“conversation music” – mike reed (2017)

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While the weather, being chilly and rainy at times, does not indicate it, summer is her in Chicago.  For the next few months, Chicago citizens who spent all winter hunkered in their homes during what was a particularly tough winter, which included a polar vortex, will be letting it all hang out at their favorite seasonal hotspots.  Whether it be tanning at the beach, sipping tasty beverages on a restaurant patio, or strolling through the park, summertime in Chicago is a fine time.

I had an incredibly busy fall and winter.  Between a writing project and freelancing for a film festival, with all this being in addition to my normal job, I stayed really busy time with overlapping responsibilities.  When summer in Chicago hits, I still fairly busy.  However, unlike all the work I was doing in the months prior, this busy is more about fun in the sun.

Summertime in Chicago makes me a bit anxious because of how short it can be in relation to the lengthy winters.  I feel some anxiety thinking that I must spend as much time as possible outside in the sun so as not to waste it. I’ve recently gotten over that line of thinking and realized that it is ok not to be outside all the time.  Indoor summer fun can be great too.  It is all about moderation.

However, back to the busy schedule.  My summers are typically not very leisurely.  Sure, my job slows down a bit and I do less volunteer shifts with the radio station and folk music school.  But I fill in all the gaps with lots of other activities.  Going to the movies, weddings, hanging with friends, etc.  I’m an active, extroverted person and Chicago summer is mean to be enjoyed.

I do get an occasional weekend where I have nothing scheduled, and sometimes that gives me some anxiety.  However, a nice, long, aimless walk through the neighborhood or a park helps.  I have no particularly place to be but I’m getting myself out of the apartment and immersing myself in the splendor of Chicago summer.

Naturally, I’m just a planner.  Always have been and there’s nothing telling me to stop that now.  So, I don’t get to do many things that are spontaneous.  Sometimes I crave that spontaneity.  But the funny thing is when I have a day where I have nothing scheduled, I spend so much time thinking about what to do and what’s the best way to enjoy the day.  It is like trying to find something watch on Netflix.  You spend more time deciding what to watch than enjoying what you are watching.

Oh well.  I’m told there is no wrong way to spend a summer day in Chicago.  Just wake up, listen to what you want, and then just go do it.

This summer, I want to get out and explore cultural events in the city I have never done or haven’t done in a long time.  One of the great things about living in a major city like Chicago is that there is always stuff do.  Lots of great music, art, and culture in this city.

This past Tuesday, I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art.  Since I volunteer nearly every Tuesday at the music school, I never get a chance to go out the MCA when the main gallery is free to Illinoi residents.  However, a friend of mine invited me to their Tuesdays on the Terrace event, an evening of free music hosted in the terrace garden of the MCA.  It is a weekly event running every Tuesday from the beginning of June through the end of September.

On this occasion, my friend, his girlfriend, another couple, and I got to enjoy the stylistic free jazz drumming of Mike Reed.  With warm, sunny air surrounding us as we chilled on the grass, we listened to the local jazz auteur and had great conversations over wine.

Reed, though born in Germany, was raised in Evanston and started his jazz career in Chicago in the 1990s after graduating with degrees in English and psychology.  He started playing in the local jazz scene with such acts as Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra and the Josh Berman Quartet.  Along with cornetist Josh Berman, Reed has also launched several music cities at various venues around the city including the Hungry Brain.  Reed is also the founding director of the Pitchfork Music Festival and is the owner and director of the performing arts venue Constellation.

In 2017, Reed released the album Flesh & Bone on the label 482 music.  Reed composed and recorded the tracks as well as played drums.  He was backed by a variety of great jazz musicians including Greg Ward on alto saxophone, Jason Roebke on bass, Jason Stein on bass clarinet, and Ben Lamar Gay on cornet.  While there are some tracks that contain spoken word and poetry elements, most of the album is instrumental free jazz.  The third track, “Conversation Music,” is a standout track.  Reed’s drumming is slow and subtle while a sinister saxophone and clarinet undulate throughout the track fluctuating between performing in unison and seemingly in competition with each other.

The MCA knows great art and great music.  If you’re looking for some lowkey summer fun in Chicago, the music you’ll hear at Tuesdays on the Terrace is a good way to go.

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“the shores of normandy” – jim radford (2019)

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Today is the 75th anniversary of D-Day, an Allied invasion of Normandy as part of Operation Overload during World War II.  It is a defining battle during a defining war with effects that still reverberate to this day as the world recognizes veterans from the war, both living and dead, the millions of lives lost from the destruction.

During this time, President Trump has been visiting the United Kingdom and taking part in activities commemorating the anniversary of the battle which signified a major turning part in the war.  With such an occasion, tact and humility are needed to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.  That is not what we get with Trump.

Trump is a coward, as Senator Tammy Duckworth declared, and I have to agree. Trump received five deferments during the Vietnam War, two of which were allegedly for bone spurs.  Now, we have had presidents who have not served in the military and some who have even criticized American involvement with international conflicts.  However, we have not had one that has expressed such cowardice through their denigration of war heroes, false promises to veterans, and maligned understanding of the impact war has on families than Donald Trump.

In an interview with Pier Morgan, Trump discussed his Vietnam stating he “was never a fan” meaning that he did not support American intervention in the country.  While others felt the same way.  Trump also did not actively protest the war.  Others did not as well.  Where Trump’s cowardice comes through is how he is able to rationalize his deferment.

During this interview, Trump stated that his lack of service has been rectified by him being elected president.  Specifically, Trump said, about serving in Vietnam, “I would not have minded that at all. I would have been honored. But I think I make up for it now. I mean look, $700 billion I gave last year and then this year $716 billion and I think I’m making up for it rapidly because we are rebuilding our military at a level that it’s never seen before.”

In response, Senator Duckworth responded to Trump’s comments by saying “I don’t know anyone who has served in uniform, especially in combat, who would say they are a fan of war,” she said. “In fact, I opposed the Iraq war, but volunteered to go when my unit was deployed.”  Donald Trump, who has never been forced to be accountable about anything, is able to, over 40 years later after being issued five deferments, claim he would have proudly served in a war he opposed.

