a machine outside the bedroom window that has been grinding down the stump of our neighbor’s tree since the crack of dawn, and with it, my head. So I thought I’d try something that Epi, a fellow-blogger I met during the A-Z blog-a-day challenge last April, does from time to time: a mind cleanup.

The World
Authoritarian rulers are sprouting up and clampdowns coming down everywhere you look: India: Modi and Kashmir; Britain: Boris and Brexit; the U.S.: Trump and just about everything; Turkey (and the U.S.): Erdogan and the Kurds; Brazil: Bolsonaro and the Amazon burning; Russia and Putin, Poland and Duda, the Philippines and Duterte, the list goes on. But so are the mass protests: in Lebanon, Sudan, Hong Kong, Haiti, Ecuador Chile, Iraq, London and, close to home, Puerto Rico; the people cannot be kept down and neither should we. Here’s the Clash, with (Working for the) Clampdown, an anthemic song that inspired us in the 1980s. (I just learnt that word, anthemic, from Patti Smith, talking about her 1978 Because the Night (belongs to Lovers).

Mass protests against army rule in Sudan (AFP/Getty Image)

My Life
I’m chronically behind with everything, my best efforts making only small nibbles round the edges of things. (Speaking of nibbling around the edges, here’s a crab nibbling at a cherry; a distracting youtube video that is making the rounds.) There’s little to show for all the late nights and all-nighters but small inroads into the backlog. I feel like the woman in the Grimms’ fairytale Rumpelstiltskin, charged to spin an impossible heap of straw into gold overnight or lose her firstborn child. (By the way, one of my earliest stories on Tell Me Another was called Rumpelstiltskin, about a recurring nightmare from my childhood.)

Thank goodness for my new (gently used) hybrid car, which transports me to work and back on my long commute with a minimum of effort on my part; so easy to drive that it almost feels like a self-driving car.

Students keep one honest. They are young and hardworking and they have expectations. One strives to meet them. My first-year students are currently writing about environmental citizenship and climate justice. Apparently, they tell me, they weren’t taught about climate change in school, so now they’re shocked to find that we’re facing a climate emergency. As I get older, I wonder if I seem to them like someone from another planet. Well aware of my oddness, I notice myself performing it, and fear becoming a caricature of myself. But then I retort to myself, “Well, and why not? Why should not old women be mad?”

Visits: This has been a season of traveling and of visits. In September, I took a flying trip to University of East Anglia in Norwich, England for a conference marking my favorite writer Doris Lessing’s birth centenary. The conference, which must rightfully claim a post of its own, was held in the Julian Study Centre, named after Julian of Norwich, that 14th-century anchorite who was the first woman to publish a book in English, Revelations of Divine Love. I taught excerpts from this collection of mystical devotions a couple of years ago in a Women and Literature course. But what is the most associated in my mind with Julian of Norwich is this song, The Bells of Norwich, her words set to music by Sydney Carter. Its refrain: “All shall be well again, I know.” And indeed, all was well when, before the conference, I squeezed in a short visit with my cousin Lesley, and afterwards, took the bus to the my cousin Sue and spent a precious weekend with her before the long journey home.

Later in September, our friend Sabine, who lovingly hosted me five years ago, graced us with a visit from Bremen, Germany; so did Hayat and Joseph, whom we met in 1977, protesting the construction of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Station. We attended their wedding, way back in the mists of time, and Hayat has been a voice of wisdom and encouragement at major turning points in my life. In early October, we had a reunion of our cohort from a Co-op House in college, 17 of us in a beautiful house on the Kennebec estuary in Maine, a place where rivers meet the sea, a place to reflect on beginnings and ends. We cooked together as we used to, caught up with each other after nearly 45 years, and reflected on shared values and experiences with old friends and agemates. Most recently, just last weekend, a visit from Tamara, who lives in North London walking distance from where my mother was born, and who has known me and Mum since before I was two years old and before Mum was thirty. A series of jam-packed weekends followed by all-nighters to catch up with grading.

