How Can We Sing at a Time Like This?

Mark Pedelty, author of Ecomusicology, writes about the United Nations Environment Programme, and how he came to write about rock, folk, and the environment.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is using music to increase environmental awareness. The Music and Environment Initiative is predicated on the belief that “Music is one of the most powerful media to communicate environmental messages to billions of people worldwide—irrespective of race, religion, income, gender or age” ( Participants range from the project’s official “Patron,” Benin’s Angelique Kidjo, to the giant rock festival Lollapalooza.

In Ecomusicology: Rock, Folk, and the Environment I examine popular music as it relates to ecological crises on local, regional, national, and global scales. It was tempting to focus on the most problematic examples, like Live Earth, but hopefully, the tone remains reasonably optimistic as I also highlight examples like Pete Seeger, Jack Johnson, Mos Def, Ani DiFranco, producer Mike Martin, and musical communities around the world (See also These artists recognize that positive pleasure is more likely to change environmental practices and policies than fear tactics. Projects like UNEP’s Music and Environment Initiative provide such optimism, the hope that popular music can do more than sell beer, cars, tickets, and sex, as if any of those things really need promoting (well, tickets might).

Global projects and movements like UNEP’s Music and Environment Initiative provide hope that the popular arts will be up to the task of dealing with global environmental crises. Of course, as South Park’s young activists discovered in “Die Hippy Die,” it takes more than a rock festival to change the world, and there are as many contradictions in stadium rock concerts as there are answers. Nevertheless, UNEP’s efforts indicate that musicians, producers, and policy makers are facing global environmental problems in earnest. At the national and global levels, movements are afoot to make musical production and performance more sustainable, to use music as environmental communication and inspiration, and to remind us that, for better or worse, music is always “environmental” whether it references rainforest destruction, trashes a field in rural New York, or evokes images of young lovers singing to each other in a Volkswagen.

Rather than the national and global, it is local music that I worry about, perhaps needlessly. After all, ethnography is not a generalizable science. What the ethnographer experiences in one locale is not necessarily true for other places. Unfortunately, in my little corner of the earth, the Twin Cities of Minnesota, it is hard to find music making reference to environmental problems. Not that I expect everyone to be singing songs about environmental crises and solutions, but rather that the conspicuous lack of such connections in musical meaning, performance, or movement makes one wonder what’s gone wrong? For millennia, local music has been intimately connected to the places where we live, we love, and bother to protect (from ourselves). What does it mean when such time honored musical connections are severed?

Local bands and producers are interested in environmental questions, but given how hard it is to make a living making local music, it is understandable how little effort is made to align local art with ecological interest. As in America’s domestic policy, the priority of maintaining a growing economy preempts all other interests, especially long-term sustainability and biodiversity. The most fundamental economy—ecology in the biological sense of the term—is rendered esoteric in that magical thinking mindset.

One can hardly blame local musicians or producers for ignoring environmental matters. Like the rest of us, they have to first make a living before they are able to think about relative luxuries, like making a positive difference (i.e., beyond selling drinks, merchandise, and tickets). Many local musicians express interest in environmental matters, even if they are frustrated when trying to do something about it. The solution lies more with the rest of us, audiences and consumers. As long as that is all we are, active audiences and passive consumers, rather than music makers in our own right, local music will be impoverished. Popular music is too often viewed as a hand-to-mouth (or voice-to-ear) form of consumption as opposed to the fundamental act of human creativity and communication it is. Through music, people gain connection to community, culture, and place.

The Honk! music movement and others like it around the world provide useful models for everyone who is willing to pick up and instrument and/or their voice and get involved. UNEP, recognizing the importance of place in the environmental movement, cites not only big name acts and events, but also creative local acts like the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra. These examples might inspire acts of musical courage on the local level: creative, ecological, and different. As Simon Frith points out, it is not so important that we have local versions of big time, global musics. He argues that it is important “to support not just one’s own local music, but also ‘local’ music in general, ‘different’ music wherever it comes from” (23). Given global digital integration, the entire planet, as well as its smaller places, have become part of everyone’s virtual experience.

