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Sunday Reading

A Song For the Ages — David A. Graham in The Atlantic on the history of the civil rights anthem.

As marchers took to the streets of Boston in late April to demand justice for Freddie Gray, some of them began to sing: “We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome some day …”It wasn’t a surprising choice. “We Shall Overcome” is a staple for civil-rights protests—and for that matter, for any kind of social-justice movement. The Library of Congress calls it “the most powerful song of the 20th century.” So it was a surprise to learn that not only is the identity of the person who made it into that anthem known, but he died only on May 2.

His name was Guy Carawan, and he was 87 years old. The story of the song and how Carawan helped make it ubiquitous is full of surprises, and it’s a wonderful demonstration of the folk tradition at work, accreting bits and pieces over the years until it became today’s widely known version. It’s also, appropriately enough for a civil-rights anthem, the story of a song that draws heavily on both African-American and European-American tradition, just like all the best American music. Like so many folk songs, it feels as though it’s existed forever; asking who wrote it seems ridiculous. Hasn’t it always been there?

Actually, although the song is old, its history can be fairly carefully traced. The first few bars seem to derive from a hymn first published in 1792, called “O Sanctissima,” also published as “Sicilian Mariners’ Hymn.” As The New York Times notes in its Carawan obituary, Beethoven wrote a setting of the hymn, and the resemblance is unmistakable for even the least trained ear, though it diverges after the first few lines. The Times says that a version published in the United States in 1794 was already recognizably the melody known as “We Shall Overcome.”

The basic frame of the words seems to have come from “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” a hymn written by the Reverend Charles Albert Tindley, a famed black preacher in Philadelphia, and published in 1901. Tindley’s tune bears little in common with “Sicilian Mariners,” as you can see here. His words are also far more elaborate, and focus more on salvation of the individual by God, rather than the power of collective action. The lyrical similarity comes with a refrain on each verse, in the familiar AABA structure, that presages “We Shall Overcome.”

So when the did the song cross over from the sacred to the secular? The first appearance of the modern version of “We Will Overcome” comes from 1945. Workers in the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural & Allied Workers Union in Charleston, South Carolina, went on strike at an American Tobacco Company cigar factory. The workers were largely, though not exclusively, black women. They reportedly ended each day’s picket with a version of the song.

Zilphia Horton, a labor organizer and musician, heard the song there, and Pete Seeger learned it from her. (Seeger is credited with changing the opening line from “We will overcome” to “we shall overcome,” though he wasn’t so sure.) Over the ensuing decade, the song was published and recorded several times.

Carawan, meanwhile, had served in the Navy in the U.S. during World War II and then studied at UCLA, taking a master’s in sociology. Able to play the guitar, banjo, and hammer dulcimer, he moved to New York City and joined the folk revival in Greenwich Village. In 1953, he traveled through the South with Frank Hamilton (who was not yet a member of the Weavers) and Jack Elliott (who was not yet Ramblin’). At Seeger’s suggestion, they stopped at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, an organizing school founded by Zilphia Horton and her husband Myles. Carawan learned “We Shall Overcome” there. In 1959, when Zilphia Horton died, he became Highlander’s music director.

In 1960, at the founding convention of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in Raleigh, North Carolina, Carawan was asked to lead delegates in a song, and he chose “We Shall Overcome.” Carawan began accompanying himself on guitar, and soon the room was joining him. As he told NPR in 2013, it was an immediate hit:

That song caught on that weekend. And then at a certain point, those young singers, who knew a lot of a cappella styles, they said, “Lay that guitar down, boy. We can do this song better.” And they put that sort of triplet to it and sang it a cappella with all those harmonies. It had a way of rendering it a style that some very powerful young singers got behind and spread.

Moving Left — Elias Isquith in Salon on how the Democrats are a-changin’.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is not a timid man. But like most politicians, he is cautious. He’s taken some risks during his years in Albany — like when he muscled through same-sex marriage, or when he imposed a statewide ban on fracking. Even in these rare moments, though, he was careful and deliberate. He only gambled when he saw no better option. And that’s one of the reasons why his recent endorsement of a wage hike for fast-food workers is a genuinely big deal.

