Author: DJB

Be a good boy…and follow your mother’s advice

Pop quiz: Who said the following? She’s a ‘nasty woman.” A “crazed, crying lowlife.” A “dog” who has the “face of a pig.” “Low I.Q.” She is “ugly both inside and out!” A “monster!” Okay, enough already. I don’t even have to tell you who said all those things. You’ve no doubt guessed correctly. Sexism in America, like our country’s racism, never went away. But it also never had such a vocal champion in the Oval Office. For centuries, women have taken abuse from men. For much of that time they had few rights and legal remedies to help battle oppression. Sexism and abuse continues, as we see all too well in the actions of the current president, but today women have more rights, more ways to combat mistreatment, and a power that is already being seen across the country. Winning the right to vote in 1920 gave women the opportunity to play a significant role in addressing sexism, and they are taking advantage of that power to push against one of today’s chief threats …

Why I write

In my journey to write with clarity and passion, I often turn to what others have to say. I look for inspiration in works such as Yale’s Why I Write series. Writing should be easy, you say. Just turn on the computer and start typing, right? Or go old school, pull out the legal pad, and put pen to paper. Easy peasy. Getting a bad first draft can be fairly effortless for me. I did it with this short post, for instance. In a rush, I unfortunately called it a day and hit publish. Wrong decision. Writing well, as opposed to simply writing, is hard. Understanding why one is compelled to write can be an even more difficult journey. In many ways, each of us needs to answer that particular question, which differs individual to individual, before good writing truly begins to sing. I came to pick up the slim volume entitled Devotion by the musician and author Patti Smith because I was looking for inspiration and answers to those questions of how and why. …

Steel Wheels 2015

Saturday Soundtrack: The Steel Wheels

I first became aware of The Steel Wheels somewhere around 2008. I had picked up a CD of the Shenandoah Valley-based band on one of our Thanksgiving trips to Staunton and was introduced to and intrigued by the unique voice and careful songcraft of lead singer and songwriter Trent Wagler. But it was at Merlefest in 2012 that the band pushed their way into the front part of my brain, and, I suspect, the brains of thousands of other music fans as well. After one of the main acts wrapped up their show, as I wrote at the time, a number of attendees were exiting the main stage area on the first night of the festival. Suddenly, The Steel Wheels began singing their powerful Rain in the Valley on a small side stage. And like bees flowing to honey, those leaving stopped, turned around, and were glued to their seats through a spirited 30-minute set. As expected, later TSW shows throughout the weekend were packed, as word spread fast. And just like that, they quickly …

Recovered songs, recovered stories

Folk songs often bring us to the intersection of place, history, and memory. In certain cases, digging into those songs gives us a chance to recover the true stories, long-hidden, from our past, bringing a reckoning with the history that did happen and a reimagining for our collective future. Recently, The Bitter Southerner posted a thoughtful article which examines how the popular folk tune Swannanoa Tunnel was taken from the wrongfully convicted black community in Western North Carolina. Forced to build the railroad tunnel as convict labor during the Jim Crow era, those convicts originally wrote the tune in the “hammer song” tradition of John Henry. Somebody Died, Babe: A Musical Cover-up of Racism, Violence, and Greed shows how the song was reshaped and romanticized into an English-based folk tune in the 1920s – 1960s to appeal to white audiences. As the site notes, “Beneath the popular folk song…and beneath the railroad tracks that run through Western North Carolina, is a story of blood, greed, and obfuscation. As our nation reckons with systematic racial violence, …

Touro Synagogue

Let’s take a road trip to help understand the history behind religious liberty

In following coverage of the fight over the Supreme Court*, don’t worry if you have become confused about the concept of religious liberty. Those making the most noise either do not understand — or do not want to understand — this fundamental First Amendment right enshrined in the Constitution. People who should know better often sow confusion around the history and meaning of “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Before we go all 2020 and take a virtual road trip to visit the places that help us see why the religious persecution faced by earlier generations led to this all-important amendment, let’s begin with a quick summary of why religious liberty is on the radar screen today. Recently two justices on the Supreme Court couldn’t pass up the chance to comment as they joined the court’s unanimous decision not to hear the appeal of Kim Davis, a Kentucky public official who refused to issue marriage licenses because of her personal religious views against same-sex unions. Justices …

