CounterPunch

 

Lee Ballinger is a writer for the print version of CounterPunch. Click to view articles that have been featured in the award-winning publication.

2012
 
Music Censorship

Music connects us. Music inspires us. Music helps us to vent our anger. Music gives us visions of a better world. As a result, some people don’t like it. For instance, the Senators at the 1985  Senate hearings on rock lyrics, which consisted of Al Gore and other politicians bashing music by trotting out raunchy lyrics while three musicians—Frank Zappa, John Denver, and Dee Snider—defended freedom of expression...

2013
 
Machine Politics

Rage Against the Machine’s first gig, a 1991 outdoor college show, is included on DVD in Rage Against the Machine XX 20th Anniversary Edition Deluxe Boxed Set (Epic/Legacy). Only a few people are watching so it feels like a rehearsal.  The parts are interesting but they only add up to possibilities, to potential.

 

By the time Rage’s first album, Rage Against the Machine, was released a year later that potential was fully realized...

World Wide Web

“I was sitting in the woods by my house one day in 2011, totally despairing,” poet Michael Rothenberg told me. “The BP oil spill, Fukushima, war, poverty. I was watching an endless decline and there didn’t seem to be any response. Where are the artists? I thought to myself: ‘There ought to be one hundred thousand poets for change.’ So I put up an event page on Facebook and asked if people would want to stage events in support of economic, political, and social change. I honestly didn’t expect any response. Yet in one week there were twenty events scheduled in ten countries...

They Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

In 1943, sixteen-year-old Johnny Bragg was given six consecutive life sentences to be served at the Tennessee State Prison in Nashville. As an illiterate black teenager in a segregated prison in a segregated state, Bragg began his sentence with three strikes against him. But he had a talent for singing and  he put together a vocal group, the Prisonaires. They began by performing at the prison and then went on to have a most unlikely career in music...

Rave On

Raves began as small, semi-secret, late-night affairs but they have now broadened beyond their humble origins, morphing into multi-day electronic dance music (EDM) festivals. Electric Daisy Carnival and Ultra Music Festival have drawn as many as 230,000 fans to events where fans spend as much time looking at each other as they do looking at the stage and, as Billboard dance music editor Kerri Mason describes, “sing along to beats instead of words...”

Class Act

I am one of several hundred voters who decide annually who gets inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In some years I’m proud of our work because it shines a light on truly important artists. In other years I’m embarrassed by our collective choices. But at our worst, we have never done anything so out of line with the heart of American culture as the June 12 appearance by Alan B. Krueger at the Hall of Fame in Cleveland...

Human Rights and Copy Wrongs

Throughout most of human history, music has been free. Over the past century and a half, the advance of technology has allowed music to be turned into various configurations that could be sold. Now the further advance of technology is pushing music back toward its original, free state...

The Odd Couple: James Brown and Jay-Z

James Brown and Jay-Z have much in common. Jay-Z grew up in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto. Brown was often dismissed from school for "insufficient clothes" and was sent to prison at fifteen for stealing a coat...

We Gotta Get Outta this Place

In America, we have a seemingly incurable case of Anglophilia. We worship all things British, except the food. We even venerate their politicians, about whom we know nothing. The royals, who are really just a part of the British one per cent (albeit one with a unique hustle), contend with the Kardashians for top spot on the front page of American supermarket tabloids...

2014
 
Death of a Salesman

Barely on the cusp of puberty, I didn’t know exactly what rock and soul music were trying to tell me but it felt good and I was all ears. I was the first kid in my grade school class to buy records. Since actual record stores did not yet exist in my city, I had to go to the music instrument store down on the town square which had a couple of small bins of 45s off in a corner. It was an adult environment and I felt out of place, but I had to have the music...

Support the Troops, Support Yourself

After returning from Vietnam and being discharged, I sought out a few of the self-help groups of veterans which had sprung up everywhere. Each time it was the same: a couple of guys loudly attacking our participation in the war and a couple of guys loudly saying it was not the fault of the vets and that the morality of the war should not be discussed. Myself and the majority were caught in the middle, thinking: “Yes, I have my opinions. But I have severe problems of my own. Who is going to help me?"

