Can I Get a Get a Witness?: Cesar Chavez and Peter, Paul, and Mary

Cesar Chavez

Can I Get a Witness?-Chavez

During Lent I’m participating in a study of  Can I Get  a Witness?:  Thirteen Peacemakers, Community-Builders, and Agitators for Faith and Justice, created through the Project on Lived Theology  at the University of Virginia and edited by Shea Tuttle, Charles Marsh, and Daniel Rhodes.   Released last week, the book presents the stories of thirteen pioneers for social justice who engaged in peaceful protest and gave voice to the marginalized, working courageously out of their religious convictions to transform American culture.

These stories of social activists, such as Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day, and William Stringfellow, shed light on the spiritual motivation for their work for justice.  The first chapter is about Cesar Chavez, the organizer of “the first farm-worker union in a struggle for justice that took on the industry of agribusiness.”  Daniel Rhodes writes,  “Chavez always understood the movement to be about more than wages or contracts; it was a spiritual campaign.  For him, the work of the union was woven inextricably in a fabric of religious significance.  Jesus was with them, and in their struggle and sacrifices they were a part of his kingdom, his people.  It was nearly sacramental–eucharistic.”

Chavez’s story, as well as the others in Can I Get a Witness?, in of particular interest to me because I’m collaborating on a book with and about Noel Paul Stookey–the “Paul” of Peter, Paul, and Mary, a singer-songwriter and activist whose faith and social justice commitment have be integrated both in his work with the trio and in his career as a solo artist.   I share stories of Chavez’s connection with the trio.

In the 1960s Chavez and his co-leader in the United Farm Workers (UFW) organized a national boycott of grapes to draw attention to the exploitation of farm workers by mega-farm corporations.  Sympathetic to the cause, the trio was invited to perform in a Carnegie Hall concert to  support the UFW.   Noel and Peter write,  “Milton Glaser, the internationally acclaimed graphic designer who  . . . created all of the graphics for our record albums, stationery, and many other projects, asked his colleague, Paul Davis,  . . . to create the now famous image of a young Hispanic boy that was featured in the poster for the concert”  [1].  You can view the poster “Viva Chavez, viva la causa, viva la huelga” on the website of the Library of Congress.

Later, Chavez was among the people who invited Peter, Paul, and Mary to join in Survival Sunday, a 1978 concert in the Hollywood Bowl to protest the start up of a power plant in Northern California, built next to the San Andreas earthquake fault.

In 1997 the trio’s manager Martha Hertzberg called on them to  join in efforts  in Watsonville, CA, to organize strawberry workers, whose health was being affected by pesticides, who were having to work in fields that lacked potable water and toilet facilities, and who were greatly underpaid.  She partnered with Arturo Rodriguez, Chavez’s son-in-law, to organize a benefit concert and a trip to the strawberry fields of Watsonville to increase public awareness of the situation [2]. They sang Woody Guthrie’s song Deportee” about migrant workers [3].

Peter and Noel wrote, “Seldom had an audience touched us so deeply.  In some heart-to-heart exchanges with the United Farm Workers’ leaders, we found out what you cannot know from the printed page or from secondhand descriptions:  Theirs was a struggle for survival under  the constant shadow of illness, hunger, and possible death due to horrific working conditions, virtually no health services, and miserably low pay.”    They noted that efforts to improve conditions for the workers were “largely successful”:  “It was the legacy of Cesar Chavez, who changed the consciousness of American about some of our most forgotten and cruelly exploited workers.  Woody Guthrie spoke of these workers in the lyrics of Pastures of Plenty’:  ‘Pull beets from your ground, cut grapes from your vine, to set on your table that bright, sparkling wine.’  In Watsonville, we had come full circle from the ’60s to the ’90s.  The struggle for fairness and justice for the poor was, is, and, alas, will continue to be ongoing”  [4]

 

 

[1] Peter, Paul, and Mary:  Fifty Years of Music and Life.

[2] Peter, Paul, and Mary:  Fifty Years of Music and Life.

[2]  This version from the PBS Lifelines special includes Tom Paxton.

[4] Peter, Paul, and Mary:  Fifty Years of Music and Life.

 

 

Immigration Songs

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Photo by BICAD MEDIA on Unsplash

Today I received a FaithLink assignment to write about asylum and found I needed to listen to some music before I started reading the news.  Some of these are old favorites and others I’ve turned up today.   I offer this list of songs, in the words of Finley Peter Dunne’s (no relation) Mr. Dooley (an Irish immigrant) “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” He was talking about the role of the press, but songs can have the same function.

There’s no better place to begin than with  Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, which I first heard at my high school.  It gave me chills then, and it still does.  The lyrics are from the poem “The New Colossus,” written by Emma Lazarus to raise money to construct a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty.   The poem was cast into bronze plaque, which was mounted inside the lower level of the pedestal.  Set to music by Irving Berlin, here it is performed by the Zamir Chorale of Boston.

No list of immigration songs would be complete without Woody Guthrie’s Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) after a 1948 plane crash in Fresno County, CA, that killed 32 people including 28 migrant farm workers who were being deported to Mexico.  National radio and newspaper coverage failed to give the victims’ names, referring to them as “deportees.”  Although the Fresno Bee had reported some of the names, Guthrie, who was living in New York, didn’t know about the local coverage and responded with this poem.  It was later set to music by Martin Hoffman, a school teacher.  Here it is sung by  Peter, Paul, and Mary along with Tom Paxton.

Noel Paul Stookey‘s Familia de Corazon  is, in his words, about “the promise that sits out there in New York Harbor to all people who want a fresh start, who believe in equality, who are seeking justice and equity.” I find this song particularly poignant at this time when so many children have been separated from their families at the border.  Stookey has also has replaced two verses of America the Beautiful  (2011) with newer ones, one of which recognizes that we are a “nation of the immigrant.”  Both are on the 2015 CD, “At Home:  the Maine Tour.”

Will You Harbor Me?  was written by Ysaye Barnwell, a member of Sweet Honey in the Rock and is on their album “Sacred Ground” (1995). One of their albums “Raise Your Voices” (2007) has the cover shown at the beginning of the video.   Here’s another immigration song by Sweet Honey in the Rock in a video featuring Yonas–We Need a Nation (2010).

These Shoes  (2008) by Andrew McKnight shows the vulnerability of an immigrant woman from Central America. In his introduction he asks,  “What would it be like to grow up in Guatemala or El Salvador and feel so desperate that the only thing you can decide you can do is to leave behind everything you’ve ever known and loved and make this journey . . . .”   The song is on his CD  “Something Worth Standing For.”  I’m delighted to learn about this singer/songwriter who lives in the northern Blue Ridge of Virginia and has a heart for the marginalized.

Nanci Griffith is joined by Emmylou Harris on Griffith’s Good Night, New York, which is recorded on her album “Winter Marque” (2002).

Bruce Springsteen‘s American Land   (2006) recalls the stories of many immigrants who came to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries who discovered that not everyone who worked hard could make their lives better.

P.S. on July 13, 2018

Since I made this post, several people have suggested other songs about immigration:

Neil Sedaka’s  The Immigrant

Ry Cooder’s  Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right

JTF

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