British folk-rocker Billy Bragg has to be the only popular musician who
could score some airtime with a song about the global justice movement.
The first single from Bragg's England, Half English (Elektra),
"NPWA" (No Power Without Accountability), is destined to become an
enduring anthem for anticorporate organizers everywhere. Just before leaving England to tour the United States in April, Bragg took a few minutes to talk with
Nation assistant literary editor Hillary Frey about
globalization, Woody Guthrie, the duty of a political songwriter and,
perhaps most important, why the AFL-CIO should be sponsoring free rock
concerts. A longer version of this interview appears on The
Nation's website (www.thenation.com).
HF: I've read that you were politicized during the Thatcher years
in England. How did that happen, and how did your politics find their
way into your music?
BB: When Margaret Thatcher was first elected, in 1979, I didn't
vote. Perhaps that was the arrogance of youth.... It was at the height
of punk, and I was titularly an anarchist. Although, frankly, that was
more of a T-shirt than a developed idea. Her second term, between 1983
and 1987, really brought my political education. By then, Thatcher had
started to chip away at the idea of the welfare state and what that
stands for--free healthcare, free education, decent affordable housing
for ordinary people.
Then, the 1984 Miners' Strike [which protested pit closures and paltry
pay increases for workers] was the real politicization for me. I started
doing gigs outside of London in the coal fields and found that I was
able to articulate what I believed in so that these people who we were
doing benefits for--the miners--didn't think I was just some pop star
from London trying to enhance my career by doing a few fashionable
benefits. I began to define myself by something other than the standard
"Blowin' in the Wind" sort of politics, which aren't that hard to
HF: You were in New York City when the World Economic Forum [WEF]
met, and I heard you speak about the groups organizing demonstrations. I
recall a comment to the effect of, "If you really want to be doing
something active and participatory you would organize your local
McDonald's." What are your opinions on the tactics of the global justice
BB: I feel very strongly that the movement is a positive thing.
The fact that it hasn't yet defined itself in a clear ideological way
doesn't mean that it won't eventually. I feel very much on the
activists' side. However, I don't believe you can change the world by
smashing up fast-food joints.
My approach is perhaps a little more traditional left; I believe that if
you want to change the world, as I said, you should be organizing
fast-food joints. To me, that is a positive way of changing the world.
It's a lot slower, and it won't get you on CNN. But the sort of
campaigns that I've worked with in the USA--Justice for Janitors,
living-wage initiatives in LA and cities like that--have all been rooted
in labor organizing.
HF: How did your relationship with the labor movement evolve?
BB: I made a very strong bond with the labor movement in England
during the Thatcher years, particularly during the Miners' Strike. And
those bonds have stood me in good stead when coming to a country like
the United States, where not only are the politics very different from
the ideological politics of my own country, but I'm a foreigner. As an
internationalist I support UNITE, who are trying to end sweatshop labor
in the clothing industry; we're doing that in the UK as well. That is
the sort of internationalist angle prevalent in the global justice
movement too, and it's something that I can support across borders.
HF: I was surprised to see that your tours are actually sponsored
by a union.
BB: I've just come off a tour actually, that was sponsored by the
GMB, which is one of our general unions.
HF: I can't imagine a union being involved in a concert here in
the United States.
BB: I know! In 1992 I participated in a concert in Central Park
marking the eightieth birthday of Woody Guthrie that was sponsored by
one of the big soft-drink companies. Now why could it not have been
sponsored by the AFL-CIO? Why couldn't the AFL-CIO say, "This is what we
do, we put on free gigs." This is what unions do--bring people together.
The unions have been doing this in the UK for a while, and certainly all
over continental Europe. I've been doing gigs in Italy and France
organized by the big unions there for the last two decades.
How do you explain to young people what unions are for--do you wait
until they're in trouble? Do you wait till they're in a dead-end job?
Wait till they're fired? Or do you get in before with some positive
ideas of what a union is?
HF: Speaking of Woody Guthrie... A few years back you recorded,
with the band Wilco, Mermaid Avenue Vols. I and II--two records
comprising songs written around unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics. How did
you get to be the lucky one rooting around in the Guthrie archives and
recording his words?
BB: Woody Guthrie is the father of my tradition--the political
singer/songwriter tradition. I've tried to answer the question of why
[Woody's daughter] Nora chose to give me the great honor of being the
first one in her father's archives.... I guess Nora saw something in my
experience that she thought chimed in with Woody's. Who writes about
unions in the United States and the song gets on the charts? All of the
postwar singer/songwriters have grown up in a nonideological atmosphere.
Their influences have been single issues like the civil rights movement,
Vietnam, campaigning for the environment. There's not been that whole
ideological struggle really going on in the USA.
HF: Is it harder to write political music now than it was when
BB: It's much more difficult to do this now, without Margaret
Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and the Berlin wall and apartheid--these
things were shorthand for struggles that went on across the world. Now I
don't miss any of those things; I have absolutely no nostalgia for the
1980s whatsoever, and I never want to see any of those things again. But
the job of the political singer/songwriter is perhaps more challenging
because, with a subject like identity, which I deal with on England,
Half English, it's personal--it means different things to different
HF: But it's clear there is plenty happening now to respond to.
The single from your new record, "NPWA" (No Power Without
Accountability), strikes me as a paean to the global justice movement.
BB: The job of the singer/songwriter is to try to reflect the
world around him, and obviously the global justice movement has been the
big cause célèbre since Seattle. When I was in New York in
February, there was stuff I saw going on the like of nothing I've ever
seen on the left before.
I went to a Methodist Church where activists were speaking about how
they were going to organize the demonstrations [around the WEF] two days
later. They asked me to sing a couple of songs so I sang "NPWA"--and
then they wanted me to sing the "Internationale," and that really
touched me, because we do have a strong tradition on the left, and one
of the things we have to gain from the demise of the Stalinism of the
Soviet Union and the Berlin wall is that we have an opportunity to
create a leftist idea outside the shadow of totalitarianism. And there,
in New York, among very radical young people, I thought, "OK--this isn't
really so different from what I know. It's just a different approach to
get to the same place." And the fact that I've been doing this for
twenty years and people are still interested--I feel fortunate. I figure
I must be hitting some bases.
England, Half English is available now from Elektra Records.
Perhaps there's a limit to female masochism after all. To the great
astonishment of the New York Times, which put the story on page
one, Creating a Life, Sylvia Ann Hewlett's book deploring the
failure of female professionals to have as many children as she thinks
they need to be happy, is a big commercial flop ("The Talk of the Book
World Still Can't Sell," May 20). Out of a 30,000-copy first printing,
perhaps 8,000 have sold, despite a publicity campaign from heaven:
Time cover story, 60 Minutes, Oprah, Today,
wall-to-wall radio. The UK edition, Baby Hunger (Hewlett's
original choice of title--gag me with a spoon!), is also piling up in
The Times quotes numerous bewildered publishing people--could it
be the cover? women's "deep level of anxiety"?--but it's no big mystery
why the book isn't selling. Except when right-wing foundations buy up
truckloads of copies, antifeminist tracts usually do poorly despite
heavy attention. The media love them--this week's newsstand features
New York with "Baby Panic" and Us with "Will They Ever
Have Babies?" in which Jennifer Aniston and other nulliparous stars
bemoan their lot--but book buyers don't bite. Hewlett follows in the
steps of Katie Roiphe, who got great press but few readers for The
Morning After, which argued that date rape was just "bad sex."
Partly the reason is that these books tend to be so flimsy that the
media campaign gives away their entire contents, but the main reason is
that nobody but women buy books about women--and women who buy hardcover
books are mostly feminists. They know date rape isn't bad sex, and they
don't need Hewlett to tell them their biological clocks are ticking.
(Apparently not as fast as Ms. Hewlett claims, though. Dr. Alan
DeCherney told the Times a woman's chances of getting pregnant at
40 are better than Hewlett makes out.) Why buy a book that tells you to
smile, settle and rattle those pots and pans? That's what your relatives
By the way, my friend Judith Friedlander, coiner of the immortal phrase
"a creeping nonchoice," was surprised to find herself on Hewlett's list
of tearful women whose careers got in the way of childbearing. "I've had
a great life," she told me, "with no regrets, and I spent a long time
telling Hewlett just that."
* * *
What if a woman ran for President who had great progressive politics
except for one thing--she believed that any man accused of rape or
sexual harassment should be castrated without a trial? How many
progressive men would say to themselves, Oh well, she's got great
positions on unions, the environment, the death penalty, and all the
rest, and besides, women really like her, so she gets my vote! Ten men?
Of course, no progressive woman would ever put this crazy notion
forward. Our hypothetical candidate would understand all too well that
she couldn't propose to kick men in the collective teeth and expect them
to vote for her. Back in the real world, however, this is precisely what
some progressives apparently expect women to do for Dennis Kucinich,
whose anti-choice voting record was the subject of my last column.
Besides numerous e-mails thanking me for "outing" him and two or three
upholding the "human rights" of the "itty bitty zygote," I heard from a
few readers like Michael Sherrard, who urged "liberals" to "get over
their single-issue abortion orthodoxy." Instead of asking women to give
up their rights, why not pressure Kucinich to support them? To get that
"broad based multi-issue progressive movement" Sherrard wants, Kucinich
is the one who needs to get real, to face the demographic truth that
without the votes, dollars and volunteer labor of pro-choice women and
men, no Democrat can win the White House. His anti-choice votes may suit
his socially conservative Cleveland constituents, as his supporters
claim, but America isn't the 10th Congressional District of Ohio writ
What Kucinich's fans may not understand is that for pro-choice women,
abortion is not just another item on the list. It goes straight to the
soul. It is about whether society sees you as fully human or as a vessel
for whom no plan or hope or possibility or circumstance, however
desperate, matters more than being a nest for that "itty bitty zygote."
