Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco and Protest Music

Is Flamenco Song Protest Music? On Pete Seeger, cante jondo and whatnot

In the New Deal town of Roosevelt, New Jersey, built at FDR’s behest to make work for the jobless, in the home of a once-important American artist, far-left-winger and family friend named Ben Shahn, I asked a fellow traveler named Pete Seeger about flamenco song.

Pete said, as I recall, “You know, it’s strange, but there are just two great musical styles that I don’t really like.  One is Spanish flamenco, and the other is our own blues.”

Well, the newly late Pete might’ve thought it was strange, but I thought it was practically inevitable.  In his immense heart, Pete was an optimist.  He sang to bring people together in harmony, to raise their voices in protest against injustice, and to use that collective energy to make profound social change.  He loved everybody except exploiters,and every kind of music — except the profoundly sad, essentially hopeless, even death-focused deep blues and deep flamenco song.

The great corpus of flamenco song verses are not expressions of protest, though they reflect  the desperate situation and the feelings of a deprived underclass which spent centuries without power and often on the verge of starvation.

The verses can “quejar” — can complain, lament, express grief and misery, often in the context of desperate poverty.  But they are personal and individual, not political and collective.  They are not “protest music”.  I think the reason is simple enough.  When the desperate miners of Kentucky or the strikers supporting the assassinated union organizer Joe Hill joined their voices together in song — in protest — they did so with a reasonable expectation.

They say in Harlan county
there are no neutrals there,
you’ll either be a union man
or a thug for J.H. Blair.

They expected that someone would care.  Not the bosses, of course, but an amorphous but powerful “public” whose indignation, if properly aroused, could materially change a bad situation for the better.

And it worked.  Unions triumphed for decades, until they were outthought and obliterated by smarter and meaner people.

I recall those embarrassing sixties afternoons when I was marching up and down Broadway singing — embarrassing for me, at least, because I am vaguely squeamish about singing loudly in public even while running from the mounted police, and downright excruciating because of the dimwitted words that this mass of English and Comparative Literature majors had come up with for  these historic occasions, namely:

Hey, Hey, LBJ,
How many kids did you kill today?

Or, employing another subtly crafted AA rhyme scheme in iambic duometer:

One, two, three, four,
we don’t want your stinkin’ war.

Hey, it’s got a good beat.  You can march to it.  Well, we didn’t stop their stinkin’ war, though we fooled ourselves that we had done so when it finally ran out of gas; but we knew that we were being heard, and that our voices were important, and that we were important, even when the cops from the Tactical Patrol Force dragged our sit-down-strike asses down the steps of Butler Library.

(I suggested to Mark Rudd, our designated official non-leader of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a protest song that better reflected our privileged social status and exalted educational level, using a free-rhyme scheme and a Joycean stream-of-consciousness sensibility that reflected the approach of Columbia’s greatest poet/dropout Alan Ginsberg, who actually visited the campus during the uprising and recited along with the Grateful Dead and other rock groups:  It began, (freely): “a way a long a lost the riverrun I’m with you in Rockland…”, and as is my wont, rambled on for eleven more pages.)

(Remember, we-types were not in the Reserve Officers Training Corps, called Rotsey – in fact, we would end up throwing that military organization off our campus forever, at least until late last year, when we were outthought and outlasted by smarter and meaner people — and we hadn’t joined the Boy Scouts either, because were were Junior Jewish Undisciplined Intellectuals and afraid of uniforms, so we just didn’t know how to march at all, even with the help of those dumbheaded 4/4-time protest/march songs.  Yes, we were products of the mean suburban streets of Westchester and Long Island…)

Protest music reflects a tacit assumption that the protester can make a difference.

Early flamenco songs had no one to protest at, or to.  A carcelera (a form of the early tonás, from the jails or cárcels):

They put me in a cell so dark
I could not see my hands.

Where’s the moral?  Where’s the lesson?  What were the charges?  Were they trumped up?  What did the lawyer say?  What about appeals, motions for a mistrial?

They put me in a cell so dark
I could not see my hands.

Can we march to this?  Does it have to have such long, draggy lines that don’t seem to have any rhythm at all, or worse yet, to sometimes seem to be in vaguely waltz time?

Look at the shame
you have made me bear;
trying to sell my clothes from door to door
to buy your freedom.

Okay, I know what you’re all thinking:

Who cares?

And that’s exactly my point.  Nobody.

