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Continued: Larry Long: a troubadour for social justice

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

Cohen laughed softly. “You know, they don’t call it the chorus for nothing, right? The chorus is something that people join in on. It brings them together and points them toward a collective cause, and doing that is Larry’s true genius.”


Time to study war no more

That’s what we’ve been fighting for!

“Welcome Home”


Folk music isn’t easily defined, but we know it when we hear it, said Atesh Sonneborn, associate director for programs and acquisitions for Smithsonian Folkways. The nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution records Long’s work, along with that of legends such as Seeger and Guthrie.

Folk music is generally sung by a community “that’s identified with that place and those people,” he said. It could be songs around a fire at summer camp or mountain songs of an Appalachian hamlet. “We know what it is because everyone has had some experience of music that was sung — not sold — to them, and it moved them.”

A message of social justice adds a further wrinkle. “When there’s stuff happening in the streets, there’s music happening there,” Sonneborn said. Yet here in the United States, marching in the streets seems a bygone action. In today’s digital world, more communities are virtual.

That’s one reason Sonneborn keeps tabs on Long’s personal project, Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song, which is based intensely in place.

“Larry goes into a community, working with the children and elders to find their own traditions — their music traditions in that place,” he said. “That’s pretty wonderful stuff. Is he creating new traditions? I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see in the next generations, if it gets handed down.”


To take the profit, to leave the jobless/ With mountains of toxic waste.

Squander the treasure of clean water/ All across the Great Lakes.

“Generations 2 Come”


How does a song happen? Long sat in Maria’s Cafe, pushing a tortilla against the scrambled eggs on his plate, pondering how to explain. He has an open gaze behind his wire-rimmed glasses and a thoughtful, almost courtly, manner. To any question, his answers come after a pause, front-loaded with context.

“Melody is like the wind,” he began. “When you think of how many notes are in a scale, and you think of the millions of melodies that have come out of those few notes, well, you have to take a deep breath. You have to humble yourself to the melody. Songwriters may slave over the lyrics, but melody can take a listener to an entirely different place.”

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