Tom McKone: Jackson Browne, in Burlington July 11, goes all in

This commentary is by Tom McKone of Montpelier, who is a former English teacher, principal and library administrator.

There are famous people who — on the side — lend their name to raise money or awareness for some good cause; Jackson Browne is not one of them. From his antinuclear activism since the 1970s, to joining Occupy Wall Street protesters in 2011, to pleading for the oceans today and much more along the way, Browne has always worn his heart on his sleeve. 

There is no “on the side” for Browne; he goes all in, with his music, his conscience, his passions, and his gifted songwriting bleeding together. While our country has been running on empty for decades, he has never stopped calling us out and calling for a better world.

In September 2018, my brother Larry and I attended the ceremony where Promoting Enduring Peace presented the Gandhi Peace Award to Browne “for his extraordinary contributions of time and talent to the inseparable causes of world peace, environmental harmony, and social justice.”

He has performed and sometimes written or recorded songs to support many causes, including efforts to save old-growth redwoods, rivers, the oceans; to promote women’s rights and human rights; to help community health centers and to support the arts and the arts in public schools; to defend biodiversity and to oppose single-use plastics; to abolish the death penalty, to march for peace and to demonstrate against war. 

He has been doing this for decades and has supported scores of efforts and organizations.

“With all in the world that needs fixing,” Browne said in his acceptance speech, “I’ve always been drawn to those who are willing to try, those who see what must be done and search for the solutions. … Activists who take on a particular issue and work on it tirelessly … organizing and reaching others with the information and the passion and the hope that is required to create change.”

“My part of this work has been to help bring people together — music is good for that,” he said, adding that it can be good for raising both spirits and money. “But it can’t be just your community. We need to find common cause and make alliances with those who can aid our individual struggles, and we need to show up for each other. 

“Climate change activists need to show up for Black Lives Matter. Ocean health advocates need to be involved in the struggle to end the school-to-prison pipeline. Environmentalists need to be in the fight for human rights. We need to look beyond our individual battlegrounds and see the bigger picture.” 

A current project to earn Browne’s support is Jay Craven’s new film, “Lost Nation,” which Kingdom County Productions describes as “a multiracial narrative set in New England during the American Revolution. Its potent and timely story charts the parallel and intersecting journeys of enigmatic, larger-than-life Vermont founding father Ethan Allen, and early Vermont woman-of-words Lucy Terry Prince, whose poem, ‘Bars Fight,’ is the first known work of African American literature.” 

Kingdom County Productions is producing “Lost Nation” through its unique Semester Cinema program, in which 30 professionals mentor and collaborate with 45 students from 14 colleges to make the film. Browne’s July 11 benefit performance at the Flynn Theater in Burlington sold out the day tickets went on sale.

We go to concerts for the music, of course. I have seen Browne perform both with a band and in solo acoustic shows; the two are very different experiences, but always fulfilling. The setlists on music websites show that the current tour includes — not surprisingly — a mix of Browne’s classic songs and newer ones. Although several respond directly to political or social issues, most of the two dozen songs he’s playing do not. The tour marks the 50th anniversary of Browne’s eponymous first album, from which he is playing three classics.

Browne has an abundance of his own songs, so it’s significant when he plays one someone else wrote. Such is the case with “I Am a Patriot,” the Little Steven (Steven Van Zandt) song that music websites report he is using to close the first half of the show. Browne recorded the song for his 1989 album, “World in Motion,” and has periodically played it in concert. It includes the lines:

I was walking with my brother
And he wondered what’s on my mind
I said what I believe in my soul
Ain’t what I see with my eyes
And we can’t turn our backs this time

In his most recent album, “Downhill From Everywhere,” Browne’s social and political consciousness stands out in several songs, including three of those he’s playing on this tour: the title song, about our assault on the oceans; “The Dreamer,” about the plight of migrants; and “Until Justice Is Real,” which is about the lamentable state of our democracy. “What’ll you put up with — what’ll you allow?”

“I’ve been involved in various struggles, and I’ve been involved in various issues,” Browne said in his Gandhi Peace Award speech, “but actually they are just one issue: Whether freedom and prosperity, a safe and healthy environment, and equality under the law belong to everyone or to just a few. That’s it.”

Putting aside the background about an award ceremony and speeches, a Jackson Browne concert is all about the music. The songs make us feel good, and sometimes they encourage us to listen to our hearts, to think about where we are with our families and friends and how we are living our lives. And maybe they inspire and energize us.

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