As I've written before, despite the claims of "pro-life feminists" and
"seamless-garment" Catholics, progressive social policies and abortion
rights tend to go together: Abortion bans flourish where there are
backwardness, poverty, undemocratic government and politically powerful
patriarchal religion, where levels of education, healthcare and social
investment in children are low, and where women have little power.
Instead of asking women to sign over their wombs for the cause,
progressives should demand that "their" politicians add abortion rights
to their agenda. No progressive would vote for someone who opposed
unions or wanted to bring back Jim Crow. Why should women's rights
matter less? It's disgusting that the AFL-CIO supports anti-choice
politicians--as if their members aren't getting (or causing) abortions
in vast numbers--and it backfires, too. In Pennsylvania's Democratic
gubernatorial primary, pro-choice centrist Democrat Ed Rendell trounced
anti-choice labor-endorsed Bob Casey Jr., 56 to 44 percent.
* * *
A French committee is promoting Ahmed Shah Massoud, the assassinated
Northern Alliance commander, for the Nobel Peace Prize (among the
signatories: actress Jane Birkin, Gen. Philippe Morillon and that
inevitable trio of trendy philosophes, Bernard-Henri Levy, Alain
Finkielkraut and Andr&eacute; Glucksmann). I know what you're thinking:
If Henry Kissinger could be awarded this honor, why not the
CIA/Russia-backed Tajik warlord who helped set up a fundamentalist
government in 1992, destroyed Kabul by fighting with his erstwhile ally
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and helped create so much havoc, including
documented massacres of civilians, that Afghans welcomed the Taliban?
Still, there's something repellent about proposing to award Massoud,
thanks in part to whom Afghanistan is riddled with landmines, the same
prize won by anti-landmine activist Jodie Williams in 1997. Maybe they
should call it the Nobel War Prize.
When I first saw The Last Waltz in 1978, I almost walked out,
although I was a fan of both director Martin Scorsese and The Band. I
admit I was one of the folks whose tickets for the original 1976 show at
San Francisco's Winterland were refunded by impresario Bill Graham in
light of the scheduled movie shoot, when he decided to have a Thanksgiving sit-down dinner precede the concert, which translated into a then-hefty $25 price tag.
Twenty-four years and a new DVD version have changed, or at least made
subtler, some of my reactions. But I still think two of Scorsese's
typical dynamics are in play: seeking out America's underbellies, and
monumentalizing or sacramentalizing them. And so The Last Waltz
teeters between grit and awe--perhaps unintentionally but tellingly,
like rock itself at the time and rock history ever since.
When it premiered, Pauline Kael famously dubbed The Last Waltz
"the most beautiful rock movie ever." As a formalist she had a point.
With seven cameramen, including Vilmos Zsigmond (later famous as a cinematographer) and Miklos Rozsa (who came to be known as a composer), Scorsese professionalized the deliberately
nonprofessional documentary sensibility of D.A. Pennebaker and the
Maysles. Now that seems a fitting sign of the times: Mainstream rock had
been professionalized, from the boring arena-ready music itself to the
new national distribution systems, while pop sputtered with the
industry's search for commercially viable trends, like disco. Almost in
answer, new forms of folk art appeared. Breakdancers hit urban streets
and Bruce Springsteen prowled stages toward apotheosis with shows that
exploded somewhere between Elvis, an r&b revue and West Side
Story. It was another return to the do-it-yourself folk aesthetic
underlying evolutionary developments in American popular culture.
So now The Last Waltz gives me a kind of double vision: It's an
elegy to The Band that is also, perhaps unwittingly, an elegy to an era.
The sense of reverence toward the motley parade of music stars trooping
across its lenses is intercut with open-eyed realism during the best of
the connecting interview segments--though those too are frequently
tinged with Scorsese's romanticism.
When Music From Big Pink (Capitol) came out in 1968, its album
cover was a painting by Bob Dylan. Dylan had hired the quintet, then The
Hawks, renamed The Band, for his revolutionary 1965-66 tour, which they
spent making garage grunge of his songs while being booed by folk
purists who wanted acoustic Dylan rather than the post-"Like a Rolling
Stone" model. (Bob Dylan Live 1966 [Sony] is the official version
of long-available bootlegs.)
After his 1966 motorcycle accident, Dylan had pretty much disappeared
from view, and there were regular rumors of his death or disfigurement.
But the smartest word was he'd been hanging out at Big Pink, a
nondescript house at the foot of Woodstock's Overlook Mountain, jamming
and writing songs with The Band. (These would soon surface as bootlegs;
selections have been remixed and officially reissued on The Basement
Tapes [Sony] intercut with material by The Band alone.) Dylan
encouraged them to find their artistic vision. No surprise, then, that
Music From Big Pink opened with one Dylan track, "Tears of Rage,"
and closed with another, "I Shall Be Released."
Dylan's near-invisibility only augmented his cultural aura, a marketing
lesson his widely disliked, thuggish, Svengali-esque manager, Albert
Grossman, absorbed and soon applied to his latest clients, The Band.
Inside their double-sleeved first album were pictures of the members:
Five guys dressed like extras in an early Hollywood western, visual kin
to the road-warrior hoboes and evicted tenant farmers who peopled The
Grapes of Wrath and Guthrie tunes. Their mothers and fathers and
kids. Their house, Big Pink, every band's dream--a clubhouse to jam and
practice and record in, surrounded by a hundred acres of mountain
meadows and woods. The Band, though, like millions of post-Beatles and
post-Dylan American kids picking and singing in their cellars and
backyards, still had to keep the volume down for fear of riling the
Nestled in Big Pink, playing cards and getting stoned and writing and
working out new stuff, as well as tweaking old bar-band tunes and hymns
and pieces of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music,
Dylan and The Band forged a remarkable creative symbiosis. Thanks to
their Dylan-paid salaries and a rent that, depending on whom you
believe, was somewhere between $125 and $275 a month, The Band played
musical chairs with instruments as they groped for fresh ideas. As
Robbie Robertson, The Band's chief songwriter and guitarist, has
shrewdly observed, "Sometimes the limitation of the instrument can
Improvising was key to their artistic process, as their shortcomings or
imaginations prodded them from instrument to instrument, lineup to
lineup, to find what worked with the tune at hand. The result was
contemporary folk music, new-minted yet old-sounding, with strains of
Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta, rockabilly and soul. It wobbled
foggily somewhere between jug bands and Stax-Volt, surreal wet dreams
and revival meetings.
Robertson's guitar stayed mostly low profile, rearing for occasional
stabbing outbursts; he rarely sang. The three vocalists were startlingly
different, but found offbeat ways to blend. As Robertson has observed,
"A lot of the time with The Band they were somewhere between real
harmonies and, because of our lack of education in music, they would be
things that just sounded interesting--or they would be the only thing
the person could hit."
Levon Helm's singing was gritty and soulful and at times sardonic; he
doubled on drums and mandolin. Rick Danko had a clear, yearning tenor,
played bass that burbled like a McCartney-esque tuba, sawed a backwoods
fiddle and strummed guitar. Richard Manuel doubled on engagingly
ramshackle drums and pounded what has been described as "rhythm piano";
as for his voice, Robertson has said, "There's a certain element of pain
in there that you didn't know whether it was because he was trying to
reach for a note or because he was a guy with a heart that'd been hurt."
Garth Hudson was classically trained, said he learned to improvise from
playing at his uncle's funeral parlor and invented one after another
"blackbox," the kinds of soundshapers so integral to the era's musical
sensibility. Hudson didn't sing, but the sounds he made became The
Band's sonic glue, as they fitted parts together that breathed, leaving
spaces float, stepping into others, with the sort of interlocking
discipline found in, say, the jammed-out music of Count Basie, Muddy
Waters or Booker T. & the MGs. Not surprisingly, they cut their
first two albums mostly live in the studio. (See The Band [Rhino]
for an informative, if talking-head-heavy, video history of the making
of the group's first two records.)
"Tears of Rage," written by Dylan and Manuel, kicked Music at Big
Pink off-kilter from the start. Manuel's eccentric r&b cry and
falsetto staggered dangerously, seductively around the confessional
lyrics; Robertson's treated guitar approximated organ tones; Hudson's
winding, churchy organ swelled and subsided; and a drunken Salvation
Army-ish horn section (courtesy Hudson and producer John Simon)
punctuated the flow over the spare, Booker T. & the MGs-style bass
and drums. Simon has observed of the distinctively moaning horn blend,
"That's the only sound we could make." The rest of the album was a bit
uneven but ear-opening, challenging, even wonderful. "To Kingdom Come"
bounced airily, blearily beneath Manuel's vocals; "The Weight" mixed
Curtis Mayfield guitar licks into a surreal gospel setting; "Long Black
Veil" tipped its classicist hat at Lefty Frizell; and "Chest Fever" was
an instant radio hit, with its swelling, skirling, gnashing organ and
With Grossman behind them, The Band--or at least Robertson, who was
rapidly becoming primus inter pares--learned to use reticence and
image to enhance their music. Like Wynton Marsalis a decade later in
jazz, they self-consciously looked back to tradition. "We were rebelling
against the rebellion," Robertson has said. "It was an instinct to
separate ourselves from the pack." That instinct drew the attention of
the nascent rock press, which became their champions: Outlets like
Rolling Stone, co-founded by jazz historian Ralph J. Gleason,
fused the old fanzines and more critical and historical perspectives.
