Ryan Harvey

Archive for the ‘Music & Art’ Category

Can’t Find The Protest Songs? Check Inside The Movement

In Music & Art on November 14, 2011 at 1:32 am

On October 18, The New York Times published the article, “At the Protests, the Message Lacks a Melody.”[i] In the piece, author James C. McKinley Jr. asks us, “Where have all the protest songs gone?” Citing Occupy Wall Street and the movement it has inspired, McKinley suggests that we “have yet to find an anthem”.

“So far, musicians living through the biggest economic disaster since the Great Depression have filled the airwaves with songs about dancing, not the worries of working people,” McKinley writes. He goes on to describe a handful of mainstream artists who have one or two notable songs that fit his definition, then he closes his investigation.

As an underground folk musician who regularly performs with other similar musicians, this simplification of what protest music is and where it is found brings me a bitter frustration. McKinley and other journalists covering this issue have consistently ignored the massive underground of contemporary “protest music” that has been thriving for years.

Myself and the other eight members of the Riot-Folk Collective, which I co-founded in 2004, have been singing songs of political analysis and social commentary within various social and economic justice movements for almost a decade, and we are far from alone.

A quick glance at the shirts and patches of people at any of the Wall Street-inspired occupations around the country will surely turn up popular band logos that have inspired those participating in the protests, whether they are punk outfits like Rise Against, Propagandi, and Strike Anywhere, or hip-hop artists like Lupe Fiasco, The Coup, and Talib Kweli.

If you asked any of these participants what music they are motivated or educated by, you will likely be exposed to a vibrant, hard-working underground of artists that have for years enjoyed much popularity within social movements in the U.S. and around the world. This underground includes poets, MCs, folk-singers, DJs, electronic producers, Son Jarocho bands, drag troupes, choirs, punk and pop bands, and more.

Artists like us at Riot-Folk and our musical allies like Rebel Diaz, Broadcast Live, Taina Asili, The Coup, Majesty, Son del Centro, David Rovics, Emma’s Revolution, Invincible, The Foundation, Born In A Cent, Son of Nun, Emcee Lynx, Las Krudas, Final Outlaw, The Wild, Climbing Poetry, Jim Page, The Readnex Poetry Squad, Blackfire, Intikana, Hot Mess, Mischief Brew, Olmeca, Head-Roc, Spiritchild, Defiance Ohio, Here’s To The Long Haul, From The Depths, and Riders Against the Storm -just to name a few- have all been influential forces in social circles that have participated in the recent occupations.

These artists have spent the last few years performing and recording critical songs about the economy, the wars, racism, immigrant rights, queer liberation, and much more.

While McKinley states that “in recent years the songwriters taking on political issues have tended to be older musicians” and that there is a “scarcity of songs about the economic disaster”, young song-writers like most of those mentioned above have been on the front lines writing powerful indictments of the financial barons and their political allies, and they didn’t just start writing them now.

In her 2008 video “Locusts”, which boats over 30,000 views on YouTube, Detroit MC Invincible lays out the politics of the housing crisis caused by the sub-prime loan bubble. “They been red-lining the dark skinned owners of homes where they loan with a shark’s fin, arson the property probably for the insurance policy, it’s a prophecy that’s self fulfilling.”

It is worth pointing out that the mass movement against the financial system did not start in Zuccotti Park on September 17th. It has manifested in several mass movements in recent years, from the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999 to the “Day Without an Immigrant” strikes and protests in California, Illinois, and elsewhere in 2006.

Baltimore-based hip-hop activist Son of Nun broke down the economics of Latin American immigration and displacement in his song “Pastures of Plenty”, a name referencing Woody Guthrie’s classic song. “And we ain’t leaving, til your debt-breeding, World Bank and IMF loans stop thieving. Your helping hands left Latin American lands bleeding, now on the money-trail our families are stampeding.”

Taking a domestic look, Appalachian bluegrass band Here’s to the Long Haul, in their song “Wood Flooring Plant”, sing of racism and misplaced anger towards immigrant workers at a factory in Kentucky: “I’ve seen it work before my eyes as many of my friends, resent not the bosses but instead blame the Mexicans.”

Some of us responded immediately to the 2008 bailout with songs, including me; my 2008 song “Roulette Wheel” questioned neoliberal economics while painting a grim picture of the United States. “Give the rich banker the bail out funds, it’ll trickle down like sewage does.”

Rebel Diaz also responded to the bail out with their song “A Trillion”, which received over 20,000 views on YouTube. Other YouTube videos by the trio, whose Rebel Diaz Arts Collective also runs a hip-hop community center in the South Bronx, have received hundreds of thousands of views.

On October 16, Final Outlaw of the Bronx and a dozen other MCs and poets performed at the Occupy Wall Street encampment to a crowd of about 100 people. “I grew up among the poor, I know the pain of what it means to have to sleep on the floor,” Final Outlaw said. “I only live now just to settle the score.”

Before performing, Final Outlaw explained that he had been down at the park participating in the cleaning crew and was one of the many who came at 5:00 am to defend it from police eviction on October 14th.

These artists don’t just write about politics or show up at political events and demonstrations to perform; we are often involved in organizing the events themselves, and we are often writing songs from a place situated within the context of what we are singing about.

Boots Riley of The Coup has been on the front lines of the Occupy Oakland marches this week, and has been very active in the assemblies that have consistently refused to back down in light of massive police violence. On all of my trips up to Occupy Wall Street I have run into several of those artists mentioned above, and several of us are active in the occupations in Baltimore, DC, Atlanta, San Francisco, and elsewhere.

McKinley does correctly mention artists like Tom Morello and Anti-Flag, who have been among a crew of dedicated, mostly mainstream artists that have also spent time within movements for social justice. That crew also includes people like Dead Prez, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, Immortal Technique, Eddie Vedder, The Flobots, State Radio, and others.

Contrary to what McKinley suggests, there are perhaps far more songs being written, recorded, and distributed today that would fit in the “protest” category than at any other time period in history. But unlike the 1960s, as he hints at in his article, there is no major label today that is hungry for radical political music.

Perhaps, however, we don’t need such labels. Perhaps we have moved beyond them. The availability of cheap recording equipment and open-source software has allowed artists to rapidly produce songs, while free or cheap downloads of our MP3s and tools like YouTube allow us easy access to millions of people in relatively short periods of time. “Don’t be afraid, we’ve come full circle, the medium is ours again,” New York-based hip-hop trio Broadcast Live says on their track, “Hell Hot.”

What is most problematic about McKinley’s article, however, is that this is not the 1960s, it’s 2011, and we are not searching for a Bob Dylan. The movement against the financial system that has arisen with Occupy Wall Street is largely based around participatory, direct democracy. It’s about recognizing the power of many, not of a few. So it doesn’t need a hero or a theme song that journalists can use to synthesize the dynamism of these times into simplified categories.

“Every successful movement has a soundtrack,” Morello is quoted as saying in the beginning of McKinley’s article. He’s right, we need a soundtrack and we have one, an ever-expanding one comprised of more songs and artists than one could possibly name.

If you want to hear our soundtrack, you have to look beyond the mainstream media and beyond the acoustic guitar. In fact, don’t just look, go join the thousands at Occupy Wall Street or one of the many occupations that have sprung up around the country and participate with the people.

There you will find artists making some of the most powerful protest music you will ever hear, and you will find that none of us will ever define “the voice of our generation,” because we are many generations with many voices.


All Our People Sing Together: The Music of Vietnam During the American War

In History, Music & Art on October 22, 2008 at 5:28 pm

from Even If Your Voice Shakes – Issue #2, Fall 2008

Vietnam, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, declared liberation on September 2nd, 1945 from both the French and Japanese colonizers. The British, in classic imperial fashion, sent troops in to crush the movement and reinstall the French as the colonial rulers of what they called Indochina. The French assumed power in the South but the Viet Minh, under Ho Chi Minh, held power in the north and continued the fight for independence. The Vietnamese call this the French War. The French call it the First Indochina War.

In 1954, as the Viet Minh taught the French the same lesson the Americans would learn 2 decades later, a settlement was reached cutting Vietnam in half; The Viet Minh would control the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and Emperor Bao Dai would control the Republic of Vietnam in the south. They would fight again 5 years later, as Ngo Din Diem, a U.S.-backed Prime Minister/Monarch who had spent time in the U.S. hanging out with Joseph McCarthy, deposed Bao Dai and seized power, banning elections and locking up opposition.

The Americans began arriving in South Vietnam in 1961 as “advisers”. These soldiers multiplied rapidly and by 1965 there were hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers on the ground. American forces stayed in the South, but they unleashed a heavy bombing campaign in the North towards the end of the war. The Americans call this the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese call it the American War.

In the North, the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) massed and attacked South Vietnamese and American forces, and walked the Truong Son Road (what Americans named the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”) through Laos and Cambodia to help supply the Guerrillas in the South. The Guerrillas, organized under the National Liberation Front, or Vietcong, dominated the countryside and jungles, joining forces with the PAVN when possible.

By the time these forces had taught the Americans the same lessons they taught the French twenty year earlier, 58,000 Americans, 1 million Vietnamese soldiers and guerrillas, and over 2 million Vietnamese civilians would be dead, and millions injured. The war would also spread to Laos and Cambodia, where U.S. forces destroyed a vast majority of the rain forests and farmland of the region. The last Americans fled Saigon in 1975 as the communists marched in.

It was under these conditions that our story takes place, on both sides of the 17th parallel and, sometimes, on both sides of the lines.


In the Guerrilla areas of the South, musicians operated openly within hideouts and safe-areas protected by the NLF to encourage the guerrillas and bring happiness and hope to a determined people. This music, along with it’s counter-part in the North, was officially called “Nhac Truyen Thong Cach Mang” (“Classical Revolutionary Music”) or “Nhac Do” (“Red Music”) for short. Though there were differences in style between those in the North and South, the music of the liberation armies shared common themes and styles.

Red Musicians traveled with the National Liberation Front and the People’s Army to battle. They often performed in choral groups, not always as solo musicians or bands, and practiced a more collective form of music. Often a composer would write songs and arrangements for choral groups to perform and/or record.

One striking Guerrilla song was “The Unconquerable Van Troi”, written by Nguyen Tho about a Vietcong hero, Nguyen Can Troi:

We are millions, ready to follow your example.

Your death was like your life,

Heroic and glorious!

Oh, Nguyen Van Troi, beloved hero,

Your example shines above the whole nation!

Van Troi, a Vietcong urban-guerrilla, was 17-years old in 1963 when he was captured by South Vietnamese forces after trying to assassinate both U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. His execution was delayed shortly when FALN rebels in Venezuela kidnapped and threatened to kill U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Smolen, but Smolen was released and Van Troi was killed. His legacy lived on however, in the hearts, minds and songs of the Vietcong guerrillas.

The Vietcong operated secretly in South Vietnam, using an elaborate system of underground tunnels and jungle hideouts to launch small but relentless attacks against both the South Vietnamese military and the United States. The tunnel systems weren’t just hideouts, they were living spaces, with medical facilities, food storage, sleeping space and meeting rooms for military planning.

The most infamous tunnels were at Cu Chi, but there were hundreds of miles of tunnels in the South, often connecting a community together, serving as roads between towns, and even going right under U.S. bases.

Musicians as well as other performance groups operated in these tunnels to encourage the resistance and raise morale. Dang Thi Linh was a dancer in one of these traveling performance groups. Having lost both her parents to American attacks, she sought to help raise morale among the guerrillas. Peasants would travel through the tunnels to catch performances, staying silent to conserve air and stay hidden. Above ground when it was safe they would sing along.

