The following interview was conducted with David Rovics by Baltimore Indymedia on Friday, November 8, 2002 at a fundraiser concert for the Baltimore Chapter of SUSTAIN (Stop U. S. Tax-funded Aid to Israel Now). Rovics speaks about the role of music in resistance movements.
If you were around in the 60’s, even if you weren’t against the Vietnam war or you weren’t a feminist or civil rights activist, you would remember the music that gave life and breath to the political movements of the time. From the top of the charts you could hear Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, and Gil Scott Heron. There was music filling the air to alert us to an anti-authoritarian express train rumbling through the decade.
Now, it’s a little harder to find popular music with a directly political message. Radio stations promote artists who limit their lyrics to violence, sex and love (or a ménage a trios).
But inside the peace and anti-globalization movement, activist folk artist David Rovics proves that you can still inspire and motivate with song. His explicitly political lyrics describe the horror of war in such songs as “The Village Where Nothing Happened” and “Jenin”. Other of Rovics’ songs such as “Bomb Ourselves” use wit to reveal the contradictions of US foreign policy. The following interview also contains three of Rovics’ recordings. Rovics is accompanied by soprano, Allie Rosenblatt, whose clear voice twines around Rovics’, adding a penetrating, haunting harmony.
Q – When did you start playing music and what kinds of influences shaped your music?
A – I started playing music when I was a kid. My parents were both musicians. I played classical music back then. I played cello. And then I got into rock and roll and eventually more acoustical stuff. As a singer-song writer, writing that type of stuff I write, influences were Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Jim Page, Buffy St. Marie and lots of others.
Q – Those are the people I grew up with. My impression is that the most political music comes out of the African American movement – out of what was know as “rap” – has that also affected you at all?
A – Yes, it’s affected my consciousness and my lyric writing. Artists like the Last Poets and Public Enemy and Michael Franti. But I guess musically, it’s kind of distant from my background. So I mean I’m sure it’s kind of an influence – lyrically it’s had more of an influence than musically. I’ve never tried to get into doing hip-hop myself or anything resembling hip-hop, and I kind of cringe when folk musicians try to do hip hop – which they do actually, and it doesn’t work. I mean, not that they shouldn’t try or that someone couldn’t do it. But hip-hop has been a big influence for me and I would say that the bulk of political songs about the world around us is in hip-hop. But there’s also quite a bit of it in the punk scene as well as in the folk scene. Although the mainstay of the folk scene is not political.
Politics and Music – “Inspiring the Troops”
Q – Do you think folk music might turn more political?
A – I would say that folk music these days – well, it’s hard to say – I think it would tend to follow the trends of society. You know, if there’s a really huge mass movement, then I’d say you’d probably find a lot more politically oriented music coming out of the music scene. But the folk scene is going the way of the rest of the music industry and it’s largely the content of what gets out on the radio. It’s not controlled as tightly by Warner and Disney – but it is, these are the labels. If you look at a lot of the so-called independent labels they’re actually owned by Disney and Warner Brothers and they have the same sort of political orientation. And then a lot of the independent labels are truly independent – and they’re playing a lot more of that in the folk scene, then say, in the rock scene. But still, the folk scene has been going the way of other mainstream forms of music in terms of imitating the politics, basically singing about relationships and not singing about anything that’s happening in the world. If you write about something other than relationships – it’s a novelty song. You can write a song about global warming. Well, it’s affecting all of us on the planet, but it’s a novelty. You can write a song about police brutality that’s going on in every major city in the country, but it’s a novelty song. That’s the way they define it in the music industry including the folk scene has defined it. Which is kind of bizarre in the folk scene, because folk music has such a long tradition of speaking out about what’s happening in the world, as does, well – I mean, especially defined broadly because like rock and hip-hop and jazz and gospel – everything that’s not classical is some form of folk music, you know. In the sense it was created on a more grass-roots level, it initially involved reading and writing music – it’s all folk music. The way folk music has been defined more in the past few decades, maybe since the 50’s, the folk music took on the idea that this music basically white middle class people imitating rural white and rural black music.
Q – When you first started playing and writing music was it political or has it evolved that way?
A – It sort of evolved that way. But when I first started writing any songs that were any good I had already become very much involved with activism and wanting to talk about what was happening in the world. But when I first started writing songs, I wasn’t writing political songs.
Q – What are the kinds of issues that have shaped your lyrics?
A – I guess one of the things I write about is what people are doing – like cheerleading songs - to encourage people who are doing good things – activists and others to keep it up. So what influences my lyrics is whatever people are doing, so the protests in Seattle, the Biotic Baking Brigade throwing pies at corporate executives or actions carried out by their liberation front – these kinds of things that are proactive and also what affects me and what I want to write about is what pops out to me is some of the greatest catastrophes going on and the trends in US and domestic foreign policy and wanting to create awareness about what the US government is doing, hopefully in a spirit of moving things in a different direction. But I’m always looking for specific stories – these specific stories make the best songs usually rather than the broad overview things. And so, like when the Israeli army went into Jenin and reading the first-hand of accounts of Palestinians or the International Solidarity Movement about what was happening there – that gave me an idea for a song, those kinds of stories from around the world.
Politics and Music – “Inspiring the Troops”
Q – Does the music come first for you or lyrics for you?
A – Usually the words come first, but the music might be related to something I had messed around with on the guitar without thinking about a song. A lot of cross-pollination. But usually for a specific song, I’ll think about the words first and have no idea what the music will be like. But I’ll generally have some kind of a meter in my head some kind of rhythm so I can fit the words in a way that makes sense, they come that way rather than something totally amorphous – there’s some kind of structure. The more intricate structure - aspect of the music comes later.
