Live at the Liverpool Irish Centre: The third gig I had in England on this tour was in Liverpool, where filmmaker Dror Dayan was in the audience.
I spent a bit more than five weeks on tour [in Europe], from mid-October til late November. The whole thing involved a wide variety of unique experiences, with a lot of common threads between them. You can also read this on my blog.
The tour began and ended with a bit of travel chaos. If you're ever traveling during a global pandemic on someone else's frequent flier miles, don't do what I did, and assume the ticket booked for you still exists on the day you're planning to use it. Check in advance several times in the weeks leading up to your flight that it still exists, because if it doesn't, there are several extra things that can go wrong. In my case, my flight had been rebooked, but no one seems to have told either me or my sponsor, so when I got to the Portland airport to fly away, there was no flight. The next day I was on my way, but the great deal on a rental car I had gotten for the day I was originally supposed to arrive was no longer valid, and the new rental car deal was about twice as expensive. With the gigs I had lined up in England and Scotland as economically marginal as they were, this meant that even with the free plane tickets I barely broke even. The many canceled gigs didn't help either.
I had over twenty gigs lined up between England, Scotland, Germany, Belfast, and northern California. Of the six gigs that were canceled, three were due to the aforementioned travel chaos at the end of the tour, one because the owner of the pub was in hospital with Covid-19 (he very sadly died soon thereafter), and two because of what some people have been calling "the controversy." "The controversy" was extra noisy throughout my travels, largely due to the coincidence that the lengthy trial of the organizers of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia almost perfectly coincided with my entire tour, and I am forever guilty of having interviewed Matthew Heimbach during the Capitol siege, and even guiltier for disagreeing with the gatekeepers of antifascism about whether or not he has radically changed his political views for the better.
First, just as I was leaving for the tour, I got a nice booking in Manchester, which was un-booked 24 hours later, after the organizer heard about the set of accusations (there were other people I talked to which caused offense among those watching for thought crimes, you see). All the other gig organizers in England were either not on Twitter or knew me too well to think anything of the allegations, which they generally considered to be bizarre at best. So my journey actually began with a second trip to the Portland airport, this time to board a flight that actually existed, to Vancouver, BC. I had a six-hour layover at that lovely airport. To use such an adjective to describe this airport is not mere hyperbole. There are little waterfalls and fountains and comfortable chairs. No music is piped through the ceilings to drive people like me crazy, and those ceilings are very high, with great air circulation, and presumably filtration, because there is no scent of jet fuel, no headaches. (Basically the opposite of the Amsterdam airport in every possible way.)
The airport, like most of the airports I've encountered since March, 2020, was basically dead quiet. Gate after gate with no flights departing, and no people waiting for flights. I picked an abandoned gate to pass the time with my guitar, which is how I have been passing a lot of time in recent years, preferring playing music to anything involving a screen (though I still probably spend as much time in front of screens as I do playing music, overall). I sat next to the big glass wall that presents a view of all the airplanes, buses, and other vehicles on the tarmac, looking out at the scene as I played for hours. Sometimes people were sitting not far away and listening, but I ignored them, thinking they'd feel most comfortable that way. One of them started clapping eventually, though, so I said hello, of course, and he was another touring musician, a very nice Irish guy named Martin Nolan, whose music I still want to look up.
Although during the pandemic there have been some issues with my methods of travel, pretty much all the international flights I've done for several years now have been using frequent flier miles, usually someone's else's (one wonderful patron of the arts in particular). This is the only way I was able to go to Australia last time, and it's the only way some of these tours make any money at all lately. In any case, this time I somehow found myself in business class on the very long flight from Vancouver, BC to London, England. Business class is an entirely different experience from economy class, as is obvious to anyone who's seen a modern commercial transatlantic kind of plane. Business class seats get almost completely horizontal, so it's like sleeping on a very small bed, but one you can pretty much fully stretch out in, which of course comes with a tasty dinner and movies on a screen that's bigger than your average laptop.
What was most notable about being in business class, though, was the horrendous, elitist tirade I had to listen to, with this obviously very rich German couple berating Air Canada for daring to sell them full-price business class tickets when Air Canada's lounge at the Vancouver airport is closed, as it has apparently been throughout the pandemic. The poor rich couple apparently had to spend their layover at the airport with the commoners, sitting beside the little waterfalls on those cloth chairs. Maybe they even had to listen to me playing the guitar, if they walked past the gate I was occupying. The world outside of the lounges can be frightening and unpredictable... The young Asian man who was the head flight attendant on that flight never wavered from his meticulously professional, polite and profuse apologies. He never quite agreed with the Germans that the lounge should have been open, but he did otherwise give the impression that he thought they had a valid point, regardless of how often they repeated it during their critique of Air Canada's service.