Pham Sang was a popular composer who wrote songs and plays for these traveling theater groups. Though he and his audience wanted to explore love and other personal stories in song, his superiors pushed him to write war songs like “Cu Chi, The Heroic Land”:

We are Cu Chi people who go forward to kill the enemy

We go through danger, bullets and fire to fight for our native land.

Our country is a fortress standing against the Americans,

Cu Chi is a heroic land

Let’s grow manioc plant all over the bomb craters and make them green

We kill the Americans with their own shells and bombs

We kill the enemy and increase our production

Those were our glorious victories.

Bowing to pressure from his superior Buy Lap, who suggested that “even love songs should be political”, he combined topics to satisfy both crowds:

I love you

I miss you and wait for you,

Liberation Fighter

Let’s fight the enemy together

Some officers were nervous about the numbers in the tunnels, and some felt that this music should only be for the soldiers, not anybody who wanted to hear it. In response to this, Pham Sang took crowds up top at night. Here they would find a B-52 bomb crater and convert it into an amphitheater and lay planks of wood down as a stage While the audience would sit in caves dugout of the sides of the crater. This was risky, but the need for entertainment and hope was such that the risk was worth it. If planes came overhead, the crowd would hear them in time and the tunnels would once again be occupied.

After the Tet Offensive of 1968, when the Vietcong and NLF launched a massive attack to try to seize Saigon and other major cities, many of the tunnels were exposed and became too dangerous to travel.

Outside of the tunnels, musicians and composers accompanied the soldiers through the thick of battle. And they didn’t just sing about the liberation war, many were there first hand to give support and some gave their lives. Tuong Vi, Tran Chat, Minh Nguyet and Kim Cuc, all singers, were present in Tri Thien (Central Highlands) with the PAVN and VC, and sometimes sang through telephone lines to guerrillas guarding command posts. Many composers, including Ngoc Minh and Chu Nghi died on the battlefields of South Vietnam.


In the safer areas of the North, though still threatened by U.S. bombing raids, Red Music was performed openly to urge citizens to resist the Americans and their puppet government in South, and to cherish the land of Vietnam.

Songs like Giai phong Mien Nam (Liberate the South) urged strong physical resistance:

Liberate the South,

We are heading to kill American Imperialism,

the invaders Blood and bones fell down,

the feud is high The country has been divided for many years

Cuulong and Truongson urge us to go to kill enemies

Stand up people, to rescue our country Our fate is coming,

Dawn is going and we will build our future

In “My Native Land, Quang Binh”, Hoang Van combines the call for resistance with a love for the land of Vietnam:

Oh militia girl who stands guard on the coast,

Oh army man whose vigil guards our skies,

Our native land will flourish more each day,

And the seeds of revolution sprout all green!

Quang Binh, my native land,

I will defend your earth and sky.

I will protect all that we love,

My native land.

Pham Tuen, born in Hanoi, was one of the more popular composers of Nhac Do. His songs rallied Vietnamese to join the liberation war and described the horrors inflicted on Vietnam by the French, American and South Vietnamese troops. He still performs too, continuing the tradition of topical song as well as writing many children’s songs.

According to Vietnam News, a provincial leader recently asked Tuen to write a particular song for a local famous singer to sing, but Tuen refused, telling him “I compose songs for the community so everyone can sing them.” It is this commitment to community that earned him the popular nickname “The Composer of the People”.

When North Vietnam first sent its troops to the South to fight the United States and unify the movements of the South, Tuen was writing songs in support, to rally soldiers to the cause of liberation. Other songs, like “The Boatwoman’s Song”, described and glorified the role regular folks played in the war for liberation:

Ohay! I pull my oars,

So my soldiers brothers may cross the river!

Here it’s very cold, and your way is very long.

For all of us, you endure such pain,

And such privation! Ohay! Ohay!

My boat breaks through the waves!

With the soldiers of the Liberation Army,

I am crossing the river,

So that they may get to the front!

The enemy has set our country ablaze,

With the raging fires of war;

But you are guarding the villages,

And building a future for us all,

So that everywhere our songs will rise.

Faster, Ohay! My sisters, faster!

And tomorrow we will welcome them home in triumph!

One of his most popular and darker songs was “Ha Noi – Dien Bien Phu”, which described 12 days and nights of air raids in Ha Noi in December 1972, in which American bombers destroyed much of the city where he was born, including parts of his house and piano. A PAVN veteran named Truong Van Dung, interviewed in 2004, said this song “encouraged soldiers across the nation, including those at the front” and “gave us strength to overcome our difficulties to sacrifice ourselves for national independence.”

Tuen met with Pete Seeger in 1973 after hearing him sing Ewan MacColl’s “Ballad of Ho Chi Minh” on a North Vietnamese newsreel. After meeting Seeger and being introduced to one of the foundations of American anti-war song-writing, Tuen composed “Gay Dan Len Hoi Nguoi Ban My” (Keep on Strumming, My American Friends). The song faded in popularity after the withdraw of U.S. troops but surfaced again more recently in a new context, calling Americans to address the effects of Agent Orange.

Speaking of American friends, it should be noted that not all liberation fighters were Vietnamese, and not all the songs glorifying them were Vietnamese. An underground folk song of the 60’s told the tale of one GI who joined the resistance. “Ballad of the Unknown Soldier” was written by Rod Shearman after reading a newspaper article in England about a GI found dead in Vietcong territory wearing sandals and “black pajamas”.

The song was sung by Rod Shearman, Peggy Seeger, Barbara Dane and Jack Warshaw, an American draft resister living in England, among others:

Come and Listen to a story I will tell

Of a young GI you will remember well.

He died in Vietnam in the Mekong Delta land,

He had sandals on his feet and a rifle in his hand.


I wonder what was his name?

I wonder from which town he came?

I wonder if his children understood the reason why

Of the way he had to fight and the way he had to die.

They say that December ’65

Was the last time he was ever seen alive.

It was U.S. Army lies that caused him to decide

To leave his old top sergeant and fight on the other side.

Was he lonesome for his homeland far away?

Fighting with his new companions night and day?

In the base and jungle camps they tell about a man

Sharing hardships with his comrades fighting on the other side.

It was in the month of April ’68,

In the Delta land he met a soldier’s fate.

He fought to his last breath and he died a hero’s death,

And he wore the black pajamas of the People’s NLF.

Well it’s now that poor soldier’s dead and gone.

His comrades and his friends are fighting on.

And when the people win, of their heroes they will sing,

And his name will be remembered with the name of Ho Chi Minh.

This story was not alone. Other articles emerged, both during and after the war, of the “White Cong” or “Yankee Cong”. One of the more infamous stories describes an American duo called “Salt and Pepper”, a black GI and a white GI who led Vietcong soldiers in an attack in Quang Ngai City in 1974, after the American Withdraw was nearly complete. Another, from the Can Tho Army Airfield in the Mekong Delta area, tells of a black NCO who canceled medevacs in support of the Vietcong. Another told the tale of a GI named Porkchop who fought alongside the Vietnamese.

Both the North Vietnamese and the NLF published leaflets directed towards black GIs urging them to join their ranks. Some, like the interrogators in prisons in the North, allegedly studied African American literature. Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, offered in a 1970 letter to send Black Panthers to assist the NLF in battle. Soldiers have also reported that, especially following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Vietcong guerrillas would shoot only at white GIs.

The only U.S. soldier ever charged for alleged participation in the “Yankee Cong” was Bobby Garwood, a Marine captured in 1965 by communist forces, who was said to have collaborated with the Vietcong.


As the war dragged on, Red songs took a sometimes sad but optimistic tone. Composer Xuan Hong wrote “Spring Comes to the Liberated Areas”, imagining the future which so many guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers were fighting for:

The spring comes again to the forest.

The wild bird song is heard in the trees.

Springtime has come to our base camp,

And the wind shakes the rustling leaves

Spring of our victory!

The birds sing of joy!

Tomorrow the flowers present themselves

Smiling, to rejoice with the younger soldier

Who has one more year in his life,

One more year for brave exploits

Expected and awaited by our people.

Spring comes to the resistance base,

And the smoke smudges our roof,

And on this hut the only thing I have to give you

Is a song

Oh, the springtime in our forest camp

Makes me homesick for my village and friends.

My will hardens, we must drive out our enemy,

So that all our people can experience the spring.

And someday when the spring comes,

Flowers will bloom in all our houses

I will meet my brother soldiers,

And we will speak of old times,

Of the days when we fought with such courage.

The flowers will unfurl,

To welcome the spring with gladness

The old folks and the young,

All together we sing our songs.

In our country there are four seasons,

And all of them are spring!

Resolved to build our future,

All our people sing together.

At the announcement of the fall of Saigon, Tuen wrote a song that is still played today at Football matches and public meetings, “Nhu Co Bac Ho Trong Ngay Vui Dai Thang (“As if Uncle Ho Were Still With Us On the Day of Great Victory”). Luong Ngoc Thuan, also a PAVN veteran, describes this song: “It is as if the song helped show the sacred feelings of everybody in the country.”


The political song tradition that emerged from South Vietnam in the war years is called Nhac Phan Chien, or protest music. These songs were often banned but remained popular among students and educated folks.

Stemming from the broader tradition of “Nhac Vang”, Yellow Music, which defined most of the popular music of the South at the time, Nhac Phan Chien touched on issues relating to the government of Ngo Din Diem, the American invasion and the war with the North. The music was often close to the peace movement, which grew out of Buddhist reaction to Diem’s repressive laws and his emphasis on putting Catholics in position of authority over Buddhists (though religion was not the major source of tension). Large demonstrations by Buddhists in the South were a major factor in the toppling of Ngo Dinh Diem’s government in 1963.

The most popular song-writer to emerge from this movement was Trinh Cong Son, a mid-20s composer, painter and song-writer that Joan Baez called “The Bob Dylan of Vietnam”. This title matched his popularity, as he grew to be one of the most popular artists in South Vietnam and is generally considered one of the founders of modern Vietnamese music.

Khanh Ly, who became the first Vietnamese woman to headline her own shows, helped popularize Son’s songs in the earlier years and the two often performed together on university campuses. Their shows often lasted over 4 hours.

Though public performances, distribution, and radio and television broadcasts of his music were banned by the South Vietnamese government, Trinh Cong Son’s music maintained popularity, and he became more popular than of any South Vietnamese military or political figure. Students attended his concerts at universities and black market tapes of his songs flourished. These tapes found their way to soldiers on both sides of the war, even though his songs were criticized by the North Vietnamese government for being “defeatist” and not pro-armed struggle.