While the Vietnam War was, and remains, rather unpopular in American history, the way World War II has been depicted in popular culture has reflected an opposite, often rose-colored, reputation.  For many reasons, World War II has been revered as a defining moment in recent history, an epic battle of good versus evil, where America, and the Allied forces by extension, represent the last bastion of freedom against the existential threat to democracy by Hitler’s fanatical fascism and his commitment to racial purity enforced through systemic genocide. Even Trump echoes this simplistic understanding of the war with comments during the Piers Morgan interview saying, in conjunction with his view on Vietnam, “But, uh, nobody heard of Vietnam and then say well what are we doing. So many people dying. So I was never a fan of — this isn’t like I’m fighting against Nazi Germany. I’m fighting — we’re fighting against Hitler.”

Our society reveres our veterans, and rightfully so.  However, we cannot ignore the inherent problems within America before, during, and, unfortunately, after World War II.  Breaking down popular conception of the war, there are countless books and resources that document American debate about interfering in European conflicts. And, more disturbingly, there existed a contingent of Americans that championed Hitler’s ideals and leveraged them as a reason to not engage militarily with the dictator.  While high school courses and popular culture may paint such a complex war in simple terms of good versus evil, Americans were divided because of their racism and prejudice.

While fascism went out of style and stayed underground for several decades after World War II, it has come back in a big way.  Since the early 1990s, fascism and neo-Nazis in Europe have quietly garnered support.  And now, in 2019, we are in the middle of the first term of a president who has emboldened fascist contingencies within his base.  The extreme factions of Trump’s support base, consisting of white supremacists, American isolationists, and just plain Nazis, have now become organized, motivated, and vocal on social media, championing the president to continue sowing discord among Americans for beliefs that resulted in a global conflict in which upwards of 85 million people lost their lives.

This conflict is recent history.  There are people who were alive then, some of whom fought.  The idea that we can be so blind to the reality, or even nuance, of war, whittling it down to concepts of good versus bad or right versus wrong, is unsettling.  And even more disturbing is the fact that there are significant social and political movements that want to return to fascist order that resulted in the war.

I know it can be easy to be cynical and be all doom and gloom about the future. Trump certainly doesn’t make it easier.  However, fascism is on the rise in Europe, especially in eastern Europe.  I hope it can be quashed, but it has a strong momentum fueled by racism and political desires to disrupt global alliances and treaties.  As the world solemnly reflects on arguably the most significant of World War II’s defining moments, the idea that we could realistically be in the same position, but with nuclear weapons, is terrifying.

Jim Radford is the youngest known D-Day veteran having served as a ship’s galley boy during the Normandy invasion.  He helped construct a harbor and ran supplies on the beaches.  In 1969, being a fan of folk music, he wrote a song called “The Shores of Normandy.”  In 2019, 75 years after the Normandy invasion and 50 years since writing the song, Radford recorded a version of the song which has hit the number spot of Amazon’s singles chart.

In “The Shores of Normandy,” Radford sings about his experience in the invasion.  About the song and why he chose to record it in 2019, Radford said “It’s very important to me and other veterans that there should be a place like this where people can come and reflect because we’re not going to be around for much longer to tell the story, and the story needs to be told because people need to learn lessons from it.”

Profits from “The Shores of Normandy” will support the British Normandy Memorial.

“stranded” – the gories (1990)

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When you’re young and ambitious, and living in a major city, it is easy to feel anxious.  When you have a sense of what you want to achieve and who you want to be, it is a reflection of an identity you are crafting for yourself.  However, when others disagree with these aspects of the life you want to build then it becomes a criticism about that identity. And that is where the anxiety starts.

I’ve been n a transitional period for a while and I have been feeling rather stuck.  I’ve been on the job hunt for a few years and while I have had a few close calls in advancing my career, I haven’t been able to make that change. I’m gainfully employed now but it is with a company I don’t care about.  They don’t even care about me.  Just this week, when I told my boss that I haven’t been getting much direction in my role, he said he hadn’t been leveraging me as much as he could’ve because he was hoping I would’ve left on my own already.  And while I have been looking for an opportunity to check out, I might as well do the best job I can while I’m still where I’m at.

The constant rejection one feels while looking for a job, and especially if that search has lasted such a long time, feels like an admonishment of the identity you are trying to create for yourself.  It suggests that the image you have of yourself is not shared by others.  And a lot of doubt sets in as a result.

Largely, I don’t have many complaints.  My life is pretty nice.  I get to do the things I want, have nice and supportive friends, and I am able to live alone and be financially independent in a large city.  Many others are not as fortunate, so I should count my blessings.  I know I shouldn’t compare myself to others, whether they be more or less fortunate than me, but sometimes it is difficult not to.  When I see my friends and colleagues advancing so quickly in their careers, I think about what I’m doing wrong.  I think about is wrong with me.  Someone somewhere is buying into their identity.  What is my identity worth?

In the last few years, I have really developed some great grounding exercises to help me break out of negative thinking cycles.  And I have really benefitted from them.  Though, sometimes, it isn’t easy to break out of that cycle.  So you just have to sit with the anxiety, acknowledge its existence, and try to let it pass naturally with exacerbating the situation by dwelling and stewing.

I sometimes think of drastic things that I think will help my situation.  Most of the time, it is me thinking about moving to a different city.  A smaller, and perhaps less competitive city that would love to hire someone who survived and (sometimes) thrived in the big city of Chicago.  But, let’s face it.  Do these problems really just go away that quickly?  Do I really think my problems will go away if I move?  Likely not.

I have a strong sense of self.  I am ambitious and I don’t give up.  It is hard sometimes, but I’m someone who keeps trying.  I have a lot of good in my life and I recognize areas that need further improvement or development.  And I work hard in those areas.  It isn’t easy and most people feel the way I do or are experiencing the same things as me.  Though I feel like it sometimes, I am not alone.

I’m ready for a big change.  I’m ready to cross the threshold and take on new responsibilities and have new experiences and learn new lessons.  I’ve always been about growth, both personal and professional, and I’m ready to stretch out because I’ve outgrown certain aspects of my current life.  In the meantime, I just have to be patient.  I feel stuck, but I must remember it isn’t forever.

