Sunday, May 1, 2016

(belated) 2015: Album(s) of the Year

Yes, we're four months into 2016, but after a crazy crazy roller coaster of a 2015, I'm finally able to squeeze time (and emotional energy) for my usual ”Album(s) of the Year" post.

I mentioned in my end of year 2014 post that we would be transitioning to new life chapters in 2015, and boy did that play out. The year began with my wife and I letting our kids and families know that we were separating, and me moving into a new place. The process has been amicable and respectful and (from what I can gather) a relatively easy one compared to what others have gone through. But after 25ish years, the prospect and reality of starting over was a bit other worldly.

The middle of the year marked another major transition, with my eldest graduating from high school last summer. There is no greater blessing than a child who is both the best of you and the better of you, and I am beyond grateful for the multitudes of blessings my older daughter has brought into my life. After an absolutely insane process, she is now a freshman at Swarthmore. For all my pride and hope for the wonderful young woman she has become, I left the best part of my heart behind while I left my baby girl at her dorm and joined the other families on the very long trail of tears back to our cars.

The end of the year found me as a new home owner in North Park (or South Park, depending on your map), laying down what I hope to be deep roots for the next 25 years.

Needless to say, 2015 was a fairly serious year for me. After devoting the first couple months of 2015 to easing the transition for family, I was confronted by a painfully blank canvas, surrounded by a densely entangled tapestry of memories and life experiences. So many choices to be made, both enabled and burdened by history. The same sun that was shining so bright just up ahead was making a 50ish-year-long comets tail very very hard to ignore.

The light burned bright, and at times burned, but I am beyond grateful for the lessons and purpose I found along the way, and for the friends and family and colleagues that were there for me. Thank you.

My albums of the year list for 2015 reflect my journey in the chrysalis, and the foundations for 2016 and beyond.


March - Best Reflection On Truths Newly Visible: I’m Gonna Be (500 miles) (Sleeping at Last)

I got to enjoy the 2015 Super Bowl with a couple beers and a nice steak dinner for myself. Besides being a great game and giving us Left Shark, there was a particularly memorable Budweiser ad featuring a pretty amazing cover of the old sk00l “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by Scottish twins The Proclaimers (1988!), leaving Scotsman all over the world sort of scratching their heads.

I was a bit distracted at the time, but I finally got around to tracking down the cover a month or so later. What I found was that a fun but completely forgettable party/dance song had been transformed into one of the most romantic and emotionally true songs I had ever heard.

Turns out Sleeping At Last has a history of doing interesting covers of classic songs (for Grey’s Anatomy, among other shows), and had put out an album compiling these efforts. The entire album is fantastic (including a particularly awesome version of Safety Dance...if I ever have a one hit wonder, I want Sleeping at Last to record their version of it), but "I’m Gonna Be" is truly a gift: real emotional truth, delivered with with love and not a shred of irony. A wonderful and timely reminder of what was and what could again be.

An early and strong contender for album of the year, but this was literally just the beginning.


April - Best Song For Dancing in a Hurricane: The Eye (Brandi Carlile)

Through the magic of NPR, I heard good things about Brandi Carlile’s new album The Firewatcher’s Daughter. I took a chance and ordered it sight unseen when it came out, and was blown away.

Many strong pieces here (some very strong). Brandi and her collaborators the Hanseroth twins have a knack of cutting to the core, without being sentimental or evasive. The person in the mirror is stark, but the reflection is true, and worthy of attention.

By far my favorite song on the album (and my then to that point favorite song of the decade) was “The Eye”. Watching the beautiful video (see link above) was like a loving intervention from your closest friends and family: a call to honesty and courage and acceptance, all as a precursor to purpose.

My clear choice for album of the year (and song of the decade). How could anything get better than this?


May - Best Soundtrack For Rebirth: River (Ibeyi)

Getting out of ruts and being open to new people and new ideas can be like spring after a long and cold winter: lots of mud and you can see the messy refuse from the previous fall, but the smell and taste of new life breeds boundless optimism and openness to possibility.

Into this place I was introduced to the remarkable Ibeyi, who a year before had released their debut album. The Diaz twins (Ibeyi is “twins” in Yoruba) brought a spare but powerful fusion of African and Cuban and French sensibilities, from a couple sister who seem too young to realize how breathtakingly original and vital their voices are. Remarkable talents, evoking instead of telling, and tapping into genetic memory and instincts (“goosebump music”).

At about this time, I had started to spend my weekends walking different San Diego neighborhoods for hours at a time, getting to know what they had to offer and trying to get a sense of the spirit and fit of the place (I wasn’t going to stay in that apartment forever). Ibeyi was a constant and welcome companion on those early walks, and an encouragement to be open and reflective. Beginners Minds is precious and fleeting, but this soundtrack helped get me there.

Their song “River” was particularly evocative and meditative. If you are intrigued, I highly recommend watching their KEXP concert, and catching them live when they come to your neighborhood (we caught them in LA and they were wonderful!). These ladies are something special, and Ibeyi (to my great surprise) bumped The Firewatcher’s Daughter off its perch as my album of the year.

(And a bonus for May, my favorite modern poet Shane Koyczan released a reading of his poem For Lois. The measure of any Superman story is does it make you want to put on a red cape and fly. This poem makes me want to soar...)


June - Best Hope From a Green Flash: Take My Love (The Lone Bellow)

For many years, it has been challenging for me to get to concerts and see my favorite musicians live. Until I managed to snag last minute tickets to see Paul Simon and Sting at Madison Square Garden in 2014, I had bought tickets for and missed concerts maybe 5-6 times in a row over a decade? With Ray 2.0, it was time to put that right.

I learned that Birch Aquarium in La Jolla hosts several concerts each summer. For those that haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Birch, it is a fantastic aquarium, and a remarkable venue. From the hillside location, you look out over the Pacific Ocean and La Jolla Shores. It is a small place though. How the heck could you host a concert there?

On their website, they had links to the various acts that were scheduled to perform that summer. They were all wonderful, but I was **BLOWN** away by The Lone Bellow, and their NPR Tiny Desk concert.

After seeing their performance of “Teach me to Know” on their NPR Tiny Desk concert, I grabbed both their albums, and had them on continuous loop as I spent my weekends wandering the neighborhoods around Balboa Park. I simply could not believe how good this band was. Wow!

A week later, I was at the Birch with maybe 150 other people, drinking a Green Flash beer, and hanging by the tidal pools with the band, with the sun setting over the Pacific. They were spectacular!

“Take My Love”, “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold”, “Diners”, “Teach Me To Know”, the list goes on and on. Out of a riding accident that left his wife paralyzed for some time, Zach Williams found a voice and found ideas that demanded to be shared and heard. The Lone Bellow is a precious jewel, shining bright after enduring terrible hardship. After 14 years of a generation scarred by war and stagnation, voices like The Lone Bellow are leading forward.

My new favorite band, and what I thought for sure would be my 2015 album of the year.


July - (For Realz) 2015 Album (and Artist) of the Year/Decade: Southeastern (Jason Isbell)

I tell you, 2015 was one heck of a year for discovering new music, and finding new resonances in myself and in the world around me. Some time in late June and early July, I started to hear virtual whispers and collective excitement about an impending album release from Jason Isbell. When The Lone Bellow tweeted about the album, I decided to jump in and see who this Jason was. Boy, am I glad I did.

Isbell is a former guitarist/songwriter/singer for The Drive By Truckers, with a legendary reputation for hard drinking and hard living. His music channels the essence of Townes Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen, with the guitar playing clarity of Marc Knopfler. I had heard some things about Americana several years ago, but hadn’t checked him out, and didn’t know what Americana was as a genre. That all changed.

Isbell’s song writing and playing is remarkably precise and effortless. He speaks and evokes in the perfect stillness between notes and words, building an emotional resonance and connection that is ambrosia for this ronin. I’m not from Alabama, but I always wish I was after hearing a Jason Isbell song.

For a taste, here is his hat tip to his dad “Outfit” from Drive By Trucker days:
Six months in a St. Florian foundry
They call it Industrial Park
Then hospital maintenance and Tech School
Just to memorize Frigidaire parts

But I got to missing your Mama
And I got to missing you too
And I went back to painting for my old man
And I guess that's what I'll always do

So don't let them take who you are boy
And don't try to be who you ain't
And don't let me catch you in Kendale
With a bucket of wealthy-man's paint

Don't call what your wearing an outfit
Don't ever say your car is broke
Don't sing with a fake British accent
Don't act like your family's a joke

Have fun, but stay clear of the needle
Call home on your sister's birthday
Don't tell them you're bigger than Jesus
Don't give it away, don't give it away

Needless to say, this hit this father of a college freshman (and son of a first generation immigrant) pretty damn hard.

Jason hit bottom pretty hard a couple years ago, and had his girl friend (and now wife) Amanda Shire and producer intervene to get him clean. He sobered up, can came back even better than before with what is my album of the decade (no one even close) Southeastern. Southeastern cleaned up every award in the Americana world, and Jason and Amanda got to perform their hit “Cover Me Up” at the Americana awards.
A heart on the run

Keeps a hand on the gun

You can't trust anyone



I was so sure

What I needed was more

Tried to shoot out the sun



In days when we raged

We flew off the page

Such damage was done



But I made it through

To somebody new

I was meant for someone

So girl leave your boots by the bed we ain't leavin' this room

Til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom

It's cold in this house and I ain't going out to chop wood

So cover me up and know you're enough to use me for good

May we all know this sort of love and redemption, and find this this clear a voice coming out of the darkness. Southeastern is a gift, a bright shining beacon casting a path in the dark. Thank you Jason for this.

To close it out and bring it full circle, Jason’s new album Something More Than Free is also fantastic. Here is the man himself explaining my favorite track from his new album . The title track “Something More Than Free” has been my personal anthem for the past year, and will be a cherished source of grounding and inspiration in the years to come:
When I get home from work
I'll call up all my friends
And we'll go bust up something beautiful we'll have to build again

When I get home from work
I'll wrestle off my clothes
And leave them right inside the front door
'cause nobody's home to know

You see, a hammer finds a nail
And a freight train needs the rail
And I'm doin' what I'm on this earth to do

And I don't think on why I'm here or where it hurts
I'm just lucky to have the work
Sunday morning I'm too tired to go to church
But I thank God for the work

When I get my reward, my work will all be done
And I will sit back in my chair beside the Father and the Son
No more holes to fill. And no more rocks to break
And no more loading boxes onto trucks for someone else's sake

And the day will come. When I'll find a reason
And somebody proud to love a man like me
My back is numb, my hands are freezing
What I'm working for is something more than free

Don't give it away...


Friday, May 1, 2015

Decision Friday

Today is the deadline for the college class of 2019 needs to make their final decisions about which college they are going to.  Our older daughter was fortunate to be accepted to her early decision school so we're avoiding this dance, but it is the end of a very long, very stressful, and very intense road for many high school seniors.  If you see one looking shell shock, give them a hug, and let them they did great, and that they're going to do great.  Congratulations to the class of 2015, and best wishes for a happy and successful college journey.

The College Application Process is Insane

I had heard from other parents how challenging the college application process would be, but honestly, I had no idea how crazy challenging (and crazy) the process would be.  Having really dug into it, it is clear that in the past 5 years (and as long ago as 10 years ago for some schools), things significantly changed, and it has created an arms race between schools and students and families.  It took us a while to understand the dynamic and figure out how to work within in.  

