Bread and Roses


I was young, well-traveled but still impressionable when I moved to Berkeley in the late 70s. In many ways my years there were the best of my life.  Afternoons, I lingered for hours at Caffe Espresso, breathing in the scent of eucalyptus and French roast.  Evenings found me with friends, exploring San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach and Chinatown, surfing the waves of tourists who broke along the streets.  Alone at night atop the Marin Hills, wrapped in silence and the easy breath of dreams, I watched tendrils of fog twine through the Golden Gate, their tracings quiet as my heart.

I’d gone to Berkeley for education, but not all education takes place inside classrooms and lecture halls.  I was surrounded by art, natural beauty, a vibrant, polyglot culture and more good live music than I’d ever experienced.  When friends called, breathless with excitement, to say Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Mimi Farina would be appearing in concert in San Francisco, I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

At the time, I didn’t know the concert was the first fund-raising benefit for an organization called Bread and Roses.  Mimi Farina had founded Bread and Roses as a way to provide live music to people confined to institutions such as hospitals and prisons.  In a 1990’s interview, Farina explained that, “Bread & Roses was actually a result of my negative response to the music industry.”  Disillusioned, she considered giving up her art altogether until a cousin who happened to be a social worker suggested she make use of her talents by performing at his halfway house.  History was about to be made.

“The visit (to the halfway house) was depressing,” Mimi recalled, “but it revealed a great need, and made me think about the potential value of performing in places like this. Music is powerful; it can relieve pain and inspire. The things that music once meant to me were beginning to come to life.”

“It took me about a year to formulate an idea,” she went on. “Then, one day at the end of a tour, I was sitting alone in my living room, my life in front of me once again, with no planes to catch, no gigs to make. I found myself picking up the telephone and calling some institutions and saying, ‘Hi, I’m an entertainer. Would you like to have some free entertainment at your hospital?’”

Again and again, the answer was a resounding “Yes!”.  Over the years, her organization flourished, supported by some of the brightest and best in music and entertainment.  The name “Bread and Roses” came from a poem written by James Oppenheim, published in American Magazine in 1911.  Oppenheim’s writing tended to reflect working-class sympathies and his poem became associated with a 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts.   Eventually, Martha Coleman set the poem to music.  Farina gave it new music in 1976, creating a memorable and inspirational song.


As we come marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!
As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.
As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.
As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days,
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses.

I don’t remember the song being part of that first Bread and Roses fundraiser.   When I did hear Mimi Farina sing it live in 1978, I fell in love with it.   Eventually, I found Judy Collins’ recording and listened to it on tape for years, until the tape disappeared in another move, and was forgotten

Forgotten, that is, until June, 2001, when Tropical Storm Allison rolled through Houston.  She made short work of The Medical Center, Wortham Theatre, the Alley Theatre, Jones Hall, the University of Houston and the downtown tunnel system, but she didn’t neglect invidual homes, offices or businesses.  As everything from freeways to living rooms went under water, the flood’s lack of discrimination was breathtaking. 

In the aftermath of the disaster, as the shock of seeing four feet of water roll through the neighborhood subsided enough for cleanup to begin, it became clear that we were confronting one of the worst jobs any of us had faced. Mud and chaos, the stench of flood water, fire ants, snakes, rats and looters all conspired to make each day worse than the last.   If any of us had known what was yet to come – months of living in RVs in driveways or other peoples’ homes, waiting on contractors and permits and adjusters, combining the need for employment with the process of rebuilding while coping with assorted  surgeries, illnesses and death, it would have been unbearable.  But we didn’t know, and life evolved into a routine of putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again.

In the beginning, one of my jobs was to go to a barbeque restaurant outside the flood zone and bring home a hot dinner to the work crew. The food was great; the ambience wasn’t. One evening, I was struck by a thought – “Who in the world needs styrofoam plates in the middle of hell?”  The next day, I pulled out my good china and served dinner as though nothing had happened.

In the midst of the chaos and filth, the porcelain gleamed.   Looking at the plates, one fellow walked outside, washed up with the hose and put on a clean tee-shirt.  Paper-towel napkins were folded, instead of being dropped in a pile next to the food.  Ice chests and chairs were pulled together, and everyone sat down to eat, instead of balancing their styrofoam containers on  window ledges or sawhorses.  As silverware clinked and rattled against porcelain, we ate, and talked, and felt just a bit more human.  I didn’t think of it then, but later Oppenheim’s phrase came to mind, and took on meaning.   Bread, AND roses…. 

In the midst of the struggle for bread – in the midst of the struggle for the basic necessities of life – it isn’t always easy to remember the human need for beauty.  Nevertheless, the need is real.  Hearts grown weary with suffering or struggle can grow hard, or hateful; even when the body is fed, a heart can starve.

