Pete Seeger: A Personal Reflection on the Life Lesson He Left Behind

this machine surrounds hate and  forces it to surrender

This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender [“Pete’s banjo head.” Photograph of Pete Seeger’s banjo by Tom Davis (tcd123usa), via Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons License.]

On July 14, 2013 I went online to the Woody Gurthrie.org website. It was Woody’s birthday after all. I was stunned to see a note of condolence to Pete on the loss of his wife Toshi. She had passed away just days before. I immediately composed a sympathy letter and sent it and less than three months later I received the postcard from Pete thanking me for my thoughtfulness.

He never wrote a memoir or autobiography per se. He did allow Rob and Sam Rosenthal to go through the boxes he kept of his personal papers, letters, and such to publish in 2012 Pete Seeger in His Own Words* in which is a letter from around 1986 to Tim Morris in which he wrote “The mail comes in to our house literally by the bushel, and I hardly have time to read it, much less answer it coherently.” But he did, answered them all, all in due time, as he answered mine.

I mentioned in mine to him a part of the lyric from one of the songs on his last album “A More Perfect Union” it goes: “Deep love, like a bountiful river/Fills the soul, renews the heart.” He said in his reply that those weren’t his words but those written by friend and fellow performer on the album Lorre Wyatt. But if you go to Appleseed Recordings’ notes about the album it clearly states “14 songs newly co-written with Wyatt.” this is just another illustration of Pete practicing humility, of giving not taking credit. His whole life was dedicated to giving, to including, to uniting — binding together, not tearing asunder. In that same letter to Morris he wrote: “there will be no world at all unless we change the directions of our lives.” And, “Pick some little struggles . . . little victories give us the courage to keep on struggling to win some bigger victories later.”

His beloved Hudson River; his beloved America; his beloved folk music; the confluence of all of these reflect the life of a man, reflect his demonstration of how to live a life, a life admired by so many if only practiced by a very few. Still we can strive to do so – live a life worth living – if we listen to the lesson of Pete. In my letter to him I said: “Thank you for continuing to change the world, one person at a time” — and so he shall, through the legacy of his music, his words, and his shining example.

*Quoted from with permission from Paradigm Publishers

Pete’s banjo drawing from postcard, enlarged

Pete’s banjo drawing from postcard, enlarged

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Big Brother is here, it’s the bots

June 25 would have been the 110th birthday of George Orwell. I was reminded of this by the article in Popsci which features some pretty odd photos, here’s an example:

Surveillance camera donning hat in celebration of Orwell birthday

Surveillance camera donning hat in celebration of Orwell birthday

So they say one picture is worth a thousand words; in this case that’s not the case. Facebook, Google, et.al. are taking your words (and pictures too), thousands, millions of them and crunching them into big data piles that then get analyzed and simonized and turned into the real truth about you, which then gets turned into “gold” for the data miners who make sure the information gets into the right hands.  How important is all of this in the world of goods and services? Very important. McKinsey&Company, one of the “mining companies” that stands to gain by all of this makes it abundantly clear how critical the data is to our future as a society in the “picture” they paint in their post:

Big data: The next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity

They’re not kidding around. The larger question is whether all of this manipulation and usage of personal information is innocuous, beneficent, or malevolent?  It is not yet clear what the big picture will be.

Howard R. Debs, The Blogger returns!

carlsandburg156024

I’m actually an optimist, but I’m heading the same way Sandburg did.

I’m back, occasionally.

Yes, for those who have missed me during my ramblings, for those who have yearned for more erudition about the things that matter most, I am back to post! Hey, that rhymes. Which is appropriate, since one of the many errands that took me away from this mission to explicate on the verities and related matters, was my penchant for  creative writing and determination to hit the literary trail. As The Little Einsteins say at the end of an episode, “Mission completion!” (yes I actually watch and enjoy The Little Einsteins); the mount of literary publication has been reached and you can go to a separate page on this site to see a selected list of publications graced or soon to be so with my presence. But enough about me.

This site was and is devoted to advancing the art and science of communications.  Now, in posts to come, I intend to expand on the subject matter to be covered, using this bedrock principle as a measure for all that appears here: if it can contribute to better more effective communication, private or public, it shall be admissible.

