Josna Rege

Posts Tagged ‘Pete Seeger’

402. Land Where Our Fathers Died

In Books, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Music, parenting, people, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on August 31, 2017 at 4:27 am

Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s second short-story collection, opens with an epigraph by Nathaniel Hawthorne that also provides its title:

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.  (from The Custom-House, introduction to The Scarlet Letter)

Like Hawthorne’s children, I had a different birthplace from that of my father, and my son, in turn, had a different birthplace from mine. Do I feel that, as a result, I was raised in richer, more generative soil? I was born in my mother’s city and country, but we didn’t stay there long. For much but not all of my childhood I was raised in my father’s country, though far from the red earth of his coastal home. By the time I was coming of age we had landed on a third continent, far across the the sea and home to neither of my parents, where I was forced to strike my roots into unaccustomed earth. As a result, I will constitutionally and forever question settled concepts of home, country, and belonging.

While I reject the notion that blood and soil (Blut und Boden, that hateful Nazi slogan), race and place, have some sort of mystical unity, I know from personal experience that for some people, place is much more important than for others—that while they may be able to live anywhere (for humans are almost infinitely adaptable) they can only come fully alive in the place where they were born and raised. For them that place will always and forever be home. Some lose their minds, lose their way, even end their own lives. Do we then look at them as failed transplants, as Salman Rushdie describes some of the characters in The Satanic Verses? Should they never have been wrenched from their native soil?

But then, look at Ellis, the protagonist of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. When she emigrates from Ireland to the United States, she is forced to leave everything that was familiar to her. There is a long, lonely period of adjustment; but then she works for independence and education, finds love, begins to make the unfamiliar familiar, to put down new roots. Returning “home”, she finds that everything is easy in some respects, seductively, romantically comfortable; yet the growth she has achieved in unaccustomed earth has developed parts of herself that ultimately mean more to her.

One must return to “blood and soil,” the sickening chant of the Nazis and White Supremacists as they marched with flaming torches through the street of Charlottesville, Virginia just three short weeks ago. Why was it so chilling? These men—they were overwhelmingly male—had come together to claim that they, the self-defined “White Race”, belonged to the soil of this country as Blacks did not, as Jews did not, as immigrants would never do; and that they were fully prepared to shed blood defending this soil against racially alien intruders. This country was theirs, they snarled, in a way that it could never be mine, that as far as their children’s fortunes lay within their control, they would strike their roots deeper into their own native soil.

I’m with Hawthorne: that soil is played out; and so is that hate-filled song. Yes, we must be prepared to fight to preserve our sacred Earth, but in this century all earth must be unaccustomed. While I hold an abiding affection for the two places on earth that nurtured my dear parents, I myself am a cosmopolitan, even though at times the word sticks a little on my tongue. I want to belong to a place, but I do not. When I see the people forced from their homes by the flooding in Texas and Louisiana, my heart goes out to them, but then I read of the death and displacement caused by the flooding, not just in Mumbai, home to many members of my family, but also throughout South Asia, including Bangladesh and Nepal, and my heart breaks its bounds again. I cannot feel for one people to the exclusion of all the others.

Commuters walking through waterlogged streets, Mumbai (Reuters)

Where does this leave me? A global citizen, facing potentially catastrophic climate change in uncertain times with my fellow earthlings. I’m grateful to my father for having showed me, at a young age and by his example, how to strike my roots into unaccustomed earth; this radical unbelonging is the condition of our age, and it is a condition that will better prepare us, not to soak the depleted soil with yet more blood, but to come together with others for our mutual survival, and that of our planet.

I once heard it said that one did not feel a sense of belonging to a place until one’s fathers had died there. Well, now my own beloved father has died here in the United States, and though I can scarcely say how I feel, it’s not exactly belonging, but rather, a renewed sense of responsibility to a place that we all must share. Here’s how another revered ancestor, Pete Seeger, put it:

To My Old Brown Earth

To my old brown earth
And to my old blue sky
I’ll now give these last few molecules of “I.”

And you who sing,
And you who stand nearby,
I do charge you not to cry. 

Guard well our human chain,
Watch well you keep it strong,
As long as sun will shine.

And this our home,
Keep pure and sweet and green,
For now I’m yours
And you are also mine

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331. No Rush

In 2010s, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories, United States on May 17, 2015 at 12:08 pm


It has been exactly five years since I joined Rise Up Singing in Harmony. In the words of Roger Conant, its founder and coordinator, RUSH is “a group which meets monthly to sing together, largely using the Rise Up Singing book but not exclusively.” That’s a pretty accurate description; in fact, RUSH is not exclusive in any way. Anyone can show up at the local library at 7 pm for the group sing, or an hour earlier with something to contribute to a potluck meal. People stay as long as they can, taking it in turns to choose a song for the group to sing, and as someone bids the group goodnight, the others pull their chairs in to close the gap in the circle. Staying longer means that one’s turn to choose a song comes around faster, but funnily enough, if one thinks of a song but doesn’t have time to request it, it is often the case that another group member will spontaneously choose that very song. Oh, and there are musical instruments. Two or three people always bring guitars, and occasionally someone comes with a fiddle or a banjo. Eventually, after two or three hours of non-stop singing, one of us—usually Roger—says that he really has to go to bed now, and after helping to pack up, we disperse into the country night with a song on our lips. And in our hearts.

