The last few months, while we’ve all been sheltering-in-place, I have been teaching my grandniece and grandnephew some painting and music lessons. We live about 3,000 miles apart, so, these wonderful Sunday events are brought courtesy of phones, meeting software, and social media – anything that can help us keep a connection. Recently, we sang old folksongs together – some by Woody Guthrie and others traditional. The children are very young – for them they are sweet songs, they don’t yet know the stories behind them.
When I was their age I began to learn to play the guitar and sing. A few years later, when I was about eleven I discovered the great song collector and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. At my music teacher’s shop there was a big thick book of more than 600 pages that fascinated me. It was Lomax’s 1960 Folk Songs of North America: In the English Language that included the melodies and guitar chords transcribed by Peggy Seeger, sister of the beloved folk singer Pete Seeger. Somehow I scraped the money together, and about a year later, I bought this treasure chest representing all regions of the United States, song stories about sailors, farmers, pioneers, railroaders, hoboes, dam builders, cowboys, folks in good times and folks in bad times, and singing the stories taken from the countries of immigrants transplanted to this new country, many from the British Isles. The book includes a section called The Negro South where spirituals, work songs, ballads, and the blues are archived. In the 1960s it was a victory to say that African-Americans had a history, had a part in the American Story. A generation ago that was a step towards the light yet, as I opened the book to prepare for teaching my grand ones a few things about folk songs, the label used for the collection of African-American songs hit me hard. The framework is dated. It is a record documenting that era, but how do I tell little children about the pain and suffering that comes from the racism, which is the source of some of these songs? How do you tell that story? What do they need to know? As a historian and archivist, I understand and appreciate the book’s artifactual value, but from the perspective of an uninformed reader, without any context, I wonder. History is complex; when and how do you introduce the complexities? Some fifty years later, that book has traveled with me across the country and across my many paths. It’s been a constant in my life; and as I grew the music taught me empathy and I began to learn about the complexities. It opened the door to so much wonderful music – music I’ve played and sung, and music I’ve listened to and helped me become an archivist and historian. It put me on the path to discover the stories behind the songs. The book is a catalog of our roots, Americana, a music visited by many artists during the 1960s ranging from Peter, Paul, and Mary to Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones to the Grateful Dead, and more recently by musicians such as Dave Alvin and Tony Dubovsky. That wonderful big black book and the stories it tells has played an important part in my life. And perhaps that is what I tell my grandniece and grandnephew; learn the truth about what was and with empathy be part of writing the new story and writing their new song.
Big Bill Broonzy (1903-1958) was an American blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist, who wrote and copyrighted more than 300 songs – some of his songs are included in the Folk Songs of North America. The Smithsonian Folkways Recordings also captured Mr. Broonzy singing both some of his songs and traditional songs like Trouble in Mind, C.C. Rider, and Midnight Special. On late nights, I love listening to Mr. Broonzy then turning around and trying to play his songs myself. I do OK on the singing, but he was a master guitarist, so I just try to get the rhythm guitar going. Born in Mississippi, he worked as a sharecropper, preacher, soldier in World War I, and later, after moving to Chicago as a Pullman Porter, a foundry worker. But through it all, there was always the music he wrote, played and recorded including folk songs, spirituals, country blues, urban blues, and some jazz. His voice is authentic, it is strong, it is ironic, it is sad, it is angry, it is wise, it is brilliant, and it is beautiful.
One of Mr. Broonzy’s most poignant blues compositions is the Black, Brown, and White Blues. It’s a song about the relentless Jim Crow…it always finds some place to roost. Mr. Broonzy “had written this protest song, which addressed the experiences of black war vets and the painful issue of preferential treatment by gradations of skin color, in 1945 and had offered it to RCA Victor, Columbia, Decca and several of the newly formed independent record companies, but none of them wanted to record it. As a result Mr. Broonzy had to wait until 1951 before he could record the song commercially in Europe for a white and overseas audience. In the US it took until after his death in 1958 to be released and was titled Get Back.” Relentless. I share the lyrics below. The Reverend Dr. Joseph Lowery giving the benediction paraphrased the song at the 2009 inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama stating “we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.”
