Last year David Rovics self-released two albums. One, "Pay day at Coal Creek," covered 15 twentieth century American folk songs, mostly anonymous but including a handful by Woody Guthrie and one apiece from Phil Ochs, T-Bone Slim and Al Grierson. The other, "We just want the World," contained 14 originals, topical vignettes continuing the long tradition of informing through music that he paid tribute to on "Pay day...". "Pay day..." itself is a haphazard and incomplete document of social commentary in songs which grew out of the lectures Rovics gives on that subject, the intensity of the content enhanced by the bare bones one-take arrangements, just vocals and acoustic guitar. "We just..." is a fuller production embellished by minimal cello, violin, mandolin, percussion and backing vocals but powered along by the force of strongly-held convinction just the same. Songs like "Parking lots and strip malls" where the refrain "the World needs more..." sarcastically precedes the title and "Henry Ford was a fascist," which is as derogatory to the car magnate as the title suggests, along with "Minimum wage strike" and "Cannabis cafe" show the breadth of Rovics' concerns and prompted this interview.
What do you stand for/against?
I'm standing for the good guys, against the bad guys. Of course, it's never quite so simple but the past several thousand years of human history have largely been a struggle between the haves and the have-nots, and I stand for the latter. To go into it a little further, I stand for those who want to create egalitarian and sensible social and economic structures, and against those who would have everything for the few at the expense of the many, and at the expense of the Earth itself.
So why not become a politician to pursue that agenda?
There are many ways to pursue a political agenda, many ways to try to create a mass movement for social change. I applaud anyone who wants to run for office, if they understand the kind of "one dollar, one vote" political system they're up against. There are many ways to be useful, running for office can be a fine platform, as can organizing demonstrations, direct action, pie-throwing, mural-painting, journalism, stuffing envelopes, pirate or community radio, etc., etc.
But do you think that you're doing anything other than preaching to the converted when you sing at folk clubs, college bars and so on?
Most of the audiences I sing for are unfamiliar with much of the stuff I'm singing about, even college activist audiences, so I definitely feel like I'm playing an educational role. But also, preaching to the converted should not be looked down upon. If we're trying to create a real social movement, people need to be inspired, they need to feel like they're part of a community of like-minded people striving for a different kind of world. Music has an integral role to play in that, whether preaching to the converted or not.
How would you describe yourself? protest singer? folk singer? socialist? free thinker?
I try to avoid labels like that, but I most often use the term folksinger to describe my profession, and socialist to describe the gist of my politics. As far as the term "protest singer," the reason the term exists is because there are people that would have you believe that the only legitimate topic to write about in a song is relationships (preferably heterosexual and wildly romantic), and that anyone writing about something else---like things that happen in the world around us---is a "protest singer." Pigeon-holed. It's only because the system is so fucked up that we become radical. There's current state of affairs, though, which we're supposed to think is "progress" or at least "inevitable," and it is neither.
Do you feel like you are tapping into a rich vein of American/world folk music? any other singers in particular?
Definitely a rich tradition, though unfortunately I'm limited to the English-language tradition, since I'm a typical American monoglot. (I want to learn Spanish, one of these years...)
How deeply fo you feel obliged to reserch songs like "Henry Ford was a Fascist"? It seems like an easy target.
An easy target? I'm not sure what you mean. a good target, for sure. He was a fascist, people don't know that by and large, and I aim to tell them about it! I do feel obliged to research songs, and I don't think I made any inaccurate statements in that song.
I wasn't questioning your accuracy, the point of the question was when you write a song that makes an accusation (about who- or whatever) how much research do you feel obliged to do in order that you don't misinform your audience? is an article in the New York Times about Ford enough? or do you look deeper yourself? this applies to any "issue" song at all
I guess a New York Times article is enough for some songs, not enough for others. For a song like "Too proud to beg," I assume the Times article is accurate, but even if it isn't entirely accurate, the message is real, it resonates, so that's good enough for that kind of song. For a song like "Henry Ford," I wouldn't trust the NY Times to get it right, but if they said he was an anti-semite and knowingly employed slave labor to build tanks in germany, I'd tend to believe it, since The Times has no class interest in reporting that. If they reported that this rumor wasn't true, I'd want to look elsewhere before I believed that kind of bullshit!