If you are about to start in on this journey, I hope those lessons are helpful to you and can take some of the stress and pain out of a completely irrational process.  I am far from an expert, but these lessons were helpful to me as we navigated this crazy process.  Your mileage will definitely vary, as will reality from what I have seen.  Our experience is also for elite colleges (say, top 50 in the US News rankings), where things are most crazy.  That being said, I wish I knew then what I know now.

So Why are Things Different Now?

For those of us of a previous generation, it is important to realize that the college application and selection process has become a data-driven business.  Universities are not just interested in selecting the best or most deserving students or students that best fit their culture.  In addition to the normal factor we all would expect (is this a good kid, can they contribute and take advantage of this opportunity, etc), every microdecision (who to persuade to apply, who to accept, who will graduate, long term income potential for each graduate, etc.) is managed and optimized to one of three factors:

  • Does this student bring supplemental or alumni income the university (football players, etc)
  • Does this student make the university more competitive and selective in the national university rankings
  • Does this student (and their family) bring the potential for current or future donations to the university

Basically, there is this important background focus on non-tuition revenue, and brand equity that can be traded for non-tuition revenue.  When applying to colleges, you need to be sensitive to this business side.

Every university and college has a sophisticated data-driven system to optimize against these parameters.  To be competitive in getting into these schools, you have to align what you do against these needs. 

If you were to chart the US News rankings for the top 100 colleges over the past decade, you’ll see this data arms race in action.  By hacking the ranking algorithm and stacking the deck on their metrics, many C level schools have become B level schools and are knocking on the door of A level. Other schools have fallen off because they neglected the new data-driven arms race.  At this point, everyone knows the game, and the competition is intense.

In chatting to admissions councilors, they have pretty much all reverse engineered the algorithm that is used for the major rankings like US News and World Report.  They actively and aggressively manage to these self-reported metrics to boost their rankings.

At the core of many of their data-driven objectives is “selectivity”: how many students with very high GPA and test scores apply? Of those, what proportion are given offers and what is the GPA/test profile for those students?  Most importantly, of those given offers, how many accept those offers? (yield)  

Every calculation they make during the admissions process is influenced by these major items (and many minor ones, like income level, ethnic background, etc)

For private universities, you need to think of the process as a two phase process: phase one is to have the hard metrics to get to the point where they will consider you (getting a fair read of your application).  Phase two is to have such a compelling story that the admissions dean will go to bat for you and advocate for your application when they get to selection committee.  Both are critical, but without the former, you won’t get the shot at the later.  You have to make sure you have a strategy to get a fair read of your application, then deliver on the subjective part of the application.

For the public universities, they are almost exclusively metric driven.  The read is relatively minor, and usually only impacts edge cases.

The net net of driving selectivity is that everyone wants their admission rate to be as low as possible (in the single digits now for the most selective schools), the quality of students to be as high as possible (test scores, GPA, etc), and their yield to be as high as possible (this drives all the games that happen with Early Decision, etc)  

The vicious cycle we're in means that the hyper low admission rates means that students have to apply to more and more colleges (15-20 is the norm now).  This causes the schools to ramp up their efforts on selectivity and yield and to be more data driven in screening applications because of the volume. Admission rates go down, and the cycle escalates. 

So What Should We Do About It?

From a prospective students perspective, this has some very real consequences that no 16-18 year old should have to deal with, but they unfortunately need to.  Below are some notes on key things to keep in mind.  As you read these, remember that these are the unexpected surprises we learned targeting elite universities.  Your experiences will be similar or different depending on your student and the colleges you're targeting.

I can say unequivocally that every single admission dean I met and spoke to had a true passion about their students and their institution, and brought immense heart and caring to what they do.  To a person, they wanted to help everyone and give everyone the best chance they could have to get one of very few seats at their colleges.  That being said, they were all overwhelmed and being managed to hard metrics that were critical to their institutions success.  I have huge admiration and gratitude for the work these folks do, and the way they do it.  The list of lessons below reflect the non-obvious reality we faced, and not the character, mission, or aspirations of the universities we dealt with (across the board, awesome people that were dedicated to all the right things).
  • You will need to cultivate relationships with ~15-20 universities, and have targeted and relevant applications for each
    • You need to demonstrate enough interest that they categorize you as a high potential to accept if they give you an offer (yield)
    • You need the large number because admission rates for any given college are low (and how they will read your application is arbitrary)
  • You need to have a mix of A, B, and C schools, and attack each with the same passion (with 5-10% acceptance rates, you have to play the numbers)
    • It can actually be difficult for high level students to get accepted to C schools…they don’t want to give offers that they know are going to get turned down
    • You can apply to the same school 5 times with the exact same application, and you may only be accepted 2 times (depends on who is reading your application)
  • You need to spend time on the campuses, and better still, connect with faculty and be able to speak directly to why it is your life dream to go there and what you bring to the school (very hard to do for this many schools)
    • The schools will track every email you send, every campus visit and tour you go on, and every note they get from faculty and alumni that you have talked to them and expressed interest
    • When you visit schools for tours, do the research and find a faculty member in an area of interest…reach out to them to set up time while you are there.  Besides learning what they do, they will let the admissions office know if they were impressed with you (that carries a huge amount of weight)
  • You need to be hyper competitive on standardized test scores
    • Full time SAT prep over a period of months may seem crazy, but it can get you 200-300 SAT points (in San Diego, Summa is awesome)
    • Maximizing your test scores is the cost of even being at the table for top schools…strong test scores may not help you, but weak ones will hurt you (all competitive students will be do the same intense test prep…test scores are a big metric in selectivity rankings)
  • You need to aggressively manage your GPA and honors course work
    • Even a handful of Bs will push your metrics into a range that the most selective schools won’t want to touch…it will drive their rankings down
    • You will be measured against what your high school offers and historical grades for other students have have applied (if your school has 15 AP courses, you better be taking a lot of them)
  • For the University of California system, you need to plan your high school course work well in advance
    • For UCs the only grades that matter are sophomore and junior year - make damn sure you have the right ones and that you nail the grades
    • You need advanced courses to get the GPA boost, and avoid Bs! (note that the average GPA for UC schools are all north of 4.0) 
    • UCs negotiate with each individual high school to designate which courses get the "honors" GPA bump.  If you want to attend a UC, review this list before your freshman year and set up your course work so you can get to the right courses your sophomore and junior years, or your UC-GPA will suffer
  • The recommendation that really matters is your high school college councilor
    • For the selective schools, this is the most important relationship you can cultivate
    • They will be the one that calls the admissions dean for your high school and give them the list of students they really need to pay attention to, and they will lobby and pitch their favorite students for each school
    • Get your councilor to believe in your child, and be willing to do whatever it takes to get him in the right school…they are the “agent” in this process that is packaging and presenting your child to the premiere schools
    • If the college councilor has office hours, be in there every week building out your strategy school by school…get the face time, get them fighting for you (it makes a difference for private schools)
    • Other recommendations are important to reflect your character and paint a picture of you, but you won’t get to that stage in the process unless your councilor has gone to bat for you
  • Start visiting colleges now, tomorrow, and the day after
    • It is so important for the student to get a sense of what is important to them, but it is even more important for the college to see you’re making the effort (yield)
    • Build a profile for each school as you visit and do research; you will need this when you go to write up your application to make it relevant to the values of the school (believe me, they all blur into each other after you've visited your 5th school)
  • If you or your spouse attended a private university, consider what it takes to leverage that alumni relationship (legacy really matters at some of these private schools)
    • They all have local alumni that do college interviews…find out who those people are and form a relationship 
  • Start early with testing and the application process
    • Your child should be taking all the standardized tests your sophomore year to get a baseline and get experience
    • Leverage the summer before your junior year for intense test prep and take the test in the fall your junior year before your course work gets too crazy (your junior year courses will be your toughest, and you'll need to get the best grades that year...those are the last grades and courses the admissions folks will see when they make their decisions)
    • If you think you can get a boost, study again the summer before your senior year and take it again in the fall (even 100 extra points can make a huge difference in making the cut for a good read)
    • Start with your common app essay and key public school essays starting in junior year, then hit them hard summer before your senior year (these take hours and hours and hours) Try to have rough drafts of all your essays before your senior year starts (these are very very very hard to write and for the first few, will require 10+ drafts to get right)
  • Keep detailed check lists and calendars for deadlines
    • Between supplements, apps, recommendations, tests, subject tests, etc, the logistics are crazy (there are no second chances for being late)
  • When the time comes, spend time to really understand the game theory behind the Early Decision process (this is crazy making, but hyper important)
    • For some schools, early decision acceptance rates can be 3x regular decision
    • Top schools love early decision to juice their numbers and avoid competing for the best students: You can only apply to a single early decision school (interest), and if accepted, you have to attend (yield)…huge statistics games around this that you can use to your advantage (for example, my daughter's school admits 48% of their freshman class through early decision)
  • You are competing with everyone else at your high school for the same schools
    • Only so many from your high school will get accepted to the more selective schools
    • This creates huge competition among the top students at your high school…something to be sensitive to
  • Colleges have deep statistical profiles on your high school and pretty much every other high school that they draw students from
    • They know the history of offers and acceptances for students from your school, GPAs, test scores, how they do at that college, etc
    • They will discount or boost your child's application based on these metrics
    • If you’re really interested in a particular college, find out who got accepted and went there from your high school and reach out to them for guidance (get copy of application, what the school is really like, etc)
  • Paradoxically, the better your high school, the higher the standard you will be held to
    • It is actually tougher to get in from better high schools, not easier
    • You will be measured against the opportunities you had and how you (vs your peers) took advantage of them
    • At the best schools, this makes the internal competition among fellow students even more intense
  • College is crazy expensive, so talk about realities early and often
    • Public universities are basically $30k/year for instate and $45k/year for out state
    • Private universities are basically $65k/year 
    • Most scholarships are needs based (most selective schools are actually the most generous…it may be cheaper to attend Brown than a 2nd or 3rd tier private school)
    • 2nd and 3rd tier private schools can be aggressive with academic scholarships for students that will help them raise their selectivity ranking (this is basically a discount off retail)
    • Every public university system is in deep financial distress…don't expect any handouts there, and they are swamped with applications because they are so much cheaper
    • 4 year graduation rates really matter…having to spend an additional $65k for a 5th year is crazy making so pay attention now and factor that into your decision
    • If you or your child is taking on debt for college, urge them to pay close attention to what kind of job they'll get with their degree (burdening a student with $250k in debt for a degree that makes $40k/year should be criminal, but it is shockingly common)

Early Decision Really Matters

As a reminder, most of the private schools have a program where you can apply early decision. The deadline for these applications is usually early November, and you hear back in December. The wrinkle is that you are only allowed to apply to a single school as your Early Decision school, and if you're accepted, you are obliged to attend that school.

This creates a fairly complex game scenario for schools and students. Schools are incented to admit a very high proportion of their class Early Decision (100% yield, 100% of applicants are demonstrating significant interest). It also allows them to lock up students they want before they have to compete with other schools. This means that acceptance rates for these schools are much higher for early decision than regular decision, with a non-trivial percent of the open slots being allocated during early decision.

By way of example, here are 2014 admission stats for a couple Ivy League schools and a premiere liberal arts school:


Admit Rate
(Regular Decision)
Admit Rate
(Early Decision)
% of class admitted
(Early Decision)
Brown
7.4%
19.0%
37.2%
Cornell
12.6%
33.0%
38.9%
Swarthmore
7.4%
31.0%
48.0%


For students, ideally the strategy is to apply to your dream school, which you would attend no matter what.  Because of the huge differences in acceptance rates, students start to worry about where they would have the most advantage by applying early, rather than where do they most want to go. Do you apply to a second choice school early decision to have a better chance of getting in?  But that means that you won't have a chance to even apply to your other schools. 