These new media helped make The Band counterculture heroes.
As did the lyrics, which were increasingly written by Robertson.
Enigmatic and vaguely religious and poetic, full of questions and
retorts that didn't necessarily mesh, painting realistic scenes and
Dadaist laments, they clearly owed a great deal to Dylan. Robertson had
also been reading Cocteau, thinking in terms of movies, wanting to
replicate what he's called Dylan's disruption of song forms.
The look and sound, the entire presentation of The Band, evoked a notion
of authenticity that has underscored writing about them ever since,
usually to contrast them with the countercultural rebellion. As
Grossman, who knew show business, surely understood, this was both an
iconic extension and an ironic inversion of the folk revival's would-be
purity. For the counterculture, and show business, were The Band's home.
They were outriders on Dylan's panoramic influence, mountainside avatars
of the Jeffersonian "back to the land" ideal that recurred in the
Woodstock generation's ideology. As Greil Marcus rather romantically
noted of their early music, "It felt like a passport back to America for
people who'd become so estranged from their country that they felt like
foreigners even when they were in it."
When The Band (Capitol) followed Music From Big Pink in
1969, it cemented the group's reputation and enhanced their Dylanesque
mystique of invisibility: Refusing to tour, partly because of Band
members' car crashes and flipouts, they watched promoters' offers climb
from $2,000 a show to $50,000.
The Band were in the midst of recording their second album far from the
Catskills, in Hollywood at Sammy Davis Jr.'s pool house, which they'd
converted into a studio, when they decided to resist no longer. But
before they debuted onstage at Winterland in April 1969, Robertson got
such a bad case of nerves (he has always claimed he had the flu) he
stayed in bed for three days of rehearsal, and had to be hypnotized to
Since they'd been musically weaned in roadhouses and spent such care on
recording live, it's always been one of the odder ironies of The Band's
career that they were erratic, often uncomfortable performers.
Unconsciously extending the folk revival's ideology, reviewers tended to
explain their unevenness as an emblem of honest authenticity, which, in
the ways of do-it-yourself, folk-culture amateurism, it sometimes was,
though this was somehow also the culture The Band was posited to be
different from. "A lot of mysticism was built up around The Band,"
Robertson has said. "These guys up in the mountains...." At any rate,
the quality of their concerts was as fully unpredictable as that of
their putative opposite numbers, the Grateful Dead.
From Winterland they hit the Fillmore East, where I can testify they did
at least one good show; then they finished recording at the Hit Factory
in New York City. The Band still stands as their masterpiece.
Loosely built around a harvest-is-in, carnival-is-in-town feel, it's
incredibly consistent and divergent at the same time, the strength of
their studies and abilities ramifying its depth and breadth. Their brand
of self-consciousness of sources and sounds marked one key difference
between rock and earlier roll and rock.
From "Across the Great Divide," with its bouncy rhythms, yearning Manuel
vocal, bleary horns and slippery guitar fills, to "King Harvest (Has
Surely Come)," the surprisingly downbeat rural closer that cuts in
snapshots of union struggles, it has a rare scope and power. "Up on
Cripple Creek," with its bump-grind rhythms and allusion to an old folk
tune, was all over FM radio, as were the hoedowns-in-your-basement "Rag
Mamma Rag" and "Jemima Surrender." "The Unfaithful Servant" gave Danko's
aching tenor a Dylanesque vehicle, while "The Night They Drove Old Dixie
Down" told a moving tale of one Southern family's Civil War hardships.
After this album, the madness and musical unevenness accelerated. In
early 1970, The Band made the cover of Time--a rarity then. The
group's substance abuse, especially Manuel's and Danko's, deepened,
particularly when they were off the road, as they were for months at a
time. Robertson had become the dominant figure--embarking on
self-education, dealing with Grossman, writing first most, then all the
songs, disciplining the others into rehearsing and recording. The
relatively equal distribution of ability at the heart of The Band's
music was coming unbalanced.
Perhaps they'd just hit the natural limits of their talent. Or maybe
they were trapped by the ghosts of folkie authenticity they and Grossman
had conjured. Whatever the cause, most of their later albums sound more
airless, stale, fussy, strained. It was as if they were confined
conceptually to an inelastic, increasingly romanticized and nostalgic
space and mode. (To Kingdom Come [Capitol] offers two CDs that
cull much good and some indifferent material from all their recordings.)
But they didn't go straight downhill. The music they made when they
rejoined Dylan onstage in 1974 was fierce, as if he once again sparked
their creative fires. Their several tours with the Grateful Dead, though
the pairing confused many reviewers, was a study in similarity and
contrast that sometimes sparked great things. (In 1970, Danko told Jerry
Garcia, "We thought you were just California freaks, but you're just
like us.") And on the albums, individual songs--"The Shape I'm In,"
"Stage Fright," Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece"--displayed the old
dexterous touches. Overall, though, creatively everyone but Robertson,
whose muse was drying up anyway, seemed content to coast--after all,
women, booze and money were plentiful. The ambitious songwriter, who'd
begun producing other artists' records and thinking about movies,
finally decided to pull the plug in high style. Hence The Last
There are beautiful sequences in The Last Waltz, and the best are
those of The Band itself. Scorsese's desire to work tight means fewer
establishing shots than some (including me) might want, but the
aesthetic does reflect The Band's subtle, intimate music. At its best,
the film can be stunning. "Stage Fright," for example, shoots Danko from
almost 360 degrees, lit only by an overhead spot, creating gorgeous
interplays of shadow and light, heightening the song's lyrics. "Mystery
Train," to which Paul Butterfield adds harp and vocals, has a similar
self-conscious beauty, which jars with the raggedy unison singing. The
Staples Singers joining on "The Weight," in a sequence filmed after the
show itself, aurally demonstrates The Band's vocal debts to them. For
Emmylou Harris's turn on "Evangeline," another postshow scene, Scorsese
fills the soundstage with blue-lit smoke, which feels hokey but redeems
it a bit visually with arresting camera angles that frame the stark,
lovely geometries of Hudson's accordion, Danko's fiddle and Helm's
A concert film is ultimately about the music, however. The Last
Waltz translates The Band's broad tastes into a narrative punctuated
by interviews and special guests onstage. But the frame is only as
strong as its content. Eric Clapton? Ron Wood and Ringo Starr? Dr. John?
Neil Diamond? Joni Mitchell? Even Muddy Waters? Broad-based roots,
far-reaching sounds, all spokes in the wheel of the 1960s rock
resurgence that Scorsese's narrative contextualizes and justifies via
the interviews. But there's little about the performances of these
artists that is special. No particular chemistry emerges to make this a
moment--except that it's The Band's Last Waltz. I found myself wondering
if part of The Band's artistry consisted of its ability to disappear
musically. (The companion four-CD set, The Last Waltz [Rhino],
has state-of-the-art sound and a bunch of added music--most of it,
unless you're a completist, better left unheard.)
Certainly The Last Waltz makes clear why The Band ended. Though
Scorsese tries to balance his time with the five members, Robertson's
hooded eyes enthrall him. It's palpable that Robertson is surrounded by
good-timey, undisciplined mates who have trouble articulating or
finishing their stories, and often steps into the breach. (Helm is
incisive talking about music and cultural roots; the others work in a
haze of fractured sentences, bits of cynicism and mysticism, and defer
Robertson had become the group's de facto manager, its public face, more
and more the businessman, the guy who had the vast bulk of the
publishing income and royalties from all that collaborative imaginative
work that made the songs timeless. He was also the sole producer of
The Last Waltz. He wanted out; if the movie is unclear what the
others wanted, the fact is that the rest, minus Robertson, re-formed in
various configurations over the years.
Aside from The Band's own sequences, the best moments in The Last
Waltz belong, fittingly, to Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, the two
front men who helped catalyze their chemistry. Hawkins is wonderfully
unselfconscious during his rave-up version of "Who Do You Love," cueing
and teasing The Band as if a dozen years hadn't passed between them.
Dylan, at the film's end, leads The Band through "Forever Young," making
it their gentle envoi. Watching him goose them through his abrupt
transition to the snarling reworking of the Rev. Gary Davis's "Baby, Let
Me Follow You Down," one of the electric tunes they'd rattled audiences
with in that now-legendary 1965-66 tour, offers us a glimpse into the
chemistry of their fruitful relationship, and the perfect closing
bookend to The Band's career.
As chairman of the fifty-nine-member Congressional Progressive Caucus and
potential candidate for the Democratic
presidential nomination, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich has been quite
visible lately. At a time when few Democrats are daring to question the
war aims of the Bush Administration--or even to ask what they
are--Kucinich has spoken eloquently against the Patriot Act, the ongoing
military buildup and the vague and apparently horizonless "war on
terrorism." From tax cuts for the rich and the death penalty (against)
to national health insurance and the environment (for), Kucinich has the
right liberal positions. Michael Moore, who likes to rib progressives
for favoring white wine and brie over hot dogs and beer, would surely
approve of Kucinich's man-of-the-people persona--he's actually a New
Age-ish vegan, but his website has a page devoted to "Polka, Bowling and
One thing you won't find on Kucinich's website, though, is any mention
of his opposition to abortion rights. In his two terms in Congress, he
has quietly amassed an anti-choice voting record of Henry Hyde-like
proportions. He supported Bush's reinstatement of the gag rule for
recipients of US family planning funds abroad. He supported the Child
Custody Protection Act, which prohibits anyone but a parent from taking
a teenage girl across state lines for an abortion. He voted for the
Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which makes it a crime, distinct from
assault on a pregnant woman, to cause the injury or death of a fetus. He
voted against funding research on RU-486. He voted for a ban on dilation
and extraction (so-called partial-birth) abortions without a maternal
health exception. He even voted against contraception coverage in health
insurance plans for federal workers--a huge work force of some 2.6
million people (and yes, for many of them, Viagra is covered).
