It is truly a huge pleasure for me to publish this Q&A with David Rovics, a phenomenal artist whose music I have only recently discovered, and about whom I wrote a piece entitled “David Rovics – the beautiful voice of the American Resistance“. Three months have passed since I wrote this piece. I discovered more of David’s songs and I came to the conclusion that he is probably the most talented American singer I have ever heard, bar none.
For those of you who have not listened to his music yet, I have selected what I think are 52 of his very best songs, archived them into one zipped file, and made them available for download here (enter the word “saker” next to “Пароль на файл:” and then enter the number you see next at the right of “Код безопасности” in the box “Введите код: and hit “enter”, and the download will start in 5 sec). Alternatively, you can also download it from here. (Note: all the songs which I refer to in this Q&A are included in this archive)
I contacted David and asked him to agree to a Q&A exchange for my blog. He kindly agreed and here is the result of our exchange:
Q: Please tell us something about your family background: where were you born, what was the ethnicity/origin of you mom and dad, do you have any siblings, what kind of education did you get, were did you go to school, etc.?
A: I was born in New York City and raised in the well-off, white suburbs of Wilton, Connecticut. My parents are both classical musicians who taught at the University of Long Island. I wasn’t brought up with any particular religion but my father is of Jewish lineage and my mother’s family was Episcopalian, though she later became a Quaker. I have a sister named Bonnie, 3 years younger, who is also a leftwing musician among other things. I was educated in primary school in a wonderful hippie place called the Learning Community. After that I went to Wilton public schools and then briefly to Earlham College and Evergreen State College, but never got a BA.
Q: Who are the main influences of your art in terms of ideas, of course, but also in terms of music? What are your favorite authors/poets and what kind of music do you listen to most?
A: Musically I’ve been influenced profoundly by Appalachian music, bluegrass, traditional and contemporary Irish music, the singer-songwriter scene, nueva cancion, African music, all kinds of stuff. If I were to name a single songwriter who has impacted me most profoundly it would be Jim Page, with many others close behind.
Q: You are clearly not afraid of singing about topics and people which no other artist would ever dare touch, not with a 10 foot pole. For example, “Jenin” is about a Palestinian suicide-bomber, “Burn It Down” is about what the Uncle Sam would call “eco-terrorism”, “Song for Ana Belen Montes” is about a top DoD official who spied for the Cuba not for money, but because her conscience told her to do so, “Lebanon 2006” is about Hezbollah and “International Terrorists” is about the US Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines! Even though these are some of your most powerful and beautiful songs, I know that they sometimes deeply offend, scandalize and infuriate people. Are you concerned about such reactions?
A: There are also many songwriters and other artists who would and regularly do write about all of those things. The ones who are scared of them usually either don’t know enough about the issues or they’re afraid of losing their record contract. The independent musicians like me don’t have such concerns, for better or for worse, so our only concern might be for our safety. I don’t think I have much to worry about in that regard. I can’t think of a single instance of an artist in the US being killed for his or her art. Harassed, audited, spied on, phones tapped, passports taken and maybe jailed briefly (in the 1950’s) but these are not serious concerns for anyone who gives a shit about humanity. And anyway, I rarely have the pleasure of reaching audiences beyond those who are already part of the progressive community, so I rarely cause controversy of any kind, unfortunately.
Q: Your music is very clearly American in style – it covers a wide breadth of American music styles – and I suppose that this choice an expression of your love for this land, its people, their culture and its landscapes. Yet at the same time you are clearly dismayed by the history of what the ruling elites have done to your country (“Parking Lots and Strip Malls”, “Everything Looks the Same”, “Before they nuke DC”, “Floating Down the River”). How do you personally deal with the pain of seeing the country you love also being the “homeland” of the ideology which you despise so much? Have you ever considered leaving the USA and going into permanent exile? (“I think of moving eastward, Maybe Gant or Amsterdam, Far from Ronald McDonald, And his greedy Uncle Sam“) or do you feel that your place is fundamentally here?
A: There are many places in the world I’d love to live. The US (or parts of it anyway) is only one of those places where there are wonderful people, lots of natural beauty, and other good things in life. Basically it’s a beautiful world, and the US is beautiful too, it’s just that the government is a neo-fascist empire bent on wiping out life on Earth. I feel like the place I can be most effective is in the US, where I’m from, which is one of the reasons I stay. Though of course I leave often, for tours… As for playing a distinctly American kind of music, nah. If I sang with an Irish accent or an English accent it’d be Irish or English music. There are lots of people there who like bluegrass and play guitar the way I do. Is bluegrass American? Sort of. At least to the extent that Irish immigrants and African slaves were/are American. The banjo is an African instrument.
Q: Some of your songs are amazingly optimistic (“We Are Everywhere”, “Shut Them Down”). Considering what is going on in the world, how do you overcome a sense of despondency, of doom and gloom (“The Draft Is Coming”)? Do you do that by seeking beauty and peace in the people we love (“Life is Beautiful”) or do you see objective reasons to continue to hope that things will eventually change for the better (“Minimum Wage Strike”, “The Pirate Radio Song”, “Who Will Tell The People”)?
A: There are all kinds of ways things can go at different places and times in this world, and what’s certain is that mass movements are necessary to make things go in a positive direction. What’s also certain is that music needs to be part of any movement. So I do my thing, hoping for the best. Things look pretty grim in the US, Europe and a lot of other places right now. The neoliberals and the xenophobes seem to get more powerful every day. On the other hand there is South America, where real changes are happening real fast. South America is the beacon of hope for the future of planet Earth at this time, it’s largely where my hope for the future comes from right now, on a macro scale, but in little ways my hope for the future comes every day I have the pleasure of interacting with more kind and generous human beings, who are everywhere.
