Mike Pallamary
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Mike Pallamary

San Diego, California, United States

San Diego, California, United States
Band Folk Acoustic


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"Adams Avenue Roots and Folk Festival"


This year's Adams Avenue Roots & Folk Festival showcases songs as an instrument of change

By Mikel Toombs - April 19, 2007

“Folk” has reasserted its place in the Adams Avenue Roots & Folk Festival, not without a little protest.

The word actually re-emerged last year, taking the weekend-long event back to its, ahem, roots as the San Diego Folk Festival. (The “34th annual” in the title counts Folk Fests at San Diego State University and in Balboa Park.)

The returning headliners include Carolyn Hester, once a poster girl for the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene and now a Los Angeles club owner, and Southern-string-band champion Mike Seeger.

The brother of Peggy and half-brother of folk icon Pete, Seeger declares of the festival, “I love that there's such a wide variety of roots-based music. And it's free.” Festival founder Lou Curtiss, he adds, “usually includes the entire spectrum of ages, which I think is great.”

Meanwhile, the “protest” mentioned above doesn't refer to anyone's objections to the renaming, but to this year's emphasis on music as a force for social change. Curtiss, also the owner of the invaluable Folk Arts Rare Records on Adams Avenue, will host a Sunday afternoon workshop, in the Normal Heights Methodist Church Social Hall, titled “War, Racism, Sexism and Inequality: The Role of Music.”

The workshop's panel will include Guy and Candie Carawan, festival headliners and veterans of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and Ross Altman, a Los Angeles music historian and performer who bills himself as a “singer-songfighter.”

“I don't know whether it's a chicken or egg thing, whether music is called into it or helps to create it. I know that music has been a part of every social struggle,” said Altman, who performs Saturday on the festival's DiMilles Stage.

“I know that in the civil rights movement, music inspired people to take tremendous personal risks. And on every demonstration, outside jail cells with police dogs on the streets, with firehoses on them, people were singing. And people were singing in jails.

“So there certainly is something about music that helps to inspire people to face down tremendous odds. And I think it's best pictured in situations like that, more so than just one singer at a demonstration singing 'We Shall Overcome.' There are situations where the power of music is palpable, and that's what gives me the confidence that I'm not wasting my time.”

Altman, briefly a high-school teacher and college professor, points to historical precedent in the African-American spirituals born of slavery and then the Underground Railroad. He traces a path through the labor anthems sparked by Joe Hill and, of course, Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl ballads.

Songwriter Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter and the Weavers named the tune in the 1950s, thanks to the phenomenally successful “Goodnight, Irene.” And in the turbulent 1960s, both the civil rights movement and opposition to the war in Vietnam led to an outpouring of protest music, driving the early career of Bob Dylan and that of the late Phil Ochs.

Today, one wonders if the ongoing conflict in Iraq might inspire musicians in a similar fashion.

“I wouldn't say it's inspired me, but it has reinvigorated me. I've written a lot of songs about that, and I know that they have been coming out all over the country,” Altman said. “So, yes, the Iraq war is substantial enough that it's had a similar kind of effect.”

Sometimes, there are ways to measure such things. Mike Pallamary, a fledgling local singer-songwriter who performs Sunday on the Di Mille's Stage, has seen his antiwar anthem “Hero” rise to the Top 20 (out of over 1,700 songs posted) on Neil Young's Web page Living With War; the long-outspoken musician features the forum on his official site, www.neilyoung.com.

“I listened to Neil Young yesterday, his (live in 1971) 'Massey Hall' album, and he did that acoustic version of '(Four Dead in) Ohio.' You just listen to that and you start shivering,” Pallamary said.

“Neil Young is phenomenal and he's a phenomenal inspiration in a great many ways. One is, he's not backed down. He's been unwavering in his position. And his music is still innovative and fresh.”

Pallamary, who has a MySpace page – www.myspace.com/mikepallamary – that includes such fresh material as “We Don't Need Another Wall” (referring to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial), would seem an unlikely protest singer.

“When I started playing my songs,” he said, “I had some friends who said, 'Gee, how could you be against the war? You're a Republican.' And I said, 'Well, I'm first and foremost a parent and a grandparent.' How could anyone of any political persuasion believe that death and killing is something to be admired or even desired?”

Pallamary is just not any Republican, but a former member of the San Diego political establishment. As spokesman for then-Mayor Dick Murphy, he was an early favorite in the 2001 District 6 City Council race, eventually won in a runoff by Donna Frye (Pallamary finished third in a 12-candidate field).

“The problem with politics is, of course, if you have a good position or a position that has merit, you will probably be attacked,” Pallamary said. “If they disagree with you, they will find a reason to invalidate your position. With music and my songs, I can just put them out, and if people disagree with them, don't listen to me, turn me off. But they can't stop me from saying the things that I feel that need to be said or I want to say.”

Pallamary, 53, sounds like a naive young idealist next to Altman, whose family experienced the so-called red scare firsthand when his father, lawyer George T. Altman, was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 and subsequently blacklisted.

“You know, 'Study War No More' is a Civil War song, a black American Civil War song, and that's one of the greatest antiwar songs in history. Leadbelly's 'Bourgeois Blues' was a song about the Jim Crow South, right in the heart of it. And he lived it,” Altman said.

“There's a difference between the kinds of songs that came out of the lives of people who actually confronted those issues, and people, to some extent like me, who are commentators. So that's why I continue to do the old songs, as well as write my own songs, because you really can't outdo the kind of songs that came out of Leadbelly's life or the lives of the slaves.”


Mikel Toombs is a Seattle writer.

- San Diego Union Tribune


My song HERO is featured on Neil Young's Living with War website.



Mike grew up in Boston, Massachusetts where he observed the great acoustic acts that came out of that incredible community.

Mike spent many years raising a family and devoting himself to fatherhood and building up his business. He has returned to his musical muse. Today he is a prolific songwriter covering many topical subjects.

His song HERO entered Neil Young's Living with War website http://www.neilyoung.com/lwwtoday/ at number 80. As of February, 2007, his song rose to number 12 on the charts.

His new song WE DON'T NEED ANOTHER WALL is receiving considerable attention.