Sunday, December 07, 2008

Pot and Other Tragedies

Odetta passed away on December 2nd. The image is from a screenshot of a beautiful recent performance of House of the Rising Sun, made and uploaded by mmazur1o5.

Odetta's voice has always stopped me in my tracks and made me listen. I'm kind of a slow learner and only recently discovered how powerful Search is at Last.FM. In addition to wonderful wikis for artist descriptions, Last.FM lets you look at the artist by tracks. There are 18 pages of tracks for Odetta. It's astounding to me how many of those songs I know, if not necessarily performed by Odetta. I'm sure my singing voice is pretty awful, but lots of the folk songs are ones I've sung at the top of my lungs at various times in my life.

When it comes to folk songs I feel old. With my limited exposure to young people it seems to me their knowledge of music is encyclopedic. I've heard mix tapes children of friends have made for their parents and they're full of surprises, obscure songs from long ago. When we were kids we listened to records, but then CDs came along. So it's not exactly right that these kids can make such great mixes because they know their parents' record collections. Well, obviously they do know what their parents listen to now, but that doesn't account for the Way Back Machine affect they seem to manage. It seems the kids are in tune with a vibe, they know what will tug on our heart strings even if they don't really know the songs or associations that play their magic. For people of a certain age, folk music is inextricably bound to hopes for social change.

With the economy as it is along with other disasters times look rather bleak. Now is a time to sing out. Music can make us feel better, music can restore some hope within, if even for a short while. I'm not sure what "Americana" means, but that's a tag applied to Odetta's music, and it seems to fit. A listen to Odetta sings forth not just songs Americans have listened to over the years, but songs we've sung ourselves.

Intrepid blogger and University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole wrote an atypical piece this week State Universities versus State Prisons; And Marijuana Legalization as a Solution. Well, I guess I'm showing my age again, but the post really popped out at me. Where I live, in Western Pennsylvania, there are lots of towns and townships named Hempfield around. Clearly growing hemp is a part of the regional history, indeed it's an important crop in American history. The shorter version of Cole's piece is that Americans are imprisoning too many of us at a cost to our education system as well as distorting our society in other awful ways. I agree with him that decriminalizing marijuana is one way to begin to redress this sad situation.

Drug use is dangerous, real people are hurt. Drugs are also an enormously profitable criminal enterprise which are distorting politics all over the globe. The Christian Science Monitor had a piece earlier in the week about cocaine transshipment in Ghana and drug money in the presidential election. Drugs are an important and complex problem that deserve more attention and more creative approaches.

I like gardening and find plants fascinating. Seems to me people who want it should be allowed to grow pot. On the other hand the commercial uses of Cannabis as a fiber and oil seed crop definitely intrigue me. During the 1930's American forests were indiscriminately logged, and oddly the national criminalization of pot played a part. During the first part of the 20th Century most states had laws regulating the sale and use of pot as a drug. But the national scheme for criminalizing it essentially destroyed the commercial culture of hemp as a fiber and oil seed crop. The Wikipedia article Legal history of cannabis in the United States provides a good overview of a complicated history. The connection with the forests is that wood pulp paper interests triumphed over paper made from annual fibers.

Despite my position in favor of decriminalization of marijuana, I'm not holding my breathe. That a mainstream professor like Juan Cole speaking out publicly in favor of legalizing pot rather argues against my premise. I'm afraid when it comes to pot it's an issue I care about but rather wish others would fight the battles about decriminalization. So it pleases me to no end that Juan Cole has stuck his neck out about the issue. Many countries, for example our neighbor to the north, Canada, have managed to separate the issue of marijuana and hemp as a fiber and oil seed crop. A similar sensibleness here doesn't look anywhere near on the horizon.

We ignore the importance of annual fiber crops at our peril. There are so many that are entirely legal and research on their practical uses is seriously needed. So I am pleased to discover that the United Nations has declared 2009 The International Year of Natural Fibers.

One fiber plant I'm high on--not that way--is Kenaf (Hibiscus cannabinus L. One of my favorite families of plants to grow are hollyhocks, of which Kenaf is a giant member. The plant hails from Africa but is already grown in the USA. Many of the areas that it grows well here don't have a long enough growing season to produce ripe seeds. This plant has a great deal of potential for useful products, some of them even without a whole lot of high tech infrastructure. There is some infrastructure in place for Kenaf paper and cardboard making in the USA now.

Anyhow, I hope that the International Year of Natural Fibers spurs on some conversations about the importance of natural fibers for more sustainable production and I'll have something to write about in the coming year about it.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has produced a video about the Kivu crisis in the DRC called Condition Critical. I'm not sure how to get as many of my friends to watch it as I can, but I sure will try. The video is made from great photographs and video clips, and much of the narrative is people directly telling their stories. The war is so tragic and there's an odd desensitization that happens where we might know a bit about the conflict but never put a human face on it. This video is great storytelling and in a short amount of time conveys a lot of information.

Speaking of folk songs, being reminded of them by Odetta's passing, some of our songs are songs from the times of slavery and some from the time of our Civil War. The songs contain our memories of suffering and yet the very songs foster hope and social change. Songs help us to feel empathy with others. To be human we must face suffering. I suppose it's a bit cheeky to say that many Americans my age can't think of folks songs without a memory of the smell of pot smoke.

More than any other time of the year the times leading up to Christmas, and during the holidays, is a time for singing together. I look forward to singing and hope others will sing along. In our singing we'll take joy, but also sing for all those suffering in the hope we can as people find courage and conviction to end suffering as we are able. I hope for songs that help us always to take notice. When a great artist dies like Odetta dies, there is sadness. I also feel a sense of gratitude for their contribution which lives on.

Update: Daisy left a comment and leaving the comment reminded me that I was negligent not to provide a Hat Tip to LarryE and his great blog Lotus--Surviving A Dark Time for the link to the video of Odetta's performance. I'm too lazy. I'm sorry not to have linked nonetheless because the communities that emerge from blogs and comments are really important to me. Sorry for my neglect LarryE!


Daisy said...

Great post, John... FREE THE WEED!!!!!!


Amanda in GA said...

Love the post. I love fibers and want to learn more about them. One of my favorite yarns to knit with is called "Maize" it is made entirely form corn product. It is soft and gets softer the more you wash it.

Love you tell Grandad I said hello.