Music Notes – November 2015


Buffy Sainte Marie wins Polaris

Buffy Sainte-Marie is the winner of the 2015 Polaris Prize, given annually to the best full-length Canadian music album. The $50,000 award is based upon artistic merit, regardless of genre, sales, or record label. Sainte-Marie’s recording, “Power in the Blood”, was released last spring to wide acclaim for its brilliant synthesis of rock, folk, electronics, and indigenous traditional music. The lyrics are both timely and timeless, reflecting contemporary issues through the prism of her spiritual and political convictions. There is truth in her vibrato-rich voice, still compelling after all these years. Buffy Sainte-Marie was born in 1941 on the Cree First Nation in Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan. After achieving international acclaim during the folk boom of the sixties, she sustained her career as a musician, and became an accomplished visual artist and educator. Throughout her career Buffy Sainte-Marie has been a consistent champion of indigenous rights, the environment, and equality. It’s interesting that she beat out mega-selling Canadian hip-hop superstar, Drake, for the prize. Kudos to the Polaris Prize judges for picking a truly worthy winner. For more info:

Roger Waters pens open letter to Bon Jovi

Former Pink Floyd bassist and prominent BDS campaigner Roger Waters published an open letter to American rock band, Bon Jovi, prior to its October 3rd concert in Tel Aviv. The letter, published at on October 2nd, accused lead singer Jon Bon Jovi and his band-mates of choosing to be complicit with Israeli crimes. Waters’ letter was a response to a September interview in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, wherein the singer declared his enthusiasm for the visit. Asked about Roger Waters and the BDS campaign, Bon Jovi replied “it doesn’t interest me.” Here are a few snippets from Waters’ open letter: “You stand shoulder to shoulder with the settler who burned the baby, the bulldozer driver who crushed Rachel Corrie, the soldier who shot the soccer player’s feet to bits, the sniper who emptied his clip into the 13-year-old girl, and the Minister of Justice who called for genocide. You had a chance to stand on the side of justice with the pilot who refused to bomb refugee camps, the teenager who chose eight prison terms over army service, and the prisoner who fasted for 266 days.”

Neil Young gives Blue Dot Campaign $100K

Canadian rocker Neil Young slammed the dismal environmental record of the Canadian government at an October 6th press conference in Vancouver. With scientist and broadcaster David Suzuki at his side, the 69 year-old musician announced that he was donating $100,000 to the Suzuki Foundation’s Blue Dot Campaign. Launched last year, the Blue Dot Campaign calls for enshrining the right of Canadians to live in a healthy environment in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Young said “the Blue Dot movement actually gives people who care about the earth, and the way they live, a platform, a legal platform, that is possible to use as a tool when taking on the aggression of the multinational corporations in their quest for more cash at the expense of the environment and our life – and all life.” The Blue Dot was chosen by the Suzuki Foundation to symbolize the earth as seen from outer space. Since it was founded last year the campaign has been accompanied by an ongoing tour featuring Suzuki with a host of artists and prominent Canadians, including Young, Margaret Atwood, Bruce Cockburn, Feist, Stephen Lewis and Robert Bateman. For more info:

He Ain’t Dead”: Remembering Joe Hill

November 19th marks a day to remember the legendary working-class troubadour Joe Hill. On this day, one hundred years ago, the 33-year-old Swedish immigrant was executed by a firing squad in the prison yard of the Utah State Penitentiary. He’d been accused on circumstantial evidence of killing a Salt Lake City grocer. Hill’s trial was an international cause-célèbre, with even President Woodrow Wilson calling for clemency. But the mining bosses were looking for a union activist scapegoat, so he was convicted and shot. Joe Hill was a militant with the Industrial Workers of the World. The union arranged for his body to be transported to Chicago for the funeral, which was attended by 30,000 mourners. Conveniently, the bulk of the court records of his trial disappeared. It took until 2011 to establish conclusive proof of his innocence (see William M. Adler’s 2011 book “The Man Who Never Died”). Joe Hill’s noble spirit and stirring songs have been embraced by working people everywhere. “The Preacher and the Slave”, “Casey Jones”, “Where the Fraser River Flows”, and “There is Power in a Union” are just a few of his many enduring anthems. One of many observations of the centenary of Joe’s death will take place at the Hirut Restaurant, 2050 Danforth Avenue, in Toronto on November 19th, starting at 7:30. Call 416-556-3513 for more information.

Music Notes – October 2015

Rovics - The Other Side

David Rovics: The Other Side

The release of a new album by David Rovics is always an event, offering an opportunity to reflect upon the tumultuous times in which we live. Rovics is a radical singer-songwriter with a rare ability to respond with eloquence to the daily news cycle of imperialist wars, financial meltdowns, ecological disasters, racist police killings, and sociopathic massacres. His analysis is sharp and critical, but always tempered by compassion for the innocent victims of capitalism and imperialism. The Other Side offers 16 new songs, most of which reflect upon contemporary headlines. ‘Angry White American Man’ and ‘The State House Lawn’ remind us of recent racially-inspired killing sprees in North and South Carolina. ‘Kobane’ tells of the heroic defense of the Kurdish city of Kobane in Northern Syria against ISIS. ‘Before the War Came Home’ reflects on the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris. ‘I Can’t Breathe’ is for Eric Garner, the African-American man who was choked to death by a New York policeman in 2014. The past is present in Rovics as well. The Other Side contains several original songs set in World War II Europe. ‘Denmark 1943’ tells the story of a successful boat-lift of Danish Jews to Sweden. It couldn’t be more timely. There’s also a Joe Hill tribute to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the working-class bard’s death. Stream it for free or download from

