Roy Zimmerman: ReZist!

At the Steve Allen Theatre - Sunday, January 22, 2017

This Could Be the Start of Something Big

By Ross Altman, PhD

Roy ZimmermanSinging satirist Roy Zimmerman has been writing “funny songs about ignorance, war and greed” since I first met him twenty-five years ago, when he led The Foremen, who were the modern inheritors of the legacy of the Chad Mitchell Trio and Tom Lehrer. He has since become a nationwide solo recording and performing artist who has toured in all fifty states. Recently he has gone where no leftwing folksinger dared to go before him—creating what he called “the blue dot tour,” finding small pockets of liberal Democratic Blue in the reddest of Red States—even if it meant one Unitarian Church in Cheyenne, Wyoming—or “Universalist” Church (to which he referred by saying “I’ve now learned the difference.”)

He has pursued his calling in good times and bad, through both Republican and Democratic administrations, and now he has survived a stroke from last September, and come out ready to do battle again, for the enlightenment values he has documented on a dozen albums of original songs. This afternoon brings him to the ideal place to present his music—the Steve Allen Theatre. If you are not “of a certain age,” that may require a brief introduction, which yours truly—who has just turned 70—will be happy to provide.

Pioneering late night talk show host, comedian and prolific songwriter Steve Allen created a series of brilliant theatre dialogues called A Meeting of the Minds, premised on the idea that great minds from different centuries and different fields of thought might have somehow been brought together for an encounter that would present their unique perspectives in relation to one another. He would usually bring three such artists, scientists or literary figures together at a time for what Shaw once described as a “play of ideas.” There has been nothing like it before or since on television—a one-man university in which we were all invited to participate.

Besides satirical performer Roy Zimmerman, I can’t think of another singer-songwriter qualified to join such a discussion, and able to raise the conversation to the highest level of insight and understanding. In a perfect melding of artist and venue, Roy brought his brilliant songs and commentary to the Steve Allen Theatre in Hollywood last Sunday, in a post-election brouhaha at the Center for Inquiry which houses the theatre. It was like watching an episode of Allen’s legendary show, in which Zimmerman played all the parts.

To fully appreciate Zimmerman’s songs it helps to glimpse the spirit which animates the stage of this unique—and to my mind the most important theatre we have in Los Angeles. All one has to do is let one’s eyes roam about the high walls out in the foyer, where one encounters a veritable history of human thought within a kind of Sistine Chapel ceiling with the names and dates of those who have enlarged the mind of mankind through the ages. It starts with Socrates (470-399) then ranges through Hypatia (370-424, Giordano Bruno (1545-1600), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), David Hume ( 1711-1776), Charles Darwin (1809-1882), Tom Paine (1737-1809), Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), Marie Curie ( (1867-1934), and ends with the great British logician and pacifist Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). Just looking at their names in this setting inspires one to think higher and aspire to more than one ever encounters on the TV which has the most influence on our day-to-day world of thought and opinion. Allen had many of them in his imaginary show of Platonic dialogues through the years.

In stark contrast to this world of historic luminaries we have the just inaugurated President of the United States, who Zimmerman describes as “crass,” “racist” and (unprintable), as the foil for his satire—entitled “T-rump” (available on the last bastion of free speech in this country—YouTube). But Zimmerman evokes one from Mt Olympus—American revolutionary Tom Paine—in his great song about the right to vote—My Vote—with the inspiring chorus, “My vote, my voice, my right”—and when he sings it you hear the anguished cry of all those who were denied their right to vote by such state legislatures as Texas—whose “voting rights” laws and voter ID cards were described in painstaking detail by one federal justice as having one purpose and one purpose only: to deny black people and Latinos the right to vote. Roy celebrates the right.

Biologist Charles Darwin (born on Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1809) is celebrated in Roy’s song “Creation Science 101,” which satirizes The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky that gets state funding to perpetuate the myth of “creation science” as if it were actual science. Kentucky of course is right next door to Tennessee, which prosecuted high school biology teacher John Scopes in the 1927 “Scopes Monkey Trial” for teaching evolution—dramatized in the play and movie Inherit the Wind. Clarence Darrow could have used Zimmerman’s song (which goes all the way back to Genesis) in his summation and had the whole case laughed out of court.

