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.

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