the search for meaningful cultural work as a contribution to the progressive movement
Evolution of a Cultural Worker: the search for meaningful cultural work as a contribution to the progressive movement
By Mary Ann Heimann. Posted July 4, 2022.
The thing I really miss about belonging to an organization like the League is the feeling that I didn’t have to respond to every instance of injustice or oppression because we were taking on the system itself and, it followed, taking down the system would address all the problems it caused. Since the League’s dissolution, I’ve had to pick and choose and generally feel inadequate in the face of the daily barrage of injustices. And with the upsurge in Internet communication and social media, it’s impossible to remain oblivious.
I used to think if I paid my dues by working hard during my youth and middle age (politically speaking) I could retire from the movement and leave it to the younger people to finish the struggle us OGs had started. Unfortunately, now that I have retired,I haven’t been able to convince myself that being inactive is okay. Moreover, I have as examples people like Bert and Lillian Nakano, who never stopped their activism. I remember vividly a conversation with Lillian about buying her last car when she was in her seventies. It freaked me out, but she was fine with it, simply planning for having less income after Bert retired but still being able to carry out her political work. Lillian was inspirational in another way as well: she was a cultural worker, playing the Shamisen—a long-necked, three-string lute that is the main instrument of Japanese kabuki theater and other classical narrative ballad forms of music. She was a bonified master, in fact, training from age 8 until she was forced to interrupt her training because she and her family were sent to one of the concentration camps housing Japanese Americans in 1943. She resumed her studies in 1945. With her nephew jazz pianist Glenn Horiuchi she composed pieces like Oxnard Beat about Japanese and Mexican laborers working side by side in the 1900’s.
As I find myself not wanting to drive at night (or at all if only that were possible!) I have turned to writing postcards, making contributions to the Working Families Party and Black Lives Matter and attending the occasional nearby demonstration. Unfortunately, given the rightwing backlash plaguing the nation, it hardly seems enough. To supplement this passive form of activism, I’ve been following the Lilian Nakano playbook and re-started my cultural work. To say that I’m contributing to the movement seems over-stated. Perhaps the best that can be said is that I may put into words and thereby reinforce what someone else is thinking regarding some or another issue or topic.
Musical Back Story
I have long been a musician (member of an “all-girl” band, the Thurjers, at sixteen in Kansas City) and during the IWK/League years I participated in several musical groups. Moving Our Feet was the first. I was living in San Francisco at the time, working directly in the struggle to keep elderly Chinese and Pilipino tenants from being evicted from the International Hotel and indirectly in other struggles supported by IWK. I started by writing parodies, along with Peter Shapiro and Bob Cass, for Moving Our Feet to sing at rallies. The great thing about being in Moving Our Feet was that it let me meet IWK members and fellow travelers that were outside of my area of work. And it was exciting to collaborate on songs. The first one I remember was set to the tune of 16 Tons and was about a strike by Blue Diamond Coal workers. I then started writing original material: the I Hotel song about the struggle to save the I-Hotel (written with Peter) and one about gentrification in San Francisco called the Speculation Shuffle. They would be sandwiched between The East is Red and the Internationale at IWK programs. The songs became a way for me to clarify and concretize the line being followed. For that reason they sometimes sounded like a collection of slogans. But they were a handy way to propagate our point of view and also to record the history for later recall.
The I-Hotel Song
By Mary Ann Heimann and Peter Shapiro
Ten years ago this struggle came about
When the folks in the I-Hotel refused to be moved out
Milton Meyer said, this building must come down
The tenants said, we’ll stand our ground
For the I-Hotel, we must fight
And the decent low cost housing that’s our right
Stop the destruction of third world communities.
And with the masses build unity
The resistance of the tenants had Milton Meyer scared
He thought he’d make an easy profit but the tenants were prepared
So he set a fire in the I-Hotel and three of the tenants died
From shedding peoples’ blood for money
The capitalists won’t shy
When fire & eviction didn’t drive the tenants out
The capitalists looked to 4 seas to start another bout
They used the courts and sheriffs to push their greedy plans
And If he is needed the mayor lends a hand
The City says that 4 Seas price we must pay
More than a million dollars or they’ll take the hotel away
They say for their own oppression Third World people are to blame
Moscone’s buyback plan is eviction’s other name
The Tac squad and the sheriffs came in the middle of the night
With hammers clubs and horses but the masses stayed to fight
We linked our arms and chanted, determined and strong
The hotel’s standing empty but the struggle still goes on
You may have picked up on the line “stop the destruction of Third World communities.” That was what distinguished the IWK point of view from that of the Pilipino group KDP and Line of March. They saw it as a struggle for low-cost housing rather than the specific attack on a Third World community.
I moved to Los Angeles in 1977, soon after the shameful eviction of the tenants from the I-Hotel. I had been in the Hotel on the night of the eviction. Some members of the I-Hotel support committee were doing a live broadcast from one of the upper rooms that was miked for the demonstrators. I sang the I-Hotel song as I watched the people below linked together arm in arm several layers deep. The whole thing was surreal. Later, from inside the room of one of the tenants, Etta Moon, we heard the banging get closer and closer as the sheriff’s smashed down the doors to the tenant’s rooms.
