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Phil Elverum Returns To A Refuge As The Microphones

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Phil Elverum Returns To A Refuge As The Microphones

“The stuff that used to ring true still does in a way and also doesn’t anymore,” says Phil Elverum. “The big, huge question I tried to think about with this giant song was mainly how to encompass these contradictions.”

Katy Hancock/Courtesy of the artist


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Katy Hancock/Courtesy of the artist

Phil Elverum has built and battled entire universes. From 1996-2003, his band, The Microphones, was mostly just him alone in a studio, as friends from Olympia sang and banged on instruments as needed. With a bull-headed bravado that comes from a dreamer’s naïveté, chests swelled to the size of the moon, the dead flew off as vultures and the dawn promised something new every morning. Around the turn of the millennium, the music responded in kind as disorientingly layered acoustic guitar ushered in thunderously distorted bass, moaning sound collage, ragtag choirs and a furious cacophony of drums. This was Big Music for Big Ideas, even and especially regarding our (in)significance in the world, but could just as easily nurse a broken heart.

I took my shirt off in the yard,” he once yowled, baring his emotions clear. “No one saw that the skin on my shoulders was golden.” The title track from The Glow Pt. 2 — an indie-rock album from 2001 that appeared on several year-end lists and decade retrospectives — bombastically called attention to youthful vulnerability, daring death to a duel, loudly sounding the barbaric yawp so many bright-eyed poetry teachers blithely encourage. “Innocent in a naive, idiotic way,” Elverum would put it years later, laughing.

When I called Phil Elverum to talk about his first album as The Microphones in 17 years — the absurdly titled Microphones in 2020, a single 45-minute track — he was building a house. That’s not a metaphor, but might as well be. On an island off Anacortes — the coastal Washington state town where he was born and has lived most of his life — he’s about to paint some pine tar on the exterior siding. “We’ve been working on it all week,” he says, mentioning the help of his brother. “Very sore and I’m very dirty.”

He drew up the plans himself and gave them to an architect to make it buildable. “It’s pretty small, but there’s probably going to be room for a music corner in my bedroom,” he says. “And maybe if I ever have any money left over, someday I’ll build a little outbuilding for music to keep the drums at least.”

Like every other parent thrust into both work and childcare during this pandemic, his daughter Agathe finished up preschool via Zoom, which, understandably, she wasn’t really into. In the summer break, the house is a welcome project as Agathe tries outdoor, socially-distanced day camp activities, as much as you can with a 5 year old.

“I’m pretty happy to get to live here,” Elverum adds, his smile somehow audible.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is the house he was going to build with Geneviève Castrée, the brilliant musician and illustrator, and the mother to Agathe, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2016. Elverum wrote two beautiful, harrowing and sometimes darkly funny albums about her death — A Crow Looked at Me and Now Only — as Mount Eerie, the moniker he adopted in 2003. Last year’s Lost Wisdom Pt. 2, a return to his sparse collaboration with Eric’s Trip singer and guitarist Julie Doiron, not only recounted his brief marriage to actor Michelle Williams but also began a process of looking back on Elverum’s younger self.

Why is there a new Microphones album in 2020? The names don’t matter, says Elverum. “What was The Microphones?” is the better question and the one Elverum maps his newfound songwriting cadence upon, as run-on sentences excavate and challenge familiar lyrical references and sonic gestures. He comes back to The Microphones not as some nostalgist but a time traveler attempting to make sense of the “disinterested sun” that still rises and sets everyday, unaware of its participants.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lars Gotrich: The record begins with two chords on an acoustic guitar, double-tracked and slightly out of phase. It’s a technique you developed early on as The Microphones. I’d love to hear the story of this guitar and how you first found this sound.

Phil Elverum: Great question! Nobody’s ever asked that and it’s pretty central to my whole thing, I guess. When I was a teenager, I worked at a record store called The Business. It was more than a record store — books and cameras and just junk. And so Brett [Lunsford], the owner, would bring things in from garage sales and put a price tag on it and hang it on the wall. One day he came in and he’s like, “I just got this for five dollars,” and hung [this guitar] on the wall and I just took it. Kind of no-name, small acoustic guitar that felt exactly right for me. It sounds exactly right. So sometimes I say, “Oh, it’s only five dollars.” But actually I don’t think I even paid him those five dollars. I think I stole it. [Laughs.] But I’ve written every song I’ve ever written on that guitar pretty much, and recorded all of the acoustic guitar that’s on any of my records. So that’s special.

It Was Hot, We Stayed In The Water by the Microphones

In terms of that technique of using two tracks to make a rhythm: in the year 2000, this record called It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water starts in a similar way with a rhythmic foundation. I think back then I was trying to emulate this thing that happens on the Red House Painters album Songs for a Blue Guitar. It starts with a beautifully recorded chord on acoustic guitar for a while before the singing starts. And I really liked how it goes on for long enough that it ushers you into a new place. You forget the world you were in before you started listening to the album. It’s like the waiting room before the album starts.

Why is it important that we sit with that sound for the first seven minutes of this album? No voice, no other instrument just the guitar.

I didn’t decide, like, “Okay, it’s going to go for seven minutes.” I just did it. I played it until it felt right. I wanted to push up against the edges, similar to extreme drone music, the way that it wears down at your sense of time and reality and makes you forget yourself or maybe similar to the way that meditation works. It’s not pushing beyond discomfort because it’s not uncomfortable. It’s a beautiful zone to hang out in, I think.

And I also wanted to use that seven-minute space to account for the 20 years that have passed or whatever. 17 years? How many years have passed since the last Microphones album? 17, I think.

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Everything fundamental about you as a person and you as a songwriter had changed in such open and open-ended ways. Your songwriting style has changed significantly: You now favor long phrases that would never scan and there’s little in the way of traditional verse-chorus-verse format. I’m listening to this record and wondering how old forms meet new modes. What did the songwriting process look like?

