JohnPietaro at WordPress….

Welcome to this literary and public relations portfolio of writer/communications professional John Pietaro. If you haven’t clicked away just yet, hang on a minute longer; your email can wait. Please take a moment to peruse the contents.

This site serves as an adjunct to The Cultural Worker blog ( and maintains a running legacy of its highlights as well as articles Pietaro authored for various print and online magazines including the New York City Jazz Record (for which he is a Staff Writer), Z, the Nation, CounterPunch, People’s World, Political Affairs and many more.

Herein you will also find examples of the publicity and advertising copy Pietaro developed for Physical Advantage PC (for which he serves as Communications Manager) and various artists and events he’s publicized via his New Masses Media Relations persona.

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Communications ManagerPhysical Advantage, P.C., New York NY: Facilitate communications/public relations/social media for internationally known massage therapy/alternative health center (2006-present)

 Staff WriterNYC Jazz Record newspaper (features, cover stories, reviews; 2014-present)

 Freelance Writer-Numerous essays, reportage, obituaries, fiction and reviews published in print and online media including the Nation, Z, CounterPunch, Portside, Political Affairs, AllAboutJazz, People’s World, Lib Lit, Struggle (UK), Way Out West (Japan), Big O (Japan), various others (1999-present)

-Authored “On the Creative Edge: Essays on the Culture of Liberation” (2016, under review/publication)

-Self-published book of short fiction, “NIGHT PEOPLE & Other Tales of Working New York” (2013)

-Authored chapter of “SDS: A Graphic History” book by Harvey Pekar/Paul Buhle (Hill & Wang, 2007)

-Created/maintains blog The Cultural Worker –

-Guest speaker: Left Forum (2012, 2015, 2016, 2017), Vision Festival NYC (2015), Workers Unite Film Festival (2015)

-Current projects include a novel



-Founder, New Masses Media Relations: PR campaigns for indie and underground jazz artists/events  (2014-15)

-Publicist, She’s Raising the Bar radio program, Blogtalk radio (2012-present)

-Outreach, Rosenberg Fund for Children ‘Celebrate the Children of Resistance’ (Town Hall, NYC, 2003)


Cultural Organizer

-Produce/host/publicize cultural events including annual the annual Dissident Arts Festival (founded 2006), the monthly performance series New Masses Nights (founded 2016), as well as various concerts, panel discussions, fundraisers, awareness-raisers, memorials, commemorations. Locations throughout NYC, Woodstock, Beacon, New Paltz, Kingston NY (1998-present).

Duties: full production including site selection, programming, hosting, performance, communications with site management/event performers/endorsing organizations; public relations: creating and dispatching press releases, traditional and social media campaigns, successfully pitching press.

Arts Genres: music, poetry/spoken word, film, dance, visual art, performance art, multi-media



Master of Arts in Teaching, Lehman College, CUNY, Bronx, NY

-Coursework in Communications and Media, Empire State College, SUNY


Professional Affiliations

Member (Professional status), PEN America

Member (Professional status), Jazz Journalists Association

Member, National Writers Union-NY, UAW Local 1981


Other Skills

Labor union representative/organizer

-mobilizing, advocacy, interviewing, research, outreach, critical thinking, public speaking, negotiating, mentoring, photography, multi-tasking, dedication, self-starter, team spirit, tenacity, attention to detail


Remembering Hazel Dickens


John Pietaro , April, 2011  

The high lonesome sound that touched so many, so deeply, could only have been born of both strife and fight-back in equal proportions. Singer/guitarist Hazel Dickens’ sound was probably about as high and lonesome as one got. The soundtrack of “Harlan County USA” introduced her to the many outside of the country home she remained a visceral part of, even long after she’d physically moved on. Dickens didn’t just sing the anthems of labor, she lived them and took her place on many a picket line, staring down gunfire and goon squads.

She was born on June 1, 1935 in Montcalm, West Virginia, one of the faceless towns dotting Appalachian coal country. Her father was an amateur banjo player who worked as a truck driver for the mines and ran a Primitive Baptist church each Sunday. Here was where Hazel first began singing, unaccompanied out of necessity and the laws of tradition. But the devotional songs melded with the mountain tunes and ballads, creating a unique personal style. Bearing a rough, at times coarse timber, her voice eagerly reflected the broken topography about her as well as the pains of poverty in her midst. In a family of thirteen residing in a three-room shack, the music was far from distant symbolism for her.