In Los Angeles several League members and supporters and I formed a group called Unity Warms the Soul, and I continued writing songs, this time about LA struggles. Angelo Figueroa, who since has done many things, including being the editor of the Spanish language edition of People Magazine, was in the group and wrote many of the best songs. In the early 80’s when I was assigned to work in CISPES (Coalition in Support of the People of El Salvador), I met a guy named Ted Steward who wrote original political music. He recruited me to play bass for the rock band he was forming called Resistance. He wrote all the music, but I learned a lot during that period and in my own writing I tried to take a more modern approach – making lyrics more conversational and set to rock melodies as opposed to folk songs. The band itself was more professional than some of the other groups I’d been in- rehearsing 3 nights a week until we were very tight. We played local clubs such as Madam Wong’s and the Anti Club. When Resistance eventually fell apart after one too many Wednesday night midnight gigs, I joined a group called Nuclear Family that I met at an anti-nuke rally, and we did topical songs mainly for rallies and benefits, for example in support of the Hopi-Navajo peoples struggle to save Big Mountain from the Peabody Coal Co.
U.S. Out of El Salvador by Resistance
After the League broke up, I was at loose ends for a while, especially since Nuclear Family also broke up. Music became my comfort and purpose. For a short time I teamed up with one of the Nuclear Family players for a duo. He (Lary Moore) was Buck Tradission and I was Luz Nup. It was fun while it lasted. Lary had deep ties in Long Beach and scrounged up a variety of gigs from the Long Beach Democratic Club to the System M Night Club and Food Finders to standing in front of the progressive bookstore trying to be heard above the passing Blue Line cars. But Lary followed his son to New Mexico, and I was left without a musical partner or partners. By that time, I had moved to Long Beach, so I reached out to an eccentric clarinet player I had met through Lary. He was forming a group called A.D.D. Maybe not such a great name, but he and three of the other members had A.D.D. And the gimmick was to play songs randomly from a variety of genres. Since jazz was one of the mainstays, I started learning jazz. All of the music was standards or covers, nothing political. Original music is not encouraged in these kinds of groups. The reason given is that people only want to hear songs they already know. Of course somebody had to listen to the standards when they first came out, but apparently they are no longer willing to do so.
When I retired from The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles in 2015, I had time on my hands. and no more excuses for not writing [I have been working on my novel, the aptly titled Late Bloomer, for thirty years). Still avoiding the novel, I returned to writing songs. You can at least finish a song. I joined the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) that has chapters in most cities. Basically, people come together once a month to critique each other’s original songs. I started writing country because that’s the genre (aside from folk) where telling a story is the most important aspect of the song and because I had grown up on it, my Dad being from a farm in Missouri. At first it was like a game. Judging from what I heard on the radio, how hard could it be to write a top 40 country song? Each month NSAI members met and tried to analyze each song to figure out what needed to be changed to hit the winning formula. The chapter was mostly over fifty, white, and male. I have learned that each of us is imprinted with the music that was popular when we were in high school. And generally that is what we are inclined to write. Most of the music we were producing was what is now referred to as Old School, classic country or Americana (Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Dolly, even 90s music is now considered old) but what was on the radio had been influenced by rock and, believe it or not, rap music. We were visited by many “experts”—formerly successful songwriters who hadn’t had a hit in twenty years and now made their livings by writing books and teaching how to write “hit” songs. They were supportive and dutifully told each person whether their song was destined for radio (the highest possible target) or could be used for Sync (on TV or movies as background). As if?! A few hundred dollars in, I realized if those people couldn’t get a hit, there was no chance in Hell any of us would!
That’s the bad news, the good news is that if you aren’t trying to write to sell your stuff you can write anything you want. And, you can create your own outlet. Anybody who has Gmail can create their own YouTube channel for free. Videos are a good way to bring a song into the world. Anybody who has an apple computer has iMovie, which is a pretty easy way to create a video. There are also stock photo images that you can get for free or a small sum. For my first video I used all stock footage, and I wasn’t satisfied. Not to mention that I didn’t know how to use the Ken Burns effect in iMovie (the way the images get bigger or smaller until they merge into the next image), so each frame just rolled into the next one without any fanfare.
I decided to use my friend Jon Erickson (previously referred to as the eccentric clarinet player) who is a very good artist to actually draw images for the videos so I could better control the message. We both had iPads and downloaded the App Procreate, which allows drawing with a stylus. It has all kinds of effects and colors. Jon’s images were great, but he was so detailed that he could only turn out about one a week. When he spent two days on Dr. Fauci’s suit jacket, I realized something had to change. I started helping. He would outline the images and I would fill in the colors. Kind of like a coloring book when you’re a kid. Shall we say I colored with a broader brush. But the problem wasn’t solved. Jon was drawing whole scenes, but when they were imported into iMovie, the corners weren’t visible. I decided to just do the drawings myself and include only the necessary details, even if that meant showing half a person. I could get an image from google, paste it into Procreate and trace it and then fill in the details and colors myself just like I had done with Jon. Now I can turn out a video in a couple of weeks. That is, once I have the song to build it around. To get high-quality recordings, I have turned to demo studios, one in Nashville and one in Los Angeles. They are a lifesaver for songwriters who are not singers. You just record the melody and send them the lyrics and a chart, and they do all the rest. It’s hard to believe but I’ve so far made 12 videos. The early ones are hard to look out because I had no clue about what I was doing. But take that as encouragement if you’re thinking about making a video: you don’t have to have any experience or special knowledge to use iMovie. Since it doesn’t come with a manual, you’ll need to google how to do anything you can’t figure out from just looking at the icons. Here are some of my videos:
A Dollar and a Purple Heart – the video was done in collaboration with filmmaker Alan Kondo and photographer Frank Jackson. The song was actually written about the Iraq War, but the treatment of homeless vets is still accurate. We visited veterans who had taken over the street just outside the Veterans Administration land in Westwood (a subdivision of Los Angeles). Then we filmed a segment on a bus using my friend Steve Enzweiler to stand in for the veteran in the song. It was wonderful being part of a team, and we are trying to come up with more projects.
Two Jobs – recorded at the A Writers Paradise in Nashville.