I always write my songs in a notebook on paper with pencil and scribble it out and erase it and move things around. But this one, it’s so long; it was very papery because I was taping pieces of paper together to make a scroll long enough to hold the whole thing. For a while, it was different pages, but I was spending so much time rifling through my different sheets and losing track of what section I was in that I just made a big, long scroll. It’s about nine feet long or something, and it comes with the record — there’s a poster in there that’s a scan of it.

And actually, that long scroll is sort of the last step of the writing process. At first, I just walk around with it in my head and mumble to myself. And get ideas for different vignettes and scenes and almost write in a non-poetic way. I just write an account of what I remember and then from there, hone it down into something.

So, for example, in the passage where I’m talking about watching the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, believe it or not, it started off as a much deeper, much longer account of me watching that movie. It may seem like, “Wait, you’re telling me that you only included the necessary parts?” [Laughs.] But it’s true. I tried and tried to get it down to only the necessary parts.

I was just trying to find moments that exemplified a certain thing about whoever I was during those years and whatever The Microphones, as a project in time and space, meant. I had lots of little narrative moments that didn’t make it into the song. But that one, I felt like exemplified this one certain thing beyond just a cool movie that I liked. It was a pivotal point for me because it shifted the thing I was trying to say in my music. It shifted it away from romantic sorrow and towards something more ephemeral and universal and deeper, I guess. Something more transcendent.

You spend a lot of time laying bare the intent of The Microphones and, to a certain extent, Mount Eerie, but this line stuck out to me: “I decided I would try to make music that contained this deeper peace / buried underneath distorted bass, fog imbued with light and emptiness.” I’ve never heard a more succinct read on your music. Were you always so aware of what you wanted this music to convey, or has that come with time?

No, I haven’t been aware. I feel like, in the past, when I’ve been asked, “What are your hopes for this music? What do you want people to hear out of it?” I always kind of avoid answering that question and actually I still kind of avoid it. I’m not talking about my hopes for other people. I want to make “fog imbued with light and emptiness” for myself because I feel like that’s what I want to hear and that’s what I feel compelled to make. Maybe I was able to phrase that succinctly because I gave myself the assignment: I was like, OK, I’m going to make a new Microphones album. What is that? What does that mean? What was The Microphones and what were my goals then and what are my goals now in terms of this weird pursuit of creativity? How can I say it directly?

You reference your own work quite a bit not as a backwards-looking wink but as a set of thematic motifs.

That’s an important distinction. On this album, maybe I strayed across the line, but it’s tempting to do self-referential stuff because it feels good and it gives people clues to follow — that’s the embarrassing kind of nostalgia. But I do those things because I want to make a body of work that is woven together because it is — that’s what the world is like, that’s what my life is like.

the Glow pt. 2 by the Microphones

There are several lyrics I could choose from, but, for instance, when you would sing about the moon, you provided both an earthly sense of place (being under the moon, often with someone or some idea) but also illustrated a cosmic power to behold. Here, you revisit and often question many of those motifs, but also build on a new one about life’s uncertainty: “the true state of all things.” Meaning is constantly changing, even and especially in the “giant meaningless” as you describe it. Do those old themes still ring true in any way? Or has the meaning evolved?

It’s all evolving, always. Even when I was 21 or whatever, I thought that also; I knew that impermanence was the main thing: whatever I believe now I will not believe tomorrow, perhaps. The stuff that used to ring true still does in a way and also doesn’t anymore. And also the person I was 20 years ago is still in me and so on. The big, huge question I tried to think about with this giant song was mainly how to encompass these contradictions.

Do you know The Watchmen?

Yeah, I read the first few pages.

Okay, so there’s a character in The Watchmen called Dr. Manhattan; he’s that big blue guy. He is able to exist in several realities at once; he can be in the past and he can be in the present. He’s kind of a tragic character because he has this omniscient knowledge. He is seemingly distant but also emotionally traumatized by these conversations that he can hold in the past and present with a person whom he loves. And as this record moves back and forth through time, I was wondering how memory works for you or maybe how it’s changed?

It’s changed in a weird way in the past few years. With death and life upheaval and heartbreak, memory takes on some other weird powers that it maybe didn’t have when you’re younger and haven’t experienced huge things like that. I’m drawn to revisiting memories and trying to learn from them, but I’m also drawn to just get rid of them.

Maybe this song and, to a larger extent, the type of stuff I’ve been doing during quarantine (like sorting through the boxes in my parents’ attic and getting rid of all my archives), it’s to unburden myself from the weight of all this memory, even though I also think it has so much value. I’m trying to strike the right balance, I guess, between knowing about the past and being liberated from it, which I think actually is socially and politically potent at this moment, with people tearing down monuments and this global catharsis that’s going on; remains to be seen which direction it will tip. But yeah, it has a lot to do with being able to responsibly look at the past and digest it and then step beyond it.

Nature has always been a character in your music. How has that character changed over time?

No Flashlight by Mount Eerie

One thing that has changed is my relationship with that word or that concept. There was a time in early Mount Eerie albums where I was really trying to talk a lot about, you know, it’s all nature / there is no nature. The distinction between wild and not wild is an illusion, da da da da da. I sort of let that one go just because whatever; it’s just a word.

The thing that’s drawn me towards non-human places, I’ll say, is the neutrality or the seeming neutrality of it — the eternity of it, the welcoming blankness of an original state of things or, you know, feels more like an original state of things than a Cracker Barrel parking lot.

You quote “Freezing Moon” by Mayhem here: “the cemetery lights up again” and “eternity opens.” There’s so much to unpack not only in those phrases, but in the history of that band. The song itself is grisly and gory, but in the back of your mind, you have to remember that the band’s guitarist, Euronymous, was murdered.

Yeah, it’s a weird thing to reference, to invoke Mayhem, but those lines are just so powerful. Aside from everything else.

Do you seek out the poetry in metal?

No, no. And, in fact, it’s sort of a joke in my song because I say I heard the song “Freezing Moon” by Mayhem and these words jumped out. But you can’t make out the words. I only know of those words because I heard Wyrd Visions’ acoustic cover of “Freezing Moon.” What I like about metal is the cathartic, transcendent experience of listening to extreme music; I still listen to it a lot.

