“There are two ways to bring light to the world. One is to be the flame and the other is to be the mirror that reflects the flame. Jon Fromer is one of those rare individuals who is both.” — Will Durst
Legendary musician, union activist, Emmy-winning producer, skilled soccer player and social justice hero Jon Fromer passed away on January 2nd at his Mill Valley home after a long battle with cancer. He was 66 years old. Jon leaves behind his dedicated trade-union and social activist wife, Mary Fromer, who stood side by side with Jon throughout his career, and was a life partner who did everything in her power to defeat the cancer that took her husband. In addition, their son Mark and other family members who surrounded Jon with love in his struggle are mourning the loss of the hero who brought joy to all their lives.
Jon and his songs are well-known and loved across labor and civil rights communities. Jon first became involved with social justice at the age of 18 when he participated in the historic Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965. He dedicated his life to spreading a message of justice, solidarity and equality through his own style of music that combines rhythmic guitar, soulful folk sounds and powerful lyrics that capture the stories and the hearts of everyday men and women who are struggling for fairness and justice.
Jon helped found the Freedom Song Network in San Francisco and is also one of the founders of the Western Workers Labor Heritage Festival. In 2011, Jon received the Joe Hill Award from Labor Heritage Foundation and the Labor Arts Award from the Western Workers Labor Heritage Festival (an award that his father designed). He was also an Emmy award-winning TV producer and proud member of the Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG/AFTRA), National Association of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians- Communications Workers of America (NABET- CWA) Local 51 (where he was also a shop steward), as well as the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) local 1000.
Many of Jon’s songs have become anthems for the Labor Movement. His song “We Do the Work” became the title song for a long-running PBS series of the same name and also is included in the Smithsonian’s latest release “Classic Labor Songs.” It was the title song for a CD Jon released in 1998. His latest album, “Gonna Take Us All,” also speaks to the power of working together.
From the title tune:
“Gonna take us all to make a change
Take us all to win the peace
It’s gonna take us all in the streets
Gonna take us all…”
Jon’s nephew, Reed Fromer:
While never sharing the household-name status of a fair number of Bay Area musicians, [Jon] was in a rare, almost singular category as a singer-songwriter. People who got to experience his music knew they were being treated to one of the most talented, powerful, and transcendent performing artists of our time. There's no remote question in my mind that, had Jon ever proactively pursued a career as a solo artist, he would have reached a level of recognition and influence comparable to Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Joan Baez, or others of that stature. But his commitment to his core set of beliefs – civil rights and racial justice, workers' rights, opposition to war and empire – was such a primary consideration, such a top priority, that it would've been unthinkable to him to set aside his activism to go after commercial stardom. He was always most in his element playing and singing on a picket line, on a peace march, or in a Martin Luther King Day program.
San Mateo Labor Council Executive Director Shelley Kessler:
Jon was incredible musician, artist, performer and organizer. He did so much to promote labor culture; he was really an ambassador for cultural expression to build social justice… Jon always found a way to pull us out of our challenges and see optimism. He was the most giving & positive force I’ve even known, and he motivated and embraced so many people. He’s taken on lots of causes. He was a teacher. He was a humanitarian. He found good in everyone, and he made everyone feel welcome and a part of every situation. He wasn’t a snob; he didn’t believe in cliques. He sought out and fought for diversity at every level. He’s done so much to inspire so many people, but because of his humility, the nation doesn’t know him as well as they should.
I remember the rallies and marches he’s led…Didn’t matter if it was a big or small event. Even when he was going through chemo and radiation, he would show up. His life was about showing up. He was always there. If there was a struggle for justice and freedom, against oppression and discrimination, Jon was there. You don’t have a lot of people in this world that can inspire so many — and yet not have to have the light just shine on him.
Labor writer and folk musician Saul Schniderman of the Labor Heritage Foundation:
Dedicated to the movement for social justice and peace, Jon lived his life as an artist, a musician and a cultural worker. His deep voice and booming guitar were well known in the San Francisco Bay Area progressive community. On the picket line and at rallies Jon Fromer was an inspiration… Always imploring us to “keep singing and keep fighting” Jon believed that “music can capture the beauty and power of a struggle.” He joins Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, Malvina Reynolds and other great singers and songwriters whose music helped change the world. Wherever people raise their voices in songs of protest, the spirit of Jon Fromer will abound.
Western Workers Labor Heritage Festival Organizing Chair Nina Fendel:
Jon Fromer was a force of nature. His booming voice, rhythmic guitar, inspired songwriting, and sweet, joyful nature brought many of us onboard the Bay Area social justice train through music. He could be stubborn at times, but we always loved and appreciated him, and he freely expressed his love for and appreciation of others. He helped this child of the singing civil rights movement of the 50's and 60's find a musical, activist place in the Bay Area from the 80's on. I hope he's joyfully jamming in the great beyond with the others who have gone before, and that his memory will continue to inspire us to be links in the chain of the struggle for justice.