His grim and sad anti-war songs, like “Bai Ca Danh Cho Nhung Xac Nguoi”, or “Songs for the Corpes”, painted a dark picture of life:

The bodies of the dead lie floating in the river

They lie in the field,

On the rooftops of the city

And in the winding streets

The bodies of the dead lie lost

Under the eaves of the pagodas

In the churches of the city

At the doorsteps of the deserted houses

Oh Spring – the bodies of the dead bring a scent to the rice paddies

Oh Vietnam – the bodies of the dead add breath to tomorrow’s soil

The way there, though full of obstacles

Because around here – here were humans

The bodies of the dead lied all around here

In this cold rain

Near the bodies of the old and weak

Lie the bodies of the young and innocent

Which body is the body of my brother

In this cave

In those burnt out areas

Next to the maize and sweet potato field

Cold and dark songs like this illustrated the horrors of the war and touched the hearts of Vietnamese folks on both sides of the border. His darkest song was “Tinh Ca Nguoi Mat Tri” (“Love Song of a Madman”):

I had a lover who died at the Battle of Pleime

I had a lover in the Tactical Zone D

died at the Battle of Dongxoai

died out there in Hanoi

died in haste along the border

I had a lover who died at the Battle of Chu Bruang

I had a lover whose body was floating in the river

died in the paddy field

died in the thick jungle

died cold and lonely, his body charred

I want to love you, love Vietnam

On a windy day, I would go calling quietly

Calling your name, the name of Vietnam

Feeling closer in the voice of the yellow skin

I want to love you, love Vietnam

The day I have just grown, my ears are used to bullets and mines

My hands between my lips

As of today I have forgotten the languages of humans…

I had a lover who died at the Battle of Ashau

I had a lover who died curled in the fetal position

died in a ravine

died near the bridge pylon

died in an anguish with not a rag on his body

I had a lover who died at the battle of Baza

I had a lover who died last night

died all of a sudden

died without any warning / any appointment

No hatred, died peacefully as if in a dream

Along with these songs song are over 600 others, opposing the war, crying out for unification, cherishing the cultural legacies of Vietnam, singing of love and longing for a peaceful existence.

He also wrote angry protest songs like “Gia Tai Cua Me” (“Mother’s legacy”):

A thousand years of Chinese reign

A hundred years of French oppression.

Twenty years of brother fighting brother each day,

A mother’s fate – bones left to dry,

And graves that fill a mountain high.

Teach your children to speak their minds.

Don’t let them forget their kind–

Never forget their kind, from old Viet land.

Mother wait for your children to come home,

Childern who now so far away roam.

Children of one father, be reconciled.

To reconcile the misery and depression of living through war, he wrote songs like “Cho Nhin Que Huong Sang Choi” (“Wait to see the brilliant father land”) about the hopes and dreams of the regular people of South Vietnam:

Waiting for the bugle to sound to bring home all the boys

Waiting for hearts to no longer hold any hatred and grudges

Waiting for nights without curfews and mornings with comfort

Waiting for the aromatic rice to grow under the hands of our own people

Waiting for the hearts that love the country and are determined to build the peace

Waiting for the hearts that are happy throughout the villages

Waiting for the land to resound of songs of freedom

Waiting for trees to change leaves; waiting for flowers to blossom

Waiting for us to go around streets that are not strange

Waiting for a bright country and the mothers’ eyes are no longer blurred with tears

In “Toi Se Di Tham” (“I Will Visit”), Son describes himself in the future, in a unified and peaceful Vietnam:

When my country is in peace, I’ll go endlessly

From Saigon to Central, Hanoi to the South

I shall go amid the collective joy

And hope to forget my country’s story


Saigon fell in 1975, and the communist forces started re-organizing society and culture by force, creating what they considered a socialist society.

Although is seems there would be a mutual understanding among topical song-writers, there was tension and even bitterness between the musicians of the North and the South after unification.

By the late 70s “Yellow Music” was been targeted by the regime. The music was criticized by authorities who claimed it was non-political and sad, encouraging listeners to be apathetic. It was in this period that Son, who also supported Buddhists calls for the communists to respect religious rights and practices, was persecuted by the new government and sentenced to 4 years in a “retraining camp” (meaning ‘re-education’ and farm labor).

During the communist assault on Yellow Music, and the imprisonment of Son and many other composers and artists, Pham Tuen (the Red composer we discussed earlier) described this music as creating “within the listener a feeling of beauty, a carefree feeling not bound by any political ties; in substance it hypnotizes listeners and draws them from the orb of the national and class struggles.”

It is all the more ironic then, that when Radio Saigon was seized by communist forces during the final push, his music was played for days.

Pleng Phua Cheewit: The Story of Thailand’s Revolutionary Folk Music

In History, Music & Art on October 22, 2008 at 5:15 pm

from Even If Your Voice Shakes – Issue #2, Fall 2008

Last year, I had the privilege to meet two members of Thailand’s radical farmer movements, one named Ubon who was the Thai representative of the People’s Global Action network. PGA is a huge network of poor people’s movements from around the world, which put out the first calls for what became known as the “anti-globalization” or “global justice” movement. The event was hosted by ENGAGE, a U.S. group that works to promote solidarity between U.S. students and Thai farmers. I performed at the event and sang some of my songs. Afterwards, speaking with Ubon through an interpreter, he told me about their own protest folk music, which was created by students and activists fleeing a military dictatorship in the early 70’s and finding refuge among the farmers and guerillas in the north. Ever since that conversation I’ve been wanting to know, and especially hear, more about Pleng Phua Cheewit. I wrote this article based on web-sources to shine some light on this movement of music, but it is by no means an accurate or all encompassing account.

As China and Vietnam saw communist governments emerge in the late 1940’s, a nationalist right-wing military regime, strongly backed by the United States, took power in Thailand. Political activists and opponents of the regime were kidnapped and executed by the police, though opposition managed to organize several attempts to overthrow the government. With the final attempt, the regime abolished their own constitution, which was only two years old, and effectively eliminated all democratic institutions of government. This provoked strong opposition from the universities, which led to more repression of activists.

Phibun Songkhram, the dictator, attempted to restore the constitution in 1955 to retain power, but the military overthrew him and installed their new ally, General Thanom Kittikachorn as Prime Minister, who in turn gave his place to General Sarit, head of the military. When General Sarit died in 1963, Thanom took power again. Sarit and Thanom were supportive of a monarchy-style government, recognizing the role of the King in Thai tradition, and strict order. Their regimes were strongly backed by the U.S.; Sarit sent Thai soldiers to Vietnam and Laos to fight the Vietcong and associated guerilla movements along side the U.S. and opened Thailand’s east to the U.S. to build airbases for bombing their neighbors. To challenge this, the Vietcong supported Thailand’s own Communist Party and guerilla movements in the north, northeast and south of the country.

With U.S. military backing came U.S. culture, and Thai society was effectively westernized by the late 60’s, the family unit breaking down and an economic boom bringing many into the cities for work. The population of Bangkok, Thailand’s capitol, grew tenfold from 1945 to 1970. This westernization also opened Thailand’s universities to a revival of student activism, as more ideas poured in and opposition to the military regime took a solid shape.


During the military rule from 1945 up through 1960, the nobility was given free access to the north, where peasants were systematically deprived of their traditional land. By 1960, 30 percent of peasants in the north were landless. As the cities saw a rise in standards of living and a new middle class towards 1970, the rural poor saw nothing. Rural movements against the government grew quickly and the government sent soldiers to many villages to instill fear. This however, only intensified rural opposition to the government, and a peasant movement emerged. Students from the south helped the growing peasant movement with solidarity protests in the cities, mainly focused on land-loss, high rent and police repression of rural activists. Though the government held hearings and created a committee to hear peasant’s complaints, which saw over 50,000 petitions, little changed. The committee called many of the peasants’ demands unrealistic and the government continued to drive peasants further into poverty.

In 1968, in response to growing calls from student and business organizations, Thanom called for elections, and of course, his military-party won. The clear set-up caused many lawmakers and professionals to openly challenge the regime, which then, with Thanom’s command, dissolved Parliament and suspended the constitution once again, bringing about another era of absolute military rule.

Their regimes were strongly backed by the U.S.; Sarit sent Thai soldiers to Vietnam and Laos to fight the Vietcong and associated guerilla movements along side the U.S. and opened Thailand’s east to the U.S. to build airbases for bombing their neighbors. To challenge this, the Vietcong supported Thailand’s own Communist Party and guerrilla movements in the north, northeast and south of the country.

With U.S. military backing came U.S. culture, and Thai society was effectively westernized by the late 60’s, the family unit breaking down and an economic boom bringing many into the cities for work. The population of Bangkok, Thailand’s capitol, grew tenfold from 1945 to 1970. This westernization also opened Thailand’s universities to a revival of student activism, as more ideas poured in and opposition to the military regime took a solid shape.

Student protests grew to be a real force by the early 70’s. In June of 1973, nine students from the Ramkhamhaeng University in Bangkok were expelled for writing and publishing an article in a student newspaper that was critical of the military-regime. In response to this act of repression, thousands of students demonstrated at the ironically named Democracy Monument, established by Phibun after seizing power in 1932. The monument was highly unpopular due to such ironies, but now students would use it as their own symbol. The rally called for the nine students to be re-enrolled in school. The government backed down and allowed the students to be re-enrolled.


During the 1973 protests, two student organizers from Ramkamhaeng University, Nga Surachai Chanthimathon and Virasak Suntornsii, formed the band Caravan, and effectively created the genre “Pleng Phua Cheewit” (Songs for Life). This title, according to Nga, derived from Chit Phum Sak’s translation of a book by Mao Tse Tung’s on art and music. “From this book, he coined the phrase ‘For Life’. So if you wrote a radical play, it was called ‘Drama For Life’. If you wrote a song, it was ‘Song For Life’. Chit Phum Sak was killed in the jungle by government troops in 1965, but he started it all. He was our hero.”

This style of blending traditional Thai and Khmer folk music with American protest-folk was largely inspired by the arrival, via U.S. soldiers in the northeast, of Western anti-war songs from Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the Beatles. “Remember this was the late 60’s. I grew my hair like Jimi Hendrix. I loved listening to this new music, smoking ganja, hanging out with artists, students and journalists. But I was a writer. My friends told me ‘Become a musician, you already look like a hippy.’ So I learned to play a little, a few chords, A minor, C, D… I was against the Vietnam War. I had fun with the GIs but I hated the war. In the nightclubs I heard American music and socialized with the soldiers. But I felt I had to ask questions about why the US were fighting in my area, my part of the world. We demonstrated much like young people did in the West at the time. This was the hippy generation –anti-war. And the Thai government in 1972 was fascist. At that time, the Army stopped us in the street to cut our hair. There and then, we had no choice. My country was really terrible then.”

In October 1973, 13 students were arrested and charged with conspiracy to overthrow the government. Students mobilized a support campaign that drew in large numbers of workers, businessmen, and other Thai citizens. Hundreds of thousands marched demanding the release of the students. Members of Caravan, including Nga and Virasak, helped organize at Thammasat, drawing maps for the protests. As the numbers grew, so did the demands, and soon they were calling for a new constitution and government. The government released the students soon afterwards, and a large rally was called off by organizers. However, as students tried to leave the monument area, police harassment and intimidation led to tear gas and gunfire. Students rioted and the military was called in, firing into the university from helicopters and bringing tanks to occupy the city. Students attempted to hijack buses and fire engines to stop the tanks but were unsuccessful. Dozens of students were killed. King Bhumibol ordered the gates of his palace opened to the students, a clear and significant act of protest against the military. Though Thanom called for a full military crackdown, Army commander Kris Sivara ordered the soldiers to withdrawal. With the Army withdrawn, the King issued an order that Thanom leave the country. Thanom resigned as Prime Minister that night and went into exile, to the United States, effectively ending the military dictatorship. A new constitution was formed and a democratic government and Parliament took power, the King appointing Sanya Dharmasakti, an employee of the Thammasat University and a sympathizer with the students, Prime Minister.

After the ousting of Thanom and the dictatorship, many students, including those from Caravan, traveled to the farm-regions in the North, to meet with and experience the culture of the peasants they had fought to defend. They experienced rural poverty and shared with the farmers their understandings of the Thai economy, how the dictatorship had led to the poverty of the North. Singing around campfires the students and farmers weaved together their stories into songs. These songs helped bridge the gaps between the students and peasants and, when brought back to the cities, helped mobilize student support for the peasant movements.