Writing in the New York Times, Cuomo, who usually bills himself as the consummate pro-business Democrat, declared that although he’d already signed a bill to raise the state’s minimum wage to $9 per hour by the end of 2015, the fast-food industry’s wage floor was still not high enough. And because the state legislature wouldn’t cooperate, the governor continued, he was going to direct the state’s labor commissioner to impanel a “Wage Board,” which would ultimately recommend a new fast-food minimum wage. There would be no need for legislative approval.

Unlike his moves on marriage equality and fracking, Cuomo’s joining the growing movement to raise service industry wages came rather out of the blue. But when you situate the notoriously plutocrat-friendly governor’s announcement in the larger context of what’s happening within the Democratic Party right now, it doesn’t just make more sense — it also becomes quite telling. If even Andrew Cuomo has decided that spurning multinational corporations like McDonald’s by supporting the “Fight for $15” is in his self-interest, then the balance of power among Democrats has truly shifted in favor of the party’s activist, union base.

Of course, this is hardly to say the Democratic Party is now the social democratic organization of lefties’ dreams. The minimum wage for fast-food workers is just one issue, and in terms of threatening the party’s wealthiest supporters, it’s relatively harmless (political donations from the fast-food industry overwhelmingly benefit Republicans). But Cuomo’s op-ed for the Times, while significant, isn’t the most important sign that the Democratic base is steering the party in a more left-wing direction. In fact, it’s not even the first or the most conspicuous; but those designations belong to Democrats whose respective names carry at least as much weight.

A political shift on this order is always a long time coming, so picking a start date is inevitably somewhat arbitrary. But if I had to point to one big, specific moment when it started looking like party elites would have to veer left to stay in the base’s favor, I’d go with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s surprisingly difficult reelection from earlier this year. As I wrote at the time, one of the main reasons why Emanuel had to fight off a left-wing primary challenger was because Chicago Democrats, especially African- and Latino-Americans, were angry over a first-term record they saw as too conservative on economics and education. Some even took to calling him “Mayor 1 Percent.”

After running an apologetic run-off campaign — in which the neoliberal Emanuel and his supporters tried to refashion him as a true progressive — the mayor ended up defeating his opponent, Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, with relative ease. But while Garcia, by most accounts, ran a disorganized and borderline incompetent campaign, simply forcing Emanuel into the run-off was itself a major victory. No incumbent Chicago mayor had ever had to do it before, and it was widely seen by expert observers as an “embarrassment” for President Obama’s former chief of staff. In retrospect, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis’s unfortunate illness may have saved Emanuel’s career in electoral politics.

Chicago was the first sign that a new Democratic Party base — one comprised of more people of color as well as educated and single women — was exerting its influence. But former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s nascent presidential campaign has been the most conspicuous. Because while Emanuel’s pivot to the left wasn’t so much about policy as public relations, Clinton’s campaign has thus far been characterized by her assuming new, more liberal policy positions. Despite having been a believer in the “tough on crime” policies of her husband, Clinton endorsed outfitting the nation’s law enforcement with body cameras, and spent her first big policy address calling for mass incarceration’s end.

Brady’s Punishment — Andy Borowitz has the awful news.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (The Borowitz Report) – In what football insiders are calling an unexpectedly severe punishment, the National Football League has sentenced the New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady to a year with the New York Jets for his role in the so-called Deflategate scandal.

The punishment drew howls of protest from Patriots fans and management, with many calling it the harshest in league history, but N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell defended the decision as “a necessary deterrent.”

“We need to send the message that this league has zero tolerance for cheating,” Goodell said. “We believe that a year of playing quarterback for the Jets sends that message loud and clear.”

Brady was reportedly in a state of shock when he heard the news of his punishment. He later met with reporters in a hastily called press conference during which he frequently seemed on the verge of tears.

“I am going to fight this decision with every fibre of my being,” Brady said. “This is America. You can’t force a person to play for the Jets.”

At a sports bar in Manhattan, the reaction to the impending arrival of the Jets’ longtime nemesis was muted. One Jets fan observed, “Look, Brady’s a dick, but even he didn’t deserve this.”

Doonesbury — Gaming the system.

Saturday, May 9, 2015