Also, they worry about the message it sends to schools for regular decision if they don't apply early decision. If I don't apply to school X early decision, how can I tell them in my essay that they are the perfect school for me?

Complicating this decision is that public universities don't have early decision options (generally).  If you apply early decision and get accepted, you won't have a chance to see if any of the UC schools accept you (better to wait for Berkeley at $30k per year or lock in Brown at $65k per year?)

Balancing these factors makes the choice of early decision school surprisingly stressful and strategic.

My advice is that if there is a dream school that offers early decision, make sure to apply.  Even if chances are low that you get accepted, it is still better than regular decisions. It will also force your student to get their Common Application polished for their dream school early, which will leave more time for regular decision schools if they weren't accepted.

Lastly, your Christmas break senior year will be infinitely nicer if your student is accepted to their early decision school (submitting 10+ applications by the January 1 deadline would be very unpleasant).  

Any Other Advice?

Gone are the days that you apply to two schools over a weekend like I did.  You will be applying to 15-20 schools (because of the numbers game), and each will require 5-20 hours of intense work, with a heck of a lot of investment before hand for campus visits, research, etc.  You can have a perfect GPA and perfect test scores and you will not get accepted to premiere schools unless you put in the time and it shows.  This is a very unnatural act for any teenager, mainly because you need to start a year before things are due.  

I highly recommend that you consider getting an experienced college application coach to help organize the process and get you as a parent out of the process.  The strain of being both a parent and a coach during this process can be pretty intense (they need you to be supportive and loving during a very stressful time, not cracking the whip to get application 13 done and doing prep for the SAT math subject test).

Get to know the SAT stats for your schools of interest, and figure out where you child ranks.  Unless you’re a recruited athlete, a legacy student, or from an underprivileged background or school, you better be in the upper half of the SAT range and have a competitive GPA.  If not, still go after your dream schools, but don't bet everything on getting in.

Speaking of dream schools, don't get too passionate about schools too early (this is really really hard).  The first goal is to get acceptances.  Once you have acceptances, you then decide which is the best school for you.  Until you have acceptances, the standard should be "if this were the only school I was accepted to, would I be happy attending here?" Focusing too early on a single dream school will make all the work for the other 14-19 schools much harder to do.

This is an insane process, and will only getting more so as the numbers game ratchets up.  I have been universally impressed with the people and mission of all the universities we visited: they really care and are deeply connected to their responsibilities to their students and their communities. The business realities are influencing what they do, but they are not defining what they do. Be sensitive to them, work with them because you have to, but don't be defined by them yourself.  These are noble people at noble institutions doing a great service for civilization. The metrics distort, but they haven’t destroyed.  Make it easy for them to do the right thing and they will do so every time.


Closing Thoughts

College is a gift, an opportunity. It will provide the foundation of skills, knowledge, and character that will define the rest of your life. Don't confuse what you need to do to get that opportunity with why you are doing it.  Remember (and help your child to remember) that any one of these schools is a remarkable opportunity, and that they will do great no matter where they go.  Choice can create stress and challenges, but having an opportunity to go to college and better yourself is a gift that was unavailable to most through out human history.  Do your best, make the best choice from the options you have, then do your best to take advantage of every opportunity given to you to better yourself and make a difference in the world.

Good hunting to the class of 2019.  We're all very proud of you, and can't wait to see how you'll change the world.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

2014: Album(s) of the Year


After another year of intending to post more to this blog, the end of year has arrived with no other posts, and it is time for my usual ”Album(s) of the Year" posts. In 2015, I will have more time, and hopefully things that are worth sharing.

In many ways, 2014 is a transition year for me my family. Our eldest turned 18 this year, will be graduating from high school in a couple months, and will be leaving home to attend college on the east coast this coming fall. Our younger daughter has a couple months of pre-teen-hood left, which we are enjoying very much, but she too will also soon start her transition to adulthood.

The anticipation of change has been stressful, made all the more so by the crazy (and crazy making) stress of the college application process (for those that are still enduring this ordeal, it does get better). What equilibrium I found in 2013 was helpful, but we’ll be transitioning to new life chapters in 2015, and will need to find a new equilibrium.

Through these stresses and changes, I found resonances in music from the heart and music that gave glimpses into what will come. I don’t know what the next chapter will be, but I know we will be reaching higher, for the better.

On to the list. As usual, first some niche winners, then my overall winner.

Best Good Song Made Transcendent: From a Distance (Nanci Griffith)
A random tweet from Joss Whedon sent me to the Google, where I came across a live performance of “From a Distance” by the great Nanci Griffith. When I was younger, the Bette Midler version saturated the airways, and sucked the life out of what should have been a quiet personal prayer for a more peaceful and more sane world. What a pleasure to watch Nanci sing a song that obviously had great meaning for her, acknowledging the songwriter Julie Gold, and honoring the inspiration she obviously felt by amplifying it for the rest of us.  From the heart, with words and ideas that can come from nowhere else.  A reminder that when you open your heart to be moved, your heart has the power to move others.  So lovely, and so right.

Album I Most Wanted To Make Fun Of, But Is One Of The Best I've Ever Heard (Tie): Pure Heroine (Lorde) / 1989 (Taylor Swift)
"Royals" got a lot of air play in 2013, superficially coming across as a cynical millennial anthem to irony. This is a time for the new Hero generation to rise, not wallow in Gen X dysfunctional angst, so no thank you.

Then late in 2013, one of my favorite YouTube cover artists posted her version of Lorde's "Team". and it most definitely got my attention. Here was a Hero struggling to grow into her own.

I took a leap and bought the album, bracing myself for disappointment that I would then mask with ridicule. Boy was I wrong with my first impressions.

Pure Heroine (unfortunate title, but we were all 16 once) is an amazing album, with the highest production values I've heard since getting lost in Pink Floyd albums back in the day. This young woman (who is the same age as my older daughter) embraced the cynicism and detachment of my generation, and stood tall with a worthy rebuke and response, taking ownership of something she is not yet old enough to appreciate nor understand: she instinctively knows that we were messing it up, so how much worse could she and her generation do?  I've lost hours in this album, and it did much to help me give my daughter the space she needed to claim her place in the grown up world.  Lorde is a major talent and a major voice. I can't wait to see how she helps change our world for the better.

Toward the end of the year, I braced with the rest of humanity for the onslaught of a new Taylor Swift album. I've always appreciated the sincerity and openness that she has brought to her music and her fearlessness in confronting the worst parts of the music business, but the tsunami of global-superstar-class attention was something I wanted to avoid.

Color me shocked, but 1989 is good...it is very very good. Pure pop, but still the trademark Swift honesty. You don't have to sell out to sell up.  A young woman truly coming into her moment of power. So inspiring to see, and so plain fun to listen to.  Well done Taylor, and much respect and thanks to you for your example.

Best Album From the Heart: The Ocean Way Sessions (Christina Perri)
This year I went searching (and finding) one of songs that had caught my ear over the years on TV (like the wonderful "Be Good" by Waxahatchee...thank you Walking Dead!). One of those songs was "Jar of Hearts" by Christina Perri.

Christina's debut album Lovestrong is a remarkably strong effort. After wondering where the strong/vulnerable singer/songwriters have gone, it was a pleasure to see that "Jar of Hearts" was not a fluke.

For all the wonderful production values in Lovestrong, I think the original from the Ocean Way Sessions EP is closer to the heart of the matter.

2014 "Album" of the Year: NPR Tiny Desk Concert (K'naan)
Before this year, my only exposure to K'naan was from his ubiquitous "Wavin' Flag" anthem for the 2010 World Cup. I danced to it with my daughters, as we celebrated the joy of a continent rising to meet the world. It rang with the truth of a generation stepping forward to claim their future and their dreams, for both themselves and their continent.  So powerful and so joyful. 2010 is a World Cup I will never forget, mainly for the excitement of watching my children sing and dance when the various anthems came on before and after the games.

While bouncing around the wonderful NPR Tiny Desk Concert archive, enjoying Glen Hansard at his best, I saw a link to a K'naan concert from 2009 before his break out album Troubadour was released and before the World Cup.  I've always been fascinated by how hip hop and hard rock artists interpret songs in a small acoustic setting so I checked it out.  I'm so glad I clicked through.

When a simple, acoustic version of "Wavin' Flag" started (9:10 in the video if you want to jump there), I finally made the connection that this was the same guy that did the World Cup song (cool!). From the very first, it was clear that this was a very different song, coming from a very different place:

When I get older, I will be stronger,
They'll call me freedom, just like a Waving Flag,

Born to the throne, stronger than Rome
But violent prone, poor people zone,
But it's my home, all I have known,
Where I got grown, streets we would roam.

But out of the darkness, I came the farthest,
Among the hardest survival.
Learn from these streets, it can be bleak,
Accept no defeat
Surrender retreat

So we struggling, fighting to eat and
We wondering when we'll be free,
So we patiently wait, for that fateful day,
It's not far away, so for now we say

When I get older, I will be stronger,
They'll call me freedom, just like a Waving Flag,
And then it goes back, and then it goes back,
And then it goes back

This isn't some pop fluff brought to you by Coca-Cola...this is seriously heavy shit he's laying down. Who is this guy?

So many wars, settling scores,
Bringing us promises, leaving us poor,
I heard them say, love is the way,
Love is the answer, that's what they say,

But look how they treat us, make us believers,
We fight their battles, then they deceive us,
Try to control us, they couldn't hold us,
Cause we just move forward like Buffalo Soldiers.

But we struggling, fighting to eat,
And we wondering, when we'll be free
So we patiently wait, for that faithful day,
It's not far away, but for now we say,

When I get older, I will be stronger,
They'll call me freedom, just like a Waving Flag,
And then it goes back, and then it goes back,
And then it goes back
These are hard truths, delivered by a true poet. I can't imagine what this man lived through as a boy growing up in Somalia, but I am moved by his strength to turn that pain into art and his ability to revisit it and share it.  After watching an interview with K'naan, it was clear his is a wisdom and light that shines very bright indeed.

It is remarkable that the same song from the same artist can so honestly and meaningfully capture such truths of pain and suffering, and such truths of celebration and hope.  Watching the same song reimagined for Haiti earthquake relief makes it even more so.

When I get older, I will be stronger. Wave your flag of truth high K'naan. We're all made better when you do.


Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: Album(s) of the Year


As usual for my "Album(s) of the Year" posts, first some meta commentary.

For me, 2013 was a back to basics year, as I worked to get grounded and rebalanced after a couple years of churn. I was fortunate to have time to reflect on the past, and explore it in the context of the present. This journey had many musical detours, including a wonderful revisiting of the Miles Davis and John Coltrane catalogs from the 50s and 60s (after 25 years, it was like hearing them for the first time).

The music I spent the most time with offered unadorned connections with truths from the past, and calls for what I hope to be truths of the future. The clarity of these truths were an inspiration for me, a welcome companion through the year.

On to the list. As usual, first some niche winners, then my overall winner.

Best Album That I Never Thought I Would Hear, Let Alone Own: Live '88 (Shawn Colvin)
I think it is hard for folks under 30 to understand the commitment required to find music back in the day. It was rare for me to visit a new town and not track down some local record stores in the hope that they had some gems that I was looking for. Inevitably, these quests would result in finding tunes that you didn't know existed. When visiting friends, inevitably the evening would degenerate into flipping through albums and comparing notes about bands, and learning about new bands. All these discussions were tucked away for reference the next time you were in that record store, as the endless quest went on.