For this week’s song blog post, I just wanted something youthful and angry that reflected my feelings on feeling stuck.  Something cathartic that allowed me to dance away the negativity.  And I feel that with The Gories, a garage band from Detroit that blends garage aesthetic with blues.  On their 1990 studio album I Know You Fine, But How You Doin’ features the song “Stranded”, a song that illustrates that power can come from anger.  Lead singer yells “Right now, I just want to get the hell out.”  You and me both, brother.

“game of thrones (main title)” – ramin djawadi (2011)

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The quality of last night’s series finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones will be a hot bed of opinions and cultural think pieces for years to come.  Much like the ending of Lost and The Sopranos, fans and casual viewers who followed the violence and political intrigue within the world of Westeros will decipher, discuss, and debate the merits and missteps of the battles for the Iron Throne.  However, whether you loved or loathed the ending of the series, the series has become another example of toxic fan culture that has permeated entertainment.

When the series started in 2011, the show’s runners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss had five books of material from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire to develop the television adaptation.  With the first book in the series published in 1996, Martin had already developed a rich, complicated world for his characters and their adventures, a process not unlike the kind other fantasy authors such as J. K. Rowling and J. R. R. Tolkien adhered to when crafting their mystical worlds.  It is a process of methodical craftsmanship where an author will outline everything, down to smallest detail, before they begin the arduous task of putting words to paper.

The most recent book of Martin’s series was published in 2011 with the promise that the final two entries in his saga would soon follow.  Since making television adaptations is a much quicker process than writing a sprawling tome, the show runners for the series had to rely on notes with Martin serving as a creative consultant when producing the final two seasons in 2017 and 2019.  Coincidentally, this timing corresponds with when fans believe the show took a nosedive.

Over the last six weeks as the final season of Game of Thrones aired, it was frankly bewildering to see just how much animosity fans of the series expressed over the quality of the final season.  As each new episode aired, the Internet would explode with comments, editorials, and general winging about how terrible the series had become now that the show was venturing into territory not based on existing published materials.

Even prior to the finale airing, a petition appeared on Change.org demanding that the final season be redone in accordance to the wishes of the fans.  After the finale aired and did not alleviate any of the anger and vitriol the fans felt over the series ending on terms they didn’t want or expect, their demands to have a reproduced final season have only grown louder and the credentials of Benioff and Weiss questioned for their perceived bungling of a complex, richly detailed world to the point of advocating that Disney and Lucasfilm drop the dragon duo from producing their upcoming Star Wars movies.

With all the complaints about Game of Thrones, I couldn’t help but laugh when I realized the premiere of the series finale fell on the 20th anniversary of the theatrical release of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace.  I was 11 when that movie was released but even then I was aware, in this age where Internet fandom culture was not as massive and pervasive as it is now, of the toxic fan culture that responded so intensely to the first new Star Wars film since 1983’s Return of the Jedi.

I was a child and was thoroughly entertained by the movie. Older generations who were kids when the original series came out felt betrayed by George Lucas with claims that their childhood was ruined by bad acting, wooden dialogue, and unnecessary special effects.  For the movie’s 20th anniversary, I actually rewatched it right before the premiere of the Game of Thrones finale (and actually was late to starting the finale so I could finish it).  And while it is flawed and definitely not as good as its predecessors, it is still a fun movie that served its purpose in the series and did an excellent job at expanding the look and feel of the Star Wars universe.  Worst film in the franchise?  Not by a long shot (sorry Attack of the Clones).  However, it will never shake that reputation.

Though, think about the immense pressure and responsibility that was put on The Phantom Menace because of fan expectations.  This was going to be a unique experience that would be very loosely connected to the original films.  So much so that it almost feels like a completely different fantasy franchise.  As a result, you find very little familiarity to generate feelings of nostalgia with the fans who would end up being the most upset and vocal. And there were consequences. Ahmed Best, the actor who portrayed Jar Jar Binks, almost committed suicide. Jake Lloyd, the boy who played Anakin Skywalker, was bullied and quit acting.  And George Lucas, the creator, wasn’t having any fun making the movies so he sold the rights to Disney who then went in directions that conflicted with the intent Lucas had for expanding the saga

And sadly, toxic fan culture has only grown worse as technology has increased the speed, frequency, and range in which negative opinions can travel.  You may have forgotten about Best or Lloyd or Lucas, but the actors in the latest Star Wars films have been bullied and quit social media because of toxic fan culture.  Same shit, different decade.

And so, as I am reading the critiques of the final season of Game of Thrones, I am seeing some familiar criticisms.  Claims of bad acting, prioritizing cinematography over the script, and not adhering to whatever vision these fans had for the series.  For people my age, this generation has always experienced toxic fan culture.  From The Phantom Menace, the first big worldwide cultural milestone of our lives, to Game of Thrones, the latest in worldwide cultural milestones, it is hard to remember a time when toxic fans did not ruin things for everyone else.

What comes from all this?  The democratization of creative content.  Toxic fans have become such a major problem that creative control has increasingly been shifting from the content creators to the fans as major multimedia conglomerates work to appease fans as it has become such a profitable business model.  So much so that it is almost an absolute science.  A formula that can be plugged in to give you everything you wanted as opposed to anything you need.  Just take a look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a 22-film franchise that has been studied and crafted for over a decade to create a moviegoing hegemony where fans don’t have to worry about getting something they do not want and did not ask for.  As all these media companies combine, fans will never have to worry about being challenged again when they can simply vote for what they want with their dollars.  A “choose your own adventure story” where the media companies know what you’re going to choose even before you do.

Benioff and Weiss had an impossible, almost Sisyphean task; tell the story of A Song of Ice and Fire before its own creator could.  No way was this going to please everyone, and I am sure they anticipated much more negative criticism than they are receiving.  However, they stepped up to the task and did so admirably.  I could not have written a better ending, something all these toxic fans and fan-fiction writers have yet to admit themselves.

