Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Folk Music and Survival: An Interview with David Rovics

By Matt Dineen

Having just started a deadening temp job alphabetizing books that students had returned at the semester’s end, there was something comforting about hearing the triumphant chorus: "When all the minimum wage workers went on strike!" bouncing off the University of Wisconsin’s buildings. It was early May and rabble-rousing folk musician David Rovics was in Madison to celebrate the centennial of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). I had first heard him play "Minimum Wage Strike" six years before at a student activism conference in Boston. I’ve been drawn to David’s music ever since. He continues to leave his own unique mark on the radical folk tradition. I had the chance to sit down with him on a lovely spring day inside the Orton Park gazebo where we discussed his passion for playing music for the revolution as an antidote to crippling wage slavery.

When you’re in a social situation and people ask you: "What do you do?" how do you usually respond?

I just say I play music. It’s my sole source of income so it’s an easy answer. Presumably they’re asking, "What do you do for a living?" or "What do you do with most of your time?" Of course with most of my time I don’t play music—I stare at computer screen or drive a car or sit in a plane. [Laughs]

So what kind of follow up questions do you usually get to that response? Are people surprised that you can survive off your music and that that’s what you actually do for a living?

Yeah, sometimes they’re surprised. I guess it depends whether they already know me from shows or whether they’re just meeting me. I think when most people meet a musician and the musician says that he or she makes a living at it, usually the reaction would be one of at least mild surprise.

How long have you been able to do this as a full-time thing? And could you talk about what you were doing before this and how you used to get by? How did you make that transition? How did things change?

When I was younger—late teens, early twenties—I mostly worked doing word processing. Really horrible, mindless, menial shit: typing novels and resumes. Just looking at something that somebody had hand-written and then transcribing it essentially. And sometimes typing stuff that had already been typed because it wasn’t typed onto a computer. It was the age of typewriters where people would write shit on their typewriter and then give it to me to type again. It just always struck me as the most mindless task that I knew would be ultimately replaced, imminently replaced by computers and then eventually by voice recognition. An activity that would be one of these automatically antiquated things that you’re doing that you know is stupid and horribly boring. And then I got carpel tunnel syndrome. I always stuck to word processing because at the time—late ‘80s, early ‘90s—I could get paid like 12 bucks and hour, which for me was good money. The alternative was 6 bucks an hour in some cafĂ© which seemed like a lot more fun kind of work to me, but I would get by just working 20 hours a week doing word processing. So I could spend the rest of the time doing stuff that was meaningful to me like playing music and doing drugs, going backpacking and whatever.

But then I got carpel tunnel so I had to stop typing. Then I got on worker’s comp and Etna Insurance Company accidentally sent me checks for a year and a half. They were only supposed to do it for 6 weeks. So they were sending me $160 bucks a week for a year and a half, which for me was like a gold mine. It wasn’t the lump sum settlement that I thought I would get before the law changed during the course of my case. They changed the law so that employers had to give permission to allow the insurance company to give the settlement, which is ridiculous. Of course they’re not going to admit that they caused you to get carpel tunnel even though it’s obviously true. So I didn’t get that, but the worker’s comp thing allowed me to really…I mean even working 20 hours a week I was always struck by somehow or other it was always the most energetic and creative time of the day—even though it was only four hours—that I was really squandering. I still had time for other stuff but not as much as I would have liked even back with that part-time schedule.

Getting worker’s comp was a real opportunity for me to do a lot of wood shedding, which I had never really done before: just practicing and learning songs. I went out about it very systematically, like learning songs that other people wrote for four hours a day. And I knew that I wanted to do music for some sort of living and I knew that I was not really that good at it. I felt strongly that advice of Utah Phillips and Pete Seeger and others that you really have to immerse yourself in the tradition as a way to move forward. So rather than trying to write bad songs and spending too much energy on that I just learned other songs and played in the Pike Place Market and stuff.

To read the interview in its entirety check out Toward Freedom...