With that context, there was a huge surge of "indie" folks acts in the late 80s: Indigo Girls, Tracy Chapman, and newcomer Shawn Colvin. Colvin's "Steady On" album was so catchy, and had cross over written all over it. During one of these late night chat sessions, I came to learn about Colvin's "Live '88" solo concert tape that she was selling at concerts before her big debut album was released. The album was supposed to have been amazing, but no one I knew had ever heard it themselves. We'd have endless discussions about what the album must be like, and I looked for that album in what must have grown to be 100+ record stores.

Even during the initial .com music boom, there were no copies to be found on Napster or Amazon or any of the 1000s of record stores that you could find through Google. Eventually, I gave up and moved on.

Fast forward many years. I'm listening to Lucy Kaplansky's cover of Colvin's "Diamond in the Rough", and reading how she used to sing backup for Shawn Colvin (who knew?). On a lark, I do a search for Steady On on Murfie to see what market is these days and see a recommended link for "Live '88" for $1!!! Holy Crap!!

10 minutes later I'm on a time machine, listening to the definitive version of the amazing "Diamond in the Rough" (all the more meaningful now that I have two daughters), and several other classics, all with Shawn solo on the guitar in amazing unplugged aspirational goodness.

An absolute gem, and an unexpected moment of satisfying closure after a couple decades.

Best Video For the Best Song About a Mummy: The Curse (Josh Ritter)
I think I discovered this video through a link on twitter. I hadn't heard of Josh Ritter before, but I was blown away by the simple clarity and truth of his music. The video by his drummer Liam Hurley is one of the most beautiful short films I've ever seen. A joy and inspiration, and a welcome moment of magic.

Best Albums For the Hero Generation: iTunes Session (Fun.) and iTunes Session (Imagine Dragons)
As folks who know me know, for many years I've had an unhealthy obsession with Howe and Strauss's generational theories that they detailed in their book "The Fourth Turning". In "The Fourth Turning" they chart an 80 year cycle of social trends and generational archetypes that go back centuries, with each generation and social era setting the stage for the next in a series of 20 year "turnings". According to their theory, we are currently in a "Crisis" turning, where the previous social contract is falling apart and new one must be invented, kicking off the next cycle (previous Crises were depression/WW 2, Civil War, Revolutionary War, etc). Born into an Unraveling, a Hero generation comes of age during the Crisis, and uses their energy and their commitment to community to bring society back together after the Unraveling and the social failings of their elders.

As a first generation immigrant born and raised in circumstances akin to an Unraveling, I grew up with a generation that was 20 years out of phase with where I was. The Fourth Turning framework has been a great help to me in understanding and accepting these differences, but for years I have been waiting for our Hero generation to come of age, and help heal the schism that has torn our country apart. I've been especially tuned to music, where youth can most directly express their emerging values. In 2013, I heard the undeniable call of our new Hero generation in Fun. and Imagine Dragons.

My first exposure to Fun. was the silly "We Are Young" anthem that was played again and again during those Chevy commercials. I dismissed them out of hand. But when I saw them perform "Carry On" at the Grammy's, I had to sit up and pay attention. These guys had something to say, and they were in their moment of power. Watching the "Some Nights" video, and this out of time Hero was ready to march. It was a special joy when my 11 year old asked if I could buy "Some Nights" for her iPod (and so it begins).

Generational affinity aside, this geezer has never developed a taste for the over-produced/auto-tuned ethos of modern recordings. While I respected Fun.'s music and talents, their production was distracting. Enter the gift that is "iTunes Session": the band in a studio with their instruments, recorded live without distractions, sounding like they are in the room with you. Perfect.

A bit later in the year, my 11 year old asked me to purchase Imagine Dragon's "Demons" for her iPod. As usual, I googled the lyrics and listened to the song on YouTube to make sure it was appropriate.  At the end of the video they dedicated the song to Tyler Robinson, who had died of cancer at age 17. They also included some footage of their performance of "It's Time" for Tyler. Reading more about the band and Tyler and listening to more of their music, they are real deal Heros.

Thank you Iz for the hope and joy and seeing the best of what we could be. I can't wait for you and your sister's generation to set things right.

2013 Album of the Year: All the Roadrunning (Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris)
Before talking about this gem, a shout out to one of those finds that restores your faith in what music is all about. While bouncing around YouTube for some vintage Van Morrison tracks, I found a link to a bootleg to some demos he recorded back in his prime. Sound quality is terrible, with bleed through from other tracks that had gotten taped over, but hearing Van bring it on Caravan and It Stoned Me is to mainline emotional truths at their most raw. The full bootleg album is easy to find in the usual places, and well worth seeking out.

Also, a shout out to the gem that is "Frozen". Any film that would push "Taxi Driver" out of my list of top 10 films ever is something special, but the combination of images and music is really quite extraordinary. You owe it to yourself to experience this film in a fine theatre with a fine sound system. If "Brave" was what every father wishes for his daughters, then "Frozen" is what his daughters wish for themselves. An extraordinary film.

In 2013, I continued with my "what have they been doing lately" kick with my old favorites. Through the magic of murfie.com, I was able to catch up with the impressive body of work that Mark Knopfler has been doing since Dire Straits days. Although all these albums are solid, his 2006 collaboration with Emmylou Harris is the clear standout. Knopfler has always been a hero of mine: such effortless grace, combining searing power with an effortless lightness. On this album, he and Emmylou take it to a completely different level.

This is not a nostalgia kick. These are old souls with many a hard mile sharing their wisdom, with both at the absolute top of their game. It is so impressive to hear such talent embrace who they are now, and leverage their considerable strengths to create something that they couldn't have touched in their "prime". Knopfler's song writing and guitar playing are the best of his career (which is saying something), and hearing Emmylou’s generous and gorgeous perfect harmonies makes me want to help others be better. I've listened to other albums more in 2013, but "All the Roadrunning" (and especially the amazing title track) is my soundtrack for 2013 and likely the next decade.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Nelson Mandela: A Remembrance


Free Nelson Mandela
Free, free, free, free, free Nelson Mandela

21 years in captivity
Shoes too small to fit his feet
His body abused but his mind is still free
Are you so blind that you cannot see?
Are you so deaf that you cannot hear? I said…
Free Nelson Mandela, I'm begging you
Free Nelson Mandela
— Special AKA, "Free Nelson Mandela


As a freshman in college in 1984, it was impossible to walk through a dorm or go to a party without hearing “Free Nelson Mandela” by Special AKA. For me, it was the anthem of a new found freedom that was damn fun to dance to. It also created a question: who was this Nelson Mandela?

Back in the day, we didn’t have Google and Wikipedia; we had 30 minute newscasts, 60 Minutes on Sundays, local newspapers, and weekly news magazines. Finding out What Something Means was a many month process, talking to friends, gathering tidbits, paying attention in case something of interest filtered through the media, gradually synthesizing a point of view, sharing with others, and rinse and repeat.

Gradually, as I learned more about Apartheid, I discounted what I heard. How could such an injustice exist in 1984? Hadn’t colonial domination and brutality been left behind decades before? How could a white minority brutally rule the vast black majority with such contempt and indifference?

From across the pond, the anti-apartheid movement was gaining steam. The youth of England were channeling their frustration and anger at the injustices at home into empowered action against injustices elsewhere. Musicians and artists were giving voice to the frustration and anger, and in the age of MTV, their words were spreading across the college landscape here in the US.

The more I learned, the more appalled I was that this Apartheid was not just a great injustice, it was a great evil, and the more distraught I became at those who should know better who were turning away.


Our government tells us
We're doing all we can
Constructive engagement is
Ronald Reagan's plan
Meanwhile people are dying
And giving up hope
This quiet diplomacy
Ain't nothing but a joke

I, I, I ain't gonna play Sun City
I, I, I ain't gonna play Sun City
Na na na na na...

It's time to accept our responsibility
Freedom is a privilege
Nobody rides for free
Look around the world, baby
It cannot be denied
Somebody tell me why
We're always on the wrong side
— Artists United Against Apartheid, "Sun City


Enter Steven Van Zandt in 1985, with Artists United Against Apartheid. Little Steven and a veritable Who’s Who of music were calling out not just the evil doers and their enablers, but also those of us that stood by and allowed this to go unchallenged.

Yes Apartheid was that bad.

Yes our leaders were not only ignoring it, they were actively defending it(!)

Yes my generation needed to take ownership of what was being done (and not done) in our name and do something about it.


You can blow out a candle,
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flame begins to catch,
The wind will blow it higher
— Peter Gabriel


The boycott movement was in full force. Did you do business in South Africa, Coca Cola? We won’t buy your products. Divestment protests on campus. University of Illinois: We will keep marching outside your offices until you sell any shares you have in companies that do business in South Africa.

South Africa was a pariah nation; if our political leaders are too decrepit and compromised and disconnected from basic human decency to act, we’ll demand accountability and justice with our pocket books.

The right side of history could not have been more clear, but for not the first nor last time, there were those who fought as vigorously for the other side and confused the crap out of me. What were these people thinking?

Reagan pulled out all stops, vetoing the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 and doing everything in his considerable power to sway the country to siding with the status quo. People were literally being beaten and killed for daring to ask for justice, and the same people who dismissed those who didn’t look and think like them as un-American were dismissing the humanity of black South Africans as irrelevant because of geopolitical priorities.

If our leaders could ignore and actively support(!) this grave an evil, what would they do to our country?

As indifference was burned away, all that was left were the cynics and neo-new-world-order types. In their shameful defense of South Africa and resistance to action, their true moral core came into sharp focus. For my generation, even though we were powerless to do anything about the bizarro America that was churning around us (Walter Mondale is our last best hope? Really?), we could and had to do something about South Africa.


Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy.

But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all. It is not true that the enfranchisement of all will result in racial domination. Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another. The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs it will not change that policy.

This then is what the ANC is fighting. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live.

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. 
— Nelson Mandela, "Statement in Court 1964


In the midst of our awakening, more and more information became available about the anti-apartheid struggle. It had been going on for so long! Here was an alternate history had the Civil War and Civil Rights movement taken a turn for the dark.

I remember a documentary about Nelson Mandela, showing the famous footage from the early 60s which were the only pictures we’d seen of the man. I read for the first time his words at his trial in 1964, and they took my breath away.

Who was this man? In 1964, after years of bitter struggle and war, suffering injustices that were beyond imagination, on the verge of going to prison and beatings and maybe death, he was articulating a moral philosophy that was as profound as it was revolutionary: the power of a collective We, not a win-lose Us vs Them. Could this be real? Could anyone really believe these things in that moment, in that circumstance? If so, in my own struggles, could I believe any less?

When I traveled and studied in Europe in 1987-88, there was so much more sophistication and awareness about Apartheid, and what needed to be done to address that great injustice. As powerless as my peer group felt about their own country's trajectory, there was a quiet but firm resolve to see the Apartheid issue through to the very end.

One of my more interesting experiences while there was the opportunity to spend about a week with a college aged Afrikaner who was visiting a friend at our college. She was a lovely and gracious and generous person, and we enjoyed many a pint together.

When the conversation inevitably turned towards the topic of Apartheid, I and others were deeply interested in understanding how a native felt about such things. She was apologetic, but quickly fell into the traditional tropes of "Their lives are so much better because we take care of things" and "We give these people so much, why do they hate us so". I'd heard similar sentiments living in the deep south (and more recently among the Neo-Oligarchs and Occupation apologists), but the obvious pain and fear that this woman was feeling as she shared her world view with us was heartbreaking. The only way of life she had ever known was being rejected by the world, and her culture and way of life was under existential threat. She and her family were soon to be grave danger. When a pariah is in pain, can you turn away?