It is here that Caravan really found their niche. Their lyrics, set to traditional Thai instruments like the pin, a 3-stringed instrument on the Northeast, violins, and flutes, as well as western instruments like electric guitars, talked about the struggles of these farmers, as well as protest songs about the U.S. military presence and backing of the Thanom regime and support songs for the guerilla movements. Some lyrics were written by Jit Pumisak, a leftist historian, author, intellectual, teacher and poet who is considered the first historian to write a Marxist-based history of Thailand. After the 1957 coup, Jit was arrested for his writings and held until 1965. Upon release, he joined the armed struggle of guerillas in the Northeast and was killed one year later by government soldiers. He was a hero of the student movement and Caravan. Caravan’s most popular song, Man and Buffalo, talked about peasant guerillas working the land:

Man with man work the fields

In the way of man.

Man with buffalo work the fields

In the way of the buffalo.

Man working with buffalo

Is rooted deep in our history.

They’ve worked together for ages.

But it works out alright.

Come, let’s go now! Come, let’s go!

Carry our plows and guns to the fields!

Poverty and weariness endured too long!

Bitter tears held back too long!

Hardships and troubles so heavy,

But whatever the burden, we will not fear!

Here is the song of death,

The death of our humanity.

The rich eat our labor,

Set one against the other,

As we peasants sink deeper in debt.

And they call us savages!

We must destroy this system!

After a few years of playing shows nearly every day, traveling the country mobilizing students, farmers and workers, Caravan enjoyed some underground fame: “Channel 3, the government channel invited us to play on one of their shows. We played three times and they cut the show. They stopped the program. All our songs were banned immediately. That made us very famous.” With the economy slowing down and movements from the Right gaining power, Thailand again experienced a wave of military repression. Right-wing militant groups like the Village Scouts, tied to the Border Patrol Police, the Red Gaur, and the far-right Navapol grew strong. A wave of anti-communism swept Thailand over these years, aided by these right-wing militias.


While Caravan toured the country and the Right trained themselves with weapons, Thanom returned from exile and was secretly ordained a monk at Wat Bovornives, a Buddisht temple in Bangkok, guarded by Navapol soldiers. Major protests were organized in response, prompting Parliament to vote to again expel the former military dictator from the country.

On September 25th, 1976, police beat and hung protesters in the Nakhon Pathom province, noth of Bangkok. Labor and student groups held mass marches on September 30th and October 3rd in response. On October 4th, students at Thammasat University, where Nga Surachai Chanthimathon and other members of Caravan had helped plan the 1973 demonstrations, students staged a play about the hangings in Nakhon Pathom. A newspaper article about this play replaced one of the faces of hanged students to resemble the Crown Prince, causing a rumor that students were planning to assault the King’s palace and the Wat Bovornives temple. The Army encouraged right-wing militias to attack students via the radio and militias, the Army and the police mobilized outside the university.

By nighttime on October 5th, 4000 right-wing paramilitary troops were gathered at the gates of Thammasat University. In the morning, the militias started firing into the school, the police chief authorizing a “free fire”. Though students called for a ceasefire, the shooting continued as the paramilitaries entered the university. Students were beaten to death, shot, hung, set on fire, and raped by the soldiers. Fleeing students were shot trying to jump into the Chao Phraya River. The massacre continued until the various paramilitary, military, and police groups voluntarily withdrew. Immediately following the massacre another military government seized control of Thailand under the rule of Tanin Kraivixien.


On an online anarchist/socialist website, Ji Giles Ungpakom writes: “The successful 14th October 1973 mass uprising against the military dictatorship in Bangkok, shook the Thai ruling class to its foundations. It was the first time that the pu-noi (little people) had actually started a revolution from below. It was not planned and those that took part had only vague notions about the need for democracy, but the Thai ruling class could not shoot enough demonstrators to protect their regime. In fact the shooting just made people even angrier. It was not just a student uprising to demand a democratic constitution. It involved thousands of ordinary working class people and occurred on the crest of a rising wave of workers’ strikes. Success in over-throwing the military dictatorship bred increased confidence. Workers, peasants and students began to fight for more than just parliamentary democracy. They wanted social justice and an end to long-held privileges. Some wanted an end to exploitation and capitalism itself. In response, the Thai ruling class, together with most of the middle class, organized brutality of the utmost barbarity against workers, students and peasant activists. They installed a new dictatorship on the 6th October 1976 over the mutilated bodies of those struggling for freedom.”

Interviewed in 2001, Nga Caravan said “I was not in Bangkok on the 6th of October 1976, the darkest day in our history. Caravan played in Korat on the 4th, in Ubon on the 5th and on the 6th in Khong Kaen. Then we heard that the fascist Thai government was killing demonstrators in Bangkok. It was too dangerous to return to the capital. The revolution had come. We fled into the jungle. We became fugitives.” Many students fled for the Northern hills after the 6th of October, joining the Communist Party of Thailand and other guerilla movements, or seeking refuge with the peasant farmers long supported by the student movement. “The fascists came back and on 6th October 1976, many leaders of our movement died in Bangkok. From Kong Khaen, where we played our last gig that day, we disappeared into the jungle, some of which was under communist control. First we went to Loei, then Udon and Nong Khai. All these places were safe. Many students fled to communist Laos, which welcomed them with open arms.”

Caravan fled into the hills and joined the ranks of peasant farmers and insurgents: ”We joined disaffected farmers, we joined the comrades, we set up art centers in the jungle. Our job was to move, sing and dance. If one of our comrades died, I performed songs for him. Like a monk. The communist party was strong, for a while it was safe.“ Caravan members were wanted fugitives. “After a year I crossed the Mekong and went to Vientiane (the capital of Laos). I stayed over a year in the north of Laos, near Luang Nam Tha. I turned from Hippy to soldier. I cut my hair, I wore a uniform. I carried a gun and a guitar in Laos. I learned to shoot. But I was in safe areas most the time, though sometimes I had to fight, sometimes I almost died… One day, eight of us set off from Udon. At some point we split up. My group got to our rendezvous point, the other four never made it. I wrote a lot of songs for dead friends. From Laos I slipped back into Thailand in 1979 and hid in the forests around Nan. Sometimes my wife and child traveled with me, at other times she traveled for her own activist work. Caravan then worked for communist radio. We wrote songs for a radio channel in Kunming, China. After the Thai government made peace with China, the station closed. We lost our jobs.”


The genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia caused many on the Left in Thailand to put their weapons down. The government announced a general amnesty for communist rebels, activists and artists. Many accepted this and returned to a somewhat normal life in the cities. “I didn’t want to go back. I was having a great time. I was who lived in the mountains. One by one the other members of Caravan drifted back to the capital. The Thai army was closing in on us. We got into a skirmish with three hundred soldiers, just three of us and we ran and ran and escaped. It was all over. I came back to Bangkok for New Year 1982.”

Caravan reformed immediately and played a large UNICEF concert at Thamasat University. Their performance that night was immensely powerful: “We felt like heroes. Everyone in the audience was crying, because they were so happy to see us. We thought we were the losers crawling back from the jungle but in fact everyone wanted to hear our stories.” Nga reflects that not much had changed in returning. “I don’t know if things were really better. Everything was much more expensive. And we finally sold a lot of records. But I still didn’t like the government. We all had to register with the army. At the same time we did a live album for EMI, which sold well. We did a lot of TV and radio then. We toured in Japan and the Philippines many times and traveled to the USA, to play to Thai audiences there. In Canada we played a big folk festival. In Japan there are Caravan fan-clubs.”

Caravan played their last concert on their 15th anniversary in 1987. Phreng Phu Chiwit has now found a place in the pop-charts, with bands like Carabao, a former protest band, selling beer and energy drinks on national television. By the 1990s, Song For Life theme bars became a nation wide franchise. “Some of these bands do really good business. They do big deals with corporations. We are still half-musicians, half-activists. We don’t sell soft drinks. But Song For Life has been absorbed by Thai society.”


None of the right-wing militias involved in the October 6th massacre have even been tried. Many modern history books leave the October 6th massacre out, or mention it as a skirmish between rival forces. Those who were there remember it as a massacre by fascists on a popular, democratic movement of students, peasants and working people.

Though Caravan’s success after 1980 brought them some commercial fame, and the music they sacrificed so many friends and comrades to make has been fully incorporated into the mainstream capitalist market, their history and the story of Pleng Phua Cheewit remains as an example of the power and importance of musical traditions, culture, and art in political movements.

The Story of Victor Jara

In History, Music & Art on October 22, 2008 at 5:13 pm

from Even If Your Voice Shakes – Issue #2, Fall 2008

Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s the world was rocked by a wave of revolutionary movements, some successful, some successfully repressed. In Cuba, Vietnam, France, Thailand, Italy, Germany, Mexico, and even the United States, radical movements rose at historical levels. At the earliest stages of these movements, musicians played a key role in popularizing ideas, validating feelings among the people, and creating social and cultural space for popular protest. Chile was no exception, with an active population fighting off a fascist right-wing threat to bring in a socialist government under Salvador Allende.

One of the most recognizable figures on the cultural front of Chile’s revolutionary movements was Víctor Jara, a folk singer, playwrite, director, and activist born in the town of Chillán Viejo in the southern state of El Carmen. Moving to Santiago after his family left his abusive father, Víctor got involved in first the church, then the military, leaving both shortly after. Discovering the guitar with the help of a neighbor, Víctor became interested in Chile’s folk traditions and grew quickly with the guitar.

Travelling back to the south in the mid-1950s, Víctor studied the music of different areas and traditions, eventually coming across a theater and music group called Cuncumen playing in the Cafe Sau Paulo, where he soon joined Cuncumen. Cuncumen introduced Víctor to expressive movement and theater, and he rose quickly in the theater world to become a well-respected director. His plays soon started appearing in the main theaters of Santiago, and Víctor started becoming a figure in the art world.

Cuncumen eventually toured Europe, where Víctor’s songs and voice amazed both the other members of the group and the crowds they performed for. Other performers on the tour suggested he release a solo abum and Víctor followed the advice, releasing his self-titled album in 1966. Víctor’s first single, El Cigarrito, was the most popular songs of the year in Chile.

Nueva Canción Chilena

Víctor continued directing after returning to Santiago but became increasingly involved with the music scene. Taking a job at Violetta Parra’s Peña de los Parra, Víctor began organizing public music nights, bringing songwriters together at the peña from 10 PM until 2 AM 3 nights a week. The music coming out of the peña, by artists like Violetta Parra, Víctor Jara, Patricio Manns, Rolando Alarcon and others, became known as “Nueva Canción Chilena”, the Chilean New Song movement. New Song blended music and politics and created physical space, through its gatherings, for the exchange of information and networking among radicals. Victor believed in New Song because it was Chile’s own, far from the watered-down political pop music of the United States:

“The cultural invasion is like a leafy tree which prevents us from seeing our own sun, sky and stars. Therefore in order to be able to see the sky above our heads, our task is to cut this tree off at the roots. US imperialism understands very well the magic of communication through music and persists in filling our young people with all sorts of commercial tripe. With professional expertise they have taken certain measures: first, the commercialization of the so-called ‘protest music’; second, the creation of ‘idols’ of protest music who obey the same rules and suffer from the same constraints as the other idols of the consumer music industry – they last a little while and then disappear. Meanwhile they are useful in neutralizing the innate spirit of rebellion of young people. The term ‘protest song’ is no longer valid because it is ambiguous and has been misused. I prefer the term ‘revolutionary song’.”

