Friday, March 19, 2010


The Million Musicians March for Peace
Takes to the Streets of Austin Again

By Larry Piltz for The Rag Blog

Richard Bowden ain't fiddlin at windmills. He's not tilting either. He knows very well what he's doing and why, and will tell you his purpose straight up. It's to keep the hope for and goal of actual peace at the forefront of the hearts and minds of the people of Austin, and of people around the world, the billions who yearn for peace and desperately need peace in order to have safe, happy, productive, and healthy lives, or to even have lives at all.

Richard, a well-known and admired Texas fiddler, whose pickin partners have included dozens of accomplished and famous musicians, instinctively understands that war robs people of the good things in life, that it steals time and resources from families and communities, and that it takes loved ones away permanently, suddenly, or permanently changes them in ways that further strain the bonds of humanity, as does war itself.

He also observed, during commercial journalism's utter default to deceitful jingoistic coverage of the run-up to the 2003 and ongoing Iraq War debacle, that people were being convinced of the necessity for war with no real reason or evidence for it, and with no real counterbalancing voices or information. Who would tell the people? Basically no one, Richard understood. But what could he do? He wasn't a committed political activist. He's only a musician, after all.

Then he thought about Face the Music Festival, a gathering of musicians and poets he'd decided to help organize in 2002 to heighten public awareness of the militarized and draconian drug law enforcement that had resulted in the deaths of an innocent teen and a deputy sheriff within a year's time in separate Austin-area SWAT-style drug raids, two good people senselessly stolen from their loved ones by bad policy. Richard teamed with Drug Policy Forum, which provided speakers at the festival, and invited musicians and poets to help attract people to the otherwise educational event. Long story short, soon afterward the violent middle-of the-night neighborhood drug raids ceased, and Richard had become a political organizer, though still far but now less alien from his musical roots.

This is why he founded Austin's Million Musicians March for Peace: To get the word out. To break through the conjoined barriers of information lockdown and apathy. To remind citizens that at least some people care about peace. To remind people that they themselves care about peace, even when they're harried by the harrowing demands of daily life. To remind us that lack of peace is not an acceptable state of affairs, which is important information indeed in a time and culture that seems to be doing its best to manifest some sort of war of eternity, even while a large majority of this country's and the world's peoples are against such wars of choice. Somebody had to do something.

Why a musicians' march? You start with what you know. Richard's first foray into musical political activism had garnered positive results. Why stop when you're on a roll, even a short one? Especially when a much worse policy, U.S. foreign policy, was beginning to wreak havoc on a monumentally larger scale. When Richard met with Austin Against War and other activist groups to see what was being planned in opposition to the war, he decided he needed to take on a bigger challenge, one of helping bring a larger community focus to the issue at hand. Drum roll, please.

So began the March, MMM in shorthand, and it would be timed annually with Austin's international giant musician magnet, South by Southwest, SXSW in now near-universal shorthand. The word would go out, from charismatic speakers and artists at the Texas State Capitol, from the world's largest marching band playing and dancing along the Congress Avenue parade route, including musicians from many countries, and from speakers and robust performances at Austin's City Hall on Lake Lady Bird, out to the entire world.

Thousands of SXSW musicians and music apprecianados would become familiar with MMM, and many would spread the gospel of stop these crazy wars for god's sake, don't you know they're killing people? And who knows but that someday MMM's will spring up in cities across the country and world to help galvanize already existing world opinion for actual peace in our time.

Meanwhile Richard has as usual organized this year's MMM in the finest traditional style of fiddlers everywhere from time immemorial: Play your music, support the creativity and often madcap brilliance of your fellow musicians, and take the melodic lead at just the right times and in just the right ways. But above all have fun. All the organizing, all the meetings, and all the excitement-building Sundays from 2-4 p.m. at Cafe Caffeine on West Mary Street become one happy energetic rehearsal for the big day, this year March 20th, from noon to 4 p.m., beginning at the State Capitol.

"If it's not fun, I'm going home". That's Richard's motto. But don't worry. It's always fun. That's the catch. You'll go home when the fun's over, which is when the show's over at 4. Though it will continue elsewhere under different auspices. Check your local listings (and the growing list of participating musicians at the end of this article, as well as the growing list of supporting organizations).

For all its local Austin zeitgeist and flavor, however, the MMM hasn't happened in a historical vacuum. Troubadors from ages gone by spread the news from town to town, and roving poets and theater groups told stories of what was really going on behind public facades. Even raving poet-prophets of old tried to alert people to looming calamities caused by bad political and religious leadership. Maybe if Jeremiah and Isaiah, et al, had had a horn section and a better agent things could have turned out better?

