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 http://en.granma.cu/.

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 http://www.monthlyreview.org.

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