Bright Morning Star: Talkin’ Topical Wit & Artist Activism

My children’s violin instructor, Ken Giles, I was delighted to discover, had once been part of a contemporary folk ensemble that, as Stephen Holden of the New York Times noted, embraced “the left-wing populism of Pete Seeger,” as it also incorporated “comedy and theatrical horseplay” into its performances.   Formed in 1978 and named for an old Appalachian hymn, Bright Morning Star (“a lively and engaging fixture in the peace and antinuclear movement,” according to The Washington Post‘s Richard Harrington) once toured with Odetta and Pete Seeger, having also previously shared the stage with Holly Near, Ronnie GilbertJohn Hall, and Gil Scott-Heron.

Photos courtesy of Ken Giles

Often appearing at rallies and public events that promoted peace and safe energy, Bright Morning Star — Court Dorsey, Cheryl Fox, Charlie King, George FulginitiShakarMarcia Taylor, Laura Kolb, and Giles — would travel with over two dozen instruments, including harmonica, guitar, autoharp, stand-up bass, electric bass, piano, drums, 5-string viola/violin, banjo, recorder, and various percussion.  Kolb served a special role within the group as artistic interpreter for the deaf and hearing-impaired during live performance.

[Back Row:  Taylor; Giles; Kolb — Front row:  Dorsey; Fox; King; Fulginiti-Shakar]

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In the musical tradition of The Weavers and The Freedom Singers, the ensemble’s satirical sensibilities and “cabaret folk” approach hewed closer to Tom Lehrer, perhaps (Washington Post‘s Geoffrey Himes) or the San Franciso Mime Troupe (Boston Globe‘s Jeff McLaughlin).  Nevertheless, Pete Seeger himself gave the group his seal of approval, having once asserted, “I’m so proud — this whole wonderful group Bright Morning Star – they’re doing just exactly what Woody Guthrie and I tried to do 40 years ago.”

Founding member Charlie King would tell The Boston Globe in 1988:

“What I think Pete meant is Woody and I got on the union bandwagon and the Henry Wallace bandwagon; we went out into the communities and brought people together; we gave energizing concerts and we sang about the issues.  And we presented good music.  Bright Morning Star is doing that 40 years later with different issues, certainly a different crowd, different generation, different songs.  But there’s that continuity.”

Noting how the group leans toward celebration and humor rather than dark political commentary, King also shares this bit of wisdom gleaned from front-line experience:

“I think the political song at its worst says that things are really bad, probably hopeless, but at least you can feel self-righteous and get a cynical laugh during the last days of the empire.  There are a lot of songs written in that vein, I’m sure I’ve written a few.  But at its best, the political song builds a sense of possibility and humor.

I think political music records our history from the bottom up, from the grass roots, the stories of every day people; not just individuals, but also of popular struggles.  Within that historical context, it seems to energize and reinforce people and movements.  It  pokes fun at the powerful, reminds us that the emperor is naked.  I’ve always liked the quote – I’m not sure of the source, but I got it from Dorothy Day – that it comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”

Bright Morning Star would sit still for a 40-minute interview with Studs Terkel that was broadcast on July 11, 1986.

Group photo from Sweet and Sour CD

The group’s three long-playing releases include two for Rainbow Snake Records — Arisin’ in 1981 (which includes women trucker anthem “Truck Drivin’ Woman”) and Live in the US in 1984 — plus one for noted Chicago blues & country indie label, Flying Fish, 1988’s Sweet and SourRob Okun would pen a mission statement for the group’s debut album:

“They pollinate the grass roots.  They bang away at the walls of indifference.  They celebrate humanity.

The six members of Bright Morning Star do a better job educating people to what’s right and what’s wrong on this crazy planet than a half dozen politicians, teachers, or preachers.

They take their music to big city auditoriums and down-home coffee houses, to college towns and union halls, to demonstrations and celebrations.  They put melodies to our brightest visions and lyrics to our darkest mornings.  On stage, and on this record, they lead odysseys into the worlds of personal and social change.  And they do it all with lightness, laughter, and love.”

Image of ‘Man with tricycle’ by Karl Valentin – University of Cologne

Steve Snyder’s “They Ought to Put It On the Radio” from Sweet and Sour prods the nation’s news media to rely less on sensationalism and, instead, report on a broader (and healthier) array of human activity, so as to foster a more compassionate world in which all human life is valued:

[Psst: Click on triangle for “They Ought To Put It On the Radio” by Bright Morning Star]

‘Sweet and Sour’ earned a four-star review in The Valley Advocate

A retired music teacher with DC Public Schools and a violin teacher with the DC Youth Orchestra Program, whose 35 years of working for health and safety programs was inspired by the social activism spirit of the 1960s, Ken Giles also enjoys singing with the DC Labor Chorus.

From Pete Seeger to Ken Giles

Postscript:  Bright Morning Star would band together once more in 2008 for a 20th Reunion Tour, with a show at Rockville, Maryland’s Saint Mark Presbyterian Church hosted by David Eisner’s Institute of Musical Traditions in nearby Takoma Park.

One thought on “Bright Morning Star: Talkin’ Topical Wit & Artist Activism

  1. Trying to pass on to younger folks these songs of peace, civil rights, and environmental respect. My violin students play civil rights songs such as “We Shall Overcome” and learn about the history and importance of these songs. Chris Richardson’s 2 children can play those civil rights songs on their violins.

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