All posts by acornled

clafoutis madness

by Arlene and Larry Dunn, August 4, 2020

We are mad for Clafoutis! Everyone who know us, and most anyone who’s even tripped on us on social media, knows that from our frequent posts when we make one. In the middle of August, our friend composer Spencer Arias will release an episode of his Cooking with Creatives series on his YouTube channel, which features us making a classic Black Cherry Clafoutis in our kitchen, while he makes one in his kitchen. We had a fascinating conversation, via Zoom, along the way. We won’t spoil the show for you by spilling the beans on the conversation. But we thought it would be helpful to put up this post about Clafoutis (with buttons below to download our recipes), so Spencer can link to this page when he posts our episode.

Clafoutis is a centuries-old dessert from the Limousin region of France, famous Limoges porcelain, Limousin cattle, and oak barrels for aging Cognac. The name Clafoutis derives from the Occitan (an ancient language of southern France and neighboring areas of Spain and Italy) word clafir, meaning “to fill.” This is an apt name, as traditional Clafoutis is a custardy batter, filled with black cherries.

Classic Black Cherry Clafoutis

Clafoutis, of course, can be, and often is, filled with myriad other fruits. And we would argue that it ought to be made with fruit that is fresh off your local trees or bushes, in season. But some purists claim that a Clafoutis-like thing filled with anything but black cherries is not a Clafoutis but a flaugnarde. But then plenty of those same purist also say the pits should be left in the cherries. For simplicity, we call all these derivations Clafoutis, and leave it at that.

We don’t recall exactly where or when we were first served Clafoutis, nor by whom. But we were immediately entranced, and we set out discover how to make it. There are hundreds of Clafoutis recipes online. After reviewing many of them, we settled on one from chef Hubert Keller, proprietor of the famed Fleur de Lys restaurant in San Francisco (now closed). We’ve made a few minor adaptations over the years, but we’ve had consistently good results with it. You can download our Classic Clafoutis recipe below.

Savory Clafoutis with Gravlax and Goat Cheese

A few years ago, something set us down a path to try making a savory version of Clafoutis. There are some recipes online, but we decided to see if we could simply tweak and adapt our own recipe. The first step was to remove the sugar and try filling it with some savory ingredients. That worked fairly well, but we decided we needed to increase the number of eggs. Our favorite variation so far, hands down, is home-cured salmon gravlax with goat cheese and herbs. You can also download our Savory Clafoutis recipe below.

We urge you to try making a Clafoutis, sweet or savory, in your own kitchen sometime soon. We doubt you’ll be disappointed.

prairie ethnobotanty

by Arlene and Larry Dunn, August 3, 2020

spiky silver orb
battle mace of the prairie
rattlesnakes beware

Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is the subject of the haiku above, the featured photo on this post, and Larry’s homework for a 2-session online course we are taking in Prairie Ethnobotany, from The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, 25 miles west of Downtown Chicago.

We’ve had a long affiliation with The Morton Arboretum, going back 30 years. It was an essential resource for us when we were developing the landscape, and later, our landscape plant nursery, at Acorn Ridge Gardens, our homestead in rural LaPorte County, IN. We attended many courses and seminars on trees and tree care, and Arlene earned a certificate in Woody Plant Propagation, studying with Pete Linser, Manager of Plant Production. Many plants in our Indiana garden were propagated from scion wood or seeds gathered at Morton as a part of those classes, and we regularly worked the sales tents at Morton’s annual Arbor Day Plant Sale. Kris Bachtell, Vice President of Collections and Facilities, was particularity helpful to us when we were starting the nursery, and was the featured speaker at one of our twice-yearly garden festivals.

Ethnobotany, for the uninitiated, is “the scientific study of the traditional knowledge and customs of a people concerning plants and their medical, religious, and other uses,” according to the Oxford dictionary. Our focus in this class is on the plants of the American Tallgrass Prairie and the practical and ceremonial uses of those plants by the indigenous peoples of the prairie and early European settlers. Cindy Crosby, steward of the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum and a noted author and lecturer on the Tallgrass Prairie and nature conservation, is teaching the class. If you are interested in the prairie ecosystem and its plants, you should follow her Tuesdays in the Tallgrass blog.

Early 19th century geographic extent of the Tallgrass Prairie

The North American Tallgrass Prairie once covered a vast swath of land − about 170 million acres − from what is now Manitoba in the north, to what is now the Texas gulf coast in the south. The prairie ecosystem contained a rich tapestry of more than 500 species of deep-rooted grasses and forbs (broad-leafed flowering plants) in a symbiotic self-sustaining relationship. The relentless westward push of European settlers devastated the prairie, greatly aided by John Deere’s plow. Today, only around 1% of the Tallgrass Prairie remains.

Our own interest in the Tallgrass Prairie was piqued by one of our gardening mentors, Bill Brincka. Bill was a professor of three-dimensional art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the most masterful gardeners we ever met, and a keen-eyed naturalist who studied with May Watts at The Morton Arboretum from the time he was a teenager. The first time Bill visited our garden and nursery, he literally jumped out of the car on arrival, shouting “Do you know you have a prairie remnant right across your street?” In fact, we did not realize it, but indeed there were several acres of undisturbed prairie right there, in all its magnificence, lying between 2 disused railroad tracks. It was bursting with a vast array of prairie grasses and forbs, familiar and unfamiliar − Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indian Grass, Switchgrass, Black-eyed Susan, Cone Flower, Iron Weed, Boneset, Joe Pye Weed, Blazing Star, and Rattlesnake Master (one of out favorites, for its distinctive features). Soon, we added a steadily growing array of prairie native plants to our gardens and to our nursery product line. And we restored an acre of prairie at the back of our yard, on the crest of rise about 100 yards behind our house.

In 2013, various maladies of advancing age convinced us that living in isolation in rural Indiana, with several acres of gardens to tend, was no longer sustainable. So we up and moved to a retirement community in Oberlin, OH. In 2015, we started developing a “pond bank prairie garden” adjacent to our cottage. You can see in that prairie map, above, that small pockets of Tallgrass Prairie were found in Ohio, including near Oberlin, and many prairie plants can be found growing wild here. So it seemed a natural fit. The pond bank has been growing in nicely, especially considering we planted it all from seed without a lot of soil preparation, because it’s a fairly narrow, rather steep slope that does not lend itself to getting equipment in there.

We planted some Rattlesnake Master seeds three years ago, hoping for the best. But the last two seasons we saw no sign of it, which is not too surprising. Like many prairie plants, it takes a few years to establish itself, and wouldn’t likely bloom until after a few years of growing. Our patience was rewarded a few weeks ago, when our first stalk of Rattlesnake Master flowers emerged from the thicket of surrounding foliage. And that is why Larry picked Rattlesnake Master for his Prairie Ethnobotany class homework.

Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium)

Common names: Rattlesnake Master, Button Snakeroot

Scientific name: Eryngium yuccifolium

What the scientific name means: The genus designation Eryngium derives from the ancient Greek and is a somewhat rare case where the name simply means “sea holly,” i.e., this type of plant, and has no other meanings. The species designation yuccifolium means “having Yucca-like foliage,” which is an apt description.

Native range: Native to the American Tallgrass Prairie.

Plant description: Rattlesnake Master is a perennial forb that grows from a corm-like crown into a large rosette of long, narrow, fibrous leaves. It flowers in mid-summer on tall leafless stems bearing many small blossoms aggregated in spiky balls, which are silver-gray in color.

Historical human uses: Rattlesnake Master, as its common name indicates, was used by indigenous North American peoples to ward off the effects of rattlesnake venom when handling rattlesnakes and as a curative for a rattlesnake bite. The sap and roots were also used in various tonics, including as a diuretic, and the fibrous leaves were used for making baskets and footwear.

Celebratory Haiku:

spiky silver orb
battle mace of the prairie
rattlesnakes beware

First Rattlesnake Master in our pond bank prairie garden
Arlene with an 8-foot tall Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbekia triloba)
Pond bank prairie garden, Acorn Cottage Oberlin
Acorn Cottage Oberlin, from across the pond

sip3: talking machines

by Klutzy McFumblefingers (aka Larry Dunn)

Week 3 of Synth in Place, the online course in DIY synthesizers taught by Kirk Pearson of Dogbotic sound labs, in collaboration with Thingamajigs, focused on two things: talk boxes and learning to solder.

One of our homework assignments from week 2 was to select a piece of music we like that makes use of some sort of machine/electronic manipulation of the human voice. My choice was rocker Joe Walsh’s 1973 mega-hit Rocky Mountain Way. When this song debuted, it was my first exposure to the use of the talk box, and I think its first use in rock & roll. In this live performance from the 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival (below, starting about 3:20), you’ll see Joe switch guitars and move to a rig that includes a length of clear poly tubing stuck into his mouth. Joe starts vocalizing other-worldly sounds along with his guitar.

