People’s Music and Me (And All the Rest of Us)


By Tom Motko

Maybe it was Jerry Garcia doing “Shady Grove” with David Grisman on the iPod that lifted me into the cloud of nostalgic whimsy; maybe it was just a flashback. No matter. I found myself thinking about how music has threaded its many colors through the fabric of my life. Well, I didn’t think about it that way…that’s just how I put it to make it sound artsy for this little essay. I’m the guy who, when asked what kind of music I like, always answers, “Good music.” Simple as that. No genre goes unheard though some are admittedly heard more than others.

Music is one of those invisible things humans make – out of the ether, it seems – that connect us all to one another. It’s not the only thing, but it’s a good one. Not only does it connect us to each other, but it connects us to new ideas and different ways to look at what the hell we’re doing here on earth. Music draws people in; it draws a crowd. Crowds are good things for social justice activists and post-capitalism dreamers. Not that music hasn’t been put to evil purpose. Every army needs its cadence. But, the good stuff music can do eventually wins out and at the end of all these millennia we are blessed with far, far more songs endorsing love, for example, than advocating genocide.

Music started for me in the mid-1950s when my babysitter would come over after school and watch American Bandstand. I thought the coolest song ever was “Hound Dog”. I was just the right age for the folk music revival of the early 1960s. I mean, lyrics like those in the Connie Stevens/Edd Byrnes duet “Kookie” (“Man, I got my bruise lighters in my flapsy-colored pen/

You’re gonna send me to that planet called…you know it, baby, the end!”) just naturally led one to folk music (although in later years, lyrics like those prepped me for acid rock…but that’s another story).

We don’t hear all that much about folk music nowadays, at least in the mainstream media. Oh, I imagine there’s a third grade classroom where kids are still being taught the safe, excised, watered-down version of “This Land is Your Land” and maybe they’re still doing hymn-like group sings of “Kumbaya” at summer church camps somewhere.

But, by “folk music” I don’t mean sitting in a circle singing “Kumbaya” or some third grade class singing a sanitized “This Land is Your Land” (with the anti-capitalist verse, of course, deleted…even Woody Guthrie gets misused by capitalist education). By “folk music” I mean broadly a music with lyrics that in some way tell the stories of working people (or anyone oppressed by this slavery system) and express their hopes and struggles and with melodies that don’t require an angel choir to sing or a chamber orchestra or electricity to play. Not that I have anything against angel choirs or chamber orchestras or lighting the dark. Not at all. Au contraire!

Lots of folks think of folk music as something from the Sixties, kind of fervent and quaint in a the-times-they-are-a-changin’ sort of way. That was some pretty damned good stuff though and it brought masses of people together. There’s no way you can stand outside a county jail singing “We Shall Not Be Moved” and not bind yourself together with the poor and oppressed and other working people. I’m not sure why I got hooked into activism, but I know it was folk music that led me there. For me, it was Bob Dylan who was busy blowing the socks off of traditional folk music. You all know Bob, the guy whose career was ruined by the Beatles… Dylan led me to Phil Ochs and Joan Baez and Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and Malvina Reynolds and Barbara Dane and Tom Paxton and Buffy Sainte-Marie and so many others, and, finally, to an appreciation for every kind of music that sings up from the people’s roots. Somewhere in there, John Prine showed up, too, but a bit later.

And it was through folk music that I connected into the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the GI resistance movement, labor movement. Hell, doing GI Resistance work, I traveled to San Antonio and crashed on a couch at the home of Tom Flowers of the American Friends Service Committee, the same couch that Pete Seeger crashed on when he was in town. Now, there’s a connection for you! So begins a life of activism and resistance to the jerks who’ve robbed and flimflammed their way into power. For me, it was “folk music” that tied me into life itself. I suspect I’m not alone and that folk music is still doing that for someone right this moment.

And, it never had to be those “traditional” old-time folk songs. There are lots of folk singers whose boot heels are ramblin’ all over the place. Folks like Seattle’s Jim Page and Lucinda Williams and John Gorka and Tom Russell and Ani DiFranco and myriads of other folks whose names you never heard, young and not so young, playing on street corners and in church cellars and anywhere that someone with an instrument and a song can stand up and sing (despite the dictatorship of ASCAP and BMI), especially if the music starts others singing, too. It can be whatever songs, gussied up a little, the kids are singing on the street. It doesn’t matter how you sing it, just sing it, and start singing it with other people.

Woody probably said it best: I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you. I could hire out to the other side, the big money side, and get several dollars every week just to quit singing my own kind of songs and to sing the kind that knock you down still farther and the ones that poke fun at you even more and the ones that make you think you’ve not any sense at all. But I decided a long time ago that I’d starve to death before I’d sing any such songs as that.

Folk music changes every three days or so. It connects us to each other, to the past, and to whatever we make of this world. For me, waking up suddenly in junior high in the early 1960s, it was the music that connected me to the rest of my life. Of course, we ancients were lucky – we had it on TV. And the Kingston Trio led to Ian and Sylvia led to Dick and Mimi Fariña led to ….make up your own chain. It was that music, some of those songs hundreds of years old and some made up just this minute, that led me to the civil rights movement and from there to a lifetime in the struggle for social justice. The music gave me my first notions of what peace and justice and a fair society might sound like and that beautiful noise gave me visions. That’s a good thing.

Well, this isn’t supposed to be a nostalgia trip. I just found myself thinking about how folk music lit a fuse in my life. What about you?

Tom Motko sometimes writes stuff and is a retired union organizer.  You can read the Anarres Project interview with him here.

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