Larry Long: a troubadour for social justice

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 25, 2014 - 10:04 AM

Like the late Pete Seeger, Larry Long turns tradition into song and strives to find the sweet spot in contentious issues that opposing sides can both understand.

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Larry Long doesn’t care for the term folk singer, “which sounds like something from Greenwich Village in the 1960s.”

He prefers troubadour, like the medieval singers who traveled from court to court, delivering messages in song.

Troubadours, Long says, are bridge builders, which sounds all kumbaya until he adds what he’s learned from experience: “It’s been said that a bridge builder is someone who gets stepped on by both sides. So it can be a very uncomfortable place. Your very presence makes people uncomfortable.”

At peace rallies, he pointedly sings a song honoring veterans. At veterans’ rallies, he sings a song seeking peace.

For 40 years, Long has sung at protests, festivals, union actions and political rallies around Minnesota, the nation and the world. He writes and, in his lilting voice, sings in the social justice tradition of Pete Seeger, whom he knew for decades until Seeger’s death in January. He hews to Seeger’s belief that everyone has “a sacred obligation to do their best at what they’re called upon to do.”

Long believes he has been called — while allowing that he may have pushed the issue. Over a bowl of the Birchwood Cafe’s steel-cut oatmeal, Long explained that his dad, a traveling salesmen for Hills Bros. coffee, died of a heart attack at age 33, when Long was 13.

“If you talk to children whose parents died young, you’ll find they live lives not expecting to ever be older than their parents,” he said.

“When I was younger, I lived life like a bullet. A quarter-credit shy of graduation, I took off with my friend Fiddlin’ Pete. Rode the rails just like Woody Guthrie. I wanted to be Woody Guthrie. We’d get taken in by people and we’d write songs on paper bags and put them up on their refrigerators when we’d leave.”

Funny thing, he’s 62 years old now, but still lean in jeans, his hair still just long enough to curl.

“I’m still here, and now I just want to be me. I’m pretty comfortable in my own skin now, more than I’ve been in my life.”

 

Can’t be neutral when it comes to love/ That’s one thing I’ve been thinking of

“I See Change Coming”

 

Songs of social justice aren’t easy to write, partly because they spring from where deeply held beliefs collide. Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Montgomery, Ala., knew that when he asked Long for a song about bullying.

His request stemmed from a 2011 suit against the Anoka-Hennepin School District. The SPLC represented students who alleged that a neutrality policy didn’t do enough to protect gay and lesbian students.

Long riffed off a student’s comment that, “You can’t be neutral when it comes to love,” and sang it at a celebration after a settlement was signed.

“It was one of the many high points that evening,” Cohen said. “I don’t want to say he’s carrying on Pete Seeger’s legacy, because that’s a burden no one can shoulder, but also doesn’t do credit to Larry’s uniqueness.”

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