At, and since, the time I first heard this, I would describe it as “Joe is singing through his guitar.” But, as we learned in class, that is the opposite of what is happening. The sound from his guitar is playing into his mouth, from a speaker that is hooked up to that tubing. So what we are hearing is the sound of the guitar plus whatever sounds Joe vocalizes, using his own “human talk-box” (more on that later), and the combined, other-worldly sounds are then amplified through his microphone.

Rough illustration of a talk box setup

It turns out that a talk box is an exceedingly simple thing to build. The illustration above gives a rough idea of how the rig goes together. The red box marked “HOW YOU DO THIS IS THE TRICKY PART” requires only some simple electronics, essentially the oscillator circuit we have already built, plus a plastic funnel to wedge the speaker into (aimed at the small end of the funnel) and a length of tubing to bring it to your mouth.

We focused on the talk box in class, in part because it is so simple to make and could be a fun component of any DIY synths we might build. But it is also instructive in understanding the whole concept of synthesizing sound. The way a talk box works is remarkably similar to the way the human body synthesizes sounds, such as speech, using the combination of muscles and other structures that make up the human voice track. The diaphragm is the oscillator in human voice synthesis, and the throat, tongue, teeth, and lips are the filters that can be contorted into various shapes to make the sounds that are the building blocks of audible speech.

International Phonetic Alphabet

The ever-clever linguists of the International Phonetics Association have codified all the different sounds the human voice track can make in the International Phonetic Alphabet. Each of these sounds are classified as to which body organs are used to make them. You can demonstrate some of this for yourself, using The Pink Trombone site where you can interactively manipulate the human voice track and observe the resulting changes in the sounds produced.

Caution: HOT IRON LOOKS THE SAME AS COLD IRON!

The other focus of our week 3 class was on soldering, which is the key to migrating the oscillator circuits we made in week 2 from the prototyping breadboard environment to a permanent home on a circuit board. Soldering is both incredibly easy, and yet quite dangerous if you are not careful. That thing operates at about 700° Fahrenheit, and takes steady hands and mindfulness about where you set it down and how you pick it up. And the solder, as it melts, gives off some noxious fumes. I’m not at all sure septuagenarian Klutzy McFumblefingers with chronic lung disease (that’s me) is going to actually be doing any soldering. But it is still fun to learn how it is done and what it enables you to do.

After soldering all our oscillator components onto the circuit board, our next step is to morph this puppy into a talk box. We just need to solder connections to a small circular speaker into our circuit board, use a hot glue gun to cement the speaker, face-down, into the small end of a plastic funnel, and slather some silicone caulk over the back of the speaker so the sound doesn’t leak out backwards. Once the caulk is good and dry, attach the poly tubing to the funnel, then fire it up and start making your own electronic music with your mouth!

Before wrapping up this week’s post, I’ll call your attention to a real world example of just the sort of DIY synths we’re aiming to build. I happened to catch the video below in a post from the International Contemporary Ensemble‘s recently completed Ensemble Evolution summer workshop, presented in collaboration with The New School. Ensemble Evolution participant Leni Kreienberg is a musician and performance artist. Her primary practice focuses on voice and electronic creation and performance, aspiring to connect and blend genres. Her latest work focuses on using dance and movement-derived data to feed into musical computer systems. Here is Leni Kreienberg’s playground, from 2019.

Finally, if you’re wondering about that featured image on this post, I’ve so far neglected to point out that our class mascot is Dynomutt, the star of a spinoff from The Scooby-Do Show, from Hanna-Barberra, titled Dynomutt, Dog Wonder. According to Wikipedia, the show “centers on a Batman-esque superhero, the Blue Falcon, and his assistant, Dynomutt, a bumbling, yet effective robotic dog who can produce a seemingly infinite number of mechanical devices from his body.” Sadly, Dynomutt suffered the cruel Hollywood fate of being cancelled, in 1977, after just one season. But, take heart. Dynomutt is apparently back, in the brand new SCOOB! feature-length film.

sip2: amazing oscillators

by Larry Dunn, July 21, 2020

Create the Future! Building our own amazing oscillators was the objective for week 2 of Synth in Place, the online course in building DIY electronic music-making machines, taught by Kirk Pearson and presented by Dogbotic sounds labs and Thingamajigs. We took our inspiration for this challenge from a couple of truly awesome, and famous, installations, made by pioneers in the electronic museum field. One of these was composer and sound artist David Tudor‘s Rainforest V (variation 1), at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, as shown in this 360° video.

Another inspiration came from Daphne Oram of the  BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which she founded in 1958. Her Oramics Machine is a visual synthesizer that uses drawn images to create sounds.

Of course, our first oscillators could not even scratch the surface of the genius of the work of these transformational thinkers and makers of electronic instruments. But we nonetheless are doing our work in homage to their path-setting work.

Oscillators are a foundational building block of electronic music synthesizers. For the uninitiated, an oscillator is an electronic gizmo that makes electrons move back and forth in a normal predicable manner. That predicable pattern can be exploited to activate other electronic components such as led-lights and speakers. With the proper setup of circuits and wiring to control the frequencies in the pattern of electron movement, what comes out of a speaker in such a setup can be pitched sounds in the range we typically call music.

Our first oscillator, a flashing LED (screen shot from Kirk Pearson demo video)

Using a breadboard (a temporary circuit board made for prototyping electronic gadgets); a 555 Timer (a ready-made microchip that can control electron pulses in a variety of ways, depending on how you connect it); a handful of capacitors, resistors, and wires; a bare-wire LED bulb; a potentiometer; a small speaker; and a 9-volt battery, with snap-on connector; we set out to create the future. Our first oscillators evolved through several versions. The first, show above, implements a simple strobe light. The frequency of flashing is controlled by your choice of capacitors. If we add a potentiometer (a sort of switch that can be used to vary the flow of electrons) and a speaker into our design and rewire things a bit, we suddenly have a user-controlled noise-making machine. And if we can get the frequencies in the right range, our noises will be pitched sounds we could call music. Below is a look at that setup.

Prototype sound-producing synthesizer (screen shot from Kirk Pearson demo video)

For the final trick, we ventured into Daphne Oram territory. Remove the potentiometer and do a bit of rewiring to connect a piece of corrugated cardboard filled with a heavy smear of pencil lead (graphite, i.e. carbon, i.e., a conductor of electrons) using an alligator clip in contact with the graphite smear, with a bare wire at the other end suitably connected to the breadboard. Use another wire of the same configuration, similarly connected, and you can “play” the graphite smear using a drawing gesture with the other alligator clip. Here is the way that setup looks.

Crude homage to Daphne Oram (screen shot from Kirk Pearson demo video)

I struggled to get my own version of these oscillator variations working properly. These components, especially breadboards, can be temperamental, to begin with. And whatever manual dexterity I once had (which was not that much) is fading fast with age. As arthritis and other woes take up residence in my hands, you can call me Klutzy McFumblefingers. But, despite the challenges to actually get these things working, learning how they go together to make newly-imagined instruments is a thoroughly engaging experience.

Stay tuned.

cornmeal waffles

by Larry Dunn, July 18, 2020

Until recently, we’ve never been particularly avid fans of waffles. Sure, we had our moments in the late 60s at the old Star Waffle Shop on Cass Avenue in Detroit, only a couple of blocks from our apartment, or the Apartfug, as we called it (fodder for its own post at some point). We’d wander in there in the middle of the night, they were open 24/7/365, all toked up on weed or flying high on LSD, and we’d order the namesake waffle, with a scoop of ice cream, and either maple syrup or hot fudge. A tantalizing sensation when your taste buds are in a heightened sate.

My mother made waffles several times a year when we were growing up, and they we’re tasty enough. But Arlene and I never invested in a waffle iron over all these years; waffles just didn’t seem worth the trouble, when we could more easily make pancakes, if we were in that sort of mood for breakfast or brunch. And we have a great, and easy to make, whole wheat (or multi-grain) pancake recipe. Arlene has regularly ordered “chicken & waffles” in restaurants over the years. But if those waffles are ever any good, it’s a bonus. For her, it’s always about the fried chicken.