At age 16 Dickens relocated to Baltimore where she encountered Mike Seeger on the still fledgling folk scene. Seeger, working alongside his parents Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger in the Library of Congress Archive of American Folksong, began performing with the Dickens family trio, but it was Hazel’s association with Seeger’s wife Alice Gerrard that offered notable area for impact on the music. The duet of Hazel & Alice recorded original compositions and deeply explored the feminist archetypes in Appalachian song.  Dickens was sure to not only raise issues such as the need for equal pay for women workers, but to actively fight for these on and off stage. Among the titles she penned were “Working Girl Blues” and “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There”. She also composed the noted “Black Lung”, which called on the miners’ plight back home. Like Aunt Mollie Jackson before her, Dickens was able to capture the struggle of the moment in song, and this was most evident in her on-screen performances in celebrated films such as “Matewan” and “Song Catcher” and her work on the above noted “Harlan County USA”. The union cause was her cause and it lived anew each time she conjured a topical song set to a melody that sounded as old as the ages.

A clear heir to the Appalachian stylings of Aunt Mollie Jackson and Sarah Ogan, Dickens became a respected figure and was a featured singer at folk festivals for decades. Since the 1970s, Dickens had performed with a wide array of musicians including Emmy Lou Harris, Elvis Costello, Linda Ronstadt, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Rosanne Cash. In 2007 she was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. Dickens was active as recent as last month when she was seen attending the South Bay Southwest Festival in Austin.

Hazel Dickens died of complications of pneumonia in Washington DC on April 22. In the blackened crawlspaces of West Virginia’s mines the lament was a deafening silence as the mountain peaks seemed to bow in solemn reverence.



Physical Advantage has been the first choice in massage therapy for professional athletes, dancers and performing artists for over 20 years.

From the New York Yankees to the New York Ballet, Alvin Ailey Dance to the Radio City Rockettes, and the New York Giants to the giants of Broadway, whether you’re in the spotlight or on the playing field,                    “the Anti-Spa” is your hometown advantage!

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Bridal Body Shop radio changes ‘herstory’ with new program She’s Raising the Bar

Press contact: New Masses Media Relations

John Pietaro (646) 599-0060  



NEW YORK, NY (March 1, 2017) – Kicking off Women’s History Month, the popular internet radio show the Bridal Body Shop will become She’s Raising the Bar. The redesigned program will expand on the core of women’s empowerment heard in the original, a show primarily focused on the fitness of brides-to-be. She’s Raising the Bar will present a wider forum for women’s sense of self, strength and standing, through perspectives physical, emotional and socio-political. Co-hosts Laurie Towers and Elite Ziegelman will engage an array of guests, both female and male, on pertinent topics that fuse the strengthening of the body to that of the mind.

The Bridal Body Shop concept and show are adjunctive to Towers’ own Physical Advantage PC, an award-winning sports massage center lauded for a clientele of professional athletes, dancers and performing artists. Developed in concert with fitness specialist Ziegelman, the successful radio program broadcast each week starting April 28, 2013. While the show was designed for the fitness concerns of brides-to-be (“It’s a dress for a day, but a body for a lifetime”), the strengthening of one’s self-image was always at center. Whereas the original show featured health and fitness tips and interviews with professionals of both the bridal and fitness industries, it also engaged in topical and often humorous discussion. She’s Raising the Bar, however, will push the agenda of women’s empowerment to front and center. “Much of this will still concern physical fitness”, Towers stresses, “Because strength of body and mind are thoroughly inter-connected. But we now have a forum well beyond issues of brides and wedding prep anxiety. She’s Raising the Bar speaks to the shattering of the glass ceiling women have always been confronted with”. However the humorous exchanges between the co-hosts will still be as much a part of this show as before.

