Politics, Lady Gaga & the Super Bowl Halftime Show

A couple of weeks ago I put up a post that considered the intriguing, if extraordinarily unlikely, possibility of Lady Gaga singing a protest song by 60s & 70s folksinger Phil Ochs during her Super Bowl halftime show. However much fun that could have been, it did not, of course, happen. There are many reasons why, but perhaps the most important one was that no one associated with Fox Sports and the NFL would let it happen.

But that didn’t stop speculation that Lady Gaga might “do something” during the show.  What that might be, from a Janet Jackson reveal to a Meryl Streep/Golden Globes speech, was never quite clear.  In any event, Fox Sports ran both the pre-game show with the women from the musical “Hamilton” singing “America the Beautiful” and Lady Gaga’s halftime show with a 5-second delay so that any political or overly sexy message could be blocked.

Hamilton cast members sing “America the Beautiful.”

But Lady Gaga managed to get a political message in anyway that no one could reasonably censor – heck, people who might have been offended may not even have realized it was there.

Official video of Lady Gaga’s halftime show, complete with three commercial breaks….

The whole message was delivered in the pre-recorded section of the show where Lady Gaga was up on top of the stadium with a host of light-carrying drones.

In it, the star sang an excerpt of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” followed by a verse of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” and concluded with the last couple of lines of the Pledge of Allegiance. So, where’s the message?

Let’s start with a little history.  Woody Guthrie was the dustbowl singer/songwiter (and Arlo’s dad) who travelled around the country singing protest songs and advocating for workers. According to NPR, he wrote “This Land Is Your Land” as his response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” a song Guthrie reportedly disliked because he heard Kate Smith sing it too many times on the radio in 1930s. Some of the verses we hear a lot – the feel-good ones.  The rebellious activist verses, not so often.   Here they are – all the verses:

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island; 
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters 
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway, 
I saw above me that endless skyway: 
I saw below me that golden valley: 
This land was made for you and me.

I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps 
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts; 
And all around me a voice was sounding: 
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling, 
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling, 
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting: 
This land was made for you and me.

Those are the verses you’ve likely heard and sung.  Here are the last three:

As I went walking I saw a sign there 
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.” 
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing, 
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, 
By the relief office I seen my people; 
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking 
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me, 
As I go walking that freedom highway; 
Nobody living can ever make me turn back 
This land was made for you and me.

Folk singer Pete Seeger was a long-time friend of Woody’s, and as he was prepping for his 90th birthday concert, Pete was planning on singing “This Lange is Your Land.” He told Bruce Springsteen, “Well, I know I want to sing all the verses, I want to sing all the ones that Woody wrote, especially the two that get left out, about private property and the relief office.”

I find it impossible to believe that Lady Gaga did not know what she was doing when she put those two song fragments next to each other.  She’s way too savvy of a musician to have done that pairing by accident. And consider what she said in an interview before the show:

“But the only statements that I’ll be making during the halftime show are the ones that I’ve been consistently making throughout my career. … I believe in a passion for inclusion. I believe in the spirit of equality, and the spirit of this country as one of love and compassion and kindness. So my performance will have both those philosophies.”

Now, all of this that I’ve discussed so far has been written about many places, though few have suggested that it was a deliberate pairing of the Berlin and Guthrie songs. But might I suggest one thing further. Let’s consider her inclusion of the end of the Pledge of Allegiance:

“One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

It is perfectly likely that Lady Gaga just included the closing lines of the Pledge. But I can’t help but wonder if she was also including a sly reference to the progressive answer to the Tea Party, the Indivisible movement.  Indivisible is a web site with a document on how progressives can organize to fight President Trump’s political agenda. It also has tools for creating local organizations.  The Indivisible movement has gotten extensive media attention and is at the organizational core of many of the protests being held around the country. Was Lady Gaga giving a shout out there? I think it is possible, but there is no way of knowing as long as she keeps her Poker Face on….

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First Look at 2017 Super Bowl Commercials

So far, I’ve seen two new Super Bowl commercials which I admit I come to with complex reactions.

