Sometimes the BPFNA peace camp has interfaith guests as well as ecumenical guests. Much of our music this year was led by legendary folk singer and labor organizer, Si Kahn, who is Jewish and the son of a rabbi. (Well, last year we had two rabbis with us!) Si has been playing folk music since the 1960s and working with justice organizations since then, too. Currently, in addition to his labor work, he is involved with Grassroots Leadership, a Southern-based national organization working for 25 years to defend democracy, enhance the public good, and stop the erosion of the public sphere. Si’s major campaign in recent years is to stop and abolish the privatization of prisons in the U.S. A prison industry (If you build them, they will be filled), often supplying cheap labor for factories inside prisons (slave labor) is a huge erosion of the public good and has contributed since the mid-’90s to the U.S. becoming the nation with the largest percentage of our population under lock and key. My prayers go with those of Grassroots Leadership in abolishing private prisons and I thank them for sharing Si Kahn with us this week.
Kate Sanders and Paul Whitely, Jr. are the husband and wife duo known professionally as Down to Earth. They have been making music together since meeting as students at Georgetown College (a Baptist college in Kentucky not to be confused with the Catholic-run Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.). Paul has an M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and Kate has an M.A. in music education from the University of Louisville. Kate Sanders is a poet, songwriter, and composer who plays several instruments. At last year’s annual Kentucky Folk Music Festival, Kate came just to observe and, at the last minute, entered the dulcimer competition–and took first place! Among her musical competitions is her own setting of Mary’s Magnificat and a tribute to Oscar Romero. She is also a social worker.
Paul Whitely, Jr. is an ordained Baptist minister who earns his living as a union organizer–mostly organizing poultry workers in Eastern Kentucky. (This is hard because the Powers conspire to turn people against each other so that they can more easily be exploited. After several textile mills were moved to Mexico from Eastern Kentucky–devastating the local economies for the sake of global capital–the Commonwealth of Kentucky offered huge tax incentives to poultry plants to move in and provide jobs for the area. The companies took the tax incentives and moved in, but, instead of hiring all local labor, stationed “recruiters” on the Texas-Mexico border and brought up cheap immigrant labor–often undocumented aliens, to fill the poultry jobs. Needless to say, this has led to much Anglo-Latino tension among workers who should be organized to work together for better wages and working conditions. Divide and conquer is an old strategy, but still effective.) Prior to becoming a labor organizer, Paul worked for Jobs with Justice, a national people’s campaign for jobs that pay living wages for all. He is also guitar player, singer, and songwriter who uses music in organizing for peace and justice. Paul and Kate are the volunteer Ministers of Music at Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty–my church. Together, they are raising two children, Martin and Sophia. Down to Earth specializes in music of faith and social struggle. Their first CD is finished and will be available soon.
They gave a concert after evening worship on Wednesday (25 July) at Peace Camp–giving a small taste to the folks of the good music my congregation gets to enjoy nearly every week.
Peace Camp always includes incredible music: congregational singing, choirs (usually volunteer) and great musicians. This one had more guest musicians than usual. I will post them for the blog. Alicia Pagan and Ray Two Crows Wallen are a husband and wife team (he’s Cherokee and she’s from Puerto Rico) who use music and the arts in social justice education. In addition to the worship services, they worked with the children and all who were interested in a week-long mural project. (My daughter, Molly, worked on the peace mural and took pics of its beginning, middle, and end, which I’ll share later.)
James Brown (1933-2006) changed music in the U.S. as profoundly as anyone. The “Godfather of Soul,” and the “Hardest Working Man in Showbusiness,” he pushed soul and R & B/rock from a concentration on melody to hard-driving rhythym. No one minded that his harsh vocals could be difficult to hear correctly. The power of his voice was in his passion–a passion which had him dancing and sweating all over the stage. It blew you away.
A man of contradictions, he could belt out the veritable anthem of black pride (“Say It Loud–I’m Black and I’m Proud!”) while wearing a pompadour instead of an Afro–and then turn around and vote for Richard Nixon! Born into poverty, raised in a brothel, he never quite shook off his demons–and the drugs and other self-destructive behavior clearly shortened his life.
But he embodied a more hopeful era and outlook for all that. Sure, some of his sung attitudes were anachronistic even when he composed them (e.g., “It’s a Man’s World.”). But the absolute contempt for women in much of modern rap is entirely missing–There are no “bitches” or “hos” in Brown’s lyrics. And his self-destructive behavior with drugs was not celebrated. Nor did he celebrate violence. Passion (on many levels), and sometimes anger came through his music, but never hate–and always hope. The generation that first made his music their own took all that powerful energy and tried to reshape a world into one that cared more for others–and that stopped rather than started wars.
I hope he found peace and I hope his passionate hopeful music lives on and inspires new generations.