The series’ main title, composed by Ramin Djawadi, is iconic and one I’ll never forget.  Kicking off the soundtrack for the first season, the Game of Thrones main title kicked off an epic journey that has secured its place in pop culture history.  Hearing it at the beginning of every episode and seeing how the opening title animations would change from week to week was absolutely thrilling.  I don’t know when I’ll return to the world of Westeros, but I am eager to see what Benioff and Weiss come up with.  And my advice for anyone engaging with creative content as massive as Star Wars or Game Thrones is to just watch and keep an open mind.  The creators do not owe you anything and making demands on them only limits them and restricts their output.

“ship of fools” – world party (1987)

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In December, a GoFundMe campaign was initiated to fund Trump’s border wall.  Spearheaded by Brian Kolfage, a Purple Heart recipient and triple-amputee veteran, the goal was to raise $1 billion to build portions of the border for a “fraction of what it costs the government” and do so on private lands owned by a nonprofit launched by Kolfage.  Within just a few weeks, Kolfage raised over $20 million from thousands of donors.  These donors were people so desperate for their wall, a symbol of bigotry and white supremacy, that they would give their money away to a man like Kolfage who promised results during April 2019. Though the GoFundMe did not achieve the goal Kolfage set, the timeline to begin construction has started and his financial backers are no wondering what is happening with the wall.

Reports have been coming through alleging that Kolfage recently bought a $1 million yacht using the money intended for the border wall, and is described as living a “high-flying lifestyle” with the rest of the funds. During their reporting of Kolfage’s campaign to raise fund for the border wall, The Washington Post that alleged Kolfage has a long history of scamming people using sensationalist anti-liberal propaganda to generate revenue.  Investigations led by NBC and BuzzFeed have also provided examples of Kolfage using conspiracy theories and fake news articles to harvest, mine, and sell email address and other data from his supporters.  Kolfage has also been linked to other crowdsourcing efforts that scammed financial backers including projects mentoring wounded veterans.  While Kolfage has not been charged or convicted for any of these scams, he has certainly been linked to scams for quite some time.

I cannot imagine being so desperate for a symbol of isolationist bigotry, such as the border wall, that I would be willing to unquestioningly give my money to some clean-cut, conservative white guy in a pressed polo in the hopes he could make by nationalist, white supremacist ideals into a reality.  Frankly, it is a mentality that I do not understand, relate to, or empathize with because of the amount of putrid hate that goes into that kind of thinking.  I can generally find myself supportive of anyone taken advantage of, but I feel nothing for these dumbasses who sold their souls for a stupid wall.

While these reports have been coming through about Kolfage, I have been reading Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible obstruction of justice by Donald Trump.  As of the date this blog is published, I am just over the halfway point of reading through this report.

While much of what I have read in the report I already knew, I did learn some details that add some context to larger issues.  However, it all boils down to one consistent thought throughout and that is “why do people believe this man?”

Ultimately, the report suggests that Trump and his team were not knowledgeable that what they were doing was wrong and the inherent difficulty of assessing the value of the damage from that wrongdoing.  It is crystal clear Trump has lied, cheated, and stole throughout his life and that did not stop when he entered the White House, using the 2016 campaign as a big informercial to raise his brand awareness and profitability.  This is a conman who is scamming America, but he still manages to have a third of America enamored and defending his every move.

The reason why is that they are nationalists, racists, and white supremacists who have a very specific vision of America.  I’m not suggesting that every person who voted for Trump in 2016 adheres to any of those disgusting principles.  However, the fringe elements of Trump’s base have become so mobilized that they are helping drive national policy with Trump acting in their interests because they adore him.  These people want a wall built and Trump will do it because they love him.  As a result, the rest of America, people who don’t want a wall or are even ambivalent to it, are lumped in with those who are giving this country a bad name.  A name that suggests we are racist, hateful, bigoted, and uncaring to the rest of the world.  Those of us who oppose the wall are stuck on a burning ship set aflame by those who will distort America’s inherent vision and framework to align with their own to the point of altering America beyond recognition.  And It doesn’t matter if they get conned along the way, whether by Kolfage or trump, because they are always willing to throw in big bucks or put in long hours to get what they want.

“I don’t want to sail with this ship of fools” sung by Karl Wallinger, the producer and multi-instrumentalist behind World Party.  As World Party, Wallinger released “Ship of Fools” in 1987 from his studio album Private Revolution.  In the song, Wallinger is decrying the greed and avarice that defined the 1980s in favor of a more fair and inclusive direction.  This ship is travelling the world in search of no good, exploiting the work of galley slaves as the ship sails further away from the light towards darkness.  In a time when America faces an existential crisis on a level unheard of in our history, World Party’s “Ship of Fools” maintains a relevancy three decades after its initial release as a statement about the absurdity the majority endures at the hands of an extremist minority.

It is frustrating to know that a third of the country is being lied to but is still willing to give everything they have to secure a masturbatory fantasy regarding their bogus national identity.  It is important to fight against this at every step because we will not like what comes after America.

“which side are you on?” – the almanac singers (1941)

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Last week, on May 3rd, would’ve been Pete Seeger’s 100th birthday.  A folk singer, revolutionary, and social activist, Seeger lived to be 94 after passing away in 2014.  Not only did he secure his legacy as a protest singer during one of America’s most difficult periods of the 20th century, the Civil Rights Movement, he lived long enough to see the ongoing success and failings of the movement as well as to adapt his timeless message of peace, justice, and equality to other causes that would gain prominence and create an existential, or even direct, threat to those values as well as the safety and security of Americans and even the rest of the world.

Had Seeger lived to be 100, he would’ve seen Donald Trump ascend to the presidency.  From the initial announcement where he spewed racist ideology against Mexicans, to his disgraceful behavior on the campaign trail, to his inauguration where he espoused about “American carnage,” to locking up migrant children in cages, to every other morally objectionable thing Trump says and does, Seeger would’ve seen it all.  And I would like to think, even at the age of 100, he wouldn’t have been quiet even with limited ability at such an age.