The first commercial is for the Mercedes AMG Roadster and was shot by the Coen Brothers of Raising Arizona, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and Hail, Ceaser! fame.  In many ways the ad is brilliant, but not one of my college freshmen in two classes had any idea what the joke was in it. Not one of them had any idea who Peter Fonda is or knew of the movie Easy Rider.

Now, I fully realize the ad wasn’t targeted at young people, but….

The second one here is for Budwieser beer and takes tells an edgy immigrant-oriented origin story for the beer and Anheuser-Busch brewery.  It’s a particularly timely bit of branding given the news this week about President Trump’s immigration policy.  The ad, of course, is not a corporate response to Trump’s executive order, as it was clearly in the works for months ahead of this week. It would seem to fit well into the “America” branding that Budweiser used over the summer.  Because what’s more American than immigrants?

According to The Wall Street Journal, the company is not apologetic for the ad. “The story is the truth, it’s not fiction. This is what Budweiser stands for and we are really proud of it.”

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Pre-Class Video – In Spite of Ourselves

This is a somewhat rude, but very old-fashioned song about a really dysfunctional relationship sung by John Prine and Iris DeMent.  But a great way to introduce students to the witty songwriting of John Prine.

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Real Radicals Part II – I.F. Stone’s Weekly

I had a strange journey through the wilds of the radical and protest movements of the 1960s and 70s yesterday morning that I had not anticipated taking. Here’s part 2 of that journey.

Radical journalist I.F. Stone was an investigative journalist who spoke truth to power during his entire professional life, but especially from 1953-1971 while he published his newsletter I.F. Stone’s Weekly.  He was the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, and at times during his life was involved with communist leaning political groups.

Izzy Stone had a hearing problem, so he did much of his reporting based on written documents, which gave him time to dig into the background of stories that other people missed.  He was the earliest journalist to realize that President Lyndon Johnson had been lying about the Gulf of Tonkin incident tat led to escalation of the Vietnam War.  He also documented that nuclear testing could be monitored fairly easily around the world by using geological siesmic sensing stations.

I was first introduced the work of I.F. Stone, oddly enough, through a musical setting for string quartet and the recorded voice of I.F. Stone that had been commissioned by the Kronos Quartet.  How It Happens (The Voice of I.F. Stone) was composed and assembled by composer Scott Johnson.  When I heard the movement “It Raged” on the Kronos album Released/Unreleased, I was blown away by the expressive quality of Stone’s voice, the message that he had to say, and the wonderful way that his sampled voice fit in with Johnson’s music.

Here’s a short excerpt from the Cold War section of it:

And here is the It Raged movement:

I really got to know and understand Stone, however, when I was on the faculty at West Virginia University and I found an old black & white 16mm film in the library from 1973 called “I.F. Stone’s Weekly.” In it, the filmmaker presented a history of Stone’s career, much of it in Stone’s own words.  Ever since then, I’ve been periodically trying to find a digital copy of the film.  And while I could occasionally find information about the film online, there was never a VHS, DVD, or streaming release. (Here’s Roger Ebert’s review of the film from back in 1973 when it was released.)


Yesterday I was looking for a video of Lady Gaga singing an old Phil Ochs Vietnam War era song.  And when I found it, the list of related videos on the side of my screen showed multiple streaming copies of the movie “I.F. Stone’s Weekly”!

So, thanks to Lady Gaga, here is a great film about a great journalist that has been unavailable for way too long.  While I don’t anticipate anyone trying to take this film down from YouTube, I might suggest that if you are really interested in it, you might download a copy.

Set aside some time in the near future to watch and listen to this marvelous film.


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Real Radicals Part I – Lady Gaga & Phil Ochs

I had a strange journey through the wilds of the radical and protest movements of the 1960s and 70s this morning that I had not anticipated taking. Here’s part 1 of that journey; part 2 will come tomorrow.