Cornmeal Waffles, ceramic bowl by Brian Dunn (photo: Larry Dunn)

Our waffle consciousness changed last fall during a brief R&R side trip to the Catskills when we were in NYC for some music events. We’d first been in the region the prior summer, when we met our Florida family there for a week’s vacation. We were charmed by the area, and shocked that it could seem so remote, only two hours from NYC. On the summer visit we’d tried to grab a meal at Phoenicia Diner, which all the people and all the guides say is a must, only to find it mobbed every time we drove by. But on a late Monday morning in October, we had no trouble getting seated immediately. “Chicken and Waffles” on the menu caught my eye, thinking I’d recommend it to Arlene. But I decided to order for myself, when I learned the waffles were made with cornmeal. That seemed worth trying, and my hunch paid off. Crispy, even, crunchy, exterior, but still light and fluffy inside, and the cornmeal added aroma and a flavor punch far beyond what any standard whitebread waffles can deliver. I was hooked, and left there determined to find or devise a recipe to make them at home.

I spent the rest of the fall and early winter researching recipes . . . oh, yes, that, and having major surgery on my cervical spine and then a long slow recovery. I devised a recipe and aimed to try it during our annual winter sojourn to visit our Florida family in Sarasota. They have the waffle iron; no sense in our buying one until we knew we had a winning recipe. We made them for the whole crowd one Sunday in February, with sliced fresh local strawberries and maple syrup. They were a big hit.

Cornmeal Waffle with fresh local organic blueberries (photo: Larry Dunn)

A new waffle iron was waiting for us when we returned home to Oberlin and we’ve been making cornmeal waffles every few weeks ever since. They are especially welcome at this time of year when we have so much local fresh fruit in Ohio, as we go through a sequence of strawberries, cherries, blueberries, apricots (if we’re lucky), peaches, plums, and apples. Each waffle batch leaves us with eight or ten squares we can put in the freezer, and they taste almost as good warmed up in the toaster as they do fresh off the griddle. As soon as the freezer supply is gone, we make some more. If you’d like a PDF of the recipe, press the “Download” button below.

There’s a bit of a serendipitous postscript on my search for a cornmeal waffle recipes last fall. At the time I could find no recipes from the Phoenicia Diner, nor even any claiming to be like theirs. But as I was starting this post, I stumbled upon the fact that the Phoenicia Diner released a cookbook, just as the pandemic shutdowns were starting. I have verified that the waffle recipe is in the table of contents, though you cannot see the recipe itself. In the TOC listing, it makes no mention of them being “cornmeal waffles.” It would be hilarious if that was all a figment of my imagination! But our cornmeal waffles are a treat, no matter where I got the inspiration, and I’m guessing that cornmeal is in their recipe. The waiter must have told me about it. I’m going to get the book and find out.

Notes for Restricted Diets. Some of the Florida family have dietary concerns with milk products and with gluten. So, when we made these waffles down there, we replaced the buttermilk with almond milk, soured with one tablespoon of vinegar, and used a “vegan butter” product instead of actual butter. We swapped in whole-grain oat flour for the whole wheat pastry flour. Getting the consistency right took a bit of fiddling. But in the end the results were deemed outstanding by all our eaters. I believe you could take the recipe the rest of the way to full vegan, by substituting silky tofu for the egg yolks and whipped aquafaba (garbanzo bean liquor) for the whipped egg whites. If you try that, please let us know how they turn out.

All gone (photo: Larry Dunn)

sip1: ins and outs

by Larry Dunn, July 15, 2020

Last week I attended the first session of an eight-week online class called Synth in Place (SIP). Our friend and sometimes collaborator Kirk Pearson is teaching the class, which is presented by Kirk’s own Dogbotic sound lab in collaboration with Thingamajigs, a genre-crossing arts organization that fosters music created with made and found materials and alternate tuning systems. I’m unsure what I may do in the future with the knowledge I gain in this class, but, at the very least, it seems like a fun way to chew up some pandemic quarantine hours.

There are nine brave souls in our section of the class (Kirk is juggling several similar sized sections, some with teenagers, and others with older folks like us). In our group, we range in age from 20s to 70s and bring an interesting mix of backgrounds − several composers and performers, an electrical engineer and circuit board designer, a graphic artist and animator. We are also quite geographically spread out, one of the benefits of online classes, with folks in London, New York, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, California, Oberlin, and places in between. Two of the attendees are people I know, and who also know Kirk (much longer than I have), which Kirk said was unique to this section. Jim Pugliese is a composer, percussionist, and educator, who recently retired from teaching at the LaGuardia high school for music and the arts in New York City. Nick Dunston is a composer and bassist, who has know Kirk since they were both at LaGuardia, which is where they met Jim. Small world.

Fully kitted out for Synth in Place (photo: Larry Dunn)

The objective of the course is to learn the basics of making electronic music by tinkering with the various component parts and sub-assemblies that can be created and manipulated to make sounds come out of a speaker. A few weeks back, Kirk sent us all a box full of components and connectors, packaged in envelopes with delightful Dogbotic graphics, designed by Maisy Byerly. He also sent us a list our own tools and supplies we will need − soldering iron and solder, batteries, tape, wire cutters and strippers, etc. After we gain some facility with all these pieces and parts, we will start plotting how to choose specific components and put them together into a working synthesizer.

Maisy Byerly’s illustrations are a delight (photo Larry Dunn)

Our first experiment in electronic sound-making involved connecting a box grater to a 9-volt battery and a small speaker, and then playing the grater with a spoon. Kitchen tool music is right in my zone!

Simple electrified box grater instrument (photo: Larry Dunn)

Next we riffed on the old saying about having, or not having, two nickles to rub together. Due to rampant inflation in the intervening years, we used quarters, which we electrified, again with the nine volt battery, and also connected to the speaker. Paper clips in the speaker cone add a nice buzz.

Rubbing two electric quarters together; don’t forger the paper clips (photo: Larry Dunn)

For our final exercise in this session, we experimented with piezoelectric microphones, which pick up sound and vibrations from things they are attached to (or are resting upon them). We made some cool sounds with a metal ruler held over the microphone and extended off the table for twanging purposes. We also did some drumming directly on the microphone surface with the quarters. In both of these cases, we connected the microphone via alligator clips and a mini-plug patch cord to a powered speaker.

Fun times with a piezoelectric microphone (photo: Larry Dunn)

The most profound lesson of the day was Kirk’s assertion that making DIY electronic music is an inherently political act. The electronic instruments we are creating make sound by manipulating electric voltage patterns. And these are sounds that no acoustic instrument can make. Thus making DIY electronic music is a rejection of the known universe and the creation of your own.

Stay tuned, to learn about the new worlds my Synth in Place colleagues and I create.

Synth in Place, presented by Dogbotic and Thingamajigs (illustration by Maisy Byerly)

a wedding blessing

by Arlene and Larry Dunn, February 28, 2016

In December of 2004 our niece Jodi and her husband-to-be Gary took a creative approach to the Jewish wedding custom of the seven blessings. They asked us, and six other couples who were important to them, to create and present our own unique blessing on a specific topic. They topic they assigned to us was “patience.”

After mulling over a few approaches, we settled on writing and reciting four haiku. It was a wonderful way for us to invest emotionally in their wedding ceremony and to give them a bit of advice in the form of this blessing. Each of the four haiku are anchored in something elemental to our lives at our beloved former home, Acorn Ridge Gardens in northwest Indiana.

After the wedding, our friend Peg Herbst had the inspired idea to memorialize these haiku in a set of painted ceramic plates. To be fair, she not only inspired the idea, but also designed the illustrative drawings and led the painting project. Here they are are.

Love blooms its brightest / Like agaves prize patience / Of the hummingbirds
Oh how love will thrive / When tended as a garden / Plow sow reap repeat
Dance through the garden / Each to your own heart’s rhythm / Love waits at the well
Lives join together / The wedding plants an oak tree / Love gathers acorns

We gave these plates to Jodi and Gary for their first anniversary. But they were in the process of moving from Chicago to New York at the time, and they asked us to hold onto them for awhile. Since then they have graced our walls, first in our guest cottage at Acorn Ridge, and now at our new home in Oberlin. Gary and Jodi later moved to Jerusalem, and just now, back to the New York area. They will find a place to hang the plates when they settle into a new home, in Montclair, New Jersey. We’ll surely have mixed emotions when we pack them up and send them to their forever home.

blue hill avenue

by Arlene Wilgoren Dunn

The bouquet reaches my nose two stores away.
“One loaf of rye bread, please, sliced.”
She grabs a loaf, drops it in the slicer
Which whirrs through the bread.
She comes around the counter
To hand me the bread
And take my money.
The end piece is mine
On my way home

The smell of pickles at the front door
Makes my mouth water.
A large barrel on each side.
Kosher dills in one,
Crispy fermented sauerkraut in the other.

“Don’t touch the merchandise!” the produce man says.
He flips open a paper bag, puts fruit in it, weighs it and,
Grease pencil at the ready, writes the cost on the bag.
Another man marks a bigger bag with the amounts
And adds the total.
He puts the small bags in the big bag
We pay and off we go.