Phil Elverum in 1999.

Jimi Sharp/Courtesy of the artist


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Jimi Sharp/Courtesy of the artist

I think there are moments of levity in all of your music, even when it’s not immediately apparent. You indulge in old stories here, like touring with Will Oldham’s band Bonnie “Prince” Billy in Italy and their matching tracksuits.

It was funny to see, like, in person. I should say, for the record, that I asked Will [Oldham] about that. It’s possible that my memory is flavoring things. It’s possible that that’s not 100 percent true, that they were wearing matching tracksuits and sunglasses. But it is true that he has his band wear a tour costume. And a lot of them were wearing tracksuits, like, very Italian guy looking. I may have a skewed history a little bit.

The Bonnie “Prince” Billy story, pouring over the details of a 7-inch artwork, eye-opening experiences with music and recording these give me pictures of a young Phil Elverum. I felt and still feel very protective of him.

What do you mean?

This in no way measures your experience with grief, but I remember my own seismic shift of worldview in my mid-20s. So when I was thinking about those pictures of the young dreamer, I was like, “I know what’s coming and I don’t know how to protect this person I don’t even know.” It’s like a Greek tragedy; the audience knows what’s coming.

I put a line about that in the song, too — “Innocent of the real air of death that awaited down the path” — in talking about the album Mount Eerie where I’m singing some mythological idea about dying, about death, like a cartoon character of death. Innocent in a naive, idiotic way. [Laughs.]

That’s what I was trying to show or understand with writing this song, writing this large autobiographical study. What did I learn from it? What has stayed with me? Surely something has. All of it has been informative and necessary. Lots has been forgotten, some remembered. But it all sort of stews up into the present moment, which, of course, I’m still stewing up for a future-present moment. But I definitely did learn stuff from playing around with a mythological version of death.

I don’t think it’s unrelated that, when Geneviève [Castrée] died, and I wrote songs about it, that I was able to engage with the reality of it and not just be completely muted by my grief. I don’t know. I feel like my prior engagement with big concepts maybe helped me get a little bit of a head start. It was part of my vocabulary already or something.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the early Microphones records, not only because of this record but especially listening to the recent Mirah reissue, You Think It’s Like This​.​.​. But Really It’s Like This. There was a moment in The Microphones, when it had morphed into a collective, where it felt like anyone in your Olympia orbit could sing a Microphones song, or could borrow a Microphones melody, and vice versa. There was such a camaraderie in the music you made with Karl Blau, Khaela Maricich, Mirah and so many others. Like much of your recent work, this record is all you, but does that kind of musical community make sense for the music you make now or want to make in the future?

The way that the music was made for me, my project, it has always been this deeply solitary experience. There was a period there for five years when I lived in Olympia in my early 20s, where life was definitely more communal. Like, we all collaborated on just everything all the time. But in terms of actually writing and recording my songs, even back then it was me alone in the studio at night and then I would get people to sing on it. There are a few exceptions where, you know, you can tell just like they pressed “record” and it’s a group of people playing it live in one take. That song “I Can’t Believe You Actually Died” is that way.

I think maybe I cultivated that ambiguity around it, the mystery of like who’s even making this: Is it a group? Is it a person? I’ve never really liked centering myself or my image of me, which, as I say that now seems disingenuous because of how self-analytical it all is. But yeah, I don’t want to put my face on the cover and I enjoyed putting my name in small print in the liner notes.

Certainly there were shows where I would play my entire set that were just songs by my friend Adrian [Orange]. Or Kyle Field and I would suggest songs for each other or send each other words as assignments to sing or give each other each other’s notebook. So there was a lot of that. But in terms of The Microphones albums, that’s always sort of been its own little island with friends appearing sometimes, but not in a deeply collaborative way. I hope I’m not remembering it incorrectly and not giving people credit. But The Microphones albums were always my refuge.

Like we’ve said, memory’s weird.

Tell me about it.

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Los Angeles Mayor Says City May Shut Off Water, Power At Houses Hosting Large Parties

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Los Angeles Mayor Says City May Shut Off Water, Power At Houses Hosting Large Parties

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, pictured giving his annual State of the City speech in April, announced on Wednesday that he is authorizing the Department of Water and Power to shut off service at properties hosting large parties, which are forbidden under coronavirus health orders.

City of Los Angeles handout/via AP


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City of Los Angeles handout/via AP

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced on Wednesday that he is authorizing the city to shut off water and power service to properties hosting large house parties, which he said had “essentially become nightclubs in the hills.”

In a briefing, Garcetti expressed concerns about reports of large parties and gatherings that violate public health orders, often taking place at homes that are vacant or being used as short-term rentals.

Starting Friday night, he said, houses, businesses and other venues hosting “un-permitted large gatherings” will face tougher consequences.

“If the LAPD responds and verifies that a large gathering is occurring at a property, and we see these properties reoffending time and time again, they will provide notice and initiate the process to request that [the Department of Water and Power] shut off service within the next 48 hours,” Garcetti said.

Large gatherings of any kind are prohibited under the county’s public health orders aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, which sharply intensified statewide earlier this summer.

Los Angeles County has more total coronavirus cases than any county in the U.S., according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

And on Wednesday, local health officials said the number of cases has been undercounted due to issues with the state’s electronic laboratory system.

Garcetti added that while he hopes residents will avoid gatherings of all sizes, this enforcement will not focus on small or ordinary get-togethers. Rather, it will focus on people he described as “determined to break the rules,” who pose a significant threat to public health.

“The consequences of these large parties ripple far beyond just those parties,” Garcetti said. “They ripple throughout our entire community because the virus can quickly and easily spread.”

Large, in-person gatherings where people are not wearing face coverings and social distancing is difficult are among the highest risk settings, Garcetti said, citing health officials.

Reports of such gatherings have drawn scrutiny in recent days, especially after a 200-person party at a Mulholland Drive mansion ended in a fatal shooting on Monday.

