Wednesday, March 25, 2015

US History Lesson Plan

This is the outline for what will eventually be an online course in US history, which will be written by some combination of me and an actual historian, and musically annotated by me.  I'm going to need technical help, too, in terms of interactive graphics on the web so people can interface with the course in different ways -- chronologically, geographically, etc.  Feedback welcome!

Black Flag Flying
Lesson: the intersection of war, transatlantic trade, horrendous working conditions, and piracy

Berkshire Hills
Lesson: the bourgeois nature of the American Revolution, and the peasant rebellion against the same landlords that immediately followed the revolution, which gave rise to the Bill of Rights.

The Man Who Burned the White House Down
Lesson: the War of 1812 – a British effort to retake the colonies, or an unprovoked US invasion and attempted annexation of Canada that failed miserably?

Trade War
Lesson: the First Opium War – an early US effort at projecting military might far beyond its borders, in cooperation with former colonial master, Great Britain, France and Russia.

Lesson: the Rent Strike Wars in upstate New York, coupled with the fear of 1848 coming to the New World, ended with a breakup of the great estates of the landed gentry in New York, and ultimately to the revolutionary (for white people) Homestead Act of 1862.

St Patrick Battalion
Lesson: in the 1840's there was massive emigration from Europe to the US, so there was a labor surplus. What did the US leadership do with a labor surplus? Start a war, of course.

Egyptian Rag
Lesson: the case of the importation of disinterred Egyptian mummy wrappings for the use of making paper in the paper mills of Maine throughout the last half of the 19th century is an especially macabre illustration of the problematic, amoral tendencies of the market.

John Brown
Lesson: the abolitionist movement took many forms, involving pacifists, militants, and those who were pacifists in public but sending guns to people like John Brown in private. John Brown and his supporters are best known for the failed uprising they tried to foment in the town of Harper's Ferry, in what is now West Virginia. What they should perhaps be better remembered for is their successful efforts to drive the forces of slavery out of the freshly-stolen US state of Kansas.

Joe Hill
Lesson: The early 20th century saw the rise of the biggest, most militant and by far the most artistic labor union in US history, the Industrial Workers of the World. At many levels of government, the powers-that-be feared the rise of the IWW to such a degree that they formed a national police force, the FBI, in order to systematically crush this organization.

Neither King Nor Kaiser
Lesson: there had been widespread popular opposition to previous imperial adventures, and the most massive global military mobilization to date, the First World War, saw an equally massive antiwar movement arise throughout the US and the world. In Washington, DC the Congress passed the Espionage Act in order to suppress the antiwar movement and imprison its leadership.

Battle of Blair Mountain
Lesson: Despite the suppression of the IWW, the US labor movement continued to fight mostly unsuccessful battles throughout the 1920's. The most dramatic of these struggles was probably the Coal Mine Wars of 1920-21 in West Virginia, which culminated in the three-day pitched battle when 10,000 union miners laid siege to the town of Mingo.

Union Makes Us Strong
Lesson: the labor movement of the 1930's was much more successful. With the powers-that-be fearing an armed uprising at the beginning of the Great Depression, for the first time there was significant support for the labor movement on the part of the federal government, which saw the CIO-led movement as a less violent alternative to revolution.

The Last Lincoln Veteran
Lesson: many people would say that the first battle in the course of World War II happened well before 1939 (and certainly before 1941, when the US officially entered the war), when in 1936 the fascist-led armies of Germany and Italy invaded Spain, in order to support the mutinous Spanish military in its struggle against Spanish democracy. Progressive people from across the US and the world volunteered to fight alongside the Spanish democrats, while the US supplied essential oil to keep the fascists' tanks running. When the US survivors of the Spanish Civil War returned home, they were given the official designation of Premature Antifascists.

Lesson: boatloads of Jews escaping Nazi persecution in Europe were turned away from the US. Sweden didn't publicly offer asylum to all Jews until late in the war, in 1943. While half of Europe's Jews were killed, the other half found various means of survival and escape, generally involving the active and death-defying assistance of non-Jews. Two of those people who risked their lives and livelihood to save the lives of thousands of European Jews was the Japanese diplomat to Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara and his wife, Yukiko. (Some of the Sugihara Survivors eventually settled in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the US.)