Physical Advantage PC can boast over twenty years of international accolades in print, online and broadcast media. The practice has been awarded the “Best of New York” by New York magazine five times and has been featured in Vogue, Allure, Vanity Fair, Fox 5 NY television, the New York Daily News, Glamour, Los Angeles radio, the New York Post, Tokyo Broadcasting television, Time Out NY, Gotham, Picky’s (Japan), Newsday, Men’s Fitness RX, Shecky’s NY, WDST-FM Radio Woodstock as well as the Paris and London editions of Vogue, among others. Physical Advantage is located on the Upper East Side in the penthouse of 139 East 57th street, New York NY 10022, telephone (212) 460-1879, See  for further information.

She’s Raising the Bar debuts on Wednesday March 1 at 1PM. Listeners can tune in via

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The ART of EQUAL RIGHTS: New Masses Nights celebrates Women’s History Month with a revolution in jazz, word and song…

NMN Mar 2017

Experimental vocalist MARYANNE DEPROPHETIS’ TRIO, saxophonist/clarinetist LEE ODOM with her band, and performance artist CRYSTAL SHIPP are featured this month -and- a reading from the pages of “New Masses” magazine by guest slam poet CRYSTAL DENIRO SIMMONS.

Join us in solidarity on Saturday March 25, 7pm, at the historic Henry Winston Unity Hall, 235 W 23 St, 7 floor, New York NY—just across from the Chelsea Hotel. Admission: $10 donation. Refreshments available.

Feature: Frank Gant, “NYC Jazz Record”

NYC JAZZ RECORD, August 2016

FRANK GANT: Essence Beyond the Illness

By John Pietaro

When celebrated drummer Frank Gant first moved into his Lower East Side apartment, the community had been battered by decades of neglect. These days, in the midst of arduous gentrification, the area stands among the most sought-after in a city notorious for displacing its poor. And for an octogenarian stricken with Huntington’s disease and embattled by his landlord, downtown has become a bitterly cold place.

Gant was raised in Detroit, first exposed to the drums in a school band where he quickly came to the attention of peers Barry Harris and Hugh Lawson. “The band director told me I will never be able to play professionally”, he said, with a restrained laugh. “But I practiced. I was serious. Played in my basement every day and I took lessons.”

The drummer’s words were labored, but intent on being heard. His voice, broken with coarse spastic utterances, channeled lasting memories. “Barry, Hugh and I played together, but my first record date wasn’t until 1954 with the Billy Mitchell Band. It was a 7-piece”, he stated.

As he searched his memory, Gant’s eyes became riveted, indicating an excitement stifled, perhaps manacled, by illness. “Right after that, I recorded with Sonny Stitt”. This was the event that put him into the category of top-flight sidemen. Among the gigs that came along in the immediate period were several revered nights accompanying Billie Holiday.

Frank served as house drummer at Club 12, a Detroit space which hosted giants including Thelonious Monk. He quickly moved beyond local status and began touring with a wide array of musicians. During one of these road trips he crossed paths with Charlie Parker. “Bird was the man. That’s all there’s to say”, Gant affirmed. “I asked him which drummer he liked best, Max Roach or Roy Haynes”, he reminisced, citing Parker’s groundbreaking percussionists. “Bird said it was Max”. Gant, too, viewed Roach as the master, the architect of modern jazz drumming, while also honoring Haynes. “Be-Bop. That’s what I played. I don’t care who I played with, but I played Be-Bop”, he added tersely.

Other decisive factors in Gant’s career included several gigs with Miles Davis. “I met Miles in Detroit and played in his band with Red Garland and Reggie Workman”. He also performed with Lester Young and came to drive many ensembles at home or on tour. Recording dates with Harris were followed by those with Donald Byrd, JJ Johnson and Yusuf Lateef, leading names of the day as post-Bop cast new genres to a hungry listening public.

“And then in 1960 I came to New York to play a gig at the Apollo–and stayed. Every club had music then. Uptown, downtown, everywhere.” Gant rarely refused work as he was raising a young family. The drummer picked up a regular spot in Harlem with organist Bobby Foster but also performed in this period with Ernestine Anderson, George Coleman and Monty Alexander, gigging quite regularly at the Village Vanguard, the Village Gate and countless other spots.

