The Quarantine Blog XVII: July 10, 2021

Re: the previous blog.

A dancer friend contacted me to say that in the original Paul Taylor production of the Andrew Sisters’ dances there were silhouettes of armed, marching solders behind the swing dancing, happy jiviness of the teenagers. That must have created a very different impact from what is now on YouTube.

On to the 1960’s.

This recollection of the 1960’s, primarily through music, is written by someone who was always, even before age set in, a little behind the times, a foot dragger, never in the vanguard.

Something happened as we neared the end of the fifties. It was subtle at first, scarcely more than an odor in the air. In music and in life there was a shift. Looking back at the list of Billboard hit records there is little sign of what’s coming. “Mack the Knife” made it onto the annual Billboard 100 hits in 1959 and that, even with Bobby Darin singing, was an odd item just vaguely suggesting change. But in 1960 “Teen Angel,” “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” Chubby Checker’s “The Twist”, and, one of my all time favorites, “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bed Post Over Night”, were high flyers on the Billboard charts. These have the same relationship to the Vietnam War and Civil Rights as the teenagers jiving to the Andrew Sisters have to the marching soldiers of World War II in silhouette.

The U.S. entered the conflict in Vietnam in 1955 with less than 1,000 military advisors in the country. But our involvement was a bit like a leaking pipe in a dark, ignored basement of a suburban ranch house. The residents, now under Kennedy, didn’t really know it was there. By 1964 the water had deepened to 28,000 men and the Viet Cong had built the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In 1967 500,000 US troops were in Vietnam.

The Civil Rights Movement started in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery Alabama. In 1960 four black students were refused service at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro North Carolina; in 1963 Martin Luther King led the March on Washington DC giving his “I have a dream” speech; President Johnson created the Civil Rights act in 1964, the Voting Rights Act in 1965 (for which we are still fighting) and in 1967 Martin Luther King joined the Vietnam war protest movement.

The first ripple of movement on the face of mass culture started in the late 1950’s and was not rock, but a revival of folk music, which in the US covers a large, diverse territory – roots music, cowboy songs, spirituals, Cajun, gospel, Appalachian, blue grass—and is both black and white. What occurred was a revival of white folk music borrowing frequently from black music. But as the war protests and Civil Rights protests melded together the music was both black and white.

For years there had been folk music about but it was a niche event. I was almost totally unaware of it. I doubt I ever listened more than casually to The Weavers. I knew about Burl Ives, but more as a personality than as a singer. I don’t think I knew the names Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

If you go to YouTube and listen to The Weavers recording of “If I Had a Hammer” and then the recording by Peter, Paul and Mary you will instantly see what happened. Part of the change is, of course, this being America, the commercial element. The Weavers are relaxed, friendly, informal, and warm in their rendition of the song. Peter, Paul and Mary are slick. They are giving a performance. Their beat is strong, fast with an urgent drive lacking from The Weavers, the beginning of rock.

Ronnie Gilbert, the female singer of The Weavers, a group of 3 men and one woman, including Pete Seeger, is chubby faced, with a warm contralto voice and is clothed–these days that’s noteworthy. Her dress, however, is unnoteworthy; she does not seem animated by what she is singing. But she had an exemplary track record in protest having almost been expelled from high school for her resistance to being part of a minstrel show.

Mary Travers, singing with Peter and Paul, wears an interesting dress, with style, her long blond hair swings before and behind her as she sings, the music appears to work its way through her body and out of her mouth; it is a visceral part of her.

That energy has transformed over the years into hype rather than genuine feeling I fear.

In 1962 Peter, Paul and Mary’s album entitled “If I Had a Hammer” was in the top 10 on the Billboard chart for 10 months.

My theory is that this cultural shift started in the world of folk music because folk had a history of protest but I don’t think, uneasy as many of us were, we knew if or what exactly we wanted to protest—inequality, the war. We were unfocused. “If I Had a Hammer” is not in its lyrics at all a specific cry for change or a particular protest against any situation political or social. It calls out that there is “a danger”. It calls out “a warning.”  It is quite appropriate as an alert and did, I think, really embody our feelings at that time. I would bet few of us, certainly this is true for me, thought we would end up in the streets of New York and other cities marching and chanting, “Peace Now,” or, a chant that was hushed by the mothers accompanying their children on a march I was on in New York, “One, two three four, we don’t want your fucking war.” There was also the enlivening feminist chant invented by the women of Barnard College, “Put down the bassinet./ Pick up the bayonet;/ Give up detergent,/ Become an insurgent.” Few of us envisioned ourselves being on the Mall in DC in 1963 listening to Martin Luther King.

But musically the nexus of change was that young man, mentioned at the end of the previous blog, with the ugly, nasal voice and the harmonica on a frame around his neck. I disliked the voice. Joyce Carol Oates said that if sandpaper could sing that is what it would sound like. I don’t think so. Sandpaper isn’t nasal. To me it’s the voice of an adenoidal adolescent. Mick Jagger said, with English understatement, “He’s never been one of the great tenors of our time.” I think the harmonica is a horrible instrument, wheezily shrill, but it did not matter; Bob Dylan focused our and my attention as no one had in decades. Our unease was reflected in  “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “The Times They Are a ‘Changing”. He took from his idol, Woodie Guthrie and forged a new sense of what music could be, what song could do.  He became the American voice of protest. Listening to the songs as they progressed and became more focused—”Masters of War,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game”—I am struck by how brilliant and clear the lyrics are, how they unwrap the connection between people in power, the powerless who kill for them, and the murdered.

