Thursday, January 30, 2014

That Nice Beatle Gets Mad and Writes a Song

Affable Paul McCartney was always the nice Beatle, the one with the boyish smile and easy disposition.  Not much into politics or causes.  That was John’s thing.  One of the most gifted and prolific song writers of all time, he specialized in catchy melodies and memorable hooks.  His lyrics were simple and straightforward.  The deep stuff, well, that was mostly John, too.  As he would put in the song for his new band Wings, “Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs.  And what’s wrong with that?”
But on January 30, 1972 Paul got mad.  Really mad.  Mad enough to write a song.
That morning he heard shocking news from Belfast, Northern Island.  Members of a unit of elite paratroopers had opened fire on unarmed and peaceful demonstration against detention without trial.  13 were killed outright and dozens wounded.
Authorities had decided to allow the march within Catholic Derry but to prevent it from entering Guildhall Square.  The First Battalion of the Parachute Regiment (1 Para) was sent to the scene with specific orders to block the march at that point with force, if necessary.
Leaders decided not to challenge the troops, diverting the main march to Free Derry Corner, where they were assured they would be safe from attack.  A small number of local youth, however, broke from the main march and continued to Guildhall Square, pelting an Army Barracks with stones and taunting troops. Water cannon, tear gas, and rubber bullets were deployed, but two rioters were shot and wounded by live ammunition.
At 4 PM, responding to unfounded rumors of an IRA sniper, the Paras were ordered to enter the Bogside district where the peaceful marchers were still assembled. An order was given to fire live rounds.  17 year old Jackie Duddy was shot next to a Roman Catholic Priest as both fled from the troops.  Orders were given to continue to pursue demonstrators at the edge of Free Derry Square.  Troops opened up with indiscriminate fire and continued to shoot even after receiving direct orders to stop.  Twelve more, all unarmed, were killed while fleeing or while attempting to aid those who had fallen.  At least one was shot and killed while waving a white handkerchief and going to the aid of a fallen boy.  Another was shot and injured then executed by a close range shot to the head as he pleaded that he had lost feeling in his legs.  14 others were shot, one of whom, shot at some distance from the main action and not even involved, died months later.  Two demonstrators were run over and seriously maimed by armored personnel carriers. No British soldier was wounded by gunfire or reported any injuries.
Bloody Sunday, as it came to be known changed everything.  Any chance at peaceful change through non-violent protest was out the window.  Radicalized youth flocked to the militant Provisional IRA (Provos) who stepped up their own military campaign against the Army.
Of course that day McCartney didn’t know all of the details.  But he did know that many young men, a lot of them with shaggy dark hair, shod in Beatle boots, and wearing thin coats styled after the now passé—in Britain—Mod look that the Fab Four had popularized, could have been him.
Like so many Liverpudlians, McCartney was of Irish descent.  His mother was an Irish Catholic, his father a lapsed Protestant.  While baptized Catholic, he was sent to secular schools, not parochial ones, and brought up in a household in which religion played a minor role.  But he knew that no matter how deep his family’s roots in England might be, he would always be a bog hopper to many.
After watching BBC coverage of the event, an angry, passionate McCartney set down and in less than two hours banged out the lyrics and picked out a tune on the piano.  His wife, Linda, was by his side.  He would share writing credit for the song with her.  It was the same arrangement he had with his former writing partner, John Lennon.  And just as some Lennon and McCartney songs were totally his own work, so was the song he called Give Ireland Back to the Irish.