It all started when I was looking at the Washington Post this morning and found a great article under the headline “Why Phil Ochs is the obscure ’60s folk singer America needs in 2017. ” The article takes a look back at one of my favorite 60s musicians and his deep collection of protest and other folk songs.  Phil was famous for topical songs (Here’s To The State of Richard Nixon), biting satire (Love Me, I’m a Liberal) and gorgeously reflective  songs (There But For Fortune).  But the biggest part of his limited fame was for protest songs like “The War Is Over.”

All too sadly, Phil died by his own hand in the late 70s, a victim of mental illness, just a little before I was to discover his music.

It was that last song, “The War is Over,” that was recently covered by contemporary star Lady Gaga at a free concert during the Democratic National Convention last summer, who asked her audience whether any of them remembered Phil.

Richard Just, in his WaPo article, suggests to Lady Gaga that she do another Phil Ochs song when she provides the halftime entertainment at the Super Bowl in another couple of weeks – perhaps Phil’s most patriotic number “Power and Glory.” (The version I’ve posted is of the fife and drum version, but there are many acoustic versions as well.)

I can’t imagine it happening – but good lord, it would be beautiful!

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Pre-class video: Elvis Costello Anne Sofie Von Otter – For the Stars

My list of favorite Elvis Costello recordings is likely somewhat different from yours:

Here’s “From the Stars” from an album of covers he did with classical singer Anne Sofie Von Otter.


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Dr. King – Be an extremist for love

One of the greatest honors of my life was being invited to speak at the Martin Luther King, Jr. candlelight vigil two years ago at the UNK student union, along with Kevin Chaney, who was then UNK’s women’s basketball coach. 

This year’s vigil has been postponed due to weather till Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Nebraskan Student Union.  If you are in the area, I urge you to attend as we honor Dr. King

Here’s what I had to say:

Visalli-11-10-13When we think of public relations, we think of a professional in a suit trying to persuade us about something related to a large corporation. But not all PR is practiced by big business.

Civil rights leader The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a brilliant understanding of public relations during the campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

The goal of the campaign was to have non-violent demonstrations and resistance to force segregated businesses to open up to African Americans. What King, and the members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, wanted to do was stage a highly visible demonstration that would not only force change in Birmingham, but also grab the attention of the entire American public.

King and his colleagues picked Birmingham because it was one of he most segregated cities in America and because it had Eugene “Bull” Conner as police commissioner.

Conner was a racist who could be counted on to attack the peaceful marchers. Birmingham was a city where black protestors were thrown in jail, and the racists were bombing homes and churches. There was a black neighborhood that had so many bombings it came to be known as Dynamite Hill.

Dr. King and his colleagues had planned demonstrations and boycotts in Birmingham, but held off with them in order to let the political system and negotiations work. But time passed, and nothing changed. Signs were still up at the lunch counters and water fountains, and protestors were still headed to jail.

King and the rest of the SCLC needed to get attention for the plight of African Americans in cities like Birmingham.

They needed to do more than fight back against the racism of segregation. They needed to get Americans of good will in all the churches and synagogues to hear their voices.

Starting in April of 1963, predominantly African American volunteers would march in the streets, hold sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, and boycott local businesses in Birmingham. As the protests started, so did the arrests.

On Good Friday, King and Abernathy joined in the marching so that they would be arrested. While King was in jail, he was given a copy of the Birmingham News, in which there was an article where white Alabama clergy urged the SCLC to stop the demonstrations and boycotts and allow the courts to solve the problem of segregation.

But King was tired of waiting, and so he wrote what would become one of the great statements of the civil rights cause. One that spoke to people who were fundamentally their friends, not their enemies. This came to be known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Writing the letter was not easy. Dr. King wrote it in the margins of the newspaper. He wrote it on scraps of note paper. He wrote it on panels of toilet paper. (Think about what the toilet paper was like if Dr. King was able to write on it!)

The letter spoke to the moderates who were urging restraint. To them, he wrote:

“My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas…. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.”

He went on the acknowledge that perhaps he was an extremist, but that he was an extremist for love, not for hate:

“But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” …

Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” …

And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.”