Q – You know spoken word or performance poetry has been political and it has a following, but written poetry is very apolitical and making it political is not really acceptable. In your art-form, has it been difficult to get your message out?
A - Well there is some very good political poetry in the performance poetry scene, like Patricia Smith and Chris Chandler. I think that basically groups of people who are under the pressures that the African American community is in general in the cities that inevitably is going to lead to so much commentary that we’ll look at as political and then it is political. People who are from a more privileged background who are more likely to not think that the world around them is more abstract – they write about things that are more important to them – their lovers or taking a walk in the park, but they’re not going to be writing about police brutality and hunger. I say, that I’m not really hardly at all involved with the folk music scene and I don’t play for the folk music audiences so much and shows don’t get booked by the folk music presenters. Everything I’m doing pretty much in the activist scene. I find that when folk music afficianados come to my shows that they usually like it. I think I could be doing fine in the folk scene if there was enough interest there for more people to be booking shows. The interest in the kind of music I’m doing is almost entirely in the activist scene, which is fine.
Q – You could be doing music for larger crowds or getting more money if you changed your music or leanings. But obviously you have a following, you’re selling CDs – maybe you have a smaller crowd that you’re working with – but there’s not a ton of people doing what you’re doing.
A – Yes, it’s a bit of a niche market. I’d rather be doing what I’m doing then writing navel gazing folks songs. But also just on the level of shows and money and all that – there’s an awful lot of people calling themselves singer-songwriters who are trying to get gigs at those clubs – and I’m not competing with those people so much. Cause they’re not trying to get gigs in the activist scene. You know there’s really a lot more people doing that sort of thing than people doing what I’m doing. So – which is not to say it’s necessarily easier doing what I’m doing. There would be a lot of political songwriters out there who would feel bad if I said it is easy. Because it’s not necessarily easy. I think I’m reaching – I don’t know whether it’s a smaller or bigger audience – rather than the audience I would be reaching if I were writing non-political songs, but first of all, I can’t imagine doing that. It’s not where my passion is. I would like to reach a larger audience for sure. I don’t want to change what I’m writing to do that. But I think that anyone who feels like they have something to say and they’re good at what they’re doing thinks that they should be reaching a larger audience.
Q – What do you think the role of culture is in activism – I mean you know, you hear people say, “you have to get there and organize and vote and strike. You don’t here a lot of people saying “Get out there and start singing.” So what’s the role of culture?
A – Well of course we need all those things you were saying, but we need – culture plays an important role. If you look at it – take a real cursory glance of the world around you we see that pretty much every institution out there uses music in one way or another. Every corporation uses music to sell their products. The military uses music to inspire their troops. I use music for my troops. It’s the same basic function that music is playing. You know, even from a capitalist perspective you could say it’s used to sell products and to foster – in the military for example, that people are working together – that they’re part of the same thing, that they’re sticking up for each other. That’s what we’re using music at marches and rallies. It’s to inspire the troops. And in other settings it’s to educate people about things that are happening and to talk about it in a way that hopefully might be more memorable than a speech.
Q – Some thing that people will carry in their hearts and souls and think about long after the speeches are gone.
A – Yes, to communicate to people on an emotional level. And perhaps even a spiritual level and reach them in a way that people don’t often get reached by other means. And it’s just one of many means of communication, but I think it’s a an important one and when we have events, whether they’re protests or educational events or whatever, the events that have music and food at them are so much different from the ones that don’t. Everyone, whether or not they’re conscious of why they come out of those events inspired and feeling like they’ve learned something and they’re going to do something with that knowledge – that’s the difference between even a really good speaker, they’re still – are not really pessimistic but good educational optimistic speaker – there’s still something missing compared to when you hear that speaker and you sing a few songs before or after – preferably after I think because then you leave on a feeling on more together ness and optimism even when the songs are not particularly optimistic. There’s something about music that makes people feel optimistic.
Q – Are there people doing similar things with music that you’re in contact with and you have a chance to talk with –
A – Oh, yeah, for sure. Well you’ll not just hear it from any politically oriented musicians, but any touring musicians. When you get to hear other people’s music is when you’re doing an event together with other musicians. Because so often when we’re in some town it’s when we’re playing and you know, when we have a night off when not looking into going out into the town and go to a concert, you know, we’re much happier in some living room. There’s fabulous politically oriented songwriters out there and –
Q – Can you name some of them?
A – Yeah, some of my favorite are Jim Paige from Seattle. There’s a duo that sometimes that sometimes – Seize the Day from England, Attila the Stockbroker, there’s Robert Hoyt in Indiana, Ani de Franco. Yeah, there’s bunches of them.
Q – So what do you see going forward for you – I can only imagine that things are going to be more intense – you’ll actually have more to do.
A – I hope so. My plan is to keep on writing songs and singing them for whoever will listen.
Q – What are some of your favorite lyrics?
A – I don’t really have favorites so much as what I’ve been writing over the past couple of years. I’m improving so I tend to like the most recent stuff. But I guess in terms of certain songs the lyrics just came to me that they really worked. Song for Basra, I think is really like that. Song for My Broken Heart is kind of like that.
It’s almost time for my set, now.
Q – Thank you, David for taking time to talk with Baltimore Indymedia.
Politics and Music – “Inspiring the Troops”
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