The butcher’s hands are big and scarred.
He wears a bloodied apron and
Glides along the sawdust covered floor
“Who’s next? C’mon ladies, we don’t have all day!”
Chickens hang on the wall with
Heads and feet and feathers.
We pick two – one for soup, one for roasting.
Then off with their heads and feet
Pinfeathers singed with a torch (pee-yoo).

In the rear of the Prime Market
A man filets fish on a big butcher block
Buckets of guts, bones and skin below.
Skanky . . . but flounder will
Taste good later

Zayde sews custom made suits in his tailor shop
Always hard at work
Marking, pinning, basting, sewing, ironing.
Pins in his mouth, chalk in his hand,
He adjusts the jacket on a man or a mannequin.
I bring him half and half coffee
With double sugar
Sometimes he lets me sip.

May 2019

dirty wars and democracy

Arlene Dunn, December 2014

Editor’s note (July 2020): Arlene audited a stimulating and challenging Oberlin College course in Fall semester 2014, Dirty Wars and Democracy, with Professor Steven Volk, now retired. In addition to being a widely recognized expert in the history of Latin America, Steve was also the founding Director of Oberlin’s Center for Teaching, Innovation, and Excellence and was named the 2011 U.S. Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. Arlene found it daunting, though not surprising, when Steve told the class they would be trying a new pedagogical technique. They would each adopt as an avatar the life of an Argentine or Chilean person living through the brutally abusive dictatorships in these countries in the 1970s and ‘80s and into the present. One of their assignments was to write a journal entry in the person of their avatar each week, precipitated by specific events or time periods they were studying. Arlene’s avatar was simply “an Argentine woman born in 1950 to a Catholic family with a housewife mother and army major father in the city of Mendoza.” 

It was up to Arlene to build the rest of a life for her avatar as a basis for her entries each week in the journal. In the process of writing these journal entries, Arlene created a fascinating short story about how it might have been for an ordinary Argentine woman to live through these turbulent and terrifying times. As Arlene tells us in her reflections on the experience, it “ had a profound effect on my understanding of this time. It made me think about the impact of historical events on individual lives, which, in turn, provided insights into the extremes a regime is willing to go to in order to achieve its goals.”

We originally serialized these journal entries on our old Acornometrics blog (on Tumblr), but have decided to migrate them to acornometrics.com in a single post, for easier navigation. Our journey begins in 1968 and carries us forward across 46 years to 2014. Content warning: state violence and murder, repression, mention of suicide.

Cuidad de Mendoza, Argentina, 1968

From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Sunday, June 2, 1968

My name is Isabel Juarez Morell. Most of my friends and family call me Isa. Today is Sunday, June 2, 1968 and I have just graduated from Santa Maria’s High School for Girls in Mendoza, Argentina. I am 18 years old and have two siblings, both brothers. José is older and attends Catholic University in Buenos Aires. My papá, a major in the army, wanted him to attend the National Military College, but he is more a poet than a soldier, which, of course, annoys my papá. My baby brother, Juan, is 8 years old and worships papá. He plays soldier all the time and wants to learn how to shoot already. I worry a bit about what might happen to him if I leave home to go to college. My mamá, who takes care of everything in the house, says not to worry – she will see that Juan has a normal childhood.

Eva and Juan Peron

From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Monday, August 16, 1976

It’s been some time since I have written in this journal, so I must bring things up to date. I am married now to a wonderful man named Roberto, who is a doctor in a general surgical practice here in Mendoza, my home town. We have one child, Jorge, about a year old. I grew up in an upper middle class home never wanting for anything. We had some servants – in fact, Rosita, whom I have known my whole life because she is the daughter of my governess when I was young, now works for me a couple of times a week as a housekeeper. 

I’m not one to get involved in politics, although there were plenty of political discussions in my home as I was growing up. My father is an army major and when he was very young he served with Presidente Perón and has always talked about how impressive he was when addressing a large crowd. My father always believed that Peron was the man who should lead our great country by giving workers benefits while not turning over the reins of power from the industrialists to the workers. I think it is important to make sure people do not live in dire poverty but the last thing I would want Argentina to become is another Cuba!

After finishing high school I attended a nice college in Cordoba where I learned how to be an elementary school teacher. I taught for a few years while Roberto went through medical school. I am forever grateful to my parents who allowed us to live with them during those times. I am not working now but I do volunteer at our local church and really enjoy the tutoring work I do, especially the literacy classes. It’s so important that people know how to read and write. It’s important for them and it’s important for Argentina.

Roberto and I have a small house for ourselves now, but the last few years have become very difficult with inflation soaring. I never know when I go shopping just what I’ll be able to buy with the money I have in my purse. I worry some about Rosita and her family because we have had to cut back on her hours and cannot afford to raise her pay.

It’s the middle of winter now, a few months since the military took over the government. There is at least a sense of order since then. There was so much chaos the last couple of years it was hard to know what might happen on any given day. The radical pro-Cubans were killing people seemingly at random and bombing all kinds of places – government buildings, factories, movie theaters. The police were doing their best to prevent these attacks but that resulted in so much violence that I was afraid to go out and find myself and Jorge in some kind of dangerous situation. When Presidente Perón died my parents mourned and said that Argentina would never be the same. When Isabel Perón became president, my mother wailed that if Eva Perón were alive today we would not be in such trouble. My whole family is happy to see this new government in place. There is less violence on the street, no doubt as a result of the police and military presence on every street corner. The government tells us that we must make sacrifices to bring our country back to greatness – so far that has not affected our family too much and I hope to God it does not. 

Argentina World Cup Soccer, 1978

From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Saturday July 1, 1978

Argentines all over the country are still reveling in our first World Cup championship, but there is a dark cloud over our celebrations as journalists from all over the world keep asking questions about people being arrested, tortured and even killed. Worse yet, they pose questions about people supposedly “disappearing” as though our government is purposefully snatching people from the street and with no trial or anything, killing them or hiding them in secret locations. I just don’t know what to think about all this.

I have begun to worry about my brother, José. He completed his degree in Literature and has been teaching Spanish in a Catholic High School in Cordoba. Even though he lives pretty close to us, we do not see him very much. Father disapproves of his teaching of poetry to these young people, believing that they will go astray and not be patriotic enough in these days of reorganization. He is not welcome in our parents’ home and, as a result, I too have become distant from him. Meanwhile, my brother Juan has completed high school and has applied for the police academy. He really has this macho personality and talks about “kicking some ass” when he becomes a policeman. Juan, of course, speaks very disparagingly about José and says there is only trouble ahead for him. All of this makes me crazy as I try to live a somewhat normal life raising a family and being a good wife.

Plaza San Martin, Cordoba, Argentina

From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Monday, March 5, 1979

It is now three years since the military took over the government and, though things seemed to have a good start, my life today feels very strained. Jorge is four and is going to a nice nursery school at our local church – he seems the happiest of everyone in my family. He loves school and especially when he can play with kids his own age in the playground. His happiness brings some sunshine into my life.I want another child but Roberto and I have decided to postpone more children until we feel better about the future. He is still working at the local hospital but there have been major cutbacks and we never know when it might affect his department. We have been able to save a little money in case his hours are cut back but the value of those savings seems to dwindle as inflation is back. 

The worst thing that happened to us was that we have lost track of my brother José about six months ago. We had become even more distant because he insists on teaching poetry to his students even though everyone says we should be teaching our children the technical skills to get a good job and be able to contribute to the growth of our country. Some months back when I tried calling him the phone was disconnected. I tried reaching friends of his I knew but had no luck there either. Mamá and I drove to Cordoba to see what we could find. The police were no help at all – they just yelled at mamá that it must be her fault that her son was missing, that she did not bring him up to be a good citizen. She broke down crying as we left that building. We went to the school and they could not help us either. They just said José did not show up for work one day and hasn’t been back since. Mamá has been getting more and more depressed as the days go on without word of José. She has talked to me occasionally about joining Las Madres–the Mothers of the Disappeared–but she is so fearful that she might be hurt, and also that papá would be so angry he might throw her out of the house. 

Recently there has been talk that we might have to discontinue the literacy program where I volunteer at church. This activity is so gratifying to me knowing that I am providing real, concrete help for people. This confuses me that the government wants the people to be educated to become good citizens but seem to be opposed to helping people better their lives by learning to read and write. What’s more, we don’t even have as many church picnics and other gatherings as we used to have. People we’ve known for years hardly go out except to go to work or shop for essentials. I see people in the streets with their heads down just determined to get where they are going and get off the street as though there’s a boogey man hiding in every alley waiting to jump them. 

