Hardly Strictly Helpful

By Julie Collins

One of the most popular, heavily attended free music festivals that takes place every year in San Francisco is this weekend, always on or around my birthday. It’s called Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.

Ironic that the genre of music that was originally promoted to showcase the event in the most privileged, pampered city in America      is the old protestor music of early class struggle, the music of the anti-establishment, the working class, the labor movement and in some cases the traditional values of communism!  (Gasp!)

Even more ironic is the fact that most of the people in attendance come from and live in a meritocracy that doesn’t exist for the rest of us and could never identity with class struggle or financial hardship, the kind of stuff that I see and deal with every single day of my life.

For instance, I live in a neighborhood that has the highest concentration of Section 8 Housing in the county, maybe even the state, probably the entire country.  And I can identify with their struggles.  Where’s the three day music festival for us?

Anyway, it’s notjusta music festival.  One year I was offered truffles for free on a silver platter.  Another year RoseAnn Cash offered criticism of adult males who still had to live at home.  “Fuck her,” I muttered and split to see another band.  Cash, whose ridden on the auspices of her last name was birthed directly into that meritocracy for the few and has always had the privilege that comes from being born into Country Music royalty.   She doesn’t know anything about class struggle.  I hope her father, Johnny Cash, haunts her for that thoughtless comment and takes her down a few pegs.

Some of the most famous and talented people, even outside the Bluegrass genre, perform at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.  From Pokey LaFarge to Hugh Laurie to Courtney Barnett to Emmy Lou Harris to New Pornographers to Thurston Moore to Fantastic Negrito and an array of crooners, banjo and stand-up bass savants and all around music-Americana take the multiple stages for the three day festival.

About a million people batter the grounds of Golden Gate Park.  Traffic is closed (of course) and a sea of bicycles can be seen as far as the eye can see. This particular festival rounds out the end of the festival mania that enlivens San Francisco all summer.  There’s always a breathtaking sunset along the surrounding tree line as EmmyLou Harris bids farewell and exits the Banjo Stage.

If you’re ever in San Francisco the first week of October I recommend it.  You’ll never have another experience like it.  And it’s free.

I’ve gone every year since its inception, except last year and this year, since I moved to Pittsburgh.

My takeaway from it, as a leftist community “advisor” (I bristle at the word activist, come on) is that the Hellman Family Trust, which ultimately puts on this festival for free every year, has the right idea, sort of.  But what can you expect when billionaires offer something for free to the community? Do they have an agenda?

Believe it or not, my beef isn’t with the billionaires that back the thing, or with the millionaires that perform the thing.  They have their agenda and whatever the political climate is the artists are on cue with the scripted main stream pounded propaganda narratives: be it anti-Trump quips or the “women up” rallying cries.  This year, the urgency around climate change is the pre determined between-song talking point and I’ll bet money Beth Orton encourages everyone to buy a metal straw and AC Newman congratulates everyone on riding their bikes to the fest. Whatever the theme is, nearly one million people won’t ever be offered decisively specific details that contradict these polished and scripted narratives. Nearly one million people nod in unison, and their ardent dedication to group-think is egged on by the artists on stage.

So, yea, my beef isn’t with the festival producers and performers.  It’s with those nearly one million people who attend the thing.  There is this event that we all attend that is presented for free and paid for by the billionaire class.  When there are rumors that Hardly Strictly may not happen in the future, the citizens of San Francisco throw an epic tantrum and start campaigning to raise money to make sure it happens again.  God forbid we have a weekend without anything to occupy us.  We might have to start thinking about things that matter or make us uncomfortable.  We might actually have to do a little self analyzing.

Why isn’t this effort thrown into the building up of communities who’ve been collapsed, on purpose, by those same billionaires offering free music festivals to the bourgeoisie?  Clearly the energy is there because as I’ve already said multiple times in this piece, nearly one million people attend this event.  They bring all the accoutrement necessary to save a spot for their gaggle of friends, they coordinate meeting places, create signs to hold up so they can be found in the crowd, announce where they are on social media and bring food and beverages so no one goes hungry or thirsty (although there are more food and drink options at this three day  festival than even in my own neighborhood on a permanent basis). There is a lot of organizing that comes with going to an event that is occupied by nearly one million people.