Here are the last two verses of “Only a Pawn” about the assassination of Medger Evers.

From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks
And the hoofbeats pound in his brain
And he’s taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide ‘neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain’t got no name
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game

Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught
They lowered him down as a king
But when the shadowy sun sets on the one
That fired the gun
He’ll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain
Only a pawn in their game.

I think he deserves that Nobel Prize but I also think he is an egomaniacal ossified idiot who meanders from drug to drug—marijuana to born again Christianity. Fame is a disease for many people. Some die of it—Amy Winehouse most recently. Only a few survive its ravages. Far fewer manage to live with it with grace knowing who they are. Certainly Bob Dylan is not one of those. Joan Baez, however, somehow never seems to have taken on the goddess role her fans and publicity agents claimed for her. She sang other people’s protest songs but the most famous one she wrote was the poignant  “Saigon Bride.”

There were others singing both Civil Rights and Vietnam protest songs: Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” with the memorable lines “You don’t have to live next to me, /Just give me equality”: San Cooke’s beautiful “A Change is Gonna Come”: Phil Ochs’s “I Ain’t Marchin’ Any More” whose lines “It’s always the old who lead us to war,/ Always the young who fall” encapsulates one of the realizations of the time: Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” holds the other realization of the era, “You’re old enough for killin’,/ But too young for votin’”.

The British, meaning The Beatles, made no contribution at all to these protest songs until Lennon brought out “Give Peace a Chance” in 1969.

My own life was being restructured at this time in ways that were typical of the times. I started working at The City College of the City of New York in a program, set up by Mina Shaughnessey, whose purpose was to take high school graduates suffering from inadequacies in written English and bring them up to standard. It was called Basic English and had three levels. At the lowest level one taught grammar, meaning subject-verb agreement. The second level concentrated on the idea of the sentence and the third worked on getting students to be able to write a cogent essay. The students who took these courses were by no means all black. However, Harlem had realized that there was a college in its midst that fairly regularly produced Nobel Prize Winners in Physics, but none of their population attended it.

I was almost as late as Lennon in contributing my mite to change by teaching in this program, which I joined in 1966 or 67. It totally changed me over the years, about 15 I think, that I worked in the program. I was a nicely brought up, protected, white woman, middle class, with no knowledge of black life. We all grow up in ghettos not knowing how other people, economically above us, below us, live. There had been only one black student in my high school; he become an alcoholic and worked on the town garbage truck. Given my background I had never really expected to have to work but once I became a divorcee it was necessary.

In my first class I had a heroin addict, Teddy, who nodded out in class. I realized he was a problem for me because the other students might well think me unknowledgeable about him and this would impair our relationship. I would not be a knowing person just another clueless whitey. I thought and thought for a subtle way to signal my awareness.

At the next class when Teddy started to nod, I turned to the board to write something down and sang in my beastly soprano, “Beautiful Dreamer, wake unto me;” the entire class cracked up loudly enough to jolt Teddy out of his nod.

The first essay I always asked students to write was 500 words, large groans at the number, about themselves, who they were, what they thought, what they hoped for. A number of times I received from this an essay that stated, “If I can graduate from college I will be the first person in my family to not be on welfare.” Such a statement created a burning impetus to help that student find his or her bootstraps and pull with all our combined strength.  

A few years after Teddy, I had another rude awakening. I received an essay, which was not on subject but milled around unable to find any beginning, middle or even an end. I couldn’t figure out, reading it, what was going on. It was early in the term so I did not yet have a clear sense of my students as individuals, but I did know this student was from Jamaica. Going into class I went up to him and said, “During the break, I would like to speak to you about your essay.” I often did quick counseling sessions in the corridor outside the classroom.

I was startled, as was the rest of the class, when he opened a newspaper to its full width and rattled it periodically during the first hour of class. This was a warning. When I called the break he bolted for the door. I followed him out to where he wheeled on me, pounded his chest with his fist and announced, “I am the Lion of Judah!”

I knew just enough about Jamaica and Rastafarians to realize what I was facing but I had no idea how to respond. I managed to say that his actual writing was grammatical and smooth; that was not the problem. This calmed him enough so that he went on to say something to the effect that I was like the Queen of Sheba. This really alarmed me, as I know what went on between Solomon and Sheba. At this point I was a bit desperate and suggested perhaps we should go upstairs to talk to his advisor. This was a piece of luck. It was immediately apparent that he was afraid of his advisor, a broad shouldered black man who had obviously played football in college. We were able to talk about the essay but I knew it was no use, that I was dealing with someone who had severe mental difficulties. Indeed, he disappeared from the class a few weeks later.

