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Mat Callahan sings for the love of the common man

Author, activist, musician, songwriter and producer Mat Callahan  has been has been working the seam where popular song and common struggle meet for more than 50 years.

His career has seen him rub shoulders with a who's who of  American intellectual and cultural movers and shakers. He's one of the progenitors of the West Coast world-beat scene and, with his band the Looters, brought together deep, danceable grooves with political and social commentary over the course of several decades. During that time, he's written books on music and activism, become an expert in the history of "working people's songs," and, through his artists' collective Komotion International,  worked with the likes of Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy , Les Claypool and Charlie Hunter, among many others.

This weekend, the San Francisco–born Callahan, who has been living in Switzerland since the late '90s, arrives in Buffalo for several days of book readings and musical performances, beginning with appearances Friday and Saturday at Burning Books and concluding with in an Easter Monday performance at the Buffalo Irish Center.

Callahan recently shared his thoughts with The News on  a variety of topics , among them the long and troubled marriage between music and protest; the evergreen nature of hardship and suffering; his latest book, "The Explosion of Deferred Dreams: Musical Renaissance and Social Revolution in San Francisco 1965-75"; and "the real change we must rise to meet."

(Callahan will read from "The Explosion of Deferred Dreams" at Burning Books (420 Connecticut St.) at 7 p.m. on Friday. Callahan and Yvonne Moore perform "Hard-Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People" at the same venue on Saturday at 7 p.m. Finally, the duo will perform "James Connolly's Songs of Freedom" at the Buffalo Irish Center (245 Abbot Rd.) on Monday at 7 p.m.

Q: Music has always been an extremely vital form of social and political protest, precisely because it has been beyond the control of systems of authority. Do you see that changing, considering this current US administration's attacks on funding to the arts and humanities, and on free speech and civil protest in general? Is music becoming more controlled?

A: There are contradictory elements at work here. One is the effort, begun almost 40 years ago under the Reagan administration, to starve arts and education in general by, on the one hand, withdrawing public funding and on the other, handing over control to private corporations. It’s not accidental that this was integrally linked to a steady assault on civil liberties, unions, student activism and so on. If anything, these were mutually dependent-keep creativity, intelligence, knowledge in check, make it harder and harder to gain access-while at the same time, putting more and more restrictions on public protest of any kind.

However, as regards music - and I think art-making in general - this can never be entirely successful because music is fundamentally an activity and one that ordinary people can participate in and enjoy with very limited financial means. Furthermore, music has such a long, lively connection to the lives and struggles of the common people it can never be completely erased, unless we let it be. In other words, if people get together to make and share music it will always serve their collective aspirations and effort to make a better world for all people.

Q: Talk a bit about the songbook, "Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People". When Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger were compiling these songs of the working class and the downtrodden in the '30s and '40s, they were doing so against a backdrop of depression and war. The parallels to the present day are obvious. What about these particular songs make them so enduring?

A: In a nutshell, the same system is at work today as back then and since that system is responsible for all the hardship and suffering working people had to endure at the time, it's no surprise that, given the hardship and suffering many face today, these songs would have renewed relevance. The classic example is Sarah Ogan Gunning’s great 'I Hate the Capitalist System,' which not only indicts capitalism but clearly and simply spells out a Kentucky miner’s wife’s experience; the experience that led her to hate the capitalist system and want to fight it. It reminds us further that, contrary to what the music industry has been telling us for more than one hundred years, the "authentic" music of the working people was never confined to lamentation and resignation. In fact, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of songs still in circulation that have more in common with Sarah Ogan Gunning’s and that put the lie to the image of redneck crackers only crying in their beer or mouthing stupid patriotic slogans.

If anything, the songs in this book are only a sample of a much larger body of music that convey the spirit and determination of working people to resist the oppression and exploitation visited upon them over a very long period of time. They are both a testament to the endurance of that spirit and a living body of songs we can still play and draw inspiration from today.

Q: We are seeing a significant rise in engagement and protest among portions of the population in this country, many of whom might consider themselves among the downtrodden and the exploited. Yet we don’t hear much in the way of new music of social/political protest.  Is music failing us? Where are the present-day Woody Guthries?

A: Well, I don’t know if we can compare different musicians or poets from different eras and conditions, but I certainly know of many, many musicians today who are contributing their skills and time to the growing resistance throughout the world.

Of course, there are some famous names in this country like Neil Young or Rage Against the Machine or Boots Riley and the Coup, but more importantly, there are many lesser known musicians in contemporary classical, jazz and experimental music as well as in popular fields, all doing work that expresses opposition to the current regime. The real question should be not 'Where are the Guthries,' but how do we support such artists, especially younger ones. How can we better penetrate the music industry fog that poisons the air we listen to music in and saturates it with such garbage that it’s hard to find the new Guthries or Robesons or Seegers. Audiences need to actively seek out and lend their ears and minds to the artists that are making revolutionary or liberating art. That’s the real challenge we must rise to meet.

Q: In "The Explosion of Deferred Dreams," you trace the eruption of music as a form of protest in San Francisco from the late 60s through the middle 70s. Why do you think the movement largely fizzled out? What went wrong, and what can we learn from it?

A: That’s what took me a book to investigate, so I can’t answer that question in a few words! But I can briefly state that there were errors on the part of revolutionaries as well as illusions among musicians and artists that contributed to our defeat. On the other hand, there can be little doubt that the System, including both its co-optive and coercive functions, was ultimately responsible for crushing a large, mass-movement for human liberation. The lessons that can be drawn from this for future generations are many and complex so I can’t, in a short interview do justice to them but suffice it to say that it was a mistake to expect music and musicians to be the leaders of a political revolution.

Conversely, it was the duty of political organizations and theoreticians to envision what the future might look like once the system was no more. Instead, that envisioning was left to artists-musicians, playwrights, filmmakers, novelists-while the political side was reduced to fighting against the system, only vaguely pointing toward a future in which all the system’s evils would no longer operate. But this had only negative content. What will not be. What was lacking was positive content, that is, what will a new society actually consist of? How will children be educated, fed and cared for? How will communication and transportation be organized? How will conflict be encouraged in public debate and prevented from becoming lethally violent, and so forth. It was furthermore a serious underestimation of the role of aesthetics on the part of the New Left and other revolutionaries that led to a failure to grasp one of the people’s greatest strengths-our creativity and appreciation of beauty. Obviously, there’s a great deal more to this but, again, that’s why I wrote a book.

Q: Tell me about approaching the writings of James Connolly from a songwriter's perspective. You'll be performing these pieces on the 101st anniversary of the Easter Uprising, and of Connolly's execution, which is fitting. Why is Connolly relevant today? What can he teach us about our own time?

A: Connolly is relevant for many reasons not the least of which is the program he put forward for the building of a Workers Republic. But from the point of view of his 1907 songbook, Songs of Freedom, the relevance is more specific-the elevation of music and poetry to a position of utmost importance in building a revolutionary movement is one point for which Connolly will always be remembered. Another is the emphasis on international solidarity to overcome the divide and conquer strategy of the oppressors, be they British and American Imperialists or their counterparts in other countries. The unity of workers of disparate and often clashing backgrounds in a common struggle for the liberation of all is at the heart of Connolly’s songs, and indeed his exemplary life.


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