The Los Angeles Times reports there have been other large house parties during the pandemic and that the county is investigating a “first responders” party that was held last week at a Hollywood bar, indoors and without social distancing.

Earlier on Wednesday, Los Angeles City Councilman David Ryu introduced a motion to crack down on “COVID party houses” by increasing penalties and deterrence options against property owners.

The motion included water and power shutoffs on its list of suggested penalties.

Such a consequence is not entirely unheard of. In June, the town of Oxford, Mass., shut off water and electricity to a gym after its owner repeatedly defied the state’s shutdown order.

Also on Wednesday, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said that nearly 60% of new COVID-19 cases are occurring in residents between the ages of 18 and 49.

Individuals between the ages of 30 and 49 have the highest case rate among all age groups in the county, and case rates for this group have almost tripled since the start of June. Health officials said that patients between the ages of 18 and 29 now account for more than twice the proportion of all hospitalizations than they did in April.

Director of Public Health Barbara Ferrer urged younger adults to consider the potential risks that attending a party may pose to their health and the health of older relatives.

“We can and will one day get to the point where hanging out with a group of friends is possible,” she said. “But we aren’t there yet.”

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Charts: How The U.S. Ranks On COVID-19 Deaths Per Capita — And By Case Count

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Charts: How The U.S. Ranks On COVID-19 Deaths Per Capita — And By Case Count

During an interview that aired on Axios on HBO on Monday night, President Trump was interviewed by journalist Jonathan Swan. One of the topics: the number of deaths in the U.S. from COVID-19.

Swan noted that there are about 1,000 deaths a day in the United States.

Trump responded that the U.S. “is lowest in numerous categories” when it comes to the pandemic — including “case death.” This measure, which epidemiologists call the “case fatality ratio,” calculates the number of people with COVID-19 who eventually die from the disease.

Swan interjected, “I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the U.S. is really bad, much worse than South Korea, Germany, et cetera.”

Trump replied: “You can’t do that.”

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As Swan noted during the interview, you can in fact calculate the per capita death rate for a country’s population — that is, the number of deaths per 100,000 people.

But it is difficult to compare death rates among countries. Neither per capita death rate nor case fatality ratio “fully reflect the effectiveness of a country’s response,” said Nilanjan Chatterjee, a professor of biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University.

However, these two ways of measuring the COVID-19 death toll can tell us something.

Since January, there have been over 4.7 million COVID-19 cases and 150,000 deaths in the United States.

Among the 45 countries with more than 50,000 COVID-19 cases, the U.S. has the eighth-highest number of deaths per 100,000 people: 47.93 deaths from the coronavirus for every 100,000 Americans. Belgium has the highest per capita death rate: 86.3 deaths per 100,000.

But in terms of case fatality ratio, the U.S. is doing significantly better than many other countries. The country’s case fatality ratio is 3.3%, meaning that for every 100 people with COVID-19, only about three die.

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Trump said that the low case fatality ratio in the U.S. was a result of his administration’s effective pandemic response, such as closing international borders to people from COVID-19 hot spots such as China and the United Kingdom. He also stated that the U.S. has a high per capita death rate because the country has done more testing than any other in the world.

The per capita death rate is primarily an indication of the overall disease burden in a country, according to Justin Lessler, an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University. (Disease burden is the term used to describe the impact of a particular disease in terms of years of life lost and years lived with disability.)

If there is more COVID-19 transmission among communities in a specific country, then there will be more infections and consequently more deaths in that country — and presumably a higher per capita death rate.

But other factors influence the per capita death rate. For example, age is a major risk factor for severe COVID-19 disease and death. Therefore, countries with much younger populations may have far fewer deaths. In Uganda, for instance, the per capita death rate is 0.01, one of the lowest in the world. The median age of Ugandans is 15.9. By contrast, the median age in the U.S. is 38.4. In Belgium and the U.K., which have the highest number of deaths per 100,000 people, the median ages are 41.9 and 40.0 years, respectively. And predictably, the per capita death rate is higher in those countries.

Access to care also has an impact on the rate — whether patients have access to ventilators and ICU care if needed.

But even though the daily death toll in the U.S. has now averaged 1,000 or more a day for over a week, the per capita death rate is not necessarily the best metric by which to compare mortality among countries. According to Chatterjee, the case fatality ratio may be a slightly better indication of how well a country is doing in responding to the pandemic and preventing infected people from dying.

Among the 45 countries with over 50,000 cases, the U.S. has the 24th-highest case fatality ratio. And the U.S. rate of 3.3% is much lower than that of the U.K. at 15.1% or Italy at 14.2%.

So despite the daily death toll of 1,000 in the U.S., there is some truth to Trump’s assertion that the low case fatality ratio is a positive sign in the United States.

As for his assertion that “we have tested more people than any other country,” there is also some truth to this. The U.S. has conducted more coronavirus tests than any other country in terms of sheer numbers — more than 50 million.

However, when you consider population size, the U.S. comes in ninth place, having conducted 174 tests per 1,000 people. That’s much lower than the per capita rate in Luxembourg at 691 per 1,000 people, the United Arab Emirates at 525 and Denmark at 268.

Moreover, while there is no gold standard for testing rates, the number of tests needed is proportionate to the number of infections in a country, says Lessler. So, if the U.S. could reduce COVID-19 transmission and new cases, then the need for high testing levels would drop.

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Helen Jones Woods, Groundbreaking Female Trombonist, Has Died From COVID-19

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Helen Jones Woods, Groundbreaking Female Trombonist, Has Died From COVID-19

Helen Jones Woods.

Kathleen Fallon/Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution


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Kathleen Fallon/Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Helen Jones Woods, who played trombone with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a history-making all-female big band that toured widely during World War II, died of COVID-19 on July 25 in Sarasota, Fla. She was 96.

Her daughter Cathy Hughes, founder and chairperson of the broadcast media company Urban One, confirmed the details of her death to NPR.