However, our local material and community ecologies remain the best interlocutors into environmental problems on a global scale. As we walk through the world with ears in pods and eyes on screens, we are still physically in a place where material connections and disconnections matter, literally. Somewhere in that interface between global and local lives lies a promise for more meaningful musics and more biodiverse and sustainable ecologies. Thanks go out to The United Nations Environment Programme’s Music and Environment Initiative for reminding us of music’s potential to improve our collective lives, places, and planet. 

Frith, Simon. “Popular Music and the Local State.” Rock and Popular Music: Politics, Policies, Institutions. Ed. Tony Bennett, et al. New York: Routledge, 1993. 14-24.

Honoring a famous Olympian gold medalist

With the Summer Olympics starting in London this Friday, we repost our Q&A with 1968 Olympic Gold Medal winner and co-author (with David Steele) of Silent Gesture, Tommie Smith.

Q: Congratulations on your book. Why did you wait almost 40 years to tell your story?

A: My life wasn’t ready to be told in story until there was a closure with my athletic, teaching, and coaching career. The time I needed to devote to such an adventure was too great. You have to begin somewhere to be great. The race began in 1968 and now it is time to tell the journey of “how did I get to this race, and where did I go when it was over?”

Q: You say you “never regretted” your actions on the victory stand, “and never will”—that it was, as you write—“something I felt I had no choice in doing.” Did you think at the time that your protest would become one of the most famous protests in sports history?

A: I do not feel remorseful about the act on the victory stand as it was an act of “faith.” Because I believe in “hope” for our changing society, the evidence of non-equality had to be challenged. At the time, my “visual” on the victory stand was not thought of as a portrait to be classified as a picture of history, but as a cry for freedom.

Q: Do you think that such a protest could take place now?

A: Making the same gesture now is defeat; let us repeat the cry with sounds of understanding and deliverance.

Q: Can you briefly describe the Olympic Project for Human Rights and discuss your participation in it?

A: The Olympic Project for Human Rights was a non-violent platform used in the athletic arena as a cry for freedom. It originated on the San JoseStateUniversity campus in 1967. I was one athlete who chose to involve myself for the human rights issues. 

Q: You and your family received death threats and hate mail before and after Mexico City. Were you prepared for this? How did you handle living in fear?

A: My family received hate mail and death threats which altered our daily routine, but we had to continue to remain calm and socially aware. There are still some [people] who do not change and there are some who have made progress.

Q: You have been “forever linked” with John Carlos (Bronze medal winner at the 1968 Mexico City games) on and off since the Olympics. How has your relationship with him been over the years since your “silent gesture”?

A: I had not known John Carlos until my senior year in college, in 1967. Since then, my response to John has been a respectful acquaintance.

Q: You talk about how San Jose State welcomed you back and dedicated a statue to you and John Carlos. How have attitudes towards you—and your actions—changed over time?

A: When I returned to the San JoseStateUniversity for the statue dedication, attitudes were fresh, warm and respectful. The student body and administration was knowledgeable and unafraid in their quest to identify pioneers from the past and ideally, former students such as John Carlos and me.

Q: You have worked as a track & field coach and talk about your coaches in Silent Gesture. Do you have any particular mentors and coaches that influenced you?

A: There are two coaches in my past that I will forever remember because of their knowledge and their social attitude. They were positive “in the time of need.” Lloyd C. “Bud” Winter, my college coach and Bill Walsh, my professional football area coach with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Q: Silent Gesture dispels the rumors that you were a member of the Black Panthers. Your book also clears the record that the Mexico City Olympic Committee did not take for your medals back, or throw you out of the Olympic Village. Can you discuss these rumors?

A: Tommie Smith has never been a Black Panther. I am still in possession of my gold medal—I won the race fair and square, and so the medal is mine. I stayed in the Olympic Village until the race was over, and I returned the next day to get my belongings. As I was leaving, the press was everywhere, so kicking me out of the Olympic Village was a “helpful exit.”

Q: I understand at one point in time you were interested in selling your medals. Is that true? Why did you consider this?

A: I will answer a question with a question…Can you find a Humanitarian donor for $500,000?

Q: You are a hero to many for your actions—who were your heroes?  

A: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who had a Dream of Freedom and Equality, and my father, Richard Smith, who taught me pain is obvious, but how you react is not.

