Moving on…to the blue Berkshires

I have moved. Again! My friends say.

Yes, I have moved many times during my years in America, mainly from coast to coast and back again, except for many months once in the Upper Midwest, more precisely in Minnesota, when I researched my book about the Scandinavian immigrants’ role and influence on Minnesota politics.

Now, after many years in Maryland just outside Washington, DC, and after a year and a half in Los Angeles, my new home is the little town of Great Barrington in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, in New England, America’s northeast corner, up towards Canada.

Moving is part of being American. People move for many reasons; one is politics, maybe more so today than ever in this politically divided nation. Politics played a role when my wife and I decided to move to Massachusetts. It mattered that this is a blue state, just like Maryland, although both have Republican governors, and just like solidly Democratic Los Angeles. Our congressmen, whose names and political ideology have become more important since we became U.S. citizens with the right to vote, have come to reflect our politics — in Maryland’s Montgomery County through the leading progressive Jamie Raskin; in Los Angeles, through Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee after the sweeping democratic election victory in 2018; and here in the Berkshires, through Richard Neal, for whom the election thrust him into the chairmanship of the important Ways and Means Committee and a leading role in the fight to obtain Donald Trump’s tax returns.

The Berkshires is not an economically rich area with a median house hold in come of $39,000 per year. It’s rural, but unlike many other rural areas around America, its 131,000 residents are Democrats — Hillary Clinton captured over 67 percent of the vote here in the 2016. But, also here, Donald Trump is ever present, well covered in the excellent local paper, the Berkshire Eagle, and dinner conversations, just like elsewhere in this country, are often dominated by the man in the White House. The fact that Massachusetts has three presidential candidates, two Democrats – senator Elizabeth Warren and congressman Seth Moulton — and one Republican, former governor William Weld, has contributed to the heightened political debate in the Berkshires and in the state as a whole. No other state disapproves as much of Trump as Massachusetts, so it’s really no wonder that his only, at least so far, challenger for the Republican nomination has come from here.

In Great Barrington this time of the year, as in all the little towns among the rolling hills of the Berkshires, the residents have gathered to debate and vote on local issues in a sort of unique direct democracy. At my first Annual Town Meeting the residents filled the local high school’s auditorium in an impressive showing of political participation. Still, the 468 who came was only a small percentage of the town’s 4,746 registered voters of whom 1,235, or 26 percent, actually voted in the local office elections a week later. Not so impressive…

The local issues even required an extra evening of debate to resolve. They included the town’s budget, schools and libraries, roads and bridges, and many zoning issues. We gave the town’s middle school a new name, W.E.B. Du Bois, after the legendary African American scholar and civil rights leaders, who was born and raised here; we upheld a ban for the second time on small plastic bottles; and we debated, just like all the other Berkshire towns the issue of pot – marijuana – now legal in Massachusetts.

We already have a shop that sells recreational marijuana and most days, actually every day, there is a long line of buyers, many from neighboring New York and Connecticut, where pot is not, at least not yet, legal. Four more shops have been approved and are set to open. A possible new, big marijuana growing facility is being discussed up the road. Other surrounding towns have turned out to be more skeptical and have voted no to any pot businesses. Now, the residents of Great Barrington seem to be getting a bit nervous and, maybe, we should limit the number of marijuana establishments? Let’s look into that, the Town Meeting decided.

This is the first time I live in a small town. It’s exciting, in a low-key kind of way. Spring is finally here, with lush, green leaves on the trees in our back yard down to the quick little river that flows by. Winter, to which I should be used after growing up in Sweden, was a bit rougher than I had anticipated, especially after the previous so-called winter in Los Angeles.

And summer is rapidly approaching, with all of Berkshires cultural attractions waiting: the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood; art exhibits and concerts at MASS MoCA celebrating its 20th anniversary with Annie Lennox; August Renoir will be at the Clark Institute; the Norman Rockwell Museum turns 50; Herman Melville turns 200. There are exciting new plays at Shakespeare & Company and Barrington Stage; bluesman Buddy Guy is coming to town, and Arlo Guthrie is at his Guthrie Center at the Old Trinity Church, of Alice’s Restaurant fame, just across the street from our new home; and on and on…

It’s almost exhausting. And if the weather holds and you want to get away from it all, it’s easy to go hiking or swimming or canoeing or just sit by the river and listen to the water flowing by, quickly.

Thank you, Bob

It was, indeed, a special moment this week, when the country of my birth awarded Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in literature, for he has been a constant companion ever since my student days in California in the 1960s. It was special, it was even grand.

Now, I’ll leave that up to others, and they have been many, to go into the literary merits of Dylan’s songs and poetry, like the Princeton professor Sean Wilentz, author of the excellent book, “Bob Dylan in America,” who said to the Washington Post:

“We are honoring a great literary figure of our time…He has taken the lyric form, as old as Homer, and raised it to an entirely new level, a level that stands with the highest literature that the West has produced. Period.”

Like in “Mr Tambourine Man…”

Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time
Far past the frozen leaves
The haunted frightened trees
Out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

It’s beautiful and I must have listened to Dylan sing it a thousand times without ever getting tired of it.  I could mention many others, “Desolation Row,” “Visions of Johanna,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Red River Shore,” and on and on…They have all been a constant joy in my life.  In fact, life would have been different without them.

Thank you Bob.

Why didn’t I know about The Tragically Hip?

Sometimes I wonder what I have done and where I have been. It struck me again this morning, as I read articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post about the last concert in the farewell tour of The Tragically Hip, Canada’s premier band, led by the country’s “unofficial poet laureate,” Gord Downie.