What makes a great protest song, or even a song that addresses a social or political issue, lies within its timelessness.  The populace tends to have a short memory and with the influence of 24-hour news cycles and the culture of shock it perpetuates as each new story is more disturbing than the last and occurring with more frequency, songs that are about dated issues that cannot be adapted to modern sensibilities and problems get lost in the dustbin of cultural history.  That was never the case for Pete Seeger.

A folk singer is essentially a storyteller, and one of the greatest assets a folksinger has is the concept of folk process.  Folk process, within the structure of folklore studies, is the process of taking a previous form of folk art, whether it be indigenous or generational or regional or whatever, and transforming it little by little.  Not too much as to create something wholly new and different, but just enough to keep the basic framework there.  In the tradition of folk songs, it could be something like a 1930s bluesman changing a few words in a negro spiritual which then gets altered by a white folk singer in 1960s Greenwich Village to protest an injustice.  This is like playing a really slow game of telephone in an age before the Internet, when songs would transform over several generations.

These days, in 2019, sometimes it can be easy to by cynical about all these folk songs.  One reason is because we have more contemporary music options than every generation before.  Plus, there are other distractions that offer people endless entertainment.  Also, the ideas inherent in these songs just seem so obvious to us now.  Besides the fringes of society that advocate for extremist ideology, normal people today tend not to question concepts like freedom and equal rights barring some minutiae that gets debated based on religious doctrine.  Essentially, we’re born into a society where these values are instilled into us at an early age.  While Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Our Land” was once a radical song nearly a century ago, kindergarteners sing it in class. Pete Seeger’s musical catalogue is filled with songs that once addressed a singular cause or issue, but have basic fundamentals and ideas that are still applicable once the song changes a few details through folk process.

One of my favorite protest songs that Seeger popularized is “Which Side Are You On?” Written in 1931 by Florence Reece, the song is about the bitter struggle Harlan County, Kentucky coal miners endured against the mine owners.  Reece’s husband Sam was a union organizer for the United Mine Workers and faced threats and intimidation from local authorities to the point that the Reece’s home was illegally entered by employees from the mining company.

Seeger, as a member of The Almanac Singers, recorded a version of the song in 1941 for the album Talking Union and dedicated to Joe Hill, a labor activist who was shot and killed for his labor rights activism.  While recorded and performed by many artists over the decades (Billy Bragg, Natalie Merchant, Talib Kweli, and Peter, Paul, and Mary to name a few), the song would be attributed to Pete Seeger who continued performing the song throughout his career and reworking into an anthem of progressive solidarity.

While Seeger is no longer with us, his legend lives on through the ideas he fought for in his advocacy.  I often struggle with identifying who among contemporary musicians is leading the countercultural charge against Donald Trump.  And I realize I cannot identify any one particular figure.  There are many artists working to promote the same ideals that Seeger fought for.  It is too easy for me to look back on history and identify a few key cultural figures whose careers and work stands out because that is how these things work out.  The reality is that Seeger was one of many, working together in a collective of unified values, who fought for social justice.  Even if he is the one whose name is more familiar, he didn’t work in isolation.  Just it was unfair in the 1960s to put the burdens of responsibility on one person to achieve social justice, so it is unfair for me to demand that of the figure today.  Though people celebrated Seeger’s 100th birthday all over the world, it is only because he is a representation of a specific set of ideas, the same ones people, both known and unknown, are fighting for today in song, art, poetry, and film in the continuing tradition of folk process.

“spring rain” – bebu silvetti (1975)

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Spring in Chicago is a very awkward time.  With winter in the city being a very long season and one that tests everyone’s patience and endurance, spring is a time when people get anxious.  It means that summer is almost here and that means warm temperatures and fun in the fun.  However, spring’s awkwardness tends to come from its brief appearance.  Balmy conditions most associated with the season are rare, instead bringing random snow showers, cold temperatures, and lots of rain.

It snowed recently, and it has been raining all week.  Certainly, things to complain about as the people of Chicago await their reward for surviving through winter, especially one with a brutal polar vortex.

Like others, I can find the rain to be profoundly annoying.  It can be frustrating and a hassle when all I want is sunshine and not having to wear sweaters or jackets all the time.  Even when I was touring the southwest and southern California a few weeks back, being in the sun sent me on an existential journey question just what the hell I’m doing with my life.

However, the rain is a reminder to practice mindfulness.  The rain is temporary.  I cannot control the rain.  The sun will come when the rain stops.  These are ideas to keep myself grounded, live in the present, and not be bogged down by things I cannot change.  The rain is just a fact of life, here to serve its purpose, and something to just accept at face value.  I cannot let it control my mood, but sometimes it does.

Though, this blog post is not necessarily about rain specifically.  Merely, the rain that Chicago has been experiencing lately is just a metaphor for living in a way where I am not negatively impacted by things I cannot control.  The last few weeks, actually months, have been kind of hard.  I’ve been dealing with instability within my job, problems that I cannot control and are being handled by people in high positions than me.

I’ve been concerned, even worried sick, about layoffs. Mainly, what bothers me is the loss of security and stability.  The loss of control.  Losing a job and then dealing with the grind while unemployed is not a fun challenge.  It is physically, mentally, and emotionally demoralizing.  And I recognize that all my stress has been coming from trying to maintain control over a situation in which I have none.

Sure, I’ve been proactive.  However, I’ve run into obstacles that make me question my worth.  In this case, it has been meeting with potential employers or recruiters and being told I’m just not good enough.  Not enough experience.  Not a good culture fit.  Not this or that or any other excuse that they can come up with because they cannot quite assess my inherent worth to them as a pawn in this capitalist machine. There I go sounded cynical and resentful again.

The truth of the matter is that I have been in this situation before, and I have survived it.  It is never fun, but that doesn’t matter.  Things happen to people all the time.  Things that require acceptance and patience to overcome.  Problems that cannot be solved through worrying or fretting.