We're reminded of this tradition more eloquently by Gia'na Garel, music and film producer, actress, radio entrepreneur, and former co-host of Air America's "On the Real" with Chuck D of Public Enemy: "During every major revolution in modern history - there was a backbeat to them. The French sang and chanted through the streets with no less fervor backing their active revolt than did the Haitians or the Americans or later the civil rights era activists who learned to pump harder beats along with their fists. The very voice of activism is undercut with a pulse - a vibration - that catches us up and galvanizes the masses, as easily as it does one individual listening to their lone drumbeat."

And it's not simply that movements come together in solidarity and purpose to make a difference, backbeat and all. Movements have to come from groups, and groups have to come from somewhere. And that somewhere is the individual and the "lone drumbeat". It's the synergism of lone drumbeats that make the music, that make the group, with each lone drummer carrying the beat.

Ed Ward, former Austin American-Statesman music critic and Rolling Stone contributor, who's lived and worked in Europe for many years and now lives in Montpelier, France, candidly talks about one aspect of the axis of individual artist and activism: "My guess is that most people don't know the political stances of most musicians because the musicians don't usually talk about that subject. Many musicians are smart enough to know that their opinions are essentially not very well thought out, and so they decline....The exceptions are usually people who have started in the folk tradition, where, thanks to the examples of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, there's a long lineage of people who've mixed purely artistic output with committed political output."

One such musician, who took the time and trouble to educate himself about politics and its impact on the world, is Austin's Will T. Massey, whom the New York Daily News described as “one of the greatest storytellers since Dylan and Van Morrison," and who has been involved with the MMM for several years now. Massey made a gradual transition to political songs, but the decision to do so wasn't easy. "It was a tough decision, something I had to think pretty hard about," says Massey. "I have about an equal number of new political songs and more traditional songs that are more about people and places. It’s certainly more challenging to take the political route; I’ve already heard from longtime fans that I should keep politics out of my music."

Massey writes about his decision in "American Prayer": "I’m advised to rein my words in tight/to take my tunes and go quietly in the night/I hope you’ll help us all to speak our minds/because the voices of the people are being left behind/tell them that we’re tragic when you get up there/and that we need some magic, my American prayer."

Massey collaborated with MMM founder Bowden on "a political record I made a few years ago. My involvement in the march was a natural extension of that as the record was all pro peace. Through working on the march, I've become increasingly aware of the peace community in Austin which is affirming to my pacifist tendencies. The body of pro peace songs I have has gotten attention by this movement which is nice. Recently, I wrote a song thinking, specifically, about playing it at one of our gatherings. And then I did play it at one and it worked well. I'm proud to be a part of such a vast group of people. I'm proud of everyone who participates."

Massey, besides being a wonderful songwriter and musician, is a pertinent and hopeful example of the merging of musician and activist, and the larger merging of musician/activist with community/audience, an accelerating trend as mass communication binds like-minded people closer in more cohesive groups. We become less isolated and more naturally inclined to associate with groups, based on our interests and our beliefs. We naturally gravitate toward each other, beginning at least a partial unwinding of an almost century-long trend toward dispersal and separation. It's the democratization of information, and groups that make better use of their cohesiveness and the flexibility that instant communications allows will usually be more successful than those that don't.

This is where partnership between artist and audience becomes especially important. Since artists are often the voices of and for groups, and because their various arts often reflect and transmit a group's experiences, ideological preferences, and intents, the artist and group identity can easily become a fulcrum on which energy is translated into action. This is one reason the MMM is such an interesting phenomenon. It has great potential to bring common purpose and coordinated action in the social and political realm. You get people marching in fun and in good spirits for world peace, allow artists and audience the opportunity to become better acquainted and to build trust, and then that demonstrated solidarity can be used for more specific achievable goals, locally as well as generally. This group succeeds. Peace wins, in this case.

According to former Austin emeritus musician, actor, playwright, visual artist, and general Renaissance Mountain Man Bobby Bridger, who composed "Heal In The Wisdom", the official anthem of the internationally famous Kerrville Folk Festival, and who responded specifically for this article, as did Gia'na Garel, Ed Ward, and Will T. Massey above: "In the olden days artists would publish a manifesto clearly stating their mission as well as the causes they supported. I did something like this for eight years with my quarterly tabloid, Hoka Hey!, which focused on American Indian concerns."

This seems to be a more simpatico state to which artists and their audiences are now gradually returning, an evolution in reverse to a more workable framework for allowing personal input and power into our lives and communities, local and otherwise. We know who we are, who our natural allies are, and therefore can better act in concert (!) for the greater good. In this way, we may be beginning a process of potentially returning to a more decentralized state of governance as well, with the artist-audience relationship being both bellwether and building block.

