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October 24, 2008

BILL MOYERS: All over our country people are hurting. The statistics of unemployment and foreclosures reveal the magnitude of the distress but not the individual experience of people who lose their paychecks one month and their home the next. For millions of Americans the daily struggle to make ends meet is normal, but these hard times now compound their distress beyond despair.

Last Sunday I stopped at a small Baptist church on the West Side of Manhattan, in the neighborhood known as Hell's Kitchen. For a hundred and fifty years this neighborhood has been cauldron of human life, made famous by waves of immigrants packed in tenements, clutching at scraps of opportunity among the slaughter houses, speakeasies, bordellos, breweries, gambling halls, and street gangs. Hell's Kitchen became notorious for murder and mayhem.

These days, the chic nestles with the tawdry "Diamonds on top of a dung heap," someone wrote: towering condos, rising above designer boutiques… trendy restaurants alongside worn old buildings like Metro Baptist Church on 40th street, right at the exit of the Lincoln Tunnel, where buses roar up from beneath the Hudson River into mid-town Manhattan.

The small congregation here offers after-school programs for neighborhood children, food pantries for the hungry, and on Sundays, a house of worship for people to sing, pray, and share their concerns for friends, kin and neighbors. There they were, all listed in the church bulletin, name after name:

The Alvarez Family, and their 16 year old daughter awaiting kidney transplant from her mother

Jean, brain tumor, surgery this week

Son of Willie, court date later this month

A friend of Katie, lost job at Lehman Brothers

Friend of Paula, marital problems

Wife of Charlie, Alzheimer's disease

Corinne, experienced short remission but cancer has returned

Ty, recently kicked out of home & discerning future

James, serving in Iraq

And on it went, a procession of personal dramas, as the buses rumbled up from the tunnel, the noise and fumes punctuating the service. The traffic made it hard at times to hear my old friend of 50 years, James Dunn, who was there to speak, but his message was lost on no one.

He spoke of "The humility that befits all humanity", "the hurt that afflicts every heart," and, "the hope that comes with community," an old theme in American history.

My friend said, "There is strength in the company of others, from "We, the people" to "We shall overcome." Back outside, on the streets of Hell's Kitchen, those names kept resonating in my head.

During lunch, I overheard people at a nearby table talking about the ugliness of our politics, and while I know this, too, is a recurring theme in American history, I tried to imagine how foreign this campaign must seem to the reality of everyday life for the Alvarez family, Willie, Corinne, James, and the others among that "fellowship of suffering" for whom life right now is a series of sighs and a stream of tears. How foreign and fraudulent the politics of sleaze, the polarizing almost savage pursuit of power that strokes the paranoia in us in order to divide and conquer.

When this election is over, no matter who wins, there will be much to repair, if we have the will for it. So it seems a good moment to introduce you to someone of the next generation who hasn't given up on either our humanity or our future together.

Mark Johnson is the co-director of a remarkable documentary about the simple but transformative power of music: PLAYING FOR CHANGE: PEACE THROUGH MUSIC.

MARK JOHNSON: Well I think music is the one thing that opens the door to bringing people to a place where they are all connected. It is easy to connect to the world through music, you know. Religion, politics, a lot of those things they seem to divide everybody…

BILL MOYERS: The film brings together musicians from around the world - from blues singers in a waterlogged New Orleans, to chamber groups in Moscow and a South African choir - they celebrate songs familiar and new, to touch something common in each of us. Here is one you might recognize:

Oh yeah, my darling, stand by me
No matter how much money you got, all the friends you got,
You're gonna need somebody, to stand by you
When the night has come. And the land is dark
And that moon is the only light we'll see
No I won't be afraid, no I won't shed one tear
Just as long as you people come and stand by me
And darlin', darlin', stand by me, oh stand by me
Oh stand, stand, stand by me
Come on stand by me
When the sky that we look upon
When she tumble and fall
Oh the mountains they should crumble into the sea
I won't cry, I won't cry, no I won't shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me
So darlin', darlin', stand by me, oh stand by me
Please stand, stand by me, stand by me
Oh baby baby,
Darlin', darlin', stand by me, oh stand by me
So darlin', darlin', stand, oh stand, oh stand, stand by me,
Come on stand by me
Stand, oh won't you stand, oh stand, stand by me, stand by me,
When the night has come, and the land is dark,
And the moon is the only light we'll see,
I won't be afraid, I won't be afraid,
Not as long, not as long as you stand by me