So thanks for allowing me back into your virtual hearth and home, I will try to make my stay pleasurable and productive. Stay tuned.

Amazing media audience defines itself and its role

(one in a series of Strictly Opinion posts)

In June of 2006 Jay Rosen (journalism professor at NYU) punched out a blog piece for The Huffington Post under the title “The People Formerly Known as the Audience”  originally aired on his own blog PressThink, which took  Dan Gillmor’s (Director, Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at ASU) “former audience” idea from the book We the Media and punctuated the point.

It includes clenched fist verbiage. Those in the forefront of a revolution often need to express a point with an exclamation point. Now that a lot of the dust has settled – and the point itself has been settled – there can be no real question in February of 2010 that media communication needs to be a two-way street, irrespective of who initiates that communication, it seems appropriate to invite consideration of the basis for relationship/interaction models for now and the future .

The movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind  demonstrates that music is quite literally a universal form of communication. With this in mind, I want to give some examples from the world of music to make a point about media communication and “audience” participation.

I have a passion for music, in most all its myriad forms, from tabla (type of drums played in India, more about these later) to banjo, from classical harp to jazz flugelhorn. In my youth I was very immersed in the American folk music revival of the time. Later I was part of a singing group called “The Evening’s Entertainment”  with gigs ranging from charity events to nursing homes (not the big time to be sure but rewarding nonetheless). As a singer/songwriter I sent a demo tape into the great Nashville vortex never to be heard again.  I have been on  the stage and in the stands and it is from this perspective that I want to review the proceedings.

Speaking of folk music, when Pete Seeger, the folk music/activist icon “took” the stage, he never for a moment construed his goal as – be quiet and listen vis-a-vis those who sat or stood before him; his modus operandi has always been – get everybody singin’ – his intent is to ensure that everyone in the hall/on the shoreline, wherever, participates in the moment, creating a collective “experience” which by its very nature moves mind and emotion. This isn’t a just found “theory of practice”, it is an approach that comes naturally to a natural-born communicator who has been around the horn.  The idea of participation of this sort is nothing new.

Many “primitive” types of music involve “call and response” in which one participant initiates a musical statement and this is answered by other participants. This has evolved into very sophisticated forms – but it all relates back to this basic one. There is the traditional jazz ensemble in which each instrument takes a turn with a lead solo of specified length, improvising – everyone knows the “changes” (the chord progressions and structures for a particular piece) – and  “working around” the melody produces sometimes very innovative and novel results. In classical music, somewhat the same process is achieved through “variations on a theme”.

This musical interlude has been presented to show that, just as in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind  an optimal way to generate communication – given varying circumstances and the desired outcome -can be achieved when there is a sincere motivation and commitment to do so.

What is touted as new  is the application of these musically common approaches to another form of communication – but everybody is not in fact always equal in the endeavor. There are Andrea Bocelli moments in the world of journalism for instance, which warrant just “listening to”. To suggest we are all in this together is fine, but sometimes we – the people formerly known as the audience – can contribute most effectively by just clapping our hands in time to the music. The term “audience” is not yet ready to be relegated to the archaic. The audience defines itself and its role. An audience, as such, can be very much involved in any given instance. The performer  requires an audience as much as the other way around – if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? This is a well-known philosophical inquiry and applies in this case. Speaking of philosophy,  there is another important concept that bears on the  nature of participants and communication, that springs from this discipline.  For Martin Buber the eminent philosopher, the idea of “dialogue” is an essential building block of community, and involves communication in which relationship and connection are achieved between the participants. It involves having regard for both self and the other. It is the difference between talking with someone and talking to someone.

Back to the tabla drums of India as mentioned earlier. The two tabla drums are played in combination to produce very complex rhythmic and melodic patterns which are steeped in long-standing tradition, and passed on from tabla master to disciple. (tabla example). Each of the two drums produces its own unique set of sounds and played together the blending of these sounds is equally unique. The tabla drums are a metaphor for any form of what might be termed interconnected communication, including media communication as it is evolving. This concept of interconnected communication stems from collaborative method theory which provides, along with the concepts of music and dialogue referred to here , an excellent basis for considering what is possible with media. In the end, the goal is that each “actor” brings their own value to the final result produced by the interconnection. Bravo!