It always seems impossible until it is done.
— Nelson Mandela


Flash forward to 1990. Apartheid is crumbling and revolution is at hand. Reagan was wrong: rejecting the pariah took aways its power to oppress, and change was at hand.

TV stations all go to live coverage of some indescript building, and the announcer says that the release of Nelson Mandela is imminent. de Klerk had just assumed the presidency and had just released all the ANC prisoners except Mandela. Remarkably, Apartheid was coming to an end.

I will never forget the shock of seeing a 73 year old Nelson Mandela walk out. In my mind, he was frozen in 30 year old black and white footage and scratchy audio. The full price that this man had paid was devastating. I feared that joy would soon become a genocide, with the streets running red with Afrikaner blood.

In that moment, Mandela held a continent in his hand. A look of disdain or sneer would have set off an explosion that no one could control. Instead, he opened with a call for peace, and echoed the very same appeal to We that he had made 27 years before. By looking into his eyes, I now knew that it was real, and that the greatness of this man was far bigger than what 27 years of captivity could tear down.

What followed was a revelation.

Mandela’s relentless focus on reconciliation and forgiveness and acceptance was the most divine act I have ever witnessed. He embraced decades of hate and humiliation and death and loss and oppression and pain for a whole nation, and he made it his own. He embraced mortal existential fear and desperation and panic and the destruction of a way of life and offered forgiveness and acceptance and love. All he asked in return was the truth, and a commitment to reconciliation among brothers and sisters.

His was also the most profoundly human act I have ever witnessed, and it fundamentally transformed how I see the world and work within it. At a time in my life where I was relishing a righteousness rationalized by my disdain for a moral core different than my own, I was challenged to a different path. 

Mandela showed me through his example that it was no more right for me to deny the others their character and impose mine, than it was when they were doing so to me. The lesson of Mandela is that who we are as a people is a reflection of our consensus character, or as close as we are able to come to it. When we are unable to get to consensus, our plural character must suffice until we are able to get to consensus, but we are all lessened until we do. Wow.

In my heart I believe that as long as our civilization persists, the example and power of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will challenge us to be better than ourselves, and to aspire to a greater truth and love. It is one of the great privileges of my life to have been alive to witness this great moment in human history, and I carry its lessons with me every day.


I am the Master of my Fate
I am the Captain of my Soul

The 20th century was one of profound transformation and change. While our civilization had many heroes and champions, for me the most vital and enduring and human were Gandhi, King, and Mandela.

Like Moses, both Gandhi and King were struck down before they saw the Promised Land, and they were derided and marginalized as revolutionaries in their time. Through their example and fire and love, they shamed and inspired those around them to something bigger and better than themselves. They fundamentally changed the DNA of our civilization, and our expectations of each other and for each other. They both left a vast void when they left too soon, their work unfinished, which much pain and many open wounds that have yet to heal.

For my generation, Mandela was our Moses. The man had long since become an ideal and legend by the time I was of age, and his tribes of the oppressed and aggrieved had suffered a long and difficult journey. For 27 years, he was effectively gone.

It is a great blessing of my life to have the Moses of my generation also be our Joshua. His journey and the lessons it holds are all the more profound for the revolutionary to return as the healer and peacemaker, and to watch our Joshua build that peace on a foundation of love, acceptance, and forgiveness.


Enkosi kakhulu, Madiba

It is said that a rich man is a poor man that has found something precious that he had lost. The life and example of Nelson Mandela gave me back a gift I very nearly squandered. I am forever grateful for that salvation.

Thank you Nelson Mandela for showing me that evil and injustice can be in the here and now, and that it must be confronted by all good men and women.

Thank you for demonstrating that a struggle that is just in never in vain, and that the moral arc of the universe does in fact bend toward justice.

Thank you for your integrity and commitment to your vision of one South Africa, and the legitimacy you brought to the greater good.

Thank you for showing me that the path to absolution is not through righteousness, but through love and forgiveness.

Thank you for inspiring me to make a difference in the world, and humbling me with what one man can do.

Thank you for making our world a better place, and for making me want to be a better man.

Rest easy Tata. Uhambe kakuhle.




Addendum: "The Last Great Liberator of the 20th Century"

We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. But let me say to the young people of Africa and the young people around the world - you, too, can make his life’s work your own. Over 30 years ago, while still a student, I learned of Nelson Mandela and the struggles taking place in this beautiful land, and it stirred something in me. It woke me up to my responsibilities to others and to myself, and it set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today. And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be a better man. He speaks to what’s best inside us.

After this great liberator is laid to rest, and when we have returned to our cities and villages and rejoined our daily routines, let us search for his strength. Let us search for his largeness of spirit somewhere inside of ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, when our best-laid plans seem beyond our reach, let us think of Madiba and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of his cell: “It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

What a magnificent soul it was. We will miss him deeply. May God bless the memory of Nelson Mandela. May God bless the people of South Africa.
— President Barack Obama, Eulogy for Nelson Mandela


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

2012: Album(s) of the Year

Like last year's "Album(s) of the Year" post, first some meta commentary.

In reflecting on 2012 compared to 2011, it is amazing how my musical favs reflect where the rest of my life is that year. While 2011 was a year for challenging, self-reflective pieces, 2012 danced around those themes, but wimps from diving in deep on things that aren't right brain only or grounded in the familiar.  More below.

While 2011 was the year of iTunes Match helping me rediscover a newly organizationally and karmically scrubbed music collection, 2012 is the year of Murfie.com encouraging me to complete the transition to lossless and all digital.  Almost all 300+ CDs that I still own recently went on a one way trip to the great white north (sorry guys, I had to keep a couple CDs for sentimental reasons...I've owned my copy of "Tea for the Tillerman" since 1984!). All my music is now available to me digitally and lossless, without any of the physical storage issues.

I've been buying most of my used music from Murfie. With their clever business model of digital distribution of physical CDs, they very cleverly take advantage of shipping arbitrage to have a very compelling marketplace (why buy a single Elton John track for  $0.99 when you can get his entire Greatest Hits 1970-2002 album lossless for $1?).  I've been able to fill out adjacencies in my collection ($4 to complete my George Winston collection with the 4 CDs I didn't own? Check!)

If if you haven't already, check Murfie out. See here for my for sale CDs to get a flavor of the kinds of deals to be had. Highly highly recommended.

On to the goodies. As usual, first some niche winners, then my overall winner.

Best Album That Wish Came Out In 2011 So I Had Time To Really Listen To It: Monocyte (Saltillo)
2012 was a big year for my brother Kasra. After investing and working at the edges of the comic industry for years, he jumped in in a big way with Monocyte, his project with collaborator menton3 and a dream cast of 1000s from our mispent youth. Monocyte is a true passion project, and is remarkably unapologetic and challenging for a modern graphic novel. If you are looking for a read that will take you on an emtional and intellectual roller coaster like no other, give it a go. Fantastic. Then check out the work they're doing at 44FLOOD.

Besides being a phenomenally talented artist, mention3 is also a first class composer and musician (his Ganglion (Saltillo) album from several years ago remains a favorite).  As part of the Monocyte project, mention put out an album of trip hop inspired by the book. It is in every way as challenging (intellectually and emotionally) as the graphic novel.  I wish I had more time to sit with headphones and really go along for the ride.

Best 2012 Album That Is A Continuation of a Best 2011 Album: Babel (Mumford & Sons)
If this were best 2012 album that is a continuation of a 2009 album, the obivious winer would be My Head Is An Animal (Of Monsters And Men), paying tribute to Up From Below (Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros) would win hands down (what a great album!).

However, I have to give the nod to Mumford & Sons who picked up almost exactly where they left off last year with Sigh No More, and delivered the goods yet again.  Recommended.

Biggest Wallop Upside the Head: Down At The Sea Hotel (Various)
For many years, I've had a special appreciation for Lucy Kaplansky. All her albums are wonderful, but each has a handful of tracks that pack an emotional wallop strong enough that I've been known to break down in tears when it comes up on iTunes shuffle. Don't believe me? Listen to this story from 2004 on NPR, then feel the raw post-9/11 emotion on the rest of her Red Thread album.

Lucy put out a new album this year (Reunion), with the usual mix of interesting covers with intensely personal and true songs. There are at least four tracks on this album that have me reaching for the tissue whenever they come up. Well worth a listen.

As I was listening to the album, I was browsing around iTunes for other Kaplansky material. Amid some gems from her early folk days, I was taken aback to see "Goodnight, My Angel" come up in the search results, from an album I had never heard of. One of my favorite Billy Joel songs, being covered by a woman who's voice so easily brings me to my emotional knees. How did I miss this before?

Needless to say, Lucy delivers the goods with a rendition even better than the original. The album is an ensemble piece of children's lullabies by several of the artists from Red House Records, to accompany a children's book of the same name. Unlike other compilations, the album was produced as a single work, and works amazingly well. As a parent, I adore this album. If you do pick it up, I recommend getting the book/cd bundle.

2012 Album of the Year: Shahen-Shah (Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn)
Earlier this year I was listening to had Peter Gabriel's Passion, his marvelous soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ.  On a lark, I hopped onto Murfie to see what the market price was for one of my favorite albums ($1! What's wrong with you people?)

In the search results was a link to Gabriel's Passion Sources, which is a compilation of many of the songs that inspired Gabriel's album. For $1, how could I say no?

The first track was Shamas-Ud-Doha Bader-Ud-Doja by Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn. Holy crap! The passion and purity! I had no idea what the man was saying, but out of nowhere it lifted me and took me to a spiritual place I thought I had lost. "O the bright sun!, O the moon in darkness!" Yes indeed.

Thanks to the magic of the internet, I learned about Qawwali, and had the privilege to watch the legend that is Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn perform his invocations of the divine.  A quick return to Murfie and $5(!) later, I had three albums by Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn. Shahen-Shah was the first, and the first track was Shama-Ud-Doha Bader-Ud-Doja. It took me there all over again.

When a master like Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn is able to transcend, we and civilization are all raised with him. Thank you Ustad.

As a postscript to this story, a week ago someone on twitter posted a link to one of those moments that makes you believe in a connecting force that ties all together.  I won't spoil it.  Go watch it for yourself, and be glad that we live in a world where these things happen, and we have the means to share in it.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Pete Seeger: An Appreciation


He's the man with the banjo and the 12-string guitar.
And he's singing us the songs that tell us who we are.
When you look in his eyes you know that somebody's in there.
Yeah, he knows where we're going and where we been
And how the fog is gettin' thicker where the future should begin.
When you look at his life you know that he's really been there.

Still, what is the name that they're calling that man?
What is the name that they're calling that man?
You know, it's always the "Old Folkie"
They say he's always bleedin'
But whenever somebody's needing him,
He's the one who cares.
It's always the "Old Folkie"
Whenever somethin's burning,
Or a lesson needs some learning,
Or a tide that needs some turning,
To a better world somewhere,
Yeah, the "Old Folkie's" there.
— Harry Chapin, "Old Folkie" 


Growing up, I had very vague knowledge of Pete Seeger. He was one of those folk singing pre hippies that all the other folk singers seemed to respect, and he had written some fun songs that I liked as a kid.

Later on in high school, I became a huge Harry Chapin fan. I loved his stories and his ernest passion. I got to know all his songs, including his tribute song to Pete, "Old Folkie" from 1979. I got interested in Pete, and wanted to learn more.