Q: What do you think your legacy will be?

A: I want to leave a legacy that says, “Tommie Smith was a Man who also had a Dream and a Vision and his Standing was not in vain.”

American Education and the Occupy Movement

This week in North Philly Notes, The Enigmatic Academy co-author Christian Churchill pens an entry that puts the ideas of his book — questioning whether education can save the individual and society from major problems of the modern world — into perspective.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US, a blanket of silence fell over much of American political dissent. While the pressure to temper dissent was palpable, it was only an exaggeration of the lack of audible dissent in the several decades leading up to that moment since the 1970s. Post-Vietnam America has in many ways become a post-dissent America. Of course, dissenters exist and their critique is robust, but their centrality to the national mainstream conversation has nearly disappeared. Using the most simple example, in other democratic societies, voices like those of Glenn Greenwald, Naomi Klein, Gore Vidal, and Noam Chomsky would hold the attention of vast segments of the population and would receive airtime from mainstream outlets to make their cases. This has not been the case in the US of late.

And then the Occupy movement emerged.

Occupy is in part a response to the reflexive defense of capitalist hegemony that has dominated political discourse for more than three decades. It is also in part fostered by an ongoing critique of capitalism that has been allowed to continue within the academy. Yet now American higher education is organizing itself to erase this last vestige of critical response. We see this in the form of assessment and other methods of bureaucratic centralization that have emerged in mainstream education since the 1970s which often seek to control the open pursuit of ideas. One reason we wrote The Enigmatic Academy was to address this crisis.

Before World War II, higher education was the province of elites. The surge of middle and lower classes into higher education after the 1940s supported a vast expansion of the middle classes and of the academy. This surge, however, was also a part of the massive bureaucratization of American society. Bureaucracies make many things possible, but among their characteristics is not a tendency to encourage critical debate. The emphasis on critical thinking which nevertheless has been characteristic of much of higher education was permitted until very recently because it seemed nonthreatening, sequestered. But after the student-fueled dissent of the 1960s-70s played such a central role in shaping public debate, forces began to coalesce to stifle those voices.

            The Enigmatic Academy describes an organized but largely unacknowledged and mostly unofficial effort on the part of governing bodies and administrators in higher and secondary education to recalibrate the educational system to be a channel for social obedience and acceptance of institutional expectations and demands instead of critical thinking. This is often done in tandem with genuine desires to open minds and foster social progress on the part of individual faculty, staff, trustees, and administrators. But what education often adds up to is a training system for those who will be paid to run the machinery of private industrial as well as public domestic and foreign policy. Even in the corridors of the most “alternative” academies, we find the methods of preparing talented young people for cooperating in the practices and policies they simultaneously are educated to critique and question.

            Too much of this kind of education leads people to make political choices which they imagine will change the national debate and recalibrate policy to be more humane but instead gives them the same choices once again repackaged, rebranded. The Occupy movement illustrates what happens when youthful discontent with being sold an ideological bill of goods along with more student debt for those goods than they can manage boils over. The ideological consequences of this kind of education can feel enigmatic because the bureaucracies in which students eventually work can promote an ethos of openness to critical thinking. But ultimately these bureaucracies require obedience and fealty to the bottom line.

            Mixed with all of this is what can be called the redemptive strain in American political and educational thought. Coming out of the colonial project of creating a “city on a hill” to shine light to the rest of the world, American thought carries within it the idea that no matter the failings of the individual or the collective, both can be redeemed through a commitment to remaking the self or the group. This redemptive project is central to the ethos of American education, itself so often seen as a way to “save” those who society has left behind. The difference between the youth in the Occupy movement and their less engaged peers may be that they take this redemptive project seriously and are trying to hold the society and its institutions to account for discrepancies between what they say they believe and what they do in the real world.

A look at what other University Press blogs are featuring

From fracking to railroads far away, a sampling of blog entries from a handful other University Presses.

Cornell University Press features the coverage of its author Tom Wilbur, whose new book on fracking, Under the Surface, has been making headlines.

Duke University Press author Nicholas Mirzoeff takes his book, “We Are All Childrenof Algeria,” on revolutionary film in Algeria, to the digital age by giving people who buy his book access online to the films discussed in his book.