LA Confidential

On the morning of March 16, 1991, two weeks before Rodney King was beaten by police, Latasha Harlins entered the Empire Liquor Market in South Central Los Angeles. Standing behind the counter was Soon Ja Du...

East of Eden

It seemed for a while that the dreams of the nineteenth century had a shot at coming true in the twentieth, but that possibility had faded badly by the approach of the twenty-first. Agata Pyzik, a young Polish writer who’s lived in Britain since 2010, makes that clear in her new book Poor But Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West ($26.95, Zero Books).  Pyzik takes a hard look at Poland’s socialist past, mocks its current anti-communism and, above all, skewers Poland’s capitalist present and those who champion it...

Human Needs, Dirty Deeds

I spent almost all of first grade in bed with rheumatic fever. By summer, the doctors told my parents that against all odds I had fully recovered and would have no limitations in life. Bert Berns was not so lucky. He had rheumatic fever as a teenager and was told that due to heart damage he wouldn’t live to see twenty-one. He did, but with such a loud clock ticking in his head he was in a hurry to drink in life and spit it back out...

Monumental

In August, bluesman B.B. King became the honorary head of an effort to build a national monument in the Mississippi Delta to honor those who picked cotton and made the world rich. King, who was born in a cabin on a cotton plantation outside Berclair, Mississippi in 1925, replaces the late Maya Angelou as the Honorary Chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Cotton Pickers of America and the Sharecroppers Interpretive Center. The plan is for a twenty-five foot high monument to be erected on twenty acres of cotton land along Highway 61 in the Mississippi Delta...

2015
 
Anger is a Gift

The musician biography has become such a staple of the publishing industry that I was even offered a deal to write a book about Bob Burns, a drummer in Lynyrd Skynyrd who played on only the band’s first two albums. And although I haven’t read most of these bios, I’m confident none of them has a chapter anything like “Wage Slavery: Is There an Alternative?,” which begins Know Your Enemy: Rage Against the Machine (Omnibus Press, $24.95) by Joel McIver.

 

McIver presents experiences and opinions from Noam Chomsky and Rage guitarist Tom Morello, but to get a specific answer to his question about wage slavery, McIver conducts a lengthy interview with electrician-turned-writer Pamela Satterwhite, author of Waking Up: Freeing Ourselves From Work...

All Shook Up

In 1835, South Carolina judge William Harper declared that “A slave cannot be a white man.” Vernon Presley, Elvis’s father, probably would have disagreed. Convicted of check fraud in 1938, Vernon was sentenced to three years at Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm penitentiary.

 

“Parchman Farm was essentially a twenty thousand acre plantation,” writes Joel Williamson in Elvis Presley: A Southern Life ($34.95, Oxford University Press)...

The Soft Power Shuffle

It may seem obvious that the U.S. government is at war with Islam at home and abroad. The reality is more complex. For example, in the excellent new book Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture (Vintage, $19.95), Hisham Aidi describes the work of Jihad Saleh, Congressional legislative assistant and head of the 45-member Congressional Muslim Staffers Association.

 

Working with the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, Saleh helps to host Islamic religious scholars, giving them tours of the Capitol. “They cannot believe that every Friday afternoon a hundred Muslims come out to pray in Congress,” Saleh told Aidi...

Driving the King

Ravi Howard’s new novel, Driving the King (Harper, $25.99), takes the true story of an attack on singer Nat King Cole at a concert in Birmingham, Alabama in 1956 and fictionalizes it by placing the event in Montgomery and by telling the story through the voice of made-up character Nat Weary. Weary leaps on stage to defend Cole and saves his life. But he has to beat up a white man to do it and he’s sentenced to ten years in prison as a result. Weary grew up with Cole and when he was released from Kilby Prison, he went to work as the singer’s driver...