In addition to their pioneering role as women on the jazz circuit, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm were an interracial band in the era of Jim Crow. Their extensive itinerary through the South, where they traveled by sleeper bus, reportedly inspired jazz piano giant Earl Hines to call them “the first Freedom Riders.” They also toured Europe, playing in occupied Germany for American soldiers — both white and Black, though not at the same time.

As a Black musician, Woods endured mistreatment and indignity on the road. “Music broke her heart,” says Hughes. “In the ’30s and ’40s, and even the ’50s, which was the last time she played, they wouldn’t get paid regularly. They couldn’t find housing accommodations.”

After the Sweethearts disbanded in 1949, Woods joined the Omaha Symphony, only to be fired after her first performance. Her father, who had a darker complexion, came to pick her up, which prompted symphony management to realize she was Black. This was the last straw for Woods, who chose to end her musical career. She became a registered nurse, spending the next 30 years devoted to nursing and social work.

Helen Elizabeth Jones was born in the fall of 1923 — on Oct. 9 or Nov. 14, according to conflicting documents — in Meridian, Miss. She was adopted by Dr. Laurence Clifton Jones, founder of the Piney Woods Country Life School, an African American boarding school. Dr. Jones and his wife, Grace, encouraged her interest in music from an early age. But despite their preference for the violin, she gravitated to the trombone, drawn to its slide.

To raise money for their school, Dr. and Mrs. Jones formed touring musical groups made of students; one of these was The Cotton Blossom Singers, an all-girl choir. Then, after hearing a CBS radio broadcast of Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Orchestra, Dr. Jones had the idea to start an instrumental group. He called it The Swinging Rays of Rhythm, composed of Piney Woods schoolgirls ranging in age from 13 to 19. Woods was among its youngest members.

The Swinging Rays of Rhythm proved a popular act, with its proceeds supporting the school until splintering off to become the Sweethearts. Woods would later recall this split ruefully: In a 1995 interview with Sherri Tucker, author of Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s, she recalls that a pair of bookers from Washington, D.C., persuaded the band’s manager “that we should leave the school and let them manage us and then we would get a good income and things like that. Which they cheated us out of, you know.”

Woods made a life in Omaha, where she worked at the Douglas County Hospital for over three decades. With her husband, William Alfred Woods, she raised four children, who survive her: in addition to Cathy, they are Jacquelyn Marie Woods, William Alfred Woods and Dr. Robert Anthony Woods.

Though she never forgot the bitter taste of her experience as a touring musician, Woods acknowledged her place in history — notably in a 2011 panel discussion at the Smithsonian, co-moderated by her daughter.

“She was proud of her time in the band,” Hughes says. “She was proud of the music that they made. She was proud of the sisterhood that was formed with these women; they stayed friends until they all died. It was a bond that couldn’t be broken. Music was their common bond.”

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Facebook Launches Reels, Hoping To Lure TikTok Users

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Facebook Launches Reels, Hoping To Lure TikTok Users

Facebook’s new Reels feature allows users to create and share short videos, similar to TikTok.

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Facebook has launched its answer to TikTok, the wildly popular video-sharing app that the Trump administration considers a national security threat.

Reels is a new feature on Instagram, the photo-sharing app owned by Facebook. Like in TikTok, users can make short videos set to music, add filters and other effects, and easily share them.

The launch comes as TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company Bytedance, is under increased pressure from Washington. President Trump said on Monday that Bytedance must sell TikTok’s U.S. business by September 15 or shut it down entirely. Microsoft is among the potential buyers exploring a bid for the app’s U.S. operations.

Facebook has been testing Reels in Brazil for months and is now rolling it out in the U.S and dozens of other markets, including India, where TikTok was recently banned. It’s the second time the company has tried to take on TikTok; a previous attempt, Lasso, was shut down in July.

The launch also comes as regulators are examining whether Facebook and other big tech companies use their scale and dominance to unfairly disadvantage their rivals.

Reels is the latest in a long line of Facebook products and features that closely resemble other companies’ successful services. That includes Stories, similar to Snapchat’s Stories, which disappear after 24 hours, and Messenger Rooms, a video-call competitor to Zoom that also incorporates elements of the popular video app Houseparty.

Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, was pressed about that strategy last week at a congressional hearing examining the power of big tech. Asked by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-WA, if he copies competitors, Zuckerberg said Facebook, like other companies, has “adapted features that others have led in.”

Ahead of the hearing, TikTok’s CEO attacked Facebook for launching a “copycat product,” and accused the social media giant of trying to put it out of business.

Facebook is the world’s largest social network, with more than 3 billion people using one of its apps monthly, but TikTok has emerged in the past few years as the trendiest new social media platform for teens and millennials.

Editor’s note: Facebook is among NPR’s financial supporters.

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Satellite Images Show Aftermath Of Beirut Blast

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Satellite Images Show Aftermath Of Beirut Blast

Beruit’s port before (left) and after Tuesday’s explosion (right).

©2020 Maxar Technologies; BlackSky Global Monitoring


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©2020 Maxar Technologies; BlackSky Global Monitoring

New satellite photos show the aftermath of Tuesday’s massive, deadly explosion at the port of Beirut.

An image taken by the satellite company BlackSky shows extensive damage at the port following the blast. Several warehouses appear to be flattened and a cruise ship called the Orient Queen can be seen listing to one side, according to Allison Puccioni, an analyst and founder of Armillary Services, an independent firm partnered with BlackSky.

“The entire warehouse infrastructure is leveled,” Puccioni says. “You can see some of the foundation and load-bearing columns in some of the buildings, but it’s just demolished.”

In the image, debris can also be seen covering a main road over 1,000 feet south of the blast site, a sign of the explosion’s force. And Puccioni says heavy damage extends for over half a mile into the city. The blast killed at least 100 people and injured thousands more.

The BlackSky image and an image by commercial company Planet show a plume of smoke or debris still rising from the site around 8 a.m. local time Wednesday over 12 hours after the explosion occurred.