As I look out the office window and see the darkened skies, rain drops falling, and the people below me sporting umbrellas, I must remember that this too shall pass.  Just take a breath and go with the flow.  It can be hard.  Some days I’m better at recognizing that than other days.  Some days I’ve been fine.  Other days I have been not.  A grounded outlook is not something that just arrives out of nowhere and stays with you.  It is a process.  One that requires a lot of care and nurturing, mistakes and all.  Respecting that process is what makes you more aware of your role in all of this.  The rain, the job, all of it.  None of it really matters and I just have to live one day at a time, be like water, brush it off, or whatever other idiom one can apply.

For this week’s song blog post, I wanted to find a song that captured essence of spring rain and its potential to be a nuisance that one just has to accept and let pass.  I feel Bebu Silvetti’s 1975 disco tune “Spring Rain” (“Lluvia de primavera”) fits that mood.  It is a track with a driving, steady beat but with an infectious, danceable rhythm.  It even manages to be both melancholic and mellow at times.

There are many ways to stay grounded and accept what you cannot change.  Meditation, prayer, talking with someone.  Though, dancing is always a good way to achieve peace.  And if one is going to dance through the spring rain, Bebu can be your guide.

“keep on knocking” – death (2009)

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This year marks a whole decade since the release of …For the Whole World to See by Death, a protopunk band out of Detroit made up of African American musicians.  The album blew me away the first time I heard it.  It was the most exciting thing I had heard in a long time.  Everything about Death was just so fascinating.  From the band’s own journey to the story of the album’s delay and eventual release, it was so mindboggling how such an amazing band never got their due for the longest time. Though the actual anniversary of the album’s release was two months ago, I had some other things going on and knew I would get to it soon.  I knew I would eventually cover it.

I had first heard of Death and their album while working for a National Public Radio affiliate in Bowling Green, KY.  I did board operations every Wednesday and Saturday night, and I would hear shows like various news and arts show during that time.  I cannot remember what show was playing at the time, but it was this environment where I first heard of Death.  It was during a feature on this program that they covered the story behind Death and played cuts from the album.

So, why is their story so important?  These were three black guys from Detroit (Bobby Hackney, Dannis Hackney, and Bobbie Duncan) who started off as a funk band, but changed to rock after seeing The Who perform.  They eventually developed a harder edge and performed music that was a precursor to punk.  In 1975, they started working on their first studio album.  However, Columbia Records didn’t like the name of their band and requested they change it.  The members of Death wouldn’t do it and that is when their studio sessions ended.  The album would eventually be released, with only seven of the original twelve songs planned, in 2009 to critical praise and providing a document to a missing piece of Detroit’s music history.

I was stunned when I first hear Death, and I was shocked that I was hearing about it from NPR.  Before being hired to do board operations, I had never listened to NPR.  At that time, most of my personal life was dedicated to college radio and everything that revolves around a culture of kids on ego trips trying to force their music on everyone else.

I told everyone at my college radio station about Death, but not one seemed to care.  First, if I heard it on NPR, then it must’ve not been cool at all. Second, our station was going through a transition.  The station had been run in a way that many felt was stagnant and didn’t reflect a “progressive sound” culture that we championed.  At that time, the station’s direction reflected the taste and preferences of the student who was hired to be the station manager that year.  The decrease in the station’s quality was even noticed by the university newspaper who ran an article noting the criticisms the station was facing.

As much as the station manager tried to course correct after the article was published, it was the second semester already.  The manager was on his way out since he was graduating that spring, and the younger staff were eager to get new leadership and get back on target towards providing the community with a truly progressive alternative to commercial radio.

I was in my junior year and applied to be the station manager for my senior year.  I knew our station’s vision was off track and I developed plans to get everything back in alignment.  However, I was unable to do carry out my plans.  Due to internal station politics, I was declined for the position.  Plus, I was talking about music I was hearing on NPR and that was just decidedly uncool.  So, Death didn’t make it on the college radio station airwaves when …For the Whole World to See was released in 2009.  My plans to feature interesting music with interesting stories was scrapped and the station adopted the late-aughts hipster sound that was popular with the younger members.  Out with the old, in with the new. I didn’t do much with the station during my senior year.

However, Death did just fine on their own after …For the Whole World to See was released.  A few years after I moved to Chicago, I saw the documentary A Band Called Death at the Music Box Theatre and it was cool to see this incredible band get the attention they deserved after all these years.

The first song I had heard on that NPR feature was the album’s opening track “Keep on Knocking.”  The track open with these guitar power chords and then goes into high gear with pure punk passion.  Raw and angsty, but still tight and controlled, Death comes across as a cohesive entity right out of the gate.  Truly impressive.

If Death was allowed to finish the record, who knows what other great music they could make.  And their story is one of many where a talented, creative band is denied a chance to shine because of some stuff suit in an office.  Gatekeepers, whether they are a record executive or students in a college radio station, can often be blinded by their own interests and prejudices.  It is a lesson everyone needs to learn, one where we consider things outside of ourselves and expose yourself to something new and raw even if unproven.  You just might be surprised.

 

“communication” – the power station (1985)

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I have been feeling rather introspective lately about a lot of aspects in my life.  I’m sure I’ll cover each of those in the coming weeks but, for this blog entry, I wanted to share some recent insights I have gained about the widening divisions within our society.  Namely, the perpetuation of an Us versus Them culture.

Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, and subsequently was elected president the following year, it seems that the divisions between people, no matter how small, are exaggerated and exacerbated to the point that we cannot communicate with eachother, recede within our own biases and likeminded groups, and react in ways that can foster extremism.  Basically, a sense of tribalism.

While now it seems like this communication breakdown is so prevalent in 2019, I had been feeling some inkling of dissatisfaction with public discourse for a while now.  Coincidentally, right around the time social media became an increasingly pervasive factor in all our lives.

Facebook was still rather exclusive when I started college in 2006, only allowing college students at the time, but it soon evolved to include everyone thus making it easy to collect and monetize data.  My use of social media is so much different now than how I used it then.  Throughout my collegiate years, it was commonplace to argue and debate with people writing whole dissertations that would get ignored.  All of it felt supremely unnatural and ineffective to me.  I couldn’t eloquently at the time explain why, but those kind of exchanges just felt empty.

