For a very long time now I have usually been doing two tours of this length or longer, every spring and every autumn. Sometimes my lack of a blog post at the end is because I have no particularly new or trenchant observations to make about the places I've just been -- at least not ones that are so distinct from the sorts of observations I made on my last pass through a given place. Other times, I just don't find the time. It is frequently the case that the morning after my last gig on a tour, I'm flying home. I tell myself I'm going to write in the plane, but then I usually find the conditions are too cramped, and the prospect of a nap and a couple of movies is more attractive, under the circumstances. Then, getting home, I have several children to reconnect with after their father's long absence, and the tour fades away from the sharpest parts of my memory, replaced with slides, swing sets and climbing walls.
The fact that I have two days free at the end of this tour to spend on a travelogue is part of the story of the tour, to be sure. The length of the tour -- a little over six weeks -- was shorter than my usual two months. This was intentional from the start. Two months is too long to be away from young children, I decided a while ago. But even filling these six weeks up with gigs proved to be a challenge, one which I failed to meet.
I don't want to dwell on this depressing point, but it's actually worse than it sounds. Spending a week working on my upcoming album in Ireland was already part of the tour plan. So really it was more a five-week tour. Despite the fact that it had been about a year since I had been to any of the countries I toured in this time, I wasn't even able to fill every available Friday and Saturday night with gigs. In the end, I had 15 paying gigs, along with several protests to sing at, the album project, etc. This was a good ten fewer gigs than I was originally hoping to have, and which I certainly could have fit in to my schedule, if they had materialized.
I won't try to analyze why the tour went this way, because, thankfully, in Europe at least, this is not a trend, it's just how the cookie crumbles sometimes. If it happens again in the spring, I'll call it a trend -- and a devastating one at that. If it is a trend, then it will be following in the wake of what has already happened in the United States, for me. Despite the fact that around half of my listeners in the world are located in the US, according to all the online platforms where people find my music these days, and despite the fact that I live in the infamously artistic and theoretically progressive city of Portland, Oregon, I'm barely ever able to find anyone in the country who is able and willing to organize a gig that I can afford to do without losing money in the effort of getting there.
And while that trend also most certainly continues, that's the last I'll say about it. Now, we move on from the "poor me" section of the travelogue, to other things.
The tour began with a flight to St Louis, a night in a Motel 6, a rare phone interview with a community radio station the following morning, and a drive in a rental car several hours to the southeast, to Carbondale, Illinois. Two organizers I've known for a long time, Anne Peterman and Orin Langelle, and the organization they have been spearheading for many years, the Global Justice Ecology Project, were part of a collective effort to attempt to rise to the occasion, in this age of flood and fire.
I can't say, from my limited vantage point, how this extended weekend of workshops and meetings and such went, overall. What was abundantly clear was the organizers had managed to bring together a collection of some real heavy-hitters from all over North America and a few from even further afield. People who were or had recently been on the front lines of local, national and international campaigns of civil disobedience in defense of their threatened homes and homelands. Water protectors from Lakota lands and from the bayous of Louisiana. People trying to protect forests, forest people and forest economies in Brazil from massive corporations intent on assassinating leaders and razing everything around them for short-term profit, while doing it all with a bizarre eco-friendly fig leaf. People trying to prevent logging and mining operations from destroying the last of the privately-owned forest lands, along with all the clean water in places like southern Illinois.
It was, for me, a reunion with many environmental activists I had not seen in ten or twenty years, who I used to see more often, when times were different, when there were student organizations with budgets to organize gigs of the sort that used to keep many of these activists on perpetual speaking and organizing tours, along with many like-minded musicians, such as me. (Oops, I said I was done with that topic.) Despite the many recent battles fought, we're unquestionably losing, again and again, and the feeling of defeat among the ranks of those in attendance was pervasive. I would rather say something different, and I know the organizers would surely rather I did, but that would be lying, and there's no point in that sort of deceit. There was little optimism anywhere to be found that weekend in what was once Shawnee country. I was not there to attend meetings, and I did not attend any of them, but I was on the periphery of them enough to feel the treacherous, divisive winds of Extreme Identity Politics blowing from many directions, the toxic ideology of many lost people, particularly among the youth. It's nothing new, though the words change. Me and many of my friends were similarly lost when we were young, suffering from the same lack of intergenerational coherency of radical thought that most of the US has been suffering from for most of the past century. It's also nothing new that in the absence of an optimistic, forward-looking social movement, we tend to turn in on each other.
In stark contrast to this air of defeat, strangely enough, was Mike Africa, Jr. He and I were two of the musical guests for the weekend. Sometime in the late 1990's was the last time I had seen Mike, and it was from a distance. It was in his home town of Philadelphia, and he was on a flatbed truck of some kind, part of a march in solidarity with death row prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal. Someone pointed him out to me at the time. "Those are Move kids," I remember someone saying.