For those who aren’t familiar with Rise Up Singing, it’s a compilation of lyrics and chords to 1200 beloved songs, mostly from the United States and the British Isles but with a sprinkling from around Europe and Latin America. The contents are organized into a number of categories, such as Golden Oldies, Gospel, Home & Family, Rich & Poor, Hard Times & Blues, and Hope, and also indexed by first line, genre, and composer.

Most of the songs and most of the RUSH regulars are of the 1960’s and 1970’s-era folk revival and social movements, politically conscious and left of center. Annie Patterson and Peter Blood, the two compilers of Rise Up Singing, live just down the road from the library where we meet and were deeply inspired and influenced by Pete Seeger. (They are also Quakers, as are the founders of RUSH, but don’t wear their religious affiliation on their sleeves.) As such, Peter and Annie believe in singing as a collective activity, and travel the country and, indeed, the world helping to establish and encourage group sings in which there may be a coordinator, but every participant is equal and equally welcome. Our RUSH, one of many, is based on this model.

In the five years that I’ve been going to RUSH more or less every month, it has become something I count on. Contrary to the implications of its name, it is not an adrenaline-induced experience, but brings with it a quieter pleasure, thrilling nonetheless. There’s a certain calm and predictability about it that is deeply comforting. After a while one gets to know the tastes of each of the regulars, and to love them, even if they aren’t necessarily one’s own. (When they are, it’s a double delight.) One of us always requests Danny Boy or Loch Lomond, preferably both. Another loves Home on the Range, another the bleak Four Strong Winds, yet another anything by Phil Ochs. This Land is Your Land is a regular, along with anything by Woody Guthrie. Our fearless leader likes to bring us new songs he has picked up at the People’s Music Network or the Old Songs Festival, and another regular member likes to write new lyrics for old songs; for the most part, though, we sing a whole lot of Oldies. But when we really harmonize—now that‘s a rush.

Because most of us are of a certain age, people often request songs in memory of one of their parents or songs that evoke their own children’s childhoods. Waltzing with Bears is a favorite in this latter category (with a new verse by Joy written from Uncle Walter’s wife’s perspective), and Joni Mitchell’s nostalgic number, The Circle Game. Occasionally, very occasionally, some of our children or grandchildren come along, and the group is super-welcoming and deferential to their tastes. Still, despite the demographics of our group, the next generation is carrying on the tradition. There’s one young man, Matthew Vaughan, who has made it his personal mission to record and upload to YouTube a video of himself singing every single song from Rise Up Singing. You can find his playlist here.

RACoverwtext-resize-border-web_1For me, RUSH is a kind of homecoming. Even though I think I’m the only regular member who is an immigrant, I grew up with these songs, many of which I learned from my mother or from two books of American folksongs—one that I discovered in the summer of 1962 in Greece, another compiled by Peter Seeger and Alan Lomax that my mother gave me in 1969, the Christmas before we came to the United States. Then there were the songs I learned after coming to America, through the anti-war or anti-nuclear movements, or that were simply in the air while I was in high school, university, and in my twenties. There is always a part of me that wishes that we were more open to singing in different languages or that the selection was more international. Perversely, given that we are a group of folkies (of which I count myself one), I find myself wishing for more recent and raucous numbers, for more rock, punk, and Reggae. Some of the songs, like Oklahoma, date from an America before my time, and remind me that I am a bit of an outsider to this society. But in truth I find that I know and like more than 90 percent of all the songs we sing, and by now am as much of an insider as just about anyone in the group. Peter and Annie are now taking advance orders for a sequel, Rise Again, with 1200 new songs that do update and diversify the selection in Rise Up Singing. You can order it here.

Yesterday I took a solo trip to Maine and back to visit dear friends and family, driving nearly 500 miles in all (couldn’t resist rounding up so as to link to the song). I knew that it was a RUSH Saturday and was sorry to have to miss it, especially since I had missed last month’s RUSH as well, but some things can’t be helped. Besides, a road trip always brings a rush of its own, as one not only meets up with loved ones and drives through places that spark a rush of old memories, but encounters new people along the way. I find that even the tollbooth operators are a trip, and the workers and customers at the convenience stores where I stop for a quick cup of tea-to-go.

Mass-festival-signLast night, on my way back, when the Global Positioning System on my cell phone informed me that I would reach home by 9:23 pm, it occurred to me that I might be able to get back in time for the last round of songs at RUSH. If so, I would request Gordon Bok’s Isle au Haut Lullaby, doubly fitting because I would be Maine-returned and because people often choose lullabies as the evening draws to a close. But at the gas station in Leominster where I always stop to tank up on gasoline and caffeine, I was delayed because the kind store clerk refilled the milk dispenser for me (I can’t abide half-and-half in my tea) and because the young man ahead of me in the check-out line was in distress. His knee was all swollen up (he rolled up his sweatpants to show us) and he was awaiting the results of tests that would diagnose him with either Lyme Disease or rheumatoid arthritis. As I rushed out with my tea, I realized that my estimated time of arrival would now be closer to 10 pm and that I would most probably miss RUSH altogether. (To make matters worse, I found that the small amount of half-and-half I had already put in my tea before the clerk filled the dispenser must have been artificially flavored with hazelnut, and it tasted foul.) But I was determined not to speed, not least because I had had a close encounter with a moose on the same road less than a month earlier. Besides, I wanted to stay in the peaceful mood of my visit to Maine and honor the leisurely pace of RUSH.

