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What Did You Sing in the War, Daddy?; Anthrax for Dummies

Wednesday, Oct 24 2001

What Did You Sing in the War, Daddy?

The folk song "We Shall Overcome" has been enjoying a bit of a revival since Sept. 11; it's been played everywhere from memorial services to NFL games to NBC Nightly News, sung out by everyone from the Harlem Boys Choir to Bruce Springsteen. We're not complaining. Better "We Shall Overcome" over and over, we say, than one more goddamn airing of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A.," a steaming heap of manipulative lumpen-patriot puke. But we were thinking. "We Shall Overcome" is 100 years old, more or less, and rally-ready protest tunes like "Blowin' in the Wind" are getting pretty dated too. None dare call it a crisis, but it seems like some new folk songs might be in order.

So, on Oct. 13, we went to a hootenanny in the hopes of hearing what our new folks songs might sound like. The event took place in a spacious Haight District Victorian, and the two dozen people in attendance were members of the Freedom Song Network, a group of folk singers (or activists who enjoy singing) that has strummed away at a variety of political gatherings for nearly 20 years. Coordinator Jon Fromer said there had been a lot of debate lately about what a topical songwriter ought to do these days -- and what a song about terrorism and attacking Afghanistan would have to say -- but that a few new songs might get tested out on this night.

The assembled group was made up almost entirely of middle-aged torchbearers from the generation that didn't trust anybody over 30; they were sincere and genial, if sometimes prone to you-can't-hug-a-tree-with-nuclear-arms platitudes. "What the hell am I gonna sing?" asked Mark Levy as he sat down on a piano bench and fussed over his 12-string. "These days, when I get the urge to write a song, I pick up the crossword puzzle. It's safer. I'm getting really good at crosswords."

Eventually, he sang Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" and a handful of Yiddish tunes.

Another person sang the hymn "Down by the Riverside." Everybody sang along. Another requested a round of "One Tin Soldier," the theme song from Billy Jack. Everybody sang along to that one too.

We were starting to feel a little ripped off here, and there wasn't even an admission fee.

But eventually Bernard Gilbert got his turn. Gilbert, a local folk singer who also helps coordinate the Freedom Song Network's efforts, sees the recent turmoil as a sort of ironic boon to the folk business. "It's a very exciting time right now," he said. "The Clinton era wasn't very stimulating in terms of folk songs." Pity the folk singer in peacetime.

Gilbert brought two new songs to the gathering. The first was called "Song of the Northern Alliance," a cynical, upbeat ditty sung from the Pentagon's point of view. The bridge:

We've found a king, a nice little king
And what do you think of that?
We've got a king, such a noble king
He's a hero and ... a democrat.
The second song was called "Crazy Rumors," which was about anthrax and was sung from Gilbert's point of view. Its bridge:

There's a shack in Idaho
If I were smart that's where I'd go
It's in a quiet neighborhood
I hear New Zealand's looking good

"It's a weird time, isn't it?" Gilbert asked. People around the room nodded.
-- Mark Athitakis

Anthrax for Dummies

Carr Auditorium is a relatively tiny theater tucked into the northeast corner of San Francisco General Hospital's Potrero Avenue campus, but it was buzzing like a rock venue a little before 1 p.m. last Thursday.

Nearly 250 medical personnel crammed the space -- which seats 150 -- for a national satellite broadcast from the Centers for Disease Control's Atlanta office. The broadcast was supposed to provide some practical advice for diagnosing and treating anthrax cases.

"This reminds me of the first grand rounds on AIDS," observed grizzled veteran doctor Thomas Hoynes, referring to the anxiety in the room. Hospital staffers were clearly eager to learn something about the disease that they hadn't already read in the papers.

And then the CDC folks started talking. Medical personnel were leaving in droves less than halfway through what turned out to be Anthrax for Dummies. The presentation was as basic as any newspaper account, with the added bonus of medical jargon, and -- miraculously, considering the topic -- it managed to deliver more laughs than insights.

Consider the chuckles that occurred when, after a flawless feed for Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson's lame politicizing, the satellite signal died for five minutes in the middle of the "diagnosis" section of the presentation. The staff stared at the words "No Signal" on a blue screen while the rest of the country was learning critical tips on how to spot patients with anthrax.

And then there was the knowing laughter that followed CDC Director Jeffrey Coplan's assertion that "[m]any of us may have glossed over anthrax in medical school," which felt simultaneously heartwarming and unnerving.

Likewise, the staff got a big laugh out of learning from CDC expert Brad Perkins that "when people find a suspicious envelope, they should not carry it around and show it to people. This has been a common response."

And it turns out, it's also a bad idea to smell what you suspect might be anthrax, Perkins added, to more chuckles.
-- Jeremy Mullman


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