I was probably around thirty then, and Mike would have been around eighteen. At that time, his parents had spent eighteen years in prison. They would go on to spend 22 more years in prison between that day in Philadelphia and the next time I would see Mike, in Illinois, this time much more up close.
I spent most of two days talking with Mike, rediscovering his brilliant poetry and music, which, I learned, had been basically on hiatus since the last time I had seen him, so long ago. After raising several children and ultimately, in 2018, seeing his parents finally freed from prison in Pennsylvania, Mike is ready to start touring again. We talked about politics, life and history, but mostly we talked about the logistics of being an independent touring performer and how to attempt to make a living at it in the modern age, while remaining firmly connected to social movements -- a tricky thing in so many ways (and I'll leave it at that). We quickly decided we should tour Europe together in the spring of 2020.
Aside from the logistical aspects -- that I think I can interest people in Europe in organizing stops on such a tour, because Mike is a great hiphop artist with a fascinating life story that is, I can already report, of great interest to many people in Europe and elsewhere -- what is also so compelling about Mike is the optimism in his words. The importance of optimism in times like these cannot be overstated. It's the only thing that can change the world. Not that optimism alone can change the world -- just that without it, we're surely doomed.
After my few days in Illinois, the tour took me to Germany, Ireland, Scotland and England. I've noticed an increasing number of people on Twitter refer to themselves as "space travelers, like you." It seems appropriate to use a term that is evocative of another, fictional kind of travel, because space travel can often be a lot like time travel.
It's not that Germany in 2019 feels exactly like traveling in time to somewhere else. But it bears many similarities, along with the differences. Singing at massive rallies organized by unions, that's something I've never experienced in the US, which is a fairly common part of my experience of Germany (not that there were any on this particular trip). Other things, like singing at a small protest through a sound system in solidarity with a Latin American country -- in this case Venezuela -- was an experience I used to have frequently in the US, but not since 2006 or so. Singing at such a protest while someone was filming it, who then put the video up on YouTube, was an experience that has long since gone out of fashion in the US, in my little world. It's been years since anyone did that, that I can recall. It used to happen almost daily.
In Freiburg, the Squatting Days series of events folks were having at the venerable KTS squatted social center beside the train tracks on the outskirts of the city were going to culminate in the squatting of a new building. The organizers decided, if I was up for it, to change the plan for the concert, so instead of having it at KTS, we'd do it at a newly-squatted building.
The building in question was a three-story structure with six two-bedroom apartments, very solidly built, as is typical in Germany. Because of some kind of legal dispute involving the building, it had been vacant for years. This band of squatters intended to change that, at least temporarily. As it turned out, very temporarily. The occupation lasted about a half hour before most of the occupiers, including me and my musical collaborator on the occasion, vacated the premises. I am happy to say that it took several cops a very long time to look the foreign musicians up in their computers, which may very well have allowed a lot of squatters to casually leave the area without being noticed.
It was my first visit to the Hambach Forest, or what little is left of it, there beside the biggest coal mine in Europe, since Steffen Meyn fell to his death a year earlier. More time travel -- to two years earlier in the same place, or to the early 1990's in California or Idaho. The death of Steffen Meyn, combined with the rising activism around climate chaos that has been sweeping Europe and elsewhere in recent years, bears more and more resemblance to what we might call the heyday of what was known as the radical environmental movement in the US circa thirty years ago. It also bears much of the same disconnect between punk, cop-despising treehuggers, and many average people who don't understand their priorities. These are not the Yellow Vests, or their German equivalent. Many of them, like their Earth First cousins in North America, would not be embarrassed to admit that they prefer the company of squirrels to that of most people. Their experiences with the police has not helped with their misanthropy at all.
#HambacherForst #Hambibleibt Konzert David Rovics live von der Wiesenbesetzung. Konzert https://t.co/gm2qfiRMRu— Hambacher Forst (@HambiBleibt) October 23, 2019
Although I have deep affection for humanity in every society in which I have encountered the species, very much including both Germany and Ireland, there are so many contrasts. In Germany, as in the US and other countries with a deeply imperial imprint on the planet, to be a nationalist is to be a racist and a xenophobe. In Germany, if you have too great an interest in the folk music of your region, you will draw suspicion from people who identify as leftwing. Anyone who wears those traditional German trousers is assumed by any black-clad resident of Kreuzberg to be a closet fascist.
In Ireland, it may be a complex and fraught thing for someone from a Loyalist neighborhood in the northern Six Counties to have an interest in the Irish language or in Irish music, but for most anyone else on the island, having an abiding interest in your native language, your native music, your native country, and your native culture is to a very large extent wrapped up in the concept of Irish nationalism, which is itself completely historically wrapped up in internationalism and international solidarity.