So I know people are capable of it. They have the money, the time, the wherewithal and the energy.  So why not take this expert coordination and apply it where it really matters?  Flint could really use some new pipes.  I could use some sidewalks.  Detroit could use some housing.  Alabama suffers from hookworm, a 19th century disease that occurs when there isn’t any plumbing infrastructure.  They could use some coordinated help.

It feels as if more and more people aren’t seeing through the motives of these massive scale events:  they are designed to keep us distracted, ameliorate our sense of community or redirect it to individualistic social events that don’t challenge us and they definitely keep the conversation about class struggle non existent.  The disconnect is profound, especially at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.  One million could be quietly wiping the tears out of their eyes, moved by the  emotions of EmmyLou crooning poor Orphan Girl and yet, the poor orphan girl sitting right next to them who’s attempting to scratch out a living the only way she can (me, for example)  is roundly dismissed and the struggle that the orphan girls we’ve created through our destructive force on the planet is much too awkward to bring up at a music festival. Or, anywhere.

This lull into laissez faire fascism feels as if it is a soft coup of the very principles that comes out of the songs being sung at the festival itself.  You could literally hear the influence of Woody Guthrie in a young musician toe tapping his anti-establishment message but it falls on deaf ears when everyone in the audience is a member of the tech apparatus and is making at the very least, six digits a year.  The biggest struggle the audience member experiences is if he should announce his company is going public this year or next, or, which potential roommate he (or she) should choose to share the rent with.

Do I miss Hardly Strictly Bluegrass? I guess.  I never had a birthday party because of it. I know that when I attend again I’ll be one in a million, literally.

It’s entertaining and fun but I am also aware of a chilling discovery that this very event serves a sinister purpose. And even if a song was sung to explain that purpose (which is to disarm your capacity to tackle class struggle because you actually have the means to do it), the privileged in attendance still won’t hear that message.


How Pittsburgh “opportunity zones” are fascistic in nature and screwing over the working class

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The Lynx on Lake Malaren

A Fable

By Julie Collins 

In the northernmost part of the Valley of Lake Malaren near Stockholm, Sweden the ugliest little root known to man has thrived.

This remote area of Lake Malaren is home to the Swedish Lynx, a wildcat that looks a little like a domesticated Maine Coon.

The soil there is crusty on the outside, providing warmth in the summer to the Lynx, then soft directly underneath its hardened outer layers.

It seemed a wasteland before it was discovered that it is where ginger root can grow. Because  no plant or tree or animal (save for the Lynx) could survive on this soil.  Russia, the country that had owned this wasteland, sold it to Sweden with the understanding that Sweden would pay back the sale of the land with the profits that were made from whatever could be miraculously exported off of it.

But, Sweden’s horticulturists gave up the cause at the turn of the century, alerting the Swedish government of this wasted incompatible territory. Just as the Swedish government were to dynamite through this land to build a ski resort, Russian and French animal activists whose ancestry were tied to the land, protested!

”The Lynx will go extinct if you blast away the soil!” They cried.

They reminded Sweden that the land abutting beautiful Lake Malaren was the serene home to the docile Lynx. But with its close view of peaking mountains, nearby forestry and so close to Stockholm, the Government gave a good fight.

”This is prime location for a resort and wi boost our tourism department!” They argued.

Eventually whoever, the protestors won their fight when animals rights groups got involved and the Lynx were safe.

However, the Government still wanted to do something useful with this land. After all, decades had passed and they had never paid Russia back for the land that was sold to them.  Tensions were mounting between the two countries due to this unpaid debt.

They petitioned Governments of other countries to hire state issued horticulturists to find a plant, a tree or any kind of root that might work with this unique soil. They offered a sizable grant to anyone who could break the soil. They also offered a yearly stipend for every bloom or bud that grew out of the soil. Countries being in economic decline jumped at this unique opportunity from Sweden.