That night he called his mates in his new band Wings to meet him at Island Studios in London’s Notting Hill on February 1, in just two days.  For Irish guitarist Henry McCullough it was his first recording session with the band.  With his usual meticulous attention to detail, McCartney arranged to have a crew on hand to film and document the band as it learned and rehearsed the song.  In a little more than two hours, two tracks were laid down—vocal and an instrumental versions of the song.
McCartney was adamant about rushing the record to release as a single.  When word of his plans reached the ears of executives at his record label, all hell broke loose.  McCartney would later recall:
From our point of view it was the first time people questioned what we were doing in Ireland. It was so shocking. I wrote Give Ireland Back to the Irish, we recorded it and I was promptly phoned by the Chairman of EMI [Wings’ record label], Sir Joseph Lockwood, explaining that they wouldn’t release it. He thought it was too inflammatory. I told him that I felt strongly about it and they had to release it. He said, “Well it’ll be banned”, and of course it was. I knew Give Ireland Back to the Irish wasn’t an easy route, but it just seemed to me to be the time. All of us in Wings felt the same about it. But Henry McCullough’s brother who lived in Northern Ireland was beaten up because of it. The thugs found out that Henry was in Wings.
Lockwood, of course, could not afford to alienate his label biggest asset.  The records were pressed and shipped, complete with provocative shamrocks adorning the yellow label.  The single was released with the vocal version on the A side and the instrumental on the B on February 25 in the United Kingdom and Ireland and three days later in the US. 
As predicted it was banned.  Every effort was made to suppress any knowledge of it. It was banned by the BBC, Radio Luxembourg and the Independent Television Authority. On the BBC Radio 1 hit parade show Pick of the Pops, Alan Freeman had to refer to it as “a record by the group Wings.” McCartney and Wings were denounced in thundering newspaper editorials and in the House of Commons.  McCartney, the former darling of the press, was suddenly a pariah, at least among the Tory establishment and many “patriotic” ordinary Britons.
McCartney told friends, “I’ll never be a knight now.”  He was eventually knighted by Queen Elizabeth more than two decades later in 1995 after many lesser pop musicians were elevated ahead of him.  Even then there was a minor furor among Tories at the honor.
Despite the bans, folks in Britain could hear the song on broadcasts from the Irish Republic and the continent.  And, as always, the lure of the banned drew thousands to record shops to snap up the discs.  Despite the ban Give Ireland Back to the Irish climbed to # 16 on the UK Singles Chart, and # 21 in the US Billboard Hot 100.  Quite naturally it soared to the top of the Irish charts and sat there for a while.
Did McCartney’s uncharacteristic protest change anything?  Who knows?  But in fact public opinion in Britain slowly changed, even though the bloody IRA bombing campaign that followed which hardened many hearts against the Irish.  When the facts about Bloody Sunday slowly emerged the consensus was that it was not only a tragedy, but an unmitigated disaster.  It took decades but eventually the Accords guaranteeing minority Catholic rights and the disarmament of both the IRA and Protestant paramilitaries resulted in a sometimes still uneasy peace in a war weary nation.  The Army was withdrawn. 
Anyway, here is what Paul McCartney wrote that day in his righteous anger.