Henry Ford Was A Fascist
Lesson: Henry Ford was an active supporter of fascism and a virulent anti-Semite. His company, the Ford Motor Company, actively supported the war effort on all sides of the war, arranging their finances in such a way to ensure that the company would make massive profits regardless of the outcome of the conflict.

Lesson: the Korean War may be known by some in the US as “the forgotten war,” but it can never be forgotten for millions of Koreans. More bombs were dropped on Korea by the US Air Force than all sides of World War II combined. Dams were bombed, valleys flooded, millions of civilians killed in a genocidal campaign against the Korean people. Half a million Chinese soldiers were killed, along with 38,000 US troops, before the ceasefire that divided the Korean peninsula into two countries, North and South.

Lesson: the Cold War became a hot war on many occasions, such as when the US Navy attacked Russian submarines in international waters near Cuba. US authorities knew that they were provoking Russian nuclear retaliation. Kennedy was prepared to see a hundred million Americans die as a result of his brinksmanship. The only reason World War III failed to occur was because of the actions of one Russian submarine commander named Vasili Arkhipov.

Song for Hugh Thompson
Lesson: the next genocidal war the US would start in Asia would be in Vietnam and ultimately also Laos and Cambodia. As in Korea, more bombs would be dropped by the US Air Force in these three countries than in all sides of World War II combined. As in Korea, millions of civilians would be killed by the end of the war. Unlike Korea, the war in Vietnam did not result in a division of the country into two halves, but in a complete defeat for the invading forces. Though to call the Vietnamese victorious would be a stretch, since their country was a charred, poisoned ruins that had suffered carpet-bombing, mass defoliation, and an unknown number of widespread massacres, such as the one at My Lai which helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson encountered.

Lesson: rhetoric from President Nixon, Governor Reagan and others had been heating up for some time about how terrible the widespread antiwar movement was. The rhetoric was far from empty, when the National Guard was called in in Ohio, Mississippi and elsewhere, leading to two unprovoked massacres of protesters. In Ohio they were shot at a distance of 300 feet, so the idea that they were defending themselves from stone-throwing students is patently absurd.

Lesson: after 100 years of Jim Crow rule after the pullout of the southern US by the Union Army following the Civil War, the civil rights movement and then the black power movement rose up against racism and discrimination across the country. The response by the state was devastating, with militant activists such as the Black Panther Party being dealt with with particular brutality. When Assata Shakur was shot while she had her hands raised above her head by the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973, the police had “shoot on sight” orders for all members of the Black Liberation Army.

When Johnny Came Marching Home
Lesson: the phenomenon of the homeless veteran was not a new one, but with the ongoing decline of the US economy coinciding with the end of the Vietnam War and coinciding with an ever-weakening social safety net, the image of the homeless veteran became ever more commonplace.

East Tennessee
Lesson: sabotage has always been a tactic used by disgruntled workers, and it has long been a tactic employed by members of communities upset by corporations coming in and destroying their land, water, and way of life. Industrial sabotage at two mines in Tennessee and Kentucky in 1968 caused over a million dollars worth of damage to mining equipment. In the decades since then, groups like the Earth Liberation Front have caused tens of millions of dollars in damage to industrial equipment, high-end real estate developments, ever-expanding ski resorts, and more.

Lesson: the de-industrialization of the US that began in earnest in the 1970's also saw the destruction of downtown areas of cities throughout the country because of the influence of big developers on urban planners which led to the rapid spread of suburban shopping malls and big box stores, most notably the biggest of them all, Wal-Mart.

Used To Be A City
Lesson: the death of Main Street in the US had profound sociological implications. No longer were most things in walking distance. The US became a suburban, car-dominated, increasingly atomized society.