The Rhythm Changes, But the Struggle Remains

In 1931, fifty-seven years before the release of N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police,” Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra were touring the South, playing to enthusiastic but segregated audiences. In October, he did a show at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, his all-black band playing for a white crowd, including several Memphis cops.

 

In his book Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism, Thomas Brothers describes the scene: “Armstrong announces he would like to dedicate the next song to the Memphis Police Department.  Turning to the band, he sets the tempo and they are off with their arrangement of ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You...'"

I Want to Live

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of abandoned houses were left to rot and die. In a classic case of making lemons into lemonade, local artist Candy Chang painted an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood with chalkboard paint and stenciled it repeatedly with a grid of the sentence, “Before I die I want to___________.”

 

 “Anyone walking by could pick up a piece of chalk, reflect on their lives, and share their personal aspirations in public,” Chang writes in her book Before I Die (St. Martin’s Griffin, $24.99). “It was an experiment and I didn’t know what to expect. By the next day, the wall was bursting with handwritten responses and it kept growing.”

If You Love Me, Why Am I Dying?

Almost unnoticed, oil companies have taken over a big chunk of the world’s culture. Shell sponsors the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, ExxonMobil supports dance and the symphony there.  In Washington DC, ExxonMobil sponsors the Smithsonian, the Shakespeare Theater, and the Washington National Opera, and also works with Russia’s largest oil company Rosneft to sponsor the National Gallery of Art. BP (British Petroleum) helps to fund the Los Angeles County Museum of Art...

Brother Can You Spare a Dime?

Clothing is nice. Clothing is hip. Clothing is peaceful. The ritual of new clothes for school.  Clothes sitting neatly in a drawer or hanging in a closet, smiling back at you. “That’s a nice dress.” “That suit is sharp.”Clothing is also blood-stained, dangerous. Clothing is death. Textile factories were the driving force of the Industrial Revolution and it was the slaves who picked cotton who made the textile industry possible....

Something Wicked this Way Comes

As a result of a 2013 lawsuit filed by an Alabama county, the Voting Rights Act has been gutted. On October 6 of this year, Alabama closed drivers license bureaus in 31 of its 67 counties, including every one that is at least 75 per cent black. Alabama requires a photo ID to vote and now nearly half the state will have problems getting one. 

 

In his 2008 book Billionaires and Ballot Bandits, Greg Palast detailed a mostly invisible side of the war against voting in the United States...

Root of all Evil

The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry (Lawrence Hill Books, $35) by Ned and Constance Sublette is immense, intense, and passionate. It is scrupulously researched, well-written, and, unlike so much scholarship about the South, offers not a hint of apology for slavery or for “southern institutions.” Everything in the book’s 668 pages flows from the assessment that “The paradox of liberty versus slavery at the nation’s birth is no paradox at all. Liberty was the right to own property. Slaves were property. Liberty for slave owners meant slavery for slaves...” 

2016
 
Steeltown USA

In 1954, Chuck Klausing became the head football coach at Braddock High School in Braddock, Pennsylvania, one of many steel mill towns in the Pittsburgh area. The outgoing coach told Klausing: "You don't want this job. The kids are undisciplined. The administration isn't in it. It's an unwinnable situation."

 

In the previous nine seasons, the Braddock High Tigers had won only 21 games while losing 54. Yet the new coach, using a combination of intense preparation, strict discipline, and a healthy dose of trick plays, guided his team to six straight undefeated seasons, winning the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League championship every year...

Third Stone from the Sun

The SETI Institute, partially funded by NASA, searches the universe for signs of intelligent life, using arrays of radio telescopes to listen in and try to detect transmissions from other planetary civilizations. In thirty years they've come up with nothing. SETI's response is that "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."          

 

Despite the "absence of evidence," one third of the American public believes extraterrestrials may be in our midst, ignoring the classic question posed by Nobel Laureate Enrico Fermi: "But where are they?"...