Back to the Garden: “Bread and Roses”

Text: Luke 1: 46-55 (Mary’s song)

How do you get 400,000 young people to gather on an ill-prepared dairy farm and happily spend three days in the rain and mud without adequate security, food, or bathrooms? The answer is obvious, I think — music!

The Woodstock Festival of Peace and Music, which occurred 50 years ago this August, had an incredible lineup of musicians: Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Santana, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Joe Cocker, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Jimi Hendrix, and about 15 other bands or performers.
The U.S. government was afraid of the hippies who came to Woodstock because of their opposition to the War in Vietnam and their disdain for established norms of dress, sexuality, and personal ambition. But I imagine music drew the masses much more than rebellious politics.

Those 400,000 people heard a lot of music: folk classics, covers of Beatles songs, rock and roll, both old and new, some world music, and psychedelic jazz; and the playlist included a lot of protest songs. Richie Havens improvised his biggest hit “Freedom” on the spot. Joan Baez sang “Joe Hill” and “We Shall Overcome.” Jefferson Airplane played “Uncle Sam Blues.” And most amazingly, Jimi Hendrix closed the weekend with a wildly distorted version of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

It is hard to catalogue all the ingredients of the youth rebellion of the late 60s. In the 1950s, North America had been conformist and repressive. Dwight D. Eisenhower, a WWII general, was President of the U.S. McCarthyism stamped out the radicalism of the 30s. Suburbia bloomed and churches filled to the rafters. It was the era of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.”

This began to change in 1956. Elvis brought Black soul music to a wider audience. The pill helped to change sexual mores. Martin Luther King Jr. led a powerful Civil Rights Movement for Blacks, which was joined by ones for women and gay people and against the War in Vietnam. Liberation struggles around the world reduced the French and British empires to rubble. A new generation that had not been scarred by the Great Depression and the Second World War began to break free of conformity.

“Sex, drugs, and rock and roll” is one way to characterize the Woodstock generation. But the rebelliousness of 1969 was multi-faceted; and if one was drawn to hippie clothes and lifestyles, one was probably also in opposition to war and to the civic leaders of church, school, and government who had made the 1950s seem so dull.

The various social and cultural rebellions fed into the music, and the music helped fuel those rebellions. If there was going to be a revolution – and many people anticipated one – it was going to be accompanied by lots of music and dancing.

Music has always been connected to communal celebrations and movements for freedom. Think of the spirituals sung by African-American slaves. Think of the story of King David singing and dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant 3,000 years ago. Think of Mary in today’s Gospel story singing a song of love and justice when she learns she is to become the mother of Jesus.

I was glad but not surprised that there was music at the big Climate Protest in front of the Alberta Legislature here on Friday. Much of it was led by First Nations drummers, including my favourite group, Chubby Cree. Not only do songs and drums provide rhythm for marching, they help those who gather to express their feelings.

Church gatherings like this one have similarities with festivals of peace and music. We gather to pray, sing and reflect on values of compassion, justice, and love, which run counter to the values of the dominant society. We gather to express our care for humanity, our concerns for those scarred by poverty or war, and our hopes for the web of life that suffers from the depredations of economic activity.

We also sing. We may not always pay attention to the words. We may not always understand or like them when we do. But in the vibrations that our songs set in motion, we sometimes sense that we are not alone. In so doing, we embody our desire for a society of greater love . . .

This past Tuesday at a Worship Committee meeting, Ethel asked the three of us there who had also been at the Ever Wonder Conference from Oct 4-6 at Southminster-Steinhauer United Church – this was myself, Celia, and Laine – to say a few words about the event. And although I quite enjoyed Ever Wonder, I had trouble articulating why. What I could remember was a spirit of caring and joy that was created by the communal singing.

I’ll have another chance to say a few words about Ever Wonder next Sunday. The group of us from here who attended are going to use “This is Us” next week to say a few words on different aspects of the event.

But on Tuesday evening, I was struck above all by how important the singing had been for me.

We are living through a tumultuous time, one that might prove to be as disruptive as was the aftermath of WWI one hundred years ago or the youth rebellion of 1969 50 years ago. And so we need drums, marches, and songs of joy and protest.

One of the most joyous moments of protest in which I ever participated was an International Women’s Day March in Toronto on March 8, 1978. This was the first time in memory that feminists and their allies had decided to march in Toronto on IWD, and nobody knew how many people would come.
In the end, several thousand of us noisily snaked through downtown Toronto, and I especially remember the singing. My favourite song was “Bread and Roses,” which was written after a strike by female textile workers in Lawrence Massachusetts in 1912. I loved the lyrics. I loved the choir who sang it. And I loved that they taught it to us, so that we could all join in.

This past June, Kim and I were in Winnipeg for a few days of vacation and to participate in the centennial celebrations of the Winnipeg General Strike of May and June 1919. As part of the latter, we attended a public unveiling of a sculpture in front of City Hall. On the screen behind me is projected an iconic photo from June 21st, 1919 of an overturned streetcar that been driven by a scab. The unveiling of the sculpture was held 100 years to that day when police attacked the strikers, wounding 14 and killing two of them.

At the unveiling of the sculpture, which is also pictured behind me, the Masters of Ceremony began by singing “Bread and Roses,” and I was thrilled.

So, to close this short reflection on gatherings, protests, and songs, I too will now recite the poem “Bread and Roses”

“As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses
For the people hear us singing, bread and roses, bread and roses.

As we come marching, marching, we battle too, for men
For they are women’s children and we mother them again
Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses, too

As we come marching, marching, un-numbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread
Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew
Yes, it’s bread that we fight for, but we fight for roses, too.

As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes
But a sharing of life’s glories, bread and roses, bread and roses.”

May it be so. Amen.

“Preamble” to worship, October 20, 2019

There are many reasons why we gather on Sunday mornings: to meet friends and neighbours; to remember our sacred values; to reflect on today in the light of tradition; to celebrate and mourn with one another; and so on. But one of the most consistent motivations I hear for coming to this sanctuary on Sunday mornings is to sing together and to hear great music.

I appreciated the fact that the choir led the service here on September 15, and that it focused on music in worship. In particular, I am grateful to Elfrieda Penner for taking a lead on that gathering and for sharing the script of the service with me.

Today, we focus on singing again. This time, I am seeking connections between music and protests against injustice. And once again, I am taking inspiration from the 50th anniversary this August of the Woodstock Festival of Peace and Music.

In a few clergy gatherings this fall, I have mentioned this series of Sunday morning reflections title Back to the Garden. This is the fifth of seven. Next week, I plan to focus on what an economics of love might look like as opposed to today’s economics of money; and I hope to finish the Back to the Garden series on Remembrance Sunday, November 10, in a service that looks back not only to the first Remembrance Day 100 years ago on November 11, 1919, but also to the aftermath of World War I, which in Canada is illuminated most sharply, I believe, by the Winnipeg General Strike of May and June 1919, and by visions of a return to the Garden of Eden not only in Joni Mitchell’s song “Woodstock,” but also in the strange and hallucinatory final book of the Bible, Revelation.

Some ministers expressed surprise that there might be seven Sunday mornings-worth of material from Woodstock. I think it is doable because of the strangeness of our current situation. 2019, just like 50 years ago in 1969 when Woodstock occurred, and 100 years in 1919 in the aftermath of World War – today is a time of social upheaval, new expressions of love and justice, and hope for renewal in the face of our fears.

I hope that you are enjoying this series as much as I am, and that today’s hour of song, ritual, and reflection will help turn our hearts, minds and souls to the joy of singing, the power of gathering, and our hopes that a return to the Garden might one day become a reality on earth as it is in heaven.