Now back then, we didn't have wikipedia and iPhones. Learning about an obscure topic was a multi-year process. Gradually over time, you would pick up tidbits on topics of interest from broadcast TV, books, newspapers, and magazines. Slowly you would put together a fuzzy picture of the topic and fill in the blanks. If you had friends that shared common interests, you compared notes and speculated endlessly about connections, real or otherwise. Over a period of years, you started to form a picture from pieces and parts, investing no small part of yourself into the scene.

This was how I learned about Pete. My growing sense of social justice was inextricably tied to Harry, Pete, and the echoes of those that had marched for freedom and peace 15 years before. Who was this man who had touched so many?

In 1979 a 36 year old Harry Chapin sung his tribute to a 60 year old Pete Seeger. 2 years later, a 38 year old Harry Chapin died in a car crash. 3 years hence, I had discovered Harry, and through him, Pete, and I was sitting with friends at Ravinia Park with tears streaming down my face, listening to Pete leading the crowd in singing "All My Life's a Circle" as his tribute to Harry.

Fast forward a couple decades. Through the magic of the internet, I came to learn so much about Pete, and the remarkable life he has led. He was and is a genuine American hero. Although his country rejected him in the worst possible way, he never gave up on his country and what it should be. When the social movements of 60s began to form, Pete was there to shine his gentle light and help forge a new generation. The arc of the moral universe may be long, but it is people like Pete who put their hands upon it to bend it towards justice.

I thought of Pete often during the campaign of 2008. I lamented that our generation did not have our Pete Seeger to guide us as we entered our Crisis. I wished that Harry were still with us, giving it his all. I was thinking of Pete on the days leading up to the election, and again as the inauguration approached.

The day before Obama's first inauguration, Bruce Springsteen walked out on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and sang "The Rising" to 400,000 people. Martin Luther King III spoke on the same steps that his father had spoken from. U2 sang of Pride (In the Name of Love).

President-elect Obama took the stage to thank the crowd and the nation: "But never forget that the true character of our nation is revealed not during times of comfort and ease, but by the right we do when the moment is hard. I ask you to help me reveal that character once more, and together, we can carry forward as one nation, and one people, the legacy of our forefathers that we celebrate today."

Then Springsteen was on the stage again, and to my amazement, there was Pete! At age 89, Pete Seeger was leading the world in singing "This Land Is Your Land". Not just any rendition mind you, but the full throated Woody Guthrie original. Go watch it. You owe it to yourself.


Until the end of my life I will remember and cherish the joy and wonder on Pete's face. In that moment, more than 70 years of struggle was redeemed. May we all live to see our life's work and purpose come into its own.

Jump forward 3 years. The country is in turmoil, with revolutionary era flags flying again. The counter revolution is also in full swing with the Occupy movement. Word spreads on Twitter that there is a march in New York City. All of a sudden, there he is again!


At age 93, Pete Seeger is trending on Twitter:


The Old Folkie is there again.

Yeah, for forty years now he's been pushin' on.
Carrying the dream 'cause Woody's long gone.
He's the last voice singing that "Bound for Glory" song.
And if you never seen him you might take a look
He's the man who put the meaning in the music book.
Yeah, the world may be tired but Pete's still going strong.

What is the name that they're calling that man?
What is the name that they're calling that man?
You know, it's always the "Old Folkie"
Singing for some hopeless cause.
Shouting at the mountain top
The wind is his only applause.
It's always the "Old Folkie"
We don't know what we're missing
'Cause nobody ever listens,
'Cept the lovers as they're kissin'
Oh, he's singing for them somewhere.
Yeah, the "Old Folkie's" there.

During his life, Harry made it his life's work to help others, with special focus on addressing hunger wherever it may be. He donated millions to charity, and inspired millions with his belief in our responsibility to each other. He was the true heir to Pete's legacy, but left us far too soon.

Harry would have been 70 years old today. If he were with us, he'd be organizing relief efforts in New York and New Jersey, and singing Pete Seeger songs in the state house in Michigan. I miss him.

I believe that we are defined by the ripples we leave behind, and by the echos of our ripples in the ripples of others. Pete Seeger has been there through thick and thin, being the change he wanted to see in the world. His ripples are gentle and subtle, but their influence is vast.

Thank you Pete.

Update: January 28, 2014

Rest easy Pete. Thank you for being there for those that needed it most, and raising us all up.

For posterity, Bruce Springsteen on Pete Seeger at his 90th birthday
As Pete and I traveled to Washington for President Obama's Inaugural Celebration, he told me the entire story of "We Shall Overcome". How it moved from a labor movement song and with Pete's inspiration had been adapted by the civil rights movement. That day as we sang "This Land Is Your Land" I looked at Pete, the first black president of the United States was seated to his right, and I thought of the incredible journey that Pete had taken. My own growing up in the sixties in towns scarred by race rioting made that moment nearly unbelievable and Pete had thirty extra years of struggle and real activism on his belt. He was ao happy that day, it was like, Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man!...It was so nice. At rehearsals the day before, it was freezing, like fifteen degrees and Pete was there; he had his flannel shirt on. I said, man, you better wear something besides that flannel shirt! He says, yeah, I got my longjohns on under this thing.

And I asked him how he wanted to approach "This Land Is Your Land". It would be near the end of the show and all he said was, "Well, I know I want to sing all the verses, I want to sing all the ones that Woody wrote, especially the two that get left out, about private property and the relief office." I thought, of course, that's what Pete's done his whole life. He sings all the verses all the time, especially the ones that we'd like to leave out of our history as a people. At some point Pete Seeger decided he'd be a walking, singing reminder of all of America's history. He'd be a living archive of America's music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends. He would have the audacity and the courage to sing in the voice of the people, and despite Pete's somewhat benign, grandfatherly appearance, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant, and nasty optimism. Inside him he carries a steely toughness that belies that grandfatherly facade and it won't let him take a step back from the things he believes in. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country's illusions about itself. Pete Seeger still sings all the verses all the time, and he reminds us of our immense failures as well as shining a light toward our better angels and the horizon where the country we've imagined and hold dear we hope awaits us.

Now on top of it, he never wears it on his sleeve. He has become comfortable and casual in this immense role. He's funny and very eccentric. I'm gonna bring Tommy out, and the song Tommy Morello and I are about to sing I wrote in the mid-nineties and it started as a conversation I was having with myself. It was an attempt to regain my own moorings. Its last verse is the beautiful speech that Tom Joad whispers to his mother at the end of The Grapes of Wrath. "...Wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries Where there's a fight 'gainst the blood and hatred in the air Look for me Mom I'll be there."

Well, Pete has always been there.

For me that speech is always aspirational. For Pete, it's simply been a way of life. The singer in my song is in search of the ghost of Tom Joad. The spirit who has the guts and toughness to carry forth, to fight for and live their ideals.

I'm happy to report that spirit, the very ghost of Tom Joad is with us in the flesh tonight. He'll be on this stage momentarily, he's gonna look an awful lot like your granddad who wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He's gonna look like your granddad if your granddad could kick your ass.

This is for Pete...


Also for posterity, a profile in courage: Pete Seeger before the House Committee on Unamerican Activities, August 18, 1955

A Subcommittee of the Committee on Un-American Activities met at 10 a.m., in room 1703 of the Federal Building, Foley Square, New York, New York, the Honorable Francis E. Walter (Chairman) presiding.

Committee members present: Representatives Walter, Edwin E. Willis, and Gordon H. Scherer.

Staff members present: Frank S. Tavenner, Jr., Counsel; Donald T. Appell and Frank Bonora, Investigators; and Thomas W. Beale, Sr., Chief Clerk.

MR. TAVENNER: When and where were you born, Mr. Seeger?

MR. SEEGER: I was born in New York in 1919.

MR. TAVENNER: What is your profession or occupation?

MR. SEEGER: Well, I have worked at many things, and my main profession is a student of American folklore, and I make my living as a banjo picker-sort of damning, in some people's opinion.

MR. TAVENNER Has New York been your headquarters for a considerable period of time?

MR. SEEGER: No, I lived here only rarely until I left school, and after a year or two or a few years living here after World War II I got back to the country, where I always felt more at home.

MR. TAVENNER: You say that you were in the Armed Forces of the United States?

MR. SEEGER: About three and a half years.

MR. TAVENNER: Will you tell us please the period of your service?

MR. SEEGER: I went in in July 1942 and I was mustered out in December 1945.

MR. TAVENNER: Did you attain the rank of an officer?

MR. SEEGER: No. After about a year I made Pfc, and just before I got out I got to be T-5, which is in the equivilant of a corporal's rating, a long hard pull.

MR. TAVENNER: Mr. Seeger, prior to your entry in the service in 1942, were you engaged in the practice of your profession in the area of New York?

MR. SEEGER: It is hard to call it a profession. I kind of drifted into it and I never intended to be a musician, and I am glad I am one now, and it is a very honorable profession, but when I started out actually I wanted to be a newspaperman, and when I left school --

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Will you answer the question, please?

MR. SEEGER: I have to explain that it really wasn't my profession, I picked up a little change in it.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Did you practice your profession?

MR. SEEGER: I sang for people, yes, before World War II, and I also did as early as 1925.

MR. TAVENNER: And upon your return from the service in December of 1945, you continued in your profession?

MR. SEEGER: I continued singing, and I expect I always will.

MR. TAVENNER: The Committee has information obtained in part from the Daily Worker indicating that, over a period of time, especially since December of 1945, you took part in numerous entertainment features. I have before me a photostatic copy of the June 20, 1947, issue of the Daily Worker. In a column entitled "What's On" appears this advertisement: "Tonight-Bronx, hear Peter Seeger and his guitar, at Allerton Section housewarming." May I ask you whether or not the Allerton Section was a section of the Communist Party?

MR. SEEGER: Sir, I refuse to answer that question whether it was a quote from the New York Times or the Vegetarian Journal.

MR. TAVENNER: I don't believe there is any more authoritative document in regard to the Communist Party than its official organ, the Daily Worker.

MR. SCHERER: He hasn't answered the question, and he merely said he wouldn't answer whether the article appeared in the New York Times or some other magazine. I ask you to direct the witness to answer the question.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I direct you to answer.

MR. SEEGER: Sir, the whole line of questioning-

CHAIRMAN WALTER: You have only been asked one question, so far.

MR. SEEGER: I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.

MR. TAVENNER: Has the witness declined to answer this specific question?

CHAIRMAN WALTER: He said that he is not going to answer any questions, any names or things.

MR. SCHERER: He was directed to answer the question.

MR. TAVENNER: I have before me a photostatic copy of the April 30, 1948, issue of the Daily Worker which carries under the same title of "What's On," an advertisement of a "May Day Rally: For Peace, Security and Democracy." The advertisement states: "Are you in a fighting mood? Then attend the May Day rally." Expert speakers are stated to be slated for the program, and then follows a statement, "Entertainment by Pete Seeger." At the bottom appears this: "Auspices Essex County Communist Party," and at the top, "Tonight, Newark, N.J." Did you lend your talent to the Essex County Communist Party on the occasion indicated by this article from the Daily Worker?

MR. SEEGER: Mr. Walter, I believe I have already answered this question, and the same answer.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: The same answer. In other words, you mean that you decline to answer because of the reasons stated before?

MR. SEEGER: I gave my answer, sir.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: What is your answer?

MR. SEEGER: You see, sir, I feel-

CHAIRMAN WALTER: What is your answer?

MR. SEEGER: I will tell you what my answer is.

(Witness consulted with counsel [Paul L. Ross].)