As I neared the library, I saw cars leaving and my heart sank. Still, there was a handful of cars in the parking lot, so I drove up anyway. As I walked in, a little breathless, half a dozen of the organizers and diehard members were standing in a loose circle saying their goodbyes. They greeted me with surprise and when I explained that I’d just this moment driven back from Maine, they offered to sing one last song of my choice. Of course I asked for “Isle au Haut Lullaby” and before we all dispersed into the country night, they sweetly obliged. They were in no rush.

Isle au Haut Lullaby (Hay Ledge Song)
by Gordon Bok

If I could give you three things,
I would give you these:
Song and laughter and a wooden home
In the shining seas

When you see old Isle au Haut
Rising in the dawn,
You will play in yellow fields
In the morning sun.

Sleep where the moon is warm
And the moon is high.
Give sadness to the stars,
Sorrow to the sea.

Do you hear what the sails are saying
In the wind’s dark song?
Give sadness to the wind,
Blown alee and gone.

Sleep now, the moon is high,
And the wind blows cold;
For you are sad and young
And the sea is old.

If I could give you three things
I would give you these:
Song and laughter and a wooden home
In the shining sea.

© Folk-Legacy Records, Inc.

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244. A Chip off the Old Block? If Only.

In 1990s, 2010s, Family, Inter/Transnational, Music, parenting, people, Stories, women & gender, Words & phrases, Work on February 18, 2014 at 9:01 pm
Another Chip off the Old Block (Artist: Robert Deyber)

Another Chip off the Old Block (Artist: Robert Deyber)

Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied
That leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried.
—Merle Haggard

My dear mother has always had a preternaturally sensitive sense of smell, though now tempered somewhat by age. (She also has a keen sense of justice, but that’s another story.) I shall never forget her entering my kitchen one day, tilting her head slightly, nostrils twitching almost imperceptibly. She made a beeline for my fridge and, pulling the door open, drew forth an innocuous-looking cardboard carton and raised it to her nose. “Your milk’s gone off,” she announced.

Milk goes off easily in the tropics, but this was in temperate New England. Wherever in the world we have lived, Mum has always kept up her home, our home, to her exacting standards, clearing, cleaning, scouring fiercely. She has banished bric-a-brac and done battle with dirt as if life depended on it. Cleanliness has indeed been next to godliness for her, despite her being a lifelong agnostic.

When my husband and I moved into our current house, Mum was still working fulltime in Boston some 90 miles away, but announced that she planned to come out to visit on the very first weekend thereafter. Her intention, she said, was to scrub, sand, and repaint the baseboards and the risers of the staircase all the way from the front hall to the second-floor landing. The previous owners had laid new carpeting up the stairs, but had neglected to refinish them first, so it would be tricky to do the work after the fact. A painstaking job, and Mum was itching to take it on. But I stopped her, indignant. How dare she make plans for my house! I would determine what needed to be done and when, and that painting job, merely decorative in my book, was nowhere near the top of my To Do list.

The thing is, every single time I walk up my front stairs, I notice the grime on the baseboards and the chipped paint on the risers. I still haven’t got round to doing that job. If Mum had had her way it would have been done, and done well, that very first weekend, nearly a quarter of a century ago.



I have absorbed some of my mother’s sensitivity, but not so much of her drive and determination, often tending to drift and dream rather than simply getting on with it. As a young householder, I must have noticed the dust gathering along the tops of the baseboards, but until my mother was coming to visit I would be quite content to let it lie there undisturbed. Then I would fly into a whirlwind of activity, my eye falling on all the little details I routinely ignored with ease, but which she would spot the instant she stepped into the house, just as she detected that whiff of sourness exuded by the milk in my fridge.

Mum’s habits of cleanliness have lasted a lifetime and, to this day, she instinctively picks up a kitchen cloth or paper towel and wipes down the counters, sinks, and stovetop. Wherever she sees piles of papers, scattered crumbs or a jumble of odds and ends, she attempts to restore order, folding, sweeping, stacking them with care. I see these things too, the inevitable flotsam and jetsam of life, although I have become adept at sweeping them out of my mind’s eye. There they pile up, out of sight, but alas, since I am my mother’s daughter, not entirely out of mind. They continue to trouble me until eventually the disturbance is too great to ignore.

I think of Pete Seeger singing We Are Climbing Jacob’s LadderEvery rung goes higher, higher.  I am now nearly the same age that Mum was when she set her mind to repainting my stairway. It’s time, high time.

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243. On Making Things Up

In 1960s, history, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories, storytelling, Words & phrases, writing on February 7, 2014 at 5:27 pm
June Carter and Johnny Cash on Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest, 1966

June Carter and Johnny Cash on Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest, 1966

It’s amazing how quickly word usages change, and disturbing how many nuances of meaning are lost in the process. This was brought home to me the other day as I was watching (not for the first time) an episode of Pete Seeger’s short-lived but ground-breaking television show, Rainbow Quest (1965-66), the one in which he hosts June Carter and Johnny Cash. In it, Pete Seeger asks Johnny Cash to sing a couple of old songs, and a couple of songs that he “made up.” Somehow the wording sounded quaint, although I used it all the time in my childhood, as in

Q: Where did that poem come from?
A: I made it up.

A host today would be more likely to say, “Sing something you wrote/composed yourself.”

