Looks like we’re on the cusp of another Great Depression, and we’ve got a president who is worse than Herbert Hoover.
So things aren’t looking good.
But we still have our troubadours, just as struggling Americans did 80 years ago. And some of them recognize that Woody Guthrie was right when he said, “It’s a folk singer’s job to comfort disturbed people and to disturb the comfortable.”
That’s what Joe Troop does in a new song that speaks to the moment. It’s topical and specific, like the best songs by Guthrie and his compatriots in the 1930s and 1940s. The title: “A Plea to the US Government to Fully Fund the Postal Service.”
The comfortable have long been scheming to dismantle the United States Postal Service, and they see an opening in the coronavirus pandemic that has wrecked havoc on the country. The Washington Post reported last week that the Trump administration has considered “leveraging” a $10 billion emergency loan to USPS to force radical restructuring and devastating cuts.
“It’s a power grab to destroy the public Postal Service,” warns American Postal Workers Union President Mark Dimondstein, who says, “The Post’s reporting confirms what our union has long known: This Administration is committed to fulfilling the decades-long pursuit by some to sacrifice our public Postal Service at the altar of private profit.”
The hope for stopping the cuts and saving the USPS rests with Congress. There are plenty of House Democrats who are ready to act, along with senators such as Bernie Sanders. But this won’t happen unless a few Republican senators decide to break with Trump and do the right thing. For that to happen, voters in red states—especially rural voters—must make themselves heard.
Enter RuralOrganizing.org, the remarkable campaign to mobilize progressives in farm country and small-town America. The group has been all in for saving the postal service because, as Executive Director Matthew Hildreth says, “Especially in rural areas, people use the mail. They value postal workers. People are locked in their homes and, for a lot of people, the only person they see is their letter carrier.”
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RuralOrganizing.org’s campaign to “Fully Fund the United States Postal Service” has, says Hildreth, turned into “by far the biggest thing we’ve done.” As of Thursday, 370,000 people have signed the group’s petition to President Trump, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, and members of Congress. Thirty thousand rural activists have agreed to send handwritten letters with “Save the Postal Service” messages. All the campaign needed was a song, so Hildreth reached out to Troop, a fiddler and banjo player with Che Apalache, a boundary-breaking multinational group that recently earned a Grammy nomination for its vibrant mix of bluegrass, folk, Latin music, and politics.
Troop explained the group’s vision in a brilliant essay he wrote last year for No Depression:
The overarching mission of Che Apalache is to imagine new spaces for unity and to challenge false narratives. We reject the notion that white Southerners and Latin Americans can’t inhabit the same spaces. Bluegrass as a genre has partly fallen into the clutches of this narrative, hence the splattering of Confederate flags at many festivals. When even musical gatherings become a safe space for white nationalism, division-based politics have achieved their goals. But when two Argentinians, a Mexican, and a North Carolinian sing four-part a cappella gospel against the border wall, or when we cultivate an empathetic view of a DACA Dreamer through bluegrass, we like to think we’re dismantling this narrative.
The day of the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—the day James Alex Fields Jr. murdered Heather Heyer as he drove a car into a crowd of peaceful protesters—Che Apalache was at the Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax. The band competition was that evening, and we decided to perform our song “The Wall.” There aren’t many young bluegrass groups that sing four-part gospel these days, and there are even fewer, if any, bluegrass gospel songs that denounce white nationalism. As soon as we launched into the song, we could sense the crowd’s enthusiasm. In Southwestern Virginia that style of singing immediately resonates with people. But the content of our lyrics challenged the area’s pervasive status quo. When we got to the part about tearing down the wall, many people cheered in support, while a few got up in arms, but many others just kept listening attentively, figuratively scratching their heads. Music disrupts expectations.
Hilldreth thought Troop could pen the right song about saving the postal service.
Troop did just that. Holed up in his native North Carolina, he wrote about all the people waiting on checks in the mail and about the rural letter carriers who deliver it: “So many men and women out risking their poor lives / Delivering goods to our front doors despite these troubled times / They make the rounds to bring us mail, they work come rain or shine / and now it seems the government is leaving them behind.”
Troop even raised the issue of how the postal service is essential to establishing the vote-by-mail structures that can sustain democracy:
I too have lost my livelihood, I’m struggling day by day
Ole Uncle Sam won’t bail me out, while corporate crooks are saved
In times like these it’s fair to say we’ll need new ways to vote
But if the Postal Service dies, my friends, that’s all she wrote
They’re well aware of what’s to come and chose to do us wrong
If the US Postal Service dies, our right to vote is gone.
It’s time for us to make demands, before it is too late
So, fully fund the US Postal Service for God’s sake!
Troop’s video of the tune closes with an appeal to North Carolina’s senators to honor postal workers by saving the USPS. “Hey, y’all, I’m here in North Carolina, and mostly staying inside, not seeing too many people,” he says. “But you know who I see every day is the person who delivers my mail. Postal workers are out there on the front lines, courageously providing us a lifeline. And, despite what Donald Trump says, that’s no laughing matter. It’s deadly serious.”
If you are inclined to heed the call, check the bottom of the drawer. Maybe you’ve still got a couple of the stamps the USPS issued in 1998 to honor Woody Guthrie—the great champion of workers who wrote a song titled “Mailman,” and another titled “Mail Myself to You.” They’d sure look nice on a letter demanding that senators “Fully Fund the United States Postal Service.”