Goodbye, Pete Seeger!

In a time when pop stars are most known for their silly haircuts, salacious outfits and fleeting half-lives, it is almost impossible to comprehend Pete Seeger, the legendary folk icon who died yesterday at age 94.  Seeger was a giant of a human being, a man who insisted upon living humbly but with conviction and courage. 

His commitment to the public good was aching to behold.  When Congress asked him to name names in the 1950s, he refused and was blacklisted.  Undeterred, he toured colleges and coffee houses around the country to make a living.  When his beleaguered former singing partners the Weavers endorsed Lucky Strike cigarettes, presumably to pick up a few bucks, he refused.  When he returned to network television in the late 1960s to sing on the “Smothers’ Brothers” variety show, he choose to sing a provocative song, “The Big Muddy,” lambasting the Vietnam War and LBJ – hardly the kind of song to revive his career.

And yet, Seeger was no dour nay-sayer or small-minded zealot.  He was joyful, generous and optimistic.  He lived his confidence in the power of song to bring people together, beyond politics.  Through his person and the songs he wrote, Seeger’s music came to define the American experience during the civil rights era, the Vietnam War, the environmental movement, and beyond.  It’s hard to imagine the past fifty years without If  I Had a Hammer; Where Have All the Flowers Gone?; Turn, Turn, Turn; The Lion Sleeps Tonight; We Shall Overcome; and many other Seeger songs. 

His determination to nurture wholesome action in the face of abusive power was also a wonder.  From fighting fascism and the Klan to empowering ordinary people to become active citizens, Seeger did not let up.  One of his great inspirations was the Hudson River Clearwater Sloop, which exposed thousands of people to the joys of that river – and the pollution that was endangering it.  He showed up at protests and strikes and at community centers and schools.  How many performers and activists keep at it for more than 70 years without stopping?

Happy 100th Birthday, Woody Guthrie!

It is time to pause and celebrate the improbable, wonderful life and career of Woody Guthrie, born a century ago today.  Could such a voice of ordinary people ever make it as a songwriter/performer today?  It’s remarkable how the “Oklahoma cowboy” drew together the strands of American folk music, hillbilly lyrics, cowboy songs and countless other regional influences to create songs that sound as if they had existed from time immemorial.  In a way, they had.  He was often renovating folk tunes that had already endured for generations and giving them more timely, politically inflected lyrics:  derivation as original creativity.  He sang about dignity and social justice; he sang about hard personal truths and political struggle.

Guthrie himself said, “A folk song is what’s wrong and how to fix it or it could be who’s hungry and where their mouth is or who’s out of work and where the job is or who’s broke and where the money is or who’s carrying a gun and where the peace is.”  In today’s media-saturated world, in which posturing and PR optics drive talent to become facsimiles of the authentic (but never the real thing, lest it be caught by surprise in an unflattering light being all-too-human), Guthrie was the unvarnished, plain-spoken real thing. 

Out of that stubborn authenticity came a raw eloquence that could not be suppressed.  When Irving Berlin wrote the sanctimonious “God Bless America,” which went on to become a hit, especially as sung by pious conservatives like Kate Smith, Guthrie set out to write a song that would not be so darn complacent about America.

DIY Policymaking

I was on a panel, “Artists and Advocacy,” at the National Conference for Media Reform Conference the other week.  The other panelists focused on innovative tactics to gain visibility and influence for pushing a policy agenda.  That's an essential task, but I decided to focus on a different way to advance our interests in a way that is arguably more durable.  Why not build our own commons-based markets and commons infrastructures? 

The existing policy process is systemically corrupted by corporate money and influence, making it a Herculean task for public-interest advocates to prevail.  Just look at the fate of net neutrality to date.  And even if you do prevail, the political winds may blow the other way and erase those gains later. 

Mind you, I am not making an either/or argument, but rather a both/and argument.  We obviously still need to persevere in conventional policy advocacy, particularly on net neutrality.  But with the Internet providing a easily accessible platform for wide-open creativity and the viral amassing of audience/participants, we should find ways to bypass policy altogether and develop our own enterprises to advance our interests.  

Those antic law professors who gave us Bound by Law – a glorious superhero-comic treatment of the fair use doctrine in filmmaking -- are at it again!  Forget DC Comics.  I want my IP Comics!  Keith Aoki, James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins are apparently out to build a franchise by translating the arcane monstrosities of copyright law into clever, hilarious and downright educational comic books. 

