March-April 2016

Why I Write

By Ross Altman, PhD

ross-pencil-smI was recently invited to go somewhere on the condition that I promise not to write about it—specifically for FolkWorks. I replied “I’m a writer; I can’t promise not to write.” She hung up on me and that was the end of it. Or so I thought. I decided to go to the place where I had initially been invited and try to discover for myself why I had been asked not to write about it.

Farmers in America are often paid not to grow wheat; or corn, or soy beans. Car makers have occasionally been paid not to make cars. These are business decisions and government arrangements, to not flood the market with products that cannot be sold. Since no one pays me to write it seemed odd that I would be compelled not to do it.

It also—rather breathtakingly I thought—flew in the face of the 1st Amendment, which guarantees us the freedom to speak and also freedom of the press—both of which are involved in the compulsion “not to write for FolkWorks.” I am quite sure that were this to come before the Supreme Court—even this most conservative Supreme Court in fifty years—they would decide in my favor and say that no one had the right to compel me not to write. If they would decide in favor of Citizens United—guaranteeing billionaires the right to buy any election they could afford—on the grounds that “money is speech”—surely they would recognize the right of a poor scrivener to set pen to paper when no money or anyone’s freedom was at stake.

The even more odd aspect of the case was that—before I had been told I had to promise not to do it—it never even occurred to me to do it in the first place. Indeed, I was looking forward to attending the event with this person (a beautiful woman) precisely because there was no expectation that I review it or write about it in any way. It would be a freebie; no stress, no muss, no fuss—just an enjoyable morning with someone whose company I treasured.

So what was the event I had been invited to attend? I was afraid you’d ask. You see, even though I would not and could not promise not to write about it, I feel like I would be betraying a trust to reveal it. I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger, wandering through this world of woe, and there’s no toil, no trouble or danger in that fair land to which I go, but I try to avoid hurting people’s feelings along the way—if you know what I mean.

Is there a way I can reveal this information without saying it in so many words? Perhaps there is. You see, it ain’t necessarily so, I say it ain’t necessarily so, the things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, it ain’t necessarily so. That was written by a Jew—Ira Gershwin to be precise—about some of the things in the old Hebrew Bible—things like Jonah, and David, and Methuselah. They were all from his Bible, so to speak, so I guess Ira had a right to write about them. You will notice equally I’m sure that he zealously avoided any comment about personages and stories from the New Testament—the Christian Bible. That would be telling tales out of school.

And then…and then…and then…just when I was about to give up and quit this poor excuse for a column, I got a follow-up email from the friend, or former friend, who had first invited me. It read, in its entirety: “You are a journalist in your own mind. In reality, you are a propagandist. You have never in your entire life written a neutral article without revealing your own biases.”

To which I reply, guilty as charged, and proud of it. As people’s historian Howard Zinn once wrote, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

More to the point, the late SDS president Carl Oglesby said at the November 27, 1965, March on Washington against the War in Vietnam, in describing the “neutralists” (including our own CIA) who had overthrown Guatemalan President Arbenz in 1954 and Brazil’s president Goulart in 1964, and the invasion of The Dominican Republic by 20,000 of our “neutral” marines and “neutral” peacemakers who supported the military junta: “Neutralists!” Oglesby concluded, “God save the hungry people of the world from such ‘neutralists’.”

So I would never claim to be a neutralist, or for that matter a journalist. I am—in support of those who fought so gallantly in the underground against the Nazis in WWII—a partisan. Or less dramatically, as Bob Dylan described an artist: “someone with a point of view.” And the fact that I “reveal [my] biases in everything I write” is all to the good. The well known “newscast” that purports to be “fair and balanced” is the real problem; for they do not “reveal their biases” in anything they “report.” Listeners have to figure that out for themselves. Someone who “reveals their biases” in everything they write gives their reader the necessary tools to discount what they are reading if they choose to.

In other words, a writer’s cards should be on the table. If his or her biases are apparent, or transparent, that is to be commended, not condemned.