Before and after SkySat imagery shows the impact of yesterday’s explosion in Beirut.

Imagery captured on May 31, 2020 and today, August 5, 2020. pic.twitter.com/8zCLDOZn4w

— Planet (@planetlabs) August 5, 2020

Images taken later in the morning by the company Maxar show the main fire extinguished.

Reports suggest that the incident was triggered when a fire in one section of the port reached an enormous cache of ammonium nitrate fertilizer that had been offloaded months earlier. The explosion was so large that the U.S. Geological Survey registered it as a magnitude 3.3 earthquake.

A close-up of the port area by the commercial company Maxar.

©2020 Maxar Technologies


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©2020 Maxar Technologies

Videos and reports suggest the shock wave traveled miles from the site, and windows were reportedly rattled as far away as Cyprus.

The blast was so big that some feared it might have been nuclear. Independent analysts quickly dismissed those rumors, but preliminary calculations show the explosion could have been in the 0.2 to 0.6 kiloton range. By comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima 75 years ago this week was 15 kilotons.

The full extent of the damage is difficult to assess from space because of Beirut’s older buildings and compact layout, Puccioni says. Still, she is astounded by the size of the blast. “I haven’t seen anything quite like it.”

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Body Capital: How Twerking Shapes The Sound Of Southern Rap

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Body Capital: How Twerking Shapes The Sound Of Southern Rap

Twerking, and the music born in its image, creates a liberating space for those gathered on this side and the other.

Jahdai Kilkenny/NPR


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Jahdai Kilkenny/NPR

This essay is part of The South Got Something To Say: A Celebration Of Southern Rap, NPR Music’s canon of the best songs, albums and mixtapes by Southern rappers. The project — created by a team of Southern critics, scholars and writers and led by Briana Younger — is an enthusiastic celebration that recenters the South as a creative center in hip-hop and acknowledges the region’s wide-ranging contributions to the genre.


I grew up twerking in my room, at the skating rink, in a circle in the street and basically at any gathering where young people were alone with bass and new bodies. When I recently asked my 17-year-old about her twerk anthems, she sent over Zed Zilla and Jucee Froot’s “Shake Dat Ass,” which calls up the Miami Bass song by Splack Pack, and Shardaysa Jones’ “Gimme My Gots,” warning me that they may be too much for me. In response, I played for her some of my girlhood favorites: Uncle Luke’s “Scarred,” “B****** (Reply),” the femme reply to DJ Jimi’s “Where They At” and 2 Live Crew’s “Pop That Pussy.” I have subjected her to my twerking since she was born, but these staples, or the idea of me dancing to them in some cases when I was younger than she is now, made her conjure some pearls to clutch. “Mom, y’all’s generation…” she trailed off.

“Twerking,” the word DJ Jubilee offered for the ecstatic booty-bouncing, popping, gyrating and shaking movements on New Orleans dance floors, carries within it a recognition of and reverence for the rigorous labor involved in the process. To move requires the privilege of ability and skill as well as the permission and encouragement of the community. The sound has to be right to communicate and document what is necessary: healing or rage, death or birth, and all things overlapping and in between. Club dance floors clear rapidly if a beat is wrong; likewise, dancers in the South’s strip clubs determine which combinations of rhythm and words are the key to unlocking what they and/or their clients desire. This process, in turn, shapes a wide swath of Southern hip-hop and an overwhelming majority of its dance music. Strip club music, which makes up most of the popular music landscape today — with its heavy bass, trap claps like ass claps and stable of Southern blues men emcees with just enough of a country accent to make “shake that ass, b****” sound just like “I respect you, I love you and I am proud of you and you only” — is one of the South’s most widespread sonic exports. In and out of the club, everyone wants to make the sound that makes the girls dance. Everyone gets paid then, albeit unequally, in power, purse or pussy.

In this context, twerking is a kind of cyclical exchange in which songs are created to facilitate dancers’, which facilitates clients’, often men’s, pleasure, power and profit. Dancers receive some portion of the profit their labor generates, which is to say they are exploited within a capitalist system that keeps clubs, radio stations, promoters, rappers, the music industry at large and men’s egos afloat. This economic exchange overlays the everyday negotiations of gendered power in relationships. Several songs within the twerk music tradition have attempted to capture these dynamics. “It must be the pussy cuz it ain’t your face” from DJ Jimi’s 1992 bounce hit “Where They At” is met with “It must be the money cuz it ain’t your dick” on the aptly titled response song “B****** (Reply).” Twenty years later, Georgia producer Mike WiLL Made-It produces two similar tracks, one for Rihanna and the other for Juicy J, that became strip club anthems from the perspective of performers and patrons, with Rihanna embodying both: spender/spectator, earner/performer.

The Ying Yang Twins basically dedicated its entire twerk corpus, and most notably the classic “Whistle While You Twurk,” to documenting the exchanges across patron and dancer experiences. Offering encouragement for the laborers and recognizing the hazards of the job, the duo offers this tidbit, for instance: “Say them n***** in the club wanna hate / wanna touch her pussy never wanna pay / I said shawty, “f*** that n**** do ya thang / I see ya crunk, tiger stripe, G-string.'” Even if one is not aware that several levels of financial and symbolic capital exchange and exploitation feed powerful multinational corporations, these songs remind us that scores of decisions are made at the micro-level that influence and are influenced by these power structures.

We are fortunate to live at the same moment as two of the most prolific twerkers of all time, Big Freedia and Megan Thee Stallion. They are fluent in languages from both sides of the Atlantic — the chants, the rhythms, the drums, the movement, the adornment, the occasions, the occurrences, the rituals, ancient and future. They are at once dancers and emcees, word rappers and body rappers, stories of simultaneous sound and motion. Their sound movements tell us about the moment, whether after the devastation of Katrina or in the deep space of personal grief and mourning, encouraging us to keep going, listening, moving, purging, reconciling, returning ourselves to ourselves. Where two or three asses are gathered and thrown in a circle, there is God with them.