Georgetown University Press celebrates winning two Catholic Press Association Awards.

Harvard University Press features a column by Judge Richard Posner on the “Goofy” Republican Party and asks the question on everyone’s mind, What is the Higgs particle? Why is it important?

Indiana University Press offers a staff recommendation: On Railways Far Away by William D. Middleton.

Mississippi State University Press is promoting its forthcoming memoir We End in Joy by Mississippi governor Kirk Fordice’s daughter.

MIT Press showcases Toward A MInor Architecture by Jill Stoner.

Oxford University Press  features The Wartime Presidency, Protestantism in Hollywood, and a video on snails.

University of Georgia Press writes about moving back on campus.

University of Illinois Press links to an NPR feature on Michael Charry’s recent biography of Clevelend Orchestra conductor George Szell, and offers a Q&A with Ghost of the Ozarks author Brooks Blevins.

University of Minnesota Press presents a blog entry by Larry Millett, architectural historian and author of Sherlock Holmes and the Rune Stone Mystery.

University of Nebraska Press is promoting its summer sale on select books.

University of North Carolina Press excerpts Creating Consumers by Carolyn M. Goldstein.

In Memoriam: David Wangerin

Amy Bass, editor of Temple University Press‘ Sporting series, remembers the late David Wangerin, author of Soccer in a Football World and Distant Corners.

I was on Twitter when I came across the news that David Wangerin died.  I had been combing tweets for news on the U.S. swimming, gymnastics, and track trials, reading occasional editorials about the Supreme Court’s ruling on health care, and, admittedly, boning up on the breakup of Tom and Katie.  And then I read a tweet about David from Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl, who included a link to the obituary published by Major League Soccer Talk

On Wahl’s Facebook page, soccer fans expressed condolences as well as their admiration for David’s work, with statements such as “he needs to be in the Hall of Fame” and “he was a tremendous resource in the American soccer community.”  Perhaps best summarizing Wangerin’s legacy, one fan posted: “A loss to those of us who love the history of the game. He connected the dots with his deep knowledge, bringing to light the rich tradition of soccer in the US. In Fife, at Raith Rovers, the Kingdom is now playing one short.”

David’s work first came to my attention when Temple’s executive editor, Micah Kleit, sent me a copy of Soccer in a Football World, published in the United Kingdom.  I tore through it, my jaw dropping frequently at the story he told of soccer in America.  I, like so many others, had always thought of soccer as a more recent drive-the-kids-to-their-game-this-Saturday sort of sport.  Americans left the fanaticism and hooliganism over the beautiful game to the rest of the world while baseball and (American) football and basketball took up all the headlines.  David, born and raised in the Midwest, lived abroad to satiate his love of what was largely seen in the U.S. as a “minority sport,” describing himself as “a soccer fan born in the wrong country at nearly the wrong time.”  Balancing his fandom with his serious research and writing skills, David’s book powerfully altered the way in which soccer fits within the context of the history of American sport.  

Needless to say, I wanted the book, badly.  Temple published it in the spring of 2008 in my series, Sporting, giving it an even larger audience than it already had.  We followed suit with his next effort, Distant Corners, which continues his track of diving into the ebb and flow of soccer’s popularity in the United States, giving us characters such as Thomas William Cahill, the nearly forgotten “father of American soccer”; the importance of St. Louis in developing the so-called American style; and thrilling detail of the 1979 season of the North American Soccer League.  Library Journal declared, “The seventh book in Temple’s ‘Sporting’ series is one of the best recently published soccer books.” I heartily agreed:  the book was both a treasure trove of rarely – if ever – told stories as well as a telling statement on why soccer’s popularity continues to lag behind here.

The loss of David is enormous.  When I asked Wahl – the most important soccer journalist in America – to comment, he simply stated “He left us far too soon.”  And he did.  And while it feels cliché to write that his work will live on, it is true, as that is one of the great legacies of great writing.  He changed forever how we view soccer in this country, giving us narratives that began far before David Beckham ever set foot in Los Angeles.  And it was a privilege to be part of that work.

Dr. Amy Bass is Professor of History, at The College of New Rochelle and Editor, of Temple University Press’ Sporting series.

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