I hope things will be better soon. And I am desperate to see or hear from José.

Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo

From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Thursday, January 8, 1981

It has been two years since my brother José disappeared. Mamá has been in complete despair since then. After spending nearly a year inquiring at police stations and government offices, even hiring a lawyer to file a plea for habeas corpus, all to no avail, she has given up actively looking for José, but has not given up hope of seeing him again. She does not know what to believe – maybe he is in a prison somewhere and will be released soon. Papá tells her that José has turned his back on us and is probably in Mexico, even Paris, enjoying his life with other subversive poets and that she should give up on him and be a family with two instead of three children. She has stopped talking to papá about José, but she is not giving up hope.

Mamá comes to my house a lot because she cannot stand to be alone with papá. We have spent long hours talking, hugging, crying. But we also play with the children – yes, I do now have a second child, a beautiful little girl, Maria. Mamá gets much pleasure playing with the children and I am happy that she feels some joy in her life with my kids.

Mamá has confided in me about something she is doing now that is a secret from the rest of the family. Over a year ago, on one of her trips to Buenos Aires inquiring about José, she was in the Plaza de Mayo and saw women walking around carrying signs and pictures of their children who had also disappeared. She sat on a bench, pulled out the picture of José she carries around in her purse and cried. She was afraid to talk to anyone that day. Papá always says that the government and the military must take certain measures to insure a stable future for our country. People who are fomenting trouble must be eliminated or we will just end up in the mess we were in back in the early 1970s. 

So, on that first day in the Plaza, mamá sat there fearing for the lives of the women in the square and certainly did not think of joining them. A few weeks later, though, she lied and told papá that her cousin Louisa in Buenos Aires was very sick and needed her help. She went to the Plaza de Mayo and had the courage to speak to one woman, who told mamá about her daughter who had been kidnapped from her home in 1978 and has not been seen since. She told mamá that she refuses to believe her daughter is dead until the military produces a body. Mamá listened to this story and cried thinking about her José. 

She learned that the Madres walk in the Plaza de Mayo every Thursday afternoon at 3:30. She has told papá that she must go to Buenos Aires often to care for Louisa. He believes her because he thinks all women are hysterical and fall ill at a moment’s notice. Mamá stays with Louisa, who she has sworn to secrecy about her real reason for coming. Now mamá proudly marches with the Madres once every month or so. This does not increase her hope that she will ever see José again, but it helps her cope and gives her strength to go on with life.

Argentine naval officer Alfredo Astiz surrenders to the British Task Force in 1982 on HMS Plymouth

From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Monday, June 14, 1982

Things are not going well for my family as the terrible economy has forced the hospital to cut back on Roberto’s hours. This has resulted in sacrifices for us like less meat on the table and definitely fewer clothes for the children, even though they seem to grow out of them in six months’ time. We expanded the vegetable garden last summer and that helped a lot but it seems every day is a struggle. 

The economy has been so bad that people have been taking to the streets again and I worry about what all this unrest will lead to. Of course, I am most concerned about my babies. They are so precious to me. I wish things would just get better and I don’t know what I can do to help that along. Meanwhile the volunteer work I have been doing at the church helping with literacy programs has been shut down. People aren’t getting the help they need and I’m not getting the satisfaction of doing some good in the world. What could possibly be wrong with people learning how to read and write?! 

At least that stupid war with England is over. Papá, who now has the rank of colonel in the army, was furious with the president when he ordered the invasion of the Malvinas Islands. He says the government should have been using all its resources dealing with domestic issues of fulfilling the promises of the military junta and bringing Argentina to a period of stability, not invading a few small islands that don’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things (although he also would claim that these islands belong to Argentina and were stolen by the British). Still, papá’s heritage is British and he worships the royal family and all the fanfare that goes along with it. I wish I understood him better. To make matters even worse, Rosita’s husband was seriously injured in the war and now is unable to work. We had to let Rosita go about a year ago and really see no way that we can hire her. We shared our vegetable garden with her last summer but we have no surplus now. 

Right now it feels like there is little to be optimistic about. I pray things will be better for my children soon.

Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín, President of Argentina, 1983 to 1989

From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Saturday, December 10, 1983

Today Argentina celebrates the inauguration of our new president, Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín. It’s Saturday afternoon and my whole family is at my parents’ home watching the festivities on the television. My children, now 4 and 8, are bored with all this but are finding enough things to enjoy outdoors in the early summer weather.

Despite the festivities on television, there is tension in this household. Mamá, who finally revealed her secret participation in the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, is torn between joy at the end of the military junta and depression over the near certainty now of José’s death. Papá is a complete wreck. There are so many things, some very contradictory, that trouble him. He believes that the invasion of the Malvinas caused the downfall of the military government and worries about the resurgence of communists. He admits now that he knew all along that José was dead and not in Paris. 

Although he never understood José and strongly disagreed with his chosen career as a teacher, José was still his first born son and he mourns his death. He knows that the military, which means so much to him, is directly personally responsible for José’s capture and ultimate death. And that means he himself is responsible. He tries not to think about what torture José might have been subjected to. But I think he is most concerned about his own personal future and worries he may be facing a trial and possible imprisonment for acts he committed (or asked others to commit) during the military regime.

It is hard for any of us to have hope for the future with the dark cloud of possible prosecution for papá. It’s even more difficult because he really believes that the junta saved Argentina from the evils of socialism and communism and the influences of Cuba and the Soviet Union. Since José’s disappearance, I have studied a little about politics and economics and I don’t understand why papá doesn’t recognize that the junta was strongly influenced by another foreign nation, the United States. I wonder why we Argentines can’t decide for ourselves what’s right for us. Why should we be the puppet of any outside country? Our family will never be the same, and we lost only José. Other families have been completely destroyed. How could any political philosophy justify the loss and destruction of so many lives?

Carlos Menem, president of Argentina from 1989 to 1999

From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Saturday, Dec. 29, 1990

Five years ago there was a trial for nine junta leaders accused of kidnapping, torture, disappearance and murder of several hundred Argentines. Five were found guilty and four were acquitted. Today Presidente Carlos Menem pardoned all the leaders of the junta. This leaves me with many mixed feelings, but mostly I wonder what might have been, had this action been taken earlier. Three years ago my papá took his own life using his army-issued revolver. He left this note for us:

I am haunted by thoughts that I may have had a hand in the death of my own first born son. I cannot look my devoted wife in the eyes. I cannot live with myself and can only hope for redemption in the afterlife.  

During the years leading up to his suicide, testimonies before the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons and trials for individuals involved in the unspeakable crimes against their own people created a tremendous amount of stress for both papá and mamá. The testimonies of survivors from this time forced them to ultimately accept the truth that José was really dead. For papá the possibility of a trial for his actions brought additional stress and concern. He retired from the army soon after the end of the junta. After that, he withdrew into his study most days and rarely spent time on family outings. We weren’t sure what he did in there and we did not talk openly of whatever was in the news about trials and testimonies. I wonder: if the pardons had come earlier, would papá be alive today?

As for myself, now that I have turned 40 I have made an important decision for my future. Much of it has been influenced by the personal history of my family, but I have also been influenced by the self-induced trauma this country has endured over the last 15 years. I have entered graduate school to become a history professor. I realize this is a little late in life to make such a decision, and women are not as welcome as they should be in those positions. But I am determined to make a difference. My children are 11 and 15 now and are not as dependent on my presence at home as they were when they were younger. Besides, mamá moved in with us shortly after papá died and with mama’s financial help, we are able to hire Rosita again to help around the house. I am really looking forward to this additional education and hope I can learn more about my country’s history and pass that knowledge on to the next generation.

Adolfo Scilingo convicted of crimes against humanity in Argentina’s “dirty war”

From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Wednesday, April 19, 2005

On Tuesday morning, April 19, 2005, I woke up to the news that Adolfo Scilingo was convicted of crimes against humanity in a Spanish court and sentenced to 640 years in prison. I am pleased that someone who was responsible for so many deaths during Argentina’s Dirty Wars has been given a long sentence. I feel a sense of justice, but it cannot erase the hurt deep inside me that he may have thrown my brother José out of an airplane. This news brought more distress to mamá, raising to the surface once again the horrendous death her son must have endured. We will both grieve his death once more, without a grave to visit.

My students in the class, 20th Century Argentine History, spent the entire hour discussing this case and related issues. Although we had already covered Scilingo’s public confession that he was one of many navy personnel who participated in throwing people out of airplanes over the ocean, many students were still in disbelief that someone would actually hurl prisoners out of airplanes. They also talked about how inhumane it was to steal children from prisoners and give them to military personnel to raise. Once I saw a student look at a daughter of a military family with a quizzical look. This history is haunting to many of my students, but not all.

