THE DISSIDENT ARTS FESTIVAL IN PERSPECTIVE
by John Pietaro
It occurred to me some years ago that with all of the music and arts festivals that happen each year in and around New York, none seem to be dedicated exclusively to Left culture. Sure there are lots of special events dedicated to this or that special radical personality or anniversary, and progressives of one sort or another were always around, but what about a yearly celebration of protest arts? They have this kind of thing in Europe for certain, but why not here?
I began producing some of those special events, such as the Hanns Eisler Centenary Festival in 1998 and a series of concerts for May Day, the birth anniversaries of Phil Ochs and Woody Guthrie, concerts to raise funds for the IWW and to mourn the loss of Sis Cunningham, but had as a goal something with a much wider grasp.
In 2005 while living in Beacon NY for the first of five years, I set my sights on the grand Howland Cultural Center, "the jewel of Beacon", a hundred year old mansion that had served as a library prior to moving into the performance space business. With a cavernous ceiling, the space is renowned for its amazing acoustics and hip vibes. Further, the anti-war, pro-worker crowd that had been gathering in this part of the Hudson Valley for decades often coalesced at this site and Pete Seeger was not only a benefactor of the Howland but a frequent performer. Yes, if there was any place to devise such a spectacular to begin a tradition, it was there.
Surrounded by the plethora of folk-oriented musicians and singers and a brilliant tradition of folk art that filled the towns and byways of the Hudson Valley, that first year it seemed only right to deem my event 'the Dissident Folk Festival'. I had as a goal not only the celebration of protest song and poetry but to seek actual dissidence within the folk scene itself; this was to be a concert which celebrated the often-lost spirit of radicalism within the repertoire. The spirit of the revolutionary cultural worker so important to the tradition would be plucked from oblivion and displayed proudly for all to see. Here was a biting opposition to the polite folk concerts of recent decades. This was also to be an event which celebrated diversity in every way; I refused to feature one white guy with a guitar after another. So the first of the two-day Fest closed with a tribute to Woody Guthrie which featured both a near ninety year old Pete Seeger and Woody's twenty-something granddaughter Anna Canoni. The second day closed with a tribute to Paul Robeson, who was embodied by the uncanny voice of Kenneth Anderson and the musings and memories of labor heavy Henry Foner, president then of the Paul Robeson Society.
That first year the Festival featured a wonderful assortment of performers including actor and raconteur Malachy McCourt (then on the New York gubernatorial campaign trail, running as a Green) as well as 'anti-folk' founder Lach, the Pittsburgh Raging Grannies, young singer/songwriter Holly-Go-Anarchy, seasoned topical songstress Bev Grant, Mexican singer/guitarist Zenote Sompantle, my own Flames of Discontent (of which I was front man)and an array of others. I was not only one of the performers but served as house drummer, stage manager and MC. It was exhausting but I never felt the impact of that till well after Sunday night. It was electric! The local press responded better than expected, offering us articles in newspapers and magazines and I developed a particularly special relationship with WDST-FM Radio Woodstock which not only played the Flames of Discontent's recordings but also had us on live in studio and had me as a regular call-in to the morning show for a few years. It was a nice moment.
By year two the event had become a single-day concert and the name had been changed to Dissident Folk & Arts Festival' to indicate the wider grasp I was going for. That night closed off with a powerful tribute to Bertolt Brecht with performances of his most revolutionary cabaret music and poetry.
In 2010 when my much better half, Laurie, and I moved back to Brooklyn from upstate, I brought the Festival downtown and it was finally morphed into the Dissident Arts Festival, where I'd been leaning all along. Sure, topical folkies are still featured performers but the accent is on modernist sounds, improv, radical jazz and more. The poetry sometimes blends right into the music and I am always hoping to take this further by finding just the right avant garde painter or dancer to become entrenched in it all. While the Fest may have been born of the spacious sounds and cool vibes of the Hudson Valley, the heart of its dissidence is purely New York City and the heat of all that goes on here. Finding a home in the Brecht Forum seemed like kismet. Last year the show included poet Louis Reyes Rivera, filmmaker Kevin Keating (and his film 'Giuliani Time'), garage/rad band the Last Internationale, revolutionary rappers ReadNex Poetry Squad, folksinger Bev Grant, percussionist/poet Rafael Figueroa and others.
The 2011 edition of THE DISSIDENT ARTS FESTIVAL will feature a wide array of artists of conscience ranging from radical jazz musicians to protest-folkies to experimental artists and everything in between. Revolutionary sounds of social change. The final list is yet to come, but presently here's what we have in store....
-Upsurge! (radical jazz and poetry ensemble) -
-Gwen Laster (socially conscious jazz violinist) –
-John Pietaro’s Radio Noir (instrumental improv-oriented protest music) -
-Judy Gorman (acoustic topical singer/songwriter) –
-The NY Metro Raging Grannies (sage vocalists of radicalism)-
-Steve Bloom –
-Robert Gibbons –
-Mary-Ellen Sanger –
-Rashida Ismaeli –
-Angelo Verga –
-Dave Lippman & Bard of the Bankers Wild Bill Bailout. (progressive satirist)
THE DISSIDENT ARTS FESTIVAL
presented by John Pietaro and the Brecht Forum WHEN: Saturday August 13, 2011 WHERE: The Brecht Forum 451 West Street (between Bank and Bethune streets), New York NY 212-242-4201 www.brechtforum.org Now, in the midst of right-wing fear-mongering and teabag hysteria, progressive artists speak out for social justice. The Dissident Arts Festival, now in its fifth year, is a platform for cultural workers to sing, recite, improvise, act and orate against war and inequity, on behalf of human rights and environmentalism, and in honor of the struggle of workers and the globally oppressed.
Event producer John Pietaro is a cultural and labor organizer who performs as a percussionist and vocalist, and writes for progressive publications.
Poetry director Steve Bloom is a poet and organizer of the Activist Poets Roundtable.