Harperman, it’s time for you to go”

By now it’s safe to say that millions of Canadians have heard of Tony Turner’s “Harperman” song. The video of the anti-Harper anthem, composed and sung by the Environment Canada scientist, and accompanied by a community choir, has gone viral. By mid-September, more than 600,000 views had been logged on YouTube. The “Harperman” singalongs, held on September 17th in more than 39 Canadian cities have amplified the message. If polls are any indication, the majority of Canadians are in agreement with the song’s chorus: “Harperman, it’s time for you to go.” The instigator of the uprising, Tony Turner, is a scientist with one of the public institutions that has been muzzled by the Harperites, so he knows what he’s talking about. Turner was set to retire this fall, but instead, he’s been put on administrative leave pending an investigation on whether he’s contravened the public sector ethics code. His union, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, is representing him in the investigation. Meanwhile, Tony Turner is encouraging people to get together to sing the song, add verses of their own, make videos and spread the word among their friends. For more info:

There’s Always Money For a War”

It is probably no coincidence that several great anti-Harper songs have sprung from the nation’s capital during this election season. Ian Robb and Shelley Posen, two of Ottawa’s most distinguished traditional musicians, have entered the political fray with “There’s Always Money for a War”, a song that skewers what lyricist Posen calls “Mr. Harper’s rending of the Canadian social, scientific, and cultural fabric”, and gleefully parodies the PM’s militarism and jingoism. Lead vocalist and music composer is Ian Robb, co-founder of the Canadian folk group Friends of Fiddlers Green. Robb’s singing, concertina playing, and brass and drum arrangements evoke old-time U.K. working-class protest music. His musical contribution fits well with Posen’s lyrics. Both mock Harper’s evident nostalgia for imperialist pomp and circumstance. Clever video and animation work by folklorist Ian Bell and added harmony by vocalist Ann Downey round out a production that is not only topical but built to last. Download the song and lyrics and view the video at

Steve Earle challenges Mississippi

American roots musician Steve Earle has joined with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in a campaign to remove the last Confederate flag from a Southern statehouse. On September 11th Earle released “Mississippi, It’s Time” on iTunes. After the killing of nine black church-goers in Charleston, SC in June by a young white man who photographed himself with the Confederate flag, the legislatures of South Carolina and Alabama removed the hateful symbol from their respective statehouses, leaving only Mississippi as the last holdout. The state incorporates the Confederate insignia into its flag. Earle, a native Texan, calls the Confederate flag “a form of terrorism” and completely rejects all sentimentality over the Confederacy. “I lived all my life in the South until I was 50 years old,” he says, “and I don’t believe Southern culture is the Civil War. To me Southern culture is Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, the blues, and jazz. The most powerful people have a vested interest in fostering hate because it keeps working people neutralized.” “Mississippi, It’s Time” drives the point home in a way that disarms reactionary cultural nostalgia. Proceeds from sales will go to the SPLC. For info:

Music Notes – September 2015

Victor Jara

Victor Jara’s killers indicted

Another step has been taken in the long campaign to bring the killers of Victor Jara to justice. On July 23rd, forty-two years after the U.S.-sponsored military coup that overthrew the democratically-elected socialist government of Salvador Allende, a Chilean judge announced charges against 10 former army officers. Victor Jara, legendary singer-songwriter, theatre director, and Communist Party member, was arrested immediately following the September 11, 1973 coup. He was detained with thousands of others in a Santiago stadium, brutally tortured, and then executed in a hail of bullets on September 16. The trials of the accused officers are expected to begin later this year. “We’re pushing forward in demanding justice for Victor,” Jara’s widow, Joan, said after the announcement, “with the hope that justice will follow for everyone.” One other suspected killer remains at large in the United States. Former Chilean army lieutenant Pedro Barrientos Nuňez will face a civil lawsuit in a District Court in Florida. The suit was brought by the US-based Center for Justice and Accountability on behalf of of Joan Jara and her daughters. Chile has filed an extradition request for Barrientos, who fled to the US in 1986, but he’s been protected by his US citizenship, obtained through marriage.

BLM activists adopt Lamar’s anthem

After police arrested and roughed up a black youth, activists at a Black Lives Matter (BLM) conference in Cleveland took to the streets on July 28th, chanting the refrain from hip-hop star Kendrick Lamar’s hit song “Alright”. Singing “we goin’ be alright”, they attempted to prevent the police cruiser from leaving (and were pepper-sprayed for their efforts). Lamar’s acclaimed album, To Pimp a Butterfly is riding high in the charts. While the commercial success the 28-year-old Compton native is experiencing is helped by the distribution deal he has with with Universal Music – the largest musical corporation in the world – it is clear that To Pimp a Butterfly is a potent and timely protest against discrimination, racism and hypocrisy. The “Alright” video depicts Lamar raging and soaring above a violent urban landscape. At its end he is symbollically shot by a white cop, but he smiles in the last frame, suggesting the triumph of hope. Writer R.L. Stephens II, in an article in Orchestrated Pulse ( argues that the mainstream media’s focus on BLM spokespersons disguises a bid to co-opt a “leadership class” before the fledgling network has had the time to democratically debate its goals and strategy (and thereby produce an organic grassroots leadership). Here’s hoping that Kendrick Lamar and other BLM activists are listening.

