I’m sitting here, miserably pissed off, because a US Airways snafu has kept me from attending the 90th birthday party of Stetson Kennedy, legendary Southern author, rebel, and soldier for human rights and social justice, in Fruit Cove, Florida.
For readers who may recall my admiration of Mr. Kennedy and visit with him earlier this year, Stetson Kennedy was also a good friend and host of Woody Guthrie during the late 1940s and 1950s, during which time Guthrie wrote a lyric sheet called ‘Talking Stetson Kennedy’, about Stet’s 1950 write-in campaign for US Senate between Claude Pepper and George Smathers.
Billy Bragg, British folk, punk, and protest singer-songwriter, was enlisted in the late 90s by Nora Guthrie, daughter of the American folk legend, to put to music some of thousands of Woody’s song pages. Bragg enlisted Wilco and Natalie Merchant in this pursuit and the project resulted in two CDs, Mermaid Avenue and Mermaid Avenue, vol. II, and much critical acclaim. “Stetson Kennedy” appeared on the second album.
(This superb interview with Nora Guthrie describes the process and why she picked Bragg, but I encourage fans of the collaboration to purchase the DVD, Man in the Sand, that documented this amazing historical collaboration.)
Oh yeah, so why did Mr. Bragg call me?
Having become friendly with Stetson, his family, and his personal assistant, the Pharmboy family was invited down to Stetson’s 90th birthday celebration to be held this afternoon at his home and Florida state park, Beluthahatchee.
I contacted Bragg’s London office a few months ago to see if he could come to Florida to perform at the party, since I knew he would be near the end of his North American tour. A fine gentleman in Bragg’s office, Toby Cummings, wrote back to say that Bragg would be running tight between West Coast US and Canadian dates and then have to return to London to launch his new book on 10 October, “The Progressive Patriot – A Search for Belonging”.
I am an amateur musician, or technically semi-professional, since I have been paid American currency to play guitar and bass in various folk-rock bands. So, I asked Toby for permission to play at the party on Bragg’s behalf the song, “Stetson Kennedy.” I had even written another verse specifically for Stetson’s birthday, humbly taking the Woody Guthrie 1950 lyrics and Billy Bragg 1998 music one step further in the story of our beloved Kennedy. Since that correspondence, Florida folk legend, Steve Blackwell, passed away from melanoma, and I had also worked up his lovely ode to Stetson’s abode, “Beluthahatchee On My Mind.”
As I wrote to Toby to convey to Billy Bragg,
I also consider my interests and heritage philosophically-aligned with Mr Bragg as I am the grandson of a Pennsylvania coal miner and still keep property in southern Colorado near the monument to the deaths of striking miners, women, and children at the hands of the Colorado National Guard in the 1914 Ludlow Massacre (the topic of a Woody Guthrie song of the same name) and the old coal-mining town of Trinidad, where Mother Jones and others marched in protest after the massacre. For five generations, members of my family were factory workers in northern NJ, mine being the first generation where we were able to rise enough to attend university. Hence, I have a deeply-rooted respect for where Billy is coming from despite being a PhD cancer researcher/hack guitarist.
So, as I was sitting here at home bemoaning the state of the US airline industry and its inability to get me and my family in a timely fashion the 500 miles to Jax, the phone rings:
“Hallo, this is Billy Bragg.”
Billy was calling from San Francisco where he is playing this afternoon at the free (yes, free) Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Billy just called to send along, “a very heavy positive vibe and best wishes to Stetson,” for his birthday and regrets for being unable to attend. Mr. Bragg noted that he will play “Stetson Kennedy” at today’s gig in Golden Gate Park (he takes the Rooster Stage twice this afternoon, at 2:20 PDT in a Songwriter’s Circle with Steve Earle, Guy Clark, and Verlon Thompson, then by himself at 4:40 PDT).
We chatted for about five minutes, talking about his rush back to England for the book tour (“no rest for the wicked,” he said), that his family was back in Dorset since his son was in school, and he’d essentially be flying back home, kiss them, and head off across the UK to promote the book. I promised to call Stetson immediately to pass along his best wishes and intentions at today’s performances.
Just like when I met Arlo Guthrie one-on-one back in January, you’re kind of taken aback a bit when you get a chance to talk with your heroes and legends as just regular people. Most people my age, here and in England, view Bragg as an icon of our times, bigger than the music he has made, and an authentic soul. From his biography,
“Billy Bragg was described by The Times newspaper as a ‘national treasure’. In the two and a half decades of his career Bragg has certainly made an indelible mark on the conscience of British music, becoming perhaps the most stalwart guardian of the radical dissenting tradition that stretches back over centuries of the country’s political, cultural and social history.”
But, we two forty-something guys mostly just shot the bull about our families and our admiration of Stetson Kennedy.
My wife said that there must’ve been some cosmic reason for us to miss getting to Florida and that had we made it to Stet’s party, I wouldn’t have been able to speak personally with Billy Bragg (since he called the home landline and not my cell). I’m still pissed about US Airways screwing up our trip, but it was pretty cool to talk to the legend himself.
So, thank you, Billy, for brightening my day – and thank you, Stetson, for inspiring us all.
Note added in proof: Many thanks to author, Bill Ectric, for sending me links to his earlier writings and photographs, as well as coverage of Stetson’s 90th birthday party and engagement (Stetson, not Bill!) to Sandra Parks.
Additional note added in proof: The extra verses to “Stetson Kennedy” are detailed in this post. My plan is to get Nora Guthrie and Billy Bragg to agree to letting me record these added on to the Mermaid Ave., Vol. II version – I hope.
Additional, additional note added in proof: Billy did make mention at his own blog of Stetson’s birthday and pulling out the old song in his honor (although his speaking with me didn’t quite reach similarly lofty proportions on his blog):
I take the opportunity to do some tunes that I haven’t been playing live, starting out with Stetson Kennedy from Mermaid Avenue Vol 2 to commemorate the fact that Stetson, still alive and well and opposing the Klan, was celebrating his 90th birthday that weekend in Florida. Next time around, I sing a new song ‘Sing Their Souls Back Home’ (which had its genesis at a sound-check in Salisbury last April) followed by I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night. In the final round, I pull out Bush War Blues, which goes down a storm.