Monday, April 27, 2015

Thinking about Pete, Poetry, Riots and a Spring Awakening

A few weeks ago, some of my students convinced me to go up to Poughkeepsie for a conference with them.  We’d end up spending the day together, talking, eating lunch, putting on a workshop and making our way back home.  Most are much better organizers that I could ever be, convincing this old prof to take a Saturday he never planned to spend upstate attending yet another conference.  But with them, the whole affair felt worth it.  They inspire me and teach me, helping me laugh and learn every day. 

Over the weeks to come, Spring would grasp us as we celebrated the gardens, workers, jazz, poetry, words of wisdom from Jane Jacobs and Pete Seeger as the Spring Awakening of the gardens was upon us.  Riots would come but no knew yet.  Even our gardens were awakening with flowers and music.

As we do every year, we’d meet for the poetry blocking reminding everyone.

Gardens are places where stories grow. 
Lets plant some Saturday at 1:30. 
See you in the tree at El Jardin Paraiso 
5th St. between Ave. C & D in New York City.

Scenes from Spring Awakening 2014.  NYCCG and Charles Krezell.

A workshop on the organizing lessons of Pete Seeger’s life from the conference  resonated.

Throughout this blog and my books, I have put a lot of thought into the life and times of Pete Seeger.  This session outlined the lessons of his life for organizers. 

Lesson # One, Speak truth to power.  Recall Seeger’s testimony at the House on Unamerican
activities committee on August 18, 1956, when Seeger neither utilized the 5th Amendment, nor named any names.  A link from Seeger’s website recalls the scene.

A Subcommittee of the Committee on Un-American Activities met at 10 a.m., in room 1703 of the Federal Building, Foley Square, New York, New York, the Honorable Francis E. Walter (Chairman) presiding.

MR. TAVENNER: When and where were you born, Mr. Seeger?
MR. SEEGER: I was born in New York in 1919.
MR. TAVENNER: What is your profession or occupation?
MR. SEEGER: Well, I have worked at many things, and my main profession is a student of American folklore, and I make my living as a banjo picker-sort of damning, in some people's opinion.
MR. TAVENNER Has New York been your headquarters for a considerable period of time?
MR. SEEGER: No, I lived here only rarely until I left school, and after a year or two or a few years living here after World War II I got back to the country, where I always felt more at home.
MR. TAVENNER: You say that you were in the Armed Forces of the United States?
MR. SEEGER: About three and a half years.
MR. TAVENNER: Will you tell us please the period of your service?
MR. SEEGER: I went in in July 1942 and I was mustered out in December 1945.
MR. TAVENNER: Did you attain the rank of an officer?
MR. SEEGER: No. After about a year I made Pfc, and just before I got out I got to be T-5, which is in the equivilant of a corporal's rating, a long hard pull.
MR. TAVENNER: Mr. Seeger, prior to your entry in the service in 1942, were you engaged in the practice of your profession in the area of New York?
MR. SEEGER: It is hard to call it a profession. I kind of drifted into it and I never intended to be a musician, and I am glad I am one now, and it is a very honorable profession, but when I started out actually I wanted to be a newspaperman, and when I left school --
CHAIRMAN WALTER: Will you answer the question, please?
MR. SEEGER: I have to explain that it really wasn't my profession, I picked up a little change in it.
CHAIRMAN WALTER: Did you practice your profession?
MR. SEEGER: I sang for people, yes, before World War II, and I also did as early as 1925…  I continued singing, and I expect I always will.
MR. TAVENNER: The Committee has information obtained in part from the Daily Worker indicating that, over a period of time, especially since December of 1945, you took part in numerous entertainment features. I have before me a photostatic copy of the June 20, 1947, issue of the Daily Worker. In a column entitled "What's On" appears this advertisement: "Tonight-Bronx, hear Peter Seeger and his guitar, at Allerton Section housewarming." May I ask you whether or not the Allerton Section was a section of the Communist Party?
MR. SEEGER: Sir, I refuse to answer that question whether it was a quote from the New York Times or the Vegetarian Journal.
MR. TAVENNER: I don't believe there is any more authoritative document in regard to the Communist Party than its official organ, the Daily Worker.
MR. SCHERER: He hasn't answered the question, and he merely said he wouldn't answer whether the article appeared in the New York Times or some other magazine. I ask you to direct the witness to answer the question.
CHAIRMAN WALTER: I direct you to answer.
MR. SEEGER: Sir, the whole line of questioning-
CHAIRMAN WALTER: You have only been asked one question, so far.
MR. SEEGER: I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.
            Seeger would be sentenced to a year in jail for this testimony.  The charges were thrown out on a technicality in 1962. In the meantime, he was blacklisted, unable to play music on television during the peak years of the early 1960’s folk revival.

Lesson # two, work with children.  Seeger spent years performing for kids in schools, especially after he was blacklisted.  So he played at colleges and grammar schools, enlisting kids to sing and think about the world, inviting everyone into the chorus of social change.