Where reasonable constitutional objections could be raised--the lack of
a health exception in partial-birth bans clearly violates Roe v.
Wade, as the Supreme Court ruled in Stenberg v.
Carhart--Kucinich did not raise them; where competing principles
could be invoked--freedom of speech for foreign health organizations--he
did not bring them up. He was a co-sponsor of the House bill outlawing
all forms of human cloning, even for research purposes, and he opposes
embryonic stem cell research. His anti-choice dedication has earned him
a 95 percent position rating from the National Right to Life Committee,
versus 10 percent from Planned Parenthood and 0 percent from NARAL.
When I spoke with Kucinich by phone, he seemed to be looking for a way
to put some space between himself and his record. "I believe life begins
at conception"--Kucinich was raised as a Catholic--"and that it doesn't
end at birth." He said he favored neither a Human Life Amendment that
would constitutionally protect "life" from the moment of conception, nor
the overturning of Roe v. Wade (when asked by Planned Parenthood
in 1996 whether he supported the substance of Roe, however, he
told them he did not). He spoke of his wish to see abortion made rare by
providing women with more social supports and better healthcare, by
requiring more responsibility from men and so on. He presented his votes
as votes not against abortion per se but against federal funding of the
procedure. Unfortunately, his record does not easily lend itself to this
reading: He voted specifically against allowing Washington, DC, to fund
abortions for poor women with nonfederal dollars and against
permitting female soldiers and military dependents to have an abortion
in overseas military facilities even if they paid for it themselves.
Similarly, although Kucinich told me he was not in favor of
"criminalizing" abortion, he voted for a partial-birth-abortion ban that
included fines and up to two years in jail for doctors who performed
them, except to save the woman's life. What's that, if not
"I haven't been a leader on this," Kucinich said. "These are issues I
would not have chosen to bring up." But if he plans to run for
President, Kucinich will have to change his stance, and prove it, or
kiss the votes of pro-choice women and men goodbye. It won't be enough
to present himself as low profile or, worse, focused elsewhere (he voted
to take away abortion rights inadvertently? in a fog? thinking about
something more "important" than whether women should be forced to give
birth against their will?). "I can't tell you I don't have anything to
learn," Kucinich told me. OK, but shouldn't he have started his
education before he cast a vote barring funds for abortions for
women in prison? (When I told him the inhumanity of this particular vote
made me feel like throwing up--you're not only in jail, you have to have
a baby too?--he interjected, "but there's a rape exception!") Kucinich
says he wants to "create a dialogue" and "build bridges" between
pro-choicers and anti-choicers, but how can he "heal divisions" when
he's so far on one side? The funding issue must also be squarely faced:
As a progressive, Kucinich has to understand that denying abortion
funding to poor women is as much a class issue as denying them any other
kind of healthcare.
That a solidly anti-choice politician could become a standard- bearer
for progressivism, the subject of hagiographic profiles in The
Nation and elsewhere, speaks volumes about the low priority of
women's rights to the self-described economic left, forever chasing the
white male working-class vote. Supporting an anti-choice Congressman may
have seemed pragmatic; trying to make him President would be political
suicide. Pregnant prisoners may not vote, but millions of pro-choice
* * *
Once again, the Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt, a German human rights
group, is organizing summer camps on the Adriatic for displaced Bosnian
and Kosovar children of all ethnicities. For several years now,
Nation readers have contributed generously to the BIF and have
made it possible for many children from the former Yugoslavia to have a
holiday from war, poverty and ethnic hatred. $125 sponsors a child for
two weeks, but donations in any amount are welcome. Checks payable to
Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt can be sent to me c/o The Nation, 33 Irving
Place, New York, NY 10003; I will forward them, with many thanks.
A long time ago I dated a 28-year-old man who told me the first time we
went out that he wanted to have seven children. Subsequently, I was
involved for many years with an already middle-aged man who also claimed
to be eager for fatherhood. How many children have these now-gray
gentlemen produced in a lifetime of strenuous heterosexuality? None. But
because they are men, nobody's writing books about how they blew their
lives, missed the brass ring, find life a downward spiral of serial
girlfriends and work that's lost its savor. We understand, when we think
about men, that people often say they want one thing while making
choices that over time show they care more about something else, that
circumstances get in the way of many of our wishes and that for many
"have kids" occupies a place on the to-do list between "learn Italian"
Change the sexes, though, and the same story gets a different slant.
According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, today's 50-something women
professionals are in deep mourning because, as the old cartoon had it,
they forgot to have children--until it was too late, and too late was a
whole lot earlier than they thought. In her new book, Creating a
Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, Hewlett claims
she set out to record the triumphant, fulfilled lives of women in
mid-career only to find that success had come at the cost of family: Of
"ultra-achieving" women (defined as earning $100,000-plus a year), only
57 percent were married, versus 83 percent of comparable men, and only
51 percent had kids at 40, versus 81 percent among the men. Among
"high-achieving" women (at least $65,000 or $55,000 a year, depending on
age), 33 percent are childless at 40 versus 25 percent of men.
Why don't more professional women have kids? Hewlett's book nods to the
"brutal demands of ambitious careers," which are still structured
according to the life patterns of men with stay-at-home wives, and to
the distaste of many men for equal relationships with women their own
age. I doubt there's a woman over 35 who'd quarrel with that. But what's
gotten Hewlett a cover story in Time ("Babies vs. Careers: Which
Should Come First for Women Who Want Both?") and instant celebrity is
not her modest laundry list of family-friendly proposals--paid leave,
reduced hours, career breaks. It's her advice to young women: Be
"intentional" about children--spend your twenties snagging a husband,
put career on the back burner and have a baby ASAP. Otherwise, you could
end up like world-famous playwright and much-beloved woman-about-town
Wendy Wasserstein, who we are told spent some $130,000 to bear a child
as a single 48-year-old. (You could also end up like, oh I don't know,
me, who married and had a baby nature's way at 37, or like my many
successful-working-women friends who adopted as single, married or
lesbian mothers and who are doing just fine, thank you very much.)
Danielle Crittenden, move over! Hewlett calls herself a feminist, but
Creating a Life belongs on the backlash bookshelf with What
Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us, The Rules, The Surrendered
Wife, The Surrendered Single (!) and all those books warning
women that feminism--too much confidence, too much optimism, too many
choices, too much "pickiness" about men--leads to lonely nights and
empty bassinets. But are working women's chances of domestic bliss
really so bleak? If 49 percent of ultra-achieving women don't have kids,
51 percent do--what about them? Hewlett seems determined to put the
worst possible construction on working women's lives, even citing the
long-discredited 1986 Harvard-Yale study that warned that women's
chances of marrying after 40 were less than that of being killed by a
terrorist. As a mother of four who went through high-tech hell to
produce last-minute baby Emma at age 51, she sees women's lives through
the distorting lens of her own obsessive maternalism, in which nothing,
but nothing, can equal looking at the ducks with a toddler, and if you
have one child, you'll be crying at the gym because you don't have two.
For Hewlett, childlessness is always a tragic blunder, even when her
interviewees give more equivocal responses. Thus she quotes academic
Judith Friedlander calling childlessness a "creeping non-choice,"
without hearing the ambivalence expressed in that careful phrasing. Not
choosing--procrastinating, not insisting, not focusing--is often a way
of choosing, isn't it? There's no room in Hewlett's view for modest
regret, moving on or simple acceptance of childlessness, much less
indifference, relief or looking on the bright side--the feelings she
advises women to cultivate with regard to their downsized hopes for
careers or equal marriages. But Hewlett's evidence that today's
childless "high achievers" neglected their true desire is based on a
single statistic, that only 14 percent say they knew in college that
they didn't want kids--as if people don't change their minds after 20.
This is not to deny that many women are caught in a time trap. They
spend their twenties and thirties establishing themselves
professionally, often without the spousal support their male
counterparts enjoy, perhaps instead being supportive themselves, like
the surgeon Hewlett cites approvingly who graces her fiancé's
business dinners after thirty-six-hour hospital shifts. By the time they
can afford to think of kids, they may indeed have trouble conceiving.
But are these problems that "intentionality" can solve? Sure, a woman
can spend her twenties looking for love--and show me one who doesn't!
But will having a baby compensate her for blinkered ambitions and a
marriage made with one eye on the clock? Isn't that what the mothers of
today's 50-somethings did, going to college to get their Mrs. degree and
taking poorly paid jobs below their capacities because they "combined"
well with wifely duties? What makes Hewlett think that disastrous recipe
will work out better this time around?
More equality and support, not lowered expectations, is what women need,
at work and at home. It's going to be a long struggle. If women allow
motherhood to relegate them to secondary status in both places, as
Hewlett advises, we'll never get there. Meanwhile, a world with fewer
female surgeons, playwrights and professors strikes me as an infinitely
inferior place to live.