How and why, I ask myself, do I prefer the older usage? Perhaps most obviously, a singer may not have actually written the song, but simply set it to new music; or the other way around, s/he may have not have composed the tune, but rather, written new verses or come up with a new arrangement. So in these cases, it wouldn’t be accurate to say that s/he had written or composed it.  Furthermore, the word “writing” when applied to a song, which is made to be sung, places an unnecessary importance on the written word, whereas bards of old drew upon memory and repetition as well as their own inventiveness to teach and delight their audiences. In this sense even the contemporary compound word “singer-songwriter” does not quite succeed in conveying the spirit of the folk tradition that Pete Seeger sought to carry forward.

When one examines the verb “to make up,” one will notice that it isn’t the same as “to create,” which gives the distinct impression that something is being brought forth out of nothing, or at least, that something new is entering the world. By contrast, “to make up” makes a more modest claim: to form by fitting together or assembling or to prepare or arrange something. In this sense, making up a song is never creating something entirely new, but drawing upon a tradition and arranging into a new form something that has come before.

The first meaning of “to make up” suggests a different kind of creation: to invent an explanation for something, especially to avoid being punished or embarrassed. It is in this sense that a parent might suspect a child of making up a story to get out of trouble. The art of fiction involves making up in both of the above senses, requiring invention as well as the assembling or rearrangement of the various elements of the story and plot. This  is acknowledged in Albert Camus’ characterization of fiction as the lie through which we tell the truth.



The show in which Pete Seeger asked Johnny Cash to sing a song he had “made up” was aired in 1966, the very last of the 39 episodes of Rainbow Quest. The very next  year, in 1967, the French cultural critic Roland Barthes published his groundbreaking essay, The Death of the Author, in which he challenges the established concept of the Author as Creator-God and presents a perspective quite similar to Pete Seeger’s. In it he argues that, far from creating anything, the author is simply weaving threads into the vast web of words that have come before, and that to give him (Barthes does not entertain the idea of a female author) sole custody of the meaning of the text is not only limiting its multitude of possible meanings, but in fact, entirely wrong. For Barthes, author needs to be written with a lower-case, not capital ‘A’, and the idea of the “Author-God” needs to be demoted from Creator to “scriptor,” a mere node through whom words cross and combine.

Of course, Barthes was deliberately overstating the case to challenge Authority (and to demote it to a lower-case ‘a’ as well—it was the Sixties, after all!), but his point is nonetheless well taken. If, following Barthes, we think of an author as a compositor as well as a creator, the use of “makeup” in printing and design becomes clear, referring to the formatting of a printed page, which includes the layout of headers, footers, columns, page numbers, graphics, rules and borders. Especially in letterpress printing, the arranging and rearranging involved in makeup is not only a painstaking physical act, but also an exacting art.

form made up and set in chase ready for printing  (Wikimedia Commons)

form made up and set in chase ready for printing (Wikimedia Commons)

At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I think I’ll go back to using “making up” to describe the recombination of words (and tunes), and to reviving some of its other nuances of meaning before they become utterly archaic. The addition of a simple preposition to “make up” gives it a new meaning, as in “make up to” and “make up for.” Making up to someone is behaving in a friendly way toward them to gain some advantage for oneself. Adding the pronoun “it”, as in making it up to someone, suggests doing something good for them to make up for having done something bad earlier. The latter usage refers to compensating for an omission, failure, or deficiency. In this same sense, but without any preposition, to be reconciled with someone after a quarrel is, simply, to make up.



Makeup as a noun reveals the fascinating tendency of language, when examined closely, to mean one thing and its opposite simultaneously. A person’s makeup refers to abstract internal qualities—their physical, mental, and moral character. And yet makeup in its most commonly-used meaning today refers to those substances with which we cover our faces to conceal our physical imperfections, to make ourselves look different from—better than—the way we “really” are.

All of the above nuances of meaning come into play as I write these stories for Tell Me Another, whose very title suggests the slippery nature of story-telling. In the act of retelling them I am drawing upon the past, but also making things up, simply because memory is selective and subjective by nature. As I write I’m rearranging and reassembling my own experiences and those recounted to me by close friends and family members, and necessarily embellishing them in the telling—although still remaining faithful to their spirit and to my truth, I hope. There is bound to be a degree of self-justification in them, and a balancing of artistry and historical accuracy. They will suggest a great deal about my makeup—individual, cultural, generational—and, in a blog that is open to the public, they must wear a little makeup in the interests of privacy. As in the most skillful use of makeup, I hope that this does not serve merely to prettify the underlying truths, but rather to enhance their natural beauty.

Am I making up to you, Dear Reader, or making up for deficiencies real and imagined? I have no wish to plead or placate; but if ever I have offended, please, let’s kiss and make up.


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242. Gratitude

In history, Inter/Transnational, Music, people, Politics, Stories, United States on January 28, 2014 at 4:56 am


The sad news of Pete Seeger’s death came in just as I was drifting off to sleep and I could not just let it pass. So grateful for the life of this tireless champion of peace, justice, love, and the power of song. Here’s Pete back in 1956, teaching a crowd to sing his If I Had a Hammer in his inimitable way.  

It’s the hammer of justice
It’s the bell of freedom
It’s the song about love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land.

Here he is in 2009, teaching the audience some of the more subversive verses to Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, the song that would be the national anthem, if I had my druthers.


Looking back at my own life, Pete Seeger’s music runs through it like a rainbow thread, as I grew up to his songs long before I had ever heard his name. It was thanks to Pete Seeger that I learned most of my first American folk songs, thanks to Pete Seeger that I am inspired to join with others in song when everything looks bleak and hopeless, thanks in no small part to Pete Seeger that folk music has been alive and well this past half-century and more. Here he is leading the audience in This Little Light of Mine at the 50th anniversary of the Newport Folk Festival, which he helped to found.  He learned, sang, and championed the songs of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and so many more, from all over the world.