But it was when I spoke to his advisor that the full despair of the situation was brought home to me. I asked him if he had contacted the family. He gave me a look saying, “They know and they will just lock him up in his room until they feel he’s making sense again.  My calling will only make it worse.”

When I left City College I taught as Poet-in-Residence all over the U.S. for six years, driving back and forth across the country ten times in those six years.

One December when I came home for Christmas I was on the subway, damp with snow, crammed in with my fellow strap- hangers, looking down at a large, young black man sitting before me. Suddenly he looked up and queried, “Is your name Swenson?”

I answered, “Yes. What did I give you?”

He broke into a huge grin, saying, “An A.”

“You must have been good.”

Getting up to give me his seat he responded, “You were the last person who made me think.”

You can keep the Academy Award, the Pulitzer; I will take that sentence over them every time.

What happened at the beginning of the 1970’s musically can be understood by listening to Jimmy Cliff’s “Vietnam”, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio”, commemorating the four shot dead at Kent State in a peaceful protest, Edwin Starr’s “War.” You can’t understand the words because the music, the beat, has blotted most of them out. When words are subsumed into horns, guitars and drums the message is gone, no one hears it. The band has decided the words are not important. This signaled the beginning of the end of the era. Its last cry was probably Lennon’s “Imagine” in 1971.

I don’t read books about the 1960’s but I read every review about books on the 1960’s most of which decry the time as a period of chaos, of defeat for order, and most recently as a time when individualism killed off our sense of community. I am pro the 1960’s but let me tell you, particularly any of my readers who only mistily know these times, a telling detail about the 1950’s.

Every year of my youth a designer in Paris with whom we in Chappaqua, NY or Fargo, ND had no contact what so ever, decided that our skirt hems would go up an inch or down two. Once the news was out we in absolute unison raised or lowered our hems in strict obedience to our unknown leader. When I went to college I was one of the first to wear trousers to class. I wasn’t questioned but I was looked at. However, it got me out of the hem game. That kind of rigid, utterly taken for granted, conformity was the emblem of 1950’s non-think.

In the 1960’s that not only stopped, but women wore their hems at all levels—down to the floor, above the knee, mid calf. And, thank god, we have never gone back to that kind of conformity.

I remember the ’60’s as a time of intense community, a community, which stretched across color lines for the first time.  When the riots happened in Harlem black people took in white people to keep them safe. I was escorted to the subway by students.

Like most Americans I was naive about the world, politics, government. There were for me two enormously important things I comprehended through my ‘60’s experience. One was that black people in America had to fight at least ten times harder to just live than I did. The other was the mean, hard lesson that the government I elected was not going to listen to my voice, or my voice combined with 50% of America. It was going to pursue a war started by misinformation and continued by lies despite a growing awareness of the realities of Vietnam. My government was wedded, perhaps welded is a better word, to its lies and was run by men I now know were child like in their capacity to understand.

Reading David Halberstam’s THE BEST AND BRIGHTEST not only were the lies revealed by the childish thinking of these men, but Halberstam thought, in his simple mindedness, his colleagues must know what they were doing because they had all gone to Princeton. My mind is boggled by such a thought process sending me back to listen to the most apposite of anti-Vietnam War songs, Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy.” If you don’t know or remember it you can access it on YouTube.

Naivite is the primary American national characteristic, which leads us into a great variety of stupidities, particularly in foreign affairs, but still, I prefer it to, for instance, French cynicism, because it means we are always optimistic and I think optimism is preferable to cynicism.

One of the lessons that societies, certainly American society, don’t seem to be able to cope with is the fact that whatever is going wrong at the lowest economic level of your culture is going to work its way up to the higher levels. Just give it time. In my young life drug addiction was thought of as a problem peculiar to black, and white, jazz musicians, then a problem of the black community. Then my mother, by no means an acute observer, saw the son of prominent, respected, parents in Chappaqua shooting up in the railway station in town between trains.

I am not sure why we went from protests to drugs, perhaps disillusionment with our country and its inability to adhere to its ideals, but we certainly took a swan dive, to mix my metaphors outrageously, from Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” down the hole of The Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”



4 thoughts on “The Quarantine Blog XVII: July 10, 2021

  1. Oh. It was such a surprise to see you talking about popular music from the 60s. By the time I came of age, Vietnam was in full rage and electronic music had successfully drowned out the folk revival. I was in Berkeley during those years and it was in a time warp. The British invasion had long ago passed me by and I was happy in my Birkenstocks listening to the Weavers. Once the 80s rolled around, every vice imaginable in America had gone mainstream – a perfect environment for neoliberals to launch their counterattack. I was in NYC then and just a generic burnt-out case caught up in the rat race. Someone told me they needed volunteers to teach Haitian boat people English on Church Ave. in Brooklyn. Every night for 10 months I ducked the gang-banger bullets and spent three hours screaming my lungs out to groups of 50 students. We were packed into an immense open warehouse with a dozen simulatneous classes in motion. Frankly, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, so someone told me to go see a professor up at Columbia University. I had no idea that a simple subway ride uptown would change my life forever.


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