Performing for Bread & Roses: Hello in There
I’ve been a supporter of Bread & Roses for just a few years. I helped MC its fund-raising acoustic festivals in 1979 and ‘80, at the Greek Theater at UC Berkeley, along with Mimi Fariña, and hosted coverage of the festival on NPR. I have a photo of Mimi and me backstage, with me laughing and her yawning.
Mimi was a fine entertainer who chose a different path—to share her gifts with others, with audiences who couldn’t easily get out to enjoy music or other entertainment. Working at Rolling Stone, where we often covered artists striving to hit the big time, or stay in the spotlight, I found it refreshing that Bread & Roses was on the flip side of the industry, providing free, live entertainment to thousands of people who were confined, and in no position to buy records or concert tickets.
Back in the late ‘70s, I didn’t do much public singing. Maybe a song for the magazine’s occasional “No Talent” shows. I did do a parody about our big scoop, Patty Hearst and the SLA, to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” at the Boarding House.
In the ‘90s, I busted loose (for a journalist), doing Dylan on a TV show, doing Elvis at weddings, onstage at Slim’s, at the Throckmorton Theatre (with Jules Broussard), in Dallas at a fundraiser BBQ, backed by Elvis’ last concert keyboardist, Tony Brown, and at a fundraiser for the Paris Review, alongside George Plimpton, Jessica Mitford and, on drums, Herb Caen. Music is fun-raising!
I got back with Bread & Roses in 2010. By then, Kurt Huget, a guitarist who programmed shows for Bread & Roses, and I had been performing, along with pianist George Yamasaki, for a few years, mainly for a group of seniors at the Berkeley Chinese Community Church.
In 2010, On Lok, which has several senior activity centers around San Francisco, called about doing a holiday show for Bread & Roses. We haven’t stopped since. We do mostly standards – by Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby and a guy whose records I consider standards: Elvis. So we always do “Blue Christmas.” We do “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” But we also sneak in parody songs, so that “Cover of Rolling Stone” is “Cover of AARP.” Hey, it fits the audience.
If we’re in Chinatown, I’ll speak a little Cantonese. If we’re in the Mission District, Kurt and I will pepper our remarks with Spanish. Audience members range from sleepy to spunky, and enough of them make requests, or get up and dance, that we’re happy to work, even if only for the lunches I buy before a show.
It’s now been ten years, and it doesn’t get old, even if the audiences and we do.
There’s always someone – or two or three -- who expresses appreciation. They realize that, just as they did for us, we gave them a little attention.
Those moments of mutual gratitude take me back to the great John Prine’s song, “Hello in There.” He sang about lonesome older folks sitting there, “waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there.’”
We are fortunate to be, sometimes, those someones.
By Ben Fong-Torres
Ben Fong-Torres is a DJ and programmer for Moonalice Radio, director of content at Music City Hit Factory, an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and, since TK, a member of Bread & Roses' Circle of Advisors. "I'm honored," he says, "to be part of an organization that does such wonderful and important work, and that I've been a fan of for over 40 years."
1) Ben Fong-Torres with Mimi Fariña circa 1979. Photo by Roger Ressmeyer
2) Ben Fong-Torres sings Love Me accompanied by Paul Liberatore at 2019 Circle of Advisors event. Video by Marian Hubler