Looking back at Tell Me Another, I find his name invoked again and again, from some of the very earliest stories to the most recent one:

18. Songlines

64. Concert Collage

69. Wonders in the Woods

124. A Meditation on Money

241. People, Not Personalities

I had the good fortune to see him twice in concert. The first time was back in 1983, just as we were deciding to move to Winchendon, at an outdoor benefit concert he gave in neighboring Athol, Massachusetts, for workers who had been locked out of their factory. The second time was some fifteen years later, with Nikhil as a teenager, at the grand old Academy of Music in Northampton, Massachusetts. He was old now, singing with his grandson, returning to his musical roots. I think he sang Guantanamera, my father-in-law Ted’s favorite song, and—secular to the core though he was—his own version of Old Hundredth. But he was to keep on singing and keep on making history for another 15 years. Here he is not six months ago, in conversation with Amy Goodman after his 94th birthday and the death of his wife Toshi.

pete090504_250Here are Harry Belafonte and Arlo Guthrie honoring him back in 1996; and here he is, accepting that honor, for once at a loss for words.

Thank you, Pete Seeger: you are Forever Young.

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241. People, Not Personalities

In 1960s, 1970s, Britain, history, India, Inter/Transnational, Media, Music, people, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on January 25, 2014 at 9:04 pm
crowd at concert in Hyde Park, 7 June 1969 (

crowd at concert in Hyde Park, 7 June 1969 (

Something came to me with great force a couple of years ago, as I watched, for the first time, a video of the newly-formed blues/rock group, Blind Faith, performing in June, 1969 at a free concert in London’s Hyde Park. It is a beautiful sunny day, with ducks and boaters paddling lazily on the Serpentine, and a large, contented crowd encircling the stage, where the young band are playing and singing their hearts out. The song they are performing in the clip is In the Presence of the Lord, my favorite on what was to be their only album. I wasn’t to hear of Blind Faith until two years later, after we had moved to the States, by which time they had already dissolved. Just as short-lived as the band itself was the ethos of that halcyon summer’s day at the end of the Sixties, before the very different Rolling Stones concert in the park the following month, before Woodstock a month after that, before a cultural shift in the early Seventies that was soon to change everything. I see that cultural shift as inaugurating a new era of individualism and the cult of celebrity, exemplified by the founding of People.

cover, debut issue of People Weekly

cover, debut issue of People Weekly

Heavily financed and published by Time Inc., People Weekly, as it was originally called, made its debut on March 4, 1974 as a magazine of celebrity and human interest stories and was an instant success, soon turning a profit and leading the pack in advertising revenues. Richard Stolley, its founding managing editor, described the magazine as “getting back to the people who are causing the news and who are caught up in it, or deserve to be in it. Our focus is on people, not issues.” And therein lay both the secret of its success and its pernicious role in a conservative, consumerist societal shift, from issues to individuals, from We to Me, and—ironically, given its name—from people to personalities.

In my view, the best way to understand a phenomenon is to see it in a larger socio-historical frame. An individual, however influential, can only be part of the picture; there are always many, many, more people, organizations, and events that shape the times and produce that individual whose name comes to stand for them all. Take Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, for example, the Mahatma, or Great Soul, of the Indian nationalist movement against British colonial rule: a film like Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) makes him sole spokesman for the movement, and relegates other critical players to the background, whereas, in reality, millions of people and parties and interests and political tendencies came together to create the conditions for Independence.

Or take the example of Nelson Mandela, African National Congress activist, political prisoner under Apartheid, and President of post-Apartheid South Africa. From the fulsome retrospectives in the mass media after his recent death, someone with no knowledge of the history of the anti-apartheid struggle could easily come away with the idea that Mandela was a superhuman figure, personally responsible for the fall of apartheid. Certainly he was a great man who made a tremendous contribution and whose influence should not be minimized, but as an individual he can only ever be part of the story, and it was the people, the nation, and the times that created him as much as the other way around. When Mandela spoke in Boston after his release from 27 years of imprisonment, his remarks rarely included the word “I”—he was there as a representative of the African National Congress, to greet members of the anti-Apartheid movement in the United States and to gain support for his negotiations with the apartheid regime.

My students often confuse individuality with individualism, but in my view the two couldn’t be more different, one being key to our highest potential and the other being a disease that destroys creativity, community and independent thought. Individuals do matter and one person can make a tremendous difference. As Clapton writes in the song, “In the Presence of the Lord”:

Everybody knows the secret
Everybody knows the score

But ironically, the cult of the individual, like the cult of celebrity, makes individuals feel isolated and insignificant, and thereby disempowered. An old Monty Python skit, “Live Organ Transplants.” illustrates this point brilliantly. In The Galaxy Song, Eric Idle plays an expert who extols the wonder of the “amazing and expanding universe” to make an ordinary housewife feel small and insignificant by comparison. In the punchline, these feelings are immediately exploited by two strong-arm men who have come to take her liver for the lucrative organ trade.