Their latest offering, due out in the spring or summer of 2011, is Theft!  A History of Music -- Musical Borrowing from Plato to Hip-Hop. Aoki, a professor of law at the UC-Davis School of Law, is the graphic artist for the comic book.  Boyle and Jenkins  -- both professors at Duke Law School – researched, wrote and designed it.  Boyle is the former Chairman of Creative Commons and co-founder of its spinoff project, Science Commons.  Jenkins heads the Center for the Study of the Public Domain.

Liberate the Music!

Ludwig von Beethoven died 183 years ago. So why is his music still locked behind copyrights and not available for free to everyone? Because even if the music itself is in the public domain, the recordings of his music, or perhaps the sheet music (with special arrangements or notation) can be copyrighted by the orchestras that perform the music or the composers who notate it.

And so if you buy a CD of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, you need to pay your $15 or so to the record label, distributor and retailer, the orchestra and all the lawyers and marketers and other irregulars with a finger in the pie. And then, in the end, you can only listen to the music. You can't legally download it, share it with friends over the Internet, do a remix of it, play it in a restaurant as background music, or use it as a soundtrack to a film.

Artists vs. Copyright Law

We’ve all seen the F.B.I. notices at the beginning of DVDs and the dire warnings by the record labels: their works are “private property” and any unauthorized uses amount to “theft” or “piracy” punishable by law. It’s a big lie. There is a whole class of “unauthorized uses” that are entirely legal, not to mention necessary for education, democracy and ordinary social life. It’s called “fair use,” which is a legal doctrine of copyright law that allows anyone to excerpt and re-use film, music, books and other copyrighted works without getting advance authorization or paying any money.

After constant harangues about the sanctity of their “private property” and the scourge of “piracy,” it was refreshing to experience World Fair Use Day in Washington, D.C. on January 12. The event — hosted by Public Knowledge, the defender of the public’s stake in the Internet and copyrighted works — brought together some two dozen artists, lawyers, scholars, journalists and others who care about our untrammeled right to use and re-use our own culture.

Is there such a thing as artistic integrity in music-making any more? It depends on where you turn your gaze. As Charles Dickens might say, this is the best of times and the worst of times. The music marketplace is becoming more predictable and sterile even as new Internet-based business models allow fans and artists to connect in healthy -- and yes, profitable -- ways.

Let’s start first with Jon Pareles’ depressing account in the New York Times about the proliferation of marketing tie-ins for new music.

It used to be that an artist could focus on the music and could sell songs on their own merits. Even though getting a record contract could amount to "selling out," at least the product being sold was the music. For a while, in fact, in the 1960s and 1970s, the music was king and actually drove the marketplace. Now, the mainstream market has its own dictates for what sorts of commercial music can be viable and "go wide."

The Commons Comes to Schlossberg Hill

“You just walk into the mountain,” I was told. And so I walked up to Schlossberg, a large hill that overlooks the city of Graz, Austria, and into a tunnel carved out of sheer rock that extended dimly into the distance. I stepped gingerly onto the metal grating that formed a inclined walkway, and proceeded in amazement for more than 100 yards. The air had the sharp tang of rock dust. I came to a huge open space — a 150-foot “auditorium” with a 40-foot ceiling — again, carved out of sheer rock.

I had arrived at Dom Im Berg, the main venue of the annual Elevate Festival, a four-day gathering for indie music and political culture that this year is devoted to the commons.

Interest in the commons has been gaining some momentum in Austria and Germany. Some two-thirds of the conference speakers are from those nations, and a number of regional and national media were covering the event. Falter, a national weekly that has a resemblance to the Village Voice of New York City, interviewed me, and devoted another page to DJ Spooky (a.k.a. Paul Miller), the remix artist and cultural philosopher.

Kevin Ryan, a Houston music producer, came up with a brilliantly creative idea: What if you set the words of Dr. Seuss’ classic children’s book Green Eggs and Ham to the music and singing of Bob Dylan? Fantastic idea! So he went into his home studio and put together a clever mashup that mimics Dylan’s nasal singing style and electric band. Check out the mp3 of the song (if it remains online) and you’ll wonder if this is a long-lost cut that Dylan never released.

Would you eat them in a box?

Ryan posted several Dylan/Seuss mashups on his website, Dylan Hears a Who. Instant acclaim and hundreds of thousands of downloads ensued followed by a cease-and-desist letter from the estate of Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) demanding that he remove the songs because they violate the copyrights now owned by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. (For more read Dan Brekke's account, “ Tangled Up in Seuss,” at

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