Losses: In the world, there has been the death of beloved Baltimore Congressman Elijah Cummings, who has been mourned deeply by his family, former Presidents, and the entire nation. At home in India, earlier this month, our family lost my atya/aunt, my father’s elder sister Kumud Rege. At times like this one feels so far away. Just the other day Rohna Shoul, our old friend Mark’s amazing mother, breathed her last, and we have yet to take it in. And this weekend we gather to remember my friend Ann, who died too young just a few months ago. That line from John Prine’s Angel from Mongomery comes yet again to mind: the years just flow by/like a broken-down dam. But so does that place where the river meets the sea.

I’m not much of a cook in the term-time; it is Andrew who has been experimenting this fall with delicious new recipes. But it has been a good year for apples, and thanks to all the apples Andrew rescued from old trees on the UMass campus, I have made German apple pancake, an old favorite from The Vegetarian Epicure, four times in the past month. (Here’s a TMA story about the importance of cookbooks in the first decade after our immigration to the United States.) Other seasonal foods we have enjoyed this month, thanks to the Simple Gifts Farm: delicata squash, peppers, and basil pesto.

Stormy, with an “event” a couple of weeks ago called a bomb cyclone which cut off the power for awhile and downed trees and tree limbs everywhere. Our garden wasn’t spared, and one massive treetop knocked down the bird feeder but stopped just short of the house when it got caught up in another tree. Now the logs from the fallen tree trunk are stacked neatly in a pile, the house plants are in for the winter, and the garden is awash with coppery-yellow maple leaves.

Fall Festivals
Last weekend was Diwali, festival of Light and celebration of a new year. We had a quiet day, lighting candles for our parents and absent family members. But in a week our local Indian organization will celebrate Diwali and I must face the ordeal of dancing with the women, who have been practicing a choreographed number for weeks. So have I, but with my two left feet (and as a leftie I can say that) I’m still light years away from knowing the moves. The rehearsals remind me of all the times I messed up in dance performances in my childhood and youth. Can I master it in time or will I embarrass myself yet again on the stage?

For Halloween tomorrow, Andrew has been carving a Cheshire Cat pumpkin. We have our trick-or-treat candy ready for the children of the neighborhood and I’m looking forward to them; though I’m hoping that they don’t eat us out of the mini-dark chocolate Kit-Kats, since I’ve hidden away the all-natural Halloween fruit gummies for myself. But if they go, we’ll still have the roasted pumpkin seeds.

Good news at work today: my sabbatical proposal has been approved, and I should know next week whether or not it has been funded. So, inshallah, this time next year I should be preparing to celebrate Diwali in India.

After a delicious dinner (salad, basil pesto, green beans, and butternut squash pasta in the shape of little pumpkins), I’m preparing to take the plunge back into the pile of student essays, fortified with a cup of tea (Sainsbury’s, Fair Trade, thanks to Tamara). I’m still tired, and ragged, and know it’s going to be a very long evening, but I feel thankful. And calmer. Let the winter come and go/All shall be well again, I know.

O Saraswati, Goddess of Learning, help me clear and strengthen my wayward mind.  


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438. “I never died,” says he

In Family, history, Inter/Transnational, Music, people, Stories on August 19, 2019 at 2:23 am

This past weekend, August 16-18, was the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the “three days of peace, love, and music” on a dairy farm in New York State, attended by 400,000 people and including musicians Richie Havens, Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe and the Fish, The Who, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Canned Heat, Sly and the Family Stone, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Joe Cocker, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Santana, and Jimi Hendrix. Although my father came to the United States that same month, in August, 1969, my mother, sister and I didn’t follow until February of the following year, and I always felt that my arrival was somehow belated, that at not-quite-sixteen I had already missed the height of the youth movement that found its expression there. When the three-hour concert film came out, just a month after our arrival, and the triple album a few weeks later, I watched and listened avidly, again and again, until it became, if not entirely part of me, then certainly a part of how I saw this strange new country and my generation in it. Watching the PBS documentary, Woodstock, the other night, and listened to a young and pregnant Joan Baez singing “Joe Hill”:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me
Says I “But Joe, you’re ten years dead”
“I never died,” says he
“I never died,” says he.

