Songs of Refuge and Resistance

Friday, June 22, 2018

In advance of Yellow Barn's 2018 Summer Gala, The Westerlies offer the following notes for their program with Theo Bleckmann, Songs of Refuge and Resistance, which was developed during a Yellow Barn Artist Residency in June 2018:

In June of 2018, Theo Bleckmann and The Westerlies worked in residence at Yellow Barn to pair songs of resistance with songs of refuge, seeking to balance music’s integral role in protest movements with the power of songs to provide internal solace amidst external turmoil.

This balance is perhaps no better demonstrated than in the two pieces that bookend the evening, those of Joni Mitchell and Judee Sill. Joni Mitchell first recorded The Fiddle and the Drum on her 1969 album Clouds, and its anti-war message has been associated with a number of resistance movements since the 60’s. A contemporary of Mitchell, Sill released two albums in the early 1970’s before her untimely death from drug overdose in 1979. Her 1973 song The Kiss is a demonstration of her remarkable lyricism and Bach-influenced harmonic sensibility.

The protest song is given a fresh, new take in the work of American composer Phil Kline. A veteran of New York’s downtown scene, Kline’s work has been hailed for its originality, beauty, subversive subtext, and wry humor. 3 Rumsfeld Songs come from his 2004 work Zippo Songs, a statement on war and the politics of war based on the Pentagon briefings of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The song cycle was written for Theo Bleckmann and was one of the most talked-about records of 2004, winning “Best of the Year” citations throughout the world, from The New York Times to The Guardian, from CNN to NPR. His song Thoughts and Prayers was written for Theo Bleckmann and The Westerlies during their June 2018 residency at Yellow Barn, and sets the words of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School survivor and activist Emma Gonzalez’s speech addressing the NRA.

Two original pieces in the program by members of The Westerlies draw on their inspiration from the world of poetry. Trombonist Andy Clausen’s Land was composed while in residence at Yellow Barn in June 2018, and sets words from Agha Shahid Ali’s poem of the same title. Exploring the complexities of life as an Indian-American immigrant, Agha’s work colorfully illustrates the thematic and cultural poles of past and present; America and India, Islamic and American geography, American cities and former American Indian tribes. Trumpeter Riley Mulherkar’s Looking Out is a reflection on the poem of the same name by Japanese-American activist, feminist, essayist, and poet Mitsuye Yamada. Born in Japan, Yamada spent most of her childhood in Seattle until 1942, when her father was arrested by the FBI for espionage and she was interned at the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho. The poem “Looking Out” comes from her 1992 work Camp Notes and Other Writings, and is juxtaposed here with text from FDR’s Executive Order 9066, which authorized the Secretary ofWar to prescribe certain areas as military zones and cleared the way for the incarceration of 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry.

True to their Seattle roots, The Westerlies find another voice of resistance in Pacific Northwest history in Joe Hill, a Swedish-American immigrant and laborer who rose to prominence as an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. As Hill and other IWW organizers traveled to lumber and construction camps throughout the west, they would often encounter missionaries from the Salvation Army who were attempting to convert the local migrant workers to Christianity. One of the Salvation Army’s (referred to fondly by the IWW as the “Starvation Army”) most popular hymns was “In the Sweet By and By”; in response to the Salvation Army’s overtures to the migrant workers, Joe Hill, a gifted songwriter himself, wrote a parody version of “In the Sweet By and By” called “The Preacher and the Slave”. Trombonist Willem de Koch’s arrangement juxtaposes the two songs side-by-side, highlighting Hill’s witty, cynical lyrics. 

Early in their development as an ensemble, The Westerlies found mentorship in Seattle-based composer and pianist Wayne Horvitz; their first performance was at his Seattle club The Royal Room, and their first recording was their 2014 album of his compositions, Wish The Children Would Come On Home. These two Horvitz pieces come from his 2012 work Smokestack Arias, a song cycle for soprano voice, piano and pre-recorded electronics and accompanied by dance performances with text by Robin Holcomb. Inspired by the 1916 labor uprising and resultant deaths, now known at the Everett Massacre, each song portrays the perspective of a different woman affected by the uprising and the deaths of the slain protesters, giving a personal account of a seminal event in the history of the Pacific Northwest labor movement. 

Perhaps no voice is more associated with American protest songs than that of Woody Guthrie, and his voice is channeled through The Westerlies in many iterations. One of the songs, entitled Tear the Fascists Down was recorded in 1944 but never released until 2009, when master discs of Stinson Records were discovered in a Brooklyn apartment. At the same time that Guthrie was writing his songs, Bertolt Brecht was a prominent international voice of freedom. His poem “Bitten der Kinder” was written in 1951 and set to music by Paul Dessau, originally written to be sung by a children’s choir but arranged here by Riley Mulherkar.

Amidst these voices of resistance, the original songs of refuge by members of the ensemble shine. Another Holiday by Theo Bleckmann, was written in June of 2016 shortly after the mass shooting atPulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Says Bleckmann, “Unlike my often long and intensely critical editing processes when writing music, ‘Another Holiday’ seemed to appear almost fully formed. This is a not a protest song but a song about being without refuge, of being isolated from your family because of whom you love.” Also bringing familial relationships into the program is Andy Clausen, who wrote Grandmar in November of 2017, shortly after the passing of his grandmother. Says Clausen, “the piece is a meditation on the challenges of loving someone with whom you have vehement political disagreements.”

The theme of refuge is exemplified in Wade in the Water, a well-known spiritual work song from the Underground Railroad. The meditative melody is a hymn of resistance and unification, originating from one of the (many) dark times in the African American struggle. Theo Bleckmann arranges it here next to Look for the Union Label, a TV commercial song from the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (formerly the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and other unions). Composed by R&B Soul artist Malcolm Dodds to a lyric by advertising executive Paula Green, the melody seems to strongly reference Jerome Kern’s Look for the Silver Lining.

Theo Bleckmann and The Westerlies would like to thank Yellow Barn for making this program possible.