Eric Idle and Terry Jones in "Live Organ Transplants" (

Eric Idle and Terry Jones in “Live Organ Transplants” (

Music and musicians have played an important role in popular movements that inspire individuals with the confidence to act in concert with others. Before the British-based blues revival (which produced Eric Clapton, John Mayall, and others) and rock-and-roll, came the folk music revival of the late 1950s to early 1960s. This movement was closely allied with the U.S. civil rights and peace movements, and Pete Seeger, Odetta, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, and so many others sought to promote the power of the people, not themselves as personalities. For me it is their spirit that counteracts the cult of celebrity exemplified by People magazine, Entertainment Tonight, and their ilk.

At a performance in 2005, Odette, at age 75, introduced her signature song, This Little Light of Mine, with the following quote from Marianne Williamson:

Our worst fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant gorgeous talented fabulous?” Actually who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us, it is in every one. And as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. 

“This Little Light of Mine” was also sung at Odetta’s memorial in 2009, and wherever the ninety-nine percent unite against the power of the one percent, as in this 2011 gathering at Occupy Wall Street attended by a 92-year-old Pete Seeger.

winwoodhyde2But I haven’t told you why that 1969 video of Blind Faith performing in Hyde Park struck me so forcefully as a message from a bygone era. It was because the very camera angles took in the crowd as a whole, the whole scene—musicans, stage, audience, boaters, ducks, even the blue sky with fluffy white clouds scudding across it—in dramatic contrast with the voyeuristic focus a similar video would have today on the two stars-in-the-making, Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton. Certainly the camera kept returning to the 21-year-old Steve Winwood, soloist and keyboard player, ericblindformerly of Traffic, singing like an angel, and the 23-year-old Eric Clapton, from the recently disbanded Cream and already a budding virtuoso blues guitarist (the other two band members were drummer Ginger Baker, also a member of Cream, and Ric Grech, previously the bass player for Family). While the band was certainly the subject of the video, the individuals in it are by no means its sole focus. It was only later, in retrospect, that Blind Faith was dubbed one of the first supergroups and Eric Clapton made into a rock-and-roll superstar (a reluctant one, by all accounts). In the 1969 video, he stands quite still, playing brilliantly but undemonstratively as always, the modest writer of the song. And Steve Winwood is singing beautifully, artlessly, simply smiling a little smile—no theatrics, none of the special effects that were to be required of every rock concert from the mid-Seventies on.

It is worth trying to remember, or, if you are too young to remember, then to imagine, what “people” were before People, and what people can be, if their power is not usurped by blind faith in the cult of personality.

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124. A Meditation on Money

In 2010s, Inter/Transnational, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Work on October 8, 2011 at 10:55 pm

The Almighty Dollar (photo:

I’ve always been clueless when it comes to money. The stuff has never gravitated toward me, perhaps because I’ve never really believed in it. One of the things that first attracted me to Andrew when we met in high school was a conversation in which we each revealed to the other our secret fantasy of a world without money. I was the inheritor of a belief, from my mother’s side, that people with lots of l.s.d. (pounds, shillings, and pence, not the psychedelic variety) were greedy and corrupt; and from my father’s side, that dealing with money was a dirty business which someone had to do, but preferably not people like us. As a result I set myself resolutely against even the most rudimentary knowledge of the medium of exchange said to make the world go round; and now, with old age just around the corner, I’m wishing that I had been less arrogant in my youth and more willing to learn how the system worked, even if it is true, as I have always suspected, that the whole edifice is nothing but a big confidence trick.

News with Attitude (

In college most of my classmates, no matter what their major, took  the year-long EC 10, the introduction to macro- and micro-economics that was said to be required for every educated man and woman. It was said that after one had taken EC 10 one would be able to read The Wall Street Journal. But young and stubborn as I was, I didn’t want to be contaminated by the system, and as a result the financial pages remain an alien language inaccessible to me. Every time Marketplace follows the news on National Public Radio during my commute home from work, I groan inwardly. Every time Kai Ryssdal says, “Let’s do the numbers,” I retort, “Let’s not,” and turn the volume all the way down. As a result, I am approaching retirement as a functional illiterate in financial matters. Silly me.

As soon as we started Whetstone Press in the early 1980s I was forced to revise my snobbish dismissal of the world of trade. I rapidly gained tremendous respect for the amount of effort and expertise required to run even the smallest business. Operating a business was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I was eventually forced to accept that I would never get the knack of it, never develop the knowhow to do it really well. I suppose that neither my upbringing, education, or temperament had prepared me for it.

As a child I knew that my family was neither wealthy nor impoverished, but I didn’t give money a second thought. My parents rarely talked about it, at least not in front of us children, and didn’t care much for material possessions. My father built all our furniture and my mother made all our food and most of our clothes from scratch. More often than not, when we asked for something for Christmas my father made it for us (as Father Christmas, of course). But for all their frugality when it came to consumer goods, they never skimped on food, books, education, or travel.

It wasn’t until I entered my teenage years that I started to covet those “must-have” fashionable clothes on which I knew my mother would never waste her hard-earned money and to which my meagre weekly pocket money would never stretch, matter how long I saved up. My diaries from 1969 and 1970 list the items I yearned for the most: in England, the soft woolen cloche and elegant Twiggy-slim maxi-coat that I had seen in Petticoat or Honey, teen magazines that advertised a lifestyle light-years away from my own reality but richly-inhabited in my imagination; and, after we moved to Brookline in the U.S., a hip-hugging pair of Landlubber jeans, either in denim or in elephant-grey corduroy, from George’s Folly in Coolidge Corner, which also carried Indian cotton-print bedspreads and velvety posters to be viewed under ultra-violet light. But I didn’t pine for long. My part-time summer job gave me enough spending money to buy the jeans, an occasional record album, and, on the weekends, my favorite anchovy pizza from Pino’s at Cleveland Circle. What more could one want?