Song for Big Mountain
Lesson: particularly since the discovery of coal, oil and uranium on mostly barren land that had been set aside by the US government as Indian Reservation land, reservation land has been officially designated a National Sacrifice Zone. Much of it has been exhaustively mined for resources, poisoning the land and water, causing cancer rates in some areas many times the national average. From the 1970's to the present, the mostly elderly population that remains at Big Mountain, in the Black Mesa area of the Navajo Nation, has been a symbol of native resistance to the rule of the energy companies and their politicians.

I'm Taking Someone With Me When I Go
Lesson: the alienating suburbanization of the US, coupled with decaying social systems and the easy availability of all sorts of firearms led to a big increase in the number of massacres being committed across the US, particularly from the 1980's to the present.

Drink of the Death Squads
Lesson: the huge phenomenon of the outsourcing of US industry has generally involved US corporations opening operations in countries where labor and environmental laws or enforcement of those laws are very lax. In many cases in means moving to countries where union organizing is prevented through the use of Death Squads, such as in Colombia. The process of corporations going where the wages and environmental and other regulations are the worst is known as the Race to the Bottom.

Ballad of Eola Park
Lesson: in response to rising post-industrial poverty, homelessness and hunger in the US, and in protest against the massive US military budget that is one way to explain all that poverty, one of the networks that arose nationwide, beginning in the San Francisco Bay Area, is Food Not Bombs. Very much an ongoing thing, FNB activists are frequently arrested for the crime of feeding people in public spaces. Generally, city fathers would rather make sure the soup kitchens are out of sight and out of mind, in church basements, rather than in public parks.

A Brief History of the Orange Line
Lesson: although many highways were built throughout the US from the 1950's onward, there were many highways that were not built, as a result of the efforts of the Anti-Highway Movement. Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts was the location of one such struggle. The land for the highway had already all been bought, and construction was underway, but the popular struggle put a stop to the construction and ultimately forced the authorities to put in an extension of the subway line instead, with a long, thin park on top of it, thus making JP the homey neighborhood it is today.

More Gardens Song
Lesson: in the face of increasing government neglect of increasingly blighted urban neighborhoods from New York to Los Angeles, one popular response, beginning around the time of the Tompkins Square Park movement in New York City in the 1980's, has been guerrilla gardening.

Sometimes I Walk the Aisles
Lesson: ever-weakening government oversight of workplaces in the US and the rise of anti-union “Right to Work” legislation in many states has had a depressing effect on wages and worker safety. Examples of the consequences of “Right to Work” legislation include events such as the fire at the chicken nugget factory in Hamlet, North Carolina in 1991 that led to the deaths of 25 workers, mostly African-American women.

Lesson: in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound, the fisheries were poisoned and largely destroyed. The salmon's lives begin in freshwater, and their numbers began to recover not long after the spill. The herring, however, have never recovered to this day. When it became clear that the herring were not going to be coming back, every seaworthy vessel in the fishing town of Cordova, Alaska participated in a three-day/three-night blockade of Prince William Sound, forcing oil tankers to circle on either side of the blockade, waiting to be able to go one way or the other. They ended their blockade when the US government agreed to finance the first major scientific study on the toxicity of oil, which, centuries into the age of fossil fuels, had never to that point been done.

Song for the SOA
Lesson: the imperial foreign policies of the US have long involved training the soldiers of client states in how to maintain the rule of the elite in their corner of the world. One institution where such training has taken place for many decades is the School of the Americas in Columbus, Georgia, on the Fort Benning military base. When graduates of the SOA executed six Jesuit priests and their maid in El Salvador, Jesuits and others from across the US began organizing frequent protests insisting on the closure of this school for the Death Squads.

Song for Basra
Lesson: according to the UN, the punishing sanctions on Iraq throughout the 1990's – under both Republican and Democratic administrations in the US – led to the deaths of half a million children. Throughout this period, during which there was officially no war going on between the US and Iraq, the US bombed Iraq regularly.

The Dying Firefighter
Lesson: the ongoing US occupation of Iraq coupled with US support for the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine gave rise to an increase in anti-American sentiment throughout the Muslim world. One of the offshoots of this increasing resentment was the growth of groups like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State. On September 11th, 2001, Al-Qaeda operatives attacked the US and killed several thousand people, along with themselves.

