by Charlie King
It’s an unwieldy name with a history to match. People's Music Network for Songs of Freedom and Struggle was conceived of as a weekend gathering at The Community for Non-Violent Action (CNVA), a conference center in Southeastern CT. Charlie King, Joanne McGloin, Rick Gaumer & Joanne Sheehan were on staff in 1977, planning summer conferences. Charlie was beginning to moonlight as a traveling singer in the Pete Seeger / Malvina Reynolds tradition and the four agreed a gathering of singers in that tradition was in order. The 60s were long gone and many of us wondered if we had arrived too late for the party. We lacked a sense of being a musical community, though the women’s music movement had a strong sense of community as we learned at that first gathering.
Invitations went out at the beginning of the year and additional names were added as many singers converged on the Seabrook nuclear power plant for the Great Occupation, May Day 1977. By June roughly 75 musicians responded to the call and gathered for a weekend that created a template that has guided us ever since.
Folks trickled in, settled down and got to know each other Friday night. Saturday was filled with daytime workshops and songswaps. Saturday night was a round robin sing - literally a circle of 70+ singers who each sang (and/or led) a song in turn. When one singer wanted to jump the line everything ground to a halt. A lively discussion ensued. It lasted close to an hour! Michael Cooney tried to calm the waters by walking to the center of the circle and leading us in “Tis A Gift To Be Simple" - after which the argument picked up where it had left off. Forty years later we’re still experimenting with ways to get the most people a chance to sing in the most reasonable amount of time.
Three additional elements have been added to the template over the years. The first was to add a concert, open to the public, with a hope of raising money to defray expenses. Originally that was on a Sunday night at the end of the weekend. But once we began to have a second gathering each year, in the winter and at an urban location, it moved to become the opening event on Friday evening.
The second innovation was a Sunday morning Songs of the Spirit. Begun at the urging of Mayer Shevin, a Wiccan Mahatma and fine singer/song-writer, it was a circle that convened in silence and waited for a song to emerge, then another, and another, all from some spiritual tradition that invited full group participation. It became an annual occasion to conspire, in that old sense of breathing together.
Third and most recent is the Artist in Residence program. Initiated by Si Kahn and Diane Crowe, it brought a series of nationally touring artists as mentors & resources to the PMN members. Through performances, plenary sessions and 1 on 1 mentoring at the gatherings, often continued by webinars in the intervening months, the AIR program continues the tradition of mutual critique and support that PMN was first founded to foster.
That first weekend gathering resulted in an ongoing network called Songs of Freedom & Struggle. We met for 3 consecutive summers at CNVA before we outgrew the facility and began to meet at summer camps, early in the season before the campers arrived. First move was to Northwest CT, then into the Hudson River Valley where for many years we met at a series of camps. Most recently we’ve found a perfect match for our current size and political persuasions at Camp Kinderland on the MA/CT border.
Year four we experienced a seismic shift when Pete Seeger became a regular attender at the gatherings. He immediately challenged us on the lack of diversity in our mostly white, anglo, middle class ranks. He suggested an urban weekend would be a more inviting setting for diverse attendance. Luci Murphy stepped up and agreed to organize our first winter weekend in January 1981. It was all we had hoped for and more, featuring Nueva Cancion, Asian drumming, Gospel choirs and a grand collection of singers from what Luci described as “the demonstration circuit.” Having a life and an organizing base of its own, it gave itself a new name: The People’s Music Network. PMN & SFS continued to move in tandem, SFS organizing the summer weekends while PMN planned the winter urban gatherings. Eventually, the two merged (hence the unwieldy name) but not quickly and not without a lot of back and forth about how to build a network that was a diverse embodiment of the values we espoused. It’s a challenge we continue to struggle with today.
At its height, the Network had about 800 members, many making their living as full time performers. Other networks spun off the original: Midwest PMN; San Francisco’s Freedom Song Network; and a national group, The Children’s Music Network. Our own membership began to shrink – the 1992 PMN Directory lists 630 members. At present we have fewer than 300 active, dues paying members, but a list of over 3000 who have passed through the network and the gatherings over the years.
The Gatherings and especially the Round Robins have been a spawning ground for songs which, once heard by 200 or so other singers, were soon being heard around the nation and the world – the 20th century acoustic version of going viral. Pat Humphries, Fred Small, Ruthie Pelham, Roy Brown, Kim and Reggie Harris and many more brought songs to the gathering that took on a life of their own. And lesser known novice singers who found their first audience at a PMN songswap or round robin may have stumbled but were borne up by 200 supportive voices and carried through to the end of their song, only to come to the next gathering with more experience and confidence.
The gatherings and the network of songwriters created an incubator for new songs. Songs were heard, critiqued, emailed back and forth, adapted for other uses and, with luck, ended up in Peter Blood and Annie Patterson’s compendiums, Rise Up Singing & it’s successor, Rise Again. PMN created a virtual community of mutual support. Traveling performers could find a venue or a couch to sleep on by contacting members on the far-flung national list. Many have performed at The Peoples’ Voice Café’ in NYC, also a PMN spinoff. And, as was its original intent, it has created a community of lovers of music with a social conscience where no one feels they are going it alone. It’s been over 40 years since that first gathering but most of those original 75 still remain in regular contact with one another.
And the future? Our reduction in size reflects not only the proliferation of alternate Music Networks, but also our challenges at diversifying our membership to include younger performers, people of color, performers from other contemporary political art forms, notably hip hop and spoken word. We’ve also lost the cultural diversity that Nueva Cancion singers brought to the Gatherings when PMN membership was at its height. So we continue to struggle with these issues of diversity as we move closer to the first half century mark. We hope those who visit this website will be a part of creating that renewed People’s Music Network for Songs of Freedom & Struggle.