Having a hard time finding a new apartment to fit your budget? Consider a move to the blocks around Ground Zero. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the body set up by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Governor George Pataki to oversee the rebuilding of downtown post-September 11, will pay you up to $12,000 to relocate south of Chambers and west of Broadway for two years, or stay there should you live there already. I know--I couldn't believe it either. This bounty to adventurous tenants is federal money and comes even as area rents are already down by as much as 30 percent since 9/11. Think of it as a mini-version of the millions ladled out to keep corporations from abandoning lower Manhattan for New Jersey. I figured out that I could sublet my apartment on the Upper West Side, move downtown and actually be able to live on my Nation salary (well, almost).
It's true downtown is a mess right now--depending on whom you talk to, the air quality's somewhere between itchy and lethal, a lot of little shops and restaurants have folded, and Ground Zero is not everyone's idea of a view. Still, whatever happened to the survival of the fittest? To the market and its omnipotent invisible hand? Why shouldn't downtown apartments fall to their "natural" price--the rent at which sufficient numbers of people will want to take out a lease despite the angst and aggravation? And if that figure turns out to be so low that the current landlords can't make a go of it, isn't it the capitalist theory that other, cleverer landlords will step into the breach, with the consumer the winner? Why should the federal government pay middle-class professionals to live in one neighborhood rather than another? The answer is, to keep downtown a great place for those same middle-class professionals to live and for real estate interests to invest in.
Public subsidy is certainly not the principle animating housing policy for low-income people and homeless families like the ones whose tribulations were superbly, unforgettably chronicled by Jennifer Egan in The New York Times Magazine ("The Hidden Lives of Homeless Children," March 24). Five hundred dollars a month to brighten a scruffy and underpopulated district with their presence? The housing allowance for a family of three on welfare is $286. It's one thing to herd women and kids into filthy motels at the city's edge, miles from grocery stores and hours away from schools and jobs--at daily rates for which they could be happily ensconced in their own apartments. It would be quite another matter to treat low-income New Yorkers as members of society with contributions to make that are equal to (or greater than) those of bond traders or publicity agents, and to see their children as no less deserving of a safe and stable place to live than any other kids.
As Egan points out, homeless families--now 75 percent of the city's shelter population, including 13,000 children this past winter--are caught between falling or stagnant wages and skyrocketing housing costs. The housing market is just too tight, no public housing is being built and the waiting list for section 8 vouchers, which poor families can use toward private-market rents, has more than 200,000 names. Homelessness is a civic emergency, an affront to human dignity and a threat to the city's future, affecting everything from public health to public schools to public safety. But can you imagine Mayor Bloomberg, inspired by Egan's crusading journalism, proposing that we move homeless families--virtuous, sober, quiet homeless families, to be sure--into those hard-to-rent vacancies downtown? Middle-class New Yorkers would lie down in traffic to prevent it.
As society polarizes between rich and poor, differential treatment becomes ever more blatant and punitive. Thus, George W. Bush, seconded by Congressional Republicans and the Democratic Leadership Council, proposes forcing welfare mothers to work forty hours a week--nearly double the national norm for working moms. Thus, the Supreme Court, in a staggering 8-to-0 verdict (Justice Breyer recused himself), decides that public housing authorities can evict tenants if someone in the household uses drugs--including pot, which Mayor Bloomberg himself has acknowledged enjoying in his flaming youth. The rule applies even if they don't know about the drug use or do all in their power to prevent it, and even if it takes place outside the apartment. The plaintiffs? Two grandmothers whose grandsons smoked pot, one mother whose mentally disabled daughter was found thirty blocks away using cocaine, and one elderly disabled man whose health attendant had a crack pipe. Patricia Williams and others have wondered out loud why Jeb and Columba Bush didn't have to vacate the Florida governor's mansion because of their daughter's drug problems. Is it only poor grandmothers who are expected to have perfect control of the young?
The same law of punishing all for the crimes of one, which HUD has titled "One Strike and You're Out," is being used against battered women who seek help from the police, only to find themselves threatened with eviction from public housing because the household was the site of "criminal activity"--the assault. Can you imagine the headlines if the management at Battery Park City tried to evict a woman because her husband beat her up?
In the words of that noted social theorist Jesus Christ: "For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." He was speaking of spiritual riches, but these days his words seem to apply to material ones as well.
* * *
My apologies to Tricycle, which did indeed cover strife in Sri Lanka, contrary to my reckless assertion ("God Changes Everything," April 1). No apologies, however, for failing to include Billy Graham's thirty-year-old anti-Semitic remarks in my catalogue of sins of the cloth. Why do I suspect that had I given to that ancient evangelist the space I allotted to West Bank settlers, priestly molesters, Islamic fanatics, Hindu arsonists and murderers or other contemporary religious rampagers, Christopher Hitchens would have suggested I was ignoring current crises in favor of musty Nixoniana?
I was in high school in the 1960s when I first saw Dave Van Ronk at the Gaslight, one of those little cellar clubs that used to line a Greenwich Village that now lives in myth and legend. I didn't understand what he was doing. It seemed like a jumble whose elements I recognized--folk tunes, ragtime, early jazz, Delta blues--but they didn't gel into what I thought was coherence. It was really only my expectations, though, that were exposed. I felt like Dr. P in Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, scanning deconstructed faces for that single telltale feature that would reveal who I was looking at. I didn't know how to think about it. I couldn't have been more confused if Louis Armstrong had ambled onto The Ed Sullivan Show and followed "Hello Dolly!" with "The Times They Are A-Changin'."
Two things, however, I got: Van Ronk was a hellacious guitar picker, and he was the only white guy I'd ever heard whose singing showed he understood Armstrong and Muddy Waters. He roared and bellowed like a hurricane; he could be threatening, and tender as the night. And he was funny. Not cute funny--really funny. He did bits from W.C. Fields, whose movies, like those of the Marx Brothers, were just being revived. He did "Mack the Knife" with a suddenly acquired tremolo I later found out was Marlene Dietrich's. He finished with "Cocaine," which he'd adapted from the Rev. Gary Davis, his friend and teacher, adding his own asides ("Went to bed last night singing a song/Woke up this morning and my nose was gone"). Decades later, Jackson Browne revived the tune, his band parsing Van Ronk's solo guitar.
There are many Van Ronk undercurrents flowing through American pop culture. The acclamation that followed his death from colon cancer early this year strangely mirrored his ghostly omnipresence during life. He was a missing link: an authentic songster who voiced folk-made music. At his artistic core, he reconnected jazz to folk-music forms that he, like his avatar Woody Guthrie, pursued, learned and kept alive--and, with the wit and humor that kept homage from freezing into reverence, dared to reimagine.
A big, burly guy whose personality was as oversized as his voice, Van Ronk never crossed over to commerciality, never got mainstream-famous. In those ways, he was a true exemplar of the folk-revival aesthetic: becoming too visible or successful equaled selling out. He followed the time-honored American path into this culture's musical heart: He studied sources and learned from living African-American performers. Those sources included Piedmont ragtime pickers like Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller and Delta deep-bluesmen like Son House, as well as parlor music. Then there was the Rev. Gary Davis. He'd dazzled 1940s Harlem street corners with his stylistically wide-ranging guitar and whooping singing, careening from biblical shouts to leering lipsmackers, and by the 1960s had become a teacher who drew Village hipsters to his small brick house in Queens. This was the era when Moondog, the eccentric jazz poet, took up his post near the Museum of Modern Art and did, well, whatever he felt like doing that day.
Maybe it's not surprising that I was so confused by these figures that I didn't guess until later that I'd seen some of the last stages of America's oral culture.
The acceleration of technological change has inevitably altered the oral process of folk-art transmission. In the twenty-first century it seems that, for better and worse, technology has probably rendered the Van Ronks oddly superfluous, apparently redundant. In evolution, if not architecture, form follows function. The concept of folk music hatched by Charles Seeger and the Lomaxes, and embodied by Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Pete Seeger, has, in the age of mass recording, lost the daily uses that made it folk art. Where once songsters were the repositories and transmitters of our polyglot national folk heritage, where Van Ronk's generation of amateur and semipro musicologist-sleuths sought out records tossed into people's attics and garages to find artists obscured by the mists of time, now, thanks to the omnipresent, profitable avalanche of record-company CD reissues, almost anything they dug up is readily available. Of course, the artists and their cultures are not.
So our easy connection with the cultural past is shaped by the recording studio, with its time constraints and pressures and implicit notion of a fixed performance guarded by copyright--and the possibility of paying publishing royalties that are the core of the music industry's economy. That inevitably alters performances from folk art, where borrowing and repetition are demanded. Thus we've lost the idiosyncratic twists to the oral/aural tradition that an artist of Van Ronk's caliber introduces, casually and yet integrally, however much they appear like asides.
"This song has changed since Gary used to do it," he used to growl, introducing "Cocaine." Which was, of course, part of the point, the method of transmission, of real folk music: If culture is a conservative mechanism, a cumulative record of human activity, change results from disconnections and accretions like Van Ronk's sharp-witted reactions to Davis's barbed blues, originally improvised add-ons drawn from his memory of lyrics the way a jazz musician pulls riffs from history and reworks them into his own voice.
Van Ronk was a die-hard collector of sources, living and recorded. As the liner notes to the 1962 album In the Tradition put it, "Dave Van Ronk has established himself as one of the foremost compilers of 'Jury Texts' regarding traditional tunes. (Jury Texts are when many verses are sung to one tune, usually with some new words appearing with each subsequent recording.) Here, in 'Death Letter Blues,' Van Ronk has arranged some of the most moving verses of this song into a dramatic slow blues." Behold the songster at work--a process found in early Armstrong, Guthrie and Robert Johnson.