Petticoat Magazine cover, May 1969 (from

Despite these small seductions of my teenage years, I inherited my parents’ priorities when it came to spending money. In my youth I bought the highest quality organically-grown food but rarely ate out; never held back when it came to buying books or concert tickets for a favorite band; and hardly ever bought new clothes or furniture, instead saving my money for plane fares to visit our family back in India and England. But compared to my parents I was extremely self-indulgent. My mother was shocked when I told her that Andrew and I had spent $7.50 each to see Bob Marley and the Wailers; and even by the time she and my father could have afforded to travel back every few years to England or India to see their family, the habit of thrift prevented them from spending so much money on mere personal happiness. This was a degree of self-denial I could not accept.

As the Occupy Wall Street movement grows and spreads, I find myself reflecting on the concept of currency as flow, as a medium of exchange with a universally agreed-upon value. As ignorant as I am on financial matters, I have come to believe that the economic crisis in the United States has sprung from two basic problems: the failure of money, goods, and services to flow freely and equitably through all segments of the society, and the loss of real value as a result of excessive speculation. Currency is dammed up as the greedy hoard it, and the whole system floods or stagnates. People no longer believe that right effort can produce right livelihood. And because, at its core, the system is indeed based on confidence, after a period of unnatural ballooning, the markets collapse.

Pete Seeger Album (

These ramblings on currency and value would be incomplete without some of the songs that have sounded out my own values over the years: Can’t Buy Me Love, one of my father’s favorite Beatles’ numbers; Greenback Dollar, which I first heard at my friend Preet Mander’s home in Gangtok nearly 45 years ago; Pete Seeger’s rendition of The Banks are Made of Marble, which could be the anthem of Occupy Wall Street:

But the banks are made of marble/with a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver/ that the people sweated for.

And finally, The Day the Dollar Die:

No more corruption, the day the dollar die
People will respect each other, the day that the dollar die.

Peter Tosh’s prophetic song returns me to high school and my utopian dream of a world without filthy lucre and mercenary greed, in which money no longer holds sway as the medium of exchange.

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69. Wonders in the Woods

In 1980s, Stories, United States on August 17, 2010 at 8:22 pm

photo from Moody’s Postcard Blog

Tucked into a corner of North-Central Massachusetts in the farthest reaches of Worcester County, Winchendon is rather like the Bermuda Triangle in its obscurity and extreme weather; people can vanish there. When we first moved out there from the Boston area in 1983, I was apprehensive about making friends and fitting in. In acreage, Winchendon is one of the largest towns in the state and probably one of the most wooded, but in population it is one of the smallest, and I was afraid that I would be entering a culturally homogeneous community where I would never be able to feel at home.

In some respects I was right, in that I soon found that only a native of Winchendon could ever really be seen to be from Winchendon; all others would forever be considered outsiders. With housing prices soaring in the Reagan years, Winchendon was fast becoming a bedroom community for people who worked in the Route 495 belt, Greater Boston’s outer ring road. For them, as for us, Winchendon was affordable. However, for Winchendon natives, this development was driving up housing prices to the extent that their own children would not be able to afford to live there, even supposing that they could find work in the area. It was only natural that they would be suspicious of us newcomers.

In the hope of being accepted more readily, I joined a local church choir and became a stringer for the town newspaper, writing news and feature stories. As a reporter it was permissible to call townspeople and ask them for personal interviews and they in turn had a pretext for inviting me into their homes. One of my projects—which soon put paid to my preconceptions of the town as culturally homogeneous—was a series of pieces on the different ethnic groups in Winchendon, starting with the Irish and followed by the French Canadians, the Finns, and the Cambodians. I remember a conversation with two of my readers, an outspoken middle-aged woman, who objected to the story about the French Canadians on the grounds that my main source was too critical of the mill owners, and her timid friend.

Woman: What gives her the right to speak? She isn’t even a native.

Timid friend: But my dear, her husband is a native, and she has lived in  Winchendon for 25 years, ever since her marriage.

Woman: But she was born in Holyoke!

Case closed.

Winchendon, along with nearby Athol, was an economically depressed community that had never recovered from the flight of Massachusetts-based industries to the South to avoid unions and fair wages for their workers. In fact, the first concert I attended in the area was a 1983 fund-raiser by Pete Seeger to benefit the workers locked out from an Athol factory. That factory never re-opened. Winchendon was still called Toytown, and had been known throughout the country in the 1900s for manufacturing wooden rocking horses, but that factory was long gone. Winchendon had been a big railroad junction, with trains stopping there en route to Boston, New York City, Albany, and Montreal. Sadly, by the 1980s, the old railroad tracks were being pulled up, and the commuter rail line from Boston stopped well short of Winchendon in Fitchburg, 20 miles to the East. A lone bus plying the route between Boston and Burlington, Vermont stopped there once a day, at the corner of Route 12 and Central Street, where the hitching posts of yesteryear still stood sturdily alongside the Johnny-come-lately parking meters.

As a newcomer myself, I was worried about becoming culturally isolated in Winchendon. But the first party Andrew and I were invited to, in the neighboring town of Royalston, was the ten-year anniversary celebration of a community of people who had moved out to the country in the early 1970s, reminding me that we were Johnny-come-latelies to the back-to-the-land movement; people had trod this path before us. I still remember finding my way back successfully from that party in the woods, driving down narrow, winding country roads with not one single street light all the whole way home.

