Monday, December 22, 2014

Is There Really a Santa Claus, Part 14

I started this blog in 2011 for the primary purpose of providing some further background information about the various tracks I include on my annual holiday mixes. My latest mix is called Is There Really a Santa Claus, and over the past several weeks I've been posting comments on its 39 tracks. We've now run through Tracks 1-35, which leaves only four more to consider. We'll do two of those today, both of which are among the nine tracks I selected in honor of nine talented individuals who passed away in 2014.

Track 37
Amazing Peace, by Maya Angelou (2005)
I've known of Maya Angelou as a respected poet, author and civil rights activist for 25 years or more, and throughout that period I've considered her to be a talented and accomplished woman who's lived an extraordinary life. But I have to admit that until today, when I read about her life for the purpose of writing this post, I had no idea just how incredible her life truly was. Born to a poor Missouri family in 1928, Angelou had a difficult and traumatic childhood. At the age of eight, she was brutally raped by her mother's boyfriend, and after she reported what had happened, the boyfriend was apparently killed by members of her family. The trauma of these events had a powerful effect on Angelou, who retreated inward and literally became mute for several years. It was during this period that she developed her love for poetry and literature, which were her principal companions.

At age 17, Angelou settled in the San Francisco area, took a job as a streetcar conductor and bore a child out of wedlock. She subsequently studied modern dance, and, beginning in 1954, began to dance professionally. In 1954 and 1955, she toured Europe with a company of Porgy And Bess, after which she recorded an album of calypso music and appeared in an off-Broadway musical review. In the late 1950s, Angelou began to focus more on her writing, joining the Harlem Writers Guild and networking with other writers. After organizing a successful fundraising event for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1960, she was appointed SCLC's northern coordinator. In 1961, she traveled to Ghana, where she worked on an English-language newspaper and as academic administrator. She became a good friend of both Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and helped to build the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Following King's murder, she wrote, produced an narrated a ten-part series on blues music and the African-American experience.

In 1969, Angelou published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first in a series of widely acclaimed autobiographical books she wrote. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, she continued to write, teach and lecture, receiving over 30 honorary degrees as a result of her increasing body of work. In 1993, Angelou received wide notice for her poem "On the Pulse of Morning," which she read at the Inauguration of President Bill Clinton.

The clip I selected for this year's mix features Angelou's reading of an excerpt from her poem "Amazing Peace" on NBC's Today Show with Katie Couric. She wrote the poem for the 2005 White House Tree Lighting ceremony, where she first read in publicly. The poem was later published as a short chapbook by Random House. Here is the poem itself, followed by a clip of her 2005 appearance on Today:

Amazing Peace
Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes
And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.
Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.
We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God.
Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?
Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.
It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.
Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.
In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.
We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.
We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.
It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.
On this platform of peace, we can create a language
To translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.
At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ
Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope.
All the earth's tribes loosen their voices
To celebrate the promise of Peace.
We, Angels and Mortal's, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.
Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.

― Maya Angelou

Track 36
Snow, Snow, by Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger was a folk singer, songwriter and political activist whose progressive views and commitment to justice left a permanent impression on American society, largely by way of the succeeding generations of schoolchildren who learned and sang his songs as they came of age during the second half of the 20h century. We sang "If I Had a Hammer" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" around the campfire at night at every summer camp I ever attended. In the fifth grade, I can remember my teacher, Miss Richards, gathering the class around a phonograph to listen to The Byrds sing another Seeger song, "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and using the lyrics as jumping off point for a discussion about the War in Vietnam. Seeger believed in the interconnectedness of things, and he rarely missed an opportunity to get people thinking and promote his world view even as he entertained them.

He was raised in a family of musicians and activists, and his father, who taught music at the college level, was especially interested in American folk music. Seeger traveled with his father and brothers through many parts of the South and the Plains states to perform and collect traditional folk songs. For a time, he worked with his father's friend Alan Lomax in the Library of Congress cataloging the large collection of field recordings that sought to capture the largely unwritten music of the American countryside. In 1941, Seeger began to perform with the Almanac Singers, a group of politically active folk singers that included Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston. The Almanacs raised a few eyebrows with their position against American involvement in World War II, although they changed their position after Hitler broke his non-aggression pact with Stalin and Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Seeger joined the Communist Party around this same time, although he did not remain a member for long and he openly rejected communism as it was practiced in the Soviet Union.

After serving in World War II, Seeger and several of the other Almanac Singers formed a new group called The Weavers, who scored several big hits in the early 1950s including "Goodnight, Irene" and "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena." Although the Weavers tried to moderate their political activity in the face of growing public fear of the left, Seeger's history with the Communist Party resulted in his being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he refused to answer questions based on the First Amendment. Held in contempt of Congress, Seeger was blacklisted and denied most opportunities to work, just as his music was really beginning to catch on.

In the mid-1960s, when folk music became all the rage and the paranoia of the McCarthy era had finally faded, interest in Seeger's music began to increase. There were more opportunities to work, and coverage of his career became more positive again. In fact, for the balance of his life, Seeger remained very active both politically and musically — right up until his death this past January, at the age of 94.

“He was a very gentle man and intensely optimistic,” British singer and activist Billy Bragg recently told the BBC. "He believed in humanity and the power of music to make a difference, not to change to the world."

The song I chose for this year's mix is a beautiful if less prominent number in the Seeger songbook called "Snow, Snow." It's a sad, wistful sort of song that could be interpreted as speaking about death, which, like a heavy snow, erases most of the defining characteristics and individual features of those it affects:
Snow, Snow
[Chorus (after each verse):]
Snow, snow, falling down;
Covering up my dirty old town.

Covers the garbage dump, covers the holes,
Covers the rich homes, and the poor souls,
Covers the station, covers the tracks,
Covers the footsteps of those who'll not be back.

Under the street lamp, there stands a girl,
Looks like she's not got a friend in this world.
Look at the big flakes come drifting down,
Twisting and turning, round and round.

Covers the mailbox, the farm and the plow.
Even barbed wire seems - beautiful now.
Covers the station, covers the tracks.
Covers the footsteps of those who'll not be back.
— Pete Seeger 

I'll be back tomorrow or the next day with the two remaining songs from this year's mix — a return appearance for a song that's already appeared somewhere among the first 37 tracks, albeit by another artist, and an excerpt from a Christmas classic sung on TV by a legendary woman of the stage.

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