Q: One of your songs (“Whoever Wins in November”) ends with the words “whoever wins in November, Neolib, neocon, Stands only for death, Whichever face he has on, We will build a new world, And set us all free, Once we drive the whole lot of them, Right out of DC“. I personally fully agree with you in that I see no hope whatsoever in this corrupt system or in the naive hope that the elites which run it will somehow “reform themselves”. But how do you think can they be “driven right out of DC”? Do you still believe that a 3rd party candidate can eventually win, do you believe in a Gandi-like satyagraha peaceful civil resistance or do you believe that only violence can and will eventually bring down this entire system?
A: Of course the first step in the process is education. People need to understand that the two-party system is hopelessly corrupt, and give up on it. Then there’s the possibility for change in all kinds of ways. There’s the possibility of a third party movement, of a mass nonviolent movement, of a violent uprising, who knows? All kinds of ways change can happen. I think it would be silly and dishonest to predict how that change might come about or which kind of change will be most effective, because we don’t know the future or the circumstances it will involve yet, but change can happen in all kinds of ways. Not through voting for Democrats though.
Q: Your songs are a wonderful education tool for children. I have three kids whom I homeschool; they listen to your songs every day and constantly ask me questions about the events or people you refer to. I cannot think of a better history, civics or social sciences “curriculum” than your songs (-: “Homeschoolers for David Rovics!” – what a slogan :-). When you wrote these songs, did you just speak about the issues which were dear to you, or did you make a conscious effort to educate people or their kids?
A: I’m so glad you think my songs work well for educating children, ’cause home school vs. school is a constant theme in my life, having a little girl myself. I’m more in favor of home schooling, though right now she’s part-time at a Waldorf place she seems to like (when she gets enough sleep). I didn’t write these songs with children in mind, but I did write them with the idea in mind of communicating the most essential aspect of a story and not complicating it too much with tangents. I think songs about historical or current events tend to work best that way. That also works well for kids, at least if they’re old enough to have some idea of the context. Of course I also write songs that are explicitly for kids, little kids, where I’m making different assumptions in terms of awareness of context, more appropriate for the age group.
Q: Your songs are extremely “singable” in the sense that they have simple choruses and melodies which are ideally suited to group singing (we often sing them with my wife and kids during car trips and we have a great deal of fun doing this). This is something which the vast majority of singers seem to have totally forgotten, that songs are not only meant to be listened to, but actually sung. Many popular music traditions aboard (Latin America, Celtic countries, Russia, Greece, etc.) also share that feature of being “singable”, but in the USA you are one of the very few artists who cares about this. Why is it? Is that something you deliberately decided to include in your songs?
A: Interesting you say this, because I just did a tour of Tvind schools in Denmark and some of the headmasters complained that though they liked my songs, they were often not singable enough. It’s all relative… Compared to many modern singer-songwriters my songs are singable. Compared with, say, songs of the civil rights or union movements, my songs are completely obtuse and not very singable. I like writing some songs that are easy to sing along with, and I like writing songs that aren’t very good for that as well. But the thing is that if you like a song enough any song can be good for singing along, even if it doesn’t have a chorus!
Q: Your entry in Wikipedia says that you are Jewish and in one of your poems you write “I think of the walls around our own ghetto, And how we had to crawl through the sewers, Looking for rats to eat, While we could hear their children playing, On the other side“. Do you consider yourself Jewish and, if yes, what does it mean to you? Some “Jews” such as Shlomo Sands or Gilad Atzmon do not even believe that there is such thing as an ethnic Jew, that being “Jewish” is in reality a cultural/tribal self-identification, something one chooses but not something which one “is”. You are not religious (at least according to the Wikipedia) and you very clearly abhor the Zionist ideology as in the same poem you say “I feel sick, Sick of your displaced anger, Sick of your self-deception, Sick of your attempts to deceive the rest of the world, Sick of your accusations of anti-semitism, Sick of your occupation, Sick of your apartheid state, Sick of Zionism“. But then who is the “we” that you speak of in this poem? Can there be a way of being Jewish other than an ethnic, religious or ideological one?
A: I’m Jewish in the sense that I’m Jewish enough to have been gassed in Hitler’s gas chambers and Jewish enough for Israeli citizenship. I’m also Jewish in the sense that I was told about this heritage and what it meant from birth by my father’s mother especially. In terms of religion I’m an atheist. In terms of ethnicity I don’t know if such a thing exists on a scientific basis or how that would be defined. There are genetic differences between people from one village to the next. At what point is an ethnicity constituted? Who knows? Personally I just don’t care, I think it’s all silly, but it would be equally silly to say that I’m not Jewish. What would that mean? Just as little or as much as being Jewish means. But certainly it’s mostly a political and to some extent cultural definition, not genetic or religious in nature, at least not as far as I’m concerned.
Q: You wrote only one song about 9/11 – but an extremely powerful one (Reichstag fire). The chorus of this songs is “I am left to wonder, As the flames are reaching higher, Was this our latest Lusitannia, Or another Reichstag Fire?” Are you still wondering about this, or have you come to some conclusion?
A: I think there are many unanswered questions around what happened on 9/11. I think there are many people who have come to all kinds of unsubstantiated and unsubstantiatable conclusions based on guesses and not concrete facts, which is unfortunate for all of us. But there are certainly unanswered, important questions, and I imagine that will continue to be the case for a long time.
If you want to find out more about Rovics and his music, the following ressources are available on the internet:
http://www.davidrovics.com (main web site)
http://www.blogtalkradio.com/davidrovics (weekly radio show, every Monday 11AM PST)
http://www.soundclick.com/davidrovics (his music)
http://songwritersnotebook.blogspot.com (his blog)