Who Would Jesus Bomb?
Lesson: while secularism is increasingly the norm in most of the western world, increasing poverty in the US has seen a growing Christian fundamentalist movement. Both George Bush and Tony Blair considered themselves religious Christians waging what Bush referred to as a “crusade” against terrorism.

Barbara Lee
Lesson: before the fires had gone out at the World Trade Center, the Congress voted overwhelmingly to give President Bush nearly unlimited war-making powers. The sole voice of dissent in the Congress was California's Barbara Lee.

Lesson: the end of the 20th century saw the rise throughout the US of an anti-capitalist movement that was challenging the “free trade” deals such as NAFTA and the WTO. Hitting the notice of the world stage with the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, the protests in Miami outside of the FTAA meetings in 2003 were widely seen as the nail in the coffin of this short-lived anti-capitalist movement, which suffered from wanton police brutality as well as internal divisions exacerbated by the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

Operation Iraqi Liberation
Lesson: although most of the hijackers were Saudi, and although the Taleban government of Afghanistan offered to turn Osama Bin Laden over to another Muslim country, the US insisted on invading and taking over Afghanistan in retaliation for 9/11, and then proceeded to reason that it was necessary to invade and occupy Iraq because of some undefined or inaccurate threat that Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi government presented. The result of the invasion, officially named Operation Iraqi Freedom, but inadvertently and abortively dubbed Operation Iraqi Liberation (OIL), was that a little more than a decade later, a terrorist group even scarier than Al-Qaeda controls much of both Iraq as well as Syria.

After We Torture Our Prisoners
Lesson: very soon after the US/UK invasion of Iraq, the news broke that US prisoners were being systematically tortured in prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. This, among other things, made the efforts at winning the hearts and minds of the occupied peoples of the Muslim world that much harder, since it became increasingly difficult for the US to present itself as a real alternative to regimes that they were replacing, which also engaged in wanton torture.

Paul Wolfowitz
Lesson: in 2005 Paul Wolfowitz was appointed head of the World Bank. Previous to his appointment to this position, he had been one of the chief architects of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which involved the wholesale privatization of the Iraqi economy. Some people think Paul Wolfowitz's career trajectory is a poetic illustration of the way economic and military power is coordinated by the US empire.

Song for Cindy Sheehan
Lesson: in August of 2005 Cindy Sheehan led a people's occupation of the outskirts of President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. This encampment marked the end of what had been a very active, nationwide antiwar movement that began, in that incarnation, in September, 2001.

New Orleans
Lesson: the growing frailty of US infrastructure combined with the increased power of hurricanes as a result of climate change resulted in a devastating storm that destroyed much of the city of New Orleans in 2005. People from all over the country went to New Orleans to try to help, but federal government efforts to assist were characterized mainly by racism and incompetence. The city has since been ethnically cleansed.

Holy Land Five
Lesson: the ongoing “war on terror” begun officially in September 2001 has led to many prosecutions of people on the grounds of terrorism. Almost all of them have been cases of entrapment by FBI agents who created the plots in the first place, and then sought accomplices. In the case of the Holy Land Foundation, the founders of the charity were sentenced to between 15-65 years for the crime of distributing food and medicine to needy people in places like the occupied West Bank and Gaza, but doing so through the wrong channels.

Song for Oscar Grant
Lesson: in recent years the phenomenon of police killing young black men has captured the attention of the news media and much of society. One of the earlier police killings that got a lot of attention because the victim was lying on the ground with handcuffs on when he was shot, and because many people filmed the incident on their cell phones, was that of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California on the first day of January, 2009.

In the Name of God
Lesson: the legalization of abortion in the US in 1973 saw the rise of a violent anti-abortion “pro-Life” movement that regularly bombed women's clinics and killed medical staff, including, in 2009, Dr George Tiller of Kansas.

I Know A Man
Lesson: in recent years in many different US states and in countries around the world, decades of struggle by LGBTQ for marriage equality has started to bear fruit.