During the discussion, one student asked me if I had any personal memories from that time I would care to share with the class. I hesitated for a moment and decided to tell them about the disappearance of my brother. I told them that my mamá became hysterical when the Scilingo stories were first revealed. She had nightmares envisioning her José looking quizzically at the sky as he fell to the sea. It has taken some time for her to recover enough to live a pretty normal life, but this morning’s news conjured up more memories and she was nearly hysterical. I almost stayed home to console her but she said it was more important for our future for me to teach class today than comfort her. I told my students of mamá’s participation with the Madres of the Plaza de Mayo. Only a few students were even aware of this group. I found some images of demonstrations on my computer to share and there were definitely some tears shed.

Class discussions on these and related issues will be difficult for many of my students who have little or no knowledge of this past. I must work hard to balance objectivity as a teacher with the emotions of expressing my personal memories. But I think it is important to share those memories with this generation of Argentines who have no personal memory of their own from this time. For next class I will lead a discussion about the relationship between personal memory and collective memory. I hope my students will grasp an understanding that knowledge of our country’s history, including its very darkest moments, creates the narrative that leads to better public policy for the future.

Cuidad de Mendoza, Argentina, 2014

From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Thursday, December 4, 2014

It is early December 2014 and I am approaching retirement age. Roberto has already retired and really wants me to join him and begin enjoying life without the constraints of schedules and responsibilities. But, truthfully, I am not ready to retire. Perhaps it’s because I started my career so late in life. I enjoy teaching history to young people, the future of our country. I try to convey to them the importance of studying history, the only way we can know who we are. If we do not know all of who we are, especially the parts of our history we’d like to forget, we are indeed more likely to tolerate horrific acts being done in our name at some point in the future. How we teach history forms the narrative by which we live. We must be especially careful of our regrettable past and know what motivated it, what sustained it, who opposed it, and who supported it.

My daughter, Maria, now 35, has been making documentary films the last few years. I am so proud of her. I am so impressed with her talent, but even more, I admire her courage and belief in herself. My, have times changed! So many opportunities abound for women to excel and contribute to our culture. 

Maria recently approached me with an idea for a new film – the story of Argentina’s Dirty War through one family’s experience, ours. And she has asked me to work on the film as a consultant. At first I was flabbergasted, but I went back and read my journals from those years and believe this could make a compelling story. 

I wonder if working with Maria on her film and even writing a memoir that would include my personal experiences of Argentine history can create a satisfying pathway to retirement. If I were to significantly reduce my teaching load I could work with Maria, start my book, and spend more time with family. Mamá is getting old and it would be good for us both to enjoy my children and grandchildren – Jorge, who is a doctor following in his father’s footsteps, has 3 and Maria has 2.  

As I read through my journal, I recognized an arc of a journey from an ordinary middle class Argentine girl, to an elementary school teacher, to a housewife, then a history teacher and now an historian. My personal history reminds me of the contradictory pulls from the military traditions of my papá and the painful loss of my brother. These cannot co-exist. 

My study of history has helped me understand that the government was manipulating everyone, including me, and molding the culture to believe that the junta was doing the right thing for our country. It is no wonder that I was confused in the early days following the coup. I realize now that the acts perpetrated against our own citizens were done in my name, especially since I supported the coup at first. Therefore, I, too, am responsible for the death of my brother. This new grasp of Argentina’s past created the transition for me from not just a teacher of history but to an historian.

This week Brazil and the United States released reports of terrible acts they committed in their pasts. I applaud them for taking this step, but I doubt that America will cease its tireless intervention and manipulation in whatever part of the world they deem they have an interest. I am quite sure they will repeat some of these heinous acts. I hope that Argentina has learned that no “ends” can justify the “means” used during our Dirty War. Those methods are irrevocably part of our past and without exposing them to open air and sunshine they will fester and we will not be cured of this disease.

Arlene Dunn speaking at a benefit for The March: A Civil Rights Opera

Epilogue: Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Imagining myself in the person of Isabel Juarez Morell living in Argentina as these horrific events unfolded and then writing her journal had a profound effect on my understanding of this time in history. It made me think about the impact of historical events on individual lives, which, in turn, provided insights into the extremes a regime is willing to go to in order to achieve its goals. Of course, I knew about Pinochet, Argentina’s disappeared, people thrown out of airplanes and the Madres, but writing in Isa’s voice brought me to the microcosm of one person and her family, rather than the macrocosm of statistics. The entire course filled in a lot of detail about the Dirty Wars that enhanced my understating of those regimes, but the journaling added a nuance that one rarely finds from a structured classroom setting.

During the course of the semester, I felt compelled to do some individual research to provide more context for Isa, such as the state of the economy at the time or more details of the Malvinas war (I did not remember the term Malvinas – I’m pretty sure I only heard of the Falklands war, reflecting the Anglo-centric perspective of the media in this country). If Steve Volk’s purpose for the avatar journaling in this course was to get students to do this independent research, it worked on me!

I set Isa’s life up for family conflict at the very beginning by deciding her brother, José, would be a poet. As these family conflicts unfolded I found myself writing some painful entries. Larry and I have a ritual of reading our writing out loud to each other – it helps us find typos, for one thing, but it also helps us make sure the work flows properly. There were times during this semester when it was hard for me to read these journal entries without tears welling up.

It was perhaps more natural for me than for the young students to build up 46 year of personal history for my avatar, as I lived as an adult through the entire time period we studied. But I hated history in high school and carried that into college so did not take many history classes at Brandeis. I began studying history seriously when I became involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. What I have learned over the last fifty years or so has led me to understand the sordid nature of our past and how the sanitized history we teach to our children leads to troubles we face in the present day, both domestically and internationally. Learning about the role the United States played in both Chile and Argentina was no surprise to me; I knew some of those details already. But furthermore, I have come to expect U.S. intervention wherever our capital interests take us (see Overthrow by Stephen Kinzer).

We Americans, as a people and a culture, have not reconciled with our own history of slavery and genocide and terror. That past haunts us to this day in the form of mass incarceration and the disparate use of police violence against people of color, an illegal and immoral prison in Guantanamo Bay, and torture of suspected terrorists. Our exploits around the world overturning legitimate regimes and supporting dictators have fomented attacks like 9-11 and groups like ISIS. I fell into the trap of excitement over the election of Barak Obama and now he sends drones to assassinate supposed terrorists and anyone who is nearby. The fact is that studying history depresses me. But I am driven by the need to understand and the hope for a better future. Writing this journal as Isa Juarez Morrell has helped me more deeply appreciate the value of that study. 

So, I continue on.

soundtrack for a long march to justice

by Arlene Dunn, December 2013

[Editor’s note: Arlene prepared this paper as her final semester project for a class she audited at Oberlin College and Conservatory, MHST 290: Introduction to African American Music, taught by Professor Fredara Mareva Hadley.]

Introduction

Music has been a vital part of African American life from the time the first African was kidnapped, sold, shipped to the New World, and enslaved by European colonists in North America. They brought songs and rhythms with them and created new sounds by integrating those with European musical traditions they heard while in captivity. This music became an integral part of African American culture in their daily lives, as well as their Sunday rituals, from the period of enslavement and into the 21st century.

Songs were a natural part of the enslaved people’s Sunday services and many contained coded lyrics reflecting hopes for freedom from enslavement. In the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, these songs were transformed into freedom songs, a vital element of the movement. This paper addresses how those freedom songs impacted the direct action taken to desegregate public accommodations and bring the right to vote to millions of disenfranchised African Americans in the southern states. Particular focus is given to the Freedom Singers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). 

The paper makes specific links between traditional slave songs and freedom songs, noting how the simple substitution of a word or two transformed a prayer to a rallying cry. An accompanying playlist demonstrates those connections. The paper also contains personal reflections of SNCC leaders, members of the Freedom Singers, and the author, who worked for SNCC in the 1960s.

Album cover from The Freedom Singers 1963 recording We Shall Overcome

Historical Background

After a short-lived Reconstruction period of relative freedom for African Americans following the Civil War, power shifted from Republicans to Democrats in the south and blacks were subjected to “Jim Crow” laws, requiring strict segregation of the races in public accommodation, and systematic disenfranchisement through such tactics as poll taxes and literacy tests.  The “Jim Crow” laws were local or state ordinances, but became the law of the land nationally in 1896 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case that separate accommodations for Negroes were constitutional as long as they were “equal.” These laws were only part of the systemic, de facto practices of discrimination in employment, education, housing and virtually every aspect of life for people of color, resulting in severe economic disadvantage, and second-class citizenship status. The “separate but equal” policy remained in effect until the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case in which the Supreme Court reversed Plessy. 

