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Woody Guthrie -This Machine Kills Fascists

Woody Guthrie -This Machine Kills Fascists

Since we’re in the midst of the Fourth of July weekend, I thought this Sunday’s musical selection should be something with a definite American flavor.   The song is This Land Is Your Land from the great Woody Guthrie.

You are no doubt familiar with this song, probably thinking of it as a cheery, upbeat song about the beauty and breadth of our democracy, sung often by smiling church and school choruses.  It’s become a kind of populist national anthem which is sort of ironic given its beginnings and the words of the song.  You see, there are verses that are seldom sung by the choruses and flag waving nationalists, verses that very much change the tone and meaning of the song.

Guthrie wrote the song in the late 1930’s in response to the immense popularity at that time of  the Kate Smith version of God Bless America, written by Irving Berlin.  Guthrie saw the world coming apart due to the nationalistic extremism that had spread through Europe, producing fascist leaders such as Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy and Franco in Spain.

The original intro to God Bless America had the lines: While the storm clouds gather far across the sea / Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free / Let us all be grateful that we’re far from there, / As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.  That phrase that we’re far from there was later changed to for a land so fair.  Guthrie saw it as a call to an isolated form of nationalism, one that cast a blind eye to the perils lurking abroad that were beginning to spread here as well as our own problems at home.  Problems like poverty and inequality.

Guthrie wanted to address these problems in his retort to Berlin’s song.  At first, Guthrie sarcastically called his song God Blessed America For Me before naming it This Land Is Your Land.

Below are the two verses in the original version of This Land Is Your Land that are always omitted from those cheery civic versions speak to the ills of this country as Guthrie saw them, most noticeably  the greed which led to the great chasm of inequality between the wealthy and the poor of this land.  He questioned how a land with so much wealth and beauty, one based on the equality of man, could tolerate the extreme poverty and injustice he saw in his travels across this land.

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’
But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
by the relief office I saw my people.
As they stood hungry,
I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.

It’s an interesting song that speaks to this crazy time in the world as blind nationalism rises abroad and here in the USA.  Give a listen to this wonderful version of the song from Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and pay special attention to the words.  Have a great Sunday and a great 4th.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQ78uDio_ao

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GC Myers- Ascending BirdI’ve been looking for a title for this new painting, an 18″ by 18″ canvas, for a week or so now.  A lot of things come to mind and I thought I had it for a while.  Then I was listening to some music and one of the songs just hit me.

It was Ascending Bird, a traditional Persian folk melody, played by the Silk Road Ensemble which is a large and loosely knit group ofmusicians, including the great Yo-Yo Ma, who hail from along that fabled route and play many of the traditional instruments. The Silk Road was the network of  ancient routes that traders used in linking the East and West over the centuries, from China through the Middle East to the Mediterranean. Both goods and ideas moved along the Silk Road.

This song is the Persian version of the Phoenix myth, of a bird who flies higher and higher toward the sun until it is engulfed in flames.  It then rises from the ashes as a new creature.

And that’s kind of how I see this painting.  The paths moving from dark to light signify a transformative journey and the Red Tree appears as a Phoenix-like figure emerging from a hillock bursting from a treed hillside.  The Red Tree almost seems to ready to take flight.  I see it as a moment of realization and redefinition.

Here is the Silk Road Ensemble with Y0-Yo Ma performing Ascending Bird.  The version here is a shorter one but has the dynamic punch that struck me.  You can hear a longer version here. Give a listen and have a great Sunday.

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Hilma af Klint - Painting the UnseenJust a few days ago, a new exhibit opened at the Serpentine Galleries in London.  It features a group of abstract and symbolic paintings from a Swedish painter by the name of Hilma af Klint who lived from 1862 until 1944.  The images of her work on display are quite captivating and intrigued me enough to look further into her work.  It’s an interesting case.