 

Is handwriting doomed?

To borrow from and revise Shakespeare (quite audacious of me ), I come not to bury handwriting nor to praise it.  Much has already been written – or should I say put in print – by technocrats signaling the assumed demise of handwriting, particularly cursive writing, and with no regrets mentioned. Just another pre-computer age relic, so be it. But before we bid adieu to the power of the pen, axiomatically being replaced by the power of the keyboard, let’s reflect on writing by hand.

At the conclusion of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 the anti-intellectual hedonistic society that bans and burns books has all but collapsed and it is given to the “book-keepers” to start anew; in cases like this, those who possess fundamental skills are called upon;  survivors who are aware of how to apply rudimentary means to solve essential needs.

I remember an experience with a long-ago acquaintance who had a passion for sailing. He built a beautiful sailboat by himself and after it had proven seaworthy, he invited me to go sailing with him. One of the many fascinating features on the boat was that he had opted for a tiller rather than a steering wheel. When I questioned him as to why he had chosen to use the more labor intensive older means of maneuvering the vessel, he was quite clear: for him, the tiller was more responsive, more reliable, and simpler and therefore less prone to mechanical trouble. In fact much later I learned that emergency tillers are quite often used at least as a backup in case the steering wheel on a vessel fails to operate.

There is a story, a folktale of sorts.  It tells of a particular community that had invoked an involved ritual since time immemorial to protect its village. The knowledge of this was taught from generation to generation and thereby kept intact. But little by little as time went by, succeeding generations were less and less rigorous about learning the intricacies of the ritual, and subsequently forgot and left out steps one by one until all they could remember was the very basic incantation they had been taught, but  when this  itself was uttered,  amazingly it brought about the desired result.

GFDL or CC-BY-SA*

I reference these anecdotes here as they relate to handwriting. It may very well be a fundamental skill,  and a survival skill. It may also be a mind enhancing skill. Vanderbilt University education professor Steve Graham maintains that handwriting is a necessary building block: a number of studies show that quality of handwriting can affect everything from students’ grades to the complexity of expressed thought.

Keeping things in perspective, communication technology has certainly evolved; from Oral Culture, to Manuscript Culture, to Print Culture, to the present Electronic/Digital Culture. There are some who project a future, enabled by technology, in which a neo-oral culture will emerge. I have mentioned this in a previous post. As each successive innovation arrives it tends to impact but not necessarily displace previous means – back in 1955 a Saturday Evening Post article bemoaned the sure to come end of handwriting due to: “an increasing reliance on telephone, typewriter, dictating machines and electronic brains”.

To be sure handwriting was not always egalitarian. In ancient cultures scribes, persons educated in the art of writing, were an elite group. During medieval times, this exclusive competency became much the province of cloistered monks, whose painstaking copying of manuscripts is typically regarded as saving, along with the work of less heralded Jewish and Islamic scholars of the period,  a legacy of knowledge through the dark ages. In colonial times in America, there was a clear distinction between acquisition of skill in reading versus writing; the former, fairly universal, while writing on the other hand was generally reserved for males in the professions and the merchant class. By the eighteenth century, writing had become a usual skill of the well-bred, both men and women. Eventually, teaching penmanship passed from writing masters to public schools. The Spencerian method, first introduced in the 1840’s, and later superseded by the simpler, less elegant Palmer method in the early 1900’s became de rigueur as a part of everyone’s elementary education. Everyone developed a distinct if not perfect handwriting in the process.

Indeed, handwriting is very personal. This is something to recommend it. Historians can pour over a rough draft of a handwritten document, replete with strikeouts and word revisions, and garner much of value through such analysis. The personal touch of a handwritten note has a value as well, to the recipient.

When all is said and done, any advance assumes a cumulative aspect, not a zero sum approach. In origin, the word advance in fact comes from the idea of being in front (of ); implying something is backing up whatever is in front – in the case of tools of communication, handwriting is the ultimate backup.

Two good books on the subject of handwriting are Handwriting in America: A Cultural History by Professor Tamara Plakins Thornton and the recent Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting by Kitty Burns Florey.

