Saturday, November 23, 2019

Autumn 2019 Tour Reflections

The last of a series of gigs I've been doing over the past six weeks on the road was last night.  I don't always manage to collect my thoughts on the experience into a blog post, but I will this time.

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.


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.

Visit to find out how you can be one of the first people to hear the album when it comes out

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...

Monday, October 28, 2019

Navigating the Internet in the Age of Facebook

Coping with future shock:  getting more out of the web for people who got stuck...

I heard an interview with the author who coined the term, future shock, back in the 1980's. I haven't read the book, but the term has become familiar, since it's now something we're all experiencing to one degree or another. 

For better and for worse, children have the most impressive ability to assimilate the world around them, because they have such an inquisitive orientation, combined with the basic human need for acceptance, to fit into the tribe. It's an especially obvious phenomenon if you observe small children -- all the other kids are doing it, I'm going to master this, too; walking, peeing in toilets, climbing trees, watching videos, playing Minecraft.

As we get older, we tend to lose this sense of adventure about everything, and adapting becomes harder, or impossible. And then, even if we don't get all stultified in our adulthood, it's still hard. This fact really struck me in a recent visit to my father's place. He's now in his eighties, and very active as a composer and musician, among other things. Really ever since he was a kid, he's been ahead of the curve vis-a-vis technology. In the 1960's he was using the latest reel-to-reel recording devices. In the 70's he was doing things with personal computers well before they were commonplace. In the 90's he was experimenting with websites, and he was one of the earlier ones to move all the exercises involved with composing and creating scores and transposing things, etc., to the digital realm, using programs like Finale.

But even for someone like him, in this rapidly-changing environment, it's so easy to get left behind. In my last visit I was trying to figure out, eventually with help from Adobe customer service, how to export tens of thousands of photos from an antiquated photo editing program that was invented long before the internet came around. Figuring out how to do a bulk export of the photos was challenging enough, but what seemed perhaps as challenging was understanding the concept that now that these photos were uploaded to Google Drive, they could be shared easily and accessed on any device that's signed in to Google Drive. My father blinked, and suddenly everything is on the Cloud (and we're not talking about the sky), and suddenly most useful things done on a computer involve a browser, rather than a program that's actually running on your hard drive.

So many other people, who do not have the attitude of an adventurous toddler, get so much more thoroughly left behind by modernity. People like my mother, also in her eighties, who can't find the volume on her laptop even when she really wants to listen to one of her son's podcasts, or use the map on her phone even when she's hopelessly lost and has the phone in her bag.

Many people, perhaps most, adapt to a new technology, or attempt to do so, when it's really forced upon them. In the 90's, many people started using the new technology of email as soon as it became somewhat widespread. Others waited until no one replied to their letters or phone calls anymore, before grudgingly buying their first laptop, twenty years after personal computers became popular.

Many people enthusiastically experimented with every new communication platform that came along, when it came along -- Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, etc. Others got on Facebook only after they couldn't figure out where all their friends went, who they used to communicate with by email or on a now-extinct platform like MySpace. Or when they could no longer find out what was going on around town through any other means, after the newspapers went out of business, and the email announcements lists they were subscribed to stopped posting.

What seems to have happened to many people who then grudgingly made the move to Facebook is they got stuck there. It works well enough for their purposes, for keeping in touch with friends, keeping track of local events, news stories, and many other things. This seems to be especially true of middle-aged and older people, who are making up an increasingly large base of the regular Facebook users. Younger folks are more likely to be looking for other things that have come along.

By the same token, those of us who nowadays are termed Content Creators -- artists, musicians, photographers, journalists, filmmakers, livestreamers, podcasters, bloggers -- tend to be ahead of the curve in terms of understanding new developments with technology and communication, because we run into the limitations of the corporate-controlled platforms before people who might fall more into the “consumer” category.

So, for those of you who got stuck in Facebook's universe, but are increasingly coming to realize that it's not providing the kind of context you once got from it, that's because it isn't -- they just try not to make it that obvious. But everything about your Facebook experience is determined by mysterious algorithms that are designed to make you spend as much time on Facebook as possible. The desire to spend as much time on Facebook as possible isn't what motivates most of us generally, so that creates a bit of a disconnect. Most people are looking for other things -- connection, news, stories, songs -- Facebook is the means, not the goal.