And here we are in May 2020, and once again we are a nation pushing the contours of its historic founding documents, hoping that those long cotton threads are strong and flexible. We are engaged in a mighty struggle. What vision of America will triumph: the fearful authoritarian contraction or the confident democratic expansion? Will our Bill of Rights be torn to pieces as we fight oppression with our questions, our demands, and our protest? Taking inspiration from Dr. Lowery, it is a good time to write and sing a new song about these struggles. The new song will be righteous, like Bill Broonzy’s, but it will sing a story about the struggle for justice and a vision of political power, economic opportunity, and respect for all.
Last Friday September 18, 2019, young people on every continent took to the streets, a student global strike protesting climate change, marching with signs reading “Save Nature, Save Earth, Save Future” and “Plastic Waste is an Economic Flaw” and chanting “You had a future and so should we…[and] we vote next.”
Only the day before Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg addressed the House of Representatives Joint Committee to submit the landmark IPCC report (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). “I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists,” Thunberg told the US lawmakers. “I want you to unite behind the science and I want you to take real action.” 
Afterwards, Thunberg addressed supporters in the grand committee room stating
“the USA is the biggest carbon polluter in history,” she told the audience. “It is also the world’s number one producer of oil. It is also the only nation to signal its intention to leave the Paris climate agreement because it was ‘a bad deal’.”
Speaking softly, she modulated her voice slightly to make clear she was quoting, disapprovingly, [President]Trump with the words “a bad deal”.
Thunberg invoked Martin Luther King’s struggle for civil rights and John F Kennedy’s goals that included landing a man on the moon – “not because they are easy, but because they are hard”, – to plead with Washington to lead in the fight, even if it seems impossible. “Giving up can never be an option,” she said.
Talking about her new book On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New DealNaomi Klein quoted Greta Thunberg “We cannot solve an emergency without treating it like an emergency.” We have to “act as if the house is on fire, because it is.” “That does not mean we simply need a New Deal painted green, or a Marshall Plan with solar panels. We need changes of a different quality and character. A new vision of what humanity can be is emerging. It is coming from the streets, from the schools, from workplaces, and even from inside houses of government. When the future of life is at stake, there is nothing we cannot achieve.”
If the sound of a Shofar can be heard during WWII at Auschwitz, then surely each of us can act to preserve our world and what we cherish, and become a mensch…worthy of the humanity in the phrase ‘human being”.
Mt. Olson (sketch & photograph). Robin L. Chandler, 2019.
We backpacked into Lundy Canyon through the Hoover Wilderness making our way ‘cross a beautiful land whose natural history emerged with every step: granite uplifted and scoured by glaciers leaving tarns and lakes; sleeping cinder cones, and magma flows now still. Bald eagles soar, coyotes howl, and trout leap high all searching for nourishment. Seeking only what they need to live; nothing more, and nothing less. Carrying this heavy pack, on a pilgrimage of sorts, I seek that which will nourish me too. Ruach: Breath. Omoiyari: Compassion. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit.” 
Mt. Connesa (sketch and photograph). Robin L. Chandler, 2019.
Along with my tent, sleeping bag, stove, water filter, and food (all to nourish my body), I’ve also packed the book by Yuri HerreraSigns Preceding the End of the World. Soon we will stop for lunch and rest and we will take turns reading this important book beside a lake in this beautiful place at the end of the world we know and the powerful words will resonate and humble us – we, those privileged (and blessed) to have what we need to live:
“first there was nothing…nothing but a frayed strip of cement over the white earth. Then she made out two mountains colliding in the back of beyond: like they’d come from who knows where and were headed to anyone’s guess but had come together at that intense point in the nothingness and insisted on crashing noisily against each other, though the oblivious might think they simply stood there in silence…then off in the distance she glimpsed a tree and beneath the tree a pregnant woman. She saw her belly before her legs or her face or her hair and saw she was resting there in the shade of the tree. And she thought, if that was any sort of omen it was a good tone: a country where a woman with child walking through the desert just lies right down to let her baby grow, unconcerned about anything else. But as they approached she discerned the features of this person who was no woman, nor was that belly full with child: it was some poor wretch swollen with putrefaction.”