*Vintage Esterbrook Pen Co. Ad, copyright (c) 2009, Communicators & Communications. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation;
with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts.
A copy of the license is included in the section entitled “GNU
Free Documentation License”
.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/10/30/is-handwriting-doomed/

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Don’t waste our icons

This is the year of the 70th anniversary of one of my favorite movies, The Wizard of Oz, the Hollywood premiere of which was held at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on August 15, 1939, four years before I was born. I saw the film for the first time when I was around eight or nine I believe. It also happens that my wife and I were married on August 15, 1965. Not to be sexist, but the male gender is not known for recollection of such important occasions,  so each year the movie’s anniversary coincides, which gives me a great mnemonic device to ensure I observe my own anniversary event properly.

401px-Wizard_of_oz_movie_posterSpeaking of observing an event properly, Warner Bros. Entertainment has had a Wizard of Oz Hot Air Balloon  and Ruby Slipper Collection traveling around the country, and on September 29 will release a 70th anniversary high definition edition of the movie. The press releases issued in conjunction with the anniversary celebration state that: “Over the last seven decades, the film has indelibly woven itself into America’s cultural consciousness”, and “The Wizard of Oz is one of the most beloved and iconic motion pictures of all time filled with timeless sentiments and values cherished by multiple generations…more than one billion consumers have experienced the classic story of Dorothy and friends in the Land of Oz.”

This got me thinking about icons. It started with the Greeks. What else is new? The Greek word eikōn, εἰκών  from another Greek word meaning “to resemble” simply meant “likeness”. The etymology proceeded from the Greek to the Latin “icon”, a word then applied to depictions of major religious figures. These “icons” were venerated, a touchy point as far back as the 8th century.  St. Basil the Great (329-379) – yes, there are icons of him –  tried to explain the distinction: “If I point to a statue of Caesar and ask you ‘Who is that?’, your answer would properly be, ‘It is Caesar.’ When you say such you do not mean that the stone itself is Caesar, but rather, the name and honor you ascribe to the statue passes over to the original, the archetype, Caesar himself.”  In the 16th century the word came into English usage in the sense of simile, likeness, image.  This is also the meaning that came to associate itself with “computer icons” and the like. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it is just since the mid 20th century that persons and things looked up to by many and “venerated” in a non-religious way started to be referred to as  “icons”.

One source finds some 18,000 “iconic” references in news stories, and another 30,000 for “icon”.  Suzy Freeman-Greene, in her article of September 15 in the online version of the Australian newspaper The Age refers to “iconomania”, in a time when the word is being applied to just about anything and anyone to the point that its meaningfulness is at issue. And retaining the value of its meaning is an issue. The importance of icons is that complex concepts can be conveyed and achetypes defined through them.  As such icons serve an important communications function.

When we speak of journalistic integrity we can invoke Walter Cronkite as an  icon. Mahatma Gandhi can be pointed to as an icon for non-violent resistance. Thomas Edison, an icon of invention and innovation. He was also called “The Wizard of Menlo Park”, which leads us back to The Wizard of Oz.

In the prologue to his new book Finding Oz author Evan I. Schwartz refers to L. Frank Baum’s classic in terms of it being a great American myth. In its feature about Baum and The Wizard of Oz the Smithsonian Institution online magazine states: “Today, images and phrases from The Wizard of Oz are so pervasive, so unparalleled in their ability to trigger personal memories and musings, that it’s hard to conceive of The Wizard of Oz as the product of one man’s imagination.” The Library of Congress names The Wizard of Oz as the most-watched film in history.

There are a number of words and phrases that have entered into the vernacular resulting from the cultural impact of The Wizard of Oz, for example: Yellow Brick Road. noun. 1. (figuratively or humorously) A proverbial path to a promised land of one’s hopes and dreams.  This example about sums up what an icon is all about, i.e., conveniently summing up something  not reasonably expressed otherwise, like a mnemonic. It would be a shame to waste them.

(A note about copyright. C&C is assiduous with respect to not using copyrighted materials without appropriate permissions. The Wizard of Oz Movie Poster reproduced here is in the public domain by virtue of its publication between 1923 and 1977 without a copyright notice.)