If Only It Were True
Lesson: in 2008 Barack Obama was elected president, and he was reelected in 2012. Republicans have generally tried to paint him as a liberal, pacifist, environmentalist advocate for the welfare state. His record would tend to indicate otherwise.

Song for Chelsea Manning
Lesson: the Obama administration has prosecuted and imprisoned more whistle-blowers than any other administration in US history. Many think Chelsea Manning should be given awards for exposing terrible war crimes committed by US forces, but instead she is serving a 35-year prison sentence.

Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler
Lesson: after one of the worst environmental disasters in world history took place in the Gulf Coast in 2010, the temporary ban on more deep water oil drilling was lifted, making the possibility of another similar disaster ever more likely.

Occupy Wall Street
Lesson: inspired by the Arab Spring and angered by the bank bailout, the subprime mortgage crisis, etc., many thousands of people across the US took to the streets and formed public encampments in the center of hundreds of cities in the US, Canada and elsewhere in the world. The Occupy encampments often lasted at least two months, despite the fact that most of them regularly had to deal with police brutality, altogether many thousands of arrests, disruptive infiltrators, and in many cases, rain and freezing temperatures.

Meanwhile In Afghanistan
Lesson: during the NATO summit in Chicago in the spring of 2012, several young men were arrested and charged with terrorism. It was a typical case of entrapment. What was atypical was that this time those charged were white Occupy activists who had come up from Florida to join the protests, and made the mistake of staying in the home of someone with beer-brewing equipment, which the undercover cops also staying there claimed was going to be used for making molotov cocktails.

Osama Bin Laden Is Dead
Lesson: the Obama administration's continuation of the “war on terror” featured a helicopter raid on the home of Osama Bin Laden. Notably, during the raid Bin Laden's body was dumped at sea. What message does this send?

Lesson: probably the world's most well-known whistle-blower is Edward Snowden, who confirmed what many people suspected to be the case, that the NSA is spying on everyone, everywhere, indiscriminately.

I Can't Breathe
Lesson: recent years have seen a depressing series of police killings of young black men on the streets of the US, and killer cops being acquitted of any crime afterward, such as with the cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City.

Oil Train
Lesson: although the data has never been clearer that global carbon emissions must be dramatically decreased in order to avoid global climate catastrophe, the US has instead engaged in an unregulated, oil- and shale-drilling free-for-all. This has also involved a huge increase in rail traffic and accidents on old, badly-maintained railroad tracks that pass right through populated urban areas. In one town in Quebec, this resulted in the deaths of 47 people one night. So far in the US derailments resulting in explosions have been frequent, but have only occurred in less populated areas.

Lesson: rather than dealing with the climate crisis or even repairing aging rail infrastructure, the US and Canada have been engaging in frenzied pipeline-building, in order to ship the dirtiest fossil fuel in the world to ports where it can be sold overseas.

Lesson: badly-regulated or unregulated logging practices have been characteristic of how resource extraction is done in the “free market” USA. The result of the lack of oversight has been a lot of unnecessary erosion and soil depletion, polluted land and water, and landslides. Occasionally these landslides happen in populated areas, such as when half of the town of Oso, Washington, was wiped out one day.

A Dream Foreclosed
Lesson: the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 resulted in banks being bailed out on an unprecedented scale, and millions of people in the US losing their homes. Unlike the banks, the people were not bailed out to any significant extent. Many former homeowners are now living in unstable circumstances, including in many cases, in cars and tents.

Gentrification Town
Lesson: while many cities across the US lie abandoned and ignored, other cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon, are experiencing rapid gentrification. Between the 2000 and the 2010 censuses, the historically African-American neighborhoods of Portland have lost much of their black populations. Monthly rent in many neighborhoods has doubled in the past decade. Under state law, rent control in Oregon is illegal.

Song for Pelican Bay
Lesson: the US has long been the leader in the world in terms of imprisoning the highest proportion of its population compared to any other country. In terms of imprisoning its black population, it beat apartheid South Africa in terms of the number of people of African origin locked up. There's a long history of resistance to US prison policies, which involve systematic daily torture of tens of thousands of US citizens through solitary confinement, beatings, and other cruel practices. In the summer of 2013, tens of thousands of prisoners across California went on a hunger strike.

