A Note on the Annapolis Shooting, Roots Music, and the Free Press
Yesterday afternoon a gunman shot up a newspaper staff in Annapolis, Maryland.
The victims, all media members committed to a free press, are below.
Gerald Fischman, 61, editorial page editor
Rob Hiaasen, 59, features columnist and editor
John McNamara, 56, sports reporter and editor
Wendi Winters, 65, reporter and community columnist
Rebecca Smith, sales assistant
The murderer’s name is Jarrod W. Ramos. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, he committed the single most deadly attack on the American media on US soil.
The New York Times reported that the shooter had a long, spiteful relationship with the Capital Gazette, even attempting to sue the paper’s publishing company, Capital Gazette Communications, for defamation in 2012. The following year, the case was dismissed as, according to the Times, Ramos “showed no understanding of defamation law.”
Not that long ago, readers with differing opinions wrote letters to the editor when they wanted to share their thoughts. That has quickly morphed into verbal abuse hurled at writers, reporters, and editors on social media. And with these and other recent attacks on journalists, such threats are more frequently materializing from characters punched into a phone app to mortal devastation.
Like so many working musicians that we cover, No Depression receives its share of stick-to-music backlash and hate mail. But acts of violence and terror like this — which directly affect both media organizations like No Depression and that freedom of speech upon which our chosen musical subjects depend — force us to act.
As music journalists, it’s our responsibility to write about the most relevant stories in our field. It’s our job to listen and share new music and consider how older music still resonates. However, we are also tasked with identifying and reporting on issues in the music community. We are historiographers who look at how this incredible form of human expression serves as both a reflection and a reaction to what’s happening in the world around us.
As for the music itself, so much that No Depression covers is rooted in some sort of social commentary or inequality. Bluegrass and country music originated with European immigrants and flourished from America’s working poor. Soul and gospel and R&B came from oppressed people of color, many of whom have roots in Africa or the Caribbean. Folk music’s revival exploded during the anti-war movements of the 1960s. As Haitian-American cellist, singer, song-collector, and songwriter Leyla McCalla told me in recent interview, “I think it’s hard for me to see any creative work as not political.”
But even when roots music is not made with the intention of commenting on such issues, it often serves to bring people together as peaceful refuge — itself an act of self-preservation against the traumas of being. Sometimes music is a reaction the horrors of this world. Sometimes it’s an escape from them.
Just last week, I managed to find a single ticket to Paul Simon’s Homeward Bound farewell tour. I took to Twitter to juggle my own feelings and those seemingly incongruous functions of music. In fact, Simon’s music seems to represent both.
Two elements about the folksinger’s two-and-a-half-hour performance impressed me most. First was the range of musicians employed on the Homeward Bound tour. Simon worked with yMusic, a progressive chamber sextet based in New York City and musicians from Africa. He employed people of color and different genders. I’m sure they represent a range of faiths, too.
But secondly, watching the nearly 20,000 audience members lose their collective mind over these old songs filled my heart with the purest of joy. Singing along with everyone to “Graceland” and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” reminded me of the mobilizing power of a good melody. Creative expression, especially from coming someone like Simon who has traveled the world and bucked political boycotts to explore new cultures, is the hallmark of our freedom of speech.
That’s why, when violence enabled by the Second Amendment challenges the free speech and free press protected by the First Amendment, the future of all those who write or speak or sing becomes endangered. That’s why, when a gunman shoots up a newspaper staff in Annapolis, Maryland, we react.
There’s a message etched into one of the walls of the Newseum in Washington, DC, that empowers and encourages me every time I visit. It reads,
The free press is a cornerstone of democracy.
People have the need to know. Journalists have the right to tell.
Finding the facts can be difficult. Reporting the story can be dangerous.
Freedom includes the right to be outrageous. Responsibility includes the right to be fair.
News is history in the making. Journalists provide the first draft of history.
A free press, at its very best, reveals the truth.
Whether from a newspaper or music magazine or from a singer with three chords, the truth is all we’re trying to share. And we’re trying to do it with respect, for justice, and in peace.
To honor those lost in the Annapolis shooting and to support a free press, subscribe to the Capital Gazette and/or your local newspaper. No Depression is also an independent media organization that depends on readers like you. Subscribe to the quarterly journal or make a donation to the FreshGrass Foundation here.