A folksing for Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Candle_during_processionLast night I attended the tail end of an all-day event in Manhattan, and was glad I did. The event was a cross-denominational commemoration of Universal Peace Day, to mark the Aug. 6 anniversay of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 with an atomic bomb, and Nagasaki three days later with a second atomic bomb. The event started early in the day with speeches and music (Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary was the most notable performer) at Riverside Park, but it went well into the night, so I didn’t feel I missed anything.

Besides, I got to the New York Buddhist Church on 105th and Riverside Drive in time for the Candlelight March to Riverside Church, where the event finished up, and that was the highlight for me.

When I got to the Buddhist Church , a crowd was gathering outside, even though a short fi;m about the Hirhsoima bombing had just started inside. I was told the room the film was being shown in was full and they weren’t allowing anyone else in, so I waited with the throng on the street.

After a while, the film must have ended because more people flowed out of the church, and Soh Daiko, the excellent taiko group based at the church, played one all-too-brief song, dramatic and with a very cool intro that went from quiet and atmospheric to thunderous as the song’s rhythm emerged. A number of speakers followed Soh Daiko, including messages from both the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Japanese Ambassador.

A “Peace Bell” was rung and a moment of silence was observed at 7:15 pm — 8:15 am Hiroshima time, the exact time on Aug. 6, 1945, that the B-29 bomber called the Enola Gay dropped the bomb that had been nicknamed “Little Boy” over the city. I got a chill.

After the speeches, as the taiko group broke down their drums and took them inside the church, a group of priests led a Buddhist chant and invited everyone there to join in.

Then candles were handed out and some in the crowd picked up signs mounted with photos and illustrations of the horrors wrought by the atomic bombs, both on people and on the two cities. Much of the text that went with these signs was in Japanese, but you didn’t need to read anything to get the point of the images.

About 100 people marched in silence as a sign of respect to the victims of the bombings, holding the candles, and led by not only Rev. T. K. Nakagaki of the Buddhist Church but by other priests, including a woman Shinto priest.

We walked 20 blocks north to the famous Riverside Church, an interdenominational (Baptist/United Church of Christ) congregation, where the marchers and the people who were already gathered there were welcomed and treated to performances and speakers.

The performances were a mixed bag of Japanese and American influences, from a traditional koto (a kind of Japanese harp) player accompanied by two women dancers in kimono, to a popular street musician from Central Park who loed the audience in a singalong of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

There were Japanese performers who sang in English (unfortunately their strong Japanese accents were somewhat distracting and they may heve been more effective and affecting if they sang in Japanese and stranlated their lyrics for the audience). One of these performers, a spiky-haired young man who looked like a rock star but sang a song that sounded like something Barry Manilow might perform, must have been at least a little famous. The row of Japanese women in the pew in front of me all stood up and tried to get photos of him during his song.

There were testimonials from “hibakusha,” or atom-bomb survivors, read by local high school students, and one hibakusha who told his own harrowing story and then read a message for the event from former President Jimmy Carter.

My favorite performances were the ones that harkened back to the days oif the New York urban folk scene, when people would gather for folksings learn songs from each other, take traditional songs and add contemporary lyrics to them, and come up with the short-lived genre of “topical songs,” or protest songs.

One of the early performers was Oscar Brand, a folky from back in those days who now hosts a folk-music program on the public radio station WNYC. He performed with his son, a doctor, on bass, and played two songs including a “talking blues” (a style that was popular during the folk heyday) titled “Talking Atom.”

Towards the end of the evening, John Hall took the stage. I hadn’t heard of this guy in easily 25 years; it was kind of cool seeing him. He wasn’t a major rock star by any means, but he was the main songwriter and one of the singers in a rock/pop group called Orleans in the 1970s. Orleans had two fondly-remembered hits during their rum on the charts, ” “Dance with Me” and “Still the One.”

Hall also went on to some renown with a solo song called “Power,” a gentle ode to alteranative enregy sources and an antreaty to stop the development of nuclear energy. Hall and the song were included in the 1980 “No Nukes” concert movie and recording.

Not surprisingly, he’s now running for Congress to represent his district in New York, as an environmental activist. He performed “Power” and a new song, “We’re All One Tribe.” It sounds like a trite message, but the song worked all right, especially with this crowd.

I actually saw Orleans play, at the Palladium on 14th Street in Manhattan (now long gone) in the late ’70s, when they opened a tour for Jackson Browne, and thought they were great.

But, I digress. Back to the present: The Universal Peace Day event closed with Josh White, Jr., another folksinger from the heyday of the urban folk era, who led the now-thinning audience (it was passed 10 pm, and many in the audience were older folks) in a couple more singalongs. He pulled out the anti-war ballad “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” which I first learned from Simon and Garfunkel’s debut album. Then White finished up the event with the gospel standard, “This Little Light of Mine.”

It was interesting to feel a little bit of the folk-era energy and political fervor, although the mixed crowd of japanese nationals and American lefties didn’t quite gel like the civils rights or anti-Vietnam War audiences must have 40 years ago. Seeing this glimpse of music matched to a cause took me back to an earlier time, and got me thinking about the potential vitality of folk music again.

But for me, the spiritual part of the evening was in the silent procession uptown. That’s what haunted me as I walked back along Columbia University’s campus to to the subway that would take me back downtown, and on into New Jersey.

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2 Responses to A folksing for Hiroshima and Nagasaki

  1. Evie says:

    Hi,
    Thanks for your description of the events. Here in Tucson, I looked to see if there was even a mention in the local paper and there wasn’t. So, I was glad to hear about the combo of folk music and Japanese commemoration. Sorry I couldn’t have been there, but reading your essay, was second best.
    Evie

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Evie, I’m glad it helped you get a sense of how the date was commemorated here in NYC. To be honest, I don’t think a lot of Americans note the A-bomb anniversaries anymore. The shadow of atomic war has receded since the Cold War years, and I think the idea of nuclear disaster isn’t as upfront in folks’ minds. In some ways, I’m afraid that’s made our society complacent. In Japan it’s much more of a living fear because of neighbors like North Korea….

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