Music Notes – June 2013

“Ding Dong the Witch is Dead”

American songwriter E.Y. ‘Yip’ Harburg (1896-1981) would have been amused when a song he wrote with composer Harold Arlen for the 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz” reached the top of the U.K. singles charts in April. “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” became an instant hit in the aftermath of the death of former British P.M. Margaret Thatcher, as spontaneous celebrations broke out across the U.K. In the ensuing controversy about whether it is acceptable or useful to celebrate the death of a reviled public figure singer-songwriter Billy Bragg warned against raising a glass “to the death of an infirm old lady.” Bragg’s advice: “Don’t celebrate. Organize!”  Harburg’s son Ernie begged to differ. “For the 99%,” he said, “laughing and joy are required at the funeral of a tyrant.” BBC Radio refused to play the 60-second song on its weekly roundup of best-selling singles. It was not the first time that Harburg’s music has been censored. The socialist songwriter was blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in the 1950’s.

Solidarity with Guitar Center workers

Guitar Center is the world’s largest retailer of musical instruments, with 247 locations across the USA. In April, workers at its flagship New York City store announced their intent to form a union with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Most Guitar Centre workers are musicians. Until recently many of them saw a job at Guitar Center as a temporary step on the way to a more satisfying career. Their attitude started to change after 2007 when the chain was bought out by Mitt Romney’s bottom-feeding Bain Capital, a company that specializes in slashing wages, gutting labour rights and outsourcing jobs. Non-sales workers now eke out a living on poverty-level wages, part-timers receive no health benefits, paid sick-leave or vacation days, and full-time sales workers are faced with reduced commissions. Sign the solidarity petition at http://www.rwdsu.info/.

The Sandy Hook Promise

Folk musicians Peter Yarrow and Dar Williams have joined forces with singer Francine Wheeler, whose six-year-old son Ben was killed in the December 14, 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook, where a youth gunned down 20 school children and six adults before taking his own life. The musicians are appearing together to promote The Sandy Hook Promise, a Newtown, CT non-profit formed in the aftermath of the massacre to fight for gun control. In April the group was present in Washington to witness the defeat of a bipartisan Senate resolution to require instant background checks on all persons buying guns on the internet or at gun shows. The resolution won the support of 54% of the senators, but in the aristocratic Senate it takes a 60% majority to pass a bill. On May 5th Wheeler and Yarrow were guests on “Moyers and Company”, the weekly public television interview show. Visit http://billmoyers.com for the full interview, including a moving performance by Wheeler and Williams.

Fair Trade Music in Seattle

AFM Local 76-493 in Seattle is reaching out to club musicians. Fair Trade Music Seattle will certify venues as having “Fair Trade Music” when they pay wages and benefits that are fair to both the musicians and the venue. The union also seeks to raise public awareness of the difficult economic circumstances that club musicians face, and it’s working with elected municipal officials to improve working conditions. This summer the city will be installing “Musicians Loading Zone” signs to help out bands that get hit with stiff parking violation fines when loading and unloading gear in traffic-congested club districts. Fair Trade Music was started by Local 99 (Portland, Oregon) in 2005. Since then the campaign has been embraced by Local 47 (Los Angeles), Local 174-496 (New Orleans) and Local 1000 (non-geographic). While Fair Trade Music has had a limited impact so far, it’s good to see musicians working together. For info: http://fairtrademusicafm.org/.

Rita MacNeil: 1944-2013

Flags were at half-mast in Cape Breton April 17th as fans paused to remember singer Rita MacNeil, who died the night before of complications following surgery. Cape Breton’s “first lady of song” will long be remembered for her soaring voice and her music that celebrated the daily lives of hard-working women and men. Her popular songs, “Flying On Your Own”, “Home I’ll Be”, and “Working Man,” are excellent introductions to her work, illustrating as they do a recurrent theme: the courage of working people to rise above the challenges of everyday life at both the individual and community level. “Working Man,” recorded with the Cape Breton miners’ choir Men of the Deeps, is her signature song, but the feminist anthem “Flying On Your Own” stands beside it as a classic. Rita MacNeil was an activist in the Canadian feminist movement in the seventies and she always honoured those formative years. For info: http://www.ritamacneil.com.

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