Mimi Farina understood it well, saying  “One of the things that strikes me most about the prison shows is the realization that each of us has the potential of being an unlucky one.  Jon Hendricks put it very well: all of us share the universal fear of being locked up. We’re all prisoners of this planet, and we instinctively comprehend what that means. “

After Allison, many of us shared that  instinctive comprehension of what it means to be trapped, overcome by events, no longer in control of our own destiny. Prisoners of a natural disaster, locked up by circumstance, lying sleepless in borrowed beds, we were most concerned with bread: with the necessities of life that had to be restored and replaced.  And yet, as people struggled to reestablish routines, rebuild structures and move beyond the destruction of their lives, the yearning for a bit of beauty couldn’t be denied.   Instinctively, people seemed to understand that any rose would do.  A song, a smile, a slant of sunlight, a patch of blue or a freshening breeze  could lift and feed hearts that still hungered for the fullness of human life.

The sweatshops and factories that Oppenheim immortalized may be gone, but the realities of his “million darkened kitchens, and thousand mill lofts gray” still exist in a multitude of forms.  The world is filled with struggling survivors of every sort.  Victimized by fire or flood, hurricane or crippling drought, displaced by war or genocide, overcome by waves of disease or prejudice, many do require “bread” – the basic physical necessities of life.  But food and water, clothing and shelter alone a human life don’t make.  Truly human life requires more.

Decades ago, my grandmother liked to say, “A loaf feeds bodies.  A loaf given with love feeds bodies and souls.”  Whether she knew Oppenheim’s poem, or even the song itself, I’ll never know.  As the wife of a coal miner and a strong union supporter it’s entirely possible, but it makes no difference in the end.  The spirit of her saying is the spirit of the song, and in a world so often obsessed with bread and forgetful of beauty, the message of the song endures:

Hearts starve, as well as bodies….
Give us bread, but give us roses.


Copyright © 2008 Linda L. Leinen.   All rights reserved.
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Published in: on August 14, 2008 at 1:18 pm  Comments (7)  
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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Wonderful post. I love Pete Seeger. PBS has a good documentary about him that runs during pledge drives. (And I happen to think your grandmother was right about bread.)

    BTW, I’ll reply fully on my blog about arrowroot, but the answer is yes, do use it, but omit the butter at the end. It just dawned on me that if you need to avoid corn, you should check Passover recipes since grains are forbidden then.

    Good morning, Ella,

    Needless to say, I thought of you while I was writing and editing – if this isn’t food and politics, I don’t know what would qualify! As for Grandma, I’m entering that stage of life where I wish so many people who are gone now could come back, just for a day, so I could tell them how right they were. Since that isn’t possible, I’m doing the next best thing – telling other people how right they were.

    Thanks for the note on the arrowroot, too. I’ll pop over and leave a foodie comment at your place.
    Many thanks for the visit and greeting.


  2. When I read your stuff Linda I’m always afraid of saying something trite, but I remembered at school when vandalism and grafitti got so bad in the canteen they called a huge meeting to discuss and bang heads about it and included the pupils as well [that's how bad the situation was] and one pupil with a bit more nerve than the rest of us got up and said “if you gave us somewhere decent to eat we would have some respect for it” And they took him up on it and built a beautiful school restaurant and decorated it with plants etc. The vandalism stopped immediately.


    Don’t you ever worry about “trite”. If I were to take back every trite word I’ve said in my life, I’d be nearly speechless!

    I love your comment for several reasons. One is that it re-emphasizes how important our environment is, and how it can influence behavior and feelings. There is a Houston neighborhood where the kids got together and repaired fences, painted over grafitti, cleaned up trash and started a community garden. Today, it’s a showplace. People started taking pride in it again.

    And here’s the little secret that you may or may not have realized (although I think you did). I’m trying to do the same thing with my blog. I want it to be a lovely garden, with nice benches and flowers and stimulating sculptures and such, where people can come and read and feel good about it.
    I’ve seen a few blogs with lots of grafitti and no benches and only a few, dried up plants, and I decided they might not be the best models!

    Always a delight to have you stop by – and a double delight to have your comments.


  3. You’ve done it again, Linda. Seeing the pain and the lack then seeing with an eye to the real need. Grandmother was absolutely correct. There is no more intimate corporate activity than breaking bread together. We open up and share not only the bread but the pain and the Roses in our lives.
    Thanks for another finely written and introspective blog. Helps me stop taking my life for granted all the time.


    “Taking for granted” is always a temptation, isn’t it? And as for the breaking of bread… Sometimes I think those folks who want to rebuild our society by reinstituting the dinner hour are exactly on target. Entire families gathered at table for an entire hour is a far cry from everyone whizzing through individually, throwing something into the microwave on the way!