Coming through immigration at Heathrow, folks traveling on US passports were now in the fast lane, along with most Europeans and certain others. For the first time, I scanned my passport and crossed the border there at the airport without even being asked what I was doing in the country or for how long I was staying. Aside from that change, other notable changes to life on the ground in England since my last visit two years earlier was there were a lot fewer Poles, there was a serious Brexit-related labor shortage, lots of empty shelves in the stores, lots of polarized views on various pandemic-related issues, very few people participating in the contact tracing program or wearing masks, and the purge atmosphere of paranoia in left Labor Party circles around constantly-swirling, false allegations of antisemitism was very palpable. Everywhere I went there were more stories about the ongoing purge of the socialist elements of the Labor Party, generally on false grounds of antisemitism, and oddly enough many of those being purged are Jewish.
I had originally planned the tour to coincide with the COP26 talks in Glasgow which took place earlier this month. I hadn't realized the tour would also coincide with the extradition trial against Julian Assange, but I accidentally had good timing, and after a couple of nice gigs in Birmingham and Liverpool, playwright, musician, and founder of Actors for Assange, Tayo Aluko and I took my rental car from Liverpool to London, miraculously found a parking space in a parking garage in the center of the city, and walked to the Royal Courts of Justice. Being a professional, and being forever concerned with whether sound systems will work at protests (since so often they don't), I was happy to see the sound company that had been hired for the occasion had done a good job setting up a stage and an adequate sound system to fill the area in front of the courts. They hadn't been prepared for a musical performer, but they had a direct box in their truck to plug in, so I could amplify my guitar, always nice when you don't want to sound like you're completely clueless. I did a quick sound check, and it sounded good, and loud.
As was noted by various speakers on various occasions throughout the week, the British media -- and I'd add, the US media -- has largely been ignoring the fact that the Biden administration has not dropped Trump's extradition efforts, or the case against Assange for doing such great journalism that they want to put him in prison for the rest of his life. Much of the rest of the world's media was there for the week, covering everything, along with lots of dedicated citizen journalists with smartphones and microphones on sticks of various descriptions. The scene was very reminiscent in that way of the first Zuccotti Park occupation of the Occupy Wall Street era, also in terms of the turnout, which was in the high hundreds, by my estimation. A decent turnout these days for any rally related to this cause, from what I've seen – and certainly far short of the kind of mass uprising one might hope for, when journalism itself is in the crosshairs of the US so-called Justice Department, ostensibly led by the allegedly progressive Merick Garland.
Tayo and I went straight to where the rally was happening because I didn't want to march for an hour with a guitar on my back. (Figuring out how to avoid long walks with the guitar on my back is one of the main logistical elements when it comes to touring, generally, but this is especially true in the big cities.) The march was beginning at BBC Broadcasting House, to send the message that some of us have noticed how alternately biased or nonexistent BBC's coverage of Assange, the US's charges against him, and this extradition trial has been, especially in recent years.
When the march arrived at the courts, it felt a bit like a family reunion for me. There was Richard Burgon, member of the British parliament from Leeds and member of Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet, who had been spending many hard years fighting the good fight in that dubious institution, since he moved on from organizing all my gigs in Leeds, which he did for many years before entering the parliament. There was Lowkey, one of the best wordsmiths alive today. There was my old friend Guy Smallman, on assignment as a photojournalist in all the right places, covering events in front of the court every day. There was the Danish filmmaker whose last name I can never remember, Niels. (He's the only Danish filmmaker I know in London, so I never need to remember his last name.) Last time I was in London, we made a great video together in front of Belmarsh Prison, where Assange is being held. Now he was marching with Stella Moris, Julian's partner, longtime member of his legal team, and the mother of their two young children.
Every one of the speakers at the rally was electrifying, there were no duds. Stella focused her remarks each day on the recently-published revelations garnered from dozens of whistle-blowing intelligence agents who talked to Yahoo News investigators about the CIA's plans to extrajudicially assassinate Julian Assange on the streets of London. She asked each day if a country knows another country's secret police have plans to assassinate a person, do you then ignore that knowledge and extradite him anyway? Knowing what we all know about the intentions of the Saudi monarchy to assassinate Jamal Kashoggi, would we extradite him to Saudi Arabia? Is extraditing Assange to the US any different?