Concurrently, Gant joined Ahmad Jamal’s band, the leader he was most closely associated with over the years.  Publicity photos of the day feature the dashing drummer behind a set of glimmering Sonors, indicating the level of esteem he carried. As a member of the Jamal band during a seminal period, he recorded albums such as “Heat Wave” (1966), “Cry Young” (1967), among many others. The band was also captured in concert to great effect on several other releases.

In the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s—and into the early 2000s, Gant’s touring and recording schedule rarely if ever let up. In addition to the full-time gig with Jamal, he played in bands led by Al Haig, and was called back into service for major label record dates with Garland, Stitt, Anderson, Lateef and Johnson. This steady pulse that bridged decades, however, only wavered his course when his own hands came to betray him.

HUNTINGTON’S DISEASE WAS ONCE KNOWN AS HUNTINGTON’S CHOREA due to the dysrhythmia which causes arms to flail, legs to wander. This is the terrible irony for Gant. As he emoted during the NYC Jazz Record interview, he demonstrated the illness’s manifestations, reaching repeatedly into the space in front, perhaps ongoing perseveration, perhaps a means to ground himself. Beyond his chair was a small drumkit, spare pieces, really. A mini bass drum, snare drum, mismatched tom-tom, conga, and tabla stood beckoning. Gant ambled awkwardly over, his body threatening to misdirect each step. But once seated behind his instrument, spastic movements became swinging drumstick dances over cymbals and skins.

His eyes remained riveted, unmoved, but a certain burning essence fought to surface from deep within.

Cards, letters or donations for Frank Gant can be sent to him care of the Jazz Foundation



“SOLIDARITY” by MATT LAVELLE’S                12 HOUSES debuts Sept 13

WarningThis is not your Dad’s DANCE ORCHESTRA

See and hear the 12 Houses’ bold brand of Free Jazz conquer the bounds of composition at their debut CD-release event…

–ShapeShifter Lab, 18 Whitwell Place Brooklyn NY, 9/13/15, 7PM–

“Solidarity”, this powerhouse new CD, will be available at a special price–

In the meantime, satisfy your urge to liberate the big band sound with this recent video performance of the 12 Houses:

“Here’s a burning kind of swing filled with outside invention and a stellar cast of musicians…”

For more info:

Press contact: NEW MASSES MEDIA RELATIONS  John Pietaro  (646) 599-0060


Press contact: New Masses Media Relations

John Pietaro (646) 599-0060  


PHYSICAL ADVANTAGE, Top Sports Massage Brand, Celebrates 20 Years of Press

 NEW YORK, NY (July 12, 2016) –  The award-winning sports massage center Physical Advantage PC, lauded for a clientele of professional athletes, dancers and performing artists, will commemorate its decades of press coverage by offering 1996 prices to the public during summer season.

Physical Advantage can boast twenty years of international accolades in print, online and broadcast media commencing with a cover feature on founder Laurie Towers in Manhattan’s Resident newspaper, May ’96. Physical Advantage has since been awarded the “Best of New York” by New York magazine over five years and has also been featured in Vogue, Allure, Vanity Fair, Fox 5 NY television, the New York Daily News, Glamour, Los Angeles radio, the New York Post, Tokyo Broadcasting television, Time Out NY, Gotham, Picky’s (Japan), Newsday, Men’s Fitness RX, Shecky’s NY, WDST-FM Radio Woodstock, and the French and London editions of Vogue, among others. Ms. Towers has authored articles for Massage, Shape, Flex, Bella, Muscle and Fitness for Women and Muscle Sport. An acknowledged expert in her field, Towers’ writings have been incorporated into fitness studies by other health professionals.

The Physical Advantage brand has been affectionately dubbed “The Anti-Spa” by the press. “Our mantra is “No fluff, no candles…no kidding!” comments Towers. Physical Advantage counts among its clients members of New York major league sports teams including the New York Yankees, Mets, Giants, Jets, Knicks, Nets, Rangers, Islanders, plus professional touring and recording artists of opera, dance and Broadway, from Alvin Ailey Dance to the Radio City Rockettes and many more.

