Press-Citizen column introducing FFM spring session


Published in the Press-Citizen on January 4, 2016: Songs carry new meaning over time

I hope that 2016 will be a year of raucous enthusiasm for live music in Iowa City. Every time I attend a show, it changes my life a little bit: hearing old songs made new, hearing brand new sounds, seeing people who love playing together. And there’s nothing like having that sort of learning, growing experience in the company of an enthusiastic crowd of your neighbors and friends. With young kids at home, it’s sometimes hard to make the effort to get out in the evening. If you’ve ever had that desire to stay on your couch, I hereby encourage you to get out and take in some live music.

We are lucky in Iowa City to have the Englert, a fantastic venue with a fantastic staff who know how to bring excellent artists to town. I love that the Englert brings us such big names but also hosts many free concerts throughout the year, and as the director of a community ensemble I have experienced the support that the Englert offers to community groups. Once the new Hancher building opens, we will have an even wider range of live music options to enjoy.

When Arlo Guthrie performed at the Englert this fall, he talked about the resonance a song acquires as it’s sung by different people in different situations through the years. Programming concerts for the Family Folk Machine gives me a reason to investigate the history of folk songs and the uses to which they have been put. A song like “O Mary, Don’t You Weep” comes down to us with many layers of meaning. It’s one of several spirituals that uses the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt as a beacon of hope for the slaves in the United States who originally sang it. That message of hope brought the song forward into the Civil Rights movement, where it was used by movement singers. The song’s text provided the title for James Baldwin’s Fire Next Time, and the tune lent itself to new versions like “If You Miss Me from the Back of the Bus.”

In our upcoming session, the Family Folk Machine will be learning songs from the Civil Rights movement, songs about unions and the dignity of work, songs about hard times and the “rigged economy,” songs about peace in our towns, and songs about taking a stand and making your voice heard. Our focus coordinates with the University of Iowa’s theme semester on social justice. We can imagine “O Mary, Don’t You Weep” resonating with the memory of all the different situations in which it was sung in the struggle for justice; other songs bear witness to songs of struggle that have come before them. Steve Earle, in “Steve’s Hammer (for Pete),” sings “One of these days I’m gonna lay this hammer down . . . when there ain’t no hunger and there ain’t no pain, I won’t have to swing this thing . . . when the war is over and the union’s strong, I won’t sing no more angry songs.”