Our next party, also held in the woods at night just a week or so later, was even more eye-opening. As I was picking my way round in the dark through a crowd of complete strangers, a figure loomed out of the shadows and introduced himself as Bill. I soon learned that Bill was on the verge of cracking the as-yet-unintelligible astronomical code of the Incas. When, in the course of the conversation, I mentioned that my father was Indian, he amazed me by breaking out into streetwise Hindustani, something I would have least expected in the wilds of North-Central Massachusetts. We would get to know Bill and his English wife Penny a little more over the next few years. She would order a wheel of Double Gloucester cheese from our preorder food co-op every month. And when he was not code-cracking, the multi-talented Bill was morris-dancing with a local troupe of merrie men who performed at the solstices and other pagan holidays.

But the biggest surprise at that party in the woods was yet to come. After Bill had drifted away, I thought I heard someone call my name. At first I disregarded it, assuming that I must be mistaken, since nobody there knew me, but the voice called out to me once again and I turned around to see Ginny, my sister’s contemporary and the younger daughter of a family whom my parents had first met in India when I was six months old. The father was Indian like mine, from the same part of the country and the same community, and the mother American, so that their children were half-Indian, as we were. I had played with Ginny’s elder brother Jimmy as a toddler, and then our families had lost touch for fifteen years; until, as a new immigrant to the U.S., my father had coincidentally spotted them crossing the street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, bringing their now-17-year-old son Jimmy to visit MIT. The second coincidence came some six years later on my sister Sally’s first day of freshman orientation at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. Somebody called our name, and we looked round to see this very family, our mysterious doubles, also bringing their younger daughter to her first day at Hampshire. Now here she was, some six years later still, inexplicably at the same party in the back of beyond. It turned out that she had moved to the town of Greenfield, some 20 miles further west, and had come with a friend who knew one of our hosts.

After that party, I no longer feared isolation in my new home. There were wonders hidden in the woods of Winchendon and its environs, the most fascinating people we could ever hope to meet. Today, almost exactly twenty years since we left Winchendon, some of them remain our dearest friends.

For another story about living in Winchendon, see

TMA 127. Going Up the Country

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18. Songlines

In 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories on March 12, 2010 at 12:36 pm

I have learned many of my favorite songs elsewhere—somewhere other than their place of origin. Songlines—an evocative concept from the indigenous people of Australia that came to me via Bruce Chatwin’s book of the same name (thank you, Stephen Clingman)—map not only local spaces, but criss-cross the planet, remapping it as they go. When I was a wakeful infant, my father would walk up and down with me, singing, Poppa Piccolino, an American version of an Italian pop song that was a hit in England at the time, and that he in turn adapted into a lullaby specially for me. (All over India they love our little Jojo, Papa Piccolino, naughty little Jojo…). In doing so,  he sang me not only to sleep but also, almost literally, into existence. As my mother sang Loch Lomond in Kharagpur while doing the housework, her love and longing for home infused itself into the song and into my soul. In Greece in the 1960s I learned Greek versions of the Hindi film songs that were wildly popular at the time (my father moonlighting by translating Hindi films into English to be further translated into Greek for subtitles). During our sojourn in England while I was a teenager, my mother gave me a book of American folk songs collected by Alan Lomax and introduced by Pete Seeger, so that I came to America already familiar with some of its folk traditions and in tune with the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s.

Early in 1971, while I was new to America and we were still in high school, Andrew took me out to The Boston Tea Party (not to be confused with the revolutionary movement—we’re not that old—or the current reactionary one). The Tea Party was a hole-in-the-wall music venue on Lansdowne Street near the Fenway, and it was there that I first had the opportunity to see and hear Doc Watson, still playing with his son Merle. Over the nearly forty years since that evening, Doc’s songs, along with John Prine’s, have sung America deep into me, perhaps more than anything else has done.


Both my maternal uncles Ted and Len loved folk music, and so on trips back to England I would often bring recordings of American folk artists for them, to each according to his tastes. On one visit, I brought Uncle Ted a Doc & Merle Watson LP (Ballads from Deep Gap, 1971), but I didn’t have a chance to listen to it with him or to learn how he liked it because I spend so little time in England. Years later he told me this story.

Uncle Ted is married to Aunt Mary, who emigrated to England from Ireland as a young woman, and for many years, Ted and Mary would travel across to Ireland to visit her family near the town of Clonmel in Tipperary County. In Ireland as in England, the pubs are the community centers, and in Ireland as recently as the 1980s and 1990s, people entertained themselves and each other not by hiring a performer or by playing the juke box, but by singing, each in turn round the tables. Uncle Ted loved the warmth of Mary’s multi-generational Irish family and community, and readily joined in the singing when his turn came. On one particular visit to Clonmel in the mid-1980s, he sang Roll in my Sweet Baby’s Arms, a Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs number from the Doc Watson album I had given him, and it was well received.

Several years later, Ted and Mary returned to the same pub in Clonmel to find a young man singing a tune that sounded strangely familiar. Ted soon realized that it was that song from the Doc Watson record, in a slightly different rendition. He asked the publican about the song and where it had come from, and received this reply:

“Funny you should ask: that song is new to these parts. No one knows where it’s from, but people started singing it about five years back, and now it’s quite popular round here.”

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