In the context of heteropatriarchal capitalism, twerking has been shorn of its spiritual and archival meanings and forced to signify Black femme excess, greed and lasciviousness. From Lizzo to Megan to Cardi B, femmes who twerk, whether they are globally famous or club unknowns, continue to be met with criticism for daring to shake their booties. Twerking is blamed for sexual violence against Black women, femmes and non-binary people (“If she wouldn’t have been doing all that nasty dancing…”); our economic despair (“You worried about twerking when you need to be worried about an education!”); our lack of morals (“These girls don’t know how to act because they mama’s out here twerking, too!”), “Black-on-Black” crime and gun violence (“If all these women wasn’t trying to twerk then maybe these kids wouldn’t be in the street killing each other!”) and whatever else ails Black communities. In turn, as the home and soundtrack of twerking, the South and Southern hip-hop are blamed for twisting a once staid inner-city protest genre from “fight the power” to “snap ya fingers, do your step.” Joy and play, and especially women and femmes’ joy in the movement of our own bodies, have no place in Black liberation.

In the West, following the Enlightenment idea of the mind-body dualism, there are binary, dichotomous, or entirely discrete portions of the self — the mind (mental) and the body (physical), which correspond with familiar, hierarchical binaries: Madonna/whore, straight/gay, logic/emotion, male/female, North/South. Twerking, then, might be interpreted as a failure or absence of the mind, which is normatively supreme, evidenced by its inability to control the body. The body, the flesh, is primitive, anti-intellectual, deviant, sinful, base and has no logic or agency. And without thought, without a mind — recall René Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” — does one even exist? Does the body? If neither exists, does the self? Does such a mindless self with an uncontrollable body have human rights?

Black theories of the relationship between bodies and minds make a different set of assumptions. The body is more than a betrayer that communicates, through unconscious movements, the full thoughts of the mind. Rather, the body, mind and spirit are one system, and thus the movement of the body cannot be isolated and interpreted separately. This philosophy is illustrated by the worship and spiritual practices of various West African groups, from which twerking is descended. Their worship, which we observe and understand in the West as “dancing,” includes bodily movements and their concomitant percussive elements and rituals and an occasion or moment to mark. When whites enslaved them, different African groups brought their respective practices with them to the U.S., South America and the Caribbean where they continued and were syncretized into Blackness.

Some of the best evidence of this syncretism, as well as of white folks’ offense at Black dancing, can be found in the history of New Orleans’ Congo Square. Bambara, Angolans and others of New Orleans’ Caribbean and African ethnic groups performed spirit rituals, of dance and drumming and chanting and adornment, on Sundays in open public space. White people being unable to translate what was being communicated in the rituals likely contributed to the construction of the gatherings as threats. Between the late 1830s and the late 1850s, congregating and dancing were systematically legislated out of existence through increasingly repressive surveillance. After Reconstruction, as local governments enshrined white supremacy into nearly every aspect of public life, Congo Square was renamed for a Confederate war leader Beauregard, which remained the official name of the space until six years after Hurricane Katrina.

It is fitting, then, that it is in New Orleans that this liberatory language of the body rose once again. The triumphant re-envisioning of this particular kind of dance in Black New Orleans was made possible by Uncle Luke and 2 Live Crew, whose pioneering Miami Bass music brought mass Black dancing out of clubs, house parties, music videos and the increasingly polished choreography of “Soul Train” and onto the beaches and streets of the American imagination. But it was New Orleans, that cosmopolitan amalgam of Caribbean and West African influences complemented by rhythmic horns, that returned it to the elevated center through the city’s DJs, emcees, and producers (including Jubilee, Mellow Mellow, Devious, and Jimi); a sample of “Drag Rap,” known widely as “Triggerman,” by New York City group The Showboys; the call-and-response movement of Black queer men and Black femmes; and the freeing leisure space of dancefloors improvised and staged. Mannie Fresh pushed this perfect combination of sound and movement beyond the banks of the Mississippi, producing the Twerk National Anthem, that genius reconciliation of bounce and gangsta music realities, “Back That Azz Up,” performed by Juvenile. From pussy popping contests at Crystal Palace in South Memphis to the top dancers at Atlanta’s Magic City, sound and ass were everywhere.

Ironically, if unsurprisingly, it was East Coast rappers who reacted with Cartesian disgust at the movement of Southern hip-hop. While they tolerated Miami Bass and certainly did not protest when they visited The Blue Flame, they chided their carnal, country cousins, left behind in the Great Migration, for their fear of white folks, their passive non-violence, their dancing and their anti-intellectual disregard for clever lyrics and the English language—essentially, for ruining hip-hop and making Black folks look bad in front of white folks. After all, the North, through Fat Joe, asserted that dancing was out and that instead we were doing the Rockaway, or “leaning back.” This dance supremacy was a clear demon-stration of Southerners’ unfitness for the inheritance of hip-hop, the exemplification of the Third Coast’s illegitimacy. But in the kind of hilarious cosmic vengeance only a Black femme God could bring, New York’s biggest hip-hop export in recent years was a stripper: Our Lady of the Twerk, Cardi B.

Twerking, and the music directly and indirectly born in its image, is sensual, pleasureful, expressive and percussive, and creates a liberating space for those gathered on this side and the other. By bringing the bottom to the top, the back to the front, twerking calls attention to the fallacy of the binary and its hierarchies, suggesting a third way, or perhaps the first and only way, of understanding the language of the body, and moreover, the language of the self or the human. So 55 ass claps for the twerkers, past, present and future, at house parties, in circles, in rituals, on stages big and small, in contests, and in their bathroom mirrors. Nine pussy pops in a handstand for the twerking rappers like Shardaysa, Megan, Freedia, Cardi and City Girls (whose “Twerk” anthem explicitly connects the birthplace of hip-hop to the birthplaces of booty-music). Hit ten splits for the women, savvy culture workers in and out of the club, whose names we may never know, and who may never get paid what they are owed, but whose labor and spiritual gifts are responsible for the soundtracks of our best and worst nights at the club. We owe them deference, acknowledgment, dollars and so much more not only for what they have done for hip-hop, but moreover for the joy and fullness and movement they have brought to our lives. When we say “the South got something to say,” we mean lyrics but we also always mean Southern bodies, or mind and body unified and reconciled in the being of a people. There is no Rosetta Stone.