This decision created a sense of empowerment throughout the black community, but the change in the law did not result in the end of discrimination nor the often brutal physical treatment of African Americans. The following summer, 1955, Emmitt Till was lynched in Money, Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. The murderers were acquitted after a five-day trial and only 67 minutes of deliberation by an all-white jury.

Within a few months of that trial, Rosa Parks, a long-time NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) activist, refused to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama when the driver asked her to move to accommodate a white passenger. She was subsequently arrested, and is quoted as saying, “I thought about Emmett Till, and I could not go back. My legs and feet were not hurting, that is a stereotype. I paid the same fare as others, and I felt violated.”1 Parks’ demonstrative action galvanized the local black community into action. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted over a year, is considered the onset of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

1963 SNCC sit-in at a Toddle House restaurant in Atlanta

Five years later, in February of 1960, four students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro sat down at a Woolworth lunch counter “white’s only” section and requested service after purchasing goods at the store. When asked to leave they refused. This action was followed by more than twenty students the next day and lunch counter sit-ins spread throughout the south. In April 1960, many of these students gathered at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina and, with the leadership of Ella Baker, formed SNCC, a group that would become a major force over the next several years. SNCC played a significant role in many key actions –  the 1961 Freedom Rides; the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; the Mississippi Freedom Summer, culminating in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge of the Mississippi delegation’s credentials to the 1964 Democratic Party’s national convention; and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March.

The Role of Freedom Songs in the Mid-20th Century Civil Rights Movement

Music played a critical role in all these burgeoning civil rights campaigns, as early as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “As a local movement grew in Montgomery, singing became a strong force in unifying people in the struggle.”2 Mass meetings for this action and those that followed in the 1960s typically took place in churches, where singing was an essential element of the service. 

Many commonly known hymns, spirituals and gospel songs began to take on a new meaning when they were part of a mass meeting. Soon small adaptations were made which gave even sharper focus to traditional words. “We’ve got the light of freedom, we’re gonna let it shine”3

At mass meetings, music was mixed into the program alternating with motivational speeches of civil rights leaders from the local community as well as from organizations such as SNCC, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s organization). The music served to motivate people to participate, inspire them to feel a part of something transformative, and create a sense of solidarity not only with their local community but also with a national movement creating “the second American revolution.”4 Most importantly, when demonstrators knowingly faced the terrorism of their oppressors, music served to help calm their fears and steel their resolve.

Birmingham (AL) fire department workers turning fire hoses on civil rights demonstrators in 1963

In an interview by composer/scholar William Banfield, Bernice Johnson Reagon, a founding member of The SNCC Freedom Singers, talks of the role of music:

(T)his was definitely the way I saw music working in the Civil Rights movement. There were those times when we were moving in new ways, and going against everything we had been taught that might keep us safe, and as we moved forward, terrified, and possibly facing real physical danger, we used the songs and the singing. It never stopped the bullet or a jailing, or kept you from losing your job or being suspended from school, but music kept you from being paralyzed, it kept you moving.5

Churches were natural places for these mass meetings, as they were the one safe haven for African Americans to gather in the South, a tradition that harks back to the period of enslavement when Sundays were the only day of the week when the enslaved were not under constant scrutiny of the enslavers. Churches were places where blacks felt trust in and connections with all those around them. 

Minor adaptations in the words of traditional hymns sung in these churches transformed them into the freedom songs of the civil rights movement. In an interview with John Lewis, chairman of SNCC from 1963-66, Bernice Reagon quotes him:

One of the earliest songs I remember very well that became very popular was “Amen”

Amen Amen Amen Amen Amen

Freedom Freedom Freedom Freedom Freedom

This song represented the coming together, you really felt it – it was like you were part of the crusade, a holy crusade. You felt uplifted and involved in a great battle and a great struggle.6

She continued with her own comments: “A simple change from ‘Amen’ to ‘Freedom’ made it a musical statement of the ultimate national goal of the student activists.”7

Most of the freedom songs were upbeat and had a call-to-action message, with titles like Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘RoundWe Shall Not be MovedWoke Up This Morning With My Mind on Freedom and Which Side Are You On? In addition to these songs motivating and inspiring participants, they also played an important external role when they were sung during marches and demonstrations, and even in jail. They reached out to supporters who might not have joined yet, and many of them would be on the picket lines the next day. The songs made a strong statement to the police, the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizen Councils and the people who snarled racial epithets and spat at them that there would be no cowering in this movement. SNCC and other organizations, and particularly local community members who were risking their jobs, homes, even their lives, were declaring that they were serious, they meant business, and they were not going away until their demands were met.

Demonstrators, including Martin Luther King and John Lewis, singing Freedom Songs on the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965

We Shall Overcome held a special position in the civil rights movement in general, and in SNCC in particular. Each mass meeting and even each planning meeting ended with everyone singing We Shall Overcome. We all stood, crossed our arms and held hands with the people next to us, creating a bond throughout the room that could not be broken. This song was much more solemn and prayerful with words of hope for the future that all the hard work of the day would pay off someday.

The SNCC Freedom Singers served the movement in another significant way by supporting the organization’s fundraising efforts. They toured the nation, playing in front of crowds of supporters where they spread the word, and helped finance SNCC’s operations. Accompanying them on these tours were well known activist/entertainers like Nina Simone, Pete Seeger, and Harry Belafonte helping to boost attendance. A group of original Freedom Singers continues to perform, especially at 50th anniversary commemorations of specific events of the 60s.

Musical links to the past

The freedom songs of the civil rights movement draw from a rich historical culture beginning hundreds of years earlier in our nation’s history. During the period of enslavement African Americans were allowed to congregate in groups on Sunday, their day of rest. Early on, white ministers taught them the Christian religion of the European colonists. Later they were often allowed to meet alone, so long as what the enslavers heard were recognizable as prayers and hymns. These gatherings became the birthplace of African American church culture, much of which is still alive today. Music played a vital role in that development and spilled over into their secular world as well. 

Following the Civil War and emancipation, the African American culture evolved, in part, through the establishment of Black churches and new institutions to educate free black men and women (what are now referred to as Historically Black Colleges and Universities). In both cases music played significant roles in their infrastructure and in the ability to raise funds for their operations. The hymns sung by the enslaved people in their enclaves on Sunday became the hymns they sang in their churches. Many of the freedom songs of the 60s were directly derived from those slave songs, supplemented by hymns and spirituals composed by African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Members of the Freedom Singers and others were also inspired to compose new songs. This section focuses on the connection between freedom songs and the historical songs of enslavement, with one major exception, We Shall Overcome, which is based on a composed hymn from 1901.

There are many sources for understanding the traditional hymns and spirituals upon which freedom songs are based, including liner notes of recordings, periodicals and research papers. One website, “Sweet Chariot: The Story of Spirituals,” with a focus on connections to slave spirituals. states: 

The extensive use of spirituals in the struggle for freedom during slavery left a deep imprint in the cultural memory of African Americans and their allies. It is therefore not surprising that during the 1960s and 70s, many of the freedom songs sung by the multi-racial cadre of Civil Rights workers were essentially new versions of old slave spirituals with updated lyrics that expressed the specific needs of the Civil Rights Movement.8

This site also contains illustrative examples of the connections between freedom songs and the slave songs on which they were based. From this list I chose four and added a fifth to create a playlist of five freedom songs paired with the traditional hymns or spirituals that inspired them. The fifth, I’ll Overcome Some Day is a gospel hymn composed by Charles Albert Tindley in 1901. It is included because its accompanying freedom song, We Shall Overcome, was the anthem of the civil rights movement. 

SNCC Freedom Singers: Chuck Neblett, Bernice Johnson, Cordell Reagon, and Rutha Mae Harris

Specific Song Lineages

Following are links to the ten tracks pairing each historical antecedent with the freedom song that was derived from it.

Examining each of these pairings illuminates how relatively simple changes in lyrics and style transformed traditional prayerful songs into tools of the civil rights movement.   

Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed On Jesus is sung by Mississippi Fred McDowell, accompanying himself on the guitar.  It sounds so authentic one can imagine it is an enslaved person singing at a Sunday service. The matching freedom song, performed by the original Freedom Singers, replaces “stayed on Jesus” with “set on Freedom.” It is sung a capella, has a much faster tempo and is much louder. The slave song has verses beginning “walkin’ and talkin with my mind . . . ” and “singin’ and prayin with my mind . . . ” The freedom song also has the “walkin’ and talkin’” phrase, while later verses begin with adaptations such as “ain’t no harm to keep your mind set on freedom.”