She was trained in the 1880’s in Sweden as a traditional artist and for most of her life supported herself with naturalistic landscapes and portraits.  This work is well done and attractive but unremarkable.  She considered this conventional work as a means of supporting her “life’s work” which were the many spiritually inspired abstract pieces produced from the 1890’s up to the time of her death in 1944.

Hilma af Klint YouthInterested in spirituality and theosophy, Hilma formed a group of women who met on a regular basis to hold seances to attempt to contact and channel the spirits from other dimensions.  She claimed to have been “commissioned” by one of these spirits to create a series of large paintings which occupied her for a number of years.  These paintings consisted of geometric and organic forms and a distinct visual vocabulary expressing a deeply spiritual element.

At the time of her death, there was a huge group of work, over 1200 paintings of varying.  Some are epic in their size, measuring over 10′ in height.  However, none were ever displayed publicly in her lifetime and she stipulated that it not be allowed to be exhibited until twenty years after her death. for fear that it would not be understood in that present time.  Little did she know that it would actually be more than forty years before it came to light in an exhibit in 1986.  In recent years there have been two major exhibits of her work, including this current show at the Serpentine Galleries, which have really pushed her work into the spotlight.

Her recent discovery and the depth of her work has created a quandary fo art historians who struggle to place her in the timeline of art history.   Her work was formed independently of and, in most cases, before the abstract movement pioneered by Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian.  They don’t know how to categorize her: Is she a pioneer or simply an outsider?

I don’t think this categorization matters.  Just take a look at some of these works on display and most likely you won’t care either.  The work definitely is in the present and alive. And that is all that matters.

Hilma af Klint - A Pioneer of Abstraction3 Hilma af Klint - A Pioneer of Abstraction 2 Hilma af Klint - Painting the Unseen2 Hilma af Klint - A Pioneer of Abstraction

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GC Myers- Icon- Tacy CooperThe more I read about this ancestor,the latest entry in my Icon series,  the more interesting I find her.  Her maiden name was Tacy Cooper and she is my 10th great-grandmother, born around 1609 in England.  Little is known of her parentage or when exactly  she came to America but she is known to have lived in Dorchester, near Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 1630’s.

At the time, the Colony was strictly ruled by the Congregational Church and its precepts.  Very puritanical, of course.  Many of the settlers who were coming into the colony sought more religious freedom than was being offered and under the influence of Roger Williams, set out  in 1634 to leave the Colony and establish a new community outside its boundaries.  They sent out a party of scouts who chose a site on the Connecticut River below present day Hartford.  Soon after, a group of about 100 people set out by foot for this location.  Among them was Tacy Cooper and her future husband, Samuel Hubbard.  They met during this journey and Samuel later wrote that Tacy was the lone bright spot in the whole undertaking.

Although the heavy goods for the community had been shipped by boats from Boston up the river, it was a harsh trek.  Many of their provisions had also been shipped and their trip was ill-timed.  By the time of their arrival, a bitter winter had set in on them and the boats had not arrived nor would they arrive in the future. Without those provisions,  a number of this group died that winter and those who remained survived on acorns, malt and grain that had brought along as seed for future crops.  To make things worse, the Pequot Indians were attacking as they tried to stem the spread of the settlers into their territory.

But they persevered  and in 1636, Tacy and Samuel were married.  However, the religious freedom they sought did not come to bear in this new community.  Samuel spoke up in protest to the role of the Church Elders in the local government and was driven from the community along with several other families who were in agreement with him.  They fled south, settling in the area now known as Springfield, Massachusetts.  They thought they were outside  the boundaries of the Massachusetts Colony but in subsequent years,  the provisions of the settlement of the Pequot Wars brought that location back into its realm.  In protest, Samuel and Tacy became Baptists.

In the following years, Baptists were banished from the Colony and, after many threats, they fled once more, this time to Rhode Island where they were reunited with Roger Williams.  They lived peacefully there for many years as members of the Baptist Church but it didn’t end there.

