Monday, June 4, 2012

A poem on Bob Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell" from Phil Woods

Phil Woods sent me a fine poem on Bob Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell" which I asked him to read at the beginning of my talk on Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence at Boulder Book Store last Thursday; I include both his letter about the talk and the poem below.* Phil once led a poetry writing group that I was part of; we are old friends and also colleagues in the movement against war with Iran.

Responding to my talk, he mentions particularly the moral inversion of those Israelis who engage in pogroms, “Gabe Kolko had a recent post on counterpunch where he quoted an early zionist as saying the one thing we want to make sure we never do is treat the Palestineans the way the Poles have treated us. It shows suffering doesn't make people noble or wise. “ A clip from the BBC about a horrific race riot in Tel Aviv this week against Africans - something very hard to take in - is here. Unlike the BBC, the American corporate press maintains a strict silence about the mob (this type of press censorship is what used to be called in political science courses a feature of a "totalitarian government" when applied to "enemy" regimes); the New York Times aptly criticizes the human rights abuses of non-US allies.

As of Sunday, the interior minister is applying a law to jail "illegal" African immigrants (all immigrants) for three years. See here (h/t Michael Rabb and Jack Womack) It seems the mob takes its cue from the Netanyahu government and the Netanyahu government from the mob.

But each crime of the settlers against an olive tree in the occupied territories is also hard to take in.

There are many jews in Israel and outside who oppose such horrors, and live by the thought of Kolko's “early Zionist” (Ury Avnery is one of many striking examples, and see the letter from Harriet Feinberg here and here). It is very important not to see racist mobs or a racist government as encompassing a people (see my debate with Daniel Goldhagen who blames all Germans for the Holocaust here and here).

But the hour to prevent the state of Israel (and the United States) from harming most Jews as well as all the world is getting late.

“Alan, Thanks again for including me. That was a very stimulating evening. I appreciated you being so tough on Israel. It really is a country that has lost its soul. Gabe Kolko had a recent post on counterpunch where he quoted an early zionist as saying the one thing we want to make sure we never do is treat the Palestinians the way the Poles have treated us. It shows suffering doesn't make people noble or wise.

The thing I like so much about your book (the sense I have of it) is the way it emphasizes agency. Black people have seized the day over and over again. Before I was forced out of DPS [Phil has long substituted in the Denver Public Schools] there was a move away from text books to primary source documents. The trouble was without an overview the kids didn't know what to do with this stuff. But one of those powerful things that came to my attention was some talk back on the Sea Islands when they started to take the land that General Sherman had distributed as a war time move so he didn't have to try to feed all the former slaves following the army. In black dialect very, very articulate people know exactly what is up and what their interests and rights require and they are quite vocal about it. This is a theme you might want to investigate more and bring the story you have done forward during later decades.

The sad reality is it may be possible that blacks have lost some of this since the Civil Rights Movement. So much leadership no longer lives in the hood and many educated blacks seem to have turned their backs on the underclass. Big topics. Your dedication and diligence in your research is truly impressive. Carry it on my friend. Cheers, Phil”

There is a striking parallel between the thousands of blacks who escaped to the British, followed every British regiment, became a source of independent, sometimes guerilla action often to take food as well as of soldiers and workers for the Crown, and what Phil describes in Sherman's army. The great issue provided a clarion for those who could escape to freedom to join armies that began - Sherman's army more, but also, given despicable leadership, more horribly - to fight to abolish bondage.

On the black middle class, there are always those who stand up - Michelle Alexander and Benjamin Jealous and the NAACP being striking examples (and every middle class, even tiny ones, also have wretched qualitiea; after Montgomery, the students moved to protest for civil rights and King and some others provided leadership, but many hung back). It is the circumstances, particularly about the current American police state (2.3 million prisoners; 25% of the world's prisoners), which are slowly gathering. I have hope for continued awakening and struggle. Phil's suggestion for later work, by me or someone else, is a very good one.

And here is the poem:


Talking to a friend about
What is Bob Dylan's best song
I puzzle for awhile & finally say:
“I Shall Be Released.”
He answers decisively:
“I think it's 'Blind Willie McTell.”

Instantly I recall watching Bob
& his incredible band
Play it for Hollywood,
Honoring Martin Scorsese.
Bob with his hat & ravaged voice
Singing a cinematic take
On slavery & its legacy.
It's only McTell to make
The rhyme work easily.
The real theme is to plumb
The origin of the blues.

Our book club has just done
Michele Alexander's
The New Jim Crow.
So, slavery is a constant theme
As we hash out
Why is America stuck &
Why can't it move forward.

Before WW II it was a common item
Of the tourist trade--
Post cards sold all over the South:
Lynchings. So, on vacation
This is what you sent home
To tell the family
You were having a real good time.
One showed a body
Hanging from a railroad bridge.
In the worse women & children smiling
Below a dangling body.
So common, lynching
A good place for a social.
A good place to bring the family
For a picnic or a barbecue.
The staggering horror
Of the American nightmare.

I used to show a PBS video,
Over & over, year after year,
Volume One of Africans in America.
The average slave in Barbados
Lasted three years
& this was the system
Transplanted to Strom Thurman's dismal state.
Before the Revolutionary War
A planter's diary noted:
“Got up, read the Iliad in Greek,
Read the Bible.
Woman slave was unruly,
Lashed her. Then a photograph
Of a slave in an iron mask.
He too was lashed.
Never the slightest creak
Of awareness
That the lashing
& The Sermon on the Mount
Are not identical.
The evolutionary success
Of mental compartmentalization.
Not unique to Germans
Nor to Americans.
But a mind game
Whose time is long gone.

And Bob sings one more time:
“And no one sings the blues/
Like Blind Willie McTell.”

phil woods

*Dylan received the National Medal of Freedom at the White House last week, wearing the hugest sunglasses, Barack putting the medal around his neck. Here was a genuine honor for the real thing as opposed to Bush celebrating war criminals, and Barack is still a man to give it. And yet the drones...Bob wore those big sunglasses...

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