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Does Anyone Know the Name Gabriel Prosser?

Talking music, the roots of resistance and direct action with Tim Barry

by Cameron Fenton

photo by Nicole Kibert (cc)
photo by Nicole Kibert (cc)
A "monument" to Gabriel
A "monument" to Gabriel

Montreal - On October 10, 1800 a man named Gabriel was hung at the corner of Broad and 15th street in Richmond, Virginia. Gabriel was the leader of one of the largest planned slave uprisings in the United States, where hundreds of enslaved and free blacks, along with a few white allies were to enter Richmond, capture the governor, and abolish slavery in the state Virginia. The uprising was crushed by a freak storm and the work of informants. Gabriel was captured and sent to his final resting place, beneath part of Interstate 95 and a Virginia Commonwealth University parking lot.  

Tim Barry, once the singer of the seminal hardcore band Avail and now playing his own blend of what has been dubbed “folk-punk” wants you to know Gabriel’s story.

“The first histories that I studied were those of people like Howard Zinn, Shelby Foote and other civil war historians and I ended up reading a lot of slave narratives,” Barry explained. “...it came from walking through the shoes of the same people, cooking in the same restaurants, cutting the same wood and living in the same houses as I did, with that said, the Gabriel song just kind of popped out by accident.”

The song, Prosser’s Gabriel, has implicated Barry in a community campaign to have the parking lot removed and the site turned into a memorial for the unknown number of people buried there. Nearby the parking lot lies the Oakwood Cemetery, a massive memorial home to the bodies of an estimated 18,000 Confederate Soldiers.

“I never realized when I wrote the song that it would have any impact at all,” he sad. “I finished it and I headed over to our local community radio station and played it on there, literally reading the lyrics as I was playing the song, just because I was sort professing myself to idiocy and the embarrassment of living in a city that is so disrespectful to the majority of people that live here.”

Barry explained that in October a day of protest and mass civil disobedience at the site – at which he was set to perform – was postponed so the community could confront city plans for the closure of a park used by a large number of community organizations to provide food for the Richmond homeless population. Of course, the campaign for the memorial has not ended, organizers in Richmond continue to put pressure on the city to, as Barry explains “correct the wrongs that [the city] has started by paving the area”.

Although impossible to pinpoint, one can be trace some of Barry's influences back to the early Washington, DC hardcore scene.

“In the 80’s, going to see Dag Nasty or Verbal Assault and a lot of these bands that were around back then you were surrounded by the politics of Washington’s punk community, there was always video showings, pamphlets or protests after shows, and it was a great initiation for me.”

Despite his own history, he retains a level of skepticism about how much this sort of intersection has remained between the music and the politics.

“For white Americans it almost seems like a fad to get caught up in the Earth First! or animal rights movement in your early twenties or radical politicking at that age,” he says. “I’m not saying its not a life-long investment, and it has been for me, but I don’t see too much when you cross over to the music or art community – and this isn’t a criticism, it might not be a bad thing – but it seems more like kids just want to get fucked up and make a party out of everything instead of there being much education involved.”

At the same time, the roots of struggle in the historical and present divisions in his home town, and often seem to cross over, even invisibly, into the music scene.

“The history of this are is based on the civil rights movement, its based on the slave trade all the way to slave labour in 2010 and you can’t help but get caught up in it, you can’t help but realize that we still live completely segregated.”

Growing up and living in many of Richmond’s poorer neighborhoods, the reality and history of the region was cast in stark relief.

“I just see things as so personal,” he explains, telling the story of an old job loading trucks. “One of the guys I worked with was a descendent of Nat Turner, who led a successful slave uprising, just working and listening to this guy it’s really fascinating to amend on a street level, as far as resistance I always see it as more of a personal way of getting to know one another in our achievements and our fights.”

This sort of sentiment translates easily into the folk tradition of story telling through music seen in a lot of Barry’s work, a shift from the more outwardly political lyrics of his previous group Avail.

“That transition wasn’t intentional at all, I kind of felt limited by Avail to do story songs, I tried to write some later on, but it didn’t really make sense to me or the listener,” Barry says. “I’m having a hell of a lot of fun with these story songs, and they aren’t really intentional they just kind of pop out like hollow-point bullets from my head.”

He points to one song that didn’t follow the spontaneous nature of his others, the song South Hill from the album Manchester.

“The song is essentially about the human costs of war and how the military preys on the poor to get them enlisted, to a point that it almost feels like conscription, and it is because it is so often based on the economic status of the person enlisting, that song I did research thoroughly,” he explains, having kept the song secret until the lyrics were read and reflected on by active duty military personnel and others who had spent time in Afghanistan and Iraq.  

Barry’s outlook, and his music by extension, echoes a famous pronouncement of the people's historian and organizer Howard Zinn -  that you can’t stay neutral on a moving train.

“Although I don’t think my music is overtly political it is – there are certain things you don’t lose, and when you understand the difference between right and wrong, or your version of right and wrong it stays with you for life.”

Prosser's Gabriel

Tim Barry plays on Friday, November 19th at Foufounes Electrique in Montreal with the Cavaliers and other guests. More information on the show can be found here.

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