Borders deserve respect, but respect for asylum and respect for due process is deserved too. Danger lurks when we label others; people are not labels, they are human beings deserving dignity and respect. Human rights cannot be merely an abstraction, they must be the values by which we truly live every day. Human rights must be our primary colors; human rights cannot be whitewash. “The history of the Holocaust is not over. Its precedent is eternal, and its lessons have not yet been learned.”
Taos, New Mexico is a beautiful place. Imagine a warm summer evening sitting by a creek that rolls quietly to the river Rio Grande; you feel the magic of water in the desert. Water grants life; renews life. So precious is a life. My mind’s eye travels miles in seconds. Looking down from the bridge that crosses the narrow Rio Grande gorge, I toss a pinyon branch and I watch it travel through the canyon by the pueblos on it’s journey to Santa Fe; and then at Albuquerque where the river flattens and widens and water birds play along the shore; and on past El Paso where the river becomes the border between Texas and Mexico – a shallow river – a place of crossings for wild things – those beings naturally wild, we call free and others made wild by violence and fear, tired, poor and hungry seeking relief and asylum. Precious lives. There is no need for brick and mortar; we have built a wall of fear. An informative article in the April 23, 2018 New Yorker “A Voyage Along Trump’s Wall” sought to inspire discussion; discussion and compromise all seem so romantic now as we enter this the latest chapter of shock and awe.
Blessed am I able to freely sit and breathe and feel the special magic of a place. On this solstice day may the light shine and illuminate our way.
Happened upon the new Ry Cooder recording The Prodigal Son. It’s a good one. Keep thinking of the lyrics of his song Jesus and Woody inspired by Woody Guthrie’s song Jesus Christwhere Woody (writing in 1940) speculates modern capitalist society would kill Jesus too. Listen to Woody sing here on YouTube. Ry’s lyrics – singing from Jesus’ perspective – stick with me:
“so sing me a song ‘bout this land is your land’
and fascists bound to lose
you were a dreamer, Mr. Guthrie, and I was a dreamer too…..”
The Tang Dynasty’s Wang Wei is revered in China as a poet, painter, and practitioner of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism. And for good reason when you read and savor Wang Wei’s work. Wei is considered to be the first Chinese painter to capture the inner spirit of the landscape, originating the mountains-and-rivers tradition beloved by the Buddhist poet Gary Snyder. In his book Mountain Home, David Hinton writes “Wang Wei’s poetry is especially celebrated for the way he could make himself disappear into a landscape, and so dwell as belonging utterly to China’s wilderness cosmology. In Ch’an practice, the self and the constructions of the world dissolve until nothing remains but empty mind or “no-mind.”
A few weeks ago, I travelled with the best companions, reaching the Eastern Sierra and our campground at Convict Lake, after many hours of driving. During our respite, we visited Hot Creek, Long Valley Caldera, Mammoth Mountain, Minaret Summit, and Mono Lake. Walking or sitting amongst the beauty, we were emptied and replenished reaching an awakening, if not the hoped for enlightenment. Wang Wei’s poetry came to mind as I reached for and drank deeply from the cup of friendship and nature. In the Mountains, Sent to Ch’an Brothers and Sisters Wei wrote:
How can I reach others and help them see that for the first time in humankind’s existence – a time now considered the Anthropocene – our actions are raising the temperature of the heavens, the oceans, and the land and thereby changing the fate of all creatures inhabiting these spheres. We must understand the actions we take today impact future generations. And we must understand that human consciousness is formed by our relationship to the sky, the seas and the land: the sky our infinite possibilities, the sea our mystery and the earth our enduring home. What will our consciousness become if the heavens, the oceans and the land are irrevocably changed? What if the air is too dirty to breathe? What if water is a scarce commodity? What if the land is stripped bare and emptied of the creatures with which we currently share this planet? What will it all mean? “We simply need wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to it’s edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves, of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”