Harmonicas for Peace revived?

The facade of the former WASHINGTON SQUARE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH. Beyond its other history, it was the home of Harmonicas for Peace.

I’ve been forgetting things lately. It isn’t quite this bad, but it’s pretty close. If you’re like me and spending increasing amounts of your day looking for your house keys, It’s hard to recall more important (or less mundane things) that you’ve done with your life, even when they seemed important at the time. And the moments when you’re suffering through unemployment or financial problems and calling yourself out for them need to be matched every once in awhile with reminding yourself of things you’ve done right. Dangit, I went to Europe as an artist and protester (on someone else’s dime) and toured a play that I still love. I’ve had my work produced at theaters here in New York that I’d read about in college. People (who are not related to me) seem to think I have some clue of what I’m doing artistically. I have a framed note from a kid who saw one of my plays who was too embarrassed to talk. But she told me in the note that she was going to start protesting nukes. These are things one has to tell oneself at this point in life. If activism is the dues that one pays to live in civil society, I hope that I’ve done a bit toward that debt.

Anyway, I’ve recently taken up working with kids and I’ve been trying to find things to do that interest them. One of the things I’m introducing them to is playing harmonicas. They are absolutely taken with the idea of playing harmonicas, and  by learning the instrument, they are learning a great deal more. The harmonica has a great history as a folk instrument, and it’s entwined in American music history. And I have an affinity for harmonicas–I started playing one after 9/11, partly as a way to keep my paranoia about city spaces at bay.  I happened to be part of Washington Square Methodist Church, an old peace church (founded in 1860) with a storied history of doing the right thing when it counted. Long story short, in 2002/2003, some of friends decided we should engage in protest against the looming war in Iraq. And thus was born Harmonicas for Peace. Here’s an email I sent around a few weeks before the February 15, 2003 protest march held worldwide:

Harmonicas for Peace will gather at WSUMC before the march and learn some
simple songs. I’ve put together some sheet music for harmonica. If you’re
interested in being part of our music contingent, you can bring a C Chord
harmonica and play with us.  A Hohner ‘pocket pal’ C chord Harmonica goes
for about $6. I’m also uploading a music list to my website, where you can
download it. And we’ll have a few extra harmonicas around.

If you want to play something else, that’s okay, too. Saxophonists,
guitarists, gongmen, tamborinists, drummers, etc. are welcome. and if you
want to sing, we’ll have lyric sheets.  And if you don’t want to sing or
play but want to be with us, you’re welcome to join us. We welcome everyone
at Harmonicas For Peace.

So about ten or fifteen of us showed up at church a few hours before the march that morning in February 2003 and worked through Harmonica blows and draws for old faves like ‘Saints go Marching In‘ and ‘Michael Row the boat ashore‘. I had actually figured out how to write out harmonica tablature (try and sell THAT  job skill on Craigslist), and we handed out lyric sheets as we marched. We did a couple more events, but nothing caught fire. The war went on, and a couple trillion dollars later, it has finally dawned on the unwashed masses that this was an impossibly big beehive we’ve kicked. 

(a side note: in preparing to write about this, I looked up the email invites I sent out to various groups to join us. I was really publicly vilified by pro-war people. I have the desire to emulate the parliamentarian George Galloway, and write some of these folks back to remind them that We were right and you were wrong. But I keep forgetting. See above).

The gas went out of Harmonicas for Peace, around 2005 or so, primarily because the gas went out of WSUMC. The congregation couldn’t save the old building (it has been turned into multi-million dollar condos) and was merged with another congregation. And nine years have passed since the closure. In thinking about the recent protests swirling around the NYPD’s nonchalance about taking the lives of young men of color, I’ve been trying to think of a way to respond by protest in a clever and creative way. And one night recently, it came to me–it’s time to revive Harmonicas For Peace. Maybe it gets under a different sort of name, or maybe it changes to a different name for every activity. So it becomes Harmonicas for Justice when protesting the Eric Garner and Michael Brown decisions. You get the idea. 

Why harmonicas for peace?

  • They attract attention. The name and activity attract people. It’s an easy instrument to learn and play, and if people don’t want to play a harmonica, they can read from sheet music that is handed out. The sheet music is a convenient way of handing out your literature. 
  • They’re easy to run with. My dear comrades in Guitarmy and People’s Puppets of OWS are finding that increasingly, their big puppet costumes and musical instruments aren’t a defense against being brutalized by police. Somebody wearing one of the big body puppets got pepper-sprayed recently. If things turn dicey at a demonstration, escape is plan A through Z and the last thing you need is to be lugging a big old trombone or giant liberty puppet.  A harmonica fits nicely into your pocket as you beat a hasty retreat.
  • And finally, the big secret:
  • They’re really annoying to listen to when large groups of people are playing. An acquaintance who was a veteran of anti-Vietnam war protests told me of a college group he started called ‘Whiners for Peace’. Basically, the war (and the protests) had been going on for several years. By 1971, everyone on campus was immune to groups of protesters chanting the standard “”One, two, three, four! We don’t want your ******* war!”. And the shock value of the F word (not then in common usage) had lost its lustre. So Whiners for Peace was born. They’d march as a group under a banner, and at a pre-arranged signal, the participants would all start loudly complaining in their most nasal and annoying voice. “C’mon, we want Peace!” “Why can’t we be peaceful?” “I think this war is making me gassy!” This wasn’t organized, it was asynchronous and loud. It was an instant headache to any law enforcement official in earshot. And once they started, others in the protest would join in. 

I don’t think I started ‘Harmonicas for Peace’ with the above story in mind. And we never got to a critical mass where mass annoyance was possible. But I keep seeing die-ins and marches on TV, and the police are not playing nice. So far, the Empire hasn’t choked on its mass arrests. Other tactics may be required.  I keep thinking of the ‘Clowns for Peace’ anti- Nazi rallies (a must -read link here). And I think people need to be clear about such tactics. By taking a humorous approach, one is in no way minimizing the seriousness of purpose. But there can only be so many candle-light vigils. And maybe it’s time to reach out with a harmonica. IJS.

Sorry for the rambling nature of this essay. I kept trying to remember the point I was trying to make and getting sidetracked…















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