Give Ireland back to the Irish
Don’t make them have to take it away
Give Ireland back to the Irish
Make Ireland Irish today

Great Britain you are tremendous
And nobody knows like me
But really what are you doin’
In the land across the sea

Tell me how would you like it
If on your way to work
You were stopped by Irish soldiers
Would you lie down do nothing
Would you give in, or go berserk

Give Ireland back to the Irish
Don’t make them have to take it away
Give Ireland back to the Irish
Make Ireland Irish today

Great Britain and all the people
Say that all people must be free
Meanwhile back in Ireland
There’s a man who looks like me

And he dreams of god and country
And he’s feeling really bad
And he’s sitting in a prison
Should he lie down do nothing
Should give in or go mad

Give Ireland back to the Irish
Don’t make them have to take it away
Give Ireland back to the Irish
Make Ireland Irish today

Give Ireland back to the Irish
Don’t make them have to take it away
Give Ireland back to the Irish
Make Ireland Irish today.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Chesapeake & Ohio Strike—Andy Jackson’s First Call for Troops

School children in the early 20th Century prepare to take a field trip on a Chesepeake & Ohio Canal barge.

It had been George Washington’s dream first.  And a big one.  Decades later it seemed that despite enormous obstacles, it was finally coming to pass.  But on January 29, 1834 the hundreds of immigrant Irish, Dutch, German laborers downed their picks and shovels in protest to the brutal conditions of hewing the ditch by hand from the stony soil of Virginia (now West Virginia) from first light to the descending gloaming seven days a week.  Blacks were also on the job—mostly slaves contracted from local plantations—but whether they joined the impromptu strike is unclear.  Slave or free all were ill clothed and given little more than a single thin blanket in the brutal winter weather.  Wages—for those who got paid at all—were less than a dollar a day and the use of tools and such were charged to the workers. Supervisors and foremen on the job were roughed up and some Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company property was damaged. 
The company claimed insurrection and riot and appealed for aid.  In Washington, DC the crusty and volatile President Andrew Jackson wasted no time in ordering Federal Troops to suppress the “rebellion.”  It was the first time the Army was ever called upon to suppress a strike.  It would not be the last.
When they arrived on the scene the smartly dressed Army Regulars had no trouble putting down the strike by men armed only with stones and brickbats.  It is unclear if shots were fired or the flash of bayonets was sufficient to disperse the strikers, who had no organization or union.  A few identified “leaders” were arrested, others fled.  Most of the men sullenly went back to work under armed guard.  It is presumed that any slaves who participated where much more brutally handled by their owners or overseers with the lash.
It all began before the Revolution.  Virginia planter, surveyor, and militia officer Col. George Washington had vast land claims in the Ohio wilderness which he dreamed of filling with settlers on 99 year leases to the land that he owned.  But besides persistent hostility by Native American nations, and the British policy confining legal settlement to the east of the Allegany Mountains, the biggest obstacle to making those dreams come true was the near geographic impossibility of easy access to and from the land.  Those mountains divided the watersheds of the Ohio and Potomac rivers and provided a rugged barrier to even land access.
Washington wanted to build canals, complete with locks to raise boats to higher and higher elevations to circumvent and push past the rapids which were the navigable limits of the Potomac.  In 1772 he received a Charter from the Colony of Virginia to survey possible routes.  But before work could progress beyond the planning stage, the Revolution intervened and Washington was occupied elsewhere.
But he never forgot the pet project.   Back home at Mount Vernon in 1785 Washington formed the Patowmack Company in. The Company built short connecting canals along the Maryland and Virginia shorelines of Chesapeake Bay.  The lock systems at Little Falls, Maryland, and Great Falls, Virginia, were innovative in concept and construction. Washington himself sometimes visited construction sites and supervised the dangerous work of removing earth and boulders by manual labor himself.
Now confident that his scheme would work, Washington began to plan more inland sections.  A call to another job—as President of the United States—interrupted his plans, but he looked forward to resuming work in retirement.
Unfortunately that retirement did not last long and when the great man died in 1799, the Patowmack Company folded.
Almost 25 years later, in 1823 Virginia and Maryland planters began to fret that the Erie Canal, which was nearing completion in upstate New York would leave their region far behind in economic growth as all or most of the production from the rapidly growing states north of the Ohio would be funneled to the Great Lakes, and via the Canal and Hudson River to New York City.  They organized and got chartered the new Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company.
Five years later in1828 Yankee born President John Quincy Adams, probably with some qualms about the possible effect on the westward spread of slavery, ceremonially turned the first spade of earth.
Progress was slow and arduous as the canal ran parallel to the Potomac.  There had been other sporadic work stoppages.   Difficulties in the era of repeated financial panics also interrupted work.  Then there was bad weather, the increasingly difficult terrain, and even a cholera epidemic.  In late 1822 the ditch finally reached the critical river port of Harpers Ferry.  Workers were pushing on to Williamsport when the trouble broke out.
Work continued with more interruptions and a lawsuit between the Canal Company and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad about a right of way to cross from the Virginia to the Maryland side of the river also complicated matters. 
In 1850 the canal finally reached Columbia, Maryland far short of the goal of connecting with the Ohio.  But by that time the rapid spread of railroads, particularly the B&O, had rendered completing the project obsolete.  Washington’s grand canal never got any further.
But the existing ditch was still useful.  Boats, originally romantically named gondolas later barges, used the water way until it finally went out of business in 1924.
Today you can visit the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park and hike along the tow path.
The bloody tradition of using Federal troops as strike breakers out lived the canal.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

As Woody Would Have Said, “So Long, Pete, It’s Been Good to Know Ya”

Pete singing at a voting rights rally in Mississippi.  Always on the front lines of Justice.