France was the first to start digging at Lake Malaren. They were suffering a decline in a particular type of orange blossom that was used in the most sought after parfum that France exported. Tiny fragrant orange blossom trees were planted and within 7 weeks they had died. The soil had rejected them. France arrogantly waved this notion off as a ridiculous fancy and returned home.

Italy came with great bravado! Displaying their finest branch to the Swedish Ambassador, they promised a vineyard full of ripened grapes to make the earthiest, boldest flavorful wines. Within two weeks, the baby branches had all died and were skinny corpses laid to rest on the hardened Swedish soil.

The United States came with a grin and a cause, of course. “Corn is what you need!” they announced to the Swedish consulate. “It’s healthy, natural, you can use it’s oil for lots of things, and by golly it tastes just dandy when popped and drenched in butter!” “Naturally!” The Swedish government agreed and watched in eagerness as the corn was planted. Within two months, all the stalks had browned and were dried up. “Well,” the US said. “We gave it the old college try.” And off they went, to excavate other lands.

For the longest while the area lay dormant.  It was strange patch of nothing in the midst of the beautiful blooms and mountains that surrounded it.

Thirty eight years had passed. One day a Russian scientist was passing through this area. He remembered his wife’s French grandfather telling the story about the land that seemed to reject everything planted on it. He confirmed with his wife that indeed it was Lake Malaren, where he was standing. Unlike his predecessors, he knelt down to palm the soil. He felt where some places it was warm, and some places where it was quite cool to the touch. He studied the Lynx and their movement across this little patch of land. Why they would move northern during some parts of the day, and why southern in others. He measured its size and took stock of the nightly habitats that scurried across it under the moonlight.

His final summation was that the only plant that could possibly thrive on this apparent wasted patch of land was the Ginger root. For it too had a temperamental side. Perhaps the two could work together with their difficulty harvesting.

He spoke with the Russian government and convinced them to let him try it out. After all, if it worked and the ginger root could flourish, this was an export that Russia could benefit from, and the stipend that had never been paid for all these decades could finally be paid off. The Swedish and Russian governments drew up the old documents and the planting started.

At first the scientist only planted a few plants to test the soil. He didn’t want to immediately choke it of its space. He worried that if too many were planted, the land, having been empty for so long might go into shock and immediately reject the ginger root.

Within weeks, the tiniest frailest little buds started to sprout. He had to put fencing around the buds to keep the Lynx from eating the fledgling green. Hundreds of hours of correspondence were documented daily on the tiny buds that bloomed into stalks, then flowers. The scientist neglected his wife, his work and even his children to watch in amazement as the small unassuming ginger flowers started to take shape. Surely he thought he had seen nothing as beautiful.

Over time, the Lynx realized the value of the plants, and took to only feeding off the dead leaves or petals that fell, as new blooms took their place, and given time nature took its course and there were hundreds of plants sprouting all over the soil that was once considered a barren wasteland.

The Governments were delighted and created an odd little alliance in the horticulture department.

Of course the Swedish and Russian economy boomed since Ginger is used for everything from cleaning to medicinal, to the spicing of foods and in ancient civilizations was considered an aphrodisiac.  The Ginger root that grew on this once barren wasteland that rejected every attempt to grow on it, was now being exported worldwide.  All agreed it was the best of its kind.

To this day, as passersby stop by Lake Maclaren to picnic or take photos of the looming mountain peaks, or dip a toe in the lovely cool waters, the sweet clean scent of Ginger permeates the air and calls to them. They always go to the plant and touch its flowers, looking on in amazement as the docile Lynx lay beneath its cool stalks. A sweet scented flower is usuallly plucked and placed in the hair of a little girl, or in the button of a properly dressed gentleman.

The scientist checks in on the plants from time to time; an unassuming man, he felt much pride in having been the first to find life where there once was none. The Swedish government dedicated a beautiful bench to the scientist. He often sits on it reminiscing to this day.