Saturday, July 25, 2009

Layer 177 Bruce, Pete Seeger, Tom Joad, Social Mobility, Aspirations and Education.


I forgot to mention that B.Springsteen Esq was in London this summer. This guy is so great in so many ways, it's impossible to overstate how amazing he is. For those not yet up to speed, his excellent website gives a flavour of the man, and of the E Street Band.

I found the following words on the site, by the man himself, of course:

"As Pete [Seeger] and I traveled to Washington for President Obama's Inaugural Celebration, he told me the entire story of "We Shall Overcome". How it moved from a labor movement song and with Pete's inspiration had been adopted by the civil rights movement. That day as we sang "This Land Is Your Land" I looked at Pete, the first black president of the United States was seated to his right, and I thought of the incredible journey that Pete had taken. My own growing up in the sixties in towns scarred by race rioting made that moment nearly unbelievable and Pete had thirty extra years of struggle and real activism on his belt. He was so happy that day, it was like, Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man! . . . It was so nice. At rehearsals the day before, it was freezing, like fifteen degrees and Pete was there; he had his flannel shirt on. I said, man, you better wear something besides that flannel shirt! He says, yeah, I got my longjohns on under this thing.

And I asked him how he wanted to approach "This Land Is Your Land". It would be near the end of the show and all he said was, "Well, I know I want to sing all the verses, I want to sing all the ones that Woody wrote, especially the two that get left out, about private property and the relief office." I thought, of course, that's what Pete's done his whole life. He sings all the verses all the time, especially the ones that we'd like to leave out of our history as a people. At some point Pete Seeger decided he'd be a walking, singing reminder of all of America's history. He'd be a living archive of America's music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends. He would have the audacity and the courage to sing in the voice of the people, and despite Pete's somewhat benign, grandfatherly appearance, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant, and nasty optimism. Inside him he carries a steely toughness that belies that grandfatherly facade and it won't let him take a step back from the things he believes in. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country's illusions about itself. Pete Seeger still sings all the verses all the time, and he reminds us of our immense failures as well as shining a light toward our better angels and the horizon where the country we've imagined and hold dear we hope awaits us.

Now on top of it, he never wears it on his sleeve. He has become comfortable and casual in this immense role. He's funny and very eccentric. I'm gonna bring Tommy out, and the song Tommy Morello and I are about to sing I wrote in the mid-nineties and it started as a conversation I was having with myself. It was an attempt to regain my own moorings. Its last verse is the beautiful speech that Tom Joad whispers to his mother at the end of The Grapes of Wrath.

"Wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there's a fight 'gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I'll be there."

Well, Pete has always been there.

For me that speech is always aspirational. For Pete, it's simply been a way of life. The singer in my song is in search of the ghost of Tom Joad. The spirit who has the guts and toughness to carry forth, to fight for and live their ideals.

I'm happy to report that spirit, the very ghost of Tom Joad is with us in the flesh tonight. He'll be on this stage momentarily, he's gonna look an awful lot like your granddad who wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He's gonna look like your granddad if your granddad could kick your ass.

This is for Pete . . ."

When I read that piece I assumed that Bruce had written it for his concert programme or for a newspaper – that he'd written it after much thought and several drafts, perhaps. In fact it's a transcription of his unscripted spoken introduction to a performance of “The Ghost of Tom Joad”. Beautiful, warm, loving, inspiring, appreciative words – not a single one sounding false or out of place. Genius.
View the recording of it on the website under BRUCE'S INTRODUCTION AT PETE SEEGER'S 90th BIRTHDAY CONCERT :

Also on the site, amongst tons of really good stuff, is a video of Bruce and the band performing the opening song at the Hyde Park gig: London Calling. Fantastic guitar work on this. Find a big amp and plug it into your computer.

This is a classic song, written by Joe Strummer. I wrote about it last August in Layer 71. It's very similar to Bruce's song, Born In The USA, in that people who don't really listen to lyrics seem to assume that both these songs are somehow celebrations of London and the USA. Duh!

You should also check out on the website:

Bruce Springsteen appeared on the "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" on Thursday, March 19. View Bruce's interview and performance of "Working On A Dream" here, and be sure to visit

As he did in L.A. last year, the extraordinary Tom Morello joined Bruce and the Band for "The Ghost of Tom Joad." Here, with Tom's kind permission, is an extended excerpt.

[Incredible stuff – never seen a guitar solo quite like it.]


On Saturday, June 27, Bruce and the Band played to their largest audience since East Berlin in 1988. A total of 135,000 people at the Glastonbury Festival watched a remarkable and emotion packed set. Here is the full version of one of many highlights, The River. The flags you see waving were held high by fans from the beginning of the show to the end. The mist you see behind Bruce is the steam on stage bouncing off of his back. For everyone there it is was a night to remember always.

The River

"I come from down in the valley

Where mister, when you're young,

They bring you up to do

What your daddy done . . .”


Social Mobility

Bruce has written many songs about working class and blue collar communities, speaking from the heart about people he knows and cares about.

Here's a couple of extracts from a recent Guardian editorial on social mobility:

"Sometimes the obvious needs to be stated. Britain is an unequal society. The elite look after their own. Poverty traps people from one generation to another. Government action and huge expenditure have at best stopped social division worsening. Encouraging aspiration is hard. And these conclusions, from yesterday's excellent report on access to the professions, sit alongside some startling individual facts.