Eco symphony contests eminent domain

Eminent domain is a much abused legal doctrine whereby contemporary governments can allow corporations to expropriate private land for the supposed “public good”. Last February, a group of New York State residents threatened by such abuse engaged the environmental artist and electronic music composer Aviva Rahmani to help them take action against a pipeline. The Spectra AIM gas pipeline would transit to within 100 feet of the Indian Point nuclear station on the Hudson River. Rahmani’s response was Blued Trees Symphony, an installation on private land along the path of the proposed pipeline. The trees are marked with a sine wave musical note in non-toxic, semi-permanent blue paint, in a definite order which, taken together, forms a symphony, which is copyrighted. The Blued Trees Symphony pits the Visual Artists Rights Act for the “moral rights” of art against the “right” of corporations to expropriate private land, thereby forcing a debate about what is the “public good”. Local residents and members of the artists activist group Earth Guardians painted the notation on the trees over several days in June. Sympathetic “Greek Choruses” of blued trees are underway in Seattle and Lisbon. Watch the video and hear musical samples at

Rise Again songbook now available

Community choirs and sing-along afficianados will be happy to learn that the much-loved songbook Rise Up Singing, first published in 1988, now has a companion volume. Rise Again was published last month by Hal Leonard Books. Like its predecessor, Rise Again was compiled by Annie Patterson and Peter Blood and it bears the imprint of Sing Out! magazine and Pete Seeger, who penned an introduction shortly before his death in 2014. Rise Again features words and lyrics to another 1200 songs, grouped thematically by genre or subject matter. There are new chapters for genres previously ignored or under-represented including blues, country, jazz standards, and early rock & roll. Also included is a selection of popular and indie songs released since 1995 that have caught on with the group-singing community. Singers and musicians will appreciate the spiral binding, and the hand-drawn illustrations add a down-home feel. Visually-challenged users will appreciate the optional large-print edition. The price is $25 USD. For more information visit

Music Notes – August 2015


Bree Newsome removes Confederate flag in SC

While South Carolina lawmakers talked about taking down the Confederate flag from the state capital in the wake of the racist murder of nine African Americans in a Charleston church on June 17th, 30-year-old black singer and filmmaker Bree Newsome, spotted by white social justice activist James Tyson, shimmied up the 30-foot flagpole and unhooked the hated symbol of slavery. Newsome’s response to security guards below who ordered her to get down was one for the history books. “You come against me with hatred, oppression, and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today”. Just as Rosa Parks’ act wasn’t that of a tired commuter, but a carefully wrought plan, so Bree Newsome’s feat was the culmination of planning, in this case by an interracial group of young activists. Both she and Tyson come out of the Moral Mondays voting rights movement that began in North Carolina in 2013. The two could face three years in prison, but it seems likely that charges against them will be dropped. The South Carolina legislature, shamed by their bold action, voted on July 10th to permanently remove the flag. For a free download of Newsome’s song StayStrong: A Love Song to Freedom Fighters visit

Lisitsa’s historic Donetsk concert

Ukrainian-born American pianist Valentina Lisitsa gave an outdoor concert on June 22nd in the besieged city of Donetsk. The concert was dedicated to the 74th anniversary of the start of the Great Patriotic War. Two months ago, Lisitsa made international headlines when concerts she was to perform with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra were abruptly cancelled by the orchestra management because it did not like her outspoken opposition to the Kiev regime’s war in eastern Ukraine. Lisitsa and the Academic Symphony Orchestra performed works by Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev. After the concert she had this to say to the people of Donetsk: “It is a great honour to be here with you on this day to enjoy this beautiful music together. Music is our spiritual legacy, just like our language, our faith. This is what is worth fighting for. It is our history, which no one can take away and rewrite. Seventy years has passed since we defeated fascism the first time, and now our role is to defend Europe, to defend the entire world from this brown plague, which is raising its head once again. And you are on the front-line, defending the entire world, the entire humanity. I am grateful to tears to be with you on this day. Thank you!”

Gotta go down and join the union

Every month this column carries news about musicians who stand up for social justice. Here are a couple of recent stories about their union. In Seattle, AFM Local 76-493 got their city council to declare May 20th “Fair Trade Music Day”. This victory follows on a campaign that has resulted so far in 21 performance spaces pledging to respect their ‘Fair Trade Music Principles’, which include musicians’ right to negotiate fair wages and enforceable contracts in bars, restaurants, and other small venues. Elsewhere in May, the AFM/CFM won an appeal in the BC courts to nullify an agreement that the concession-minded executive of CFM Local 145 had made with the Vancouver Film Orchestra to introduce a tiered wage structure. The appeal court’s decision affirmed the right of the parent union to protect fair wage standards and working conditions. If you’re a professional musician, or even semi-pro, you should join the union. Visit