Although the building blocks of oral culture are plastic, preservationists in a nonoral culture tend toward reverence, and thus simpler imitation--hence the folk revival's slew of earnest groups like the New Lost City Ramblers. As Van Ronk observed in a late 1970s interview in the folk music quarterly Sing Out!, "It was all part and parcel of the big left turn middle-class college students were making.... So we owe it all to Rosa Parks." While black rhythm-and-blues was revving white teens into rock and roll, black folk artists became heroes to young white collegians. The left cast a romantic, even sacramental aura over black (and white) folk art and its traditions, which implicitly stigmatized creative change; the central notion of folk-revival culture, authenticity, meant avoiding commercial trappings and replicating a recorded past.
Perhaps it was Van Ronk's deep study of that past that helped him avoid fixing it. In a late 1990s interview, asked about Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, he rightly called it the bible of his generation and noted dryly, "I sat up and took notice at how many tunes that, say, Doc Watson does that are on the Anthology.... Some he would have known [via oral tradition]. But you can tell. There are hundreds of possible verses. When someone does [lists three verses in order], you know they've been listening to Bascom Lamar Lunsford."
"One thing I was blessed with is that I was a very, very bad mimic," Van Ronk once observed. Which is another view of how oral tradition mixes conservation and creativity. Van Ronk's background allowed him to understand this uniquely.
He was born in Brooklyn on July 30, 1936, a Depression baby to a mostly Irish working-class family. His father and mother split, and he grew up in blue-collar Richmond Hill, Queens, where he went to Catholic school--or played truant--until the system gave up on him, at 16. In 1998 he told David Walsh, "I remember reading Grant's memoirs, the autobiography of Buffalo Bill. Lots of Mark Twain.... My brain was like the attic of the Smithsonian.... The principal...called me 'a filthy ineducable little beast.' That's a direct quote." Like Guthrie, Van Ronk became a formidable autodidact. While he hung out in pool halls he was listening to jazz--bebop, cool, then traditional, a k a New Orleans or Dixieland jazz, a style with its own cult of authenticity. He fell in love with Armstrong and Bessie Smith, along with Lead Belly and Bing Crosby, his major vocal influences.
Like Odysseus, Guthrie, Kerouac and Pynchon, Van Ronk decided to take to the sea. In 1957, he got a shore gig at the Cafe Bizarre in the Village. Odetta, the gospel-voiced black singer who gave the 1950s folk scene an interracial connection--as Lead Belly, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and Josh White had to the first Depression wave--heard him, liked him and convinced him to make a demo tape that she'd pass on to Albert Grossman, folk-music maven, Chicago club owner and future manager of Bob Dylan. Popping Benzedrine in the best Beat fashion, Van Ronk hitchhiked to Chicago in twenty-four hours, got to Grossman's club, found out the tape hadn't, auditioned, got turned down (Grossman was booking black songsters like Big Bill Broonzy, and Van Ronk accused him of Crowjimming), hitchhiked back to New York, had his seaman's papers stolen and thus decided that he would, after all, become a folk singer.
Given his sardonic realism, it was fittingly ironic that he and his wife, Terri Thal, became quasi parents for dewy-eyed collegiate folkies drawn by Guthrie's songs and Seeger's indefatigable college-concert proselytizing. Seeger's shows planted folk-music seeds on campuses across the country, but Smith's Anthology provided the rich soil for the next generation of folk musicians. "Cast your mind back to 1952," Van Ronk told one interviewer. "The only way you could hear the old timers was hitting up the thrift shops. When the Anthology came out, there were eighty-two cuts, all the old-time stuff. I wore out a copy in a year. People my age were doing the same." As did his musical stepkids.
Van Ronk once said of Seeger, "What am I supposed to say about the guy who invented my profession?" By the late 1950s that profession had migrated far from Lead Belly and Guthrie, songsters who lived the lives they chronicled, and far from Seeger's fierce anticommercialism and romantic faith in a pure, true folk culture. History intervened. Seeger had refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and had doggedly resurfaced in the post-McCarthy era. Still, less threatening figures like Burl Ives became the commercial faces of folk music. As Joe Klein noted in Woody Guthrie: A Life, the folk revival offered record companies an exit from payola scandals and the racial and sexual fears that had generated mainstream disapproval of rock and roll. The patina of integrity and authenticity covering white collegiate folk music helped the labels repolish corporate images.
Starting in 1957, the Kingston Trio cleaned up old tunes like "Tom Dooley" and "Tijuana Jail" and scored several top-25 hits. Neat folk groups proliferated, feeding into the Village and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where young men and women donning recently acquired rural accents and denims recycled the Anthology's songbook and hoped to catch a label's ear.
In 1959, when Bobby Zimmerman was leaving behind his piano à la Jerry Lee Lewis for college and the Anthology's lures, Van Ronk made his first records, now compiled on The Folkways Years (Smithsonian/Folkways); they unveil a songster misclassified. Van Ronk once said, "I never really thought of myself as a folk singer at all. Still don't. What I did was to combine traditional fingerpicking guitar with a repertoire of old jazz tunes." Here he does a Gary Davis-derived staple of his repertoire, "Hesitation Blues," and more blues and gospel. His big, rough voice and guitar dexterity are self-evident, as is his improvisational feel.
In 1964, he yanged with Dave Van Ronk's Ragtime Jug Stompers (Mercury), recording high-energy versions of tunes like "Everybody Loves My Baby" with a wild and ragged Dixieland outfit. This was his recurrent jazz-folk dialectic. On his solo album Sings the Blues (Folkways), Van Ronk's coarse voice and nimble fingers got looser--like the irrepressible Davis's--and thus he found himself.
"It was more academic than it is now," Van Ronk remembered in the 1970s:
It was 'de rigueur,' practically, to introduce your next song with a musicological essay--we all did it. There was a great deal of activity around New York--not so much you could make money at. But there were folk song societies in most of the colleges and the left was dying, but not quietly. So there was a great deal of activity around Sing Out! and the Labor Youth League, which wasn't affiliated with the old CP youth group, you understand. There was a lot of grassroots interest among the petit-bourgeois left.
Spoken like the sly observer who once told an interviewer from the International Committee of the Fourth International, "I've always liked Trotsky's writings as an art critic."
By 1961 Bobby Zimmerman was Bobby Dylan and had arrived in New York, Van Ronk was an insider on the Village folk scene and the two gravitated toward and around each other, thanks partly to what Van Ronk called the take-no-prisoners quality of Dylan's music and personality. Ramped up by commercial success, the postwar folk revival's peak loomed over debates about authenticity. "All of a sudden," Van Ronk recalled a few years back, "there was money all over the place."
He settled into the Gaslight, a hub for noncommercial folkies. Several other pass-the-hat beat-folk coffeehouses, like Cafe Wha?, opened. By 1962 Dylan had settled in down the block, at the grander Gerde's Folk City. Izzy Young of the Folklore Center, part of the older folk-revival wave, had set up a folk-music showcase, WBAI had broadcast the shows and club owner Mike Porco, realizing he had a salable product, ousted both, lining his bar with record covers and his seats with young beatniks. Porco's Monday night Hoots were the dollar-admission descendants of both Young's and Seeger's earlier informal loft gatherings, and he showcased rediscovered legends like John Lee Hooker with Dylan as the opener. Tom and Jerry--later known as Simon and Garfunkel--and Judy Collins cut their teeth there. Kids flocked to this semi-underground. Jug bands emerged as the college-beatnik equivalent of the 1950s blue-collar rockabilly outbreak in the South, and street-corner doo-wop in the North, prefiguring the 1960s garage-band explosion after the Beatles and electric Dylan. The link: Everyone felt empowered to make music. These were folk musics.
The Newport Folk Festival, the crowning triumph of the postwar folk revival, was first organized in 1959 by jazz impresario George Wein and Albert Grossman, and graduated the purer wings of the folk movement to big-time concerts; Seeger himself was involved. "I never liked those things," Van Ronk characteristically recalled. "It was a three-ring circus.... You couldn't even really hear what you came to hear. Put yourself in my position, or any singer's position: How would you like to sing for 15,000 people with frisbees?" Along with his own musical catholicity, that may be why, even after the Dylan-goes-electric blowup at the 1965 festival, Van Ronk remained a Dylan defender.
"Nervous. Nervous energy, he couldn't sit still," is how he spoke of young Bob to David Walsh in 1998:
And very, very evasive.... What impressed me the most about him was his genuine love for Woody Guthrie. In retrospect, even he says now that he came to New York to 'make it.' That's BS. When he came to New York there was no folk music, no career possible.... What he said at the time is the story I believe. He came because he had to meet Woody Guthrie.... Bobby used to go out there two or three times a week and sit there, and play songs for him. In that regard he was as standup a cat as anyone I've ever met. That's also what got him into writing songs. He wrote songs for Woody, to amuse him, to entertain him. He also wanted Woody's approval.... [Dylan's music] had what I call a gung-ho, unrelenting quality.... He acquired very, very devoted fans among the other musicians before he had written his first song.
Van Ronk was the first to record a tune Dylan claimed to write, "He Was a Friend of Mine," on Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger in 1962 (the album has been reissued as part of Inside Dave Van Ronk [Fantasy]). Three years later, the Byrds redid it on Turn! Turn! Turn!, whose title cut remade Seeger's setting of Ecclesiastes into folk rock, the new sound Dylan had kicked into high gear during his 1965 tour.