However, there’s an exception.  Certain particular songs, which originated in the mining area of the Levante very far to the East of the birthplace of the art, and not even in Andalucía, are not truly flamenco in their sensibility.  Some verses of tarantas or mineras or cartageneras even have a whiff of protest and even union-ish solidarity to them (hey, maybe the mining town of La Unión is named for a workers’ union, eh?)

But again, I don’t hear real political thinking in Andalusian flamenco verses; but then again, what do you expect from a province where the main political stance was, apparently, Anarchy.

(Suggested anarcho-syndicalist slogan:  ”Next week we’ve got to get organized.”)

Blues songs rarely complained about the ghastly social situation of the protagonist.  They expressed feelings of sadness or longing, just as serious flamenco verses do.  In each case, the low caste of the singers meant there was no logical reason to expect any sympathy, attention or, least of all, any change in status whatsoever.

Up this morning
turning from side to side.  (repeat)
I could not sleep
I was just dissatisfied.

Conclusive Proof:  Yes, there is Protest Flamenco — acknowledged by that name, and considered a separate genre from other flamenco styles..  It appeared in the mid-seventies, during the prolonged death agonies of Franco and his Fascist apparatus, and using slightly coded language, it requested or even demanded freedom.  The chief proponent was a radical leftist, possibly an avowed communist, named Manuel Gerena.

José Menese, under the influence of his poet/artist friend Francisco Moreno Galván,  also sang progressive verses — one album was called “Se Hace el Camino al Andar”, or “You (can only) make a new path by walking it”.  [Welcome correction from the expert John Moore:  That album was by Enrique Morente, one of his first experimental works.  One of Menese's political albums was "Cantes para el Hombre Nuevo".]  A lot of aficionados, including some of us who supported leftist agendas, thought the combo of private pathos and public politics just didn’t work.  But it took guts, and Gerena spent a lot of time in the juzgado.  (In Castilian Spanish the word means “judged”, I assume, and is pronounced “hooth-gado”, it becomes juzgao in the country’s lazy, lovely Andaluz southern dialect [pronounced "hoos-gow"] , which equals hoosegow in our own southwest cowboy slang.

I’ve been in lots of private flamenco sessions, and also a few public singing events in New York.

One was very early in the Vietnam era, before public objections were common.  It was in Madison Square Garden, and I think it was organized by Women Strike for Peace — highly educated and yet somehow very dissatisfied suburban housewives, as I recall, who were way ahead of Students and Men when it came to sensing a rotten situation.

Pete was there, of course, as the Cheerleader-in-Chief.  And because it was the Garden, where the Rangers played, there were pennants and such.  And as it began — this may have been a sort of counter-protest by workers at the Garden — a huge American flag was unfurled from the ceiling.  There were some outright boos — many of us were pretty furious at the American Empire.  And Pete said. and I quote:  ”You know, that’s your flag up there.  And a bunch of bastards in Washington are making you hate it.”

The feeling I had then might’ve been the closest I ever came to patriotism.

(That insane war went on for years and years and years, of course, though it was a quickie compared to our latest endeavor.  And the best, angriest anti-war speech I ever heard was by Martin Luther King, who had infuriated many of his followers by changing his focus from racial equality to the war — he said he could not keep silent when black men were going to Vietnam to fight and die in disproportionate numbers for the freedom they did not have when they came back home.  You will not hear that speech on Martin Luther King Day, or any other day, for that matter.)

Anyway, there we were, Pete smiling and making everybody sing out.

(Sing Out.  That was the name of Irwin Silber’s folk song magazine, which followed a very doctrinaire red line.  Silber and his gang were thrilled when a young folk singer came along who toed the usual leftist line but had more talent than everyone else put together.  And they were furious when that same singer courageously turned on them, refusing to parrot their preferred polemic, and strayed from the political to the personal.  His self-critical parting shot:  ”In a solder’s stance, I aimed my hand/ at the mongrel dogs who teach/ fearing not that I’d become my enemy/ in the instant that I preach.”  Dylan would never preach again — well, except for the years when he became a born-again absolutist, and also wrote the only magnificent new hymn, “In the fury of the moment/ I can see the master’s hand/ in every leaf that trembles/ in Every Grain of Sand.”)

(Pete was not thrilled when Dylan “went electric” musically — and went unpolitical, lyrically — allegedly trying to cut the wire to Dylan’s electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival during “Maggie’s Farm”, which still had some leftover over- or undertones of protestation.)

The political is polemical — and the polar opposite of a flamenco gathering is Pete onstage, hollering “Up there in the balcony, let’s hear you…Now everyone, all together, ‘We shall live in peace…’”

If only.

Brook Zern

January 24, 2014   10 Comments