In the mid 1600’s, a movement had began in England– the  Seventh Day Baptists.  While they were almost exactly the same in their beliefs as traditonal Baptists, they observed their sabbath on the seventh day, Saturday.  In 1665, Stephen Mumford moved from England to Rhode Island, bringing this new sect with him.  He spoke of this beliefs to Tacy and Samuel  and a few other members of the First Baptist Church of Newport.

It was Tacy alone who first chose to join with Mumford in observing a seventh day sabbath.  Soon after Samuel and four other joined them and they formed the first Seventh Day Baptist church in America.  Tacy is considered the first American founder of the church.  The Seventh Day Baptists exist to this day and were a big part of my mother’s line for almost two hundred years and six generation, although I am pretty sure she would have not been aware of this fact.

While I am not a religious person in any organized sense of the word, I still find it fascinating in the way religion has shaped much of my( and just about everybody else’s) past.  I am pleased that Tacy was such a strong woman.  She was the one who stood and answered the Church Elders when she and the others were made to account for their desire to break from the Baptist Church.  She went before the congregation and  with “great clearness and force” outlined their reasons for departing.  I can’t help but think that this must have been a rare moment in early America– a woman speaking to power.

This may not be the best painting of the Icons but it moves me in the same way.  I always hope to find something in these stories that I can take for my own life and I can only hope to one day have Tacy’s strength and conviction.

 

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GC Myers- Icon-William EnglandAs pointed out in recent posts, I’ve been working on a group of new work that I am calling Icons, images that put people that I have come to know through doing some genealogical work.  They are not intended to be accurate depictions of these ancestors.  In each case, I have just found something compelling that sticks with me.  Such is the case with the painting above, a 10″ by 20″ canvas that I call Icon: William England.

I grew up knowing almost nothing about my ancestry.  In fact, I thought that a generation or two back, somebody had inadvertently tipped over a big rock and we had spurted out before they could put the rock back in place.  Not a lot of esteem at that point.  So it was a thrill as each new layer of our family history was uncovered.  I was pleased to see how many ancestors served in all of the wars of our country going back hundreds of years.  Many had fought in the American Revolution.

It turns out, on both sides of the conflict.

I can’t remember the source but I read once that during the revolution the American public was divided pretty evenly into three parts: a third that desperately wanted our independence from Britain, a third that wanted to remain part of the British Empire and a third that really didn’t care either way so long as they could live their lives as they had up to that point.  The  first group, of course, were the Patriots that we have come to believe was everyone living in America at that point and the second were the Loyalists who identified themselves as British living in the America colony.

One of my ancestors was a man named William England who fell into the Loyalist group.  Born in Staffordshire, England, he came to America as a teen and settled in the Saratoga Springs area of New York after serving in the British 60th Regiment during the French and Indian War.  He purchased a farmstead in Kingsbury, NY and was settled in when the Revolution broke out.Faced with the choice of breaking from his homeland or remaining loyal, he chose to protect what he felt was his British homeland.

Serving as a Sargeant with McAlpin’s Rangers, he fought in a number of battles including Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga.  British troops and families were driven north into Canada, settling in the Three-Rivers area of Quebec.  It was there that he, along with many other Loyalists, settled and raised his family in the years after the war, most of his children integrating through marriage into the early families of French Canada.

Many worked their way back into America in the late 1800’s, including his grand-daughter Mary England who died in St. Regis Falls, NY in 1896.  She was my 3rd great grandmother who was married to Jean-Baptiste Therrien.  Many of their children’s names were anglicized from Therrien to Farmer when they moved into NY.  I came across a photo of her when she was quite old and you can see the hardness of rural Canadian life written in her face.

This painting shows the conflict ( or at least the conflict I perceive) that took place in William England when the war broke out.  He had to make a hard decision, one that cost him his farm and all of his possessions, in order to stay loyal to his homeland.  He had to break the bond ( shown here in the form of the broken tree limb) with the America that emerged and face a new life in a territory he did not know.

We all have interesting twists in our family trees, some that take us in directions we would never imagine.  While I am proud of my ancestors who fought for the American cause, I am equally pleased with the loyalty and devotion shown by William England.