The peña was an open-mic and performance space where artists could share their words. Víctor became well known through these events and helped manage Peña de los Parra for 8 years. By 1967, the peña movement had spread across Chile, helping grow the new radical culture of Chile beyond Santiago. Víctor went on to release 6 albums after his first, achieving a level of popularity comparable to Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie.

Unidad Popular

Víctor was a major promoter of Salvador Allende and worked on his campaign, performing at free concerts and doing political work, as well as lending his voice to the theme song of Allene’s coalition, Unidad Popular, or Popular Unity. After Allende’s election in 1970, Víctor became a Cultural Diplomat, representing Chile’s new vision with his art, and began teaching at the Outeach Department of the Technical University. He also started composing music for Chile’s National TV station “Television Nacional”. Víctor’s involvement in the socialist movement and his outspoken critisim of right-wing forces in Chile earned him both massive support and admiration from the Left and harted from the Right.

Víctor campaigned for Popular Unity in 1973 in the working-class districts to the west of Santiago, where he had first picked up a guitar. Travelling in an old bus with fellow New Song band Inti-Illimani, he spent the summer campaigning for a woman candidate of the Communist Party, Eliana Arambar. They sang in factories and on building sites, in the street, schools and markets.

Actions by the Fascists

From 1970 onward, the Right made a concerted effort to take power, and by late summer 1973 The Washington Post was reporting publicy about CIA involvement in the effort. Attempts were made to impeach Allende but these efforts failed dramatically. In the streets, the letters SACO, System of Organized Civil Action, appeared as graffiti on the walls of Santiago, announcing a campaign of violence by the Patria y Libertad, who’s paramilitary units had tried sveral times to hurt or kill Víctor, each time producing a lucky escape. Another slogan rising from the right was ‘”Jakarta is coming”, referencing and alluding to the massacre of hundreds of thousands of communists in Indonesia in 1965. “We worked to a background of shouting in the street, the noise of breaking glass, the crunch of tear-gas grenades exploding, and their sickly, stifling fumes seeping up even to the seventh floor. Several times a week we would have to run the gauntlet of a street riot in order to get to work, taking refuge in shops or arcades until these too became so chronically full of tear-gas that the air never cleared.” (-Joan Jara)

In the winter the supervisors of El Teniente copper mine struck, under the guidance of the Christian Democrat Party, but many miners refused to recognize the strike and continued working. Students with technical skills boarded busses to the mines outside of Rancagua to assist in the efforts of the miners. In her biography of her husbands, “History is a Weapon”, Joan Jara recalls:

“Víctor went with them on more than one occasion. I remember driving him down to the Technical University early one morning to join the bus. As we waited for it to fill up with students, I got into conversation with two hippy-looking gringos with a guitar, who were sitting on the campus steps. They told me that they wanted to go to the mine to show their support for the miners and maybe sing a few songs to tell them that many Americans condemned the policies of the US government. Apparently the Chilean students didn’t trust them and hadn’t given them permission to get on the bus. As the conversation progressed, they introduced themselves as Phil Ochs and Jerry Rubin. I took them over to where Víctor was deep in conversation with the organisers of the expedition and he intervened to allow them to go with the group. They spent all day with Víctor, going into the mine with him. They heard him singing and talking to the miners and were impressed with his easy relationship with them and how much they appreciated his songs. Víctor gave them a chance to speak and to sing a few songs, translating for them, and then all together they sang Pete Seeger’s ‘If I had a hammer’. The three of them had such a good time together that in the evening, when they reached Santiago, Víctor took them to the Peña, where they were warmly received.”

Phil Ochs would later write one of his greatest songs, “When I’m Gone”, about his friend Víctor Jara.

“I Don’t Want My Country Divided”

On May 26th, Víctor’s friend and fellow artist Pablo Neruda appeared on the National Television calling on all artists and intellectuals, both in Chile and abroad, to join him in an attempt to alert the people to the dangers of fascism and to avert civil war. The cultural movement responded to Neruda’s call, organizing exhibitions and television programs and setting up the “cultural open-air I marathon” in the Plaza de la Constitución in Santiago, with hundreds of artists, poets, theatre and dance groups, musicians and song groups taking part and thousands of people coming out.

For his share, as well as singing, Víctor directed a series of programmes for the National Television Channel with a common theme: a warning, relating documentary material about Nazi Germany and the Spanish Civil War to the situation in Chile, to make people aware of the real dangers of the same things happening here and now. Víctor had put to music one of Neruda’s latest poems which had the refrain ‘I don’t want my country divided . . .’, and he sang it as the opening theme for each programme.

El Pueblo Unido

In the 1973 elections, despite the attempts by the right to destabalize the coalition, Popular Unity drew nearly 40 percent of the vote, bringing Allende the presidency through 1976. According to Joan, it was at this moment that forces on the right decided to overthrow Allende through a military coup: “Committees of defence were set up in factories, universities, schools, government buildings, to prevent sabotage or occupation by the opposition. Our Faculty had to be guarded twenty-four hours a day, with teachers, ballet dancers, students and all the staff taking turns to keep night-watch, sleeping on improvised camp beds in offices and studios.”

An attempted coup on June 29th, 1973 (called “Tancazo”) led by Colonel Roberto Souper, with the complicity and participation of Patria y Libertad, took 22 lives, but failed when elements of the military, most notably the Palace Guard, refused to turn on Allende. After Tancazo’s failure and the breakdown of attempted negotiations between the Popular Unity and the Christian Democrats, the Right put it’s full weight and attention on sympathetic officers in the military. Attacks began against members of the Popular Unity government and against union leaders and workers. The Right bombed electricity stations and cut power lines while their allies, the US Navy, brought warships to the coast near Valparaiso to run operations with the Chilean Navy.

On September 3rd, a march of over a million people gathered in downtown Santiago in support of Popular Unity and against the fascists. After a long march, Joan remembers, “we emerge, at last, into Plaza de la Constitución, it is already completely dark. Little by little we edge forward until it is our turn to pass the long platform where Allende is sitting with all the leaders of Popular Unity … they must have been here for hours already he looks tired … one by one we recognise and salute them, although we notice that the new Commanders-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Merino, Leigh and Pinochet, are not among them. Everyone is shouting ‘Allende, Allende, el pueblo te defiende!’ and ‘El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!’ We feel the great power of all that mass of people and think that it will be impossible to kill us all … more than a million of us saluted Allende that day… The great march of 3 September 1973 turned out to be the people’s farewell to Salvador Allende.”

The Final Coup

On the morning of September 11th, Santiago woke up to the sounds of Salvador Allende’s last speech, the rising smoke and explosions visible to those downtown. The Chilean military, under the rule of General Augusto Pinochet, with the collusion and financial assistance of the United States CIA, were bombing the Moneda Palace. President Allende was to be appearing at the Technical University that morning to open an exibition on the dangers of civil war and fascism, where Víctor was to sing. He was killed that morning.

Expecting the big attack to come, Víctor and many others heeded the call of CUT, the Chilean Trade Union, to keep on life as normal, to not allow the fascists to take the city over, and went to work as normal, staying tuned to the radio. As Víctor and nearly a thousand students and teachers gathered at the Technical University, the military attacked, shelling the walls and attempting to enter the courtyard. Shots entering the university from the street produced one of the first casualties of the coup, a young student hit in the courtyard by a rifle bullet. Víctor sang songs that night to his comrades to keep up morale and spent most of the night with several others hiding out in a room near the road, having to evacuate in the morning as soldiers broke in through the doors.

The soldiers rounded up everyone at the univeristy and forced them to march to Estadio Chile, the Chile Stadium. As his group entered the stadium, Víctor was recognized by an officer who beat him and singled him out from the group. He was subsequnetly taken downstairs and tortured, his hands shredded, his eye swollen shut, ribs broken, his body beaten and torn. Later that night, friends of Víctor saw him in the basement being beaten by the rifle butts of soldiers, lying in a hallway where he had often prepared to sing.

Amid an atmosphere of terror, with soldiers firing their rifles over the heads of prisoners, spotlights shining day and night to disorient them, ongoing torture, suicides and murders, Víctor was able to escape several times to sneak upstairs where he met back up with the folks he’d spent the 11th with at the Univeristy. According to some of these prisoners, Víctor kept up their hope and commitment, not letting the terror of the soldiers destroy them. His comrades cleaned the blood from his face and tried to comfort him. During one of these meet-ups, on his last day at the Chile Stadium, Víctor penned his last poem on a small scrap of paper:

There are five thousand of us here
in this small part of the city.
We are five thousand.
I wonder how many we are in all
in the cities and in the whole country?
Here alone
are ten thousand hands which plant seeds
and make the factories run.
How much humanity
exposed to hunger, cold, panic, pain,
moral pressure, terror and insanity?

Six of us were lost
as if into starry space.
One dead, another beaten as I could never have believed
a human being could be beaten.
The other four wanted to end their terror
one jumping into nothingness,
another beating his head against a wall,
but all with the fixed stare of death.

What horror the face of fascism creates!
They carry out their plans with knife-like precision.
Nothing matters to them.
To them, blood equals medals,
slaughter is an act of heroism.
Oh God, is this the world that you created,
for this your seven days of wonder and work? Within these four walls only a number exists
which does not progress,
which slowly will wish more and more for death.
But suddenly my conscience awakes
and I see that this tide has no heartbeat,
only the pulse of machines
and the military showing their midwives’ faces
full of sweetness.

Let Mexico, Cuba and the world
cry out against this atrocity!
We are ten thousand hands
which can produce nothing.
How many of us in the whole country?
The blood of our President, our compañero,
will strike with more strength than bombs and machine guns!
So will our fist strike again!

How hard it is to sing
when I must sing of horror.
Horror which I am living,
horror which I am dying.
To see myself among so much
and so many moments of infinity
in which silence and screams
are the end of my song.
What I see, I have never seen
What I have felt and what I feel
Will give birth to the moment…

The untitled poem, often called “Estadio Nacional”, was handed off to another prisoner to be smuggled out of the stadium, but it was discovered in his sock when the prisoner was strip-tortured at the National Stadium. Víctor’s comrades in the stadium tried to memorize it as well, to share it with the world. Somehow, the poem made it out and it found its way to Joan.

September 15th

By the 14th, hundreds of prisoners were being transferred to the National Stadium, where Víctor had sung his songs to large crowds in the past. As they were loaded onto over 200 busses, Víctor was separated from his comrades and tortured more. Joan tells us of a prisoner who witnessed one incident where Víctor was “publicly abused and beaten, the officer nicknamed the Prince shouting at him, on the verge of hysteria, losing control of himself, ‘Sing now, if you can, you bastard!’ and Víctor’s voice raised in the Stadium after those four days of suffering to sing a verse of the hymn of Popular Unity, ‘Venceremos’. Then he was beaten down and dragged away for the last phase of his agony.”

It was somewhere between here and the Metropolitan Cemetery that Víctor was killed. His thin body, littered with 34 machine-gun bullets, was discovered by a group of women on September 16th as they searched for identifiable dead.

On the morning of September 18th, a young communist came to Joan’s door to inform her of the news. Víctor’s body was lying at the morgue, along with the unidentifiable bodies hundreds of young people. Joan and the young man carefully made their way to the morgue to confirm Víctor’s death, where they realized the depth of the coup’s victims. Víctor was only one of over 3,000 registered dead, all murdered ruthlessly by the soldiers of General Pinochet. A small paragraph appeared in the newspaper several days later, saying the Víctor had died, not mentioning any of the circumstances, not mentioning that he had been killed by soldiers.


