Wednesday, October 8, 2014
FSM's Sounds & Songs of the Demonstration - Various Artists
FSM-Records FSM 4
This is the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement at Cal. In September 1964 the University banned political advocacy by students on University property, an action that was primarily directed at student groups supporting the Civil Rights Movement. The students challenged the ban which resulted in arrests, mass protests and acts of civil disobediance throughout the autumn of 1964 until the University finally gave in and sanctioned political activity on campus which paved the way for the massive anti-Vietnam War rallies later in the decade. I don't remember any of this stuff, but I grew up in the shadow of it living near Berkeley. I first saw the campus as a young teen when my science class in Alameda made the short trip over to Cal for computer classes. I loved the campus and was fascinated by the long-haired graduate students who taught us. When I got to high school, I learned about the 1960s and the student movement and Cal became an obsession with me. It was the only college I applied to and I was thrilled to go there. Of course it was a different place by then, but you could still find traces of the past from the hippies in Peoples Park to the Marxists manning tables near Sather Gate. Professors reminisced about having classes disrupted by tear gas wafting in through the windows. There was even an occasional rally on the steps of Sproul Hall. I participated in a die-in protesting the reinstatement of Selective Service Registration and I have to admit that I felt pretty silly lying on the ground pretending to be dead. The great orator of the Free Speech Movement, Mario Savio, spoke at another rally I attended and lambasted us for being so passive and apathetic. Neither the first nor the last time I heard a baby boomer diss my generation, but alas he was essentially correct. We protested Reagan's policies in Central America and the University's refusal to divest its investments in companies doing business with South Africa, but there wasn't a sense of urgency or the drama of the 1960s. Oh well at least I got a good education and didn't have to dodge riots on my way to class. I picked up this FSM artifact from a record store in Los Angeles. One side of the record features a narrator describing the events of the Free Speech Movement with lots of recorded sound excerpts of seminal events. The other side is a bunch of topical folk songs about the events. I like the spoken word side the best. It opens with Joan Baez addressing students at the Sproul Hall sit-in at the beginning of October 1964. It fades out as she begins to sing Dylan's "With God on Our Side." There is some dramatic coverage of the police attacking the demonstrators followed by a recording of Jack Weinberg being arrested and a terrific speech from Weinberg denouncing the University as a "knowledge factory" that treats the students as "products." There are numerous recordings of the students surrounding the police car holding Weinberg making speeches and singing. This constitutes the bulk of the side. This segment concludes with Mario Savio reading to the protestors the terms of the agreement that resolved the first sit-in. The side abruptly ends with the narrator describing the subsequent breakdown in talks with the administration which lead to the December sit-in at Sproul Hall that resulted in the arrest of 800 protestors. Regrettably there are no sound excerpts for this at all, although some very dramatic ones exist including Savio's famous speech about fighting "the operation of the machine." The narrator briefly mentions the subsequent strike that shut down the University but the record ends with the conflict unresolved. I suppose the record was rushed out to encourage the protestors which makes it an interesting historical artifact, but leaves it unsatisfying as a historical narrative. The music side of the album can't match the drama of the documentary side. The songs are amateurish for the most part aside from Dan Paik's contributions. Paik was a real musician who was in an early line up of the Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band and who introduced Barry Melton to Country Joe McDonald resulting in the birth of Country Joe and the Fish. Paik's songs are "Join the FSM," "Man Takin' Names" and "Womb with A View" which he sang with fellow activists Barry Jablon and Susan Chesney. Paik's songs aren't very original but he sings them with a lot of enthusiasm and he has a compelling voice. "Womb with a View" is the best of the trio, it has a lot of drive and funny lyrics. The song pokes fun at the University Administration's paternalistic and patronizing attitude towards student activism. Paik also co-wrote "Lesson of Berkeley" with Richard Schmorleitz who sings the song. Unfortunately Schmorleitz's singing is much weaker than Paik's. The song is lifted from "Streets of Laredo" and features some of the most heavy-handed lyrics on the record. There are two talking blues songs, Dave Mandel's "Battle of Berkeley Talking Blues" and Dave Genesen's "Free Speech Demonstration Talking Blues." Mandel's song is amusing but suffers from his weak singing. Genesen was obviously a big Dylan fan and he shamelessly imitates him throughout the song. His lyrics are clumsy at times but I still enjoy them for their wit and cleverness. Lee Felsenstein's "Put My Name Down" is taken from Woody Guthrie's "Hard Travelin.'" Felsenstein isn't much of a performer and the songs lyrics are often awkward. Felsenstein later became an important computer engineer which was probably a better career choice judging from this song. Richard Kampf's "Hey Mr. Newsman" benefits from Paul Gilbert's frenzied harmonica playing and I like Kampf's drawled vocal which reminds me of Country Joe McDonald. The song puts down the media's biased coverage of the Free Speech activists. The side ends with Kevin Langdon's "Bastion of Truth" which I like the least of all the songs. Langdon has a nice voice, but his song is slow, humorless, and oppressive to me. These songs are so topical that they probably won't be of much appeal to people unfamiliar with Free Speech Movement unless they have a strong appetite for left-wing folk songs. The documentary side will probably appeal to anyone interested in the 1960s. Recommended to fans of early Phil Ochs.