    Gentledove’s point applies there, too, of course – real food, beautifully presented, is going to draw people in and interest them in staying at the table more than a bucket of chicken. Or so I think. In any event, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

    Good to see you!


  4. Read the most recent blog last night, and one of the pix reminded me that not too long ago I went looking through my closet for the “union label” only to find that almost every thing purchased in the past 10 years is from some where else. Although some of the LLBean wool/cashmere from 11 or 12 years ago was made in the USA, most of Land’s End is from Thailand. I wonder if those working in the new sweat shops in China, Viet Nam, or Pakistan have roses?

    Hi, Barb,

    No matter how hard we try to take the larger view of things, it’s easy to get caught wearing “local” lenses. Reading your comment, I was driven back immediately to this: “The sweatshops and factories that Oppenheim immortalized may be gone….”

    They’re not gone, of course, and some of the lowest wages and worst conditions exist in countries you named. On the other hand, even Houston isn’t exempt – the “recycled clothing” industry has been in the news recently for a variety of abuses. They were under scrutiny for hiring practices, but seem not to discriminate – legal or illegal workers, all were paid next to nothing, given no benefits and expected to work long hours.

    I suspect if there’s anything worse than getting bread without roses, it might be getting neither roses nor bread. Many people question the role of unions today, for a variety of reasons, and the criticism is often fair. But there was a time when union organizing was critical for improving the lives of people working in mines, factories, and agriculture. The grandmother I quoted above was married to a miner whose poor health and eventual death were related to black lung disease. The “bread” of better working conditions came too late for him.

    Thanks for stopping by, and broadening the perspective a bit.


  5. I think you may already sense this but you have a wonderful “book” of essays in process with your blogging.
    I’m just sayin’…

    And look at the responses you get. People enjoy reading your style which is fresh, thoughtful, and interestingly juxtaposed.

    Good afternoon, oh,

    You sense correctly that I sense… (insert smile here). You’re just sayin’, and I’m just listenin’. But I’m very much a one-step-at-a-time person, and very much a believer that there is a “right time” for next steps. This whole process is very much like feeling my way through an unfamiliar house in total darkness – I want to get to that kitchen or bathroom, but I don’t want to kill myself in the process!

    I finally have figured out how to participate in Write on Wednesdays AND keep posting my usual blogs for my regular readers. That’s the next step – which will get accomplished this weekend if I’m lucky.

    I very much appreciate your comments. They’re an affirmation of some things I’ve been thinking.


  6. As for Grandma, I’m entering that stage of life where I wish so many people who are gone now could come back, just for a day, so I could tell them how right they were.

    Oh, I so understand. My family’s all gone and I’d give anything for just one minute with any of them.

    I’m so glad the pie worked for you! Tx for letting me know.

  7. Linda,

    I think the writer/violinist of ‘The Savior’ is trying to depict the despondence and utter hopelessness of the death camp inmates, that whatever music they hear served only to remind them of the freedom they once had and the living hell they were in, and death was their only fate. (‘rubbing it in’ so to speak)

    I’m also surprised to learn that the author based his story on some of his own real life experiences of playing to patients in hospitals and infirmaries. The response he got was anywhere from apathy to hostility. What you mentioned in my blog about the receptive spirit is a key factor I suppose.

    I totally admire the people you describe in your post here and I do believe for most people, music does have the miraculous power of healing and inspiring. For some of us, myself included, it is essential for life.

    Thank you for your thorough work in researching and writing all these posts on your blog. I particularly enjoyed this one because I visited Berkeley not too long ago and had posted some pictures from my visit there under the title “San Francisco Weekend”. It was my first time there but your post reminded me of my own student days. I didn’t have the chance to listen to Joan Baez live but I did have her records (no CD’s yet) and Judy Collins remains one of my all time favorites.

    Thanks again.

    Good day, Arti,

    Thanks so much for your reflections and the additional information about “The Savior”. I can be a bit thick at times. It wasn’t until this morning that I paid attention to the title, and considered its relationship to the story itself. This one is very firmly on my list, and I’m looking forward to the read.
    I’m anxious to see what I think once I have read it.

    It’s interesting to think about the parallels with writing. The writer’s attempt to point to a deeper reality can evoke the same kinds of hostility and rejection – as though the reader understands quite well, but prefers to reject his or her own understanding. At that point, it’s critical for the writer to understand that there isn’t anything “wrong” with the words, any more than there is something “wrong” with a bit of Vivaldi that evokes a negative reaction. So much to think about!

    I went back into your blog and found the post about your trip to San Francisco. The photographs are wonderful! I was astounded at the comparison with English buildings, and full of curiosity: are the similarities due to architectural fashions? Were they built in the same era? And so on. Just one more little thing to explore. And yes, Judy Collins is one of the best.

    Many thanks for the comments. It’s always a pleasure to hear your thoughts.


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