The Pinochet Coup ended Chile’s democracy and brought nearly two decades of U.S. directed dictatorship, complete with a new neoliberal economic system imposed by the International Monetary Fund. The IMF’s plan, which used Chile as a Guinea Pig for new aggressive economic policy overseen by Chicago University’s Milton Friedman, destroyed Chile’s economy and brought millions of Chilean’s into poverty.

In December 2004, Chilean judge Juan Carlos Urrutia prosecuted then retired Lieutenant-Colonel, Mario Manriquez Bravo, the highest commanding officer in charge at the National Stadium during 1973, for the murder of Víctor Jara. A year later a newsarticle appeared that traced Víctor’s murder specifically to Edwin Dimter Bianchi, the military officer known as “The Prince” mentioned earlier, a 1970 graduate of the U.S. School of the Americas, a trainnig ground run by the United States for Latin American officers, soldiers and death squads. then located in Panama, now at Ft. Benning in Columbus, Georgia. Dimter was eventually discharged but remained a military-government worker through the year 2000. He has never been charged for the murder of Víctor Jara or any of the other prisoners in the Chile Stadium.

Víctor’s Legacy

That Víctor’s music lives on is a strange and amazing story. Pinochet’s government ordered the destruction of Víctor’s records, along with the music and writings of many other artists. Soldiers raided the record label that housed Víctor’s masters and destroyed them. EMI Records followed Pinochet’s advice and destroyed their recordings of Víctor’s as well, and other record labels would not re-press his music.

But Joan Jara managed to preserve the records she had at her house, including some un-mastered originals that Víctor had been recording shorty before his death, and was able to smuggle them out of the country with the help of a Swedish TV crew. A month after the coup, Joan fled Chile in secret and headed to Europe, where she got Víctor’s records back. The group that stepped forward to preserve Víctor’s legacy and words was the Beatles, who made Joan new masters of the records she had at their studio in England.

Víctor’s story, his words, his voice and his contribution to the cultural and political Left are an inspiration across the world still today. He is reguarded as a hero in Chilean culture and a symbol of resistance against fascism. The Chile Stadium was renamed Estadio Víctor Jara, Víctor Jara Stadium, in September of 2003, 30 years after his death. We hold Victor’s memory close because he, like many others revolutionary musicians, participated directly in the movements he sang about and put his life on the line with other people in struggle.

The Folk Process VS Intellectual Property

In Music & Art on October 22, 2008 at 4:24 pm

from Even If Your Voice Shakes – Issue #2, Fall 2008

An email was sent to me recently regarding my song “What Did You Learn on the News”. The writer opened his letter by stating his appreciation of my music and that he was glad someone was writing modern political songs.

The bulk of the email was concerning my use of a tune (and concept) I learned from Tom Paxton’s “What Did You Learn In School Today”. The writer was quite uncomfortable with my song, calling is “plagiarism” and wondering if I had gone through the appropriate channels before using the tune, only backing from that term if I had properly cited Tom in my albums or performances.

Discussing the “folk process”, the process by which songs are written, re-written, changed, and shared, he hoped I had done the right thing. The email ended saying that the writer would love to share “my” music with people (the quotes meaning to say that this music isn’t mine, it’s Tom Paxton’s or someone else’s) but “I’m hesitant to recommend “your” music to anyone until I confirm that you are properly citing and not “stealing” another’s intellectual property.”

So I thought this was a topic that a radical folk singer needs to explore in writing.

For starters, I respect Tom Paxton a lot, that’s why I paid homage to him in song. And I do give credit to him in the liner notes of that album and often at shows, but not always. Anyways, Tom Paxton is one of the finer political folk singers in U.S. history, and he’s still got it. A listen on his website (www.tompaxton.com), especially his “George W. Told That Nation”, a re-write of his own song “Lyndon Johnson Told That Nation”, will show you this. He also helped really define the “topical songwriter”, which produced many of the recent voices from the radical folk-scene, myself included.

There’s a certain level of respect deserved to those who’ve stayed in it for decades without selling out big or wilting too hard. Jim Page is another who goes in this category. Of course, I can’t say that same for Bob Dylan, though it may (and has before) pissed off the older folks out there.


Most of the “greats” of the 60’s, Dylan included, ripped tunes off Guthrie and other earlier American, African-American and Irish artists. Most African-American and Irish tunes don’t even have authors, as centuries of the folk process have delivered them to the commons, perhaps as the artists wished. In Guthrie’s case, he made it clear when he said “This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ours, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”

In fact, during the 2004 Election-parody controversy (when the web-based animation site JibJab was sued by Ludlow Music, the owners of the rights to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”, NPR suggested that Woody lifted the tune for This Land from a 1930 Carter Family gospel tune called “When The World’s On Fire”. Woody also used tunes like the Carter Family’s big hit “Wildwood Flower” for his “The Sinking of the Reuben James”, which apparently is a re-write of an 1800’s pop song. Woody once said of Carter “He was a great song stealer, but I was greater than he, because I stole some of his.” Woody didn’t just steal from the Carter Family. He also took the tune of “Red Wing” by Kerry Mills and wrote “Union Maid”.

An online blogger pointed out a Pete Seeger quote on Woody: “He tended to write words first, and later on picked out a tune. Woody once said, ‘When I’m writing a song and I get the words, I look around for some tune that has proved its popularity with the people.'” And many have lifted Woody’s tunes. Bob Dylan used Woody’s “1913 Massacre” for his “Song For Woody Guthrie” (which I also lifted for “Appalachian Mountain Massacre”. And countless folk singers (Paxton included) have used “Talkin Blues” styles derived from Guthrie and other earlier songwriters.

Woody took the tune of “John Hardy” and wrote “Tom Joad” to it, then Phil Ochs took this same tune and wrote “Joe Hill”. Joe Hill, the famous Wobbly folk singer at the turn of the century, and maybe one of the most respected activist-folk singers in history, stole almost all his tunes. The tune of his most well-known song, “The Preacher and the Slave”, was jacked from a Salvation Army hymn called “In the Sweet Bye and Bye”. “The White Slave” was jacked from Leo Frieman’s “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland”. “Should I Ever be a Soldier” was jacked from Fred Helf’s “Colleen Bawn”.

Other IWW folk-singers jacked tunes as well. Goddard Graves used the black spiritual “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” to write “Go I Will Send Thee”, a union song. John Brill used “Take it to the Lord in Prayer” to write “Dump the Bosses Off Your Back”. John Kendrick used “Onward Christian Soldiers” to write “Christians at War”.

“We Shall Overcome” became the theme-song of the Civil Rights movement. However, it was likely derived from a combination of places; The words from a 1903 song by Rev. Charles Tindley and an anonymous gospel tune sung in black churches in the late 1800s, and the tune from the 1794 hymn “O Sanctissima”. Pete Seeger was on of the first artists to record “We Shall Overcome”, and it generally credited with changing the original “I” to “We”. Some trace the final concoction back to Atron Twigg, a composer from the early/mid 1900s.

In the 1930s, Florence Reese wrote one of the most powerful working-class
folk songs of all time, “Which Side Are You On”. Where she got the tune is a debate between the Batist hymn “Lay the Lily Low” and an old British ballad called “Jack Munro”. Either way, she jacked the tune. This tune and concept was recently used by the revolutionary hip-hop trio Rebel Diaz in their modern re-write “Which Side Are You On”, expressing solidarity with various social movements around the world.

In 1855-56, it is believed, William Steffe wrote the song “Brothers Will You Meet Us” to the tune of a camping song, which then became “John Brown’s Body”, a Union Army abolishionist song. In 1861, Julia Ward Howe took the tune and concept and wrote what would later be named “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. This same tune and concept was then used by Ralph Chaplin to write the union-anthem “Solidarity Forever”, which was covered by Pete Seeger and many others.

Along with John Brown’s Body, soldiers in the Civil War may have also heard “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, which some believe was originally an Irish tune. The Irish-American author of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” probably didn’t envision that song being written as “The Ants Go Marching 2 By 2” or Malvina Reynold’s “The Judge Said”. Nor did we envision Billy Bragg’s “The Marching Songs of the Covert Battalions” about the U.S. and CIA war against Nicaragua in the 1980s or Jim Page’s version of the original as an anti-war tune shortly after 9/11. What about fellow Irishman (and Wobbly) James Connolly’s “Moderation”? Or Mark Gunnery’s “Government is War?

Should children singing “The Ants Go Marching 2 By 2” reference Patrick Gilmore? Should those singing “We Shall Overcome” in the streets of Birmingham have paid some royalties to the estates of Atron Twigg or Charles Tindley?


The point of all the above info is that tunes are around, and they come from many places. A folk singer might hear a pop-song, write a similar riff on the guitar with different lyrics, sing it differently, and be credited with an original song. Likewise, someone could lift a tune off of a friend or fellow musicians and become famous for it, hence being credited with that creation of the tune. It seems typical that credit is only “deserved” in our society’s eyes to those who have an official role. Tom Paxton is a folk-singer, by profession. Would it be equally sacreligious of me to use a tune taught to me by my cousin, if he is just a factory worker?

I know the folks who own the rights to lots of Phil Ochs songs don’t like folks re-writing his tunes. And granted they have the right to feel that way, respecting Phil’s art and ideas. But that doesn’t mean folks can’t do it.

I’ve re-written a least 10 Phil Ochs songs, and I do give credit as far as referencing Phil, because I respect him a lot. I like to a sing a line of Phil’s and explain where I got the idea from, since often I’m updating the lyrics (or writing all new ones) based on the original concept, theme or emotion of the song. For instance, Phil’s “I’m Going Down To Mississippi”, about a young Civil Rights activist heading for the South becomes “I’m Going AWOL”, the story of an Iraq-vet refusing to return. Both these songs hold close 2 main themes: A person taking a brave stance but desiring to not be considered a hero and what one person can do with their power. So I updated it so that folks today can hear that beautiful tune with a current and applicable subject-matter, just as Bob Dylan ripped “With God On Our Side” off from Dominic Brehen’s “The Patriot’s Game” (which Brehen had jacked from the “The Merry Month of May”), or Phil had taken “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” from the old Irish folk song, “Rosin the Bow”. Evan Greer of Riot-Folk has also lifted the “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” tune and concept for his updated song of the same name.

What good is an anti-Vietnam war song but to tell history? And that’s important, telling history, but there’s also 150,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq right now. So times like these call for artists and musicians to make cultural change, just as they did during the lives of Malvina Reynolds, Phil Ochs, Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill and Julia Ward Howe. So we look to those from the past for guidance, and if that means we listen to their songs and write an “original” tune then great. But it can also mean we listen to their songs, learn them, and re-write/recycle them so they become relevant tunes again, in the daily lives of the people around us.


The song in question, “What Did You Learn On The News”, is a conceptual and a tune lift. The concept of “What Did You Learn…” made sense to re-use, as Tom’s song discusses the school-system teaching crap to students about U.S. history and mine is about the Corporate Media teaching crap to everyone who watches it. Same crap getting spewed out, same reasons. And though “What Did You Learn In School Today” is still relevant, I made a new song out of it about a different subject. Now both are relevant. Just as Billy Bragg took “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” and wrote “I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night”. Now they both have a beautiful folk-tribute.