Statue in the Harbor
Lesson: for most of the history of the US, the only people who could officially immigrate to the country were Europeans. People of color could only fall into the category of “guest worker,” and were frequently banned from entering or deported under the guise of laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act and others. Policies have since gotten a bit less racist, but not by much, as events of 2014 demonstrated, with the widespread deportation of children, without giving them their rights under international law to seek the asylum that many of them so clearly needed.

TPP 101
Lesson: the US has a long history of pushing for international “free trade” agreements with other countries. These agreements consistently work in favor of large transnational corporations, and are detrimental to the US working class and workers around the world. The TPP and TTIP are the latest in US-sponsored “free trade” deals, since the US Democratic and Republican leadership agree that previous trade deals such as the WTO are too democratic to work sufficiently well in favor of the rich.

Lesson: unable under restrictive anti-union laws in the US to effectively organize through traditional means, labor unions in recent years have started an organizing drive through nontraditional means, to raise the wages of low-income workers up to $15 an hour, what is broadly considered to be a minimal living wage – a wage that allows one full-time job to support a small family.

Everything Can Change

Lesson: US history is full of social movements that have accomplished much, and forces allied with what the Occupy movement refers to as the 1% trying to stop the progress of these movements. History also shows that movements gain momentum and achieve some degree of sustainability when there is a widespread sense of optimism among the movement's participants, and society more broadly, that success is possible.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Thumb Drive of Plenty

By the end of March I will have a new thing to hock out on the road.  It's a "boxed set" on a 4 GB USB stick.  It contains:

  • 21 albums in MP3 form that used to exist as physical CDs (or still do, in some cases)
  • 9 studio albums that have never existed in any physical format as albums, or at all, in the cases of most of the songs on them
  • 2 high-quality recordings of live shows that have never existed in any physical format
  • a folder full of PDF files with sheet music and lyrics to most of my songs, including my children's songs, a copy of my ebook of travel writing, and the kitchen sink!
I'll be loading the thumb drives with material myself, so they'll always be up to date with my latest recordings.  The only place to buy them is directly through me.  I'm selling them for $50 each, or $25 for subscribers (those participating in my Community-Support Art scheme).  Cost of postage to anywhere in the world that has mail delivery is included in the price!

You can buy them by clicking the button below, or by sending me a check in the mail.  If you're buying the thumb drive as a subscriber, please click the drop-down menu above the button to get the subscriber price.

Regular/Subscriber Prices

Checks or money orders (or well-concealed cash in any currency) may be sent to me at:

David Rovics
PO Box 86805
Portland, Oregon  97286

My Year-Long Study on Democracy Now! and Culture

This was originally published in March of 2015.

I'm a topical musician by trade. To rephrase that, I'm an expert on how to tell stories about the world around us in a way that is effective and particular to the form of communication that is music. By effective, I mean telling stories in a way that reaches people emotionally in a way that most other forms of communication don't do as well. On March 4th's edition of one of my favorite radio shows, Democracy Now, Amy Goodman said, in reference to John Legend's musical contribution to the film, Selma, that “culture is so important in getting out information.” I completely agree, and I agree that Legend's song, “Glory,” achieves this end brilliantly.

I love Democracy Now, Amy Goodman, and John Legend – and I speak now in all sincerity, in case you're wondering if you should be reading in an edge of sarcasm here, there is none. Nonetheless, I've had a conflicted relationship with the music breaks on this wonderful, extremely popular radio show. There are two of them on each show. They do them for station identification, but of course so many of the show's listeners are online, and not hearing any local radio programmers cut in and identify their stations. Together, we're talking about two 30-second clips of music in each show, sometimes longer if they're having trouble reaching someone they're about to interview, or some other glitch of the sort that happens often in live broadcasts.

So, you may be thinking to yourself, this guy is getting himself all worked up about a couple of 30-second music breaks on a news and information show? Well, yes. And if you keep reading, I think you'll understand why.