The deep interest in Irish culture that is pervasive in Ireland has none of the flavor of identity politics that you'll find throughout North America, and none of the genocidal intentions that can be lurking in the shadows -- or often very much in the open -- in German, US or British nationalism. It is the nationalism of a people who have been told for centuries that they are not a people, or if they are, they are an inferior sort of people who should change, and stop speaking their language, singing their songs, playing their music, dancing their dances -- for a long time, on pain of torture, imprisonment, death and/or exile.
Being there among my friends and within their communities, I feel like I can breath fully. Which could be a strange thing to say, when you consider the fact that most of my friends in that part of Ireland have had friends and relatives tortured, killed or imprisoned for decades. This is not so much history, as very recent, living memory, and also a simmering back-burner sort of present. Rumors are everywhere, including in the press, that Loyalist militias are stockpiling weapons again. Throughout the Cooley Mountains, where the album project was taking place, the metal signs are riddled with high-caliber bullet holes, along with the low-caliber ones. (It's easy to tell the difference. The high-caliber bullets go cleanly through the metal, while the other ones just make dents.)
Despite what to many might feel like an ever-present threat of violence, there is, for me, a much more powerful presence of a deeply felt identification by a people with their own culture, history and place. A culture which at least some people on the island have managed to not only preserve, but which continues to evolve, to interact with other cultures freely, and to continually produce world-influencing content (to use a modern term) of all kinds.
I was in Ireland this time for one purpose -- to make an album. I had run into Pol Mac Adaim in the summer in Denmark, which is when he mentioned that he had access to a home recording studio in Ireland. Given that the musicians I most wanted to make an album with live in Ireland and Scotland, and included Pol, and given the fact that Pol was making this offer out of a desire to promote what he calls folk music (which is not defined the same way by the music industry, let's just say), it was an easy decision for me to make.
Lorna McKinnon, Kamala Emanuel and I landed in Dublin, rented a car, and headed north to Ma Baker's Pub in the ancient Norman village of Carlingford, in County Louth, just south of the border with County Down, and what people refer to as the North, the Six Counties, the Occupied Six Counties, or Northern Ireland, depending on who you're talking to. It was after midnight by the time we managed to get there, and Pol's gig was over. We followed him home, deep into a network of narrow little roads, eventually ending at a house surrounded by forested hills and fields dotted with sheep, quietly munching the grass around them. This would be where we'd spend six 13-hour days recording guitar and vocal parts for the album, for which Pol has since been laying down pipe and whistle tracks, in preparation for the final phase of the process, that of mixing and mastering.
The recording experience was magical. Or at least that's what seems like the most appropriate word to use, when the sum of the parts equal so much more than any mathematical calculation would ever deliver. Lorna and Kamala's months of work on creating complex vocal arrangements, combined with Pol's insights and abilities as a producer and engineer, were together creating a musical experience that was nothing like what any of the songs could ever have accomplished with just my voice and guitar as vehicles.
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When we weren't recording, we were often talking. Pol is the only one among his brothers who has not spent decades in prison. He and his siblings grew up in Ardoyne, a particularly hard neighborhood in Belfast to grow up in, surrounded as it is by often very hostile Loyalist neighborhoods. The conversations, along with some refreshing of my knowledge of certain events in recent Irish history, led to a song that I finished soon after I left the island.
The beautiful northern region of the larger island to the east, Scotland, is a place of many contradictions, all of which seem to be at the very forefront of people's attention these days. This is also very much the case lately in England. Most of the fissures in society and politics are the same, but they play out somewhat differently.
Scottish society was recently riven by the question of Scottish independence, which the voters ultimately voted against. Then came Brexit, which most Scottish people also voted against, but which they are now stuck with, along with Northern Ireland and, for obvious reasons of history, sovereignty, culture, trade, geography and politics, the rest of Ireland as well. Brexit may not be itself a massive dividing issue in Scotland, since most Scots opposed it. But what is almost as divisive in Scotland as it is in England in recent months is how you stand on voting for Jeremy Corbyn and the British Labor Party.
The issue in both Scotland and England is distressingly and confusingly not a simple left-right issue. To dip into it a little: most, but by no means all, Scottish leftwingers supported Scottish independence. But even if they didn't, they still are interested in political devolution, or local autonomy, whatever you want to call it. So they're interested in promoting Scottish political parties that will look out for the Scottish working class, among other things, naturally enough.
But many radicals in England have joined the Labor Party in the very recent past, because of the new leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, which many people in England are wildly excited about, quite understandably, since he represents the most left leadership to challenge the neoliberal status quo of the party, and the government overall, since the 1960's, at least. Scotland now has plenty of Labor Party organizers trying to convince people who would normally vote for the Scottish National Party or another Scottish party, to hold their noses and vote Labor. They are viewed alternately as pragmatists or traitors, depending on who you talk to and how much they've had to drink.