BILL MOYERS: The filmmaker is Mark Johnson. He's a Grammy award-winning producer and engineer and a film director who has worked with some of the most renowned musicians and producers in the field.

Mark, welcome to the JOURNAL.

MARK JOHNSON: Thank you so much. It's an honor to be here.

BILL MOYERS: What in the world prompted you to do this?

MARK JOHNSON: The idea came about ten years ago, here in New York City. I was in a subway station on my way to work. You know, every day in the subway, people are just running around like crazy to get wherever they have to go.

BILL MOYERS: Oh, tell me about it.

MARK JOHNSON: But this particular day, I was in the subway and I heard these two monks playing music. And they were painted head to toe, all in white, wearing robes. And one of them was playing a nylon guitar and the other one was singing in a language that I didn't understand and I imagine most people didn't understand.

BILL MOYERS: Everybody was just standing around. I've done that. Yeah.

MARK JOHNSON: You know, there were about 200 people just stopped. Didn't get on the train and started watching this music. And I looked around and I saw people with tears in their eyes. And I saw jaw dropping. And I just saw this collection. And it occurred to me that here is a group of people that would normally run by each other. And here they are, collectively coming together. And it's the music that brought them together.

So it really inspired me. And it occurred to me that when there's no separation between music and people, when music is just happening and people can walk by and it can affect them, that this is an opportunity for us to really find a way to bring people together.

BILL MOYERS: A hundred musicians took part, right?


BILL MOYERS: Ten years, it took you.

MARK JOHNSON: Ten years it took me.

BILL MOYERS: Did you ever think of just giving up?

MARK JOHNSON: You know, I remember, as I started this project, it started to build more and more importance. And I remember at some point or another, realizing that we were going to represent the eyes on the faces of the kids on this planet.

And that that was going to be our motivation. So there was no chance we were going to stop. Because the truth is, they need us to inspire each other and to create a better world. I mean, there's so many problems now with the economy and with war and a lot of depression. But at the end of the day, there's also so much hope because I can assure you, all over the world, people are beautiful and they want to unite together.

BILL MOYERS: But there are also some very ugly situations in the world. And you went into the heart of some of them. What took you to those places to try to sprinkle this hope you talk about?

MARK JOHNSON: Well, I think that in order to really unite people, you know, we have to show that in our darkest situations and in the places with the most struggles in the world, that we can find a way of uplifting each other out of it. I remember hearing somebody that said, you know, "The last person who knew why we were fighting died a long time ago."

We all know the world is changing. And we get to decide if it's changing for the better or if it's changing for the worse.

And so with music, it opens up these doors that ordinarily wouldn't be opened.

BILL MOYERS: Why did you choose "Stand by Me"?

MARK JOHNSON: I chose "Stand by Me" - or it chose me as it may have been, because I was walking in the streets in Santa Monica, California where I live. And I heard the singer, Roger Ridley, playing the song on the street. And I was maybe a block away, and I still heard him. And I remember running back over to catch the performance.

ROGER RIDLEY: No matter who you are. No matter where you go in life. You're going to need somebody to stand by you.

MARK JOHNSON: And when the song ended, you know, I was so moved by him, his voice sort of representing everything to me that music is, with soul and perseverance and talent all wrapped into one voice. So I approached Roger and I said, "Hey, you know, if I come back with some recording equipment and some cameras, I would love to take this song around the world and add other musicians to it."

BILL MOYERS: What do you hope comes from this?

MARK JOHNSON: Well, I mean, with Playing for Change, my ultimate thing would be that people understand that in a world with all this division, it's important for us to focus on our connections.

