Riots

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“There is nothing more truly artistic

than to love others …”

Vincent Van Gogh

Dear Friends,

What should artists do when society around them seems to be unraveling?

A few days ago in Louisville, here in my home state of Kentucky, seven people were shot in riots that erupted in protest over the killing of a 26 year old black medical technician, Breonna Taylor. It happened shortly after midnight back on March 13 during a drug raid at her home. She was shot eight times … and no drugs were found in her apartment.

In Minneapolis, a policemen pressed his knee on the neck a black man who begged for help until he died from suffocation. City after city, America erupted in rightful protest, followed by riots and massive looting of innocent store owners, overshadowing the tragedy of George Floyd.
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Covid-19 needs a host to exist. So does hate and racism.
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I believe in peaceful protest. i believe in justice and restitution for the innocent. I also believe hurting and angry people can be easily taken advantage of.
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I am not going to sit in judgment over anyone in these sad events because I wasn’t there, I didn’t see it happen, and I can’t place myself in the shoes of those who participated. But I don’t like it. It is unnecessary and whenever someone loses their life … for any reason … it is heartbreaking. They are gone. They lost their privilege of seeking justice or apologizing, making restitution or demanding fairness.
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I am weary of hearing of black men begging to breathe. And I am tired of our officers in blue being harmed and killed.

“We’ve learned to fly the air as birds,

We’ve learned to swim the sea as fish

Yet we haven’t learned to walk the Earth

as brothers and sisters …”

Martin Luther King Jr

Social distancing, isolation and the economic collapse with 40 million Americans losing their jobs is causing the fabric of our society to rip apart. People’s nerves are on edge. They are anxious and losing patience. And I fear many are using terrible events as an excuse to be angry, not to actually solve anything. We went from the greatest economy on earth to hundreds of thousands of Americans standing on food lines … in two months. Our world is changing before our very eyes.

It seems every generation has their “standing on the precipice of disaster” moment.

In 1865 the country was ripped apart in civil war, hundreds of thousands of young men killed in battle and the President was shot. It seemed so horrible, unrecoverable.

But it did.

In 1918 we were ravaged by World War 1 and over 20 million people died in a global bloodbath followed by an epidemic of the Spanish flu, killing another 20 million. It seemed unrecoverable.

But it did.

Then in 1929 the stock market crashed sending the nations of the earth into a deep depression, setting the stage for the rise of Hitler, which in turn plunged the world into another global conflict. World War 2 was a tsunami of death, the deadliest conflict in human history with nearly 85 million people losing their lives … forever. More than half of those killed were innocent civilians, many of whom died because of deliberate genocide, massacres, mass-bombings, disease, and starvation. Over what? Why? The world seemed unrecoverable.
But it did.
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In 1963 Kennedy was murdered in front of tens of millions on TV. It was shocking. Horrible. Unbelievable. How could the nation recover? Yet a few months later The Beatles landed in America and everything changed.

World War, Korea, Vietnam, Watergate, Aids, 9/11 … each time it seemed hopeless. Unrecoverable. We will never laugh and sing again …

But we did. Each time.

Now Covid-19 and the unrest that comes with it. We are witnessing the most massive transfer of wealth in the history of mankind … and between money, politics and the polarization of the news media I can’t tell what is true and what is exaggerated.
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All I know is John Prine is gone, and so are 100,000 others in America from this thing.

“Music was my refuge.  

I could crawl into the space between the notes

and curl my back to loneliness.”

Maya Angelou

Each time the world looked like it was falling apart, great art and music was created. Darkness makes light powerful, and art is light against the dark stormy clouds of life.

During the Civil War, artists like Henry David Thoreau, Vincent van Gogh and Mark Twain stared a world covered in a blanket of evil straight in the eyes and created some of mankind’s most beloved works.

During WW1, George Gershwin envisioned an opera about black people at a time of great prejudice. The opera was a disaster, but Porgy & Bess led by the aria Summertime has become one of the most revered operas in America.