Van Ronk once observed, "The area that I have staked out...has been the kind of music that flourished in this country between the 1880s and, say, the end of the 1920s. You can call it saloon music if you want to. It was the kind of music you'd hear in music halls, saloons, whorehouses, barbershops, anywhere the Police Gazette could be found." That's not exactly a full description of what he did over thirty albums and countless performances. Better to think of him as a songster, an older, more encompassing sort of folk artist. Lead Belly and the Reverend Davis are outstanding examples of this type; they drew from multiple local and regional traditions that, in the early days of radio and phonograph, still defined American musical styles. Dance tunes, blues, ragtime, ballads, gospel--anything to keep the audiences on street corners or in juke joints interested and willing to part with some cash. This was, after all, performance. Entertainment was its primary goal; improvisation, found in the vocal-guitar interplay and instrumental backing as well as verse substitutions and extrapolations or shortenings, played to audience reaction.
In 1962, with the Red Onion Jazz Band, Van Ronk cut In the Tradition, which, along with the solo Your Basic Dave Van Ronk Album, cut in 1981, will be included on the forthcoming Two Sides of Dave Van Ronk. This somewhat odd couple makes a wonderful introduction to the breadth, depth and soul of this songster's legacy. The smoothly idiomatic Red Onions pump joyful New Orleans adrenaline and Armstrong trumpet into a raucous "Cake Walking Babies From Home"; a sinuous "Sister Kate," that dance hit built from an Armstrong melody; and Dylan's caustic "All Over You." Amid the Dixieland are solos: a stunning version of Son House's "Death Letter Blues" (later recorded by Cassandra Wilson), Lead Belly's "Whoa Back Buck," the virtuosic ragtime "St. Louis Tickle," signature pieces like the gentle "Green, Green Rocky Road" and "Hesitation Blues." The tunes drawn from Your Basic Dave Van Ronk Album show no diminishing of talent and a continuing breadth of perspective: Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child" (sung with a tenderness that scorches periodically into Howlin' Wolf) and "St. James Infirmary" share space with tunes by Davis and Mississippi John Hurt.
In 1967 he cut Dave Van Ronk & The Hudson Dusters (Verve Forecast), a cross of jug band and electric folk music that foreshadowed The Blues Project, the improvising garage band that Van Ronk pupils Danny Kalb and Steve Katz later formed. There was doo-wop, Joni Mitchell (whose Clouds becomes anguished, thanks to Van Ronk's torturous voice breaks used with interpretive skill, a move he learned from Armstrong and Bessie Smith) and the balls-to-the-wall garage rock "Romping Through the Swamp," which sounds akin to Captain Beefheart.
Recorded in 1967, Live at Sir George University (Justin Time) is time-capsule Van Ronk on guitar, plus vocals, doing pieces of his repertoire: "Frankie and Albert," "Down and Out," "Mack the Knife," "Statesboro Blues" and "Cocaine," of course--all masterful, each distinct.
By then the folk boom, whose audience was bleeding into folk-rock, electric blues and psychedelia, stalled and ended. Van Ronk continued (except for a hiatus in the 1970s) to perform and record and gather new-old material. And he had time, before his death, to deliver some acid reflections.
On 1960s folkies:
The whole raison d'être of the New Left had been exposed as a lot of hot air, that was demoralizing. I mean, these kids thought they were going to change the world, they really did. They were profoundly deluded.... Phil Ochs wrote the song "I declare the war is over," that was despair, sheer despair.
On 1980s folkies:
You're talking about some pretty damn good songwriters. But I'd like to hear more traditional music.... With the last wave of songwriters you get the sense that tradition begins with Bob Dylan and nobody is more annoyed with that than Bob Dylan. We were sitting around a few years ago, and he was bitching and moaning: "These kids don't have any classical education." He was talking about the stuff you find on the Anthology [of American Folk Music]. I kidded him: "You got a lot to answer for, Bro."
Back in 1994, Christina Hoff Sommers accused The New York Times Book Review of unfairly assigning her attack on the women's movement, Who Stole Feminism?, to the distinguished scholar of Victorian literature Nina Auerbach for review. Sommers claimed that Auerbach was an unethical choice: Although not named in the book, she had been present at one of the many feminist academic conferences disparaged in its pages and was allegedly the author of a rather overbearing comment, cited in the book, scribbled on a paper written by Sommers's stepson, who had taken a course with Auerbach at the University of Pennsylvania (Auerbach denied writing the comment and suggested it was the work of a TA). Sommers's absurd bid for publicity stirred up a media chorus of sympathetic harrumphs about feminist conspiracies (the Review was at that time edited by a woman, Rebecca Sinkler): Columns ensued by Jim Sleeper, Howard Kurtz, Hilton Kramer. Rush Limbaugh accused the Times of trying to "kill this book."
None of these mavens of literary ethics saw fit to note that Cathy Young raved about the book in the Philadelphia Inquirer and in Commentary despite being vice president of the right-leaning Women's Freedom Network, where Sommers was on the board, or that Mary Lefkowitz gave it high marks in National Review despite being Sommers's very good friend. The Times Book Review ran two weeks' worth of letters (including a particularly rabid one from Camille Paglia, bashing Auerbach as if she were some PC criminal and not an important academic whom any author in her right mind would feel honored to be reviewed by, and who had been, in point of fact, much too high-minded and polite to give Who Stole Feminism? the pasting it deserved).
Fast-forward to the Washington Post Book World, which has landed in hot water for publishing a review of David Brock's Blinded by the Right by Bruce Bawer. Much of Brock's book deals with skulduggery at the Scaife-funded American Spectator--a magazine for which Bawer was a movie critic for several years prior to Brock's own stint there as, he now confesses, a hired mudslinger and fabricator of slanders against Anita Hill, President Clinton and others. Bawer did not mention his connection to the Spectator when offered the assignment, nor did he mention it in the review, even parenthetically, and having spent several years as The Nation's literary editor, I'm not a bit surprised: Reviewers were always neglecting to tell me that the author under consideration was their colleague, best friend, former lover or the editor of the magazine that was publishing their fiction. When I would belatedly find out and confront them, were they embarrassed? Dream on. One even wrote me an outraged letter comparing his panegyric on the poetry of his department chairman to Shelley writing about Keats. Caveat editor, indeed!
Did the Washington Post engineer a pan for Brock by knowingly choosing a reviewer too closely allied with the people and politics he attacks, as claimed by the Media Whores Online website, which is calling for the public beheading of the Book World editor, Marie Arana? Bawer is mentioned (briefly and favorably) in the book, but there is no index and--I hate to be the one to break this to MWO--"previewing" a book before assigning it is not the same as reading every page. (Truth in advertising: I've written a few reviews for Arana and think she's an excellent editor and swell human being, even if the Book World didn't review my last book.) Still, it's a little hard to believe that nobody at the Book World knew that Bawer is a pretty conservative fellow, and, as MWO points out, there is a bit of history here: Two years ago, the Post assigned Joe Conason and Gene Lyons's The Hunting of the President to James Bowman, who was also associated with The American Spectator. On the other hand, Bawer, who, like Brock, is gay, says he left the Spectator over its slurs against homosexuals. Gee, two gay guys who both quit the same rightwingnut magazine--had Bawer loved the book, conservatives would be claiming the fix was in. In fact, Bawer's review was fairly trivial; mostly he made fun of Brock in a feline sort of way--slyly noting his love of elegant tailoring, fancy parties, attention and money, and observing that Brock is still talking trash, only now his targets are his erstwhile friends on the right. Compared with Helen Vendler, whose poetry criticism Bawer skewered in the Hudson Review some years ago with such relish and in such detail that anti-Vendlerites bought up the entire print run within minutes, Brock got off easy.
But then Helen Vendler's taste, like all taste, is open to question, while so far no conservative, Bawer included, has seriously disputed Brock's revelations beyond expressing a general skepticism that this self-confessed liar and suck-up artist has changed his spots. Is Brock lying when he describes how wealthy right-wing foundations created and fueled a media apparatus devoted to smearing liberals, feminists and Democrats, especially the Clintons, with whatever mud it could find or fabricate? Are his unflattering characterizations of his former cronies false? Brock portrays peroxided pundette Laura Ingraham as an ignorant drunk who does not own a single book; he charges Ann Coulter with "virulent anti-Semitism"; he says Spectator editor-in-chief R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. urged him to attack women because that sold papers. He claims the only thing Simon & Schuster publisher Jack Romanos wanted to know before handing him a million dollars to write a hatchet job on Hillary Clinton was whether she was a lesbian. He says Ricky Silberman, vice chairman of the EEOC under Clarence Thomas and one of his most stalwart supporters, was thoroughly persuaded by Strange Justice, in which Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson validate Hill's claims, but helped Brock savage the book anyway. Virtually every page of Blinded by the Right makes an assertion that is, if true, embarrassing, and if false, libelous. The silence is curious, to say the least.
After much urging, the Post acknowledged that Bawer's review was inappropriate. Meanwhile, you can be sure that none of the pundits who raked Nina Auerbach and the New York Times over the coals will be firing up the barbie this time.
Let's say there was a school system or a chain of clinics on whose professional staff were a certain number of men who molested the children in their care and who, whenever this behavior came to the attention of their superiors, were shifted to another school or clinic, with parents and colleagues, not to mention the justice system, kept in the dark whenever possible. Imagine that this practice continued for thirty years through a combination of out-of-court settlements, sympathetic judges and politicians, stonewalling lawyers, suppression of information, fulminations against the media. Don't you think that when the story finally broke, the men who had made and implemented the policy would be held legally responsible--for something? Certainly they would lose their jobs.
