PEACE Iowa and the Family Folk Machine host benefit concert in Iowa City

PEACE Iowa Benefit, featuring the Family Folk Machine

Old Brick — Saturday, Feb. 18 at 7 p.m.

The Family Folk Machine — photo courtesy of PEACE Iowa

The Peace Education and Action Center of Eastern Iowa (PEACE Iowa) will host a benefit concert at the Old Brick Church in Iowa City (26 E Market St) on the evening of Feb. 18 at 7 p.m., with music by the Family Folk Machine. Admission is by freewill donation.

PEACE Iowa is a grassroots coalition based in Iowa City, promoting “international peace through education, intercultural communication, public witness, citizen involvement, and personal choices,” according to the group’s mission statement. The group’s earlier incarnation was “Iowans for Peace” (IFP), an alliance of like-minded groups formed in late 2001. Since that time, the group changed its name and expanded its mission by hosting peace and human rights-related activities in the community.

PEACE Iowa conducts workshops, presents film screenings and organizes rallies and vigils. Its work focuses on finding peaceful solutions to violent conflict, reducing national and local military spending, reducing police militarization, preventing specific military conflicts and opposing the use of drone strikes.

“We draw from the peace traditions of many faiths and from secular movements promoting peace,” PEACE Iowa Communications and Outreach Coordinator Karen Nichols wrote in an email.

This Saturday’s concert and fundraiser will be the first collaboration between PEACE Iowa and the Family Folk Machine, an intergenerational folk choir with around 50 members (ages 4 to 85) that seeks, according to a press release for the event, “to build community through singing songs with neighbors, exploring American history and culture through song, fostering individual musical growth and pursuing excellence as an ensemble.”

The Family Folk Machine has worked with other community organizations, including River Friends, the Iowa Youth Writers’ Workshop, the University Heights Farmers’ Market, Table to Table and the local iteration of the Concert Across America to End Gun Violence. Nichols, who is also a member of the choir, said, “We sing choral arrangements of old and new folk and popular songs with the accompaniment of a folk band.”

Nichols notes that “this is the first actual benefit concert [the group has] done.”

The word “folk” in the “folk music” that the group performs is what it sounds like, as in being related to the “common folk.” It is the “common folk” or “folk” who built this country, and it is their voices that have been the most neglected and ignored in the writing of this nation’s history. Folk music has served as an outlet to convey messages of social struggle and triumph, with countless songs filling America’s songbook, as well as the pages of this nation’s history.

These songs gave a voice and a platform for an audience whose needs were ignored by those in power. From the resounding spirituals chanted by Southern slaves on plantation fields before the outbreak of the Civil War, to the rabble-rousing hymnals of organized labor from The Little Red Song Book, produced by the colorful revolutionaries in the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) during the early 20th century, this history was documented in the form of folk music, a trail created by blues and gospel music before it.

To this day, many of these songs are being performed in public schools, in coal mines and at peaceful demonstrations around the world. Music has the ability to tell stories even without words, lyrics. Just as with Opera music, one does not need to speak the language to understand the emotions being expressed, making music an international form of communication.

Certain songs remain timeless because they are not written with details which would date them for future listeners. However, some are marked by the period in which they were composed, because they were written to help carry an urgent message. In many cases, the message of a song becomes timeless because the issues they touch on manage to live longer than the composers who wrote them.

Songwriters such as the late Phil Ochs believed art and politics were not “mutually exclusive,” according to music journalist Dorian Lynskey, author of 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, From Billie Holiday to Green Day. Ochs often incorporated the current events of his day into song, especially in “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” a powerful commentary on segregation and racism which could have been written today. Ochs was one to argue how politicians, the media and even history books have often failed to tell the truth about the plight of the masses. It is songs like “This Land is Your Land,” “Solidarity Forever,” “We Shall Overcome” and countless others that still resonate with people in ways history textbooks and news publications cannot.

The Family Folk Machine plays a benefit for PEACE Iowa on Saturday. Feb. 18 at Old Brick. — photo by Alan Light

The Family Folk Machine will be performing over a dozen songs spanning the past few centuries. Songs featured on the roster include “Step by Step” (a stanza from an 1860 United Mine Workers’ constitution set to music), folk standards such as “Breathe Peace,” more contemporary classics like Ed McCurdy’s “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” and Pete Seeger’s “Quite Early Morning” and songs by John Lennon, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan and others.

There will be musical accompaniment by a youth string quartet and pianist (ages 7-14) as well as an adult folk band featuring banjo, guitars and bass. Lyric sheets featuring highlighted songs from the program will be distributed to audience members. This is a tradition that would have been endorsed by the late folk legend Pete Seeger, who encouraged audience participation with his live performances.

In the spirit of passing down the values of human solidarity, the venue selected for the evening program is the Old Brick Church, lovingly called “Old Brick” by some residents, which happens to be the second oldest building in Iowa City. Original construction was completed in 1856 and has, according to its website, been described as the city’s “crown jewel of historic preservation.” Tables will be set up with literature and information about local peace and social justice groups from the area and across the state. It is a family-friendly event.

Wrote Nichols, “Singing songs of hope and determination with a group of people is good for your well-being in troubled times.”

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