“Hopin' we'll all pull through, Hoping we'll all pull through, Hopin' we'll all pull .. through. Me and you,” he’s sing with them, in one of his last songs.  We’d sing as well.  I saw Pete perform this song at a benefit concert on Oct 23, 2010 on Christopher St. 

Lesson # three, be open to learn from everyone you meet.  Pete learned new songs everywhere he went, listening and learning from those around him.

Lesson # four, get everyone to participate.  His point of course was that everyone is a leader.   Everyone has something to share, if only we all participate.  It is a lesson about democracy and living.  We all have something to share.  So he invited everyone to join in at his shows.  Everyone sung together.   After 9/11, he encouraged us, he enlisted us to sing and  remain optimistic.  Take it from Dr King, he sang:

Don’t say it can’t be done
The battles just begun.
You too can learn to sing
So drop the gun.

Lesson # five, be a roll model.  Pete used to happily pick up garbage bags on the street, calling it his secret religion.  He knew it was the right thing to do so he picked up garbage, doing his part as much as he could.  Share in dialogue.

Lesson # seven, communicate.  Speak to history, speak to each other, speak out.  Don't be silent.

Lesson # eight, give credit where credit is due.

Lesson #nine, realize it is not all about you.  Like his musical chorus, movements are not about individuals, they are about collective striving.  As he grew older, he stepped further back allowing others to lead, as he strummed in the back round.

Lesson # ten, encourage and challenge everyone around you.  He always sang:

“Its always darkest before the dawn
When these old fingers can strum no longer,
Its time to pass the old banjo over.”

Lesson #eleven, be optimistic.  History cannot be predicted.

With Pete’s words in mind, the next few weeks churned on.  We played music and said goodbye to friends, it seems happens every March /April.

Black Lives Matter protests broke out in the street and we rallied for workers, for $15 an hour on April 15th.

After the rally, we listened to Roy Hargrove, my old buddy from Dallas Tx.

And we fought for gardens as Pete once did.

Throughout the history of gardens we take part in, we have watched the city change, reveling in its colors, with friends.

We celebrated Earth Day with the borough president, who lead a group of cycling advocates through the city.

After the ride, he told a reporter about the difficulties of riding and the need for us to look out for each other, even when someone or thing is getting in the way. (What he did not mention were police cars in bike and bus lanes just steps from Borough Hall where he works).

And made plans for Spring Awakening

Charles Krezell of LUNGS wrote:

Hey folks–so for tomorrow’s Spring Awakening.

We are going to start out at three different locations and separately cover all the gardens along various and sundry routes, ending with a grand finale at El Jardin about 3pm.
Please join us if you can, it’s a celebration of our gardens!!
Bring your music, your funny walks, your butterfly wings and let’s have a good time.

The Southern troupe will meet at Children’s Magical Garden at 1pm. and will have the “Welcome to the Garden District ” signs and hang them from the gardens on their route.

The Northern crew meets at Dias y Flores at 1pm and will also have the signs and take care of al that biz.

The best in the West meets at Liz Christy at 1pm to begin our walkabout with signs etc.

In the meantime, the world at our final destination, El Jardin, is turning.
a plethora of poets to do stunts of elocution and daring dos at El Jardin, and musicians extrodinaire are preparing to offer musical interludes and April interpretations of the Bunny Rabbit Theme from Chocolateville.
While treats and drinks are being assembled for the assemblage and the heavens will smile in recognition of our humble Spring Awakening 2015.

Please do alter any of this you may find necessary but that’s the bares bones folks.
And invite everybody to join us, act funny and dress well and have a good time.

Below is the REViSED list of the parade routes:

Northern Route begins at 1pm AT Dias y Flores Garden

1. Dias y Flores 13th St Btwn Aves A & B
2. El Sol Brillante 12th St Btwn Aves A & B
3. El Sol Brillante JR. 12thSt Btwn Aves A & B
4. Children’s Garden, 12th St & Ave B
5. Campos Gardens, 12th St Btwn Aves B & C
6.11BC Garden, 11th St Btwn Aves B & C
7.ToyotaChildren’s Garden 11th St Btwn Aves B & C
8.11th St Community Garden 11th St Btwn 1st Ave & Ave A
9. East Side Community High School Garden 11thSt Btwn 1st Ave & Ave A
10. 9C Garden, Ave C & 9th St
11. La Plaza Cultural de Armando Parez, Ave C& 9th St
12. DeColores Garden 8th St Aves B & C
13. Earth People Garden, 8th St Btwn Aves B &C
14. Fireman’s Garden, 8th St Btwn Aves C & D
15. Green Oasis & Gilbert’s Sculpture Garden, 8th St, Aves C & D
16. Sam& Sadie Koenig Garden,7th St Btwn Aves C & D
17. 5th St Slope Garden 5th St west off Ave C.
ENDS El Jardin del Paraiso, 4th St Btwn Aves C & D