No one is a neutral observer. Consider the following situation: Your friend is sick and cannot cook for herself or go shopping. You want to help her. So as a neutral journalist might, you say to yourself, “On the one hand, I am going to go shopping for her, and cook some meals, or buy them, and bring them over to her place, until she recovers.” Then your “neutrality” kicks in and you think better of it: “That would be a biased thing to do; so on the other hand I’ll just let her fend for herself and let the chips fall where they may.” The upshot of this deliberation is that in being “neutral” you give both alternatives equal weight and wind up doing nothing. You become Hamlet, the famed neutralist prince of Shakespeare’s greatest play—whose initial resolution to avenge his father’s murder is “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”

But in doing nothing you are in fact doing something: you are (potentially, at least) letting her go hungry. What looks like a “neutral” act is in fact anything but: you are acting in a negative way towards someone you had wanted to help. Your “neutralism” has in its result injured the person you wanted to help. Doing nothing is not a neutral act.

In reality, however, since I am not a neutralist, or a journalist, I simply went out and got the things she needed, and delivered them to her door. Propagandist that I am, my biases in full display, I helped the lady I wanted to help, without trying to “balance” the alternatives. There was nothing “fair and balanced” about it. It was unfair, imbalanced, and—in her own words—started her on the road to recovery.

St. Brigid ChurchChalk one up for our side. So as I was saying, I decided to go to the place I was disinvited from attending, and find out for myself why I was not supposed to write about it. Short story long, that’s how I wound up at St. Brigid’s Catholic Church in South Central Los Angeles yesterday morning for their 10:30am Gospel service. When I got home I found another email from my erstwhile friend suggesting that were I to write about it I would “probably find some reason to criticize it.”

Here is my reply, tongue firmly in cheek. “I had a wonderful time. Of course there were a number of things to criticize, as you assumed there would be. Let me see, first the choir was great and inspiring; so was the accompanying band of piano, two drum sets, bass guitar and tambourine. Their leader Shirley Massey on both piano and electric organ was terrific—certainly worth criticizing. Their soloist Denise Barnes was also fabulous and brought the house to tears as well as brought it down. Of course I would criticize her too. She was floored that I would ask her name. I let her know I might write something about this for a folk music magazine.

Then there were the smaller things to criticize—like the fact they gave me a delicious bag of homemade Christmas cookies as a newcomer, and asked me to introduce myself to the congregation after which they all applauded me. Many congregants came up to me and even hugged me and asked me to come back—also worth criticizing. The pastor hugged me when he gave me a wafer in the end-of-service ritual of eating Christ's body; he also gave me a big smile—well worth criticizing. I drew the line, however, at drinking the wine symbolizing Christ's blood; I can't break my sobriety even for Jesus. I'm sure He will understand.

I went to my AA meeting later—where practically every night I wind up saying The Lord's Prayer—the one Jesus came up with in the Sermon On the Mount. The choir did it today to end the service, but they sang it instead of spoke it, and it was magnificent.

The whole experience was positive and well worth criticizing—which of course I would be expected to do.

As the author of A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn, wrote, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Nor should you pretend to be.

So let me put my cards on the table:

Like H.L. Mencken, I write to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.

Like Woody Guthrie, wrote on his guitar, “This machine kills fascists.”

St. Brigid Church in South Central Los Angeles holds their Sunday morning Gospel service at 10:30am; 5214 S. Western Avenue, Los Angeles, CA ; all are welcome.

Saturday March 5 from 5:00pm to 7:00pm Ross Altman will perform a program of Woody Guthrie Dust Bowl Ballads and popular songs from the 1940s at the opening of a book exhibit about photographer Dorothea Lange and her classic Dust Bowl portrait Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California 1936, at the Old Town Newhall Library, 24500 Main St. Santa Clarita, CA 91321 661-259-0750 .

Saturday March 12 at Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon Ross Altman performs in their third tribute to the late Pete Seeger—RePete 2016! See their website for details.

Ross Altman performs in the Voice in the Well Production Chimes of Freedom Flashing with spoken word artists Sunday March 20, 2016, 5:00pm to 7:00pm; $10 at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, 681 Venice Blvd, Venice, CA 310-822-3006

Sunday May 15 at 4:30pm on the Railroad Stage at the Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest Ross Altman performs his new show When a Soldier Makes It Home: Songs for Veterans and Their Families; for information about their 56th annual folk festival.

Los Angeles folk singer and Local 47 member Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature; Ross may be reached at


All Columns by Ross Altman