Downie is dying of incurable brain cancer, and this was his and his band’s last concert, in their home town of Kingston, Ontario. “Dear World,” the Toronto police tweeted just before the last concert, “Please be advised that Canada will be closed tonight at 8:30 pm. Have a #Tragically Hip day.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was there, because the band is “an inevitable and essential part of what we are and who we are as a country.”

The Tragically Hip has been around for 30 years and has come to define our northern neighbor’s cultural identity, but they never became big in the United States, and I had never heard of them until this morning. Although I consider myself well-informed and well-read, I am sure this says a lot about me, but it also says something about America, “one of the loudest neighbors in the world,” as one Canadian told the NYT, “the elephant in your bed,” as Justin Trudeau’s predecessor and father, Pierre Trudeau, once said about his big neighbor to the south.

America sucks you in, takes over, dominates, and although the leading newspapers are not without coverage of the rest of the world, including Canada, it all somehow becomes secondary in this often introvert super power. This seems particularly true during this year’s presidential election campaign. I am following it closely, although it has gone on too long and its end cannot come soon enough, and the choice is clear.  More later.

Meanwhile, I will dig into The Tragically Hip. I want to know more. I think I will like them.

Finnish flags and ovations greeted Osmo Vänskä and his Minnesota Orchestra

Finnish flags waving in the audience and repeated standing ovations greeted Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra on Friday night during a glorious evening.

It had been a long time since they had heard them, and they were ready– full house! And the orchestra that had been locked out for over a year in a most un-Minnesotan way played their heart out. Sibelius Concert

Afterwards, Vänskä signed and signed the 2014 Grammy winning CD with Jean Sibeliues Symphonies 1 and 4, exactly what he and his orchestra had just so splendidly performed.  Clearly, he has won not only Minnesota’s Finnish Americans’ but all Minnesotans’ hearts, and they all want him to stay. But he resigned in frustration at the end of the nasty labor conflict and although negotiations about a new contract are under way, no one knows for sure how they will end.

The 474-day lockout resulted in the longest symphony work stoppage in US history. The orchestra’s CEO was forced to resign the other day, which raised the hopes of its many fans that Vänskä, the music director since 2003, would be coming back. And today, just hours before the concert, eight Board members resigned, one more step in what everyone says is a necessary cleaning house process.

We’ll see, but Friday night was for celebration and joy, and the public seemed ready to forgive and come back…if only Osmo stays, and, frankly, I don’t see how it can end any other way.

 

Pete Seeger was — “Forever Young”

Pete Seeger, dead at 94, sings Bob Dylan’s beautiful “Forever Young.”

His full life by Jon Pareles in New York Times, and, by the way, Pete Seeger, you won, as David Corn writes in Mother Jones.

A man to be admired and missed.

 

Finally — the Minnesota Orchestra is playing again!

As I am about to head back to Minnesota for another visit, I was heartened by the news that the Minnesota Orchestra, after a 15 month long labor conflict, is set to play again, to break its long silence.  It’s about time!

The length of the conflict, as I wrote in an earlier posting on this blog, was not the Minnesota way of doing business, a state that prides itself in problem solving and pragmatism — “the state that works.”  But there are no winners, as Doug Grow correctly writes on MinnPost, after yesterday’s announcement of a three-year agreement, and, he continues, we won’t know for months, maybe years, if the damage done from the 474-day lockout of the Orchestra’s members can be repaired.

Yes, there are many question marks, the biggest one being whether the prominent Finnish director Osmo Vänskä, who resigned in frustration during the lockout, will return.   He masterminded the Minnesota Orchestra’s stellar reputation, but without him, what? His return is not part of the deal, so we will have to wait and see, but he is clearly needed.

The renovated Orchestra Hall, where the orchestra has never played, stands ready to receive the musicians as they go back to work on February 1 after the longest symphonic orchestra work stoppage in American history.  But will the public that this conflict has so badly failed show up? That’s another major question mark in this dark chapter for culture and music and labor relations in the state of Minnesota.

The Minnesota Orchestra’s silence is not the Minnesota Way

As Finnish music director Osmo Vänskä leads the Minnesota Orchestra in three extra farewell concerts this weekend in Minneapolis, emotions ran high. The man who in ten years has made the orchestra a top orchestra resigned after a year-long conflict between the Board and the Orchestra with no music, only silence, as the result.

Here in Washington, DC, in these days of government shutdown, there is much talk of public trust, or lack of public trust in the government and in Congress. The public trusts the government to stay open, and, in Minnesota, the public trusts the orchestra to play. But the Minnesota Orchestra has not played for a year in a dispute over budget and salaries.

Many of you who read this blog may have noticed that I have been going to Minnesota quite a bit lately, looking for that state’s Scandinavian legacy, stemming from its hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Northern Europe. And I have found plenty of that legacy in its political leaders’ and its inhabitants’ pragmatism, common sense, civic spirit, willingness to compromise, and sense of responsibility to the public. That political legacy has been firmly established for decades, “part of Minnesota’s earth,” as one scholar put it.

But the Minnesota Orchestra’s silence shatters that picture. Minnesota’s former Republican Swedish-American Governor Arne Carlson – the epitome of Scandinavian pragmatism when he was governor — seems to have realized that. On his blog, he pleads for action — from the political leaders, from the whole community — writing that we cannot stand by “while our own world class symphony orchestra disintegrates.”

I understand that times are tough for the Minnesota Orchestra. But the whole issue seems to have been badly handled — not negotiating for months, locking out the musicians, witnessing one orchestra member after the other resigning and leaving a newly renovated Concert Hall empty and silent.

That year-long silence, just like the government shutdown in Washington, DC, is failing the public trust, and, I dare say, that’s not the Minnesota way – “the state that works!”