While Assange's supporters include lots of prominent journalists, politicians, and others, the ranks definitely include a lot of folks who might be dismissed as conspiracy theorists, including lots of people with various concerns about pharmaceutical companies and government regulators. The polarized atmosphere around these questions in England, Germany, and Belfast would be hard to overstate. While I'm a supporter of everybody getting vaccinated for Covid -- having myself drawn the conclusion based on the evidence presented to me through the world's media, the world's public health departments, and every doctor and scientist that I personally know that this is a good idea -- people have all kinds of legitimate reasons to be skeptical. In the face of so much disinformation from tabloid media, social media and elsewhere, it's no surprise that many people are confused about the science, and it's especially no surprise that people distrust their governments. And it's also no surprise that people who distrust corporations and governments would be wanting to defend Assange, because I'm pretty sure there is no one in history who has been responsible for exposing so many actual conspiracies than Julian Assange, from the US State Department's systematic undermining of democracies around the world (see the Embassy Cables) to the US military's war crimes (see Chelsea Manning).
On the subject of the pandemic, what was especially notable to me was how much popular response to government mandates varies depending on whether the government is generally trusted by the people or not. The more polarized the society politically, the more polarized it is around anything having to do with the virus. So in my beloved home away from home, Belfast, many view anything having to do with masks or vaccines as some kind of British plot. In England, it's all some kind of Tory plot. In Germany, it's part of the creep towards fascism that will end with the unvaccinated being sent to camps. Meanwhile in Demmark and to a large extent in Scotland, where the government has a lot more popular support among the working class, by my estimation, there is widespread and relatively uncontentious cooperation with the public health departments. I have not traveled personally in the US during the pandemic outside of the west coast and the northeast, but my impression from talking to lots of my friends is that this dynamic exists throughout the United States as well – where most people are cooperating with public health advice in Democrat-run states, but in Republican-run states where the public health messaging is generally very confused and contradictory, it's an ongoing disaster.
The larger venues I used to play in in London have all disappeared, and even with a significant audience in cities like London, it's increasingly difficult to make a living at this, even with the free plane tickets. I played to packed audiences in small venues, one badly ventilated, the other not at all. My friend Jane gave me NHS lateral flow tests to take with me, and every few days I continued to test negative, despite those gigs, and despite the fact that there was no system for checking anyone's vaccination status or Covid status anywhere in England that I saw. Each time I took the test I wondered what I'd do if I tested positive, but luckily I never had to figure that out. I had gigs on the south coast, too. At one, the organizer was home with Covid, and the audiences were anemic, I think largely because the older folks who make up the local population and my fan base were staying home for safety reasons. At least that's the explanation I prefer. In any case, I went back to London after each of those gigs, in order to spend more time in front of the royal courts.
Stories abounded about Labor Party purges everywhere in England, but in some parts the progressives are on the offensive. Newcastle was a breath of fresh air, with mayor Jamie Driscoll and a dedicated team of fine upstanding radicals successfully implementing all kinds of local initiatives. Later in Scotland, I heard much more about similar initiatives there in Ayreshire, among folks who knew about what was going on in Newcastle, too. They call it community wealth-building. This was one of the programs of great interest to my old friend, university professor and New Systems Studies department head at George Mason, Ben Manski, who came to Scotland for the COP26, and to make connections with such folks.
The first thing on my calendar for Scotland was an international antiwar protest, a joint endeavor between Code Pink from the US, Stop the War from the UK, and Veterans for Peace, which has chapters in both countries. The sound system didn't have an input for a guitar, but some very resourceful though jet-lagged American peace activists negotiated to rent a very nice little Bose amp that a nearby busker was using, and it all worked out brilliantly. This antiwar rally with a hundred people at it would be the biggest event I'd end up singing for during the COP26, somehow or other. While it was great fun seeing friends in Glasgow from all over Europe and North America, the events put on by the ad hoc coalition of organizers that were mounting a response to the COP26 meetings were very varied. I heard great things about some of the cultural events going on that were part of these efforts, but the one I was assigned to sing at (for free) had 20 people at it. Very high-quality group of 20 people, though, since I knew most of them personally.
What was to be the big rally after a spirited march of tens of thousands of mostly young people was an unmitigated disaster from a sound point of view. I don't know how it went from any other vantage point, because I spent the first half of the rally trying and failing to offer my assistance to the obviously incompetent person doing the sound. "I know what I'm doing," he apparently told people. No, he didn't, unless there was some other kind of sabotage going on. The proof is in the pudding. The sound system they had was adequate for a crowd of ten thousand, though certainly not big enough for the actual crowd that was expected. However, because of whatever issues they were having with feedback -- constant issues -- the volume was never loud enough to be heard by more than the first thousand or so people. I didn't want to crowd in and try to get close enough to hear the faint noises and feedback coming from the stage, so I left.
