Share the wealth

Over the weekend I went to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate park, which is a free festival with several stages and upwards of 750,000 people in attedance (the Examiner says 800,000). A columnist in SF Chronicle wonders if this means it is getting too big since this number was "nearly the population of San Francisco".

The "free" part helps the crowds, no doubt, but the line-up was all A list bands and the whole experience was a lot of fun.

There were I think six total stages, I listened mostly to the bluegrass. I think Ricky Skaggs put on the best show of the bluegrass bands. He played almost entirely Stanley Brothers songs, all very traditional bluegrass and all very well played of course. Ralph Stanley played his usual set without any surprises, always good to hear him. Though I was sad Jack Cooke wasn't there. Earl Scruggs played and was not really up to it anymore, but he is 85 years old and I am glad to have gotten to see him before he goes on to his reward. I am sure he was stoked to be on a stage in front of that many people. Hazel Dickens sounded great, of course.

Maybe the best set I saw overall was the Knitters, which is John Doe and Exene Cervenka's country band, they sounded great and really put on a fine show with some great song choices and some key X songs too. (though, truth be told, their version of "Rank Strangers" was rough. Nobody can sing that song right except Ralph.)

That festival was, without a doubt, the most people I have ever been around in a single space, it was crazy how huge that crowd was. But it was amazingly orderly and low key despite the crush of people.

That mellowness was probably helped by the constant and quite enormous clouds of marijuana smoke drifting over the crowd the entire day. It is illegal to smoke tobacco in the Park, which they kept announcing from the stage. Then they would ask people to be courteous if they were smoking weed, so as not to blow the smoke on other people. It was, to be sure, a true SF experience.

The festival is put on by a local billionaire named Warren Hellman as his gift to the city. He is a bluegrass and old time music fan, and plays some old time banjo (he sat it with Earl Scruggs and played, competently, "soldiers joy"). The fact that he puts on this free concert, which according to the local paper is the biggest concert in the U.S., is in itself is amazing. Must be nice to be a billionaire.

It would make sense if all clawhammer banjo players were billionaires. That would be a just world. There would be a whole lot more of everything good, in that case.

Billy Bragg played at the festival and made some fatuous comment about how great it was to have this major music festival not sponsored by a corporation. Everybody cheered.

I wanted to ask him if he thinks it is better to have such insane levels of personal wealth in a country that one guy can throw a free party for 800,000 people without breaking a sweat while the state it happening in is actually bankrupt and furloughing people, the education system is being hollowed, the air and water poisoned, etc.

Might those funds be better spent if the public got a hold of them to fix the social pathologies of this state? Is an oligarchical system generating limitless wealth for the few better? Working class hero Billy Bragg seems to think so. Wouldn't, perhaps, a publicly owned corporation constrained by local, state, and national governance being a good corporate citizen by sponsoring an event be more welcome than a billionaire aristocrat dribbling funds on a grateful and adoring peasantry only too happy to be shown the grace of his generosity? Just wondering.

On the other hand, if he has to spend it, better on music for 800,000 than a private island somewhere.


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