.New Deal Lyricist

Musician Alexis Harte reflects on the nature of private and public property

Alexis Harte said his latest song, “Your Rose Garden,” was inspired by an evening he spent in Berkeley’s Rose Garden. “I grew up in Berkeley and started playing guitar when I was 14,” he said. “The Rose Garden was a place of refuge for me.”

“During the pandemic, it became a refuge for me again,” he added. “I’d be with people, but not too close to them. I’d watch the sunset, enjoying the beauty of space and the full range of folks you find up there, from Nobel laureates to the same goofball teenagers I once was. One afternoon, there was a guy up there, kind of a tech bro. I saw him lean over to the woman he was with and say, ‘When I make my first billion, I’m gonna buy this place from the city so we can enjoy it without all these other people around.’ My hackles went up. I wanted to tell him he can’t buy it, because it’s already his, and it’s mine, too. That’s the beauty of it.”

The incident in the garden caused Harte to reflect on the nature of private and public property. “I got to thinking about our needs for public spaces and how, in the New Deal days, people paid a couple of dollars in taxes and helped build public spaces like the Rose Garden,” he said. “We all contributed a little bit and got something none of us could have bought on our own. It’s the best we do as a culture. New Deal projects like the Rose Garden exemplify those values beautifully.” 

Harte acknowledged how the Great Depression created a socioeconomic climate ripe for the New Deal, saying: “Franklin Delano Roosevelt had the foresight to know what future generations would need. During the Depression, roughly 12 million Americans were out of work. His administration created jobs for most of them, including artists, sculptors, painters and filmmakers. When Harry Hopkins, who was FDR’s man in charge of job creation, was asked why so many artists were included in jobs creation, he responded, ‘Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people!’”

“FDR’s administration created the Works Progress Administration and financed murals by Diego Rivera, photos by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, paintings and murals by Jackson Pollock, and bas reliefs in high schools, like the ones at Berkeley High, created by Lulu Braghetta,” Harte said. “The WPA also built parks like the Rose Garden. They did it all over the country, putting people to work by building these amazing things that we’ve enjoyed for almost a century now.” 

“We don’t do that anymore,” he added. “Despite impossible odds, (President Joe) Biden is trying, but we need to continue to fund larger projects that provide jobs now and create lasting benefits for people into the future. It’s not rocket science. The country did it before, so I know we can do it again, if the will is there.”

While Harte’s song, “Your Rose Garden,” isn’t exactly folk, the backing-band tracks are kept low in the mix for a sound that resembles a Woodie Guthrie tune that might have been written at the time the Rose Garden was being built. Harte’s vocal is complimented by country-style fingerpicking on an acoustic guitar. 

When he finished the song, Harte contacted his friend, director Josh Peterson, about making a film to compliment the values of the New Deal expressed in the lyrics. “It’s going to be a short film based on the song, but not really a video,” Harte said. “We got a grant from UC Berkeley’s Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund, and we’re working with the UC Cinematic Arts and Production Club, a hands-on student filmmaking group that will help with archival research and production support. 

“We’re also seeking contributions from the community, in the form of old family photos and home movies of people enjoying the Rose Garden over the last 90 years. It’s not going to be a documentary, but it will have some archival aspects, with montages of everyone’s experiences there. People can send things to our website: yourrosegarden.com/share,” he explained.

“We’ve also been partnering with the Living New Deal,” Harte added. “That organization has a comprehensive list of the thousands of New Deal projects around the country: buildings, parks, schools and playgrounds. We’d ultimately like to provide a platform for other songwriters, artists, filmmakers and storytellers to create living tributes to the New Deal and the great things it did for this country.”

Listen to ‘Your Rose Garden’ and Harte’s other songs on his Bandcamp page, alexisharte.bandcamp.com/track/your-rose-garden. Harte’s website is alexisharte.com. More information about the ‘Rose Garden’ film and project can be found at yourrosegarden.com.

j. poet
j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life and has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists, including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla.

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