Toast to Freedom: A Celebration of Amnesty International’s 50th Anniversary

Toast to Freedom: A Celebration of Amnesty International’s 50th Anniversary

Here’s our toast to freedom,
To human rights and dignity,
Love, respect and forgiveness,
United in the dream for victory.”

Toast to Freedom is a music video dedicated to human rights activism around the world. Nearly 50 artists contributed to the video, celebrating Amnesty International’s 50th Anniversary. The basic tracks for Toast to Freedom were recorded at the legendary Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, N.Y. One of the last studio recordings by the late Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Levon Helm, it was also one of the closest to his heart.

The song continues a long relationship between Amnesty International and the creative community, which has helped spread the word of its mission almost from the start in 1961. Artists contributing to Toast to Freedom included: Levon Helm, Kris Kristofferson, Carly Simon, Angelique Kidjo, Ewan McGregor, Saul Hernandez, Donald Fagen, Warren Haynes, Keb Mo, Eric Burdon, Taj Mahal, Florent Pagny, Marianne Faithfull, Jane Birkin, Jimmy Barnes, Rosanne Cash, Shawn Mullins, the Blind Boys of Alabama and Gentleman, among others.

Toast to Freedom: A Celebration of Amnesty International’s 50th Anniversary

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The Making of “Toast to Freedom”

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Toast to Freedom (Long Version)

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Hurry Up and Wait: The Lonesome World of Truck Drivers

Hurry Up and Wait: The Lonesome World of Truck Drivers

Hurry Up and Wait is a photographic essay by artists James Tribble and Tracey Mancenido-Tribble, a poetic meditation about America’s trucking culture.  With the long tradition of road photography in mind, the Tribbles spent over a year driving across the states as truck drivers.  Their journey is documented here in photographs that range from portraits of drivers they encountered, to shots from the open road, in a year-long effort to understand the subculture that literally drives America’s consumerism.  The photographs illuminate both the openness of the road and it’s lonesome journey, with images that bring new light to the harsh beauty in the world of a truck driver.

Kris Kristofferson: This Old Road

Slide Show: The Lonesome World of Truck Drivers

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The Poor in America: Friends and Neighbors in the Heartland

The Poor in America: Friends and Neighbors in the Heartland

For some people, our economy may be turning around, but millions of families are at risk of going hungry, in one of the richest nations on earth.  The poorest people in America are those who are the first to feel the downturn, and will be the last to feel the country’s financial recovery.  The hardworking poor in America’s heartland, with their long and deep traditions in mining, manufacturing and military service, are increasingly seen in food pantry lines, feeling ashamed and angry.  Their stories and images push beyond stereotypes and reveal a hidden America of families living in poverty, which is both surprising and haunting.

Friends and Neighbors: The Recession’s Unseen Victims

Poverty in the Hills of Central Appalachia

A Hidden America: Children of the Appalachian Mountains

Kris Kristofferson: This Old Road

Slide Show: The Poor in America/Friends and Neighbors in the Heartland

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Kris Kristofferson: Melancholy Reflections on Love, Separation, Loss and Mortality

Kris Kristofferson: Music from Closer to the Bone

Kris Kristofferson: Melancholy Reflections on Love, Separation, Loss and Mortality

Fill your heart for the morning tomorrow
You’ve still got a long way to grow
And the love that you’re dreaming will guide you
And live like a song in your soul.

Kris Kristofferson has always been a reflective musician, thinking about the mysteries of the soul with honest observations about love, separation, loss and mortality.  The soul, to which Kristofferson addresses the majority of his concerns on his excellent new album, Closer To The Bone, is something that he’ll still be trying to figure out until the very day of his final ache, his final breath and his last fading dream.  He sounds solemn and determined to finally reach some of the answers that he’s been seeking for so many long years.  Most of the album revolves around simple guitar playing and  simple melodies, which never fail to bring a sense of gravity into focus and to make all of his revelations sound as if they were there all along, but it just took an older him to finally see or hear them.

Closer to the Bone can be experienced as a sequel to its much-acclaimed predecessor, This Old Road.  While Closer to the Bone doesn’t entirely replicate the seemingly casual approach of This Old Road, it aims to deliver the same sense of earthy simplicity.  While his new album approaches the same profound issues as its predecessor, the intimate sense of the new album strongly conveys a general mood of reflection about where we all are at this end of life.

Both albums mark the latest works of a distinguished career that has given us such classic American songs as Me and Bobby McGee, Sunday Morning Coming Down and Help Me Make It Through the Night; stardom in such feature films as Lonestar, The Blade Trilogy, A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and A Star is Born; honors including three Grammy Awards and a Golden Globe Award; and years of outspoken political and social activism.  This November, he will be honored as a BMI Icon at the performing rights organization’s Country Awards.  Kristofferson is currently a member of the Songwriter Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Kris Kristofferson: Closer to the Bone (2009)

Kris Kristofferson: This Old Road (2006)

Slide Show: Kristofferson Reflects on Love, Separation, Loss and Mortality

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Twilight’s Mournful Blues: The Shadowed Realm of Life’s Deepest Longings

Twilight’s Mournful Blues: The Shadowed Realm of Life’s Deepest Longings

April 5th

You want love,
But it’s never deep enough.
You want life,
But it’s never long enough.
You want peace.
Like it’s something you can buy,
You want time.
But you’re content to watch it fly,
You believe in dreams in a dream-forsaken land,
You want imagination but you cannot pretend.

-Roseanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Elvis Costello

The twilight, shadowed realm of our unformulated experiences gives voice to an inner world fraught with ambiguity and uncertainty, which at the same time reflects longings for some of  humanity’s deeper emotional experiences: love, peace, life and time (to live).  Sadly, these very yearnings too often engender unbearable sources of frustration, the wishes seeming to be either unfulfilling or not obtainable.  We often want to soar with magical imagination, but yet are constrained by doubtful feelings that we shouldn’t pretend.  This universally distressing sense of paradox is inherent to the nature of our deeper emotional wishes, which can in turn serve as a barrier to maintaining a sense and attainment of our objects of benign hope.

We believe in dreams, but in a dream-forsaken land; this is a similar reflection of life’s fundamental, ongoing and painful sense of paradox, with many-layers of potential meanings.  In  so many areas of our lives, the struggle to grasp a genuine sense of independence and satisfaction means being able and willing to sustain these essential, complex tensions of paradox.  In the journey to reach out to others from the twilight shadows of our own internal worlds, we  are called upon to recognize and appreciate multiple perspectives.

And to be not afraid of courting surprise.

Twilight’s Mournful Blues: A Shadowed Realm of  Life’s Deepest Longings

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Women in Film: The Wish for Recognition

This piece is a counterpoint to the composition that I published yesterday about Men in Film. There are times when the need to be noticed, or rather to be recognized by another, comes to the forefront of our strivings. It is remarkable how astonishingly different the cultural displays of that need can seem from a distance, especially widely public expressions of that wish. However, regardless of the differences in appearance, when people make a gesture, a public gesture, it reveals the hope that someone will recognize their need so that they could know it, so they might discover what really matters to themselves. It is encouraging to realize that it’s possible for a few well positioned wise comments or thoughts to break through deep and complex differences, or our impressions of them.

Yesterday, I published the composition about actors, Men in Film: As Time Goes By. Seeing the passage of celebrity faces over time in that video initially led me to focus upon thoughts of mortality: that nothing lasts forever. However, from a different perspective, one which emphasizes the here-and-now, performers on the silver screen embody, epitomize the more benign wish described above, the need for attention, to be noticed, to be recognized by others. And the prospect of mutual recognition with others evokes a capacity for loving relationships.

Women in Film: A Wish for Recognition

Rita Coolidge and Kris Kristofferson: Help Me Make It Through the Night

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April 5th: “You Believe in Dreams in a Dream-Forsaken Land”

You Believe in Dreams in a Dream-Forsaken Land

Roseanne Cash in The New York Times

The Ear of the Beholder

“I have spent a lifetime in the service of creative fiction, as well as non-fiction ornamented by fiction….The “truth” (or “honesty”) and the “facts” are not necessarily the same, they are not necessarily equal and one often requires the suspension of the other. This may not be the case in higher math or on Wall Street (or, actually, it may work there as well, but I’m clueless about that) but it is an immutable “truth” in art and music that facts are not necessarily the best indicators of the deepest human experience.

The table where you found the suicide note, the cup of coffee that turned cold because you were distracted in a painful reverie staring out the old wavy-glass window at the rain dripping off the eaves, the seashell left in the coat pocket from the last time you were at that favorite spot at the ocean, when it all came clear that you were at the right place with the wrong man, the letters, the photos, the marbles and jewels – all these physical, material, real-world artifacts carry poetic weight and should be used liberally in songwriting. These are the facts that convey truth to me.

The exact words he said, who was right or wrong, whether he relapsed on the 7th or the 10th, why exactly she does what she does, the depth and weight and timbre of the feelings, whether Love Heals Everything – these aren’t facts, these are ever-changing blobs of emotional mercury, and when you are working in rhyme, it can be much more powerful and resonant to write about the shards of the coffee cup than about the feeling that caused him to throw it across the room. You are better off moving the furniture than you are directly analyzing the furniture maker. This is to say nothing of the fact that the lyrical content of songs is by definition wholly entwined with melody, rhythm, tone and possibly a backbeat, and these carry their own authority.