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POWs Marching to camp in Aliceville AlabamaFear sometimes produces acts of courage and honor.   Unfortunately, more often than not it brings out the worst in people, producing acts of shameful stupidity that stand out in history.  Watching the many US state governors over the last couple of days, all spouting about how they will not allow Syrian refugees into their states ( even though they don’t have the power to do so)  brought this thought to mind.  NJ guv Chris Christie even went so far as saying he wouldn’t accept a 3 year old Syrian orphan.  Classy move for a classy guy.

But I shouldn’t be surprised.  This behavior is not new to us here in the States.  In the beginning years of WW II in Europe, public opinion here was heavily against accepting any Jewish refugees fleeing the war there.   We even went so far , in 1939 when the Holocaust was underway, as barring the MS St. Louis, a German freighter carrying Jewish refugees,  from entering our country when they came to our ports.  Our ships even went so far as firing warning shots to keep them from docking.  The same went for Cuba and Canada.  The refugees from this voyage of the damned were returned to Europe where a number died in concentration camps.

Again, another classy move that we try to keep swept  under the rug of history.

I wonder what these governors would do if they were faced with the situation that took place here in WW II with the Prisoners of War (POWs) who were brought to this country?  A lot of you probably aren’t even aware that there were POWs on our shores during that war.

But they were.  And not just a handful.

I first became aware of it years ago when I was working as the finance manager at a Honda dealership.  An older lady that I was working with said I reminded her of her late husband who was an Italian who came from the area of the Italian Alps.  I asked how she had met him and she told me that she first saw him when he was marching down the street of her hometown in Alabama.  He was a POW heading to the camp outside of town where she later met him at a event there.

Imagine that happening today.

But imagine the outrage today if we were faced with bringing over 425,000 POWs here.  That’s right over 425,000 foreign fighters were here during WW II. Most were German but here were also Japanese and Italian troops.  The same troops who were responsible for many of the millions upon millions of troop and civilian deaths that took place during the war were just down the street in Anytown, USA.

POWs in UtahAnd not just down the street.  There were about 700 camps located in every state but a few and most allowed the POWs to be hired as workers in all fields except those that dealt directly with the war effort. They were out and about in many communities.  It is reported that great deal of the slack caused by a shortage of manpower lost to the war was taken up by POWs, especially in the field of agriculture.

And it wasn’t slave labor.  They were paid the same wage  (paid in scrip that could be redeemed at stores within the camps) as our own troops would have been paid.  In fact, they were treated just like our own troops.  In fact, their accommodations and food were often superior to the those being experienced by our troops still in the heat of battle.  And better than our own citizens of Japanese heritage were experiencing at the internment camps where they were held during the war.  Another shameful, fear-based move.

POW Theatre Production at Aliceville Alabama Camp WW II

POW Theater Production at Aliceville Alabama Camp WW II

There were classes, art studios, gymnasiums, camp newspapers and musical and theatrical performances put on by the POWs.  Throw in an activity director and you’ve got yourself a kind of Aryan Catskill Resort.  In one bizarre incident, Adolph Hitler even sent payment to sponsor an art exhibit at one camp.

Think about that.  During the worst war in the history of mankind, the greatest enemy ever known to mankind sent a check to the US for an art show for his troops.  If there had been a Fox News ( or television, for that matter) at the time, I can only imagine all of the talking heads that would be exploding all over the screen.

Some of those POWs stayed here and integrated into our country and some went home to try to rebuild their own countries.  There is a lot more that could be told and it’s a great story.  I urge you to learn more.  Below is a great story from the wonderful RadioLab from earlier this year called Nazi Summer Camp.  It’s about a half hour long but if you have time you will find it informative and entertaining.  It’s a half hour that will not remind you of the shameful behavior of some of our leaders.

https://www.wnyc.org/widgets/ondemand_player/radiolab/#file=%2Faudio%2Fxspf%2F455649%2F

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