In other wet places like Denmark or Germany there are covered sound trucks groups use for marches, but in the UK and the US this is a rare thing, and if anyone has a sound system they can put on wheels, it's on some kind of a bicycle contraption. Which can be great -- I had a wonderful time singing on the back of a rickshaw with a sound system in Chicago at the NATO protests in 2012, for example -- but this time it was raining, so the similar plans that we had for doing that sort of thing on this march were foiled. As a result, there was no live music on the march aside from a wonderful samba band, and unaccompanied singing, of course. Why we can't get it together to deal with the weather in the UK or the US, I don't know, but it's a constant and somewhat embarrassing problem. And I didn't bring a sound truck either, so there we go. Of course, much of what was happening in Glasgow aside from the COP26 meetings was a big counter-conference of some kind. Although I was only playing for small audiences, I was too busy to attend any of that, so I have no idea how it went. Hopefully it was groundbreaking stuff, and went much better than the rally on the Green. The main conference was clearly a disaster, ensuring our extinction, if we remain on this path.
The city itself was thriving as usual. I was staying in the Govanhill neighborhood, famous for the Govanhill Baths among other things. The baths, and the struggle to save the big community center that the baths were part of, have been at the center of the community for decades now, and my host, Fatima Uygun, and her departed husband, my former touring partner, Alistair Hulett, were long in the middle of all that. A new addition to the community, at least since the last time I investigated the neighborhood thoroughly, is a big community garden, outdoor kitchen, a huge tipi sort of thing, full of people of all ages, some of whom were celebrating an imminent wedding. As with the neighborhood, the scene was a mix of folks whose ancestors came from all over Europe as well as all over the Middle East and South Asia. Some women had made several massive vats of delicious food, which was supposed to be largely eaten by COP26 delegates from South America, but the word when I was hanging out there was they opted for a meatier meal elsewhere in town. A familiar story to me, indigenous folks from the Americas getting tired of being fed vegetarian food -- though I suspect if they had come to this tent and seen the meticulously-prepared vats of classic South Asian cuisine, they might have happily settled for a vegetarian meal this time.
Glasgow has many pubs in it with an Irish Republican theme and clientele, where what they know of as "rebel songs" -- songs supportive of the Irish independence struggle -- are somewhere between welcome and mandatory. The brilliant singer, guitarist, and songwriter, Paul Sheridan and I had a little gig in one of those crowded pubs. We were to have had another gig that evening at a somewhat larger and probably much more crowded pub, but the owner of the Squirrel Bar, a guy known as Skin, was in the hospital in critical condition with Covid. The pub was closed, and the gig didn't happen. A few days later I got the news that Skin had died.
As I was going from one thing to the next in Glasgow and heading to the airport to fly to Germany, where I had four good gigs lined up, I was getting urgent messages from one of the gig organizers about a member of their collective who had been reading about my interview with Heimbach -- certain people (or a certain person) continually make sure to remind the world as often as possible that there was this interview, it's like they're promoting it, though they claim to not like it, or me. The way this was all happening only days before the gig, there was no time to sort it out or talk about whatever the concerns were, and the gig was canceled.
I was leaving Glasgow before the COP26 conference was entirely over, but the Glasgow airport was still very quiet. Despite this, the few cafes that were open were very busy, because they were so terribly understaffed. Switching flights in Amsterdam, the airport was quieter than I've ever seen it. Things were very quiet at the new airport in Berlin, which is a very nice one. It took a long time before they finished it, but it's much nicer than the old one was. I had a couple days before what was to be a very nice gig in Berlin, and I spent them staying with friends who live in a big collective house in the town of Oranienburg. If people know about Oranienburg it tends to be because it's where the Sachsenhausen concentration camp was located -- or is still located, at least in museum form. I spent part of an afternoon there. I'm not sure how much is conveyed about the depth of the horrors that went on there, but it's good that they don't build other things on the land where so many people were exterminated.
I'm not sure if some of the folks who live near the camp agree with this. Many would, understandably, like to move on. Some of them might be fascists, or at least that's what their new neighbors from other parts of Germany -- former West Germany -- tend to think. Maybe they're right, I don't know. Many of the locals vote for the AFD, the main far right electoral party in Germany. It all reminds me so much of the way liberals and leftwingers in the US often talk so derisively and dismissively about the views of Trump supporters or Proud Boys, on the assumption that they're all, as Hillary Clinton would say, "deplorables." Very much the same way so many progressives in England view those who voted for Brexit, or for the Tories. What was most striking to me about Oranienburg aside from the extensive and beautiful walking trails through forests and farmland, was the way the center of the town felt like going back in time. Reminiscent of towns I've seen in Romania or Cuba during long-ago travels in those countries, it's an attractive town where few people seem to be thinking in terms of making money off of commuters or tourists. There is not a decent shot of espresso to be found anywhere in Oranienburg, including near the train station, which is usually where such a thing might be found, if it is to be found anywhere. There's not even a single chain cafe, not even a really bad one like Coffee Brothers.