Bring God into the picture, though, and everything changes. The bishops who presided over the priestly pedophilia in the Catholic Church's ever-expanding scandal are not likely to follow Boston's Father Geoghan, convicted and sentenced to nine to ten years and facing more charges, into the dock, much less the cellblock. After all, they are men of God. Thanks to God, the Catholic Church can run a healthcare system--10 percent of private hospitals in the United States--that refuses to practice modern medicine where women are concerned: not just no abortion but also no birth control, no emergency contraception for rape victims, no sterilization, no in vitro fertilization. The church can agitate against the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, even in desperate Africa, a position as insane as South African President Thabo Mbeki's stance against antiretroviral AIDS drugs, but that generates a lot less outrage in the West. It can lobby in Ireland against allowing suicidal women to have abortions and intimidate a 14-year-old rape victim in Mexico into carrying to term; it can practice total sex discrimination, barring women from the priesthood and therefore from sharing in the political life of the church, and still demand to be taken seriously when it speaks of human rights or ethics--rather like the Philadelphia parochial school recently reported as giving academic extra credit to students who march in antiabortion-rights demonstrations even as the church goes after public funding through vouchers. No secular institution could get away with any of this, any more than a secular psychotherapist or family counselor could get away with telling poor mad Andrea Yates what the Protestant evangelist Michael Peter Woroniecki did: that Eve was a witch whose sin required atonement in the form of perfect motherhood and that working mothers are "wicked."
Another example: Let's say a group of Americans decide that they would like to live where they believe their ancestors lived 2,000 years ago, even though other people have been living there for centuries and don't like the idea one bit. If these people were Cajuns who wanted to park themselves in the Bois de Boulogne, everyone would think they were out of their minds. If they were American blacks taking over swatches of Ghana, people--including many black people--would laugh at their historical pretensions and militaristic grandiosity. It would certainly be a relevant point that these settlers are not displaced persons or refugees--they have perfectly good homes already. But once again, God changes everything: The former Brooklynites, Philadelphians and Baltimoreans now camping out in "Judea" and "Samaria" (the West Bank to you) wave the Bible and the Israeli government lavishes on them all sorts of privileges--cheaper mortgages, income tax breaks, business development and housing grants--with results that are disastrous for Israel and Palestinians alike and that now threaten the peace of the entire world. In a recent front-page story, the New York Times treated the longing of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to return to their homes in Israel proper as a psychological obstacle to their forging any kind of rational future, individual or collective, and maybe it is-- maybe it would be better for them to forget the old homestead and demand reparations. But at least the old woman mourning a sewing machine left behind when she fled Beersheba fifty years ago really, personally owned that sewing machine; the family picnicking year after year in the ruins of its former property has living memories of farming that plot of land. It is not a notional "ancestral" possession supposedly guaranteed in perpetuity by God. In this case, the religious fanaticism is not coming from the Muslims.
Elsewhere, of course, it is. God has been particularly busy in the Islamic world, building madrassahs, issuing fatwas, bringing in Sharia with its bloody stumps and beheadings and floggings and stonings--seventeen people have been stoned to death so far under the "progressive" Khatami regime in Iran--and underwriting a wide variety of dictators and monarchs and warlords. When gods start multiplying, matters don't improve: Polytheistic Hindu zealots have slaughtered 700 people, including many children, in revenge for the torching by Muslims of a train carrying Hindus from the site of the Ayodhya mosque, destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992 because it supposedly occupied the site where the god-king Ram was supposedly born. As I write, Hindu fanatics are threatening to fight Muslims for a strand of beard hair preserved in a Muslim shrine in Srinagar, which they claim belongs not to Mohammed but to Hindu religious leader Nimnath Baba. How many children will be burned to death over the proper attribution of that holy facial hair?
Think of all the ongoing conflicts involving religion: India versus Pakistan, Russia versus Chechnya, Protestants versus Catholics in Northern Ireland, Muslim guerrillas in the Philippines, bloody clashes between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia and Nigeria, civil war in Sudan and Uganda and Sri Lanka, in which last the Buddhist Sinhalese show a capacity for inflicting harm on the admittedly ferocious Hindu Tamils that doesn't get written up in Tricycle. It's enough to make one nostalgic for the cold war--as if the thin film of twentieth-century political ideology has been stripped away like the ozone layer to reveal a world reverting to seventeenth-century-style religious warfare, fought with twenty-first-century weapons. God changes everything.
On October 31 Governor Jane Swift of Massachusetts pardoned five women who had been convicted and executed in the Salem witch trials in 1692. Well, better late than never--what's a few centuries one way or another? Once you're dead you have all the time in the world. It's the living for whom justice delayed is justice denied, and on that score Governor Swift is not doing so well. On February 20 she rejected the recommendation of the state parole board, known for its sternness and strictness, and refused to commute the thirty-to-forty-year sentence of Gerald Amirault, who was convicted in the 1986 Fells Acre Day School child sex abuse case and who has already served sixteen years in prison. Violet Amirault and Cheryl Amirault LeFave, his mother and sister, who were convicted with him, served eight years before being released.
Since the l980s, when a wave of now notorious prosecutions of alleged ritual child sex abuse swept the country, many of the techniques used to elicit children's stories of abuse have been discredited: leading and coercive questions, multiple reinterviews, promises of rewards, suggestive use of anatomical dolls. It's no longer iron-clad doctrine that certain behaviors, like bed-wetting, masturbation and sexualized play, reliably indicate sex abuse. The slogan of the prosecution and the media was "believe the children"--but what that really meant was don't believe the children if they insist that nothing happened, if they like going to daycare and readily hug their alleged abusers; only believe the children when, after relentless questioning by interviewers, therapists and parents, they agree that something terrible happened and eventually come to believe it, as the Fells Acre children, now young adults, still do. As Dan Finneran, the Amiraults' lawyer until 2000, puts it, the case represents "a closed system of thought: denials, recantations and failure to remember are categorized as manifestations of repression and fear and thus stand as confirmations of actual abuse." If no means yes, and yes means yes, how do you say no?
All these issues featured in the Amirault case. The result was that a respected working-class family who had run a popular daycare center in Malden for twenty years--a place that parents were constantly popping in and out of--were convicted of a total of twenty-six counts of child abuse involving nine children in trials that included accusations of extravagant and flamboyant sadistic behavior: children being anally raped with butcher knives (which left no wounds), tied to trees on the front lawn while other teachers watched, forced to drink urine, thrown about by robots, tortured in a magic room by an evil clown. One child claimed sixteen children had been killed at the center. Obvious questions went unasked: How come no kids who went to Fells Acre in previous years had these alarming experiences? Why was an expert witness permitted to testify about a child-pornography ring when no pornographic photos of the Fells Acre kids were ever found?
Governor Swift made a big show of looking seriously and long at Gerald Amirault's case, but she failed to consider the central question, that of whether he was guilty of any crime. Indeed, Swift made Gerald's refusal to admit guilt and get treatment as a dangerous sexual predator a centerpiece of her decision--but why should an innocent man have to say he's guilty to get out of jail? Gerald has been a model prisoner: He's taken college courses, he has worked, he has a flawless record. He has the total support of his wife and children and a job lined up in anticipation of his release.
Swift claims that her main consideration was whether Amirault's sentence was in line with those of others convicted of similar crimes. She cited the case of Christopher Reardon, a lay Catholic church worker who pled guilty to seventy-five criminal counts of abusing twenty-nine boys last summer and received a forty-to-fifty-year sentence. But the case against Reardon was open and shut; he took photos and videos, and even kept spreadsheets detailing his crimes. The real cases to compare with Amirault's are those of his mother and sister, who were convicted of the same crimes, although slightly fewer of them. Cheryl Amirault LeFave and Violet Amirault received sentences half as long and were released after serving half as many years as Gerald. Does Gerald's being a man have something to do with these disparate outcomes? Absolutely. The women benefited from the leniency still--if fitfully--bestowed by the justice system on women. Moreover, as the case against the Amiraults came to look more and more troubling with hindsight, the original scenario, in which the three were equally involved in molesting children, was replaced by a theory, never put forward during the trials, that Gerald was the ringleader and the women his dupes. How could this be? The evidence against the three was the same.
At her press conference, Governor Swift refused to discuss the case against Gerald and three times declined to respond when asked how he had failed to demonstrate good behavior in prison. The clear implication is that her motives were political: With Massachusetts in an uproar over the ongoing scandal of pedophile priests, to commute Gerald Amirault's sentence would have made her vulnerable in November when, as a not very popular or experienced Republican appointee, she faces an uphill struggle for election. What an irony--the Catholic Church protects genuine child molesters for decades and thereby creates a political situation in which an innocent man is trapped in jail. But Swift's calculation is backfiring. The Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, the Boston-based Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle in Swift's home county have all editorialized against her decision; polls show wide support for Amirault's release.
Massachusetts--liberal, modern, technocratic Massachusetts--is the only state in which people convicted in the 1980s wave of ritual child abuse cases are still in prison. Bernard Baran, whose case shares many features with that of the Amiraults, with the added strike against him of being homosexual, has been incarcerated for almost half his life. Meanwhile, Scott Harshbarger, the DA who originally prosecuted the Amirault case, is now head of Common Cause. Will it take another 300 years for the state to acknowledge that Salem was not its last miscarriage of justice?