Music, Message at Antinuclear Rally

by Sue Donoghue
Los Angeles Times
May 8, 1979

California's entertainment community lent an impressive delegation of artists to Sunday's antinuclear demonstration in the nation's capital, and it was clear, by the end of the afternoon that the show business contingent—Jane Fonda, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, John Hall, Dan Fogelberg and John Sebastian—was among the most knowledgeable of the rally's participants, and not about to be co-opted by the politicians in attendance, including Gov. Jerry Brown.

Gone were the days when politicians and entertainers joined forces to maximize publicity for a cause about which the artists, however sincerely committed, were badly informed. Not that the publicity factor isn't still operative; Sunday's event might have attracted fewer than 70,000 attendees without the drawing power of "name" entertainers. The difference, at the antinuclear demonstration, was the entertainers had been educating themselves and speaking out about the issue for as long, as or longer than, the polls.

At an impromptu press conference following the afternoon program of music and speeches on the Capitol steps, four of the musicians—Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash and John Hall—fielded questions about their involvement in the antinuclear movement. Deftly, but politely, they turned each question into an opportunity to respond with facts, figures and observations about the nuclear issue. Self-aggrandizement was not on the agenda.

Amid responses that cited the Rasmussen report, the WASH report of 1965, the solar power benefits never discussed in presidential energy addresses, the hazards of even minor radiation leakage, there were some questions that elicited softer, less data-filled answers.

Asked if he thought more musicians would join the antinuclear movement, Jackson Browne recited a litany of colleagues who were not present at the demonstration but are already deeply involved in the movement (James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Danny O'Keefe, the Grateful Dead, Jesse Colin Young, David Crosby), then went on to observe that it would be hard to fit all of them into one event, but that their presence served a great purpose even if people came only to hear the music, "it's interspersed with a message at they really have to be made aware of."

Did he think more musicians might write antinuclear songs but are worried about their careers? A patient "Naaaa…" from Browne. "You don't have to write antinuclear lyrics to write music that is an affirmation of life. Music is antinuclear. It's the most natural thing in the world. You don't have to write songs about nuclear power to be opposed to it. I'm sure it's going to be done, but . . ."

Graham Nash interrupted: "People are just going to react to their environment," he predicted, moving the topic away from too fine an argument about songwriting. "When Jackson and I did those benefits in Southern California, we were just eating and drinking and sleeping radiation information. It's got to come out somewhere, but, like Jackson says, music as a whole is an affirmation of life, and just for that purpose it's fantastic!"

Browne summed up his thoughts for the questioner. "You might write one or two songs dealing with the subject, and any of them are easily converted into anthems for a movement. But no one sits down... well, except for Francis Scott Key... no one sits down to write an anthem."

Joni Mitchell was asked how long she'd had strong feelings about nuclear power. "Since the early '50s," she answered. "The Crow on the Cradle," she points out, naming the song sung at the afternoon's rally, "comes from the ban the bomb movement. Since that time, I think that everybody, either consciously or subconsciously, has been disturbed about potential destruction... but I don't I think they expected it to come on friendly territory, from their own government."

"Interesting point ... good point," said Nash, approving the well-turned thought. Mitchell continued, "I came myself today, really, to be informed. I know that it (nuclear power) is dangerous, I know that it is ludicrous, but I want to know more about the alternatives."

The four musicians demonstrated a different kind of finesse when a reporter asked a question that touched on the presence of Gov. Brown—a late addition into the rally's list of speakers.

"Is this going to turn into a Jerry Brown for President movement," a reporter asked, "or is this an apolitical movement?"

Browne struggled to be diplomatic, but clearly had a definite opinion. "I hope that everybody's impression is like mine, that he (Brown) is here to show solidarity with the movement, and not to turn this into a campaign. I myself am not for his Presidency. This is not Jerry Brown day. I thought Dick Gregory was the outstanding speaker today…"

Later John Hall explained that the question of whether the performers are being co-opted was a sore point because, "We've been burned before."

"Now," said Hall, "we'd rather take it straight to the people. We want to talk to the people and let them talk to the politicians."

"We're involved because we have to be," Hall continued. "For entertainers and artists to have to come down here the way the scientists and housewives and mothers and grandmothers, labor organizers, children—all of us did —for us to have to come down here and to tell our leaders that they should follow us, is really symptomatic of what is going on."

Did Hall think that the bureaucracy could learn something about instinct and creativity from the artists?

"Yes. I think it doesn't even take all that much, either. A lot of creative thinking has already been done by the government and for the government by lower-echelon people, like the research studies that were done on solar energy."

Hall mentioned a few other government studies that point toward alternative energy sources, studies which no one ever seems to be aware of. "Creative thinking would certainly be nice and I'm never against it, but right now the main thing they could use is just some common sense."

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