Monday, August 15, 2005

Dumpsters and Roadkill: Dissecting the Food Politics of Evasion and Feral Visions

By Matt Dineen

How can we meet our basic human needs while simultaneously doing what keeps us going? It is the dilemma of our day: finding a way to follow our true passions while surviving in a capitalist society. Some attempt to incorporate their interests and values into their jobs. Others choose to separate work from their passions, holding down often mind-numbing occupations just to pay the bills.

Regardless, we all have to work to pay rent and food. Or is there another way? Is it possible to eat and live outside of the system?

In fact, there are already people out there attempting to do just that. They are living a completely different way—trying to follow their passions with reckless abandon while subverting the traditional strategies of survival.

But is this way of life as simple and romantic as it sounds?

Two different examples of this "third way" recently swept through Madison, WI. The first was a presentation by the author of the infamous book Evasion, now a cult classic within the punk-traveller subculture. Later, a group of North Carolinian primitivists stopped by on their Feral Visions tour.

Both presentations offered radical critiques of traditional American society but focused on putting these ideas into practice through alternative lifestyles. Although the critiques were fairly similar, these two events offered very different approaches to acquiring and consuming food...
Check out Sustainable Eating to read the article in its entirety.

Monday, August 08, 2005

On the Leisure Track

The Cult of the Job

By D. JoAnne Swanson

I am job-free. Out of the rat race. Unemployed, as they say, but definitely by choice. My self-esteem is intact, thank you, I'm not "in transition", and I have no intention of getting a job again.
That's right--I'm on the leisure track permanently. I don't have a cushy nine-to-five job with profit-sharing, "security", stock options, health insurance, advancement opportunities, or free parking. I also don't have to deal with office politics, attending motivation seminars, climbing the corporate ladder, employee evaluations, increasing productivity, the absurd "team player" mentality, brown-nosing, mandatory overtime, stressful commutes in rush-hour traffic, being trapped in a cubicle, or the threat of being pink-slipped. Oh, and let's not forget--I don't have the expense of a "professional" wardrobe, strong coffee to wake me up every morning, or "power lunches".

I wouldn't have it any other way.

If you ask me what seems to have become the first question new acquaintances ask each other nowadays-namely, "What do you do for a living?" I'm likely to say that I'm job-free by choice or quip that I'm an "occupational tourist", as a friend likes to say. Sometimes I'll tell 'em I'm a freelancer or self-employed, specializing in leisure. Most people, when they hear this, say something like "You mean you don't have a regular job? Wow, that's great--I'll bet more people would do that if they thought they could swing it."

I'm willing to bet that more of them could swing it if they'd just find within themselves the wherewithal to question a few of the assumptions that are often taken for granted in America, particularly by the middle class and those who aspire to wealth. So what assumptions am I talking about? Well, let's start with the cult of jobs and work.

We need to re-evaluate the role of jobs in our lives. For far too many of us, getting a job amounts to securing a means of paying for our living expenses, and not much more. At best, this attitude leads to years of "paying one's dues" in exchange for the dubious "security" of a (hopefully) steady paycheck and the promise of finally enjoying leisure when one retires. At worst, it leads to a way of life where we devote 40 or more hours of our precious time a week to doing something we don't care about mainly for the sake of having a roof over our heads and food on the table. I know I'm not the only one who thinks this is ludicrous. It took me years of trying to fit myself into some kind of job title, of devoting myself to figuring out "what I wanted to be when I grew up", before I realized that I don't want a job, nor do I feel guilty about not wanting one.