The show in Munich was the sort of arrangement that's very common in Scandinavia, from my experience, but less common most other places. A local secretary of the union, IG Metall, was using union funds to sponsor a cultural event in Munich's premier punk rock bar, in the cause of supporting leftwing culture and ideas in society. The event was free to the public, and very well-attended. As at all the gigs I did in Germany and most of the restaurants I dined in, there was someone looking at each person's Covid status via a QR code on everyone's phone, or in my case my CDC card plus an ID. Where this system generally seemed to break down was in pretty much all of the cafes and restaurants I went to that were run by immigrants. (I'm sure the vaccine-hesitant folks in Munich figured that out quickly, too.) Lots of people in Berlin were involved with the major efforts there to stop the gentrification process that's been going on there for decades, which has seen rents in Berlin double in recent years, like in so many cities in the US. The recent referendum, where a majority of Berlin's voters voted at least in principle for a state buy-back of over 200,000 apartments, was a constant subject of conversation. In Munich, where gentrification has also been going full-tilt, the numbers of people living on the streets was especially notable, though nothing like Portland or other cities in the US.
While I was in Munich, the news was full of stories about how fast the Covid numbers were rising each week in Bavaria, where I was, and in nearby Austria, where they were making plans for a lockdown only for the unvaccinated. The response from certain elements of society was a demonstration of 35,000 people, which is very large for a small country especially, and indicates a lot more dissent than that number represents. In Cologne I did a show with a local songwriter who was, along with another of the organizers of the show, a longtime leftwing radio host. Gerd Schinkel is his name, and he was good enough to give me a day-long, extensive tour by car and by foot of two massive open-pit coal mines in the area, along with the various resistance camps surrounding them.
I have visited and sung at the resistance camp at the Hambach Forest on many occasions, but in recent years, as the coal mine continues to expand and the climate justice movement around Germany and the world continues to grow, the resistance camps around these mines have grown into a large and popular movement. There's a farmer in the village of Lützerath who has given over much of his land for the resistance to build treehouses and other structures. On his farm and elsewhere, there are hundreds of treehouses, hundreds of tents and other structures, and hundreds of people, at any given time, it seems. At times when there's more activity going on, there have regularly been thousands.
There is a pall in the air familiar to anyone who has experienced the sectarianism of the modern pseudo-anarchist movement in places like the US or Germany these days. Whether anyone involved with the movement thinks victory is possible is hard to discern, but what people think of white people wearing dreadlocks is clear from the large screeds in front of the welcome center, handwritten in big letters with markers. From my vast experience being part of the radical environmental movement in many different countries over several decades, I can tell you with complete certitude that among the mostly white people that make up the radical environmental movement in places like Europe, Australia, and North America, a very large percentage of them have dreadlocks. So now some wack German pseudo-leftist has apparently come up with the very dubious theory that dreadlocks are a symbol of resistance, and can only be worn by people of African heritage. If this is not the German secret police trying to destroy the movement, I don't know what it is.
But this nonsense was just the tip of the iceberg. Gerd Schinkel -- a 71-year-old leftist with a long record of standing for all the good causes in his capacity as a songwriter, performer, and radio host -- was recently denounced on stage for having used what someone apparently characterized as "coded antisemitism." This is a term in certain fetid corners of the German and US pseudo-left that they use when people say things that aren't at all antisemitic, but some idiot wants to feel important by claiming that it is. What constitutes "veiled antisemitism" can be pretty much anything that the Nazis thought of Jews. So if you talk about "profit greed," this is veiled antisemitism, since everybody knows Jews are greedy. What, you didn't know that? Probably because you're not hanging out with these alleged activists who clearly know what antisemitism is, unlike 71-year-old leftists from Cologne, or New York Jews like me. Needless to say, getting denounced as an antisemite by a bunch of well-meaning German fanatical kids is actually devastating, as I know from personal experience as well (these elements, known locally to some as the Antideutsche, have attacked me repeatedly in the past, starting around 2002).