History tells us democracy is the objective

When I cast my vote last week, I placed it into the secure ballot box with hopes for a future where democracy, fairness, justice, and the right of all to be heard will flourish. I voted against a future at odds with that vision, a future captured in an idea that is currently running amuck in right wing circles: “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” Utah Senator Mike Lee Was I surprised by this statement? Only in the sense that Mike Lee said the quiet part out loud. Lee, a Republican, tweeted his thoughts during the Vice Presidential debate. He was quickly supported by The National Review and others who, more often than not, pointed out that we are a republic, not a democracy. They look to 1787 and say America was never meant to be a democracy. If we only recognize those things in place in 1787 as valid, however, then Utah wouldn’t be a state, Mike Lee would …

Lessons from the death of democracies

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt was tapped as my Book of the Year when I first read it in 2018. I bring it up again today, just three short weeks before our election, After yet another major violation of the Hatch Act, where an illegal political event was held on White House grounds on Saturday and labeled — with no sense of irony — a “Law & Order” rally; Soon after a right wing terrorist plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan was thwarted by FBI actions; The day before a rushed nomination of a hard-right judge begins to be pushed through the Senate with the benefit of Republican lies and against the will of the majority of the people; and During the weekend U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said African Americans and immigrants can “go anywhere” in his home state but they “just need to be conservative.” It took me less than a minute to find these four recent threats to our democracy: flagrant disregard for the law, violent threats against …

Saturday Soundtrack: Mark O’Connor

The 15th anniversary issue of Fretboard Journal* landed in my mailbox this week, just in time to reacquaint me with an old friend: Mark O’Connor. It was a welcome reunion. First, because I discovered that O’Connor — one of the most inventive string musicians of this era — has returned to playing guitar, after a twenty year break that was required by the pain of bursitis and tendonitis. Then I also found his Improvising Toward Democracy solo fiddle pieces on the internet. As he tell his listeners, “I am recording an improvisation on my violin each day, until our country is safe from the clutches of Trumpism, Cultism, Conspiratorialism, Racism and Authoritarianism. I will record a new violin improvisation each day as a form of a sincere musical prayer until Biden/Harris are voted in to the White House ensuring that Americans will retain our hard-fought democracy. I have been given a musical gift, so I will use this in service to my country and our Republic each day now. When I improvise in this manner …

Listening

Listen in order to move out of your comfort zone

For some unknown reason (he smiles), I had the urge — following last evening’s debate of vice presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Mike Pence — to return and read two of my previous posts* on listening. I had a special need to reconnect with my pleas for white men in power to stop talking and listen. Of course, if you follow the news or watched any of the debate, you know why this subject needs addressing. Vice President Pence talked all over the two women on the stage: Senator Harris and the moderator Susan Page. News reports suggest that he interrupted Harris twice as much as she interrupted him, and he repeatedly went over his time limit, ignoring the pleas of the moderator. Yes, he was marginally more “polite” than President Trump was in last week’s debate. But I personally find the Vice President to be very passive aggressive — standing as both victim and condescending persecutor — and he used that persona last evening to act as if the rules didn’t apply to him. …

Honoring Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer, who was born on this date in 1917, was a voting, women’s, and civil rights advocate from Mississippi who shared more wisdom, in fewer words, than just about anyone I have ever studied. Her bio is full of leadership roles and “firsts”: co-founder and vice-chair of the Freedom Democratic Party, which she represented at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, organizer of the Mississippi Freedom Summer along with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus, an organization created to recruit, train, and support women of all races who wish to seek election to government office. These are exceptional achievements for anyone, but Hamer had to overcome steep odds all her life. She was the 20th and last child of sharecroppers Lou Ella and James Townsend, growing up in poverty. At age six Hamer joined her family picking cotton; by age 12, she left school to work. She married Perry Hamer in 1944 and the couple worked on the Mississippi plantation owned by B.D. Marlowe until 1962. Because Hamer was the only worker who could …