“Talking Blues” is also a concept. Someone came up with this at some point, and Woody Guthrie eventually got known for making it popular (which we often wrongly consider synonymous with inventing). Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton all had em’. Tom had “Talkin’ Pop Art” and “Talkin’ Watergate”. Dylan had “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues”. Ochs had “Talkin’ Cuban Crisis”, “Talkin’ Vietnam”, “Talkin’ Airplance Disaster”, and “Talkin’ Birmingham Jam”.

Now none of them came up with the idea to do a song styled like that and then call it “Talkin’ _____”. They lifted the concept, probably from Guthrie, who probably lifted it from someone before him. No one would question if this was ok. Of course it was ok, it’s the folk process! Talking songs have been written as recently as last week, when I took Pete Seeger’s “Talkin’ Union” and wrote “Talkin’ Union Buster”.


Most talking songs (like most folk songs) use the same tunes. There’s really about 3 that are mainly used, the main progressions being G-C-D and C-F-G. If someone is allowed to copyright these chords (which will probably happen someday soon) folk music will be over. So let’s hope that don’t happen. Point being, there’s only so many tunes and there’s only so much the average person can pull of on an acoustic guitar.

What we see from this writing is that folk music has always relied on the use of other song’s tunes, and the constant re-writing of previous songs. It is an organic process that has produced many beautiful songs that are not always (or even usually) competing. There is no need, for instance, to replace “Ludlow Massacre” with my “Kent State Massacre”. They are 2 songs now, covering 2 topics. One could call this “Folk Multiplication”. I’ll take credit with coining that praise, and if anyone else uses it I’ll sue them!

The folk process is not a legal loophole to avoid copyright infringement, in fact, it is often illegal. It is an organic, grassroots process through which people reclaim what belongs in the commons. It is the musical version of planting food in an abandoned lot. So the question isn’t “Was my use of Tom Paxton’s tune a violation of copyright law?”, it’s “Is the copyright law just?”. The history of folk music, the lineage of the songs and artists that produced people like Paxton, Dylan and Ochs, says NO. And I do too.

And I say give credit when it makes sense to give credit and always know inside yourself that you are part of the folk process, connecting by song to so many great people. But I don’t think the folk process extends to those who are trying to jack the process itself, co-opt it and make it “big”. I have no respect for tune-thieves making big profits in the Industry. That is a betrayal of everything “folk” stands for. But if you’re keeping it grassroots, singing for the same reasons as those before you, treading lightly, then take what you want and leave the rest for the next theif!

While Copyright tends to be a “folk process proof” legal mechanism, Creative Commons is a new alternative which many recent folkies have used, which manages to recognize the folk process while at the same time allowing the artists to protest themselves against corporate co-optation. The music industry is the real thief.

In closing, If we want folk music to continue living, evolving and growing, then we need to not just accept, but fully embrace the “folk process” and admire the creativity of the tune-thief. It is this admiration and clever re-writing that has driven our history as folk singers, and will create the next wonderful batch of critical thinking, socially active, semi-out-of-tune song-writers.

***While doing research for this, I found another re-write called “What Did You Hear on the News Today” by “wildwest” online, at http://www.amiright.com/parody/60s/tompaxton1.shtml***

To Sign Or Not To Sign: Navigating Anti-Stardom in Autograph Culture

In Music & Art on October 22, 2008 at 3:22 pm

from Even If Your Voice Shakes – Issue #2, Fall 2008

A member of the radical union Industrial Workers of the World IWW, in his maybe his 40’s, came up to me once in Chicago: “I’m not into autographs, but I am into irony”. With that he handed me his Red Card, the little folded piece of paper that shows his membership to the IWW, and a pen. “Me too”, I said, as I took his Red Card and signed it. I thought it was a lovely and rather funny scenario. Here is this sorta-old timer, a radical union-member asking me to sign one of the most significant papers he carries, out of respect because I am singing songs that make him feel the power of his/our politics, and carrying on the tradition of the IWW hero Joe Hill. So some coming from this dude it was certainly a gesture of solidarity and respect, and a big compliment. Not giving me the social power in the situation, but a mutual-appreciation of each other.

Unfortunately, most autograph run-ins are much more awkward, star-struck, and weird, and undoubtedly give the social power to the signer. As a radical musician and increasingly a “personality” (the name given to you when people think they know who you are because they listen to your music or have read about you), I wanna take a stand against autographs and autograph-culture. And I wanna do this because the autograph represents to much about our society and culture.


Wikipedia traces the big autograph craze to the 1920’s and the emergence of major U.S. sports stars, like Babe Ruth and Red Grange, and the emergence of autograph collecting and trading to the murder of John Lennon and attacks against Reagan and Pope John Paul II, which caused a world-wide increase in personal security details. So when it became much harder to approach these famous people, the autograph, according to the general rules of economics, became an expensive scarcity.

By the 90’s, the online-autographs trading industry seems to have become the typical medium for profiting form people’s signatures. Collectors hassle famous people in various way; outside of sports arenas, at the airport, on the street outside of a restaurant, and, according to Wikipedia, “some dealers would locate a celebrity’s home address and write to them repeatedly asking for autographs.” These people then sell the autographs to collectors, who I assume worship them from the other side of glass cases before the re-sell them later when the price increases.

Within this culture, there are those who refuse their signatures and there are those who sign often, and of course there are in betweens. People like Michael Jordan didn’t sign for safety reasons, because autograph-nuts would threaten to pile his vehicle. George Foreman allegedly records the names and addresses of every person who has requested an autograph from him so he can check against repeat-offenders. Kinda crazy huh?

Some stars also personally sell their autographs to the harassing trader, recognizing the value of their signature and wanting to get a piece of it, which is arguably economically fair. Of course, sports stars are not hurting for money, as we all know, but the autograph collecting eBay dealer probably isn’t either.

As I see it, there is a larger social and cultural context through which to view the autograph argument, one in which the star carries a lot of social power and responsibility.


Sometimes when someone approaches you for you signature, you feel as though refusing would be taken as a gesture of holy-than-thou stardom, or a selfish disrespect for “your fans”. A typical scenarios is a younger person, perhaps in their mid-teens, who approaches you in a very shy and submissive way, and they want you to sign something. So you are faced with the decision to sign or not to sign, taking in the context that you are in a dominant social position. While this doesn’t happen nearly as much in the “underground” radical music scene, it certainly happens enough for me.

It is hard, when approached with an autograph request, to go separate ways without one feeling awkward. For instance, if someone asks me for a signature, and I flatly refuse, the asker is gonna walk away feeling shit-on, like I’m a selfish asshole and they a re not important. If I refuse nicely, with a conversation, they may leave feeling silly. But what about me? I don’t want people coming up to me for my signature, as if that represents anything about or contributes in any way to a friendship or the development of an alternative culture. So why should I sign? If I sign flatly, I leave feeling like I didn’t stand up for my desire to not be a “star”. If I refuse to sign flatly, I leave feeling like that was a mean thing to do. It’s all complicated.

To add to the general social complications involved in such encounter, involving multiple layers of social and cultural power, dominant and submissive “roles” being played, and multiple options of where to take the encounter, there are the personal complications of the moment. Like, say I just finished performing and I need to take a piss because I just woofed down 4 glasses of water during my set. Or I just sang an emotionally-charged group of songs about deeply important issues/people, and someone comes up not to talk to me or relate or introduce themselves and share a story, but just to silently get my signed-name on a piece of paper and then leave, maybe just to have it, maybe to show it to someone, or, hopefully not too much for me, to sell it to one of those freak autograph-worshiper. Point being, there are several reasons why you would be annoyed at being approached.

Most of all, when people approach me for an autograph, I say to myself “What have a said or done that makes someone want my freaking signature?”. I thought the whole way I perform, booking my own shows, playing small or non-venues, avoiding stages, talking to folks and being personable, and in most ways differing from anything in the mainstream pop-culture, created a new cultural appreciation for music and would make people a little less starstruck and awkward.

So what do you do? Some people love it. They sign it and it boosts their big rock-ego. Some sign it blushing, probably an early stage in the process of developing the previously mentioned response. Some people sign it reluctantly or without any emotion of thought at all, just to get it over with and continue heading to the bathroom. Some with the rock-star attitude refuse flatly, using their power to refuse to boost their big ego.

Others, like myself, try to engage the person while refusing to sign. “What’s your name?”, “Do you make music or anything?”. Become human. Remind them that you are two humans. Defuse the autograph culture. While this can still leave someone feeling a bit foolish for getting caught up in the “submissive fan role” (read my Friends NOT Fans writing in issue #1), it also helps humanize both parties and ideally erase any notion of dominance between the performer and the audience member.

So then next time you see that person , you can say “Hi” and catch-up, now that you’ve introduced yourselves. And you can interact as fellow humans, not as a “star” and a “fan”.


A good organizer, as well as a good radical musician, sees each awkward autograph moment as a moment of intervention, a time to put stuff on the table and do some cultural work. So I try to fight it each time it appears, respectfully if possible.

You can’t usually pick the venue for cultural change work, typically it picks you. To fight racism, you don’t just go into certain neighborhoods and setup a table and start talking to people (I mean, you can certainly go to certain neighborhoods and talk to people about racism, but that’s not typically how you’re gonna change minds). More often, you battle racism as you encounter it in your life, with family members, with yourself, with your close friends, co-workers, etc. It rears its head and you either stay silent or you challenge it. That’s cultural work, and taking on autograph-culture is too. And as with most things, you can preach til your lungs collapse, but you gotta practice what you preach. So sing what you sing, but if you don’t work respectfully in your life according to the principles you espouse, you are really just a “performer”, not a culture-changer.

So, while writing this little article about autograph-culture, I may give some folks some food for thought, but the real “fight” against stardom takes place in the moments on-and-off “the stage”. To all you musicians out there who may encounter the awkward autograph-request, remember: You have a choice. You can explain your position, defuse the situation, and make some sense out of an otherwise senseless encounter. Or you can reason with the autograph culture and find some sense in it. Or you can pump the ego. I recommend the first option.

Friends Not Fans

In Music & Art on April 22, 2007 at 5:11 pm

Challening Performer/Audience Roles

from Even If Your Voice Shakes – Issue #1, Spring 2007

We live in a society dominated by pop-culture stereotypes, assumptions, and interactions. We also live in a free-market society, where we learn early that our goal should be to profit, to achieve business success, and to attain a social standing that is considered appropriate by the media and the government.

As we grow up around these media-images and the pressure to fit into molds, we have to choose many sides, and have many sides chosen for us. We have to decide to be Republicans or Democrats, students or soldiers, “mainstream” or “alternative”, etc. Then we have ideas imposed upon us by the media and society, where we are beautiful or ugly, smart or dumb, Hard-working or lazy, powerful or powerless. We grow up around this pressure and more then often, we grow to fit the mold perfectly. The process of schooling, the job market, and the great “ladder of success” teaches us every step of the way how to act out these decisions and how to fit into society without questioning injustices or desiring (let alone knowing how to go about achieving), alternatives.

This dynamic is replicated in the music world in the relationship between “the performer” and “the fan”. The corporate record label-world is obsessed with the fan and consumer society is obsessed with the performer. The performer sets the image the corporate-media feeds to society, which generates consumer demand and thus profits for the record companies. The fan is the helpless giver of labor and time, in the form on money, to the company. In return they get commodified and packaged art, if they are lucky, and they enter the cycle to have their thoughts, desires, opinions, and emotions dictated and manipulated by the media. The performer is stripped of their art and message, and reduced to a series of numbers in the annual reports of the business. The company utilizes both of them to its advantage and dominates the cultural, artistic, and social fabric of the music world.