The last leg of my travels in Europe would be an extended visit to Belfast. Not that it was necessarily long or long enough, but it was longer than it was intended to be. My flight out of Ireland, to California, didn't exist, so by the time everything was sorted with a new itinerary, it was too late for California. Given that situation, we can easily say that we saved the best for last. To be clear, it's not that the actual gigs I had there were exceptional in terms of attendance or audience enthusiasm -- I've got good crowds in various places, including Belfast. What's so great about Belfast is the quality of what we might call the resistance there. Of the places I've traveled -- which is only 25 of the 200 countries in the world, and mainly a dozen of them, repeatedly, mostly former British colonies, along with other countries in Europe where most people speak English fluently -- Belfast is unique, with the exception of Palestine. I'm quite certain if I spoke other languages and spent more time in place like Chiapas, Bolivia, Kashmir, Catalonia or the Basque lands, I'd find lots of parallels. Certainly the people involved with anti-colonial struggles in all of these places identify with each other, viscerally, which can be plainly seen in so many ways, including from the murals on the walls.
It was far from my first visit to Belfast, but having been away for two years, and having spent so much time around the performative circular firing squads that pass for significant elements of the left in places like the US, England, and Germany, Belfast was a powerful reminder of what a community feels like when it has a sense of common purpose, and a shared history. And as I'm reminded on every visit to Belfast, this sense of common purpose is dynamic, and very modern. For example, the nationalist cause is for independence and sovereignty, but it is not the sort of nationalism that people from places like the US, England, or Germany may understand. Irish nationalism is anti-racist, anti-colonial, and fundamentally internationalist. If being a nationalist and an internationalist at the same time don't make sense to you, then just think of it as sovereignty, because that's what is meant by the term in Ireland. So, when a young boy went missing and was later found naked, beneath a locked manhole cover, the Republican (or nationalist) community mobilized. Hundreds of people were involved in searching every inch of the neighborhoods where anyone thought any leads might be found. The people mobilize in cases like this because they have no faith in the authorities to do the same, and because they don't want the British occupation or the overwhelmingly Protestant and often Loyalist police forces to come invade their homes. But they all want to find out who killed this boy, and the concern for this one life throughout the nationalist areas is palpable.
Something else that's ubiquitous in Republican Belfast is deep respect for the elders. If you're at an event at some venue in West Belfast, the Ardoyne, or various other neighborhoods, you can be sure that many of the people present who are in their sixties or older have spent years in and out of prison, all for politically-motivated so-called crimes. If you meet people in their forties or fifties, they may or may not have spent a lot of time in prison for being a volunteer for the IRA or the INLA, but they quite likely grew up making petrol bombs, throwing bottles at British troops, making tripwires and engaging the soldiers in foot chases, and doing many other things that were perfectly normal for children growing up in many neighborhoods in Belfast and elsewhere in the northern six counties of Ireland known to the British and the Loyalists as Northern Ireland.
The walls of the Irish-language school I was invited to sing at were adorned with beautiful artwork made by the older students, as well as big murals that were more permanent features of the buildings, featuring revolutionaries from the long struggle for Irish independence, including many who are still very much alive today, as well as revolutionaries from other countries, such as Spain and the United States, among them Angela Davis and Rosa Parks.
One of the most touching moments of the past five weeks on the road was at one of the classes at the Irish school. It was a class of elementary school-age kids, and they were asking me lots of intelligent questions. After I sang a couple songs and we had a little Q&A, one girl told me that was I was doing was really great, and that I shouldn't let anyone tell me otherwise. I'm sure she had no idea about the specific stuff I'd been dealing with in recent months, the mystery dude on Twitter who spends most of his waking hours trying to ruin my career, or any of that, but her words were certainly just what I needed to hear, and they were amplified in so many ways by all of my Belfast family.
After spending what I originally thought would be my last day in Belfast before the last gig on my Europe tour -- which ended up being the last gig on the tour aside from a birthday party, because the visit to California was derailed, ending me up with a couple extra days in Belfast -- I dropped my phone. More like I launched it out of my bag, by accident, like a slingshot, unwittingly using the elastic band of a mask to do so. My phone in its allegedly shock-absorbent case flew out of my bag and hit the ground with a crack. Luckily I didn't need to call anyone or look at a map. I knew where the Falls Road was, I had seen the venue there and could find my way back, and everyone I needed to be in touch with would be there.