I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Why don't you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?

MR. SEEGER: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I don't want to hear about it.

MR. SCHERER: I think that there must be a direction to answer.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I direct you to answer that question.

MR. SEEGER: I have already given you my answer, sir.

MR. SCHERER: Let me understand. You are not relying on the Fifth Amendment, are you?

MR. SEEGER: No, sir, although I do not want to in any way discredit or depreciate or depredate the witnesses that have used the Fifth Amendment, and I simply feel it is improper for this committee to ask such questions.

MR. SCHERER: And then in answering the rest of the questions, or in refusing to answer the rest of the questions, I understand that you are not relying on the Fifth Amendment as a basis for your refusal to answer?

MR. SEEGER: No, I am not, sir.

MR. TAVENNER: I have before me a photostatic copy of May 4,1949, issue of the Daily Worker, which has an article entitled, "May Day Smash Review Put on by Communist Cultural Division, On Stage," and the article was written by Bob Reed. This article emphasizes a production called Now Is the Time, and it says this: Now Is the Time was a hard-hitting May Day show of songs and knife-edged satire. New songs and film strips walloped the enemies of the people in what the singers called "Aesopian language." And other persons [participated], including Pete Seeger. Lee Hays is recited to be the MC, or master of ceremonies. Did you take part in this May Day program under the auspices of the Music Section of the Cultural Division of the Communist Party?

MR. SEEGER: Mr. Chairman, the answer is the same as before.

MR. SCHERER: I think we have to have a direction.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I direct you to answer the question.

MR. SEEGER: I have given you my answer, sir.

MR. TAVENNER: The article contains another paragraph, as follows: This performance of Now Is the Time was given in honor of the twelve indicted Communist Party leaders. And then it continues with Bob Reed's account of the show: This reviewer has never seen a show which stirred its audience more. Add up new material, fine personal and group performances, overwhelming audience response-the result was a significant advance in the people's cultural movement. Now Is the Time is that rare phenomenon, a political show in which performers and audience had a lot of fun. It should be repeated for large audiences. Mr. Lee Hays was asked, while he was on the witness stand, whether or not he wrote that play, and he refused to answer. Do you know whether he was the originator of the script?

MR. SEEGER: Do I know whether he was the originator of the script? Again my answer is the same. However, if you want to question me about any songs, I would be glad to tell you, sir.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: That is what you are being asked about now.

MR. TAVENNER: You said that you would tell us about the songs. Did you participate in a program at Wingdale Lodge in the State of New York, which is a summer camp for adults and children, on the weekend of July Fourth of this year?

(Witness consulted with counsel.)

MR. SEEGER: Again, I say I will be glad to tell what songs I have ever sung, because singing is my business.

MR. TAVENNER: I am going to ask you.

MR. SEEGER: But I decline to say who has ever listened to them, who has written them, or other people who have sung them.

MR. TAVENNER: Did you sing this song, to which we have referred, "Now Is the Time," at Wingdale Lodge on the weekend of July Fourth?

MR. SEEGER: I don't know any song by that name, and I know a song with a similar name. It is called "Wasn't That a Time." Is that the song?

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Did you sing that song?

MR. SEEGER: I can sing it. I don't know how well I can do it without my banjo.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I said, Did you sing it on that occasion?

MR. SEEGER: I have sung that song. I am not going to go into where I have sung it. I have sung it many places.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Did you sing it on this particular occasion? That is what you are being asked.

MR. SEEGER: Again my answer is the same.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: You said that you would tell us about it.

MR. SEEGER: I will tell you about the songs, but I am not going to tell you or try to explain-

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I direct you to answer the question. Did you sing this particular song on the Fourth of July at Wingdale Lodge in New York?

MR. SEEGER: I have already given you my answer to that question, and all questions such as that. I feel that is improper: to ask about my associations and opinions. I have said that I would be voluntarily glad to tell you any song, or what I have done in my life.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I think it is my duty to inform you that we don't accept this answer and the others, and I give you an opportunity now to answer these questions, particularly the last one.

MR. SEEGER: Sir, my answer is always the same.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: All right, go ahead, Mr. Tavenner.

MR. TAVENNER: Were you chosen by Mr. Elliott Sullivan to take part in the program on the weekend of July Fourth at Wingdale Lodge?

MR. SEEGER: The answer is the same, sir.

MR. WILLIS: Was that the occasion of the satire on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights?

MR. TAVENNER: The same occasion, yes, sir. I have before me a photostatic copy of a page from the June 1, 1949, issue of the Daily Worker, and in a column entitled "Town Talk" there is found this statement: The first performance of a new song, "If I Had a Hammer," on the theme of the Foley Square trial of the Communist leaders, will he given at a testimonial dinner for the 12 on Friday night at St. Nicholas Arena. . . .Among those on hand for the singing will be . . . Pete Seeger, and Lee Hays-and others whose names are mentioned. Did you take part in that performance?

MR. SEEGER: I shall he glad to answer about the song, sir, and I am not interested in carrying on the line of questioning about where I have sung any songs.

MR. TAVENNER: I ask a direction.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: You may not he interested, but we are, however. I direct you to answer. You can answer that question.

MR. SEEGER: I feel these questions are improper, sir, and I feel they are immoral to ask any American this kind of question.

MR. TAVENNER: Have you finished your answer?

MR. SEEGER: Yes, sir.

MR. TAVENNER: I desire to offer the document in evidence and ask that it be marked "Seeger exhibit No.4," for identification only, and to be made a part of the Committee files.

MR. SEEGER: I am sorry you are not interested in the song. It is a good song.

MR. TAVENNER: Were you present in the hearing room while the former witnesses testified?

MR. SEEGER: I have been here all morning, yes, sir.

MR. TAVENNER: I assume then that you heard me read the testimony of Mr. [Elia] Kazan about the purpose of the Communist Party in having its actors entertain for the henefit of Communist fronts and the Communist Party. Did you hear that testimony?

MR. SEEGER: Yes, I have heard all of the testimony today.

MR. TAVENNER: Did you hear Mr. George Hall's testimony yesterday in which he stated that, as an actor, the special contribution that he was expected to make to the Communist Party was to use his talents by entertaining at Communist Party functions? Did you hear that testimony?

MR. SEEGER: I didn't hear it, no.

MR. TAVENNER: It is a fact that he so testified. I want to know whether or not you were engaged in a similar type of service to the Communist Party in entertaining at these features.

(Witness consulted with counsel.)

MR. SEEGER: I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody. That is the only answer I can give along that line.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Mr. Tavenner, are you getting around to that letter? There was a letter introduced yesterday that I think was of greater importance than any bit of evidence adduced at these hearings, concerning the attempt made to influence people in this professional performers' guild and union to assist a purely Communist cause which had no relation whatsoever to the arts and the theater. Is that what you are leading up to?

MR. TAVENNER: Yes, it is. That was the letter of Peter Lawrence, which I questioned him about yesterday. That related to the trial of the Smith Act defendants here at Foley Square. I am trying to inquire now whether this witness was party to the same type of propaganda effort by the Communist Party.

MR. SCHERER: There has been no answer to your last question.

MR. TAVENNER: That is right; may I have a direction?

MR. SEEGER: Would you repeat the question? I don't even know what the last question was, and I thought I have answered all of them up to now.

MR. TAVENNER: What you stated was not in response to the question.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Proceed with the questioning, Mr. Tavenner.

MR. TAVENNER: I believe, Mr. Chairman, with your permission, I will have the question read to him. I think it should be put in exactly the same form.

(Whereupon the reporter read the pending question as above recorded.)

MR. SEEGER: "These features": what do you mean? Except for the answer I have already given you, I have no answer. The answer I gave you you have, don't you? That is, that I am proud that I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I have never refused to sing for anybody because I disagreed with their political opinion, and I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity,and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs, because I feel that you would agree with me more, sir. I know many beautiful songs from your home county, Carbon, and Monroe, and I hitchhiked through there and stayed in the homes of miners.

MR. TAVENNER: My question was whether or not you sang at these functions of the Communist Party. You have answered it inferentially, and if I understand your answer, you are saying you did.

MR. SEEGER: Except for that answer, I decline to answer further.

MR. TAVENNER: Did you sing at functions of the Communist Party, at Communist Party requests?

MR. SEEGER: I believe, sir, that a good twenty minutes ago, I gave my answer to this whole line of questioning.

MR. TAVENNER: Yes, but you have now beclouded your answer by your statement, and I want to make certain what you mean. Did you sing at the Communist Party functions which I have asked you about, as a Communist Party duty?

MR. SEEGER: I have already indicated that I am not interested, and I feel it is improper to say who has sung my songs or who I have sung them to, especially under such compulsion as this.

MR. TAVENNER: Have you been a member of the Communist Party since 1947?

(Witness consulted with counsel.)

MR. SEEGER: The same answer, sir.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I direct you to answer that question.

MR. SEEGER: I must give the same answer as before.

MR. TAVENNER: I have a throwaway sheet entitled "Culture Fights Back, 1953," showing entertainment at the Capitol Hotel, Carnival Room, Fifty-first Street at Eighth Avenue, in 1953, sponsored by the Committee to Defend V. J. Jerome. It indicates that Pete Seeger was one of those furnishing the entertainment. Will you tell the Committee, please, whether or not you were asked to perform on that occasion, and whether or not you did, either as a Communist Party directive, or as what you considered to be a duty to the Communist Party?

MR. SEEGER: I believe I have answered this already.

MR. TAVENNER: Are you acquainted with V. J. Jerome?

MR. SEEGER: I have already told you, sir, that I believe my associations, whatever they are, are my own private affairs.

MR. TAVENNER: You did know, at that time, in 1953, that V. J. Jerome was a cultural head of the Communist Party and one of the Smith Act defendants in New York City?

MR. SEEGER: Again the same answer, sir.

MR. SCHERER: You refuse to answer that question?

MR. SEEGER: Yes, sir.

MR. TAVENNER: I hand you a photograph which was taken of the May Day parade in New York City in 1952, which shows the front rank of a group of individuals, and one is in a uniform with military cap and insignia, and carrying a placard entitled CENSORED. Will you examine it please and state whether or not that is a photograph of you?

(A document was handed to the witness.)

MR. SEEGER: It is like Jesus Christ when asked by Pontius Pilate, "Are you king of the Jews?"

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Stop that.

MR. SEEGER: Let someone else identify that picture.

MR. SCHERER: I ask that he be directed to answer the question.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I direct you to answer the question.

MR. SEEGER: Do I identify this photograph?

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Yes.

MR. SEEGER: I say let someone else identify it.

MR. TAVENNER: I desire to offer the document in evidence and ask that it be marked "Seeger exhibit No.6."

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Make it a part of the record.

(Witness consulted with counsel.)

MR. TAVENNER: It is noted that the individual mentioned is wearing a military uniform. That was in May of 1952, and the statute of limitations would have run by now as to any offense for the improper wearing of the uniform, and will you tell the Committee whether or not you took part in that May Day program wearing a uniform of an American soldier?

MR. SEEGER: The same answer as before, sir.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I direct you to answer that question.

(Witness consulted with counsel.)

MR. SCHERER: I think the record should show that the witness remains mute, following the direction by the Chairman to answer that question.

MR. SEEGER: The same answer, sir, as before.

MR. SCHERER: Again, I understand that you are not invoking the Fifth Amendment?

MR. SEEGER: That is correct.

MR. SCHERER: We are not accepting the answers or the reasons you gave.

MR. SEEGER: That is your prerogative, sir.

