Exorcism at Boston’s Old West Church, All Hallows Eve 1971

First, it seems one should freeze the time. To do so places them in the autumn of 1971. October 31, exactly. All Hallows Eve. Nineteen months previous, Ohio National Guard troops had killed four college students in Kent, Ohio. Others in Jackson, Mississippi were murdered in the weeks that followed. The students were among millions across the United States protesting the expansion of the US war on the people of southeast Asia. A mere six months before tens of thousands had blocked the streets of Washington DC in a righteous and angry protest against that same war. The more spiritual amongst the millions opposed to the orgy of blood and death in those Asian lands were at least as frustrated as those setting off bombs in government buildings. The generals continued to send their pawns into battle; the war industry reveled in an orgy of profits.

That evening, October 31, 1971. The Old West Church on Cambridge St. in the West End of Boston, Massachusetts a service is beginning. The vision of jazz musicians Mark Harvey (also a Methodist minister), Peter Bloom, Craig Ellis and Michael Standish, it is titled A Rite for All Souls. Part of Harvey’s jazz ministry, this musical prayer is a call for healing and end to war. October 31 is All Hallows Eve. According to folk myths the souls of the dead roam the night joined by fellow spirits good, evil and otherwise. Harvey plays various brass instruments; Bloom is on the woodwinds and Ellis and Standish are masters of percussion.

This work is a fully realized improvisation as bewitching as the evening it was performed. An incantation is recited over an unsettling beat of the percussion is replaced by an equally unsettling wail of wind forced through reeds and mouthpiece. It is easily the sound of demons battling to keep their hold on humankind; demons of war, hunger and the greed and hatred from which they derive their power.

The liner notes of this beautifully packaged CD quote the artists’ concern with the divide present in the USA at the time. Generational, political, cultural and racial, it was a divide now once again familiar to US residents. A divide informed by a challenge to the warmongers, the Wall street profiteers and the preachers of hate. The divide is always heightened when opposition to these demonic creatures whose greed and bloodlust defines their souls reaches a point they fear. When it comes to a point that might spell their end. It is a fissure this music strives to bridge. Yet, even resolution is rarely achieved. Instead, a cry occasionally sonorous and occasionally not is the essence of this performance, this work. It does not heal or even bridge this canyon, although it describes it in a powerful disturbing and wondrous way. Like the war it reproaches, the performance is seemingly chaotic. Yet, it creates an order that becomes more apparent as the music evolves; the same cannot be said about the war it describes. Perhaps the butterfly effect where a handclap in Brazil creates a thunderclap in Los Angeles is at work here. Maybe these artists Rite for All Souls results in an eventual peace in Southeast Asia. This performance as but one part of a concerted, massive and multifaceted protest against the bloodshed, the bodies piling up, the theater of murder wrought large, the napalm that burns human flesh, adult and child alike.

Or, as Craig Ellis, one of the composer/performers writes in the notes and intones in the piece: “OH THE ROSES AND THE CHILDREN/how it clings/there/to the skin/like a flower/the flesh/curling/falling away….” It’s ghastly in its description—as it should be—as ghastly as words can possibly describe the act itself. The music too evokes the pain of the holocaust’s ovens falling from the sky. (Comparing the dropping of napalm on innocents and the burning of human flesh that is its purpose to the ovens of Nazi Germany became a common understanding among those protesting the US war on Vietnam. Similar comparisons were made during the early years of the US occupation of Iraq in relation to the Pentagon’s use of the banned white phosphorus chemical.)

The final movement opens with a recitation of the William Butler Yeats poem “The Second Coming.” “What rough beast, its hour come round at last….” is slouching towards some Bethlehem. I cannot help but think of Creedence Clearwater’s John Fogerty in their song “Run Through the Jungle” where “Two hundred million guns are loaded” and Satan cries “take aim.” Behind the widening gyre and blood-dimmed tide a jazz attack is launched and the ceremony of innocence is lost. The cascade of song resolves itself in a chaotic and discomforting melody wandering towards some end. Dedicated to the Greek god of song and fire and the ferryman Charon, the deathly beast of Yeats poem takes the Souls of humans wasted in war across the rivers Styx and Acheron to the land of the dead. As woodwinds trade mournful melodies with a trumpet; life disappears in silence and sound. The song itself is over. Is the rite complete?

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com