Music legends sing out for First Amendment

Thursday, June 21, 2001
Jefferson Starship

NEW YORK — The folk-music legends Tom Paxton, Jefferson Starship and Janis Ian knew their First Amendment rights back in the Summer of Love when their music became controversial in the 1960s.

And they certainly knew their rights last night when they performed at the First Amendment Center’s New York debut of Freedom Sings™ at The Bottom Line in Greenwich Village.

But audience members at last night’s concert celebrating freedom of expression in music weren’t so sure.

“Music has played a pivotal role in social movements throughout this century. The messages of the civil rights, women’s rights, environmental and world peace movements were all amplified through song,” said Ken Paulson executive director of the First Amendment Center, explaining the intent of Freedom Sings, a series that has played from Nashville to Las Vegas.

“Free expression and music are a potent combination. Freedom sings. And music matters,” Paulson said.

Janis Ian

While free speech and expression are vital rights all Americans have, many people in the audience were fuzzy on what exactly their First Amendment rights were.

Paulson quizzed audience members on which two of the five First Amendment rights are most often forgotten. Though two people eventually guessed the correct answers — the right to assemble and the right to petition — the hodgepodge of incorrect answers included “freedom of thought” and “the right to bear arms.”

Paulson joked that if someone was waving a gun around, they could indeed say whatever they wanted.

The artists who took the stage for two back-to-back shows, which raised seed money for the planned Folk Music Museum in Greenwich Village, kicked off “Freedom Sings Week” in New York. The week’s events include:

  • “Speaking Freely” interviews with Steppenwolf’s John Kay and Jefferson Starship’s Paul Kantner.
  • Special tapings at the First Amendment Center for WNYC-radio’s “On the Line.”
  • A special screening of Freedom Sings, a documentary featuring highlights from the first concert in the series two years ago in Nashville, Tenn.

Tom Paxton

The Bottom Line concert was hosted by Dominic Chianese, a featured actor on HBO’s hit show, “The Sopranos.”

When Paxton took the stage, he announced he was celebrating 40 years of making music. His songs ranged from one on the civil rights movement of the ’60s to this past election’s ballot brouhaha in Florida, which got the audience laughing and clapping. He even sang a love song — although it was about the love between Lorena and John Bobbitt.

John Platt, the show’s co-host and WFUV public radio DJ, said, “(Baltimore Orioles infielder) Cal Ripken may be retiring, but let’s hope Tom Paxton goes on forever.”

Then the re-formed Jefferson Starship, first and formerly Jefferson Airplane, took the stage with their lead female vocalist Diana Mangano, who has been with the band since 1993.

Earlier yesterday, in a taping of Speaking Freely, the weekly TV show on First Amendment rights and free expression in the arts, Paul Kantner had cited the Weavers folk group as a major influence on building Jefferson Airplane as a socially conscious band in the latter half of the 1960s.

Paul Kantner

“In social responsibility, in terms of doing benefits, in terms of helping people that you were in a position to help … it’s so easy as a rock ‘n’ roll band to go out and raise a large amount of money for a serious cause, which most people cannot do,” Kantner said. “And all we have to do is just … go out and play. So not to do (that) almost becomes a sin.”

At The Bottom Line, the band’s selections included several of its controversial hits, “White Rabbit,” “Sail Away,” “We Should Be Together” and “Volunteers.”

Jefferson Starship also played “America,” a song Kantner wrote when he originally left Jefferson Starship to form the KBC Band.

Kantner had discussed “America” during his “Speaking Freely” interview, describing it as a celebration of the good aspects of America, as well as a portrait of some of the country’s bad characteristics.

“It’s an extraordinary country. And what’s going on here is extraordinary in the history of the world,” Kantner told Paulson during the interview. “With our rights as Americans to confront what we feel needs confronting in America, that’s one of the glories of America — that we can do that without getting killed outright.”

The band seemed just as passionate and fierce as it was in the ’60s, ending its set with “Volunteers,” a song about protest and social responsibility whose inspiring chorus of “Got a Revolution” got people in the audience chanting with vocalist Marty Balin.

Diana Mangano and Marty Balin of Jefferson Starship.

A highlight of the concert was singer-songwriter Janis Ian, who announced on stage that she had just turned 50. Ian had felt the lash of censorship and controversy at the tender age of 14 when she released “Society’s Child,” a song about an interracial relationship that was banned from many radio stations across America.

She opened her set with her latest song, “God & the FBI,” about how the federal agency monitored her parents because of their outspoken politics.

Reflecting on her long career, Ian said how lucky she was to be doing what she loves and getting paid for it. She also described the magic of being a singer.

“If we do our job right,” she said, “we get to take your dreams and hold them. When times get hard, we get to stand in front of you and say, ‘Here’s your dream. I’ve kept it safe for you.’ “

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