MR. SCHERER: Do you understand it is the feeling of the Committee that you are in contempt as a result of the position you take?

MR. SEEGER: I can't say.

MR. SCHERER: I am telling you that that is the position of the Committee.

MR. TAVENNER: The Daily Worker of April 21, 1948, at page 7, contains a notice that Pete Seeger was a participant in an affair for Ferdinand Smith. Will you tell the Committee what the occasion was at which you took part?

MR. SEEGER: I hate to waste the Committee's time, but I think surely you must realize by now that my answer is the same.

MR. TAVENNER: Do you know whether Ferdinand Smith was under deportation orders at that time?

MR. SEEGER: My answer is the same as before, sir.

MR. TAVENNER: I think that he was not under deportation orders until a little later than that.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: What is his name?

MR. TAVENNER: Ferdinand Smith, a Communist Party member and former vice-president of the maritime union. My purpose in asking you these questions, Mr. Seeger, is to determine whether or not, in accordance with the plan of the Communist Party as outlined by Mr. Kazan and Mr. George Hall, you were performing a valuable service to the Communist Party, and if that was the way they attempted to use you.

MR. SEEGER: Is that a question, sir?

MR. TAVENNER: That is my explanation to you, with the hope that you will give the Committee some light on that subject.

MR. SEEGER: No, my answer is the same as before.

MR. TAVENNER: Did you also perform and entertain at various functions held by front organizations, such as the American Youth for Democracy? I have here photostatic copies of the Daily Worker indicating such programs were conducted in Detroit in 1952, at Greenwich Village on May 10, 1947, and again at another place in March of 1948. Did you entertain at functions under the auspices of the American Youth for Democracy?

(Witness consulted with counsel.)

MR. SEEGER: The answer is the same, and I take it that you are not interested in all of the different places that I have sung. Why don't you ask me about the churches and schools and other places?

MR. TAVENNER: That is very laudable, indeed, and I wish only that your activities had been confined to those areas. If you were acting for the Communist Party at these functions, we want to know it. We want to determine just what the Communist Party plan was.

MR. SCHERER: Witness, you have indicated that you are perfectly willing to tell us about all of these innumerable functions at which you entertained, but why do you refuse to tell us about the functions that Mr. Tavenner inquires about?

MR. SEEGER: No, sir, I said that I should be glad to tell you about all of the songs that I have sung, because I feel that the songs are the clearest explanation of what I do believe in, as a musician, and as an American.

MR. SCHERER: Didn't you just say that you sang before various religious groups, school groups?

MR. SEEGER: I have said it and I will say it again, and I have sung for perhaps-

(Witness consulted with counsel.)

MR. SCHERER: You are willing to tell us about those groups?

MR. SEEGER: I am saying voluntarily that I have sung for almost every religious group in the country, from Jewish and Catholic, and Presbyterian and Holy Rollers and Revival Churches, and I do this voluntarily. I have sung for many, many different groups-and it is hard for perhaps one person to believe, I was looking back over the twenty years or so that I have sung around these forty-eight states, that I have sung in so many different places.

MR. SCHERER: Did you sing before the groups that Mr. Tavenner asked you about?

MR. SEEGER: I am saying that my answer is the same as before. I have told you that I sang for everybody.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Wait a minute. You sang for everybody. Then are we to believe, or to take it, that you sang at the places Mr. Tavenner mentioned?

MR. SEEGER: My answer is the same as before.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: What is that?

MR. SEEGER: It seems to me like the third time I have said it, if not the fourth.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Maybe it is the fifth, but say it again. I want to know what your answer is.

(Witness consulted with counsel.)

MR. SEEGER: I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American. I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in who listened to them.

MR. TAVENNER: According to the Daily Worker, there was a conference program of the Civil Rights Congress on April 2, 1949, at which you were one of the performers. On August 27, 1949, the People's Artists presented a summer musicale at Lakeland Acres picnic grounds, Peekskill, New York, for the benefit of the Harlem chapter of the Civil Rights Congress, at which you were a participant. At another meeting of the Civil Rights Congress of New York, around May 11, 1946, you were a participant. Will you tell the Committee, please, under what circumstances you performed, because you have said that you sang at all sorts of meetings. Under what circumstances were your services acquired on those occasions?

MR. SEEGER: My answer is the same as before, sir. I can only infer from your lack of interest in my songs that you are actually scared to know what these songs are like, because there is nothing wrong with my songs, sir. Do you know-

MR. SCHERER: You said you want to talk about your songs, and I will give you an opportunity. Tell us what songs you sang at Communist Party meetings?

MR. SEEGER: I will tell you about the songs that I have sung any place.

MR. SCHERER: I want to know the ones that you sang at Communist Party meetings, because those are the songs about which we can inquire. Just tell us one song that you sang at a Communist Party meeting.

MR. SEEGER: Mr. Scherer, it seems to me that you heard my testimony, and that is a ridiculous question, because you know what my answer is.

MR. TAVENNER: Mr. George Hall testified that the entertainment that he engaged in, at the instance of the Communist Party, was not songs of a political character. He did say, however, that he was expected by the Communist Party to perform in order to raise money for the Communist Party. Now, did you, as Mr. Hall did, perform in order to raise money for Communist Party causes?

(Witness consulted with counsel.)

MR. SEEGER: I don't care what Mr. Hall says, and my answer is the same as before, sir.

MR. TAVENNER: That you refuse to answer?

MR. SEEGER: I have given my answer.

MR. SCHERER: Was Mr. Hall telling the truth when he told the Committee about the entertainment he engaged in at the instance of the Communist Party?

MR. SEEGER: I don't feel like discussing what Mr. Hall said.

MR. TAVENNER: The American Committee for Yugoslav Relief has been designated as a front organization. According to the October 22, 1947, issue of the Daily People's World, in California, Pete Seeger headed the list of entertainers to appear at a picnic given by the Southern California chapter of that organization. Did you participate in that program?

MR. SEEGER: If you have a hundred more photostats there, it seems silly for me to give you the same answer a hundred more times.

MR. TAVENNER: What is your answer?

MR. SEEGER: It is the same as before, sir.

MR. TAVENNER: There are various peace groups in the country which have utilized your services, are there not?

MR. SEEGER: I have sung for pacifists and I have sung for soldiers.

MR. TAVENNER: According to the Daily Worker of September 6, 1940, you were scheduled as a singer at a mass meeting of the American Peace Mobilization at Turner's Arena, in Washington, D.C. What were the circumstances under which you were requested to take part in that performance?

MR. SEEGER: My answer is the same as before, sir.

MR. TAVENNER: You were a member of the American Peace Mobilization, were you not?

MR. SEEGER: My answer is the same as before.

MR. TAVENNER: Were you not a delegate to the Chicago convention of the American Peace Mobilization on September 5, 1940?

MR. SEEGER: My answer is the same as before.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Is that organization subversive?

MR. TAVENNER: Yes.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: What is the name of it?

MR. TAVENNER: American Peace Mobilization, and it was the beginning of these peace organizations, back in 1940. Did you take part in the American Peace Crusade program in Chicago in April of 1954?

MR. SEEGER: My answer is the same as before. Of course, I would be curious to know what you think of a song like this very great Negro spiritual, "I'm Gonna Lay Down My Sword and Shield, Down by the Riverside."

MR. TAVENNER: That is not at all responsive to my question.

MR. SEEGER: I gave you my answer before I even said that.

MR. TAVENNER: If you refuse to answer, I think that you should not make a speech.

(Witness consulted with counsel.)

MR. TAVENNER: Did you also perform a service for the California Labor School in Los Angeles by putting on musical programs there?

MR. SEEGER: My answer is the same as before, sir.

MR. TAVENNER: Did you teach in the California Labor School?

MR. SEEGER: My answer is the same as before, sir.

MR. SCHERER: I think for the record you should state whether the California Labor School has been cited.

MR. TAVENNER: It has.

MR. SCHERER: As subversive and Communist dominated?

MR. TAVENNER: Yes, it has been.

(Witness consulted with counsel.)

MR. TAVENNER: Did you also teach at the Jefferson School of Social Science here in the city of New York?

MR. SEEGER: My answer is the same as before, sir.

MR. SCHERER: I ask that you direct him to answer.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I direct you to answer. Did you teach at the Jefferson School here at New York?

MR. SEEGER: I feel very silly having to repeat the same thing over and over again, but my answer is exactly the same as before, sir.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Has the Jefferson School of Social Science been cited?

MR. TAVENNER: Yes, and it has been required to register under the 1950 Internal Security Act.

MR. SCHERER: There are a number of people here who taught at that school, Mr. Walter.

MR. TAVENNER: I desire to offer in evidence a photostatic copy of an article from the September 21, 1946, issue of the Daily Worker which refers to music courses at Jefferson School, and I call attention to the last sentence in the article wherein Peter Seeger is mentioned as a leader in one of the courses. * * * According to the March 18, 1948, issue of the Daily Worker, it is indicated that you would entertain at a musical presented by the Jefferson Workers' Bookshop. According to the November 25, 1948, issue of the same paper you would perform also under the auspices of the Jefferson School of Social Science. Also you were a participant in a program advertised in the Daily Worker of June 1, 1950, put on by the Jefferson School of Social Science, and according to an issue of February 15, 1954, of the same paper, you were expected to play and lecture on songs and ballads in the Jefferson School. Will you tell the Committee, please, what were the circumstances under which you engaged in those programs, if you did?

MR. SEEGER: My answer is the same as before, sir.

MR. TAVENNER: Did you also engage in performances for the Labor Youth League in 1954?

MR. SEEGER: My answer is the same as before. Did you think that I sing propaganda songs or something?

MR. TAVENNER: In 1947, what was your connection with an organization known as People's Songs?

(Witness consulted with counsel.)

MR. SEEGER: I take the same answer as before regarding any organization or any association I have.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: What was People's Songs, Mr. Tavenner?

MR. TAVENNER: People's Songs was an organization which, according to its issue of February and March 1947, was composed of a number of persons on the board of directors who have been called before this Committee or identified by this Committee as members of the Communist Party, and the purpose of which, from information made available to the Committee, was to extend services to the Communist Party in its entertainment projects. Mr. Lee Hays was a member of the board of directors, was he not, along with you, in this organization?

(Witness consulted with counsel)

MR. SEEGER: My answer is the same as before, sir.

MR. TAVENNER: Were you not the editor of People's Songs, and a member of the board of directors in 1947?

MR. SEEGER: My answer is the same as before.

MR. TAVENNER: You were actually the national director of this organization, were you not?

MR. SEEGER: My answer is the same as before.

MR. TAVENNER: Was the organization founded by Alan Lomax?

MR. SEEGER: My answer is the same as before.

MR. TAVENNER: Was the booking agent of People's Songs an organization known as People's Artists?

MR. SEEGER: My answer is the same.

MR. TAVENNER: Will you tell the Committee, please, whether or not during the weekend of July 4, 1955, you were a member of the Communist Party?

MR. SEEGER: My answer is the same as before, sir.

MR. TAVENNER: Were you a member of the Communist Party at any time during the various entertainment features in which you were alleged to have engaged?

MR. SEEGER: My answer is the same.

MR. TAVENNER: Are you a member of the Communist Party now?

MR. SEEGER: My answer is the same.

MR. SCHERER: I ask for a direction on that question.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I direct you to answer.

MR. SEEGER: My answer is the same as before.

MR. TAVENNER: I have no further questions, Mr. Chairman.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: The witness is excused.

Pete Seeger was sentenced to a year in jail for contempt of Congress but appealed his case successfully after a fight that lasted until 1962.