Sometimes, though, melody gets in the way, as in “The Time Has Come,” a song about the 1920 lynching of three black circus roustabouts in Duluth who had been accused — falsely, it later emerged — of raping a white teenager. Twin Cities singer J.D. Steele, a frequent collaborator of Long’s, suggested that the music diluted the power of the lyrics.
The less you kick the less it hurts/ That Duluth lynch mob cursed/ From a lamppost strung above the earth.
Long agreed, turning it into a spoken-word piece “because we speak in melody in any case, our voices modulating up and down.” Besides, “the focus is on the intergenerational narrative more than the product.”
As to words, the trick is not letting the rhyme tell you what the lyric is.
“I’m a real stickler about that,” he said, no small concern given that songs of activism can have him pairing smallpox with tomahawks.
“Assonance — letting the vowel sound make the rhyme — is a great tool.”
Custer died for your sins
Oh my God he’s back again.
Long was born in Des Moines, and the family moved to St. Louis Park when he was 10. He lives in Minneapolis now, but still occasionally visits a huge maple tree that his father planted on Hampshire Avenue S. It’s also on the cover of his last CD, “Don’t Stand Still,” released in 2011.
Long stuttered as a child, “but I found freedom when I was singing.” Music began to mean even more when, in 11th grade, he performed a song he’d written about slavery, deeply impressing a teacher.
While at St. Cloud State University, he roomed with a Vietnam vet who challenged him that “if I really want to help the soldiers, you need to help put an end to this war.” Thus came the stretch of riding the rails, writing songs and showing up at protests.
In the mid-1970s, he became involved with farmers fighting against routing a high-voltage power line through Minnesota fields, writing “The Pope County Blues.” Arriving in Washington, D.C., with the farmers’ tractorcade, he met Pete Seeger, bonding with him over Seeger’s having sung at the Capitol with dairy farmers in the 1930s.
Seeger also was involved in a project to clean up the Hudson River, which inspired Long to bring that effort home. He founded the Mississippi River Revival, which became a decadelong project.