The 20th anniversary celebration begins in July and runs through the summer with a Physical Advantage price list that rolls back the years to 1996. For more information visit

Physical Advantage’s main office is located on the Upper East Side in the penthouse of 139 East 57th street, New York NY 10022, telephone (212) 460-1879,

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GARY BARTZ: Musical Warrior

New York City Jazz Record, cover story- September 2015

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GARY BARTZ: Musical Warrior
By John Pietaro

In a Brooklyn coffee house recently, the conversation of two hipsters was overheard. Occupying a small table at center, they claimed the room with the brash gestures of young lions. Williamsburg loomed just beyond the doorway, listening in.

The elder fellow, beaming with recent-grad vigor, was holding court. His notable topic: 1960s jazz and radical politics. Commandingly, he lectured on the Black Arts Movement, dropping such names as Amiri Baraka and quizzing the other guy with quotes from Archie Shepp liner notes.

His young charge sipped a latte and watched the senior jazzbo carefully, tersely commenting, “Word”. Neither caught the irony of their liberation arts discussion in New York City’s most gentrified neighborhood.

Suddenly, the young charge began to tap out a Latin rhythm on the table and sing in a loud voice. As others in the house looked up from iPads, he bellowed, “Rivers I have seeeeen, and rivers I have knooooown. Ancient in the woooorld and older than the blooooood, I’ve known rivers! I’ve known rivers!”
“Yeah, dude!” jazzbo exclaimed, fist-bumping his companion. “Gary Bartz!””

By the time the other patrons resumed web surfing, the hipster pair were toasting each other over the next round of overpriced coffees, nodding in time to their inner muse.

Generations of cool are determined by public whimsy and the passage of time, but the artist-activist reigns eternal. Gary Bartz, a fiercely independent musician, is celebrating his 75th year this September 26. For well over a half-century, he has worked with some of the greatest figures in this music, performing on many a legendary stage. His discography, a testament to African American arts traditions, speaks with pride and unabashed radicalism but through a voice immediately welcoming.

Bartz has been singing through his instrument for a long time. From the adventurous, socially conscious band of Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln to the burning hard bop of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, from the divergent worlds of McCoy Tyner and Phyllis Hyman to the bold paths of Jackie McLean, Pharoah Sanders, Amiri Baraka and Norman Connors, and of course the groundbreaking Miles Davis band, Gary Bartz’ alto and soprano resound. His contributions as a band leader also marched to their own musical foray, but the objective was communication with his audience. Gary Bartz’s experiences are embedded in the social and musical fabric of the nation. He’s known rivers, and then some.

“My parents were serous listeners and we would go out as a family to see all of the bands who came through Baltimore, where I’m from. But we were close enough to New York to visit there often. There was so much going on in New York—I knew I had to move as soon as possible. For a young musician, it was the place to be.”

In addition to the music, Bartz had another, more urgent reason to relocate. “Baltimore was a segregated city”, he explained. “I just couldn’t remain there”. By 1958, he’d taken an apartment on NYC’s Lower East Side. Though formal training came from classes at Julliard, perhaps the more important tutelage was derived during conversations with Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), Alan Ginsberg and other revolutionary artists in his immediate purview.

“Max was like a father-figure to me. He was a great thinker. We would get into long discussions about politics, Black Nationalism and history. This was a revelation. Parties at Max’s place included not only all of the great musicians but people like Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Max also sent me to Lewis Michaux’s bookstore in Harlem.”

Malcolm X was a frequent visitor to this noted civil rights bookstore. “My friends and I would follow him around. We would see him at Michaux’s or the Shabazz Restaurant or just walking around the streets. Malcolm was brilliant, an intellectual giant with a magnetic personality”.

Gary also became a regular visitor to the Five Spot after the Ornette Coleman Quartet began their now mythic residency. “From the moment he landed in town, I knew that Ornette was changing the musical landscape forever. And the horn. I view him as only one of three musicians to completely revolutionize the saxophone. The other two are Lester Young and Charlie Parker”.

Downtown was a veritable wonderland for the young saxophonist. He began playing with an early version of Charles Mingus’ Jazz Workshop, then holding fort at the Village Gate. Mingus became another important figure in the young Bartz’ career—and philosophy.
Bartz became absorbed in the concept of The New Thing as a voice, a symbol of liberation. The Mingus band played an almost entirely improvisational repertoire, guided only by the leader’s brief motifs sang out quietly to various key players. Bartz’ section-mate in the band was Eric Dolphy. The two became close friends and spent each Wednesday afternoon at Dolphy’s loft playing the most difficult duets they could find at the nearby Carl Fischer music store.

