Saturday, August 31, 2019

Remembering Mitch Podolak

Before going to bed last night, I learned from a post I was tagged on on Facebook that Mitch Podolak had died.  If I ever checked my Feed, I might have learned earlier -- he had died several days earlier, on August 25th, 2019.  Incidentally, exactly one year after US Senator John McCain died, who was about as different politically from Mitch as it would be possible to be.  (I probably only happen to remember that because I wrote a song about the man when he died.  If I wrote one about Mitch, it wouldn't be like that one at all.)

I did not know Mitch well, and I don't want anyone to think I'm pretending that I did, just to get that out there.  But I do feel compelled to say a few things about Mitch.  Well, one thing, mainly:  Mitch was a revolutionary, a communist with a small "c," of the highest caliber.

You'll find Mitch being remembered throughout the press in Canada, and they naturally focus on what he was mainly known for -- starting up the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and being an organizer of festivals and other things music-related.  The fact that he was politically on the left is not ignored, but it's not emphasized.  Which makes perfect sense -- he wasn't organizing protests, mostly, he was organizing festivals.

The secret, which Mitch knew well, was that the best protests are festivals.  Or they can be -- at least in terms of the part of the protest that occurs on a stage with a sound system.  This is my phrasing, but if you read interviews with Mitch over the years, you'll hear the same sorts of things, more humbly stated.  An organizer, just like a musician, can be motivated by both the love of music as well as the desire to use music as a tool for radicalization and popular education.  There is no contradiction here, and Mitch very obviously embraced all of the above.

I'll just share a few brief recollections, too small to call stories, but just a few memories, while they are freshly dredged.

I've been to Manitoba three times in my life, and each time the reason for the trip was Mitch and his fellow organizer, Derek Black.  It started with a phone call.  Mitch called me, introduced himself, and said he wanted to organize gigs for me in Winnipeg and Brandon (Brandon being basically the only other city in Manitoba, and it's very small).

I was happy to have my first gig in Manitoba.  In asking Canadian friends about the guy who had called me, the response was universal, more so among musicians -- you got a call from Mitch Podolak?  Cool!  (Sometimes with a tinge of jealousy.)

I just want to stop here to point out that this is not a normal situation for someone like me, for those who don't know.  I never get gigs at folk festivals, I'm way too offensive for that kind of thing.  I almost exclusively play for activist groups, leftwing political parties, labor unions and stuff like that -- not folk gigs with comfortable middle-class people in the audience who are going to be appalled by my first chorus.  "Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable," that's my motto (I borrowed it from my friend Utah Phillips).

This motto of Utah's and mine also very much applied to Mitch and everything he did in life, as far as I can tell, and he did it primarily as an organizer of musical events, of all sizes, from humble house concerts to big festivals with CBC sponsorship.

Staying on this point about how unusual it is for someone like Mitch to call me about doing a gig in Winnipeg:  as an organizer, Mitch knew loads of musicians who could pack a large room in Winnipeg.  He knew I wasn't one of them, and he brought to Winnipeg not once, but three times over the course of eight years.  And he and Derek apologized profusely on every occasion, that this wasn't happening on a more frequent basis.

It was a wonderful first gig in Winnipeg, as I recall, and it also happened to coincide with the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon.  The Occupy encampment in Memorial Park there was fantastic, one of the most active in North America of the several dozen I spent time in across the US and Canada in 2011.

I stayed with Mitch during that first visit, and my recollection of his home is of a comfortable but small place.  Probably no bigger or more opulent than the generations of eastern European communists who settled in Ontario and across Canada that Mitch was proud to be a descendant of.

Hanging out in Mitch's little place with this very large man, it was impossible not to notice the fact that every available space around us was being used for the purposes of hanging slabs of meat that Mitch was drying for the purposes of making sausage or something along those lines.  This was a man who identified strongly with the red political traditions of his family and his community, as well as with the culinary traditions, it appeared to me -- for better or for worse, depending.

The conversations were long and rambling and full of great stories.  I'm sure we talked about music as well as politics, but the anecdote from Mitch's living room in 2011 that I remember most clearly was something he was saying about a protest he had been involved with organizing in the 60's.  I can't remember what the protest was about, but a whole bunch of recent immigrants from eastern Europe came to protest the protesters.

Unlike Mitch's family background of leftwingers and artists, more recent immigrants from eastern Europe, having had the decidedly mixed blessing of growing up behind the Iron Curtain, are often decidedly less sympathetic to socialism of any kind.  But what was so memorable about this little tale was not that patriotic Canadian immigrants showed up to protest the protesters, but how Mitch got rid of them:  he went over to their lines, probably using his knowledge of various eastern European languages to his benefit, and quickly convinced them that he would report their activities to the authorities in their home countries in eastern Europe.  Fearing for their family's safety back home, they abandoned their counter-protest.  I'm still not sure what I think of that tactic, but I really enjoyed Mitch's recounting of it.