You can keep on muddling along on Facebook, and I'll muddle with you, since it is an indispensable tool for the modern artist that cannot be ignored any more than Spotify, Apple, Google or the interstate highway system can be ignored. But there are tools in popular use by many people that you might like to explore. If you're already well familiar with navigating the worlds of streaming music, subscribing to podcasts, getting notifications about things you're actually interested in, or following artists' tours in a way that's relevant to your physical location, then the philosophical part of this shpeel is over, and you can go do something else now.

What follows is practical stuff – for those of you who are or were keeping track of artists, journalists and other people and subjects of interest mostly through your Facebook feed and perhaps email announcements lists, and you're wondering if there is a better way. Not that you should abandon these mediums of communication entirely by any means, in my view – but whereas half the population uses Facebook on a regular basis, less than a quarter is subscribed to a podcast on a podcasting platform. If you're a member of the majority of the population who doesn't do podcasts except maybe when one pops up in your Facebook feed or on an email list, then you just might want to keep reading – but you need to have your toddler hat on for this, not your “you can't teach an old dog new tricks” outfit.

Listening to Music

The main way artists release new music, and the main way people follow the work of artists they like, in terms of new and old albums of that artist, is by following them and listening to their music on free streaming platforms, especially Spotify. There are loads of problems with this, and artists desperately need to organize a campaign for streaming justice, in my view. But that's not what this is about, so I'll stop there on that tangent.

I have not released a physical CD in many years, nor do I have any plans to do so in future. The vinyl album I released will surely be my only one, and I'll have those boxes cluttering my family's apartment for years to come I'm sure. The era of physical merch is over. So if you want to listen to my latest stuff, or that of most artists, you won't find it there.

You may find a post about a favorite artist's latest release coming up on your Facebook feed, but if you did see that, it's probably because it was paid for by the artist. It's a terrible system in that regard and many others, Facebook. You can free yourself from their evil algorithms by intentionally following artists you like on a streaming platform.

If you haven't done it before, listening to music on a streaming platform is as simple as downloading the free app (Spotify or zillions of others), signing up to either the free or paid tier of the service, depending on whether you can deal with the occasional ad and whether you want to be able to listen to albums in the actual order the songs appear or not. Most people evidently don't care about those things, and sign up for the free service. (Signing up for the paid service does not benefit the artist any more than streaming on the free service does, in case you're wondering.) Then, you search for an artist you like, and click “play.”

If you ever used to do mixed tapes back in the day, you'll find that creating playlists on Spotify and other streaming platforms is very easy, and most of the artists you might be interested in are there – their entire catalog. Some of you may be wondering how or why it is that the entire catalog of most artists can be found on all of these platforms -- both more commercial ones but also most any independent one who was on an independent record label some time in the past 25 years. The explanation is that most labels and millions of independent artists used platforms such as CD Baby to register and distribute their CDs. When download services like iTunes came along, CD Baby set up a structure so with one or two clicks you could have all the music they were already distributing for you available on iTunes. The overwhelming majority of these artists and labels signed up for it. It was a good deal – these downloads on iTunes were expensive! And then streaming eventually came along, and artists almost all clicked “yes to all” for that, too. With a click, your whole catalog is suddenly made available on dozens of streaming services around the world, voila.

For those of you who want to support artists and are concerned about the streaming platforms for that reason, I hear you and feel the same way. But not using the platforms doesn't help the artists, any more than using them helps the artists. If you want to help struggling independent artists, sign up to their patronage programs.

Listening to Podcasts

With podcasting it's the same kind of thing, but with slight variations. First of all, to make sure we're on the same page, what's a podcast? It's basically a segment of audio you can stream or download, usually one that is part of a series of some kind. Maybe if you're on an email list or looking at your Facebook feed, you click on a podcast that someone shares, so you're familiar with the concept that way.

But to take advantage of the medium in a more reliable, less cluttered and random kind of way, to help you get away from these mediums like Facebook that are ruled by billionaires and their mysterious algorithms, your best move is once again an app. Examples include Podcast Addict and Podbean, or whichever podcasting app may have come with your phone, like if you have an iPhone. Using any of these apps, you can find the vast majority of the podcasts that are out there that are worth listening to. You can find a podcast, subscribe to it, and then get notified on your phone when a new episode is out, or just go to the app and refresh it to see all the latest episodes of any podcasts you're subscribed to. 

How is it, you may be wondering, that it doesn't matter which podcasting app you download, that whether it's a little open source one or a big corporate one, you can access most of the same podcasts from around the world? This is because when people like me sign up to a podcasting platform – one that's not just for listening to podcasts but also for uploading and distributing them, such as Podbean – we jump through some fairly simple online hoops to get the podcast registered for distribution on all the different major podcasting platforms, such as Apple, Google, Spotify, etc., and then they automatically go out on all of those platforms every time we put up a new podcast episode.