BILL MOYERS: You are starting some schools from this, called Playing for Change, right?

MARK JOHNSON: Many years back, my brother, Greg Johnson, who's been a huge source of inspiration for me, he had given me a Christmas gift which was a photo book called "A Day in the Life of Africa." And in that book was one photograph that he had framed for me.

And the caption was something along the lines of, "One of the more dangerous townships in South Africa finds solace through backyard jazz." And I had this picture on my wall for years. And it served as a symbol for me and for the crew that I was traveling me.

And so, I did some research. And I found out that the band leader was the upright bass player named Pokei Klaas. And he is the upright bass player you see in the "Stand by Me" video with the children in front of him.


MARK JOHNSON: And so when we traveled down to Cape Town, South Africa, and we were going to eat at a restaurant, and we heard this music down the street. So the crew and I, we walked down there to hear their music. And when the band was over, we asked Joe Peterson, who was the singer in the band, "Have you ever heard of Pokei?"

And he said, "Oh, yeah, Pokei. He's my best friend. I'll take you to see Pokei." So the next day, we all got in a van and we drove out to Guguletu township. Which is passing thousands of shacks and an incredibly humbling experience. And we went out there and we show up and we meet Pokei. I remember there were a number of little homes in the backyard. And a lot of sorrow because there was a lot of HIV in the area. A lot of poverty.

So we decided, okay, we'll put on a little concert in the backyard because the people here need something to celebrate.

And I have never in my life seen something more beautiful when the people came out of their little homes and just started dancing and celebrating this music. And it was almost a form of an exorcism where all the sorrow was gone and they were now filled with all this joy and connection to us and to each other. And so we asked Pokei, as we had all the musicians along the way, you know, "Well, what can we do to give back to your community?

I mean, they let us in their homes. They fed us. They give us their music. They told us their stories in the world. And Pokei said, you know, "The kids here, they really need a music school. They need some hope. They need something that can give them some inspiration." And so just this - a couple months ago we went down there with some shovels and we built the first Playing for Change music school in that exact spot. In the backyard.

And now it's a chance for kids to get together, to have something positive to look forward to. And what we're doing with this foundation is we're going build hundreds of schools around the world. And installing them all with recording equipment and cameras. So that people can log on to the internet and they can watch recitals and concerts in the schools we're building, to kind of break down that whole distance barrier.

BILL MOYERS: Did anybody ever say to you, "Mark, don't be naïve"?

MARK JOHNSON: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. But to me, naïve is thinking that there's any other choice. You know? The only choice we have is to come together. And to inspire each other because that's the way that we'll create a better world for us now and for the kids tomorrow.

And the other truth is, I mean, you know, a lot of people are living in a world of fear. But we don't even know how long we're going to be in this world. So there's really no reason to fear anything. The most important thing is while we're here, let's make a difference together. That's what Playing for Change is trying to represent.

BILL MOYERS: We'll link your Web site to our Web site at PBS.organd people can find out more about Playing for Change. What's next for you?

MARK JOHNSON: Well, to continue to build schools around the world. The beautiful thing about Playing for Change is that it never ends. And so that we're going to continue to connect more and more musicians around the world. Build the family together. And build more schools.

BILL MOYERS: Mark Johnson, we'll close with your favorite song on the DVD, "One Love."

MARK JOHNSON: Thank you, Bill.

One Love, One Heart
Let's get together and feel all right
Let's get together and feel all right
One Love, One Heart
Let's get together and feel all right
As it was in the beginning
So shall it be in the end
Let's get together and feel all right

Let them all pass off their dirty remarks
One Love
There is one question I'd really like to ask
One Heart

Is there a place for those hopeless sinner
Who has hurt all mankind just to save his own?
Believe me

One Love, One Heart
(Foreign Language)
I see the sun
(Foreign Language)
Let's get together and feel all right
(Foreign language)

BILL MOYERS: That's it for the JOURNAL.

I'm Bill Moyers, we'll see you next week.

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