Which songs have you researched most deeply? and which do you feel have exposed some truth that's been heavily hidden?
I do a lot of reading about historical and current events, which goes into my song-writing, but I rarely research specific songs all that much, or at least not on purpose. I feel like there is a hidden history in most of my songs; a history that probably less than 1% of American society is really familiar with (that is, those that read the alternative press). Very few people know about David Chain, or Judi Bari, or Boxcar Betty, or the many examples from labor history represented in "Glory and fame," or the fact that Ford built tanks for the nazis.
Tell us about your musical side: influences/hero(ine)s etc. Influences... on a musical level, major influences include Jim Page (a Seattle-based songwriter, still very much alive and kicking), Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Dick Gaughan, Christy Moore, Hazel Dickins, and lots of different bluegrass, appalachian, Anglo-American and Irish folk musicians...
I was expecting you to say Leadbelly
I definitely love Leadbelly! Joe Hill, too. The list could go on and on, there are many I neglected to mention.
I also, and this might be strange to you, hear strains of Johnny Cash on some of your songs. Not the vocals, I hasten to add, but the feel of the music, that "2-step country" narrative thing.
I like Johnny Cash, but haven't listened to him all that much. I definitely have an Anglo-American accent and I don't try to hide it, as many performers do, with a fake African-American accent (like any number of American and British artists, such as John Mellancamp, Mick Jagger, and on and on). So in that sense, I have something in common with country musicians, although they all try to fake a white southern accent, whether or not it's authentic. I sing the way I talk, which is a phenomenon common among "folk" musicians worldwide.
I see that you've mentioned the IWW in your sleevenotes. The organisation is not that big over here, can you tell us a little about it, and your link to it?
The IWW (otherwise known as the wobblies, or the wobs) were an amazing, radical organization. hard to summarize briefly, but I could definitely recommend books and artists. But they were known as a "singing union." When you joined the union, you were given a "little red songbook---songs to fan the flames of discontent." They had a million members at their peak, but many millions more supporters. They were the first truly inter-racial union with both women, men, and many ethnicities represented in both grassroots and leadership positions. Organizers hopped freight trains to get around. It was a real shoe-string operation, involving people of incredible determination, who made incredible sacrifices. Of course, Britain has much parallel history in terms of the labor wars. Thousands died on both sides, but mostly union activists, in gun battles, lynchings, beatings, etc. The wobblies pioneered things like the speak-out, the sit-in, jail-packing, and many other creative organizing techniques.
Do you feel hypocritical at all, using oil/wood etc to press up your CD?
This is an important point, I think, and my perspective may be somewhat controversial among environmentalists, and I think that's sad. I think that only systemic change is going to make any significant difference in halting our march towards ecological oblivion. In other words, paper and oil need to be banned by governments. Governments must be involved in the economics of making hemp, kenaf, wind, solar cells and other fuel and paper alternatives affordable, and this can only be done by governments. We are incredibly deluded if we think that individual consumer choices are going to change anything, because they won't. That's what the government (here in the U.S., and I'm sure in Britain as well) wants us to believe. That's blaming the victim. The problem is the people that created and continue to perpetuate this flawed structure that causes us to be dependent on oil products, sweatshop-made clothing, etc.
Having said that, I certainly think it's a fine thing to make a statement by printing your CD liner notes on kenaf or something, but it's important to note that this is just a statement, an educational tool, not a way to change society in itself.
Finally, do you see your function as proposing answers, or just raising questions?
Both of the above. I also see my function as a "cheerleader" of the progressive movement (to quote Abbie Hoffman). My function is to use music to inspire people to act. Or at least that's what I hope my function is.
To what extent are you successful in your function?
I can only speculate, since it's pretty impossible to quantify these things. But I think that myself and other artists have an effect. Many, many activists have told me how it was the activist-oriented music that first turned them on to their struggle, and it is the music that plays an important role in keeping them going, and helping them feel like they're part of something, feel less isolated. Also, the impact of music is demonstrated in a different way, by the way advertisers constantly use music to sell their shit. Their research tells them it works, and by the same token (though for very different ends), it works for us, too.
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