I thought I'd start by laying out the facts that I've gathered. I'm not a statistician, but I went to a good high school and understand the rudiments of the scientific method, which I did my best to apply to my experiment. DN's music breaks had been grating on me for years, and, after first trying occasionally over the course of years to plead with Amy and several of her producers personally to pay more attention to how they're doing their music breaks, In December, 2013, I started up a blog, A Musical Review of Democracy Now, in which I have been keeping track of musical selections (and, in some of the posts, making observations about them). I listen to the show religiously anyway, like many people reading this right now. So jotting down what was in the music breaks wasn't hard, once I got into the habit of doing that.

There were certain pieces of information I wanted to gather together. After listening to a total of 105 shows over the course of 15 months on a completely random basis – approximately 1/3 of the shows they've done in that time period – a total of 210 music breaks, the breakdown of the musical selections I've heard works out as follows.

First of all, about one-third of DN's music breaks fall into the category of “unnamed instrumental,” usually classical Arabic oud music, electronic music, or classic jazz tunes. The unnamed instrumentals are not part of the statistics that follow. For the sake of simplicity I'm focused on the most relevant sample of the music, to my thinking, which is songs with lyrics in English, the common language of listeners to this show. Songs in English represent approximately half of the music breaks. (Incidentally, I am not criticizing here whether music breaks are instrumental or with lyrics, or whether they're in English or not, I'm just explaining my methodology here.)

So, of the 106 songs in English played, out of the 210 music breaks I kept track of, 88 of them were written by famous people. 18 of them were written by independent artists. I'm not good at math, but I believe that breaks down to 17% of the songs played are songs of indy artists, leaving 83% to be from famous artists.

Of the 128 music breaks with songwriters or composers who were identified (basically not counting unnamed oud music and some other instrumental stuff), at least 69 of them, or 53%, were from the 20th century, most of those from the 1960's or 1970's. At least 40 of the authors, or 31% of the total, are dead.

Why are these statistics relevant? Amy Goodman said “culture is so important in getting out information.” So one question is, what information are we mainly talking about here? Stuff that happened 60 years ago is certainly information, but is that mainly what a current events show like DN is focusing on? And what kind of information is communicated about the relevance of culture, when the overwhelming majority of music is derived from famous people from the early part of the latter half of the 20th century? John Legend of course is not part of that statistic, though he very much is part of the “famous” part of the equation.

Of course, maybe you had never heard of John Legend until you heard his song on DN – the left is a pretty insular bunch, so I'm sure for some of you that's the case. (Insert smiley emoticon here.) But many millions of people have already heard of John Legend. He's on commercial radio and TV a lot. I'm not saying that's bad in itself, but it's a fact. And 83% of other songs played on DN fall into that kind of category.

There are degrees of “famous,” of course. Bruce Springsteen is one one end of the spectrum. Pete Seeger isn't as famous as Bruce Springsteen, but he's still famous. So what is my definition of famous here? I just kept it simple. If my investigation turns up that the author had at least one top 40 hit in the charts in the US and/or the UK, and/or that they won one or more Grammy awards, and/or were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, they're famous.

I guess I've made the basic statistical point. From here I could wax philosophical, for better or for worse, but I've done plenty of that already in previous essays you can read if you want to (such as the Cultural 1%). What I hadn't done was collected and collated the actual facts to back up what I'm saying, which I have now done.

Basically, I guess it's all very subjective. But I'm completely convinced that a 30-second music break between segments on a news show can change people's lives. The show is too popular to ignore it when they consistently miss the opportunity to use those breaks to really support their stories with powerful, contemporary, independent music, of which there is so much to choose from.

But you have to look for the independent stuff. You have to know how important it is to do that. Otherwise you default to what you know, and if you grew up in the US, what you knew is what is or has been popular. The other stuff is harder to find, so it needs to be an actual priority to find it, otherwise it doesn't happen. The elitism inherent in 83% of music played being derived from the cultural 1% probably happens by accident. It's just the default to do that. But it's still damaging. It still communicates the wrong message. It says that contemporary independent music and culture is irrelevant, quite simply. What you don't play communicates as much as what you do play.