Now, it is very rare that I’ll respond to a heated thread with an opinion.  It isn’t that I’m afraid of the reaction, but I do consider what could be misinterpreted or lost in translation, whether intentionally or not, and I just decide that it isn’t worth my time.  I no longer view social media as a soapbox as I had used It in college.  Now, it is a means for me to share with family and friends vacation photos, see how they are doing, and post book reviews.  All of this was a conscious decision to shape how I used various social media platforms as a member of the first generation to come of age with social media as a communal space.

The criticism to that viewpoint is that, as a white cisgender heterosexual male, I do not recognize the equalizing power that social media platforms offer.  To the more marginalized members of our society, it is said that social media has given a voice to the voiceless.  And with that, a sense of justice and a fair shot of contributing to and redirecting social dialogue.  It is one of the reasons why proponents of social media, oftentimes people who generate income through their interaction with it, say that social media offers more good than it does bad.  That everything can be utilized in both positive and negative ways.

All of that is true, in theory.  Social media is still a relatively new phenomenon and we have yet to understand the long-term impacts social media has on our society.  Though, that isn’t to say we have not seen immediate effects.  Ones that we are just now becoming aware of and taking time to truly understand.

During President Obama’s second term, I began to understand exactly the issue I had with social media.  I was reading articles about people who made off color or racist remarks and then would be publicly shamed online.  I don’t disagree with someone facing consequences for hate speech, but social media allowed even innocuous, or misunderstood comments, to be blown up resulting in these people’s lives being ruined.  I had read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and he explained that social media was creating “virtual stockades,” environments where people could be shamed in ways unseen by civilization since actual stockades.  This seemed wrong to me to punish people for comments, while maybe inappropriate, that didn’t actually qualify as hate speech or directly communicated a call to action for violence.  I was trying to understand this changing landscape of activism and free speech and my questioning, or even criticism, of overreactions were deemed by my fellow liberals as me being an apologist for racists.

As Donald Trump was gaining momentum during the campaign, I would even get lambasted by my fellow liberals for engaging the situation that was more nuanced than just spewing vitriolic bile online or in crowds.  I remember telling a friend in December 2015 that the only way to defeat Trump was to ignore him.  I was told I was being complicit.  Complicit about what?  I don’t know.  However, the attitude at the time reflected this liberal bubble mindset that “if we cover everything he says and put it all over the news and social media, people will see how awful Trump is.”  That did not happen and since Trump’s election, media executives like Jeff Zucker and Les Moonves have said publicly that covering Trump meant more ratings and money.  And that’s when I realized the issue I had with social media.  I realized social media was a business that commoditized our outrage and profited off the proliferation of identity politics.

As part of my journey to understand why Donald Trump won the presidency, I had to understand how every side contributed.  I did not feel analyses blaming white people or racists or Russians were satisfactory at explaining his victory.  I began to think about how democrats and the left, my groups, contributed.  This led me to the realization that the left suffers from the narcissism of small differences, the idea that likeminded individuals are more likely to engage in feuds of minutiae. I found all of this so frustrating.  I kept thinking that since we are all on the same side, we should be more unified.  Instead, there were moments I received vitriolic feedback for have an opinion that was generally in the same ballpark, but still didn’t exactly align with the militancy that has been driving social activism.

I’ve been reading two books lately that have really opened my eyes on this subject.  Irshad Manji, a Muslim lesbian, wrote a book called Don’t Label Me, an analysis on how labels are weaponized in ways that dehumanize us and further the divide between Us and Them. She tackles modern social justice philosophies concerning privilege, power dynamics, multiculturism, and cultural appropriation and exposes the flaws inherent in each of those to showcase how people become isolated and gravitate towards extremes; places they can go and be reaffirmed for their beliefs by people who won’t berate and belittle them.

In the book, Manji is quite tough on leftist social activists for commoditizing marginalized people and using them as props to fulfill specific goals. She also stresses that people are more than their perceived labels, that we are plurals with unique backstories that defy the expectations or stereotypes of our labels.  I’m sure my fellow liberals have heard, or even conveyed, that people who voted for Trump are racists.  I have never believed that, though sometimes I found myself wavering when pressured or when Trump said something that really boiled my blood.  Yes, there are some truly vile people in his camp.  However, I have challenged this by telling people that all Trump voters are not bad.  The usual response is that they are complicit with Trump’s actions, or that I am.

Manji’s point is that in order to change hearts and minds, you must listen with the intent to understand as opposed with the intent to win.  As a result, you build a personal connection and are taken more seriously.  This potentially allows them to think on their own values and work on compromise that enforces a more unified outcome.  Telling someone they are wrong and stupid is only going to make them retreat which can develop into extremism.

The other book I have been reading is Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown.  The concept of emergent strategy comes from Octavia Butler, an African-American science fiction writer, and essentially means that large systemic changes can be made through simple interactions.  By developing personal relationships and, as Manji stated, listening with the intent to understand, we can bridge the gap between Us and Them.  It all boils down to building relationships with people with different views in order to achieve a mutually beneficial result.  We gain nothing from isolating people when we assume so much of them based on labels that restrict them and their individuality.

I am vocal about this because I do not Trump to win again in 2020.  And, the way I understand things as they are now, the left is doubling down on failed practices from 2016.  In essence, many of the left are acting exactly like Trump.  Trump claims he is a victim and mobilizes his base to attack the other.  The left, a lot of the times, victimizes themselves and acts in a way that is not proactive in achieving actual results.  In essence, we have look inward to facilitate change if we expect change within our problematic systems.  We cannot ask to be heard if we are not willing to hear.  Achieving honest diversity is about communication and dialogue.

The third single from the Power Station’s debut album, “Communication” is a fun pop rock song from 1985 about, obviously, the need to communicate.  In the song, Robert Palmer is asking someone to stay in touch though things are crazy hectic, and we are all on the move.  He’s urging this person to keep their lines open and exchanges facts through contact, but he just cannot get through.