The sad, but not unexpected news, that Pete Seeger finally took his last breath yesterday at age 94 brings up a well of emotions.   But not tears.  Last thing Pete would want.  Pride mostly, and unending gratitude for a life lived very well indeed.  When he died Pete was probably the most beloved American—unless you were among those who were the targets of his loving outrage.
Pete Seeger was born in New York City on May 3, 1919.  His father, Charles Seeger, was a noted musicologist.  Both of his parents taught at Julliard School of Music.  The whole family was musical.  His younger half siblings Peggy and Mike, born to his father’s second marriage, also became noted folk musicians inspired by travels with their father on music collecting trips to the rural south. 
On one of those trips young Pete first heard and was enthralled with the sound of the five string banjo. By the time he was 16 and a student at Avon Old Farms private prep school in Connecticut he was playing the instrument in jazz combos. 
Seeger began studies at Harvard, where he founded a radical newspaper and joined the Young Communist League.   But in 1938 at the age of 19 he took a job as an assistant to Library of Congress folk archivist Alan Lomax, a close friend of the family, on one of his song collecting forays through the South.  The recordings made on that trip included some of the most influential ever made.  Seeger helped record Huddy LedbetterLeadbelly.
He moved to New York City in 1939 and was introduced by Lomax to a circle of folk musicians and activists clustered around Greenwich Village.  He adopted the claw-hammer banjo style he heard at mountain barn dances.  He dropped out of school and was soon performing many of the songs he had learned with Lomax as he bummed around the country.
In 1940 he met Woody Guthrie, the singing Oklahoma exile who had become a popular California radio performer, when they sang together at a benefit for migrant farm workers. The experience electrified Seeger.  He now knew with certainty what he wanted to do with his life.  The two became close friends and sometime performing partners.    He sang and played in saloons, churches, and, most of all, in union halls. 
Back in 1940 he formed the highly political Almanac Singers, who became troubadours of the labor movement and of radical causes.  The group was more like a large collective of singers who performed together in various settings and combination.  The core included Millard Lampell, Lee Hays and Sis Cunningham In 1941 his old friend Woody Guthrie joined the group.  Others who participated in the group at one time or another included Lomax’s sister Bess Lomax Hawes, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Cisco Huston, and Burl Ives among others.
Following Pete’s natural inclination toward pacifism and the Communist Party’s opposition to American entry into World War II prior to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, the group released a three disc, six song 78 rpm album called Songs for John Doe.  Singing on the record were Seeger, Lampell, Josh White, and Sam Gary. 
Less than a month after the record was released, the invasion of Russia changed everything, rendering the songs obsolete and an embarrassment as the Party and singers rapidly changed gears.
A second album, Talking Union was released in the summer of 1941 and featured the labor songs that members of the group had been singing in union halls and on picket lines for the previous two years.  The album included now classic union songs—Talking Union Blues, Get Thee Behind Me, Satan, Guthrie’s Union Maid, and Florence Reece’s coal mine strike song Which Side Are You On?  This time out Hays joined Seeger and Lampell in the lineup. 
A third and final album, Deep Sea Chanteys and Whaling Ballads came out later that year, this time with Guthrie also singing.
Despite an already developed pacifist streak, Seeger shared Guthrie’s fierce anti-fascism—Guthrie’s guitar case had a sign on it, “This machine kills fascists.”  When the U.S. joined the war, the Almanac Singers broke up and Seeger, who had protested the Selective Service Act, was drafted and willingly entered the Army.  He spent his war in G.I. entertainment shows.
While in the Army in 1943 Seeger wed Toshi-Aline Ohta, the daughter of an exiled Japanese Marxist and American mother who he knew from his days in Greenwich Village.  The couple’s legendarily close and supportive marriage lasted nearly 70 years until her death last year.
Seeger quit his membership in the Communist Party in the late ‘40’s and after the revelations of the worst of Stalin’s crimes later said he regretted not having done it earlier.  But he refused to apologize for it and said that he remained a “communist with a small c.”
Back home after the war Seeger resumed his career as an itinerant folk musician and activist.  In 1948 he joined with his former Almanac Singer partner Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman to form a new group, The Weavers.  In between performing for 1948 third party presidential candidate Henry Wallace, the Weavers quickly became a popular touring and recording group.  They popularized songs like On Top of Old Smokey, Kisses Sweeter than Wine, and Seeger’s version of a South African song, Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight).  By 1950 they were radio regulars and were called America’s favorite singing group.  No less a folk music aficionado than Carl Sandburg said, “When I hear America Singing, the Weavers are there.”  In 1950 they made a number one hit record with their version of Ledbelly’s Goodnight Irene. 
The same year Seeger made his first solo record, a 10 inch album called Darling Corey, one of the first releases on the seminal Folkways label.  The Weavers’s popularity continued to grow with television appearances.  A Christmas Eve 1955 Carnegie Hall concert featuring the Weavers was regarded by many as the beginning of the folk music revival of the late Fifties and early Sixties. 