I thought about what that song had come to mean to me since. Joe Hill or Joel Emmanuel Hägglund (1879-1915) immigrated to the U.S. from his native Sweden in 1902 and became a union organizer. He joined the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the “Wobblies,” and wrote labor organizing songs for them, fought in the Mexican Revolution, and then was charged and executed for two murders that he hadn’t committed. Joe Hill, sung by Joan Baez at Woodstock, was written by Alfred Hayes, set to music by Earl Robinson, and popularized in the 1930s and 1940s by the great Paul Robeson.

In the 1980s, while we were in our twenties, Andrew, Eve, and I founded Whetstone Press, a letterpress print shop, and made the IWW our union label. We delighted in being part of the Wobbly heritage and in The Little Red Songbook (first published in 1913), full of songs by the likes of Joe Hill and Utah Phillips. Through the years, in the movement against nuclear power and weapons, protests against U.S. interventions in Central and South America, solidarity with the South African people’s struggle against apartheid, forming a graduate-student union, these songs became old standbys.

Much later, around 2011, now in my 50s, I joined a monthly singing group called RUSH (Rise Up Singing in Harmony), based on Annie Patterson and Peter Blood’s songbook, Rise Up Singing, and organized by the indefatigable Roger Conant, who, in the tradition of Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Woody Guthrie, and Joe Hill, believed in the power of song to bring people together in solidarity. It was a loose fellowship, and people came and went, though there were regulars, and I became one of them. One of the people who attended from time to time was an elderly gentleman called Ward Morehouse, whom I didn’t know outside of the group, but who always requested labor and union songs, like The Banks are Made of Marble, sung here by Pete Seeger; “Joe Hill” was one of his favorites.

Not long after Ward and his wife Carolyn Oppenheim had started coming to RUSH, we received the sad news that he had passed away. It was only then, after reading his obituary, that I learned that he himself had been an active labor organizer and, furthermore, that he had led the movement in the U.S. against Union Carbide on behalf of the workers killed and incapacitated in 1984 by the deadly gas leak at the Union Carbide pesticide facility in Bhopal, India. That led me to write a new verse of “Joe Hill” in his honor* and to attend Ward Morehouse’s memorial service along with my mother.

In 2012 Mum was 85 and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease for at least five years. However, she could still sing along to the songs on the programme for the service, and it turned out that she knew most of them. Carolyn had asked Roger Conant to lead the singing, and I was happy to see that Mum was really entering into the spirit of it. While everyone was singing the international workers’ anthem, “The Internationale”, I glanced over at her, and as she sang the rousing chorus, her fist was raised high in the air.

Here are the lyrics to Billy Bragg’s updated version of The Internationale. And here is a moving rendition of it being sung en masse in Leicester, England. One verse in particular speaks to me loud and clear at this moment in time:

Let no one build walls to divide us
Walls of hatred nor walls of stone
Come greet the dawn and stand beside us
We’ll live together or we’ll die alone
In our world poisoned by exploitation
Those who have taken, now they must give
And end the vanity of nations
We’ve but one Earth on which to live

My dear mother has since passed away and, just recently, so has Roger Conant. They are sorely missed. But just as the spirit of Woodstock lives on, wherever people gather in solidarity and song, they will be with us.

Joan Baez at Woodstock


*The verse of “Joe Hill” for Ward Morehouse:

From Bhopal to Atlanta,
When companies don’t play fair
Where working folk defend their rights
Ward Morehouse will be there
Ward Morehouse will be there.