The morning after my first gig in Winnipeg, Mitch took me for a short walk.  There were other people in the house, but I admit the only ones I remember were James Keelaghan and Nathan Rogers.  James is one of the best songwriters alive today, and Nathan's father Stan was, too, before his untimely death.  I don't remember what we talked about over breakfast, only that when we entered the house, Stan introduced me to James and Nathan, saying, "David is another member of your profession," to which James immediately shot back, "oh, you're a prostitute, too?"

When Mitch first organized the Winnipeg Folk Festival back in 1976, it was apparently initially planned as a one-off celebration of the centenary of this city with its long history of labor struggle.  As far as I know, the last big event Mitch was involved with organizing was another centenary event, the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike, last May. 

Mitch had had a bad fall since I'd last seen him, and was now using a wheelchair to get around.  I was concerned about the state of his health when I first met him, but it had certainly declined much faster because of that fall, it seemed.  Despite his physical circumstances, he was happy to be at the festival he had been instrumental in organizing, and between the music on the stage in front of him and friends around him who he had known in many cases for decades, it was a good last event I'd say. 

Because of the union sponsorship, Mitch was able to bring in musicians from across the US and Canada that were some of his favorite of what we could call the more politically-oriented performers on the folk music circuit, or in my case, performers not on that circuit at all, except when Mitch and Derek are organizing the gig.

It was a lovely day at that festival at Memorial Park, the same place Occupy had occupied.  I knew and loved most of the performers already, but it was my first time hearing Maria Dunn, who blew me away, along with Joe Jencks, James Keelaghan, and a great set from Nathan Rogers.

Sitting with Mitch in the park with this kind of array of musicians, and people who had been working with Mitch on festival organizing efforts in some cases since the 1970's, Mitch was in great form for reminiscing.  I think the conversation began with talking about how good the various performers on the stage were, and Mitch got to talking about all the people around on the grass who he had known for such a long time in so many different contexts. 

That day the one he talked about the most was Nathan.  Mitch started the record label that Stan Rogers had been on.  When Stan died in a plane crash after playing in Texas at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1983, Nathan was two.  Mitch talked about the sort of black hole that Stan's death left the community with, and he talked of his love for Nathan, and some stories from Nathan's childhood, in which Mitch clearly played a major role.  Despite such a terrible loss, Nathan seems to have turned out very well.  (Which seems like a strange comment to make about a guy who's only a few years younger than me, but in any case, it's true.) 

To whatever extent Mitch was responsible for that fact I don't know, but the deep, swelling love within his heart was unmistakable, and, in fact, on his sleeve.  Mitch Podolak was a beautiful human being, full of life and love.  A truly great organizer, a person who brought many, many people together, and created models for others to do the same.  And most definitely a red.  Well done for a life well lived, Mitch.  L'Chaim.  You are now officially off the hook for trying to read that 1917 Yiddish edition of Das Kapital you found.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Rich Caloggero

I wrote this to read at some undefined point during the course of my friend Rich Caloggero's wedding on the weekend of June 15th, 2019. I never found a good opportunity to hog the floor with a long speech, but I thought I'd post it on my blog.

There are so many things that I could say about a person I first met more than half my life ago. The vast majority of the time I spent with Rich was when I was in my twenties and early thirties, during the periods in my itinerant life when I lived in Massachusetts and Connecticut. I’ve only met this wonderful woman, Malvys, a couple of times, and for geographical and other logistical reasons, I’ve only gotten in little visits with Rich now and then in the past couple decades.

But Rich is one of those people where every time I see him, it feels like we’re just picking up where we left off the other day, even if the other day was a year earlier.

As time passes, memories fade and become more vague, and it’s the sharpest, most poignant ones that rise above the clouds, like mountain peaks, is how they often feel to me.

I remember meeting Rich, outside of a Grateful Dead show somewhere in Virginia, sometime around 1987 or ‘88. I was traveling more or less aimlessly at the time, having recently dropped out of college, unsure of my next move. Rich and Rodger offered to give me a ride to Boston, and I have no idea how many nights I spent sleeping on Rich’s floor, but I remember that eventually we were actual housemates. It’s the welcome, the kindness and generosity that I remember most from this period.

The next sharp memory is undoubtedly driving across the US, from Somerville to San Francisco, with a colorful variety of other folks, in Rodger’s VW microbus. For whatever reason, probably because we were young and foolish, we were making the trip nonstop, those of us who could drive taking turns at the wheel, keeping the poor old van on the road constantly. I don’t remember what month it was, but it must have been sometime in the winter, because everyone who wasn’t driving was covered in layers of blankets at all times. Whoever was driving, who had to move limbs and such, had to just freeze.

Through that long first night on the road I marveled at Rich’s ability to find things anyone was looking for. The rest of us were just groping around in the dark ineffectually. Somewhere in Indiana someone figured out how to turn on the heat, and for a while we were warm and cozy in there, until we broke down in Oklahoma in the middle of the night during a blizzard, which I believe was entirely my fault.

But it was when we encountered a freak snow storm on the highway in southern California, trucks jackknifed and strewn about the median like a giant toddler threw them all there, that I recall noticing the size and strength of Rich’s biceps. Our windshield wiper broke at this inopportune moment, and Rich managed to keep the wipers going manually from behind the dashboard, at great physical effort, until we got through the snow storm. I think we made it to the Grateful Dead show on time.

