Pete Kronowitt: September 2020 Artist of the Month

Pete Kronowitt

Do Something Now

Mean Bean Records



[Please note: This album has just been released, so check YouTube to see if new songs have been added.]


If you’ve been wondering where all the great protest singers are now that Pete Seeger and Utah Phillips have joined Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs in the Great Beyond, the answer is that they’re out there; you’re just no looking in the right places. Take New Jersey-born, Florida-raised, and San Francisco based Pete Kronowitt, for example. His 5th album Do Something Now tells you where he’s coming from. It is a dozen tracks that pull few punches.


I used to chat with Utah Phillips (1935-2008) on a regular basis, and he’d occasionally rail against “pretty” protest songs. He was fond of saying, “There’s a world of difference between ‘How many seas must a white dove sail’ and ‘Dump the bosses off your back.’” That was his way of saying that the best call-to-action songs are short on poetry and long on getting to the heart of things. Kronowitt is in that wheelhouse. The title track appears twice–as a stripped-down acoustic version and as one with a band–and I recommend the sparer of the two. It’s a relatable singalong tune that doesn’t beg, rather tells us in no uncertain language, “Don’t just bitch and moan/Time to get on the phone.” If that’s too subtle, the last line is, “Time to get your ass in gear.”


This might suggest that Kronowitt is an angry man. He is to some extent. “Are We Great Yet” is a folk-rock takedown of the current Commander in Thief, and Kronowitt isn’t afraid to ask, “Lock a kid up in a cage, is this what we’ve become?” Nor does he put on kid gloves when he inhabits Trump’s dark soul and sings, “Build a wall/When they yell/Kill them all.” For the most part, though, Kronowitt wants us first to think and then to act, rather than hitting the streets in a lather without a plan. There are two environmentally themed songs, “Ladybugs,” with its wistful Western feel; and “Roly Poly,” another folk-rocker that asks us to imagine  a world without animals small and large: from bees and caterpillars to polar bears.


When he does implore, it’s usually to center us toward things that should matter more than they often do. “Stay Safe,” for example is Kronowitt’s take on COVID. Like a good folk song, it opts for simple lyrics to remind us we can find solace and renewal in loved ones. A sample lyric for dealing with a heartless world runs, “When the world is a little bit colder/You can be a blanket for me.” Music can also be a balm, a theme he explores in “Big Ole Stick of Wood.” As the title infers, this one is offered up country style, complete with some standup bass from John David Coppola and pedal steel from Tim Marcus. Just to mix things a bit more, there’s a Tejano feel to “You Never Ever Never Know.”


Kronowitt and Coppolla often perform together, with percussionist Darian Gray riding shotgun. Justin Kohlberg adds electric guitar and additional acoustic work on the album. Most listeners, though, will be instantly drawn to the gorgeous harmony vocals of Veronica Maund. I emphasize once again, though, that social change music is most effective when the message, not production, is at the fore. Were I in a mood to be critical, I’d note that Kronowitt’s voice is occasionally obscured when there’s too much instrumentation. I’m inclined, though, to give him a free ride. He is a founder of the Face the Music Collective, a coalition of likeminded activist artists that includes folks who have been reviewed on this blog: Olivia Frances, the incomparable Eliza Gilkyson, and The Nields, the pride of Northampton, Massachusetts. Plus, Pete Kronowitt gives us just what we need as November 4 approaches: a swift kick in the pants.


Rob Weir




Trump Shouldn't Win, but Biden Can Lose



Five weeks to go and I have the sinking feeling that Trump will be reelected. If that happens, Armageddon is upon us. Black Lives won’t matter, nor will corruption, democracy, human rights, feminism, working people, Social Security, the Post Office, health care, the environment, or basic decency. It would take so long to undo two terms of Trump that people my age will spend the rest of their lives under robber barons.


I want to be wrong. If not, the Democratic Party can kiss my keister. It has broken my spirit too many times. In 1988, Democrats proclaimed if they couldn’t beat George H. W. Bush they were in the wrong country! In 2000, Al Gore lost to H.W.’s son, a guy with the IQ of broccoli, though Kerry managed to make him look bright in 2004. Hillary Clinton tanked four years ago and lost to a man who is arguably the worst person on Planet Earth.


Biden is sinking in swing states and has about as much mojo as he has youth. He still has a path to victory, but he needs to rev into a higher gear. He cannot simply hope that undecideds will yawn and vote for him. He also needs to pay attention to the following:


1. Don’t let Trump define you. “Sleepy Joe” has given way to “Masked Man Joe” and “Appeaser Joe.” If Trump is allowed to wrap himself in law and order, God, and the flag, Biden is toast. Did Biden not get the memo that the best defense is a good offense? He could start by denouncing rioters and blaming their presence on Trump. When Trump calls Biden a socialist, call Trump a Putin “communist.” Not many people know what socialism actually is, but they think communism is bad! Mostly, though, he needs to act, not react.


2. Ignore handlers who says Americans don’t like mudslinging. Actually, they do. Remind everyone that Trump attacked your son, so you want to know about his family’s alleged misdoings, including Melania’s emails. Quiz Trump on the Bible; let everyone see his Bible is just a prop. Biden should compile a list of people and groups Trump has wronged and repeat it like a broken record. Emphasize the Republicans on said list. Ponder why Trump can’t get along with anyone and muse that maybe people don’t like to bullied or lied to.


3. Perceived strength wins more votes than being likable. The American presidency has seldom bred warm, fuzzy candidates. (Maybe Harding and Reagan, but their presidencies were ruinous.) Toughen up. Some of the best presidents have been mean SOBs: Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Truman, JFK, LBJ…. Some real bastards have won over “nicer” opponents: McKinley over Bryan, Nixon over Humphrey, Nixon over McGovern, Trump over Hillary….


