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 the first week of October) and it’s 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 and socialism.
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 (“Council Housing” for the Brits) 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 not just a music festival. One year I was offered free truffles on a silver platter, literally. 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, who’s 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, sneered at the idea of poverty. She doesn’t know anything about class struggle. I hope her father, Johnny Cash, haunts her for that thoughtless comment and his ghost 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 in San Francisco, CA. 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, Pennsylvania.
My takeaway from it, as a leftist concerned about community solidarity (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, 2019, 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 or worse yet, analyze class struggle.
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 modern 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 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.
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