In true West Belfast fashion, the gig was in a pub infamous for having been attacked by Loyalist paramilitaries. The man behind the bar was a man everyone knew. Jimmy had single-handedly prevented a massacre, refusing to move from the entrance of his pub and let the Loyalist thugs in, taking the bullets himself, and somehow surviving. Also in true West Belfast fashion, the gig was a fundraiser for a local charity called Palestine Aid -- every cent raised gets directly transferred to contacts in Gaza. I was on the bill with a brilliant local songwriter, Pol Mac Adaim, producer of two of my recent albums, whose brothers both spent decades in prison between them, like so many of the people in the audience did. And typically of a West Belfast audience, of all the songs Pol and I sang on many different subjects, the song that moved the room the most was Pol's beautiful tribute to Rachel Corrie, the young member of the International Solidarity Movement from Olympia, Washington, who was slain by an Israeli military bulldozer as she tried to protect a Palestinian doctor's home in Gaza. Jimmy had decorated the room earlier in the day, with Palestinian flags hanging from the walls in every direction.
And in true West Belfast fashion, no one called me an antisemite. And now, back to Portlandia.
Desperate refugees fleeing war zones makes me reminisce about family history, and on the nature of settler-colonialism. You can read this in Counterpunch or on my blog, and you can also hear this in podcast form (with a kick-ass song at the end) if you look up This Week with David Rovics wherever podcasts are found, or go to davidrovics.com/thisweek.
Listen to the news this week, and it's full of stories of Afghan refugees, and stories about Vietnamese refugees half a century ago, along with refugees from Latin America being beaten back at the Mexican border with Guatemala, and the impending wave of refugees that may soon be flowing from places like Madagascar, where climate chaos has ensured that the crops no longer grow.
If you listen to the media of the privileged elite, or what we generally just call "the media," or sometimes "the liberal media," you might easily develop the impression that the history of the US was all about privileged white people oppressing people of color. You'd be forgiven for not realizing that ours is a class society, with an overwhelmingly working class population, which has always been thus, and has been mostly white ever since each state became a state. In the US model of settler-colonialism, for a territory to become a state, it first needed a white settler majority -- what they call the "pioneers" in the history books on the west coast. The next wave of migration were the poor workers in all fields, from all racialized backgrounds, some more oppressed than others, on that racialized basis, among other bases, such as nationality, religion, political persuasion, and gender.
The narrative of the lying history books we force the children to consume throughout this country tells us our ancestors leaving "the Old World" (Europe) for "the New World" (the colonized world, the Americas, or specifically the United States) were "seeking a better life for themselves and their children." In fact, you can frequently catch them saying the same thing about the Afghans coming in now, as if they were not fleeing their homes for fear of death. This narrative matches up bizarrely well with the current historical narrative of the identitarian left, which emphasizes only the relative advantages of the starving European immigrants as they competed for a decent wage in jobs worked by even more starving people from China, or enslaved Africans getting no pay at all. Privilege, indeed. And then if you do ever manage to extricate yourself from the endless cycle of poverty and exploitation, owning your own house or running a business, then you are just another example of intergenerational wealth, another example of a family that was white enough to qualify for a bank loan, or for the GI Bill.
All the personal sacrifice, the centuries of class war, all the mutual aid and solidarity doesn't matter to the identitarian left, it's irrelevant. The outcome is all that matters. Inequality persists, and any efforts made by the privileged white majority towards a more equal society shall be forgotten, in favor of making sure we remember every betrayal. Guilty as charged. If not, shut up about all that class war history bullshit, and all those people who died fighting for a better world. The point is, you're white and privileged, other people aren't, and you need to somehow fix that situation by talking about it and feeling guilty, not by trying to sidestep the point by talking about how the capitalist system exploits us all. How we became privileged relative to others is beside the point. That we are -- and that we need to repent for it -- is all that matters. Anarcho-Puritanism 101, I call it.
It's nothing new for my mind to be occupied by this strange, fake debate, which passes for discourse these days, and is all over the internet, and often also in the streets. I don't like to be part of it, because the side I'm on is never one of the widely recognized positions, among other reasons. But as it continues to simmer in the background as usual in recent years, lately I'm finding myself reading up on my family ancestry. Looking into this stuff has been an intermittent interest of mine for a long time. I don't know how much it has to do with anything, but history has always seemed so alive for me. In retrospect, it's hard to imagine how that wouldn't be the case. My nanny was a German Jewish survivor of the Nazi holocaust. Only 25 years before I was born, there were millions of people alive who would soon be incinerated in gas chambers, including all of my known relatives in eastern Europe.
Aside from my nanny, my blood family's story predates the twentieth century, but also includes it. Many migrants and refugees keep in touch with family back home, sometimes for generations. My grandmother's parents came from Minsk, and my grandmother and her mother kept in touch with dozens of relatives back home, until they were all killed. Then my Yiddish-speaking great grandmother died immediately afterwards, when my father was a child, and the mass slaughter in Europe and so many other parts of the world at that time ended. Grandma Diane, though born in New York, never felt like an American. This was brought home to me as a child because she always referred to my other grandparents, my mother's parents, as "Americans." She was something else -- Jewish, for sure. New Yorker, yes. But "America" for her was places like Connecticut, where I grew up, where she would come visit, but where she never felt entirely comfortable, perhaps because she never forgot the signs on the beaches she saw as a kid that said "no Jews or dogs allowed."