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429. V is for Vigilante

In blogs and blogging, Books, history, Immigration, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 26, 2019 at 6:59 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter stands for vigilante.
Vigilante Man (recorded in 1940) is one of Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl ballads. In it, he bemoans the armed man who lies in wait for hapless migrants, who has hunted, chased, and “herded [them] like cattle,” and killed Preacher Casey, who sought to unite and organize them. Casey’s murder was also mentioned in John Steinbeck’s 1939 Dust Bowl epic, The Grapes of Wrath, in which the Joads were one among many desperate migrant families driven West from their homes in Oklahoma by the climate catastrophe of the Dust Bowl, looking for honest work in the fertile fields and vineyards of California.

 migrant family, 1930s

In this excerpt from the novel, Steinbeck describes the response of local people to the migrants:

The moving, questing people were migrants now…. And the hostility changed them, welded them, united them — hostility that made the little towns group and arm as though to repel an invader, squads with pick handles, clerks and storekeepers with shotguns, guarding the world against their own people.

        In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights. They said, These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. These goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything. They’ve got no sense of property rights.

         And the latter was true, for how can a man without property know the ache of ownership? And the defending people said, They bring disease, they’re filthy. We can’t have them in the schools. They’re strangers. How’d you like to have your sister go out with one of ’em?

      The local people whipped themselves into a mold of cruelty. Then they formed units, squads, and armed them — armed them with clubs, with gas, with guns. We own the country. We can’t get these Okies get out of hand.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Viking Critical Library, 1972, pp. 385-386
(originally published in 1939)

Steinbeck’s migrants were his own countrymen, not migrants from South of the U.S.-Mexico border; but their plights and the reactions of the vigilantes were startlingly similar.

A group of migrants in Sunland Park, New Mexico, where the United Constitutional Patriots, an armed rightwing militia, patrol the US-Mexico border. (Photo: Paul Ratje/Getty Images)

Last week, a story about armed vigilantes made national and international news headlines for a couple of days. Members of a right-wing militia group were caught on video posing as U.S. Border Patrol (CBP) agents to detain migrants and refugees at the New Mexico-Mexico border and then coordinating with the CBP to apprehend them. The Border Patrol could not be reached for comments but sent an email saying, for the record, that it “does not endorse private groups or organizations taking enforcement matters into their own hands.” However, the vigilantes themselves not only seemed to be working closely with the CBP but declared that they were doing their civic duty in the absence of adequate federal law enforcement; and a spokesperson for the city in New Mexico said, “I think they are just out there exercising their constitutional right.” Clearly, the Wild West mentality with civilian posses dispensing “rough justice” extrajudicially, still seems to be alive and well in the Southwestern borderlands. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico has called on the state’s Governor and Attorney General to investigate the “fascist militia,” saying, “we cannot allow racist and armed vigilantes to kidnap and detain people seeking asylum.”

However, even preliminary research into the problem reveals that vigilante violence against people crossing the border has been a reality since the 1970s, something of which locals are very aware, but which has been insulated from the nation as a whole. However, in the past couple of years the groups have grown, organized, formed broad coalitions (joining the Tea Party, for instance), and become much more heavily armed and more closely enmeshed with law enforcement officials. In this February 2019 excerpt by Greg Grandin from his new book, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, the author claims that many of the vigilantes are veterans of U.S. wars, with “fortress mentalit[ies]” and post-traumatic stress disorder, or worse:

In the last years of the Obama presidency, as fallout from Iraq worsened and Central American children arrived, vigilantism surged anew in a more aggressive form. Its ranks were filled with younger, angrier men than its earlier version, outfitted with military hardware and desert camouflage, intent on stopping “f***ing beaners”, obsessed equally with Isis, Central American gangs, Mexican cartels and Black Lives Matter. Most have done multiple stints in Afghanistan and Iraq. “For me, it is therapeutic to come down here and join my fellow veterans,” said one veteran, who after four tours in Iraq was left with brain injury and stress disorder.

You can listen to the piece here as a podcast if you don’t want to read it. And you can watch and listen to Ry Cooder’s rendition of Vigilante Man here.

