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Larry Long

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

Larry Long: a troubadour for social justice

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

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.”

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.”

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.

“Redskins!”

 

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.

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.”

 

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185



 

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