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Progressive Activist Cori Bush Projected To Oust Longtime Missouri Rep. Lacy Clay

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Progressive Activist Cori Bush Projected To Oust Longtime Missouri Rep. Lacy Clay

In this 2017 file photo, Cori Bush speaks on a bullhorn to protesters outside the St. Louis Police Department headquarters. Bush is projected to top longtime Rep. William Lacy Clay in Missouri’s 1st Congressional District Democratic primary.

Jeff Roberson/AP


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Jeff Roberson/AP

Cori Bush, a nurse and Black Lives Matter activist, has ousted longtime Missouri U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay in a Democratic primary, The Associated Press projects.

It’s the latest example of a progressive challenger topping a long-tenured Democratic incumbent.

Clay has represented the state’s 1st Congressional District, around St. Louis, since 2001. He succeeded his father in representing the district.

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The younger Clay topped Bush by 20 percentage points in the 2018 primary, but Bush’s profile has risen since then, partly because of a documentary that also profiled New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Bush raised $562,309 for this year’s primary challenge — not too far behind the $740,525 Clay raised.

Bush was endorsed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; Justice Democrats, a group closely aligned with Ocasio-Cortez; and Jamaal Bowman, who dispatched with longtime New York Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel earlier this summer.

Clay’s backers, including fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus, maintain he’s “no moderate Democrat,” citing, for instance, his support of “Medicare for All.”

The district is very liberal, so it’s likely Bush will win November’s general election. In 2018, Clay topped a Republican challenger by 63 percentage points.

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Photos: Explosion Leaves Beirut In Shatters

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Photos: Explosion Leaves Beirut In Shatters

A large explosion rocked the Lebanese capital of Beirut on Tuesday. The blast, which rattled entire buildings and broke glass, was felt in several parts of the city.

Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images


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Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images

An enormous explosion shook Beirut, Lebanon, on Tuesday. At least 70 people are dead and at least 2,700 people were hurt, according to Minister of Health Hamad Hassan. The death toll is expected to rise as officials search for people who have been reported missing.

Buildings collapsed and glass shattered as helicopters and firefighters doused the flames in the city’s port. Hospitals were overwhelmed, and ambulances lined up to work on search-and-rescue operations.

Read the latest on the explosion in Beirut here.

A man walks through debris near the scene of the enormous explosion in Lebanon on Tuesday. At least 70 people were killed, and at least 2,700 people were hurt. The blast shattered windows and damaged buildings across a wide swath of Beirut.

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A firefighter checks a wounded man near the scene of the explosion in Beirut.

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Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images

A woman is assisted while walking through debris after Tuesday’s explosion in Beirut.

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Daniel Carde/Getty Images

Firefighters douse a fire at Beirut’s port. Hours after the blast, numerous Beirut hospitals are reportedly overwhelmed.

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STR/AFP via Getty Images

The blast destroyed a silo at the port in Beirut. Several hours after the blast, emergency crews still had not been able to reach all of the wounded people in their homes, the Lebanese Red Cross said.

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STR/AFP via Getty Images

Residents sweep glass off the sidewalk after the large explosion in Beirut. Images from the scene show that entire blocks of buildings were wrecked along the port, their structural supports crumpled by the blast. Numerous fires broke out, sending black smoke into the sky.

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A helicopter puts out a fire at the port in Beirut. Tuesday’s explosion was felt miles away.

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Lebanese Red Cross ambulances gather outside the Mohammad al-Amin Mosque in Beirut on Tuesday as they set up search-and-rescue operations for victims following the massive explosion.

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Neil Young Sues To Stop Trump Campaign From Using His Songs

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Neil Young Sues To Stop Trump Campaign From Using His Songs

Neil Young was among a number of artists who objected to Donald Trump using their songs during the 2016 campaign.

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One of America’s most beloved musicians, Neil Young, has filed a civil lawsuit against President Trump’s reelection campaign. Young’s mission: to get Trump supporters to stop rocking out to “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Devil’s Sidewalk” at his campaign events and rallies.

The copyright infringement lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in New York, was first reported by The Hollywood Reporter and is available to read in full on Young’s website.

This is not the first time that the Canadian-born Young has complained about Trump’s use of his songs for political ends. In 2016, Young was among a long list of artists, ranging from The Rolling Stones to Adele, who objected to the candidate playing their music on the campaign trail. (Young announced in January that he had become a U.S. citizen; he has also been a longtime supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders.)

Back then, however, Young told Reuters that he would have liked for Trump to have asked for his blessing. During that first campaign, Trump’s organization had made licensing agreements with the two main performance-rights organizations, ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.), which have traditionally covered the use of pop songs at political live events. (Songwriters and labels can prohibit the use of their music in political commercials.)

Young acknowledged that in the 2016 Reuters interview, saying: “He actually got a license to use it … So I got nothing against him. You know, once the music goes out, everybody can use it for anything.”

Young’s suit will serve as something of a test case for the copyright infringement argument, though his complaint also states that he “in good conscience cannot allow his music to be used as a ‘theme song’ for a divisive, un-American campaign of ignorance and hate.” Along with barring the Trump campaign from using his music, Young is asking for statutory damages.

His stance is buoyed by a growing unwillingness among musicians to have their work co-opted by politicians. Last month, a number of world-famous artists, from Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to Sia, signed an open letter to both the Republican and Democratic parties asking them to specifically “pledge that all candidates you support will seek consent from featured recording artists and songwriters before using their music in campaign and political settings.”

“This is not a new problem. Or a partisan one,” the letter continues. “Every election cycle brings stories of artists and songwriters frustrated to find their work being used in settings that suggest endorsement or support of political candidates without their permission or consent.”

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