International Longshore & Warehouse Union Organizing Director Peter Olney:
Jon was a giant of a man! My only regret is that I didn't get to see him play soccer, his lifelong sports passion which he played at a very high level. The gusto he brought to life and music must have surely infected his play on the soccer pitch. He will live on in all of our dedication to the working class movement.
Musicians Pat Humphries and Sandy O. of Emma’s Revolution:
On the one hand, Jon was this really big presence with a strong and forceful approach… and on other hand, he had the most beautiful impish grin and was really very bashful and humble. All at once. He loved everybody. And his friends all felt incredibly embraced by him. He was a fabulous musician, with these really beautiful, deep and soulful songs about peoples’ lives and what really matters in their lives. He just compelled people with a huge amount of love and pulled them in with his songs to get them come along with whatever idea he had to convey. – Pat Humphries
Jon understood how powerful music can be to bring people together and keep enthusiasm strong — whether it was on a picket line or at the big concert we do in Georgia every year. It was always great to watch him get out and sing, and people couldn’t help but dance. He was powerful human being with a guitar in hands, and fantastic voice for any issue. Well miss him and it’s hard to grasp that he won’t be at all the concerts and places we’re used to seeing him. – Sandy O
Elise Bryant, Chair of the Labor Heritage Foundation:
Jon lived the life he sang about in his songs. He used his gift to uplift us all, and he never failed to bust a guitar string at every rally and picket he could get to. He’s one of the greatest singer-songwriters of our time. A true ‘soul man’ whose voice and hands never tired… and now his soul is rested. The work he did will always speak for the good he brought to the world.
Jon’s nephew Reed Fromer shares with us this brief biography of his late uncle:
Jon grew up in a family with deep roots in music and progressive activism. Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, and Studs Turkel were all family friends. At a very young age, Jon performed as a featured soloist with the San Francisco Boys' Chorus, sharing the stage with opera legends Maria Callas and Leontyne Price. At age 18, Jon, his brother Dave, and their friend Elbert Robinson formed a folk trio named Jonathan, David & Elbert. They toured with Henry Mancini and his orchestra and shared billing with the Beach Boys, John Denver, Jose Feliciano, Phil Ochs, Roger Miller, the Lovin' Spoonful, and other prominent artists. They recorded an album on the Philips label in '64, with then-session musician Glen Campbell on lead guitar.
Throughout the '70s and '80s, Jon produced highly influential and frequently honored youth-oriented TV shows for KRON-Channel 4. Git Box Tickle (later shortened to Git Box) and Just Kidding featured a rotating cast of young singers/hosts who performed hundreds of children's songs – almost all of them written by Jon. In the '80s, he created Home Turf, geared toward a more inner-city, teenage audience. The show, along with elevating its host (rapper Dominique di Prima) to Bay Area media stardom, served as a conduit between many Bay Area communities and the positive role models (musical or otherwise) that came from those communities. After KRON cut its local programming and became strictly an NBC affiliate, Jon moved to KQED and produced a wide range of weekly shows (The Durst Amendment, This Week in Northern California with Belva Davis, the science show Quest) and documentaries. He received one national and 13 regional Emmys.
Throughout his life, Jon has used his singing and songwriting talent to educate, to inspire, and to unite people toward the goal of creating a more peaceful, just, and humane world. Jon's commitment and his musical contribution to human rights were dramatically expressed in his participation in Martin Luther King's Selma-to-Montgomery March at age 18. He helped found the Freedom Song Network, a Bay Area association that has lent musical support to progressive causes for nearly 30 years. He was a driving force behind the Latino music celebration Encuentro del Canto Popular in San Francisco and the Western Workers' Labor Heritage Festival, held each January in Burlingame. He toured post-apartheid South Africa in 1997 with the Berkeley-based freedom-song choir Vukani Mawethu, also producing a documentary about their trip. He has been the primary musical organizer – right up to this past November, when he was otherwise in & out of the hospital – for the annual protests at the School of the Americas (referred to by the protest movement as “School of the Assassins”) in Ft. Benning, Georgia. In between his direct musical-political activism, Jon gave concerts and attracted a devoted following at folk music venues across the U.S., in Canada, and in Europe.
Additionally, Jon was a gifted improv comedian who performed with popular S.F. troupes such as the Pitschel Players and San Francisco Times. Over his final years, he completed his only novel, Gabriel's Horn, which will (hopefully) be published posthumously. In the midst of his composing, performing, activism, and TV work, Jon was also a gifted soccer player, selected as an alternate on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team.
But it's Jon's music – his depth and poetic skill as a songwriter and his unsurpassed power as a performer – that is his true legacy. A perfect summation came from an audience member: “The moment Jon starts singing, the entire audience feels united . . . they're immediately and deeply aware of their commonality.”
Jon’s legacy will live on through his music and all of the lives he touched and changed. The 2013 Western Workers Labor Heritage Festival on January 18th-20th is being dedicated to Jon’s memory, and the Labor Heritage Foundation’s upcoming inaugural ball in DC is being renamed to the “Gonna Take Us All” Inaugural Ball in Jon’s honor.
Learn more about Jon and listen to his music.