As a sort of stab at major labels, lots of scenes emerge out of “nowhere”, with local bands, personalities, politics, and products. The DIY punk scene and the underground hip-hop scene are two clear examples, and there are countless others. These begin as movements, in an often vocalized but indirect response to the major labels. As time goes on, these movements either make it or break it, in other words, they build a strong independent foundation and an alternative culture, or all their bands sell out, their participants enter the consumer-cycle, and their politics and culture are glossed away by the forces of the profit machine.

What I am discussing here is the unhealthy dynamics between the crowd and the musician, the audience and the entertainer. I select this from the mess of problems because I feel it is at the root of the sell out problem and a leading factor in the destruction of alternative culture art movements. Other factors include the disassociation of art from politics, the greed derived from opportunities offered by record companies, and the seemingly unavoidable stress derived from movements that combat popular culture, corporations and government.


As part of our participation in pop-culture, we learn early to choose sides in the game. We are either “fans”, “up and coming” artists, or “stars”. The “fan” is taught that they are far below the star, and to always be taught, talked to and mesmerized by the star, but never to take that power into their own hands or feel equal. The “up and coming” artists are to never be content to perform in their current form, but must practice, decorate themselves, and compromise their ideals so that they can be swept into the waves of stardom by the media and recording industry. The “star” is taught to be the almighty, to be desired and respected, to entertain, to be a role model, and most of all, to serve.

A role model is someone whom you choose to model your roles after, imitate, and try to achieve the status of. This is fine when it’s a respected peer or elder or someone whom you have much to learn from, and it is not a bad thing by default. When a role model is looked up to in a healthy way, the individual makes decisions based on an understanding of themselves and goes through a process of challenges that ends with their attitudes and lifestyles changing. When a role model is looked up to in a negative way, the individual imitates behaviors and attitudes with little-to-no analysis of why they are enacted, and little-to-no understanding of the effects they have on other people’s behaviors and attitudes.

When a role model is in a position of power based on external forces like the market, media schemes, and dominating stereotypes, you will be led to enact behaviors that lead to the downfall of healthy social relationships and you will recreate yourself as a prop for the system.

This is not to say that the idea of having an audience watch a person’s art and words is bad or that it’s bad to relate to someone’s art and return your respect for that. It is not to say that the idea of a bunch of people sitting in a room listening to someone’s thoughts is unhealthy, or that every show should be an open-stage for all. It is to say that these interactions must be based on voluntary actions and mutual respect, with no side assuming any sort of power or authority over the other, and with each side gaining from the interaction.

This argument can be extended to the payment discussion. At a “real concert,” the artist automatically assumes that they deserve payment for their art and the audience assumes they should pay, with no analysis of why and no understanding of where that money is coming from and where it’s going. This is a capitalist model, with the artist producing and everyone else consuming. A healthy performance model would mutually benefit both parties, based on a respect that the artist expresses their thoughts through their medium, and the audience learns or becomes inspired or entertained by the experience, creating a circle of benefit.

Political art is driven by the alarm of urgency and the need to express standpoints and info on important subjects, while mainstream art is driven by the desire for wealth and the power-drive of having people desire your media-personality.


As an “up and coming” musician you are taught to achieve “success” by selling your words and art to a major label, playing to larger crowds, making heaps of money, and furthering yourself from the personal connections with folks who attend your events. You are supposed to have “fans” and interact with them as “fans”. You learn to build up an image of yourself that is different from who you really are, to act out roles that you don’t really embody as a person. A cult of personality is built around you and this is considered good because it means people care about you and are interested in who you are. This is considered good by pop culture, as it maintains the dominant/submissive archetype that holds up this system of power.

What is really happening is that you are fulfilling the demand, by a capitalist market and an authoritarian consumer society, for a superstar personality, a fake, lifeless entertainer who will make big bucks for corporations and avoid real interactions that could lead to social relationships, and a role model for folks in the future to take your role and maintain the stereotypes and behaviors that bring the profit to the companies. The big record labels build stables for their workhorses and show them off like prizes, with untouchable faces and unattainable abilities.

To question this dynamic would be to realize that talent and ability, artistic genius and technique, knowledge and compassion, have nothing to do with the record industry’s definition of “success”. To the industry, the marketability and profitability and of an artist determines their status. Companies don’t buy artists because they are good people or because they can play piano well or have amazing lyrics, they buy them because they sell. The record companies have about as much care for music and art as McDonalds does for food quality and health, or Exxon has for sustainable energy. Profiteers co-opt things that previously don’t exist as commodities, and they commodity them, i.e. they turn them into products to be sold and profited from.


The man on the street with his hat out for change makes music 10 times better than the one on the TV with his face painted, but remains unnoticed. This is because our culture has been taught by the schools and media to only give special attention and care, not to mention money, time, and labor, to that which is official. Raising children or working in a community garden growing food is not considered “work” because it is not legally sanctioned as such by the state or a corporation.

Our definitions and understandings of ability, skill, genius, artistic expression, and labor are based on media-images and state or corporate “officialization”. If the man on the street got a record deal and had his face plastered on a few walls, all of a sudden a crowd of those same people who previously ignored him would emerge proclaiming their admiration and respect.

When a new CD comes out, posters, placards, and life-size replicas emerge, urging the consumer to buy what is “hot”, what is said to be quality. Our minds say, “If they went this far to promote this, it must be good”, while the media says “Buy this, it is the best thing yet”. Simply by making this statement, the industry sets the standard that then becomes our opinion. We buy it, and if we aren’t impressed, our impressions are created by the media. We grow to like it, because we are passive to the media, the star, and the market.


The “mystification of the performance” refers to the media-image of the “unattainable” skill of the “untouchable” star. It describes the situation present from the large rock concert to the backyard punk show, where the performer is seen as an almost nonhuman image, to be desired and respected by default without regards to their words and actions.

We have already discussed a bit about what I call the “two bad roles”. These are the “dominating performer” and the “submissive fan”. These roles are repeated everywhere, in every scene, on every screen, and on every level, and they are the social basis of corporate music and some of the strongest roots of the mystification of a show or performance.

Often the only thing holding an artist from “going big” is the social relationships they hold with the people who like their music. No one in their right mind would rip-off their friends by selling them over-priced shit to profit from it or would treat their friends as passive admirers and disposable statistics on a ratings sheet. That is why the companies need the artist to be in the wrong mind, with their heads in the bank or on TV, to seize and co-opt their art and turn them into servants.

“Going big” is the final goal of the artist in the corporate game and it often becomes the goal of the garage band or the “up-and-coming” performer. Two processes combine to create this status, usually occurring at the same time as each other. The first we will call “stepping up”, the process through which an artist betrays their friends and separates themselves from social relationships with “their fans” and assumes a position of power over them. The second is “selling out”, the process through which the artist voluntarily, or via the record-company, turns their art into a commodity for profit. Together, these 2 forces create the mass-media version of art, the disposable and profitable alternative to independent culture.


But we cannot only blame the companies for this process, just as we cannot only blame the government for racism, sexism, homophobia, and greed. The government seizes upon weaknesses in our society and exploits them, often feeding us the bait and profiting from the actions that we take on our own terms. In this same way, the record industry seizes on weaknesses in our alternative cultures and scenes, and watches their downfalls unravel from afar.

The performer must also be blamed as an enactor of the star syndrome, just as society must also be blamed for the actions of governments. The performer builds up their ego and then enforces it, often perpetuating the media-image on smaller terms. They assume roles of dominance, talk down to people, stop caring about social interactions, and often wear their sex appeal on their sleeves and exploit the passive roles of the “fan.” The performer props themselves up on these crutches and finds power in the molds of the star, even when they are just playing for a few people in a basement, and that’s how it starts.

The performer must work on every level they can to challenge this behavior, to recognize the manipulation that is inherent in the corporate media, to refuse the power that is available through ignorance, disempowerment, and subservience, and to be conscious of their position of power as a role model, to use it wisely and respectfully, and to take criticism as a public figure. There is a lot of power in the hands of someone who gets the social space to express themselves through art, which is allowed by those who give that person that space. To abuse this power is to turn your back on those folks, to seize it, and to exploit those people. The record industry is the master of this process and urges people to take the power for themselves, to not give it back out in the form of empowerment, education or healthy entertainment.

There are a million external pressures and opportunities urging the performer to switch sides, to betray the people and work for the corporations, and it is the responsibility of the conscious performer to deny this privilege and participate in the construction of alternative culture, with respectful and mutual interactions and social relationships.


The “passive fan role” describes one manifestation of an attitude and set of behavior-patterns that people enact in our society when faced with hierarchy. When someone assumes power over someone else, both sides take on roles that fit that interaction. For instance, when the principal tells you you’re in trouble, you become in trouble, on your own terms. Your thoughts become the thoughts of a criminal and you take on the personality that has been assigned to you. There are power-figures all over the place trying to make you feel weak and powerless, but the final decision resides inside of you. You can change those power dynamics by recognizing the situation and refusing to play the passive role.

We grow up to desire comfort over anything else, to not raise too much fuss over anything, to accept how things are and to try to fit in somehow. We are never taught to question social interactions, to dream of a different culture, to stand up for ourselves. I’ve seen teachers treat students like shit because they don’t pay attention in class, treating them like they are stupid. In turn, I’ve seen those students enact behaviors that fit this label. Their hope and self-worth are crushed by power-figures and they submit to the standards of the box they fit in. They become what the power-figure wants them to become, because that’s the easiest thing to do. Attempting to change a social-dynamic that is the foundation of our culture is a revolutionary act and is something that will be eternally criminalized by this society.

This role transfers to the performance, where performers so often try to assume dominance over the crowd, to put themselves in a position of power above them. What happens on the crowds’ side is that many folks assume the submissive roles that they learned in school, and the cycle repeats. This gives the power to the performer, allowing them to disconnect themselves from society and see themselves as higher ups, to not be questioned. As mentioned above, the performer is obviously a main source of blame for this, but it’s not a black and white picture.

We, as mass society, are to blame for the acts of the powerful because their power is literally derived from our submission. You cannot attain power without being given power. Power exists the same way that energy exists; there is no destruction or creation of it, its just there. When we give our power away we allow other people to dominate us. We must struggle as individuals, and as a group, to take our power back from those who have it and build ourselves back up as strong people. The individual is the most important thing in society, and a strong society is made up of strong individuals. The whole is equal to the sum of its parts.


When you deal with opposing forces, like a master and a servant, there are two main behaviors that lead to certain outcomes. The dominant role of the master is to dominate another and hold them in subjugation. The submissive role of the servants is to grow to accept their oppression and act out the part of a servant. One holds the majority of the blame but one holds the majority of the burden. The attitudes of both affect the other and the social relationship between the two can be the difference. The master can wear a friendly face and be seen as a respected father figure to maintain power or can be the abusive, outright oppressor. The servant can accept subjugation and make the best of it, or resist and act in a role that challenges the master and puts the master’s hold into question, and ultimately liberates them from servitude.

We must challenge every aspect of the recording-industry, which is dedicated to the destruction of social-change, people’s art, and alternative culture. We must recognize what it means to play into their hands, what alternatives look like, how our social behaviors effect the commodification of our art and culture, and how we set ourselves up to be exploited and fall for old tricks. We must recognize how we enact the roles that are set out for us by the industry and learn to destroy them in ourselves so we can build a strong alternative culture that questions everything that capitalism stands for. We must learn to respect each other as individuals and respect each other’s art without falling into submissive roles, and learn how to assist each other in this mutual effort