A Love Letter From Johanna Rose
The Riverwest Currents asked me to tell you a little bit about the upcoming “Guthrie Uncovered” show that I am curating on February 9 at Turner Hall. So, here we go!
I join a long tradition of Milwaukee artists—including a few Riverwesters—uncovering American songwriters. In the past year, David Wake and Tarik Moody curated “Stevie Wonder Uncovered” while Klassik brought us “Tribe Uncovered.” The Uncovered series started in 2013 as part of Alverno College’s late “Alverno Presents” performing arts series. Today, the Uncovered series lives on, produced by David Ravel and in partnership with Pabst/Riverside/Turner Hall and Alverno College.
Uncovered shows are not cover shows or tribute shows, rather they are reconstructions and reinterpretations of influential work. Some songs stick closely to their original renditions, while others are more liberally re-imagined.
When David Ravel asked me to curate an Uncovered show, I considered many options, from Nina Simone to Lucinda Williams to Tom Waits. Ultimately, I decided on Woody Guthrie. Woody Guthrie’s music is like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History put to a tune. Considering the place in history we find ourselves today, it feels appropriate to look at America’s past and think about what we want in our future.
All in the family
My own family’s history informed my decision as well. I come from generations of union organizers. My great-grandfather was William Weinstone, a member of the Communist Party and a labor organizer. He was in in Warren Beatty’s film, Reds, as one of the “witnesses.” My great-grandmother did similar work.
My grandparents continued their legacy here in Milwaukee. They were active in Milwaukee’s Civil Rights Movement and Labor struggles. In the 1950s, at the height of McCarthy-era political repression, my grandfather was blacklisted and investigated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities for his labor organizing work.
My great-grandparents and my grandparents listened to Woody Guthrie. Guthrie wrote the music of their lives, of so many American lives. He inspired generations to resist, to organize, and to stand up to an oppressive government and the systems of abuse it enforces.
Half a century after the peak of America’s labor movement we find ourselves at a turning point. “Unions are dead,” I often hear. We seem plagued with apathy. Those who are comfortable seem too comfortable to stand with those who have nowhere to sit. However, things are changing. America is in the midst of a social and structural reckoning. We are ripping apart the institutional fabric the United States government has always had in place.
Uncovering institutionalized oppression
Black Lives Matter has brought police bru tality, racism, and the centuries of atrocities committed against people of color to the forefront of the National Conversation. Fascists and white supremacist terrorists are marching through the streets, only to be met by bigger counter-protests. Faced with increasingly brutal enforcement of racist immigration laws, Dreamers and undocumented immigrants are courageou sly putting their bodies on the line to defend our communities from the horrors of deportation and to push for comprehensive immigration reform. First Nations Peoples again come together in a historic display of unity to protect our Earth from the greedy corporations that look to exploit her for profit. The #MeToo movement is inspiring women everywhere to speak up, amplifying voices previously not heard by mainstream America or in some cases anyone at all. And trans and gender non-conforming people have led the way in advancing the human rights of all LGBTQIA+ people. A few years ago, I ran down to the Milwaukee Courthouse to witness my beautiful sister marry her beautiful wife on the very first day same-sex marriage was legalized.
In each of these actions, we are slowly dismantling the institutional systems of oppression that our government depends on to maintain the status quo. There is no question that there is more work to be done, but for now, it is a start.
Inspiration through music
This show is not really what I’m talking about when I say there is “more work to be done,” but it has a place in the fight for justice. Woody Guthrie’s music is about the struggles and victories of our past and can inform the struggles of today. With this show we hope to inspire attendees like Woody inspired the generations before us.
This show is mobilizing so many of Milwaukee’s talented artists and to them I am so thankful: Nickel&Rose, Painted Caves, Klassik, Peter Mulvey, Jordan Davis, Hello Death, Chicken Wire Empire, Bo&Airo, Abby Jeanne, Amanda Huff, Scott Hlavenka, Grasping at Straws, Josh Evert, Kendra Swanson, Ernest Brusubardis IV, Viktor Brusubardis,Sugar Ransom, and Ruth B8r Ginsburg. (A special thank you to Ruth B8r Ginsburg and to my partner Carl Nichols for already putting in endless work on this).
Together, with music spanning from hip hop to bluegrass, we will do our best to throw the biggest anti-fascist hootenanny we can, because as Guthrie said, “All you fascists bound to lose!”
Thanks to the Riverwest Currents for asking me to write this, and thanks Riverwest for reading it! Also be sure to check out MJ Uncovered curated by the talented B-Free!