It's not that Bob Dylan or Bob Marley should be ignored – they shouldn't. But if you're doing stories about contemporary issues, struggles, etc., inevitably, the music that will be powerfully on topic is going to be equally contemporary. And independent. Can you imagine if DN only interviewed best-selling authors? There would be an uproar. Their listeners would abandon them and call them bad names. Because everybody knows that the people we want to listen to and interview and read, etc., are primarily not authors, thinkers and activists who manage to get on the bestseller lists, or who have first been featured on CNN before you get around to having them on your show. Everybody knows that CNN's judgment of who is important is not ours.

So then why should a music break have to be a song that's been in the charts, in order for it to be played on DN? It's not that bestselling authors or hit-producing artists have nothing important to say – some of them do. But the much larger number of artists out there who have never been in the charts are the ones producing the much larger number of great songs. Even if you're not a professional indy musician like I am, even if you haven't observed what I'm talking about firsthand, you know what I'm saying must be likely to be true, statistically. Of the millions of songwriters in the world, it stands to reason, statistically, that most of the good ones can't possibly be the very few that come pre-approved by Clearchannel or even by the BBC or the Motown Records label, and yet that's exactly 83% of what DN plays in their music breaks that involve songs, according to my study.

On a personal note, it feels relevant to add that criticizing any aspect of Democracy Now is a really terrible way to make friends. Understandably enough for various reasons that I won't bother going into, people worship that show, and its wonderful host, who I am privileged to have met on many occasions. I used to be one of the few indy musicians played fairly regularly on the show, usually several times a year. A significant amount of my audience in the US is derived from having been played on DN, particularly around 2001. The last time I was played on the show was the same week I started the blog analyzing their music breaks. The response from many of the people who wrote me after I first started writing analyses of DN's music breaks was basically, “wow, you've got a lot of sour grapes, why don't you quit whining and start your own radio show,” or something along those lines.

Nonetheless, what I'm saying is relevant and important, so I'm saying it. Whether or not it influences DN or anyone else is not up to me. What's up to me is speaking my mind. And what I'm talking about is much bigger than this one radio show, of course. It's about our culture much more broadly than that. The same patterns DN engages in can be found in independent radio shows at community stations throughout the country and the world. In our collective subconscious, whether we ever listen to commercial radio or not, Clearchannel calls the shots in our minds, and will continue to do so as long as leaders of independent media such as Democracy Now rely primarily on popular artists from the 20th century for most of their music breaks.

One of the first times I met Amy Goodman, I asked her for a quote, as aspiring artists do when they meet famous or influential people. She floored me, in a very positive sense, by saying, off the cuff, “how about 'he's the musical version of Democracy Now?'” I've been proudly identifying myself with this quote ever since (changing the “he” to “David Rovics,” since that's who she was referring to there in the Firehouse studio in lower Manhattan 15 years ago).

If you change the “the” to “a,” the quote is true. I, and many other musicians who write songs about the news of the day – topical music, a longstanding tradition in many genres of music – are indeed musical versions of Democracy Now. And oddly enough, the host of the show herself made this observation. But in actual practice, the musical versions of Democracy Now are almost completely ignored by Democracy Now, and the impact that this oversight has on how DN's listeners experience and understand the relevance of culture and its ability to communicate is very negative, whether or not many of them are aware of this, since music breaks can have a sort of subliminal quality, and people who aren't musicians or serious music aficionados wouldn't generally give them much conscious thought.

But it does matter, it does have an impact, and if you don't know this from your own experience, then take it from someone whose musical career was partially launched by being played regularly on the most popular radio show on the left in the US – it matters, and it has an impact, what you do with your music breaks when you have that many listeners.

What goes on between the music breaks, that's for another essay. Mostly I think it's fantastic, and praise-worthy, and I'd miss it terribly if the podcast weren't around to download to accompany me on the road. But there's room for improvement, and I'm just trying to put a little more of the demos in democracy.