Bridger continues: "I've been involved with American Indians since the beginnings of my four decade career, so I haven't even considered them a 'cause'; instead, my involvement with Indians is as intrinsic to my personal journey as is my music or my career as a visual artist or playwright. It is all integrated into 'who' I am." Bridger seamlessly describes the unity ultimately inherent in all human relationships, not only with each other individually but also within chosen groups, and importantly also in our relationship with our treasure of a world. His is indeed a beautiful expression of peace and its boundless virtue and value.

Which brings us all the way back to a certain march for peace, with musicians, and families, and friends, and a beautiful day rain or shine. A gathering of doves of all colors, designs, and ages, all instruments of peace, all attuned. All caring about our world and what happens to it, and to each other, as individuals and as group, creating commonality and harmony, a joyful noise indeed.
We'll end with a report about one Austin family's time in the first Million Musicians March for Peace, and let Valerie Bowles relate their experience, which she contributes specifically for this article. Valerie is former bassist for Dallas' Teenage Queers and Austin's Stick Figures, and her husband, Steven Harding, was in Hormones and Reptilicus.

"Steven and I marched in the first one in the rain. There were a few less than a million. We walked alongside Billy Bragg, who in his own career has influenced a heck of a lot of people politically. The night before, we had heard him sing songs by Woody Guthrie, who had led his own movement for peace and justice. Lydia was 15 at the time, and she marched, too. Hopefully, it will get bigger and better publicized every year, but yeah I'd definitely do it again. It kind of reminded me of one of those New Orleans funerals with the tubas and jazz players."

And we'll close with MMM founder Richard Bowden in his own words telling us the why of the Million Musicians March for Peace:

"On the 7th anniversary of the Iraq occupation: To remember the millions of
innocent victims, and the trillions in growing U.S. debt, and warn of spreading, endless war.
"Because Austin is uniquely suited to using popular culture to encourage a popular movement for peace.
"To promote independent information media. Because knowledge IS power.
"Because everyone has valuable talents and skills: 'Everyone can be an instrument for peace'."

And, finally, to help launch this year's MMM, a poem from Thom Moon/Thom the World Poet, M.C. for MMM at Cafe Caffeine on Sundays, in answer to the question:

"Why march?
well, we do not!
we walk /dance/jog /strut together -
down Austin streets
between Capitol performances and city Hall shows
with great joy and jubilation
Forms are improvised as we glow-
1. all are welcomed
2. every "march" is different
3. what happens this march is only partially planned
This is the best poetry on march 20 at noon
so i join the lines as they free verse swing through SXSW laminates
between APD and citizenry-for peace!
Usual petitions/placards/posters-unusually talented musicians
harmonics as role modeling-rhythm meets rhyme in public and at large
Where else can poets go except where following the Muse?
Each year ,a different eclectic mix of Austinites ask for peace
and the media/public response is positive
So every sunday we rehearse spontaneity
adding to the glow of the flow-seeking volunteers
making Paradise possible, practical and pragmatic
We are all volunteers
We are artists,poets,musicians
We are on a steep learning curve
What happens next is unknown
This is why we meet, greet and enjoy each other's company
Every sunday at cafe caffeine 909 west mary 2pm to 4.30pm
and @the Capitol saturday march 20 at high noon
Be there! Poetry meets music meets people for peace!


The growing list of supporting organizations:
Austin Center for Peace and Justice, Texans For Peace, Artists For Media Diversity, VoteRescue, Happy Living with Justice, Austin Permanent Peace Protest, State Rep. Lon Burnham, Dallas Peace Center, Waco Friends of Peace, Denton Peace Action, Texas Labor Against the War, CodePink Austin,....

The growing list of participating musicians:
Guy Forsyth, Carolyn Wonderland, Shelley King, Leeann Atherton, Barbara K Kooyman, The Jericho Brass Band, Oliver Steck, Ryan Gould, Samantha Vanderslice, Bill Oliver, Daniel Cioper, Frank Meyer, Mo McMorrow, Jim & Sherry Patton, Karen Abrahams, Will T. Massey, Jon Emory, Thom Moon 10, Nick Travis, Kathy Rowell, Brenda Freed & Michael D'Eath (Him an Her), Cleve Hattersly, John Jordan, Bill Johns, Edgar Pace, Bob Slaughter, Datri Bean, Minor Mishap Marching Band, Bruce Salmon, David Garza, Regan Brown, Dana McBride, Krishna Lee, Bear Beam, J.D. Finley, P.J "Cowboy Poet" Liles, Joe Carr, Richard Bowden...

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