In 1964, Bartz became a member of the Max Roach-Abbey Lincoln band and it was here that the young alto saxophonist’s reputation was forged. This ensemble had already achieved considerable celebrity with its release of “We Insist: Freedom Now Suite” several years prior. But the Suite was so significant a statement that the band continued to feature it.
Bartz would continue to create music with Roach intermittently over the years including a foreign tour that brought the band to Iran. The performances of the Suite became intense in such lands held by western imperial powers. Roach insisted that the ensemble wear tuxedos when playing this piece to garner respect. “This was a concert, not a gig, and Max wanted it to carry that weight. He gave strict orders that the musicians could not smile during the music”. The internationalist angle also featured into Gary’s anti-war activism, with Vietnam becoming more and more in the public debate.

“People were taking a stand. The world didn’t need just another musician—there were plenty of them ignoring the issues. We were living in an unjust system disguised as a democracy; I had to speak up”.
Gary moved on to the Jazz Messengers in the mid-60s, part of a line-up that both Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard on trumpets. The band’s 1965 LP “Soulfinger” marked Bartz’ recording debut. Within a year, however, he’d begun working with a wide variety of other artists, developing particularly strong ties to McCoy Tyner.

In 1970, Bartz bested every other saxophonist on the scene when he got the call to join Miles Davis’ band. After a decade of great success, offering visions of how vast a palette he could cast, Miles had truly reached a mass audience: “Bitches Brew” turned the trumpeter into a rock star.

“Miles saw me playing at Sluggs with McCoy. A week later I was in rehearsal with him and then on stage. The third gig we had was the Isle of White Festival. Wow. I walked out and saw the audience of half million go so far back that it disappeared into the horizon.” he recalled. The band at this point still included much of the “Bitches Brew” line-up including Chick Corea, Keith Jarret, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and Airto Moreira. Even without the electric guitar of John McLaughlin, Miles made certain that the volume matched that of most of the rock bands on the bill.

“I always wanted to be in this band—but the way it was when Coltrane was in it! Everything was so loud that I couldn’t hear myself. I honestly didn’t think I would last long, planning on leaving in two weeks.
But I came to realize that the actual music wasn’t any different, just the instrumentation. So Miles’ new sound was still based on modes, the blues,”. Gary remained with the Davis band long enough to be featured on another legendary concert recording, “Live Evil”.

During his time with Davis, Bartz also formed his own ensemble, the Ntu Troop (named for the Bantu word for unity) which explored musical genres but maintained a firm socio-political message. Though he’d actually recorded several solo albums by this point–including 1969’s “Home” with Woody Shaw, Albert Daily, Bob Cunningham and Rashied Ali—the work of the Ntu Troop was deeply personal. The ensemble offered significant albums during the early ‘70s including two volumes of “Harlem Bush Music”. But it was 1973’s “I’ve Known Rivers” that is perhaps best remembered.

Recorded live at the Montreaux Jazz Festival, this album established Bartz’ place at the front of the stage, brandishing vocals as well as saxophone. On the title cut, he sings the melody he composed to Langston Hughes’ 1921 poem, ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’. Originally published in the early Black revolutionary journal The Crisis, the piece was a call to arms, declaring both the heritage and fight-back of African people. Hughes would go on to lead the Harlem Renaissance, become celebrated as one of the great American poets, yet also fall victim to the Cold War blacklist by the later 1940s. The symbolism for the people’s struggle of the early 70s was all too apparent.

This period also illustrated Bartz’ musical development. Soaring improvisations reflected the strong influence of John Coltrane. Bartz infused the fire music of praise with funk-derived urban rhythms, a formula that would carry him through many projects. More recently, however, he has redirected his music back to the more acoustic place where he’d begun, albeit informed by the decades. Work with the Heads of State ensemble and more so, his 2012 release “Coltrane Rules” speak as much about where he’s been as where Bartz means to next take it. Through nearly 100 recordings, Gary Bartz remains a musical warrior.

