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.