But trouble lay ahead.  Called before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee Seeger asserted his Fifth Amendment rights and scolded the committee for trying to outlaw political thought and speech.  The defiance made national headlines.  Seeger was a hero to many, but the Weavers were blacklisted from radio and television, lost their Decca recording contract, and saw concert dates cancelled across the country. 
Worse, in 1957, Seeger was indicted on ten counts of contempt of Congress.  The case dragged on for years.  He was convicted on all counts and sentenced to ten concurrent one-year prison sentences.  The convictions were overturned on appeal in 1961. 
In the meantime the stress caused the Weavers to break up and Seeger struggled to make a living as a solo.  But times and attitudes were changing. The Kingston Trio picked up Seeger’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone? In 1961, even before his conviction was overturned his old friend, the legendary producer John Hammond, signed Seeger to a Columbia Records contract and released his first record on the label, Story Songs. 
Seeger was still banned from commercial television however.  Hootenanny refused to book him causing the show to be boycotted by Bob Dylan, Baez, PP&M, and other top acts.  But in 1965 and ‘66 Seeger made the series Rainbow Quest at WNJU-T, a New York UHF station broadcasting mostly Spanish language programing.  Few people saw the first run, which was virtually directed by Toshi.  Pete and a guest would sit on straight back chairs by a simple table and swap songs and stories without a studio audience.  Guests included many old friends like Baez and the likes of Johnny Cash, Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, The Stanley Brothers, Elizabeth Cotten, Patrick Sky, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, Donovan, Richard Fariña and Mimi Fariña, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.  Some years later PBS picked up the 39 shows for syndication on their affiliates.
The Smother’s Brothers famously broke the network TV ban when they booked Seeger.  His first song was broadcast, but the second, his searing indictment of the Vietnam War Waist Deep in the Big Muddy was cut by censors.  After a confrontation with the series stars, CBS relented and let Seeger perform the song on a subsequent program.  But the controversy helped doom the popular TV show.
The folk music revival was in full swing and so was the civil rights movement.  Seeger was often on the picket lines throughout the South.  In June of 1963, Seeger returned to Carnegie Hall.  An album recorded live at the event was released under the title We Shall Overcome. It reached number 41 on the album charts and remained on the charts for 36 weeks.  The title song was a re-working of a picket line song We Will Overcome by Lucille Simmons by Seeger and friends at the Highlander Center, the training ground of Civil Rights leaders and workers. A month later Seeger appeared at the Newport Folk Festival with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Phil Ochs.  The era of protest music was officially launched. 
Seeger introduced his own songs, including Where Have All the Flowers Gone which became a hit for the Kingston Trio in 1962 and If I Had a Hammer, co-written by Lee Hayes, and recorded by Peter Paul and Mary, to appreciative audiences in these years.  His recording of Malvina Reynolds’s Little Boxes even climbed into the pop music charts. Baez, Peter Paul and Mary, and The Byrds all had hits with Seeger songs. 
Through the late sixties and into the seventies, Seeger threw himself into opposition to the Vietnam War.  He sung to innumerably rallies and at countless benefits and collected legions of new young fans.  The highlight came in 1968 when Seeger sang to 500,000 people at the anti-war March on Washington where his fellow performers included Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie, John Denver and Peter Paul and Mary. 
After seemingly rootless decades, Seeger decided to settle down on the banks of Hudson River where he and Toshi had bought land and built a log cabin in 1949. But the pollution that had turned that beautiful and historic river into an open sewer stirred Seeger to action again.  In 1968 he launched the restore sloop Clearwater from which he campaigned for environmental causes for the rest of his long life. 
His merciless attack on General Electric for dumping PCBs in the river led to a historic law suit and a clean-up that is still going on today.  About the same time he joined the U.U. Community Church of New York City and has sung at many U.U. churches since.
In 1994 the nation that had tried to put him in prison awarded Seeger the Presidential Medal of the Arts in a Kennedy Center ceremony.  In 1996 Arlo Guthrie and Harry Belafonte were the presenters when Seeger was inducted as a roots influence into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Acclaim continued with an honorary degree from his alma mater, Harvard, which had once enforced the blacklist against him and a two Grammy Awards for Best Traditional Folk Album and one for his children’s album,  Tomorrow’s Children.  All told, Seeger recorded over 100 albums.
In his later years Seeger’s singing voice was ravaged and his fingers sometimes painful on the banjo.  But a good cause could still call him out.  He would scratch out a few bars of a song then, encourage the audiences to join in the familiar songs, and let younger musicians perform.  He remained clear eyed and clear headed with the same sense of selfless dedication and love of music that have propelled him for over his long life.
With grandson and frequent singing partner in his later years Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Bruce Springsteen Seeger led a huge crowd to an emotional singing of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land at Barack Obama’s first Inaugural.
In 2012 he performed at Carnegie Hall again for his annual Clearwater benefit.  At the end of the show he invited the audience to walk with him down to the Occupy Wall Street encampment.  Hundred followed him out of the hall and to the park where he stood on a park bench and sang for the protestors.  Vintage, irrepressible Pete.