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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

The 1980s were heady. Long’s “Which Side Are You On” was a rallying cry for union workers on strike against the Hormel Co. in Austin, Minn. He sang at protests against Honeywell, a defense contractor. (It was during a court appearance that he met his wife, Jackie, a public defender for Hennepin County.)

When Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika opened up the Soviet Union, Kris Kristofferson invited Long to sing with him in Moscow.

Most recently, Long’s “Redskins!” has become an anthem of those protesting the Washington Redskins name as racist.

The current debate over PolyMet Mining’s proposal on the Iron Range has inspired more songwriting, but also highlights where good intentions can collide. Long sympathizes with the environmental concerns, but also with the plight “of good union miners,” he said. “What’s important is that nobody gets demonized.”


Separate churches, separate schools/ Could not swim in the swimming pool

“Listen to Each Other”


Ida Downwind sat amid the whispers and giggles of the fifth-graders at Sullivan Elementary in Minneapolis. She was there as part of the Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song program in which an older generation tells stories, and a younger generation creates songs.

Downwind, an Ojibwe, knew many of the kids, most of them Indian, because she knows her community. Yet even she was taken aback by a question from a student, one who’d especially chafed at the constraints of staying quiet: “Do you feel you are treated differently as an Indian person in the city?”

“Wow,” she began, then told the students she had a story.

“Induenwaanchigaay Induenwaachigaay,” she said. “What that means is, it’s like a warning. I’m gonna let you know that you’re going to be harmed. That’s how I’m looking at this interview and this opportunity to talk to you all. I’m doing an Induenwaachigaay. I’m trying to say some things that are gonna let you know that if you don’t do your own internal work and understand who you are as a person and as a Native person, I’m afraid for you.”

The students fell silent as Long’s recording equipment hummed. Over the next several weeks, he would shepherd the students as they turned Downwind’s words into a song.

Long has done more than 1,000 such interviews, here and around the world from South Africa to Scotland. Sometimes the students also make art, which, along with the song, can become a book. It’s a friendlier way of learning history.

Long started this work in 1989 after realizing that he was on the road 200 days a year and that his kids were growing up without him, as he’d grown up without his father. It was a big shift, but changed his life in unimagined ways.

“One of the frustrations peculiar to being political is that one gets a lot of attention, but that’s not why you do it,” he said, packing up the recording equipment.

“When I’m doing the best of this work, I’m pretty anonymous.” And working harder: “This systemic work is tougher to write about than sulfide mining issues.”

At heart, the work is “rooted in love and empathy and core values. Out of core values, we tend to make decisions about what touches our hearts.”

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