During WW2 a scrappy, eternally unemployed fellow from Oklahoma wrote a simple song that is still being sung by millions, as Woody Guthrie turned the disaster of war and climate change into brilliant art.

Art is born of isolation, it is that quiet silence that creates the biggest, boldest and loudest noise. We are in a moment of isolation, a moment of history that is not on the precipice of disaster … but of great art. Brilliant music. Powerful poetry and literary greatness._

I guess it all comes down to perspective. We are not falling off the cliff, we are standing on the edge of greatness, ready to fly across a dark canyon into the arms of brilliant sunlight.

That is the power of art. That is the power of music.

That is the role of artists, known and unknown.

“A few chords strummed on a ukulele

does more good in this world

than the combined efforts

of every politician that ever lived.”

Frank Littig, written shortly after WW1

A song or painting can not bring 26 year old Breonna Taylor back. A brilliant novel or deep poetry can not give life back to George Floyd, or take away the choking and gasping as he tried to breathe with someone’s knee on his neck. But neither can judges, Governors, politicians or lawyers.
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Woody Guthrie couldn’t change the reality of poor people during the Great Depression … but he did give them a voice. He did uplift their spirits. He did make them want to move forward.
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Nobody sits around quoting the greedy bankers who took advantage of folks back then … but we sure do sit around our front porches singing Woody Guthrie songs.
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Art lasts longer than the problems that inspire art.

George Gershwin couldn’t bring 40 million lost souls back to life after WW1, he couldn’t cure the ravages of the Spanish Influenza … but he did create an opportunity that gave voice to black artists with an opera that nobody liked. At the time, anyway.

“Let’s turn the clock back to when

people lived in small towns

and took care of each other.”

Pete Seeger

Thus is the role of every artist, songwriter and musician in the wake of Covid-19. You are here to change the world, to keep it going. Your job is to shine light in darkness.

You do that with great art, not by trying to be a ‘”star.” You do that with good work, not with a big ego. You do that with humility, hard work and willingness to be ignored.

You do that the same way Van Gogh, Thoreau, Twain, Gershwin, Guthrie and Pete Seeger did it. Art must always be bigger than one’s self … and the artist must always be lesser than the art created. Thoreau didn’t stay in a $28 cabin on the shores of Walden Pond for two years, two months and two days because he wanted to be famous. He just wanted to write a book about his beloved brother John but couldn’t find the words, so he wrote about the earth and his love of nature instead.

Henry’s simple journals became the book “Walden” … and changed literary history forever. He didn’t write it for the fame. Or money. Or glory. He wrote it because he loved to write and had something important to say. He didn’t know it would change the world while the world was still reeling from civil war.

But he did.
You can, too. Never underestimate the strength of your silence, the fertile garden of your isolation, or the power of your own front porch.
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Which brings me to the point of this letter …
People are hurting and angry. When the masses ignore authority the masses become authority. At a time of unrest, a time of social upheaval, riots and violence, remember the source of the artists’ power:
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Listening.
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Nobody can fight during the act of listening. It is physically and mentally impossible. Artists and musicians get people to stop. And listen.
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That makes you, my fellow artist … big and small, new and experienced …  part of the greatest peace keeping force in history.
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Use your power. Now. Write and sing. And help this weary, tired world recover.

“To affect the quality of the day,

that is the highest of arts.”

Henry David Thoreau

Stay safe. Stay busy … and wash your hands after every song 🙂

You may or may not be a fan of my own work, but between now and the end of the pandemic, in an effort to keep WoodSongs alive, I am donating all of these to every new and renewing WoodSongs partner. Become a WoodSongs partner at any level and I will donate the new 176-page book WoodSongs 4, the Dazed & Confuzed studio album, the Songs of Rural America symphony album, the Walden play DVD as seen on national TV and the brand new Legacy CD. All of it sent with any WS Partner level. Call 859-255-5700 or click here
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