Q: So, you’re a troublemaker.
“Oh yeah. As a matter of fact I started when I was ….”
Terry Sullivan, a singer, activist and plumber, pauses and thumbs through some notes. On St. Patrick’s Day, Sullivan will share songs and stories of the season at Cormaria Retreat Center in Sag Harbor. He also recently completed a 10-part video series for LTV in East Hampton in which he recounts events in his life where he says he found himself confronted by figures of authority that never failed to abuse their positions. Its title, “Whatever You Say, Say Nothin’,” is taken from a song by Irish singer-songwriter Colum Sands, who in turn was inspired by a poem of the same name by Seamus Heaney.
“Here it is,” says Sullivan, who lives in Sag Harbor. “I wanted to read this:
“This first-person film, set in the 1950s reminds us how Catholic grammar schools insisted on blind obedience. The system was a bully, thriving on parents and children being shamed into silence (“Whatever You Say, Say Nothin’”). The author’s answer was resistance, mocking his tormentors as the twisted paper tigers they were. Starting as early as 5 years old, he fought against their unfairness; and found standing up for yourself was its own reward. But those powers insisted on, ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothin’.”
Q: You’ve had run-ins all your life with authority that you perceive as abusing its power, from your father, to the military to the Catholic Church, is that correct?
“The first thing I speak of is my father, who was not a drunk, but was smart enough. He had a master’s in English literature. But, this was 1939, he couldn’t get a job. So his father told him, when he got my mother pregnant out of wedlock, that he could stay at my grandfather’s house, but he’d have to get a civil service job immediately. So the first test was for the NYPD. And of the 29,874 recruits, he got the highest mark.
“So he knew how to take tests and he knew how to study.
“Gives you an idea of what I was up against.”
Q: You start off the final episode of your series with a tale about your father, his bullying and at times brutal manner of discipline. You talk about him thumping you in the head with his finger if he didn’t like what you were saying, then actually bouncing your head against a brick wall. Is this your first memory of standing up to authority?
“Yeah. I was 5 years old then. The second time I told him — and talk about a Pyrrhic victory — I wasn’t going to cry anymore. That was the only type of victory you were going to get with him.
“That episode ends with me singing with Pete Seeger, and singing with Pete was the ultimate victory for me; to have worked 24 years with a guy who my father destroyed three of his albums. He would just hear it playing, walk in, and take it off and throw it against the wall.”
Q: You mentioned that his actions were backed up by the school. Did the school actually know your father behaved this way?
“The school was behaving just as badly. There’s another story in the first half hour about a nun — nuns, you know, choose their own name — and this nun chose the name Kevin, which is a little butch. But then the second nun is called John Michael. So these were tough ladies and they seemed to enjoy this.
“This one gal had what she called the cooler. Now if you were caught making other kids laugh, which I was doing all the time, or just talking in class, she would take you up this cast iron set of stairs, that was about 25 feet above our class, right next to the auditorium, up in the wings and rigging, where she had a steel milk box, and you went up there, and you dropped trousers and underwear — now she was in charge of sixth grade, so 12-year-olds. One time she took me up there, and it was, you know, lean over the milk box, and she smacks you with a yardstick, and this yardstick was a three-quarter-inch — you know those type — and she’d whack you on the butt. This time she’s winding up, and she’s hit me about four or five times, and the sixth time she hit me in the testicles. I was screaming, and I took the milk box and flung it the 25 feet down to the stage of the auditorium.”
Q: Here are these two stories, your father who thumped your head against a brick wall and the nun who beat you with a wooden yard stick, what do you see as the point of your resistance?
“First of all, I took that steel milk box, and as I threw it, I said ‘No more!’ And just as a coincidence no one went to the cooler the rest of that year. It was revealed to Mother Adelaide, who was in charge of the whole nunnery, that Sister Kevin was doing more than she had permission to do.
“Mother Adelaide was a lot more forgiving and understanding. So frequently I would seek out that person and they would help me. That’s why I think I didn’t go crazy.
“But that’s what happens with people like this.”
Q: What do you mean by that?