The contradictions of life for many people in Scotland, for Scottish history, to some extent, seem to be fairly well represented in the family history of one young man I met in Dundee, at my first of four gigs in Scotland on the tour. He was related to two of my songs. One of his relatives was a factory worker in East Kilbride who refused to repair the Chilean Air Force jet engines. And one going further back was a member of the Scottish military regiment that put down the Welsh uprising of 1831.
First of all, I need to share my favorite songs that I heard people sing while I was there. I had opening acts at most of my gigs, many of whom seemed to think their main job was to depress the audience in preparation for my set. In stark contrast to these depressing, preachy leftwing guys and sometimes gals who kept on opening for me in various places, the best musicians I heard in my travels were at the two open mics I played at, where I was the feature act. Here's one I had to record, after getting her to do it a second time, a brilliant song about gentrification in London, recorded with my phone at Archie Shuttler's open mic at the Telegraph.
One of the other highlights of the tour on a musical level was hearing a musician I've now known for many years who is currently going by the stage name, Morning Crush, singing one of my songs on the streets of Kingston-Upon-Thames, where he can frequently be found busking. He first heard my music when he was 14 -- one of several folks I met at various gigs who first heard me when they were 14.
England, more than anywhere I've been lately outside of the US, is in some kind of convulsive state. It's infinitely exacerbated by the entirely servile media, from the Guardian to the BBC to the rampant Murdoch tabloid press and tabloid TV, which continually paint Jeremy Corbyn alternately as a clown, a terrorist sympathizer, an anti-Semite, or some other such nonsense. As with the US media and bipartisan political establishment and its relationship with Bernie Sanders, the British media and establishment would prefer to have some form of fascism over having anyone in power who dares to talk about nationalizing industries like health care or -- gasp -- housing. The need for people to have medical care and housing are massive industries -- nationalize them, and anything could be next. Which is true -- and the rich are aware of this fact, unfortunately.
Complicating matters massively is, once again, Brexit. The much-hated current Prime Minister, Boris Eton Johnson, has long been championing the Brexit cause, which most of the population of the UK voted for in 2016. Although Corbyn and many other socialists have long been more interested in a government that serves the interests of the working class and the environment rather than banks and oil companies, whether it's a government based in London or in Brussels, he has effectively been shoved into the Remain box, becoming the de facto representative of the European Union, an institution which is about as popular as Boris Johnson.
The widespread optimism that characterized England a year ago, the last time I traveled in the country, is gone. The love of Corbyn among his base, the recent Labor Party converts from the left, and most of the Labor Party members, is still there, but the optimism that accompanied his unexpected election to party leader, that this might somehow be transformed into a Labor majority in parliament and a Corbyn-led government, is no longer. Perhaps he'll win in the upcoming general election, but if he does, it will be a surprise to the entire political spectrum in the UK, as it is currently constituted on paper.
Despite the glum mood, and the fact that so many people I know are canvassing for the Labor Party, starting just before I landed in Britain, all of the gigs that I had in England were really good. Some of the venues were too small to fit everyone who wanted to come, partly because we're losing some of the bigger venues. The Islington Folk Club in London was packed as it always is, but since it was forced to relocate to a smaller space, packing the club now requires about a third as many people as it used to (and of course the gig pays much less than it used to as a result).
One of the new and very poignant experiences of playing in England on this tour involved the reactions by audiences to my new song about the pogroms in 1969 in the Six Counties. There were various interesting aspects to the experience. Audiences were always listening extra intently to that song. Many times, applause afterwards was more sustained than usual, as if to quietly make the point, we understand. Many English people thanked me for writing about this important subject, specifically. Many people from Belfast, Derry or other northern Irish towns who were at gigs in England shouted their approval, talked to me after the show, and told me how moved they were, how important it was that this was being talked about, and how much they had suffered from discrimination in England over the decades that many of them had been living there.
Pol Mac Adaim had talked to me about how well the British establishment had kept the truth of the occupation of Ireland and other brutally occupied colonies of the empire hidden from the average British subject. But, he added, some people know the truth. The soldiers who occupied his country live there, and they know. It was these ex-soldiers that I also kept meeting at every gig where I sang that song. They're everywhere, and many of them, even though in many cases they're in their sixties and seventies by now, they're still too traumatized by the experience to talk about it much beyond letting me know they were there, and thanking me for the song. The remorse is palpable, though apparently unexpressable.
The last time I had been in London I sang at a vigil outside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where Julian Assange was then essentially imprisoned. Some great filmmakers present that day made some great clips on Twitter out of the event. I contacted one of them to see if he wanted to do some kind of thing in front of Belmarsh Prison, where Assange is now being held, as they consider extraditing him to the United States. I realized the best thing would be for me to write a new song for the occasion, and the resulting music video that came of this collaboration is already a highlight of my career, such as it is. I'll sign off with that, in case you missed it...