It's time for us to make a crucial distinction between "jobs" and "work". Work--particularly the kind that is motivated by interest, social welfare, connection, curiosity, learning, beauty--can be satisfying, fulfilling, fun, and honorable. However, it's exceedingly hard to see this when we are blinded by the compulsion to "get a job" or face the poorhouse, or when we're terrified by the social and financial consequences of being job-free. In addition, we've internalized a puritan work ethic which holds that laziness is a sign of moral weakness. We sense deep in our guts that even if we were to arrange our financial affairs such that we could quit our jobs for good, it would mean we are lazy. We know we'd still face guilt, social disapproval, maybe even an identity crisis once we were unemployed--especially if we were to tell everyone we meet that we're not "in transition", not hunting for a new job, that in fact we are happy this way. I maintain that a complex web of unquestioned assumptions are what keep such fears in place, and that we need to delve into those places we fear to tread if we're ever going to make lasting changes for the better.

A job, nowadays, is used as a shorthand term for whatever it is you do that occupies a large portion of your time and provides a paycheck. In a work-obsessed culture that elevates jobs and money-making capacity to crucial components of our identities, having a job and money often provides a sense of social acceptability that cannot be found any other way, or so we believe. But there are lots of (legal) ways of getting money besides jobs, and what's more, we are increasingly becoming aware that we've paid a very high price for our myopic job-centered focus.

On a personal level, many of us find ourselves disillusioned, depressed and frustrated when, day after day, we force ourselves to get out of bed and put in another eight hours at our jobs, then come home exhausted--only to get up the next day and do it all over again. The future doesn't hold out much hope for us when we consider that we're expected to continue this way indefinitely. When do we get to enjoy life, we think as we watch the clock and count the days until the weekend?

On a societal level, we hear about corporate "downsizing" as well as environmental and human rights violations, rising rents in choice areas, the growing wage gap between executives and "worker bees", the rising cost of a college education and the lack of "marketability" of liberal arts degrees, and many other factors which contribute to a widespread sense of disillusionment. This certainly isn't the way we thought it would be, is it? It's not what were promised when we were told that getting an education and a "good" job would be our ticket into the promised land.

This concept we have of jobs as the way we make a name for ourselves, "get ahead", create an identity, and earn money is ripe for re-evaluation. It's high time for us to take a hard look at the personal and environmental devastation such thinking has wrought, and to conceptualize and create alternatives to the cult of jobs and work in our lives.

Such alternatives could take many forms: self-employment, cooperative living arrangements, simplifying our lives, changes in economic policy, and so forth. Envisioning a new way of working is certainly not a new idea, but those of us who question the conventional wisdom about jobs are still considered heretics, radicals and pariahs in many circles.

Heretic or not, I'd like to see us re-define success as having more to do with people and their values, and less to do with profits or climbing the corporate ladder. I'd like to see a world where we are less relentlessly driven by the pursuit of job growth, impressive stock portfolios, the "bottom line" and material acquisition--and more motivated by active mindful learning, joyful work, and creating a web of relationships that will sustain us in our more meager times. I'm holding out for a new way of thinking, one in which we recognize that leisure is essential to our mental health rather than cause for guilt, and that we don't have to spend our lives struggling, striving to make ends meet through working at a job.

I think we all know, at some level, that we weren't meant to live this way, and that there are better, more fulfilling, and more socially responsible ways to work than by sacrificing ourselves on the altar of jobs and money. There are the stirrings of a new social movement underway as we speak--a diverse collection of people from all walks of life who are re-examining the way we've been indoctrinated into thinking our jobs are our ticket to respectability and freedom. They are re-defining success, learning how to appreciate what they have instead of endlessly questing for more growth, and discovering their passions without worrying about trying to fit them into the form of a job.

I'm happy to count myself among the proponents of that movement away from the cult of jobs and toward a new way of envisioning work--a way that gives us hope for the future. I invite you to join us.

D. JoAnne Swanson is a freelance writer living in North Vancouver, BC, Canada. She has managed to remain job-free since 1997, though she does plenty of joyful work. She is the founder of Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery (CLAWS). This essay is taken from her manuscript On The Leisure Track: Creating Radical Alternatives to Traditional Employment. Comments are welcomed (

(c) Copyright 2004, D. JoAnne Swanson, Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery. All rights reserved.