A Brief History of the People’s Music Network for Songs of Freedom and Struggle
In the Summer -of 1977, the first Songs of Freedom and Struggle gathering was born. Held at the Community for Non-Violent Action Conference Center in Eastern Connecticut, the weekend took seven months to organize and hosted roughly 75 musicians. Charlie King, a member of CNVA, which was both a community as well as a group involved in disarmament and anti-nuke activities, planned, as part of a summer of conferences at the center a “Political music” weekend. What he heard, from musician after musician as more found out about the proposed gathering, was that each thought they had been working in isolation, in a vacuum. They expressed surprise: “I’m not the only one?” they’d say. This was the late 70’s, after all.
Gatherings that happen to this day share a basic schedule and format with that original gathering 15 years ago. Friday night everyone basically arrived and settled in, Saturday during the day there were workshops, and Saturday night was a Round Robin. A Round Robin for which everyone fit sitting in a circle and could hear each other without amplification. After a few years of discussion, weighing the needs of new performers to not be intimidated by a complex sound system against the needs of those in the back of the room to hear those performing, the sound system became a part of Round Robins. Not without workshops for novices on how to work the equipment, and not without a lot of thought and discussion and care to maintain an egalitarian spirit to the proceedings. Sunday held more workshops, the inevitable good-byes, and decisions to maintain a directory of the attendees and meet again in a year.
The original Round Robin, according to Charlie, was interrupted by about an hour’s worth of argument, that someone has on tape somewhere, during which issues of process and respect were begun to get hashed out. A couple of people had been feeling left out, what with there being not enough meat on the menu and no smoking in the building, and were brought back into things by Eddie Gersch, the cook that weekend, right in the middle of Marian Wade, a fairly new performer at the time, giving the intro for a serious song. This interruption began the discussions we continue today, in the spirit of hearing and being heard. Michael Cooney tried to cool everyone off with a rousing round of “Tis a gift to be simple,” which Charlie says got everyone to quiet down pretty nicely until the song was over.
What took the most organizing effort, for that first gathering, was finding all the musicians.
Covering the greatest distance, Ted Warmbrand flew in from Arizona. Cathy Winter, Betsy Rose, Sleeping Giant and Ginny Bales were among those present for the first weekend.
Women’s Music had a strong circuit at the time. Issues of feminism and a lesbian presence flavored the gathering. Separate workshops for men and women generated as much discussion then as they do now. Other current issues included the anti-nuclear and disarmament struggles. Growing from the no-nukes movement, ecology and environmental songs were on the rise. A number of those arrested at the Clamshell occupation of Seabrook attended the first SFS.
SFS met for three summers at the CNVA, then moved to mid Connecticut to a YMCA Aquatic camp in the Summer of 1981. That summer began a movement in SFS to branch out, culturally. As a response to the Reagan era, the summer camp gathering of musicians provided much needed support and spiritual nourishment to isolated musicians and activists lucky enough to both find the gathering and to have enough resources and a tradition that made it possible and okay to attend. That summer, SFS participants began looking around and realizing the relative homogeneity of racial, cultural, linguistic, and even age groupings of the people present. PMN Bylaws reflect what have always been a spoken value, support of multiculturalism and an otherwise diverse organization, but the values were not being recognized.
One real easy place to find some kinds of diversity is an urban area. If folks weren’t going to make it out to a gathering somewhere, it might make sense for a gathering to come to where the people were. The first loose collection of SFS attendees to realize this basic truth and speak it out were from Washington, DC, and so that’s where the first gathering was held in the winter, in a city. Many SFS folks knew each other from what Luci Murphy referred to as the “demonstration” circuit. People had seen each other at various political and cultural events in DC, and it seemed a natural extension to work together to build a gathering. That first gathering tapped into existing cultural movements in the area. It featured Nueva Cancion from the likes of Inti-Illimani, Quilipayun, and songs from Bolivia, Chile, Puerto Rico, and Haiti. Isabel Letelier, wife of a slain Chilean diplomat led a political workshop. Another workshop that I would love a copy of the tape of. Cultural Workers Against Reaganism … The weekend was a blistering success, thus was born the People’s Music Network.
The two groups coexisted for a few years, SFS being largely composed of musicians looking for a supportive environment and PMN being composed of those who were actively pursuing a diverse, supportive environment. The two groups shared membership and ideologies. Neither group had set out to create a separate group, neither had intended any dichotomy, and eventually it became apparent that since the values were in line, it made more sense to consolidate mailing lists, people power, and money. By most reckonings, the merger sort of finalized in 1983.
Mary Trevor spoke to some of the organizational issues that needed to be worked out in the course of moving PMN and SFS together. The need for an organizational structure, demonstrated by a large sum of money in someone’s personal bank account and clerical needs that just could not be met by a couple of musicians who spent more than half the time gigging and hard to get a hold of. Against the need for structure played desires for varying leadership styles. Many had come from standard, hierarchical organizations which left a lot to be desired on an individual level. Much emphasis was placed on consensus, on as many voices being heard as possible, and as high a comfort level for as many people as possible per decision to be made.
Charlie King also described the need to make a space that would be comfortable for a diversity of needs and opinions. There was a major question that PMN not become the sort of structured organization that people were afraid of Mary referred to a “structure-phobia” which would eventually, if left to run its course, impede PMN progress towards becoming a stronger organization. After a couple years of discussion, by-laws were signed at the 1984 gathering in Boston.
The Network means different things to different people. For some, the gatherings provide support. For some, the network is a place to come to work, and to find people to work with, on issues pertaining to cultural survival. It remains a welcoming place for new musicians and songwriters as well as seasoned veterans looking for rejuvenation. PNMers provide positive role models of people working on their racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism, and politics. Even with a Democrat in the White House, during whose tenure we might be seeing the dominant culture edge a bit closer to the ideals of diversity laid out in our by-laws and stated goals, PMN remains a refuge of sorts.
How we achieve those goals – welcoming people of difference, strengthening our role as bicultural component” to political and freedom movements, growing as an organization – these are the questions facing us now. There is a challenge to maturing as an organization yet still maintaining the principles which have gotten us this far – accessibility to all culturally and economically, emphasis on process and discussion, commitment to making the world a better place.