Roy takes pride in sharing the credit for some of the songs which he co-wrote with his wife Melanie—often while driving halfway across the country to their next gig. One such song he introduces as their “North Carolina bathroom song,” and then quickly changes pace to point out that “Of course Mike Pence doesn’t call it that—to him it’s a song about religious freedom.” That leads him into a discussion of Vice-President Mike Pence, former governor of Indiana who became notorious for promoting and signing the so-called “Freedom of Religion” act, which sure enough gave business owners the right to discriminate against gays, lesbians and transgender people in the name of the “freedom” to practice a “religion” that held them to be biblical sinners—without even raising the question of the fundamental tenet of Christianity—that we are all “born sinners.” Roy’s song is therefore called, I’m Free To Practice My Religion and You’re Free to Practice Mine. This brilliantly funny take on America’s most sacred cows takes us all the way back to the Salem witch trials, and guarantees our “Freedom to burn our own witches.” Roy’s ability to follow the internal logic he satirizes back to its absurdist roots is uncanny; he makes you realize the implications of every form of prejudice and inhumanity by drawing out a seemingly innocuous belief until it reaches its inevitable and horrific conclusion. The Indiana Supreme Court responded to Pence’s deceptive overreaching with a blunt three word headline in the next day’s paper: “Fix This Now!”

Aside from his surreally clever lyrics Roy is a composer of the first order, whose richly complex melodies and subtle guitar arrangements are more in tune with Cole Porter or Frederick Loewe than any traditional folk singer. He ranges adeptly over the entire fret board and it is not surprising that before he began to tour full time he was one of McCabe’s most sought after guitar (and banjo) teachers. He pays tribute to his own folk heroes throughout his work, even as he carves his own niche, as is evident by the winsome way he elaborated on Woody Guthrie’s famed guitar inscription “This Machine Kills Fascists,” and Pete Seeger’s banjo inscription: “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender.” The words on Roy’s banjo are less altruistic and more biting:

This machine sends fear and ignorance to their doom

This Machine drives neocon, jingoistic, war-mongering, xenophobic crypto-fascists from the room!

His sense of humor—like all great humorists—is also willing to make fun of himself, as he introduces the show by saying, “Welcome to the Democratic Victory Tour,” before his eyebrows suddenly rise in pointed irony and the mutual recognition with his audience that this is anything but a victory tour. His recognition of the real state of political affairs at this point is essential to provide the context for his humor; but it also gives him the opportunity to highlight the million women national protest march yesterday that vastly outnumbered the turnout for the inauguration and start an on-going conversation with the enthusiastic audience by asking how many were at the march. Hands went up all over the packed theatre—to Roy’s smiling approval.

In Washington, DC—the epicenter of the march—keynote speaker Angela Davis summed up the immense crowd’s determination in the following words: “The next fourteen hundred and fifty-nine days of the Trump administration will be fourteen hundred and fifty-nine days of resistance.” Roy’s concert anticipated her peroration and could be counted Day One, since it was entitled. “ReZist!” His final song therefore departed from his usual satirical stance, and instead gave voice to the ordinary people whose hopes and fears were represented in the streets throughout the country—and abroad, as indicated by the email I received yesterday from my English friend Helen:

“Marched today Ross

From American Embassy in Grosvenor Square to Trafalgar Square, passed The Ritz and gruesome Tower of London, in bright beautiful January sunshine, but temperatures round zero!.

It took 2 hours to get out of the square there were so many (100 000?). Some South American women singing and playing ukeleles was great, and some experienced marchers singing We Shall Overcome.

And I intend to!

Helen”

Roy’s final song I Approve This Message named a goodly number of We the People, and let them all speak for themselves, from “I am the donut lady…I am the toothless carnie…I am the huddled masses…(to) I am the last man to die for a mistake…and I approve this message.” From the faux populism he spent the earlier songs satirizing to the real populism he celebrates in his finale, he sums up the reason he has come out in the pouring rain to add his voice to the worldwide chorus by reminding us of Mahatma Gandhi’s words, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then”…after a long, deliberate pause, “You win!” And in case there is still any doubt, Roy Zimmerman hasn’t given up hope; he leaves us with a shimmering guitar chord from his beautiful vintage Martin M-36, and exclaims, “Power comes from us, the People!”

Driving home down Hollywood Blvd from the Steve Allen Theatre I couldn’t help but notice a shaft of light towards the left—the hard rain had been replaced by a rainbow. Looking back on this uplifting and most entertaining concert I am brought back to Roy’s early inspiration Tom Lehrer. Fifty years ago Tom summarized the Spanish Civil War better than anyone else: “They may have won all the battles, but we had all the good songs.” In today’s changing political (and meteorological) climate—subject of a song in defense of the Hubble Telescope—in which he rhymes “Hubble” with “Republi…can”—the same may be said of the recent election. Yes, and Roy Zimmerman wrote them!

Let Steve Allen have the last word: “This Could Be the Start of Something Big.”

For information on Roy Zimmerman’s albums and touring schedule see his website.

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