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/09/20/dont-waste-our-icons/

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President Obama and the return of the viral email

Well, now I’m getting worried. In reply to a comment regarding the recent post “President Obama and language used stupidly” (https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/07/27/president-obama-and-language-used-stupidly/) I wrote: “I have some concern his communications team may be a little off stride of late: I will continue to monitor this and report appropriately on the C&C blog…and I am hoping these recent missteps are not indicative of a trend, but rather a “slip and fall” in an otherwise stellar tightrope act.” Now I’m not so sure.

Yesterday I, along with millions of others who subscribe to WhiteHouse.gov received the following e-mail:

axelrodemail
Dear Friend,

This is probably one of the longest emails I’ve ever sent, but it could be the most important.

Across the country we are seeing vigorous debate about health insurance reform. Unfortunately, some of the old tactics we know so well are back — even the viral emails that fly unchecked and under the radar, spreading all sorts of lies and distortions.

As President Obama said at the town hall in New Hampshire, “where we do disagree, let’s disagree over things that are real, not these wild misrepresentations that bear no resemblance to anything that’s actually been proposed.”

So let’s start a chain email of our own. At the end of my email, you’ll find a lot of information about health insurance reform, distilled into 8 ways reform provides security and stability to those with or without coverage, 8 common myths about reform and 8 reasons we need health insurance reform now.

Right now, someone you know probably has a question about reform that could be answered by what’s below. So what are you waiting for? Forward this email.

Thanks,
David

David Axelrod
Senior Adviser to the President

P.S. We launched http://www.WhiteHouse.gov/realitycheck this week to knock down the rumors and lies that are floating around the internet. You can find the information below, and much more, there. For example, we’ve just added a video of Nancy-Ann DeParle from our Health Reform Office tackling a viral email head on. Check it out:

email_reality_check

http://www.whitehouse.gov/realitycheck/71/?e=11

For my purposes, I have here only reproduced the introductory section of the email, which is what I want to consider. You can read the complete text at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/The-Return-of-the-Viral-Email/

Now, what is my concern? Effective communication, as usual – and therefore, I was more than a bit taken aback by the tone and particular use of language in the email, issued after all by the “Senior Adviser to the President” and bearing both the “imprimatur” and letterhead of the White House. In fact, whitehouse.gov, the internet “face” of this administration has itself changed somewhat in character. For those not familiar with this web site, it was to be  an “open window” for the public to the White House and the current administration. On his first day in office, President Obama issued an executive order, the purpose of which was to ensure that the entire federal government should be more open, transparent, and internet-friendly. It stated that agencies must put information about their operations and decisions online and make them readily available to the public. So far so good. In spite of some “technical” glitches at first, whitehouse.gov has tried up until most recently to  practice what it has preached.

The health care reform initiative, characterized most recently as health insurance reform as hopefully more “palatable”, confronted by the opposition – including a barrage of TV ads opposing such reform, the town hall meeting protests (see my post regarding this:https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/08/11/town-hall-protesters-communicate-effectively-not/), etc. have moved the administration’s communications approach into attack mode. The tactics being employed have been called “push back”. Basically there’s nothing wrong with a good old battle of words, depending on what the words are – the overall strategy may be OK at this juncture, it’s the methodology which is in question. The idea seems to be,  “fight fire with fire” – the only problem is the administration is starting to appear as if it is mud slinging instead of mud wrestling. 

There is a stridency to the email which was sent (stri-dent, adj. making or having a harsh sound; grating; to make a harsh noise) which could backfire.  The use of terminology  such as “spreading…lies” is akin to the use of terminology such as “acted stupidly” – remember the reaction to that.

The overriding consideration in any fight of competing ideas must be to ensure that the party that is in the leadership position by virtue of standing (such as a President) always  is seen as such; that doesn’t mean you can’t “take the gloves off” and strongly defend your position, or point up the fallacies in the argument of the opponent, but don’t resort to anything resembling an ad hominem attack – don’t use language which may be taken to suggest the other player is a liar for example. We’ll have to wait to see who lands the next punch!

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/08/14/president-obama-and-the-return-of-the-viral-email/

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