B.B. King: 1925-2015

Blues great B.B. King died on May 14th. ThIs son of Mississippi sharecroppers was the most successful blues artist of his time and a unique guitar stylist who inspired several generations of blues, rock, and jazz musicians. A moving tribute was published in Counterpunch on June 26th by Jeffrey St. Clair. He describes B.B. King’s lifelong commitment to the inmates of America’s vast prison industrial complex, citing in particular the 1971 album ‘Live in Cook County Jail’, which captures B.B. and his band playing for a thousand inmates at one of Chicago’s most notorious facilities. Earlier that day, writes St. Clair, King had spoken with inmates, about 80 percent of whom were black. “They told me how they came to be locked up,” King said. “They would stay for seven or eight months before the trial took place because they couldn’t afford the bail. And then when they did go to trial, if they were guilty, the time was not deducted from the time they were given. And if they were innocent, they got no compensation.” Plus ça change, one might say, but actually things have got much worse. In 1971 the U.S. prison population was 450,000. Today it’s 2.3 million. Read St. Clair’s tribute at

Music Notes – July 2015


Neil Young takes on Monsanto

Singer-songwriter Neil Young’s 36th studio album, scheduled for release on June 30th, takes on yet another corporate villain. The Canadian rocker has collaborated with Willie Nelson’s sons, Lucas and Micah, and Lucas’ band, Promise of the Real, to produce “The Monsanto Years”, a broadside against the Missouri-based agribusiness and biotechnology giant Monsanto. Young first hooked up with Lucas and Micah at last year’s Farm Aid benefit, and they’ve subsequently united for concerts in solidarity with the struggle against the Keystone Pipeline. Neil Young, with the Nelson brothers and Promise of the Real, will be touring the USA in July. As for the agribusiness monster, Young says, “I don’t really have anything against the human beings working at Monsanto, but Monsanto is the poster child for the problems we’re having with the corporate government.” In a related matter, Young is boycotting Starbucks, because the coffee company, along with Monsanto, is a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Alliance, which is suing the tiny state of Vermont (population 600,000) to overturn its GMO labelling law. For more info:

Valentina Lisitsa’s Donetsk concert

As we go to press, preparations are underway for pianist Valentina Lisitsa’s historic concert in the besieged city of Donetsk, East Ukraine, capital of the resistance against the far-right Kiev regime of Petro Poroshenko. Lisitsa’s June 22nd concert will feature the works of a giant of 20th century music. Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev was born in Donetsk, and the city’s international airport, recently devastated by the Kiev regime’s bombardment, is named after its most famous citizen. The date is significant: it’s the 74th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, the day when the armies of Nazi Germany invaded the USSR. Valentina Lisitsa is Ukrainian-born, but she’s been an American citizen since emigrating to the USA in 1991. In April, as previously reported here, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra cancelled two of her concerts. Despite a well-orchestrated campaign by pro-Kiev Ukrainian-Canadian nationalist organizations (supported by spiteful articles in the mainstream media), a flurry of letters to the editor and online comments suggest that Canadians are broadly sympathetic to the pianist and support her right to express her opinion on the civil war in Ukraine. Postscript: Lisitsa’s June 5-6 concerts with the Calgary Philharmonic were by all accounts a great success.

KKE tribute to Theodorakis

The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) honoured the celebrated composer Mikis Theodorakis with a gala open-air concert in Athens on June 3rd. Theodorakis is best known in North America as the composer of the soundtracks for the films Zorba the Greek, Z, and Serpico, but in his homeland he’s loved as much for his hundreds of popular songs and instrumental pieces. KKE General Secretary Dimitris Koutsoumpas paid tribute to the veteran partisan fighter and anti-fascist activist’s “decisive contribution to the cultural renaissance in postwar Greece,” adding that his contribution was “always entwined with the struggles and concerns of our people.” Earlier this year Theodorakis, who turns 90 this month, endorsed a bill introduced in parliament by the KKE for the abolition of the Austerity Memorandum that the previous government had signed with the EU. Like the KKE, the composer is alarmed that the ruling SYRIZA-ANEL coalition is extending the austerity regime. Mikis Theodorakis, a former member of the KKE and MP (1981-85) attended the concert with his great musical interpreter, the singer Maria Farantouri. He addressed the gathering with a personal tribute to the KKE. Read his speech and watch the concert at

Ronnie Gilbert: 1926-2015

American folksinger, actress, and activist Ronnie Gilbert died on June 6th in California. She was born in Brooklyn, NY, the daughter of Jewish immigrant garment workers. In 1947 Gilbert and Pete Seeger founded The Weavers, one of the most important vocal groups in American musical history, adding singer Lee Hayes and singer-guitarist Fred Hellerman to complete the original quartet. Although The Weavers were unabashedly left-wing, they achieved mass popularity in the late forties and early fifties with songs like Goodnight Irene, This Land is Your Land, and Kisses Sweeter Than Wine. Gilbert’s bold contralto blended perfectly with the others, but it also rose gloriously above them whenever needed. The Weavers were blacklisted in 1953 at a time of anti-communist hysteria, but their defiant and successful Carnegie Hall reunion concert in 1955 paved the way for the folk music boom of the late fifties and sixties. In later years Gilbert worked as an actress, toured and recorded with singer Holly Near, released several solo albums, and wrote and starred in two plays. Ronnie Gilbert was a lifelong global peace activist and feminist. Her memoir “Ronnie Gilbert: A Radical Life in Song” will be published this fall by University of California Press.