“People who get beat, and they don’t have any adult who says, ‘No, that’s not right.’”
Q: So what happens to people like that?
“They have no relief, they’re just alone. Every once in a while, they’ll find an adult. Like, in my case, my Uncle Jerry, who was very kind to me, and he understood my father was not nice. But you need those people every once in a while, otherwise you feel like the world that’s punishing you is right.”
Q: If you are resisting something, what is the result, what is the benefit of your resistance?
“You stand up for yourself. It’s its own reward. That’s in the statement, ‘the author fought against the unfairness and found, standing up for yourself is its own reward.’
“And it wasn’t always validated. It was later, when I found other people, when I was like 10 or 12 years old, I found other musicians and other artists that were my age, but we were like beatniks, we were like people pretending to be beatniks, because there were those models that we read about, the rebels.
“And then I started hearing music, when I was like 13, I was in a folk music group and we started singing all those Pete Seeger songs; and I knew … this is legal, this is legitimate, these people are resisting, and this is a group to belong to.
“In spite of my father breaking those three Pete Seeger records, I thought, ‘I’m on to something here.’ It’s not just me, it’s all these people out there, and they’re resisting these people.
“And the same thing happened in the Army and in the church, these were the people who were trying to make you say nothing.”
Q: Amidst all the stifling discipline, was there any time you felt love in the household, especially from your father?
“That never came up. I always found people outside the house. I found adults, a singing teacher, some kind of mentor, who’d say ‘you’re not crazy ’”
Q: In retrospect have you found any redeeming lessons or benefits from your experiences with the authority figures you’ve confronted?
“Oh yeah, I can see bullshit before they open their mouths.”
Q: The lessons of resistance, certainly in American history — from the Revolution to the Civil Rights movement — are evident. What specific lessons about the benefits of resistance have you learned in your lifetime?
“I’ve worked for myself for 52 years. That probably gave me more peace of mind than anything I could imagine.
“I knew from the years where I didn’t work for and by myself, how I really hated how petty people can be when they’re pushing you around. They don’t do it gracefully. These people have this power and they use it over you, and the only way to resist that is to do it yourself.”
Q: Have you ever been a boss?
“Oh yeah, I didn’t like that.”
Q: There are several pieces of music in the video — you are an acclaimed singer after all — How would you characterize the songs? There are some spiritual, protest and folk tunes, and how were they chosen?
“The last piece on the last video, is ‘Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.’
“It’s an affirmation; what you use that for is, I have come to this place, and I will go forward and try to improve myself, but I’m not going back, I’m not going back to that more angry me. That was a result of all that resistance.”
Q: Pete Seeger has featured prominently in your life, and in fact there is a clip of the two of you singing together in the series. What did you learn from Pete?
“When I was in the city and was involved with a lot of different groups, Janelle, my wife, clocked the amount of time I spent in meetings, and one week I spent 41 hours. That’s what Pete reinforced in me.”
Q: What do you hope viewers might learn from the series?
“I want people to react; if they have a strong reaction to this, I want it to be an interactive piece. People giving me feedback. Like in the art world, if people go to a museum or gallery, they can leave notes or talk to a person.
“I know how it felt to me, but there are millions of stories like this. I want to know how they experienced it. I feel like I’m the luckiest son-of-a-bitch in the world to figure it out and make my life the way it is. Because, like I said before, some people who have this start, never get out of it. And it’s a cycle.”
To view “Whatever You Say, Say Nothin’” visit LTV at ltveh.org. The initial episodes will be available Fridays at 3 p.m., Saturdays at 6 a.m., Sundays at 8:30 p.m., and Tuesdays at 9 a.m. Those interested can also go on YouTube and search “Whatever You Say, Say Nothin’ Terry Sullivan” to find the first episodes. In addition, Sullivan will be singing on St. Patrick’s Day, Sunday, March 17, at Cormaria Retreat Center, 77 Bay Street, Sag Harbor. The concert begins at 1 p.m. and the program will include Irish Gaelic singing, history and comedy. It is open to the public.
One fine body…