A closing thought: It’s worth remembering that New Mexico was only granted Statehood in 1912 and was part of Mexico until 1848, when it was ceded to the U.S. after the Mexican-American War (New Mexico Joins the Union). Local Native American peoples fought hard against U.S. colonization, but were defeated in 1886 with the surrender of Geronimo. Andrew and I lived in New Mexico for some time in 1978-1979, and it did not feel like the United States; it was a multilingual, multicultural Borderland—Land of Enchantment—with a character all its own. Today, 47% of the state’s population claims Hispanic ancestry, and nearly 10% more are Native American. Additionally, for decades there has been a pattern of circular, seasonal migration between Mexico and the U.S. Southwest, in which Mexicans would migrate north as temporary farm laborers and return home when the season was over. Apparently the recent crackdowns at the Southern border have disrupted this pattern and actually driven up the numbers of Mexican migrants who stay in the United States.

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426. S is for Stranger

In blogs and blogging, Books, history, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories, storytelling, United States, Words & phrases, writing on April 23, 2019 at 9:38 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter is for stranger.

The stranger is said to be the quintessentially, existentially modern figure. So many twentieth-century
works give us that romantic anti-hero, the angry, alienated man (strange, he always seems to be a man), at odds with society, a stranger to himself. But if the modern era is the era of migration, then its quintessential figure is that of the migrant, the refugee, the exile—stranger in a strange land, a long way from home.

It is dead lonely to be a stranger, and not in the least romantic. The newly arrived immigrant is a complete unknown; but unlike in the song, he is not like a rolling stone who keeps movin’ on. Instead, he tries hard to settle and put down roots, but still remains a stranger.

Although the words “stranger” and “outsider” are often used interchangeably, they have distinct meanings. Apparently, a stranger is a person one doesn’t know, while an outsider is someone who is not part of a community or organization. But the modern stranger, the one recognized by immigrants and refugees, is both. In an influential 1908 essay, German sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel:

James Baldwin (“Stranger in the Village”)

differentiates the stranger both from the “outsider” who has no specific relation to a group and from the “wanderer” who comes today and leaves tomorrow. The stranger, he says, comes today and stays tomorrow. The stranger is a member of the group in which he lives and participates and yet remains distant from other–“native”–members of the group. In comparison to other forms of social distance and difference (such as class, gender, and even ethnicity) the distance of the stranger has to do with his “origins.” The stranger is perceived as extraneous to the group and even though he is in constant relation to other group members; his “distance” is more emphasized than his “nearness.”As one subsequent interpreter of the concept put it, the stranger is perceived as being in the group but not of the group. (The Stranger—sociology)

In the United States, Simmel’s stranger became Chicago school of sociology Robert Ezra Park’s marginal man. First discussed in his 1928 essay, “Human Migration and the Marginal Man” he was a hybrid figure who, like the newly arrived African Americans from the American South, like the pre-WWI wave of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, lived cheek-by-jowl with others in the new society, and yet “was not quite accepted due to racial prejudice” (Goldberg 201). Richard Wright, a migrant to Chicago in 1927, credited Park with having influenced his thinking in his novel Native Son, while Park credited the black writers of the American South with helping him understand how human civilizations advanced (Warren).

How many years does a person have to live in a land, how many generations of his or her kinfolk have to die there, before they are no longer strangers?

Here are three songs that make me feel less of a stranger, and at the same time remind me that strangeness is part of being human.

People are Strange (The Doors)

I Was a Stranger (Doc Watson)

Wayfaring Stranger (Rhiannon Giddens)


I can’t resist one more S word: S is for SAADA, the South Asian American Digital Archive. By collecting the histories of South Asians in the United States, it makes us less strange, our stories more fully a part of the many-stranded history of this country. Of its many initiatives, its First Days Project collects the moving first-person accounts of people’s arrival in the United States, before they found their feet and got over the initial culture shock. Supporting SAADA tells our stories, fights hate and helps to build a more inclusive future where no one is a stranger.

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