Music Notes – June 2015


Guy Carawan: 1927-2015

Folksinger and musicologist Guy Carawan, who died on May 2nd, is best known for his association with the song “We Shall Overcome”. Here’s the song’s story. The earliest version of “We Shall Overcome” is the slave song “I’ll Be Alright Someday”. In 1901 it was published as the hymn “I’ll Overcome Someday”. Years later, in 1947, it was adapted and brought to the Highlander Center (an interracial training center for grassroots activists in rural Tennessee) by striking agricultural workers from South Carolina. Zilphia Horton of the Center heard it and taught it to Pete Seeger, who changed the name to its present title. Guy Carawan, who had become musical director at Highlander in 1959, heard it from Seeger, sped it up a little, changed a few words, and added the chords that are used today. He subsequently passed it on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The rest, as they say, is history. Guy Carawan spent the rest of his life working with his wife Candie at the Highlander Center ( They researched and recorded a vast trove of Southern folk music and oral history. It’s safe to assume that Carawan would’ve been pleased to be remembered as a “link in the chain”.

Musicians boycott Crown

Like all good trade unionists, organized musicians can be counted upon to act in solidarity with fellow workers. Case in point: the response of the Canadian Federation of Musicians (CFM) to the boycott of Crown Holdings, the multinational that makes beer and pop cans and reports annual sales in excess of $8.7 billion. United Steelworkers Local 9176 in Toronto has been on strike for 18 months against this union-busting outfit that hires scab labour, demands wage cuts of 33%, and seeks to impose a two-tier wage structure. Last month CFM President Alan Willaert called upon musicians to look for the Crown logo on beer and pop cans. Crown’s main Canadian customers are Molson Coors, Labatt, Creemore, Steam Whistle, Cott, and President’s Choice. Beer and pop drinkers are urged to visit and sign the boycott pledge.

Pianist Lisitsa won’t be silenced

Last April two sold-out concerts by Ukrainian-American pianist Valentina Lisitsa were cancelled by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra because she dared to criticize the U.S.-backed regime in Kiev and the brutal campaign it’s been carrying out against Russian-speaking peoples in East Ukraine. Just weeks later Lisitsa demonstrated that she will not be intimidated. On May 2nd the pianist spoke at a rally in Paris. The occasion was the first anniversary of the notorious Odessa Massacre, where 46 peaceful anti-Maidan protesters were murdered by fascist gangs. Here’s part of what Lisitsa said: “In Ukraine people are being groomed to hate. That’s the biggest humanitarian disaster of all. That’s the biggest war crime, a crime against humanity. That is what the current government of Ukraine is perpetrating, unfortunately with the help, or at least with the ignorance, of Western governments.” Watch the full interview at

Lauryn Hill cancels Israel concert

Last month American R&B singer Lauryn Hill became the latest prominent musician to join the cultural boycott of Israel. The former lead singer of The Fugees cancelled her scheduled May 7th concert in Tel Aviv after more than 11,000 fans signed a petition urging her to honour the boycott. In a statement on her Facebook page Hill expressed hopes for “healing, equanimity, and the openness necessary for lasting resolution and reconciliation”. The U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation praised Hill’s decision, and advised her fans that “now is the time to thank her for taking a stand for peace, justice, and equality.” The Hip Hop superstar is not shy about speaking out. In August 2014, as reported here last October, the singer released the single “Black Rage”, a powerful expression of anger after the police shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Check her out at

Oakland’s ILWU Drill Team

Oakland’s dock workers celebrated May Day this year with a work stoppage in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the protests against police brutality in Baltimore. One highlight of the day was the International Longshore Workers Union Drill Team, a remarkable cultural group that combines militant call-and-response chants with percussive marching and a unique sense of humour (they execute manoeuvres with names like “double to the rear with a fake” and “contract negotiation”). The Drill Team has been around long enough to have performed for Martin Luther King Jr and César Chávez and it still performs regularly at union affairs, picket lines, and civic events. It’s worth noting that the Bay Area ILWU, one of the most inspiring union locals in North America, does not strike on May Day. It takes the day off. For a sample of these brothers and sisters in action look for “ILWU Drill Team Oscar Grant Rally” on YouTube.

Music Notes – May 2015

Valentina Lisitsa

Craven TSO cancels Valentina Lisitsa

Toronto Symphony Orchestra CEO Jeffrey Melanson’s decision to cancel April performances by Ukrainian-born concert pianist Valentina Lisitsa, because of her tweets on the civil war in that country, is a dangerous precedent and another sign of the erosion of democratic rights in Canada. While the head of the cash-strapped TSO was apparently responding to the pressure of pro-Kiev Ukrainian-Canadian patrons, he may also have been reflecting the political line of another influential and meddlesome patron, the Harper Government. The affair is an unsettling reminder of the McCarthy era in the fifties, when six members of the TSO were blacklisted for their left-wing views. Valentina Lisitsa is a talented and popular performer whose concerts are invariably sold out and whose YouTube videos have been viewed more than 50,000,000 times. Her “deeply offensive” comments are directed against atrocities committed in the Ukrainian civil war, perpetrated mostly by the Kiev regime against the Russian-speaking minority in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. Lisitsa’s ‘crime’ is to advocate a peaceful solution to the conflict based upon the principles agreed upon at the recent Minsk Summit attended by the presidents of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine. Fortunately her fundamental decency shines through the calumny. This, combined with her talent and popularity, is what her opponents fear. For more info:

Wynton Marsalis cancels Venezuela shows

One of the side-effects of the U.S. government’s egregious hostility to the government of Venezuela was the recent cancellation of several shows and workshops in that country by jazz musician Wynton Marsalis. The renowned trumpeter and band leader had been scheduled to perform three concerts of his Swing Symphony in Caracas beginning March 13th with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra. Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra were also scheduled to give a series of workshops with Venezuela’s world-famous El Sistema network of youth ensembles. The engagements would have been part of a twelve-city tour of Latin America. A spokesperson for Marsalis blamed “recent political turmoil” and promised to reschedule, adding that neither the U.S. nor Venezuelan government had intervened to influence the decision. Marsalis last visited the Bolivarian republic in 2005. In 2010 he spent a week in Havana jamming with Cuban music students. One can only speculate of course, but it’s hard not to think that Obama’s absurd March 8th declaration that Venezuela represents a “national security threat” to the USA has raised fears of reprisal among artists who depend, as does Marsalis, upon the patronage of the corporate elite.

Buena Vista Social Club says ‘Adiós’

It’s been said that they’re more a brand than a band, but for the surviving members of Buena Vista Social Club the music they lovingly preserve is a living tradition and they’re keepers of the flame. In 1997 Buena Vista Social Club became a worldwide sensation when the mostly elderly and forgotten Cuban musicians recorded their eponymous Grammy-winning album with American musician Ry Cooder. That led to an Oscar-nominated documentary by German director Wim Wenders and a host of solo albums by the band’s members. Since then several artists have passed on, including guitarist-vocalist Compay Segundo, pianist Ruben Gonzalez, and vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer. The current band has been on a worldwide “Adiós” tour since mid-2014. This summer and fall they’ll be touring North America, before giving a final show in October at Havana’s Karl Marx Theatre. With the tour comes a new Cd. “Lost and Found” is a compilation of previously unreleased studio recordings and live performances. Is this really the last hurrah for the Buena Vista Social Club? Why not carry on? The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has been keeping New Orleans jazz alive for generations. For more info:

Ceilidh Friends: Northern Remembrance

People’s Voice readers in western Canada may be better acquainted with folk trio Ceilidh Friends than their counterparts in the east. Among the latter I must include myself – at least until a month ago when a reader sent me the group’s 2014 album, Northern Remembrance. Hailing from Yellowknife, Ceilidh Friends performs traditional, modern, and northern music, featuring vocal harmonies and a variety of acoustic instruments, including guitar, dulcimer, recorder, percussion and auto-harp. They’ve been singing together since they first met at an anti-Gulf War protest in Yellowknife in 1990. Along the way they’ve released three albums and been profiled in folk music publications such as Sing Out! and Dirty Linen. The album title Northern Remembrance may have a dual meaning. On one hand it’s a musical Remembrance Day project, full of songs that express the horrors and illusions of war, some traditional, and some by well-known songwriters. On the other hand it might be seen as the trio’s homage to departed band member Steve Goff, who died in 2009. For more info visit or write to Moira, Dawn and Steve at

Music Notes – April 2015

Ewan McColl

Celebrating Ewan MacColl

The centenary of Ewan MacColl is being observed in the U.K. with a host of tribute concerts, radio broadcasts, and feature articles. MacColl was a folk singer, songwriter, poet, actor, playwright, record producer and cultural organizer, as well as a labour activist and militant communist. He was born James Henry Miller on January 25, 1915 in Manchester, the son of a socialist iron worker and Gaelic-speaking charwoman. As an unemployed teenager Miller educated himself at the public library, joined the Young Communist League, and immersed himself in writing songs and scripts for agitprop theatre. His partner for many years was actress and director Joan Littlewood. The two became influential figures in England’s alternate theatre world, establishing what eventually became the world-famous Theatre Workshop. While Littlewood went on to become the doyenne of radical theatre in the U.K., MacColl (who changed his name in 1945) branched out into folk music. In 1953 he founded the Ballads and Blues Club in London’s Soho district, and thereby exerted a powerful influence on the 60’s folk revival. In 1961 he married the young American folksinger Peggy Singer (Pete’s half-sister). Their partnership, musical and personal, flourished until MacColl’s death in 1989. Besides their recordings together, they founded and hosted the Critics Group, an innovative collective of folk music and theatre artists who met regularly in the sixties and early seventies. Ewan MacColl’s most famous compositions are ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ and ‘Dirty Old Town’, but all of his recordings are worth exploring, both for his consistently fine singing and for his passionate commitment to the working class. For more info:

Legend & Common speak out at Oscars

The Oscar acceptance speech for Best Original Song by R&B singer, John Legend, and hip-hop artist/actor, Common, was one of those moments when the reality of the crisis of American democracy breaks through the fog of the mainstream media. After having just performed ‘Glory’, their theme song for director Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed film, Selma, the Oscar recipients drew the parallel between the courageous civil rights campaign led by Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma fifty years ago and the contemporary struggle for racial justice in America. Referring to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the Bloody Sunday incident dramatized in the film, Common said, “This bridge was once a landmark of a divided nation, but it is now a symbol of change”. He left it to Legend to drive the point home. “We wrote this song for a film about events that took place fifty years ago”, the singer said, “but Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now. We know the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised today. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.” Look online for the official video, with lyrics, of ‘Glory”.

