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Songs of Protest
By Bill Homans
I was always known as the VVAW musician. That's me singing and playing the harmonica at the end of the Winter Soldier documentary. Throughout a life of some political activism and lots of grunt labor and driving dirty diesel trucks, I have always played the blues. I only work for a living; music is what I do for a life.
So when my old friend from the days of the original VVAW, the great activist musician Barbara Dane, asked me to play for an event in New York City called "Songs of Protest: The Vietnam Songbook," acceptance was a no-brainer. Barbara and I had been back in touch since 2001, when she had played at Oklahoma's "Dusk to Dawn Blues Festival" at Rentiesville. She might be 75, but this is a woman whose fire has never diminished. Now, I'm a musician and artist of no great reputation, but Barbara Dane is my greatest fan, and that said, I can pass on knowing I must have played something worthwhile.
Friday night, February 28, when I got to the lobby of the Washington Square Hotel, down in Greenwich Village, the night man told me people were awaiting me in the bar and pointed the way. Wonder who that can be, I thought. When I got there, I knew this was gonna work: it was Barbara Dane, with a wide, bulletheaded fellow I took for her husband, Irwin Silber, the legendary publisher of Sing Out! magazine, which captured the musical activism of the 1960s. Silber and Dane were the publishers, in 1969, of the original "Vietnam Songbook," a comprehensive collection of songs in vehement opposition to the Vietnam War, by Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton, Nina Simone and Richard Farina, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, and many more.
Wrong! It was my old VVAW brother Joe Bangert, who, with me, was to provide the VVAW presence at the big gig. Joe is cutting-edge hardcore; he spent five years in the 1990s living with the Vietnamese in Hanoi. That's right, y'all, the Vietnamese. Not the "North" or "South" Vietnamese; the Vietnamese. You remember that old expression from the 'Nam, "It don't mean nothin'"? Well, thirty-some years later, it does mean something. That, at least, we can say we accomplished, brothers: Vietnam is one country again. Right on.
The booze is good but expensive in New York City. After hugs, and toasts to Vietnam, the VVAW and ourselves (for staying on the path for enough decades for our hair to get gray), we were off to bed.
Saturday night, promoters Kim Rancourt and Don Fleming — the two New York activist-musicians who had drawn us all together to show the people of 2003 how the anti-war music of the 60s and early 70s had evolved, and yet retained its soul and core — met me in Joe's Pub. Nice joint. Hope we fill it, fellas, I'm thinking. Back in the dressing room, it was clear that (regardless of what I had been assured) the band didn't actually know my songs. These are top-of-the-line players, though, with credits from Blodwyn Pig and Luna through Sonic Youth. You can go to www.Vietnamsongbook.org to see pictures and read about all of 'em. [And you can download some mp3 tracks from the evening, including two songs sung by Joe Bangert. —Ed.] And of course Pete Seeger and Tuli Kupferburg (The Fugs) were also there. This crowd was getting its money's worth!
It was a lucky thing that there were two shows. The first set we did the numbers I had selected from my original 1973 album, "Merry Airbrakes," "Draft Board Blues" and Woody Guthrie's "Vigilante Man," held together with baling wire, duct tape and charisma, leaving Barbara Dane to pull the first SRO crowd back into the zone with her a cappella street demo holler, "Insubordination." During the break I got the guys together and let Sonic Youth bass player Jim O'Rourke know it was on him to lead us. Then, at the urging of Jenny Muldaur (that's right, Geoff and Maria's daughter, with whom I got to blow harp on Donovan's "Universal Soldier"), I showed them how the songs needed to be done.
Numbah one thou. After Joe Bangert had taken the crowd to Vietnam with "The Ballad of Ho Chi Minh" and "Giai Phong Mien Nam" ("Liberate the South," the NVA march song) and Lenny Kaye from Patti Smith's group had electrified them again with a driving, edgy reading of Dylan's "Masters of War," the crowd was ready, and so was the band. This time we really smoked 'em. I'm eager to hear the tapes.
Before Barbara Dane led us all in the last, climactic reading of "Insubordination," our brother from the Universal Human Rights Coalition, Vietnam veteran and former Black Panther Noble I'm Manu-El:Bey, poetically warned the crowd of the danger of trusting leaders, such as the ones we have now. He said:
"Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war to whip the citizenry into a patriotic fervor, for patriotism is indeed a two-edged sword. It both emboldens the blood and narrows the mind.
"And when the drums of war have reached a fever pitch, and the blood boils with hate, and the mind is closed, the leader will not need to seize the rights of the citizenry. Rather, the citizenry, infused with fear and blinded by patriotism, will offer up their rights to the leader, and gladly so. How do I know?
"For this is what I have done. And I am Caesar."
We left the crowd on its feet and in the zone. Over the next two days, Joe Bangert and I were interviewed by the Alan Lomax Archive. Our lives in the VVAW and beyond — and my recorded musical legacy — are now part of an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution.
Joe and I are two VVAW guys who always knew that we were actors in history. Monday evening, on the plane heading back to Oklahoma and my dirty old rolloff dumpster truck, I knew it was official.
Bill Homans, AKA Watermelon Slim, was Massachusetts state coordinator for VVAW in 1971-74. His 1973 album, "Merry Airbrakes," was the only album ever to be released by a Vietnam veteran during the war. Homans' latest CD is "Big Shoes to Fill"; samples and more information can be found at www.friedokrajones.com.