Asked about his looming 75th birthday, Bartz responded with characteristic aplomb, “My job now is to communicate this information to the next generation. I’ve been teaching at Oberlin College for 15 years and I still have recording projects in mind! There’s no slowing down for me”.

Essay: WOODY GUTHRIE, 75 Years of “This Land is Your Land” (CounterPunch, Feb 2015)

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75 Years into “This Land is Your Land” and  the Fight’s Still On
by John Pietaro


Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born on Bastille Day, 1912 and some say that revolution was his birthright. Few before him, or since, can lay claim to the mastery of protest music as honestly as Woody. Though he battled the ravages of Huntington’s disease in his later years and lived only into middle age, his time remains eternal. And his life story is the stuff legends are built on.

75 years ago today, February 23, 1940, Woody completed work on an acerbic song of fight-back he then sang as “God Blessed America For Me”. Later, upon further reflection, Woody shifted its emphasis to include an embrace of the nation’s beauty and promise as much as it damned its inequity. “This Land is Your Land” has, through the decades, come to be seen as the ultimate folk revival song, indeed, our second national anthem. A closer examination of it, though, reveals the revolutionary core.

I have decided long ago that my songs and ballads would not get
the hugs and kisses of the capitalistic experts
-Woody Guthrie

The hot and dry plains of Okemah, Oklahoma bared witness to the birth of Woody Guthrie. The area’s spacious straights and windy hills shaped his formative years, that which was spent in the company of the high-lonesome sounds of rural white America, the church and blues music of African-American culture, and the customs, dialects and plight of Native Americans. With the introduction of basic guitar, harmonica and mandolin skills, Guthrie dealt with the pains and poverty of his young, tragic life through music.

His mother, Nora Guthrie, shared her gift of voice with young Woody and exposed him to an important repertoire. Tragically, she developed Huntington’s symptoms during his childhood, culminating in what Woody perceived as a surrealistic madness, but not before he’d learned the ballads, old-time and popular songs that had sustained her.

As a young man, moved by the early influences and the times about him, Woody began composing new lyrics to traditional music. He referred to this borrowing of familiar tunes as “the folk process” and most of his repertoire can be traced to the lonely melodies that remained with him. But the new songs that grew reflected the hardship and insistent survival of working people. This body of work was social commentary, inspirational and prideful. In this regard, Woody stands as our prototypical protest singer.

In the 1930s, Guthrie was among the many who climbed out of the western states’ disastrous Dustbowl; he brought with him original songs that catalogued the sights and emotions of the day: “So Long, Its Been Good to Know You”, “I’m Blowin’ Down This Old Dusty Road”, “Talking Dust Bowl Blues”, among many more. Once in California, Woody soon learned that it was no land of milk and honey. However, instead of toiling in fruit orchards, he became a radio performer, offering his old-timey and topical music to the southerners who’d migrated to the West Coast. While the station manager tried desperately to hold Woody to the country standards, somewhere in the mix was an original called “Mr. Tom Mooney is Free”. This 1939 composition told of the recently pardoned labor activist, a cause celebre in Left circles, who’d been wrongly imprisoned for 22 years.

Through radical journalist Ed Robbin, whose own radio program aired just after Woody’s, Guthrie was invited to a Communist Party dinner to welcome Mooney home. Back-woods, lanky and unkempt, Woody stood out in sharp contrast to most Party cultural workers–at that time, largely academic poets or Modern classical composers. Yet almost immediately Woody walked into the role of “a Communist Joe Hill”, that which had been called for by Daily Worker columnist Mike Gold months prior.

Actor/activist Will Geer, also based in Los Angeles at the time, saw Woody’s potential and the two began working in tandem at events for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and other left-wing labor organizations. Several months later, Geer was on Broadway starring in “Tobacco Road” and alerted Woody to the opportunities in New York for progressive artists.

During the winter that bridged ’39 to ’40, Woody made his way across country. This strange odyssey coincided with a terrible winter storm in which Woody initially attempted to drive. After his car broke down Woody, determined, made his way to a bus station, but with resources so low he only got as far as Pennsylvania. Stepping off the bus in the midst of a raging white-out, his attempt to walk the highway became an impossible task. Near frozen, Woody was rescued by a forest ranger who put him up for the night and bought him a bus ticket to New York. Surely the irony was not lost on Woody the revolutionist that a member of the establishment authority had saved him, preserving the man as well as his future repertory of protest anthems.