SXSW: No to ‘Hipster Apartheid’

The U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation has blasted SXSW, the annual Austin -based festival of film, music, and interactive media, for its participation in the Israel government’s “Brand Israel” propaganda campaign. Local groups, including, Austin Artists Against Apartheid, Jewish Voices for Peace-Austin, and Code Pink-Austin, have joined in the protest, launching a “No Hipster Apartheid” petition campaign against the festival, which blithely ignores the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions. SXSW, held annually in March, attracts more than 130,000 visitors to Austin and they spend a lot of money. In recent years SXSW has been criticized for abandoning its original grassroots focus and becoming increasingly commercial. Its board of directors has no qualms about helping to put a pretty face on Israel, scheduling events with slogans like “Israel: Land of Creation” and “Israel: Small Country, Big Ideas”. “Brand Israel” is a marketing campaign that was launched in 2006 to combat growing global solidarity with Palestinians. Its founders have specifically targeted liberal communities with a strong “creative class” for their message. For more info visit

Todd Serious 1974-2015

Western Canada’s rock music community lost a bright light on March 7th when Todd Jenkins (aka Todd Serious), lead singer for the punk band The Rebel Spell, was killed in a rock-climbing accident in Nevada. He was 41. Jenkins was described in a Georgia Straight tribute as “one of the most articulate and passionate members of the Vancouver punk scene”. His song lyrics covered a wide-range of social and ecological justice issues, including police brutality, prisons, colonialism, native rights, and animal rights. Since the band’s inception in 2002 The Rebel Spell has produced four albums: Expression in Layman’s Terms (2003), Days of Rage (2005), It’s a Beautiful Future (2011), and Last Run (2014). They’ve also released an EP: “Four Songs About Freedom” (2007). For info:

Music Notes – March 2015

Celebrating Bob Marley

Feb 6th marked the 70th anniversary of the birth of Jamaican musician Bob Marley, who died of cancer on May 11, 1981. Marley’s anniversary was observed with concerts throughout the world, including a gala outdoor event in Kingston, Jamaica, headlined by his musical descendants. Bob Marley was a pioneer of reggae music and remains its most influential figure. Starting with The Wailers in 1963, he released many of the earliest reggae recordings before achieving world-wide fame as a solo act in the 1970’s. His albums “Catch a Fire”, “Burnin’”, “Rastaman Vibration”, “Uprising” and “Exodus” are landmarks in world music. Songs like “Get Up, Stand Up”, “Redemption Song”, and “War” are perennial anthems of resistance to racism, neocolonialism, war, and inequality. “Redemption song” is inspired by a 1937 speech given in Nova Scotia by the renowned Jamaican political leader Marcus Garvey. “War” is based upon the famous “Appeal to the League of Nations” by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie in June 1936, after his country had been invaded by fascist Italy. Bob Marley was a Rastafarian, a spiritual practice that holds such values at its very core. Like Che, Marley’s image has been widely marketed, but it’s easy to appreciate his true message. Just listen to the songs! 

B.C. musician boycotts Winter Games

Singer-songwriter Raghu Lokanathan is a member of two music groups that were scheduled to perform at the Canada Winter Games, a sporting event that was being staged in Prince George, B.C. as People’s Voice was going to press. The performances were to be part of an entertainment package organized by the Coldsnap Festival in association with the games. Instead, in a February 5th letter to the editor of the local daily newspaper, The Prince George Citizen, the long-time Prince George resident declared that he’d be boycotting the festival. His reason: Northern Gateway Pipeline (a.k.a. Enbridge) is one of the official sponsors of the Canada Winter Games. The $6.5 billion pipeline boondoggle would carry toxic Tar Sands bitumen through Bear Lake, 70 km north of this central BC city of 70,000. Judging by the mostly-favorable comments on the paper’s website, Raghu Lokanathan’s stance has been well-received. Incidentally, last December Lokanathan performed at a fundraiser in Prince George for local First Nations who have launched a legal challenge to the pipeline. Bear Lake is in the federal riding of Price George-Peace River. Its House of Commons seat is held by Conservative MP Bob Zimmer. For more info visit

Holiday hounded to death by G-Men

U.K. author Johan Hari’s new book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the Drug War” documents the deliberate targeting of African-American jazz great Billie Holiday. Her story is a featured case study in this history of America’s century-long “war on drugs” and it provides evidence that drug addiction is related more to personal histories of abuse than to actual physical causes. Billie Holiday was stalked by the very man who launched the “war on drugs” after World War I – the jazz-hating and racist Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) chief Harry Anslinger. His vendetta against the singer began in 1939 after she’d recorded the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” and begun singing it in racially-mixed nightclubs. Hari recounts the story of Holiday’s ensnarement by FBN double agents in an operation that led to a debilitating prison term. Finally, in 1959, an FBN agent planted drugs on her and had her arrrested. Later that year, her health in decline, she was placed in a New York City hospital, handcuffed to her bed, and forbidden visitors. Billie Holiday died there on July 17, 1959. Learn more about the book at and look for out “The Hunting of Billie Holiday” at