Watching Livestream Broadcasts

Livestreaming various kinds of things has become very popular, but reliably knowing about broadcasts you may be interested in and watching or participating in them when they happen can be very challenging. The internet is divided into various corporate platforms, all vying for your attention, and they don't want to share it. They all have various things to offer, pros and cons, and naturally tend to attract different sorts of people. But any of them who are interested in a particular artist or other person who does a livestream these days can often more reliably see broadcasts that pop up on their screens.

If you are seeing livestreams popping up a bit more often than they used to, the reason is because increasing numbers of people are using broadcasting platforms that allow them to livestream on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Twitch and other platforms simultaneously. This way, whichever one of those platforms you may be logged in to when a broadcast happens, you'll see it pop up on your screen (depending on your computer or phone's various settings related to this sort of thing). If it's not a window popping up your screen, it may be a phone notification, an email, or all of the above.

What's All This About Notifications?

If you've noticed that I've mentioned notifications a lot, here's why. In the age of Too Much Information, for those who want to get away from the noise and clutter of their Facebook feeds and email lists and hone in on the online content they're really interested in, in such a way that they can keep track of it easily, the notifications on your phone are your friend. If you don't know what I'm talking about, on any Android phone, you drag down from the top of the screen once or twice and you get your notifications. Any of your apps that have new content will probably let you know in the form of a notification, which will appear in a list of the most recent updates from each of your apps (unless you've blocked this feature for that app, or for all of them). There's a similar function on iPhones, too.

I shall end this missive there. I'd love any feedback on whether this information was useful for anyone.

Fall tour updates, spring tour plans, podcasts, livestreams, albums and more...

Greetings from the Cooley Mountains of County Louth, Ireland, where I'm in the midst of an album recording project which is going brilliantly. Here's a little update on the project, from day 3 in bandit country.

Speaking of bandit country, I've got one gig in Ireland during my week here, along with the fabulous producer of this album project, Pol Mac Adaim. Both Pol and I will be playing with trios at Ma Bakers pub in Carlingford at 10 pm on Tuesday.

From November 1-21 I'm doing 11 gigs all over Scotland and England. Ticket sales for some of them have been slow, organizers report. So if you happen to know anyone somewhere in Scotland or England who might be interested, please tell them about my impending visit -- In England I have several gigs in and around London, along with Worthing, Liverpool, Middlesbrough, and Hawick. In Scotland I'll be playing shows in Dundee, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Glasgow.

Before coming to Ireland a few days ago I was zipping around Germany, having a lovely time doing concerts for great crowds and singing at protests of various sorts. On a number of occasions, there were people recording things. Here's a nice audience recording of my show in Berlin which I've posted on Soundcloud. On YouTube I put up a video of me at a Hands Off Venezuela rally. A very short concert in a squatted building in Freiburg that ended due to a police visit was recorded. My concert at the Hambach Forest was livestreamed on Twitter and is archived there.

Before leaving for Europe, I played at a fine gathering of rabble-rousers in southern Illinois, who had come in from all over the US, and occasionally even further afield. I spent a big chunk of the weekend talking with Mike Africa, Jr. Mike is a great performer, a hip-hop artist, as well as a powerful public speaker. His life has been fairly exceptional in many ways, beginning with the fact that he was born in prison, where both of his parents spent his first 40 years. I'm putting out feelers for Mike and I to do a tour of Europe throughout the month of April. Perhaps Scandinavia, if there's enough interest, but it's open to the possibilities. Anyone who might be inclined to organize something in your town, please reply to this email sometime soon.

The artwork up top is one of many that have been made specially for most of the upcoming episodes of my Song For Today podcast. The latest is about Vasili Arkhipov, and how he saved the world on October 27th, 1962. Search for Song For Today on any podcasting platform, or click the graphic up there to hear it.

Lastly, on the first Sunday of November I'll be doing a livestreamed broadcast from Glasgow, Scotland. It'll be me and two of my musical collaborators on my upcoming album, Lorna McKinnon and Kamala Emanuel, broadcasting from Lorna's living room. So that'll be Sunday, November 3rd at 8 pm Glasgow time, noon Pacific US time, 3 pm in New York, 9 pm in Berlin, visible simultaneously on my YouTube channel and on Facebook, Twitter and Twitch.

Hope to see you on the road and in the streets! Please tell folks about my upcoming gigs in Ireland, Scotland, and England!

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  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
  • 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.