Recently, I wrote a song with Kris Kristofferson and Elvis Costello. It was a wild idea I had while I was lying around recovering from surgery this past winter. They are both friends – I’ve known Kris since my childhood – and Elvis and I had just written a song together by email. …. I asked them separately if they would be interested in recording together, the three of us, and they were both game. We started talking about this in February. We found that the only day in a six-month window when the three of us would be in New York at the same time, without obligations, was April 5th. I booked the studio, not knowing what we would do. As the date got closer, I started to get a little nervous and thought maybe my initial idea of recording old songs of ours together might not have the fresh energy and originality I was looking for. Elvis and John Leventhal, my husband and frequent collaborator and producer, kept mentioning that they hoped we could write something together that day, but that also made me anxious. It seemed too much pressure for one day.

I had a song that was incomplete, but a great idea, that I had started writing when I was halfway through recording Black Cadillac. It never really worked, and last year John picked it up again, streamlined it musically and suggested some lyric changes – actually lyric deletions, as he thought it was too wordy. I pared the first verse down to this:

You want love
But it’s never deep enough
You want life
But it’s never long enough
You want peace
Like it’s something you can buy
You want time
But you’re content to watch it fly

I loved the song, but it was still incomplete and didn’t seem to have a home. John thought this would be a great song to write with the gents, and so I sent the first verse by e-mail to Elvis and to Kris (by way of his wife, Lisa, as Kris doesn’t do e-mail), to see if they would be interested in finishing it with us. Elvis responded immediately, and within a couple days had e-mailed back a second verse, and some ideas for bridges. I loved his verse (“You want imagination but you cannot pretend…“), and we began a dialogue about where it should go. Nothing from Kris, who was touring in Europe.

We waited.

On April 4th, the day before the session, Lisa sent an e-mail saying, “Here are his thoughts so far…” and a verse from Kris that raised the hair on the back of my head and brought instant tears to my eyes. I sent it to Elvis, fingers shaking, and he wrote back within minutes, his excitement and exclamation points jumping off the screen.

It was perfect.

It all came together seamlessly the next day, in a way that I’ve seldom experienced in 30 years of recording. It was like alchemy. It was eight hours of magic (and I never use that word). Elvis tinkered with his verses a bit, we divided up the vocal parts and the three of us stood in a circle with the three musicians – John, Zev Katz and Joe Bonadio – and recorded the song. It still doesn’t have a proper title, or a home, but it is a thing of beauty. (Regarding the title, I suggested “Free Will,” Kris suggested “Faith and Free Will,” and Elvis was concerned that anything with “free will” would remind people of a movie about a whale; so right now we’re calling it “April 5th,” because that’s when we recorded it.) A few people who have heard it have said that even though the lyrics are uplifting, even elegiac, the song makes them cry, and they are not sure why. I had the same experience, and I’m not sure why, either. There are no “facts” in these lyrics, no literal references to our lives, beyond our combined assimilated experience and unstated values.

A few people who have heard it have said that even though the lyrics are uplifting, even elegiac, the song makes them cry, and they are not sure why. I had the same experience, and I’m not sure why, either. There are no “facts” in these lyrics, no literal references to our lives, beyond our combined assimilated experience and unstated values.

We are so deeply limited by language, and so ennobled by it. Songs are the attempt to convey what is under and behind language, and so it is counter-productive, if not counter-intuitive, to clutch at exactitudes of circumstance that retreat further in meaning the more desperate we become to quantify them.”

You Want Life, But It’s Never Long Enough

Twilight’s Ambiguity: Vagueness and Possibility

Rosanne Cash spoke about how some persons have reacted to hearing this song by saying that, “A few people who have heard it have said that even though the lyrics are uplifting, even elegiac, the song makes them cry, and they are not sure why. I had the same experience, and I’m not sure why, either.”

Just what is it about the lyrics of this new song that evokes the uncomfortable feelings relating to ambiguity and uncertainty? From my own perspective, the feeling of uncertainty, of not knowing, reflects the shadowy, twilight realm known as unformulated experience, which is so often characteristic of our greatest longings, as well as our desperate need to have them “heard.” Rosanne Cash’s wonderful contribution intentionally focuses upon some of our deeper emotional experiences: love, life, peace and time (to live). Sadly, those very wishes too often engender unbearable sources of frustration, the wishes seeming to be either unfulfilling or not obtainable.

Elvis Costello’s verse,”You want imagination but you cannot pretend,” poetically reveals the distressing sense of paradox that is inherent to the nature of our deeper emotional wishes, which can in turn serve as a barrier to maintaining a sense of and attaining our objects of benign hope. Kristofferson’s verse, “You believe in dreams in a dream-forsaken land,” is a similar reflection of life’s fundamental, ongoing and painful sense of paradox, with many-layers of potential meanings. In many areas of life, especially those mentioned in Roseanne Cash’s lyrics, the struggle to achieve a genuine sense of independence and maturity similarly means being able and willing to sustain the essential, complex tensions of paradox until one can achieve a new understanding, supported by a view of experience as emergent. All of these, in turn, call upon a wide-ranging capacity to recognize and appreciate multiple perspectives.

And be not afraid of courting surprise.

Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello, Kris Kristofferson: “April 5th”

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