I drove by Carnegie Hall today and remembered the Weavers’ 1963 reunion concert. Back then I was living in shabby poverty, subsidized by the State of New York to the tune of $1,500 a year, for the privilege of attending law school, with tuition a mere $1,200. I was on life’s merry-go-round with a better than even chance of grabbing a golden ring.
That reminded me of one of that night’s songs “The Banks are Made of Marble”, banks that had, according to the song, a guard at every door. I remember the Weavers belting out the words that promised that “we’d own those banks of marble … and we would share those vaults of silver”. That was then, and this is now. That hope is now dead.
We live in the age of hedge funds, of soaring unpaid, non-dischargeable student loans; the age of obscene credit card interest rates, of stagnant wages and failing health care; the age of minimum wage below the poverty level, of public schools operating on four-day weeks; the age of tax cuts for the rich, of billion dollar tax forgiveness for corporate America; the age of everyman man for himself with the one percenters owning government and the financial institutions made of marble, dollars, yens and euros.
You may recall the other songs on that night’s program, songs of hope, pride and unity: “Roll On, Columbia Roll On”, an ode to the WPA and the future after the Great Depression; “This Land Is Your Land”, an all-inclusive hymn of sharing bounty; “Guantanamera”, a song of peace adapted by Pete Seeger from José Martí’s original for the Cuban Missile Crisis; “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More”, an anti-war protest song sung on the eve of the Vietnam War; and Shel Silverstein’s sly love song to the atom bomb “I’m Standing Outside of Your Shelter”.
There were songs that celebrated African Americans – “Goodnight Irene”, “Rock Island Line” and “When the Saints Go Marching In”; songs of honest labor “Greenland Whale Fisheries”, “A Miner’s Life” and “Train Time”; and just plumb being American songs and ditties, “Old Smoky”, “The Frozen Logger” and “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You”.
Back to that song – the composer Les Rice, a Kingston, New York apple farmer, was a staunch Farmers Union man. He opposed the government’s decree that “parity” be set at 60% allowing monopoly companies to squeeze the farmer both as to cost and price. He refused to be “…sixty percent an American … sixty per cent a man. That’s what parity says I am. That’s the law of the land”. He wrote that song of protest in 1948 and it spread countrywide and even up to Canada. For a time, protest, for that’s what it was, worked.
The musical lexicon of the day reflects the mood of the country. Back in 1963 the mood was optimistic and so was I. In May, 1963 Jack Kennedy was in the White House. America’s infrastructure – the Eisenhower interstate highway system was a-building, a-pace. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty was yet to come. Education reform, consumer protection and environmental protection were being debated and would soon be passed. Racial divide was being addressed by integration, by force if necessary.
Today’s musical lexicon is incoherent. I read this morning that Eminem’s album Kamikaze is Number 1 on the musical charts. “Kamikaze”, the World War Two Japanese attack by suicide, is an appropriate metaphor for today’s political landscape. The nation is committing suicide in plain sight with Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan and many others, Betsy Devos, Steve Mnuchin, Scott Pruitt, Jeff Sessions – the list goes on – all sharing the blame.
Yet it was Walt Kelly’s wily rascal Pogo, the denizen of the Okefenokee, not the Washington Swamp that got the root of our predicament right: “We have met the enemy, and they are us”.
Deyan Ranko Brashich is a contributor writing from New York. He is the author of Letters from America, Contrary Views and Dispatches. His contact and blog “Contrary Views” is at www.deyanbrashich.com