Jon Fromer: A political life in song

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"Gonna take us all to make a change

Take us all to win the peace

Gonna take us all in the streets

Gonna take us all ... Gonna take us all

- Jon Fromer

SAN FRANCISCO - The Great Hall at the Unitarian Church was packed to the rafters Feb. 16 as hundreds gathered to pay tribute to singer-songwriter, soccer champ, and all-around progressive artist Jon Fromer, who died of stomach cancer Jan. 2 at his home in Mill Valley.

From opening remarks by Belva Davis - longtime host of KQED's This Week in Northern California, now retired - to a moving thank-you to the audience from Jon's wife of 42 years, Mary Fromer, the program was a testament to Fromer's rich contributions to people's struggles.

As audience members often sang along, Holly Near, Francisco Herrera, and the Vukani Mawethu choir performed songs by Fromer and others, and Fromer's brother and nephew, David and Reed Fromer, sang Fromer's last song, Harvest of My Soul.

Author and songwriter Bernard Gilbert's reading of a chapter from Fromer's as-yet unpublished novel - its existence a surprise to many in the audience - enthralled the room with vivid storytelling in a very different medium.

In a letter read by Herrera, Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of School of the Americas Watch, told how Fromer revived the spirits of fasting members of the group.

"Years ago, when the School of the Americas Watch movement was just getting started," Bourgeois wrote, "a group of us were on a 40-day fast on the steps of the Capitol at Washington DC. Two weeks into the fast, our bodies grew weak, and our morale was down. And then out of nowhere this guy showed up with his guitar and he started singing!

"I will never forget that moment. Everyone perked up and came to life. Jon was like an angel who appeared and uplifted our spirits ... And that he did every year, and uplifted the spirits of thousands with love and hope.

"This November when we gather at the gates of Ft. Benning, we will call out his name: Jon Fromer, presente!"

California Labor Federation head Art Pulaski called Fromer "labor's superhero ... Like a one-man cavalry, he would fly in when we were down, when we felt this battle, this strike, was almost defeated ... and lift us up on his shoulders and carry us forward on the battlefield for justice. Eight minutes with Jon was better than two dozen speaking heads."

As a TV producer, including several kids' shows, Fromer won 13 Northern California Emmys, one national Emmy and two Iris awards from the National Association of Television Program Executives.

A facet of Fromer's life that wasn't as well known as his singing and songwriting was his athletic prowess. He was on the U.S. National Soccer Team and was an alternate on the 1976 U.S. Men's Olympic Soccer Team.

Born in Chicago in 1946, Fromer grew up in San Francisco. In 1965, he marched from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. with civil rights marchers, kick-starting his life-long devotion to fighting for justice through song.

Besides his musical and athletic activities, he also performed with improv comedy groups - an aspect of his life highlighted at the memorial by improv artists Diane Amos and Chris Pray.

In 2011, he received the Joe Hill Award from the Labor Heritage Foundation and the Labor Arts Award from the Western Workers Labor Heritage Festival.

Besides his wife and brother, Fromer is survived by his son, Mark Mackbee, grandson Shay Macbee, and a sister, Ann Fromer-Spake.

Photo: Laborheritage.org

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