I know it is a bit of a stretch to connect this song with the main thesis of this blog, but it adds to my point.  Remember when I was talking social media? Our interactions with people online are commoditized, and it shapes how we behave in the offline world. We’re being programmed to not have honest dialogue, but instead focus on whatever is quick and easy to consume because we’re always on the move looking for the next thing, the next click. We have to slow down and put emphasis on listening to each other and not become subjects to corporate mechanisms that generate revenue from our conflicts and anxiety.  Reach out.  I am here.  I will listen.

“shove this jay-oh-bee” – canibus feat. biz markie (1999)

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I’ve been at my current job for about four years.  It is administrative assistant position within a corporate tech environment. It is a fairly laid-back environment, surrounded by introverted engineers and statisticians, and allows me to have a work-life balance which had been unavailable to me before at my previous jobs.  So, that’s nice.  However, I’ve been unhappy with it for a long time.  It is a rather simple job with low responsibility, but presents little opportunity for someone like me with my background to grow and advance.  I’m far too ambitious for that and I know I can accomplish a lot more.  So, for a while now, I’ve been casually looking for another job while pursuing freelancing opportunities in the evenings and weekends that can potentially allow me to advance my career.  It is slow, and a total grind, but that is the nature of the game.

There are times where I am able to practice mindfulness regarding the grind and find some comfort that I’m healthy, gainfully employed, and that all the energy I’m putting into finding another job advances my career will pay off.  However, it can be hard sometimes to maintain that mindfulness.  It becomes too easy to focus on the negatives and become dismayed by the lack of progress I am making.  And this causes me to feel stuck, and uncertain about my future.  I know something will change for better or for worse, but not knowing when and in what form can be hard.  I begin to question my ability and my worth, which makes me feel somewhat hopeless.  This is not a healthy mindset, but I’m trying to avoid it.

Lately, I’ve been feeling more pressure from this grind because my company is going through massive changes.  Every team is reorganizing and moving resources or people to other parts of the company.  This also potentially means layoffs.  Everyone in the company is on edge because of lack of certainty about their jobs, and my team is no different.  People are concerned and worried, two feelings that can negatively impact an office environment.

It also doesn’t help that, among the team, my boss, the director of the team, seems to be the most frustrated and is expressing that accordingly.  He was hired in January, with these major company changes announced three weeks later.  So, I understand why he is frustrated.  The job became something completely different than what he applied for, plus he is at the center of planning for all these changes.  I just wish he carried it better because his interactions with me have caused me to feel increased anxiety.

So, I’ve felt some pressure to change jobs.  Either I’ll be laid off, or I won’t be.  And if I’m not, I’ll be continuing the same job with no growth.  The plus side is that I’ll still be gainfully employed, though I still feel unfulfilled and need a change.

I apply to jobs directly.  Though, I face challenges in the process. Competition is tough, my background is unique and not concrete, and very few opportunities make sense to take because they would result is very significant pay decreases (not ideal for someone who is financially dependent on themselves).

Where I’ve needed some help, I have contacted recruiters and I hate working with recruiters. I have had very few positive experiences with recruiters.  I find most of the ones I’ve worked with to be aggressive and uncaring.  I have specific needs for a job regarding pay and location, and I find that I’m still pushed to take the shitty opportunities that come by their desk.  And when I express something I’m interested in and qualified enough to do, I’m mainly brushed aside and told generically “this client is looking for someone with more experience.”  Nothing makes me feel more like a cog in the capitalist machine than working with recruiters.  And I get worried that if I am laid off, then they’ll really be aggressive with me about taking the shitty opportunities just so they can fill it with a warm body and get their commission.  All because I absolutely need to get a paycheck.

There has only been one job a recruiter has sent my way that I have been excited about pursuing.  It was an admin role, something I don’t want to do anymore, but it was with a very reputable foundation where there was a lot of opportunity for growth and the most amazing benefits package I’ve ever seen.  I had never worked harder on an interview in my life before.  I did so much research, developed concrete examples to illustrate my experience, deeply believed in their mission and found ways to convey that, put together my smartest looking attire, and consulted with friends working in other foundations.

I went into the interview and absolutely nailed it.  It was the greatest interview I had ever done.  My recruiter was even contacted a few hours later by the hiring manager expressing that I was an amazing candidate.  I was flying high and absolutely confident I had the job.

I waited a week before the answer.  All the while, I was at work and really enjoying the thought that I could be leaving soon. I was also mindful that is was possible I still didn’t get the jobs, but I was confident about my performance and overly excited about leaving the sinking ship that is my job.

I did not get the job.  My recruiter had asked for feedback from my interview because I don’t have direct access to their clients.  Since I didn’t get the job, the feedback would help me improve for my next interview.  Or so I thought.  The foundation said I was an amazing candidate who did an excellent job interviewing and they had no critical feedback.  The decision came down to me and someone else, and they went with that other person due to whatever internal metric I’ll never know.

I was disappointed.  It was Friday afternoon when I got the news.  Then, I went to the gym and then got dinner with a friend before the movie.  I thought coming back to the office would be hard, but it was fine.  I’m disappointed, but I’m still driven.  I’ll persevere.  A change will come and it will come when it needs to.  I know that I’ll still feel down sometimes, but that is fine because it is part of the process.  I hope I don’t get laid off, and I hope I can get a new job I like soon.  I just gotta keep grinding away and being patient, living in the now and not allow my job to distract me from the good things in my life.

Office Space is Mike Judge’s cult comedy classic from 1999 about a group of people who are fed up with their jobs at a software company.  The satire is effective and on point, accurately depicting the inane mundaneness of the corporate environment.  The soundtrack is also pretty legit.  While some songs from the film are more iconic because of the scene (i.e. the use of Scarface’s “Still” when the main characters break a printer with a baseball bat), I’m really partial to the film opening with “Shove This Jay-Oh-Bee” by Canibus and featuring Biz Markie.  Containing portions of “Take This Job and Shove It” by Johnny Paycheck, “Show This Jay-Oh-Bee” features Canibus singing about what it is like to face the grind until you reach the point where you just cannot take it anymore.  Then it becomes a glorious celebration of the freedom one feels when they shed the shackles of their capitalist oppressors.  I won’t be quitting anytime soon, but I think about it so much.  Until then, I can watch Office Space and just dream.