It is uncomfortable to be told such truths; behind its modern veneer, British society is determined by who you know, and who your parents are. Some things have improved, of course. There is more gender equality (although not enough); more racial equality, too. But effort and merit are not rewarded as they should be. In some regards, poor children born in 1958 had better prospects than those born five decades on. This was, of course, one of the problems that Labour won power to tackle. The conclusion of the panel led by a former Labour cabinet minister, Alan Milburn, is that the party has failed.

What went wrong?

The corporate world needs to change; so do many professions, most of all the law, whose training structure could not have been more perfectly designed to protect privilege.

The report is refreshing in its refusal to draw political dividing lines, or blame underinvestment, when there is no more money to be had. It points out that to help people is not to dumb down society, or disadvantage the bright. Perhaps it shies away from the biggest source of inequality of all, Britain's addiction to private education; since no government in a liberal society would abolish it, the imbalances it creates must be fought in other ways. The cries from the right at the Charity Commission's attempt to force obligations on independent schools are telling. The report calls on the government to maintain education budgets, and stresses that what happens before 16, rather than after it, matters most – both challenges for a possible Cameron government. But this is a report for the future; the next government, from whichever party, will learn from it.

This social mobility thing is very interesting. Whilst it's obviously a social evil that the kids who start life with the most advantages, including private tutors/coaches/crammers, get the best opportunities in tertiary education, it's annoying that the underlying belief in this debate is that anyone who doesn't even get to university is a failure in life. There's an unspoken assumption that to be a tradesman or a small businessman or anyone below the level of 'manager' in an organisation is to be an also-ran in the rat race.

This is patently crazy when you see the numbers of miserable, striving idiots and bastards in the high status jobs and professions, and compare them with the numbers of people who enjoy their lives whilst working in low-status jobs on relatively low incomes.

What's missing from this entire debate is any understanding of what really comprises a proper education and whether or not young people are developing all their intelligences and learning to be creative, imaginative people who live enjoyable and well-balanced lives. What's the point of being alive unless you're finding fulfillment and enjoyment?

The Guardian's editorial is called “Ambition Is Everything”. One of the reasons young people lack the ambition to go to the elite universities and join the prestigious professions is the sheer effort required from their particular starting points. There's also an issue about having to give up their own sense of identity in order to join those particular clubs, and the sacrifices not being worth it anyway.

It's fine to campaign for more working class kids to join the professions, to become politicians, etc, but can we please stop assuming that only middle class people can live valid and fulfilling lives?

“What happens before 16, rather than after it, matters most” should be amended to “What happens before 12, not after, matters most”. Enabling kids to become confident, lively, thoughtful, curious, energetic, enquiring, imaginative, creative learners for life is what matters most. This government has done more than any to turn the clock backwards and ensure this doesn't happen, thanks to its beliefs in “traditional” modes of schooling and education, where all that matters is 'academic' success, albeit on a non-level playing field.


More worthwhile articles to check out this week:

Simon Jenkins on swine flu and scaremongering:

Larry Elliott on cutting spending versus raising taxes:

“Given this background it seems perverse that the current debate is all about which bits of spending should be cut rather than which taxes should be raised. There are plenty of ways to raise revenues. Darling could delay the introduction of the 50% tax rate but lower the threshhold; he could prevent corporate tax avoidance by taxing companies on their turnover rather than their profits; he could deter speculative holdings of property through a land value tax. Is the public ready for this? Almost certainly not. But it is probably not ready either for a bigger squeeze on public spending than Margaret Thatcher ever managed.”


Nick Clegg had this excellent column in the paper this week:

"For years, banks took insane risks with other people's money. Yet beyond some regulatory tinkering, big decisions to bring sanity to the sector have been ducked. There has been no action to split up the biggest banks or protect high street customers from the risks of casino investment banking, and no blueprint for more balanced economic development.

In banking and politics alike we have the bare minimum: lowest common denominator answers from a government without the imagination or zeal for the radical changes needed. Scratch beneath the limited rule changes and easy rhetoric, and a dismal picture of business as usual emerges. With one eye on the end of the parliamentary session, Labour and the Conservatives have played for time. Only the Liberal Democrats have remained outspoken in support of reform. The despair millions of people feel about an out-of-control banking system and an out-of-touch political elite will only deepen once they realise that neither of the establishment parties has any intention of putting them back in their place.

It is easy to understand the resistance to reform from the Conservatives. Maintenance of the status quo has always been the party's hallmark. David Cameron and George Osborne have highlighted a few eye-catching proposals – abolishing the FSA or cutting back quangos – which give the impression of change; but they leave vested interests in the City and Westminster intact.

Labour, however, was supposed to be a party of progress and reform.

The Conservatives will never challenge the way in which money and power are distributed. It is a Westminster stitch-up from which they hope to be the main beneficiary. But it is a betrayal of people's hopes for a different future that a Labour government has become so conservative."

Just have a read of the whole piece.


A song about money, power, property, entitlement, inequality, and hopes for a better future:

words and music by Woody Guthrie

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

As I was walking a ribbon of highway
I saw above me an endless skyway
I saw below me a golden valley
This land was made for you and me


I've roamed and rambled and I've followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me


The sun comes shining as I was strolling
The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
The fog was lifting a voice come chanting
This land was made for you and me


As I was walkin' - I saw a sign that tried to stop me
That sign was painted – it said private property,
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!


In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.

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