As for my mother's parents, on grandpa Chamberlain's side it's a long line of blueblood English people, going back to the early days of colonization in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. I don't know why they left England. The history of this side of the family in the nineteenth century includes prominent politicians as well as cannon fodder. Going further back, there are both slave-holders and abolitionists. If there is a side of the family that did not leave Europe for fear of death, it is this one, and only this one. My mother's mother's side of the family came from Alabama. This family line, or a part of it, goes straight to the Irish famine, the Irish holocaust, Black 47. M. Whelan was his name. Michael? Matthew? From which part of the island did he originate? Did he speak English? I have no idea, but he was my grandmother's grandfather.
Why did he go to Alabama? Back when he arrived, Alabama was something of a wild southern frontier, the kind of place the dirt poor white people were forced to go to, to try to eke out some kind of a living from the soil, where they might afford to have some dirt to farm on. That's why the Irish famine refugees went there. They had to, they had no other real option, it was that or starve, like they had just been doing back home under British colonial rule. M. Whelan would die long before his grandchildren were born. One of his grandchildren would die young, like he did. Another would leave Alabama, move to New York, abandon her dreams of being a professional musician, and start a family. That was my grandmother, Margaret.
Years ago, when I was doing ancestry research, I always ran into a wall when I got to Ellis Island. Whatever was going on with that side of the family in Europe was a mystery. The ancestry sites I was using claim they're hooked in with European databases, but it never seemed to be really true. Then it turns out another person had already done what probably was exhaustive amounts of genealogical research into a family line that intersects a whole lot with my father's father's Hungarian-speaking parents. I don't really know why it's quite as intense as it is to be able to connect an actual town in Europe to my relatives who only emigrated from there three generations ago. Not a big city like Minsk, which feels like a somewhat anonymous place of origin because of its size, but a little village. A place currently in the Czech Republic, called Krompach.
It was only for practical purposes, looking into residency permits and such, that I was even bothering to look into it, and I wasn't at all sure I'd be able to find the information I needed, but here it was. All I had known was a guy named Adolf Rovics, my great grandfather, was born somewhere in what was called Austria on his immigration papers, which would have been the Austrian Empire, back in 1857. His wife, my great grandmother, Minnie Sturz, was born ten years later, when the same region was part of Austria-Hungary. Minnie's parents were named Baruch and Klara. Baruch was a rabbi. Minnie and Adolf's son, my grandfather, Alvin, was born in New York, in 1899. Adolf died six years later -- very young, as was and is so often the case for members of the working class, be they refugees or not. Alvin never completed high school, but he and his siblings managed to live long lives, like the generations that came after, that were lucky enough to be in the Americas, and not in the perpetual carnage that was Europe during the first half of the twentieth century.
Those are some of the refugees who fled European pogroms, European religious bigotry, and European wars of empire and conquest, from whom I am descended. Which forms of slaughter were your ancestors escaping? And what forms of bondage did they find here? More likely than not, if you are descended from people who left their homelands for one reason or another to come to an unknown place, you have similar stories -- whether you're aware of them yet or not, whether they have been lost to history or somehow preserved, at least in some skeletal form.
This Machine: Today is Woody Guthrie's birthday. I got my guitar a tattoo for the occasion. The song is about many things, incidentally. Mainly it's about the power of communication through music, but also communication by other means, on Twitter or in the real world, to sow division and discord. That's mainly what I'm dealing with right now, and the song is a response to the accusations -- as well as an ode to Woody and the power of song. And a form of self-therapy.
EUROPE TOUR PLANS! I only got home at the end of November from a tour that involved 6 canceled gigs altogether, mostly related to the pandemic in one way or another. However, the show must go on, to coin a phrase, and it shall. Assuming the relevant borders remain open, I'm planning to be in Denmark and Norway in February, and Iceland in early March. From mid-April to late May I'm back in Europe, likely to do shows in Germany, Denmark, and hopefully several other countries, on either side of May Day. As usual, I'd love to hear from anyone in Europe who might be inclined to organize a gig of any kind.
Photo Credits: (1ff) David Rovics (by Guy Smallman / unknown); (10) Paul Sheridan (The Wakes), (11) Gerd Schinkel, (12) Pól Mac Adaim (unknown/website).