Don’t Let Nobody Turn You ‘Round sung by the Pilgrim Jubilees is performed as an arranged spiritual with a lead singer and a choir, accompanied with several instruments. The freedom song, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn You ‘Round is performed a capella by the Freedom Singers. The slave song’s lyrics include “walkin’ up the King’s highway” which are substituted in the freedom song with “marchin’ up to Freedomland.” The pace is quicker and the attitude one of fighting and protest. Additional verses in the freedom song include “Ain’t gonna let segregation turn me ‘round” with other words substituting for segregation, such as “jailhouse,” “nervous nellies,” “Chief Pritchett,” “Mayor Kelly” and “Uncle Tom.” Noteworthy in this version is the inclusion of local opponents such as the police chief (Pritchett) and mayor (Kelley) of Albany Georgia, thus inspiring people to face them the next day. 

I Shall Not be Moved, performed by “Pops” Staples is paired with We Shall Not Be Moved by the Freedom Singers. The traditional hymn is sung as an arranged spiritual with many instruments, and the freedom song is a capella with strong multi-voice harmony. The words in the main chorus do not change other than changing the first person singular to first person plural:

I (We) shall not, we shall be moved, I (We) shall not we shall be moved, just like a tree standing by the water, I (We) shall not be moved.

Lyrics change in the verses, however. The slave song has ones including “Jesus is my Captain, I shall not be moved” and “I’m on my way to Glory, I shall not be moved,” while the freedom song substitutes “we’re on our way to victory, we shall not be moved” and “segregation is our enemy, it must be removed.”

Neither the title nor the refrain is adapted for the song Oh Freedom, which begins: “Oh Freedom! Oh Freedom! Oh Freedom over me! And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.” These lyrics suggest that this spiritual was not likely sung during enslavement, but perhaps after emancipation.

The spiritual Oh Freedom probably came into being soon after the end of slavery. Like many African American spirituals, the song has more than one meaning. Not only does it refer to freedom in the world to come after death, as many slave spirituals do, but it celebrates their new freedom in the here and now. In the 1950s and 1960s, the song was commonly sung as part of the Civil Rights Movement.9

On the playlist The Golden Gospel Singers perform the traditional song in an arranged a capella fashion, with a choir background. It contains lines like “no more weepin’” in place of “Oh Freedom!” The freedom song by Sweet Honey in the Rock is from the movie Freedom Song and is part of a mass meeting scene. It is performed a capella, with tambourine. It is more upbeat than the gospel rendition and is similar to a lined hymn with a call/response form. The leader speaks, not sings, the lead verse for each section to make sure those present at the mass meeting know what to sing next. In place of “no more weepin’” are such phrases as “no more beatin’,” “no more Jim Crow,” and “there’ll be singin’.”

The final pairing is not based on a slave song but a composed hymn, I Will Overcome, written by Charles Albert Tindley, one of the most prolific African American gospel hymn composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its accompanying freedom song, We Shall Overcome, was sung more often than any other freedom song and permeated American political culture so fully that these words were spoken by President Lyndon Johnson when he introduced the Voting Rights Bill in a televised speech to a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965.10 The traditional song is performed by the Reverend Gary Davis, accompanied by guitar and a mixed choir. The singing is interspersed with preaching and contains lines such as “by the precious Lord” and “I heard a voice one day” followed by “I Shall Overcome.” The Freedom Singers, with Chuck Neblett providing strong bass lines, sing a capella with some well-arranged call/response, and such substituted phrases as “we are not alone . . . today (for someday)” and “black and white together” introducing new verses.

Conclusion

I was a member of SNCC from 1960 to 1966 and worked as a field secretary in Arkansas in 1964-65. During that time I had many opportunities to sing freedom songs and listen to the Freedom Singers perform. The experience was invigorating and helped me appreciate the importance of the work my colleagues and I were doing. These were also joyful times when we would look into each other’s eyes, understanding the sacrifices we were making, and believing (or, at least, hoping) that the work we were doing was really making the world a better place for African Americans, and, as a result, for all of us. When we sang We Shall Overcome at the end of every meeting, we would shout out the new verses such as: “We are not afraid,” “Black and white together,” and “The truth shall make us free,” but when it came time to finish the song with one more refrain of “We Shall Overcome” it was a little more solemn and prayerful, knowing that there were many obstacles ahead of us before we achieved our dreams of freedom for all. 

Though we have come a long way in the fifty years since the peak of SNCC’s activities, the long march to justice is not over. The power of those freedom songs, and the legacy from which they are derived, still resonates. Composers and musicians in various genres – folk, blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, and contemporary classical – continue to write and play pieces connected with the civil rights movement.  In 2012 composer/trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith published a four CD set entitled Ten Freedom Summers,11 which treats this musical legacy in a more abstract but no less effective manner. At a concert I attended at which he played selections from those recordings, he spoke movingly about the work and its meaning:

This music is about the Civil Rights Movement. We call it a movement, because it isn’t finished yet. This movement is about Human Rights, for all humans. That’s a big mistake that a lot of people make, thinking the movement is just about rights for black folks. But it’s about rights for all of us. And we ain’t there yet. So I need you all to help me relight that torch.12

Wadada Leo Smith at Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in October 2012

Endnotes: 

[1] A Pivotal Moment in the Civil Rights Movement, Facing History and Ourselves (www.facinghistory.org

[2] Guy and Candie Carawan, Liner notes, Sing for Freedom, The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through its Songs

[3] Ibid

[4] Anthony Lewis, Portrait of a Decade: The Second American Revolution, Random House, 1964

[5]”The Music Kept Us from Being Paralyzed: A Talk with Bernice Johnson Reagon,” in Black Notes: Essays of A Musician Writing in a Post-Album Age, William C. Banfield, 2004. Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland. 

6] Bernice Johnson Reagon, “Let the Church Sing ‘Freedom’, Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 7, 1987

[7] ibid

[8] Sweet Chariot: The Story of the Spirituals. Freedom Songs of the Civil Rights Movement: Slave Spirituals Revived, A multidisciplinary online curriculum by The Spirituals Project at the University of Denver, ©2004 Center for Teaching & Learning

[9] Ballad of America, http://www.balladofamerica.com/music/indexes/songs/ohfreedom/index.htm 

[10] History Matters, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6336/

[11] Wadada Leo Smith, Ten Freedom Summers, Cunieform Records, ASIN: B007JZFX9C

[12] Wadada Leo Smith, speaking at Kerrytown Concert House, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2012 Edgefest, October 31-November 3, 2012

Bibliography

Books, Periodicals and Liner Notes:

Banfield, William C., Black Notes: Essays of A Musician Writing in a Post-Album Age, Chapter entitled: The Music Kept Us from Being Paralyzed: A Talk with Bernice Johnson Reagon,” Scarecrow Press, 2004. 

Carawan, Guy and Candie, Liner notes, Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through its Songs, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, ASIN: B000001DHL

Lewis, Anthony, Portrait of a Decade: The Second American Revolution, Random House, 1964

Reagon, Bernice Johnson, “Let the Church Sing ‘Freedom’”, Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 7, 1987

Websites:

American Social History Project / Center for Media and Learning (Graduate Center, CUNY), website of Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech to Joint session of Congress, March 15, 1965, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6336/ 

Facing History and Ourselves (www.facinghistory.org)

Oh Freedom! Website page: http://www.balladofamerica.com/music/indexes/songs/ohfreedom/index.htm

Recordings:

Davis, Rev. Gary, At Home and Church, 1962-67, Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, ASIN: B0031DRW1S 

Freedom Singers, The, We Shall Overcome, Vinyl Masters, ASIN: B00DVAWI2E 

Freedom Song, Turner Home Entertainment, 2006, ASIN: B000BNTMBO.

Golden Gospel Singers, The, Capella Praise, Blue Flame, ASIN: B0000JUB974

McDowell, Fred, The Alan Lomax Recordings, Mississippi Records, ASIN: B0055HVDHM

Pilgrim Jubilee Singers, Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around, Malaco Records, B000001KW0

Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through its Songs, Smithsonian Folkways, ASIN: B000001DHL

Smith, Wadada Leo, Ten Freedom Summers, Cunieform Records, ASIN: B007JZFX9C

Staples, “Pops”, Peace To The Neighborhood, Virgin Records America Inc., ASIN: B0000S5883S

General Interest

Freedom Singers, Voices of the Civil Rights Movement, 2-CD set, Smithsonian Folkways, ASIN: B000001DJT

Lewis, John, March Book I (Graphic Novel form), Top Shelf Productions, 2013

Ransby, Barbara, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Gender and American Culture), The University of North Carolina Press, 2005

Zinn, Howard, SNCC: The New Abolitionists, Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1964