And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .”

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”

King’s jailhouse writings were smuggled out of the jail and published as a brochure. His eloquent words were given added force for being written in jail. As he says toward the end of his letter, it is very different to send a message from jail than from a hotel room:

“Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?”

Once King was released from jail eight days later, he and his followers raised the stakes. No longer would adults be marching and being arrested, children would become the vanguard. And as the children marched, photographers and reporters from around the world would document these young people being attacked by dogs, battered by water from fire hoses, and filling up the Birmingham jails.

King faced criticism for allowing the young people to face the dangers of marching in Birmingham. But he responded by criticizing the white press, asking the reporters where they had been “during the centuries when our segregated social system had been misusing and abusing Negro children.”

Although there was rioting in Birmingham, and King’s brother’s house was bombed, the campaign was ultimately successful. Business owners took down the signs that said “WHITE” and “COLORED” from the drinking fountains and bathrooms, and anyone was allowed to eat at the lunch counters. The successful protest in Birmingham set the stage for the March on Washington that would take place in August of 1963, where King would give his famous “I have a dream” speech.[King, 1998 #552],[Kasher, 1996 #553]

We are now more than fifty years from King’s letter from Birmingham Jail. This letter was not one of his “feel good” speeches. It doesn’t raise the spirit the way his I have a dream speech did.

But it did give us a message that still matters today:

 “I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

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Pre-Class Video: Rosanne Cash sings Pancho & Lefty

Today’s pre-class video is the great Rosanne Cash singing the Townes Van Zandt classic “Pancho & Lefty” at the Kennedy Center Honors Willie Nelson concert. (Townes, of course, wrote the song, but Willie is among the many people who made it a standard of country music.)


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Back To Pre-Class Video: One Last Time from Hamilton

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve spent the last semester on a productive and refreshing sabbatical, but I’m now back in the classroom and making use of pre-class videos for students to watch as they come in.

I started things off today with the song One Last Time from the musical Hamilton that tells the story of writing George Washington’s farewell address and establishing that the United States would have a peaceful transition of power between administrations.

Perhaps more than ever this was a good way to start off the semester.

You can see my year’s long collection of online videos at my Tumblr.  Lots of fun and interesting stuff there.

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Amazing Exhibit on Publishing, Luther & Reformation at Minneapolis Institute of Art

Over Christmas break I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art that is showing through January 15th.  While much of the focus of the exhibit is, unsurprisingly, about Martin Luther and the protestant reformation of the 1500s, there is also a great deal in it on the rise and importance of movable type printing – which began in Germany in the 1450s.

While I loved the whole exhibit, I’m going to focus here on several artifacts dealing with the history of publishing that is so tightly connected to history of the reformation.

Lead movable type.

Approximately 500 pieces of lead movable type were found from excavations near where Luther lived. Here’s a sampling of them.

Book Art of Dying from 1495

The book The Art of Dying on ministering to the dying from the 1490s. It is among the earliest of the typeset books. To me, this was one of the most impressive things I saw.

Luther study Bible

Luther’s annotations on a Latin (I think) translation of the Bible. Fascinating to see him taking notes in the the margin of books just as I might. Luther, in addition to everything else, was a college professor.

Pages from Luther's German translation of the Bible.

Pages from an early Luther German-translation of the Bible. Note the elaborate hand-drawn illustration next to the opening of Genesis. Even though books were being printed with movable type, they still had characteristics of old hand-copied books.

A reformation-era political cartoon.

This published cartoon/illustration is based on a scene from a dream an admirer/supporter of Luther had. It portrays Luther with his pen knocking the crown off the head of the pope.

Luther illustration with type.

Some of the published art from the 1600s could look like something from Rolling Stone back when it was a newsprint magazine in the late 1970s.


And finally, just because I can, there is this…

A doctor's plague mask.

A doctor’s plague mask from the time of the plague during Luther’s youth. Unfortunately for doctors, this mask was ineffective as plague was spread by fleas and not through the air.

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