For many years, my memories of Rich are wrapped up with acoustic guitars and subways. There were different musicians who tended to play at different stops. On the days when I was playing at my preferred spot on Park Street (Red Line central platform), I’d often have reason to be going to Davis Square, where Rich could often be found, melodically flatpicking away at a blistering pace.

A memory that pokes above the clouds because of the sheer terror involved was driving on the left hand side of the road for the first time, while in the middle of the city of London, England. It’s a terrible place to drive on any side of the road. Although Rich was neither able to drive nor navigate (back in those days before we all had cell phones with built-in GPS’s that talked to us), his presence in the passenger seat was always reassuring and empathetic, like an emotional anchor in a stressful situation, a role he played in my life on many, many occasions.

Inevitably, a little piece of physical drama is one of the more memorable moments. Our trip to England ended up taking us to Ireland, through an Irish woman we met at a festival in England. Next thing we knew, Rich and I were traveling across Ireland with Josephine, heading towards her home town of Ennis, when Rich had to pee.

We were in the middle of green fields, which went on on both sides of the road for a long ways. None of us had explored these fields, apparently, but they were clearly there. There often weren’t any fences or stone walls or anything between the road and the field, but there was this little hump. By all visual appearances, the field was on the other side of the hump.

Rich encountered the hump, and kept walking, figuring apparently he’d get a little further away from the road before emptying his bladder. What none of us realized was that on the other side of the hump was the field, but in between the hump and the field was a ditch. Rich went over the hump and then quickly disappeared from view, at a pace that was immediately alarming to both Josephine and I.

We feared the worst, having no idea what that might be, but as it turned out, Rich landed well in the ditch, avoiding injury, though not emerging mud-free.

I could continue with other memories, but I’ll just leave you with that one, and make room for someone else to say something.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

New year plan: more podcasting!

My plans for the rest of 2019 include making around 51 more podcast episodes, finishing the first draft of my first-fifty-years memoir, raising kids, and making a lot of espresso in the process (especially this summer in Denmark), among other things.

I've learned a lot about making micro podcast episodes since I started with this project last August.  If you haven't listened to one recently, I recommend them!  They're very short -- usually around 5 to 7 minutes long, and each one includes a song, sometimes written just this week, about a very recent event.

Making the podcasts each week, whether they include a new song or one written slightly less recently that's relevant to this week in one way or another, has become a preferred method of communicating with the world for me.  I've become a big fan of the format -- a short audio essay followed by a song.  Both forms of communication have strengths and weaknesses, and I think they work together well.

The micro podcast project has been well-received, which is very nice, because it's quite a bit of work.  Every week there are many hours involved with writing episodes (especially if they include a new song), a few hours recording them, and and a few more each week in distributing them through many different outlets.

The podcast phenomenon differs somewhat with other forms of broadcasting.  One of the particularly nice things about podcasts are how relatively easy it is to make them accessible on many different platforms.  In the age of Too Much Information, one of the biggest problems many of us (including me) have is keeping track of things I actually want to keep track of.  Different methods work better for different people than others.  This seemed like a good occasion to run through the various platforms where my podcast is available each week.
 
  • The podcast is embedded on my website, so every time there's a new one it appears at davidrovics.com/thisweek.  That's also where I have all the info about the podcast and where people can find it and support it -- it's the podcast's home page.
  • I send an announcement about each new episode to my email list, which people can sign up to on my website at davidrovics.com.
  • Every time I upload an episode via Podbean it appears there and gets automatically distributed every week to iTunes and Google Play.  So whatever podcasting app you have on whatever device, whether it's an iOs device that came with Apple's Podcasts app, or if you downloaded a free podcasting app such as Podbean or Podcast Addict, you can subscribe to the podcast by searching for it by name -- This Week with David Rovics.  On Podbean there's also an RSS feed available, as well as links and code for embedding the whole podcast or any individual episode on any website, blog, etc.
  • Every episode appears on SpotifySoundCloud, and YouTube, so if you don't use a typical podcasting app but you do use one of those platforms, you can follow me on any of them and hear about new episodes as soon as they're up.
  • If you follow me on social media like Facebook or Twitter I post new episodes there, too (but good luck ever hearing about them on a consistent basis that way -- it's not a good way to do it, especially Facebook, because of the way their algorithms work, and for other reasons).
  • The David Rovics app is available on both iOs and Android, and includes the latest podcast episode each week, first thing.
  • I upload each episode to the Pacifica Audioport for use by radio programmers looking for FCC-friendly, syndicated content each week.
  • I maintain a podcast blog where there's an entry for each episode that includes an embed of the episode followed by the transcript of the podcast.  And of course for those of you who follow blogs, the blog can be followed, and it has an RSS feed.
If you know anyone who tends to use any of the aforementioned platforms, feel free to tell them about the podcast.  I'll be very happy if it starts getting thousands of downloads every week, rather than just hundreds!

The podcast, like everything else I do, is made possible most especially by members of my Community-Supported Art program.