Throughout the sojourn, Woody had continually heard the hit Kate Smith record of “God Bless America” on juke-boxes and radios, a droning soundtrack. The song’s passive sentiment of calling on the blessings of a higher power during the brutal Great Depression agitated him. Woody believed that the nation’s ills required some very human activism to evoke change and repair. It occurred to him that this is a song that needed a response.

Not long after arriving in New York City, Woody moved into a shabby room in Hanover House, 43rd Street and 6th Avenue, near the then aptly-named Hell’s Kitchen. He engaged in prolific songwriting each day in this period, performing in Bowery bars for change every evening. But the surging echoes of Kate Smith’s flag-waver just wouldn’t let up.
It was all of the inspiration needed to write the first sketch of “This Land is Your Land”, then called “God Blessed America”:

This land is your land/This land is my land/From California/to Staten Island/
From the redwood forest/to the Gulf Stream waters/
God Blessed America for Me.

Reviewing Woody’s handwritten lyric, one notes where he eventually scratched out modifications (no, “Staten Island” wouldn’t remain long—it was altered to “New York Island” soon afterward). But the important change of course is in the title, heard at the end of each verse. It’s believed this change occurred during the throes of World War 2’s home front struggle. In addition to the familiar verses most of us sang in grade school or camp, there were two others that indicate Guthrie’s defiantly socialist viewpoint. When he ultimately recorded the song (there were three versions he laid to vinyl), he never resurrected the satirical edge. Neither did he record the revolutionary lyrics in most versions. But for what it’s worth, Woody’s changes on that original manuscript never included the deletion of these radical statements:

Was a big, high wall there/that tried to stop me/a sign atop it said /
‘Private Property’/But on the other side/it didn’t say nothing/
That side was made for you and me.

One bright sunny morning/In the shadow of the Steeple/
By the Relief office/I’ve seen my people/
As they stood hungry/I stood there wonderin’ if/
God Blessed America for Me.

Several years later, Woody would comment, “Singing and working and fighting are so close you can’t hardly tell where one quits and the other begins”. One can assess that his original penchant for populism had grown into revolutionary fervor. Woody’s career as a musician was based on the larger needs of our society, even when his own family had to pay the terrible price of his ‘rambling’. Living on various coasts, performing for union meetings or in honor of progressive political candidates, offering songs about the poor in Manhattan and then the construction of Grand Coulee Dam, singing for those wandering out of the south or rallying against Hitler, Woody laid down the foundation for the generation to come. He said, “I learned all I could from the speeches of William Z. Foster, Mother Bloor, Gurley Flynn, Blackie Myers. I heard them all and played my songs on their platforms”.

By 1940, Woody joined forces with Pete Seeger in the Almanac Singers. The Almanacs, as a group, joined the Communist Party, part of its New York office’s cultural section. Woody’s guitar had, by then, been adorned with the hand-painted epitaph, THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS, a slogan which held great metaphoric power.

In this time he also founded an inter-racial quartet with Leadbelly, Sonny Terry and Cisco Houston, a veritable super-group he named the Headline Singers. This group, sadly, never recorded. The material must have stood as the height of protest song—he’d named it in opposition to a producer who advised Woody to “stop trying to sing the headlines”. Woody told us that all you can write is what you see.

Following service in the Merchant Marines, during which time he struggled against Uncle Sam’s segregation of the troops, Woody returned to cultural work. He made a series of records for Folkways including the brilliant concept albums, ‘Songs for Sacco and Vanzetti’ and ‘Struggle’. He also became a columnist for the Daily Worker and created an endless array of songs, articles, sketches and visions in his ‘down-time’.

These post-war years found Guthrie relatively stable and living in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn with his wife Marjorie Maza and their children. Sadly, it would not be long before Huntington’s disease would drain him of the songs and even some of the fight.

Woody died in 1967, after a slow, painful descent into the illness he’d feared all of his life. But his legacy of empowering a nation through song remains unshakable.

CounterPunch, February 2015