4. Use this mantra: Release your taxes! Hammer Trump like a rusty nail with “Release your taxes!” When Trump says they’re too complicated, counter that he must think the American people are stupid. Insist that only candidates with something to hide won’t release their taxes. Suggest that Trump’s either done something crooked, or that he’s broke. Repeat, “Release your taxes!” Look the other way at anti-Trump rallies where the chant “Lock him up!” resounds.


5. Scare the hell out of the electorate. Tell voters Trump will steal their retirement funds, drill for oil in their parks, make their daughters unsafe, disrespect the military, and kill their grandparents. Mention COVID early and often. In every swing state, choose a city of 200,000 and say that Trump’s inaction means that the equivalent of the population of Des Moines, Grand Rapids, Madison, Scottsdale, or half of Minneapolis has died from COVID. When Trump brags of his efforts, point out that he ignored COVID until 30,000 had died, and his absence yielded 170,000 more lives. Mention  that without a change in tactics, the death toll will surpass 400,000 by year’s end.


6. Stay on message. Screw nuance and blue papers. Simplify and save the wonky stuff for roundtables, Cabinet meetings, and academic debates. You can hate or admire him, but the genius of Bernie Sanders is distillation and repetition. FDR did that as well, as did LBJ and Bill Clinton.


7. Wise up: Wall Street doesn’t give a rat’s ass about average Americans. Sucking up to big donors is a losing game. The tech industry is dominated by libertarians and Wall Street is in GOP pockets. Recent successful Democratic candidates have had the guts to say that there is little correlation between how the Stock Market is doing and how things are for wage earners.


8. What about Latinos and evangelicals? If Biden loses, pundits will ask why Democrats spent so much time courting 13% of the electorate, much it located in states Democrats had no chance of winning, but so little with the Latino 17% heavily concentrated in swing states. Nor can Biden ignore or diss the white evangelical vote. He can’t/won’t win it, but he must make a decent dent. It unsettles freethinkers, but 41% of Americans identify as evangelical.


My fear is that all Biden will do is vogue being “presidential” and “moderate.” That might not be enough, may God rest our souls.


Rob Weir



Magic Lessons: Maria Owens Unveiled

Magic Lessons (October 2020
By Alice Hoffman
Simon and Schuster, 416 pages

When it comes to the fine art of storytelling, few American authors can hold a black candle to Alice Hoffman. That’s the paraffin color we need to consider in Magic Lessons. In 1995, Hoffman published Practical Magic, which introduced us Gillian and Sally Owens, and their aunts Frances and Bridget. Each was gifted with conjuring power that traced back to Maria Owens, a 17th century ancestor tried for witchcraft.  In 2019, Hoffman penned The Rules of Magic, a prequel set in the 1950s that gave us the backstory of aunts “Franny” and “Jet.” 

This time Hoffman dishes out the ΓΌber sequel, that of Maria Owens herself. We learn that she was abandoned by her mother, Rebecca, who took up with actor/conman Thomas Lockland. Maria isn’t a bloodline Owens; that’s the surname of Hannah, the woman who raises her and teaches her about herbs and spells–mostly from the white arts with admonitions of the dangers of dabbling in the black. Maria grows up with a crow named Cadin as a familiar, discovers that she floats, watches local women come to Hannah for cures, and eventually comes to grips with the knowledge that her powers exceed Hannah’s.

Tragedy will send her to Curacao, where she works through an indentured servant contract and becomes an herbalist. Alas, she has the same curse that will later befall other Owens women: her teen years involve falling in love with the wrong man. In her case, the 15-year-old Maria is impregnated by 37-year-old John Hathorne, a youthful-looking Massachusetts merchant visiting the island. (You might recognize the name!). She gives birth to Faith, whose red hair and grey eyes mark her an oddity, as does a half moon-shaped birthmark on her left hand.

Love draws Owens women to impulsive behavior and it doesn’t get much more impulsive than deciding to go to Massachusetts to search for Hathorne, over whom Maria is a besotted mooncalf. She locates him in Salem in 1680. Uh-oh! I won’t say too much more about this, other than to note that intrigue and tragedy are deflected by a Portuguese Jewish sailor/ex-pirate Samuel Dias—several times.

There are subplots in which Faith is separated from her mother, dabbles in black arts Maria counseled against, and seeks revenge against her Puritan bigot of a father. Hoffman excels at organization and manages to weave into the novel tales of Samuel’s father, a mysterious woman named Catharine Durant, a progressive doctor, new familiars, a second daughter, and several near-death experiences. You will also gain insight into grimoires (spell books), how Wall Street got its name, how the rules of magic acquired its third commandment, and—for fans of early 1960s pop songs—the actual ingredients of Love Potion # 9. Along the way, you’ll get a personalized take on Puritan intolerance, and perhaps come away thinking it might have been better had New York remained a Dutch colony. For purposes of the Hoffman witchyverse (my term), we see the power of Owens women increase with each new generation, , though not necessarily knowledge or wisdom. Hoffman ends her book as the 17th century is about to give way to a new one. Two sisters endure, Faith and Hannah, so there’s plenty of room for future Owens’ adventures. (Will there be an interquel, a sequel to a prequel?) 

Alice Hoffman continues to delight with books that are to be gobbled, not nibbled. Among the spells she casts is that she reverses the photocopy curse. That is, each of her Owens family books thus far has been stronger than its templates. Each novel focuses on magic and the healing arts, but is immersive in the sense that external details unveil the customs and social milieu in which they are set. Rosemary, lavender, and Indian ginseng are said to increase creativity. Alice Hoffman must have a garden filled with them.

Rob Weir