Top cellist tangles with YouTube

Zöe Keating, a Canadian-born avant-garde cellist, has built a successful career as an indy musician, combining electronically-inspired solo work with soundtrack composing, stints with groups like cello-rock band Rasputina, and collaborations with contemporary performance artist Amanda Palmer. Last month, Keating, a popular blogger with more than a million followers, shared her concerns about YouTube, the increasingly commercial video sharing service, now owned by Google. In January YouTube told her that she’d have to sign a five-year contract with them or lose her artist’s channel. Here’s a sample what Keating objects to: 1) Anything that a third party uploads to YouTube with her name on it will be loaded onto her page; 2) Ads will accompany all of her songs; 3) All new music must be given to YouTube (i.e. no more releasing new music to core fans on other services). Keating’s reflections on her dilemma (whether to sign) provide a fascinating glimpse of the contemporary music business as experienced by an articulate artist with principles. Check out the blog and sample her brilliant album “Into The Trees” at

Music Notes – February 2015

Billie Holiday

Protest Tweets sink Strange Fruit PR

Billie Holiday’s 1939 version of the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” remains one of the most influential protest recordings ever made. That’s why it was particularly insensitive when, in 2012, Mary Mickel and Ali Slutsky of Austin, Texas named their fledgling public relations firm “Strange Fruit PR”. The two knew about the song, but they’d assumed that enough time has passed that people would not associate the civil rights classic with their company. On December 9th, after a barrage of critical Tweets, the two changed their company’s name to Perennial Public Relations. “We sincerely apologize to those offended by the former name of our firm,” they wrote in a publlic statement. “In no way did we ever intend for the name of our firm to offend or infer any implication of racism.” “Strange Fruit” was written by Abel Meeropol, a member of the CPUSA. It was first published as a poem in New Masses magazine. Later Meeropol wrote a melody and offered it to Holiday. The song has been recorded countless times. In 1999 Time Magazine named it the “song of the century”. Incidentally, Meeropol and his partner Anne later adopted Robert and Michael, the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed by the U..S. in 1953 in one of the most notorious episodes of the Cold War.

Sid Dolgay 1923-2014

Sid Dolgay, a founding member of the Canadian folk group The Travellers, died in Toronto on December 25th. He was born in Winnipeg, the son of Jewish immigrants from Czarist Russia. He later moved to Toronto, where he joined the United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO). It was in the left-wing UJPO, with its nearby summer retreat, Camp Naivelt, that Dolgay, and the other musicians who formed The Travellers, came under the spell of visiting American folk musicians like Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson. Like them, The Travellers celebrated progressive politics and community singing. In an era when the Canadian music industry was in its infancy, The Travellers sang Canadian folksongs and original works by Canadian folk-oriented songwriters like Wade Hemsworth (“The Black Fly Song”). They also sang people’s music from around the world, with a repertoire that was uniquely “multicultural” long before the term was coined. Their biggest hit was their Canadianized version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”. It made them unofficial ambassadors. They even toured the USSR in a 1962 cultural exchange. Dolgay, who sang bass and played the eight-stringed mandocello, left the group in the mid-sixties because the others wanted to make a beer commercial. Check out The Travellers on YouTube – including said beer commercial!

U.S.-Cuba thaw good for music lovers

If the Obama Administration eases the embargo against Cuba and drops the preposterous claim that the country sponsors terrorism, visa application procedures for visiting Cuban musicians should become much easier. Today, security clearance for Cuban visa applications can take up to four months. Visiting musicians like jazz pianists Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Chucho Valdes have been faced with a Catch-22 situation: U.S. venues are reluctant to offer a contract without artists having a visa, while at the same time the U.S. government requires a signed contract before granting a visa. Furthermore, the embargo on currency exchange stipulates that visiting Cuban artists cannot be paid by the contracting party. Instead, they’re paid a per-diem of $50-$100 by the State Department. This for musicians who fill concert halls througout the world. The futile U.S. attempt to blockade Cuban music was dramatized in 2004, when The Buena Vista Social Club was not allowed to attend the Grammy Awards ceremony after they’d been nominated for Best Traditional Latin Album. (They won). While the complete dismantling of the embargo will require congressional approval, musicians and music lovers in both countries stand to benefit from the expected increase in cultural exchanges. For more info visit

Monthly Review remembers Pete Seeger

The American socialist journal, Monthly Review, has devoted its January issue to long-time reader and supporter Pete Seeger (1919-2014). Contributors include Brooklyn-based cultural activist Daniel Rosza Lang/Levitsky (“Don’t Waste Any Time In Mourning”), veteran singer-activist Holly Near (“Who Was This Pete Fellow?”), Latin-American solidarity worker and scholar Emily Paradise Achtenberg (“Friends and Neighbors: Remembering Pete Seeger and Camp Woodland”), sociologist Brett Clark and journalist Scott Borchert (“Pete Seeger, Musical Revolutionary”), Amy Schrager Lang and John J. Simon,(“Pete Seeger, Socialist Songster”), plus a reprinted 2006 interview with Seeger by Linda C. Forbes (“Possibility and Hope: Getting From Here to There”). I highly recommend it. The tributes are affectionate and comradely. They explore Seeger’s life and work and argue for his enduring relevance. The New York-based socialist journal (which also operates Monthly Review Press) was founded in 1949 and continues to make significant contributions to contemporary socialist debates. To purchase the Seeger issue visit