Southern Route begins at 1pm AT Children’s Magical Garden
1. Children’s Magical Garden, Norfolk & Stanton Sts
2. Suffolk St Community Garden, Suffolk bwtn Houston and Stanton
3. Clinton St Garden, Clinton & Stanton
4.Siempre Verde Garden, Stanton St (Clinton & Attorney)
5. Le Petit Versailles, 2nd St Btwn Aves B & C
6. Peachtree Garden, 2nd St (B & C)
7. Kenkeleba House Garden 2nd St Btwn Aves B & C
8. Hope Garden, 2nd St (A & B)
9. Miracle Garden, 3rd St (A & B)
10. Los Amigos 3rd St (B & C)
11. Brisas Del Caribe 3rd St (B & C)
12. Generation X 4th St Btwn Aves A & B
13. Secret Garden, 4th St (Ave C)
14. All People’s Garden 3rd st Btwn Aves c 7 D
15. Orchard Alley, 4th St Btwn Aves C & D
16. Parque De Tranquilidad, 4th St Btwn Aves C & D
ENDS El Jardin del Paraiso, 4th St Btwn Aves C & D

Western Route begins at 1pm AT Liz Christy Garden
1. Liz Christy Garden, Houston btwn Bowery & Stanton Sts
2. Albert’s Garden, 2nd St btwn Bowery & Second Ave.
3. LaGuardia Corner Gardens, LaGuardia Place & Bleecker St
4. Elizabeth St Garden, Elizabeth St btwn Prince & Spring
5. M’Finda Kalunga Community Garden, Rivington St. & Christie
6.First St Garden 1st bwtn 1st & 2nd Aves
7.Creative Little Garden 6th St btwn Aves A & B
8. 6B Garden, Ave B & 6th St
9. 6BC Botanical Garden, 6th St btwn Aves B & C

I met everyone at El Jardin Paraiso, where we hung out and read poems, celebrating the gardens and Shakespeare's birthday.

JK and Annie were there.

Paula greeted everyone.

And we got on with the poetry block.

And we read Rumi and Frank Ohara, TS Elliot and Allan Ginsberg.

A surprise visitor joined us. 

JK, my old friend, popped her head into the tree house and lead us in a performance of Dana Lyons’ “I am an animal,” reminding everyone, who sang, “We are all animals.”

We prepared for Janes Walk, looking at the new Whitney, barried on the spectra pipeline, transporting gas between here and there.

What would Jane have thought?

What happens if it blows up? Asked number two.

Finishing the rehearsal, we made our way up to Garrison, where we hiked through the woods, as we did in January, enjoying a few poems in time, feeling the connection between Pete’s old beloved river and the poetry Judith Malina loved. The word soup of ideas and consciousness, as I am you and you are me, and what you believe, I believe, connected through time, as Walt taught us, like the animals and plants, dirt and river that runs through it and us, connecting the gardens and water, poems and performances and the stories of our lives, as kids come and grow, hike stay home, and we wander on our own, between Garrison, San Francisco, Ireland, Las Ramblas, San Francisco, Paris, and god knows where else in between.

“I once started out
to walk around the world
but ended up in Brooklyn.
That Bridge was too much for me.”

Laurence Farlinghetti, Autobiography, P. 62 from A Coney Island of the Mind.

The Spring Awakening is spreading everywhere. We wonder what happened to Freddie Gray?  But it all seems tor tragically familiar.  Its brutal and grotesque.  And it happens all too much. All I know is when, when people without recourse see little other option, they take to the streets. Police cars burn.When official channels bear no results... people riot. 

As James Tracy put it, "Basically two types of people. Those who are outraged at broken spines, and those who are more outraged at broken windows."

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THIS is not senseless. It is the RESULT of systematic, centuries-long dehumanization and oppression.


As my friend Matt Yeazel notes

WBAL TV in Baltimore interviewed a few teenagers minutes ago as to why this happened and one young man said it best, "you close or cut things in our schools, close recreation programs and anything that can help us get out of here. And then you are shocked when some people act this way when the police do bad things. Most of us would never do what they did, but I do understand the reasons why they did it."

"I also insist that Baltimore protests are appropriate regardless of what happened to Freddie Gray, as is more federal scrutiny and intervention. Although much was rightly made of Ferguson's racially unrepresentative local leadership, the presence of a black mayor and a diverse city council has not solved Baltimore's police problem, partly because the DOJ responded to revelations of epidemic brutality with less than the full-scale civil rights probe that some residents requested and because Maryland pols have thwarted reform bills urged by city leaders.
"There are so many good reasons for locals to be outraged."

But maybe this is what had to happen?

After all, as my friend Kate notes:

Remember that a "riot" helped start the LGBT movement. 
What happened to Freddie Gray is a tragedy.  It needs to be treated as such. And it has to stop.

 In between all the chaos, school has been canceled for tomorrow. Whose brilliant idea was that?
Now kids with parents at work get a day off, without food.

Wonder what they will do in the streets?

I do hope there is a place to get something to eat now that school has been closed.
The Black Panthers used to do that. Remember what happened to them?

And people wonder why there are riots.  Maybe the Spring really is awakening?