This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Jim Musselman, owner, Appleseed Recordings.
Jim Musselman understands the power of song to serve as a messenger.
His two-decade-plus Appleseed Recordings is the latest link in the chain of guarding Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, and Pete Seeger’s American folklore legacy.
Following to the letter his original label mission statement of “sowing the seeds of social justice through music and exploring the roots and branches of folk and world music,” Appleseed Records has released 160 albums to date.
Founded in 1996 by Musselman, this West Chester, Pennsylvania-based company is celebrating an odd-numbered anniversary with its 57-track, three-CD set “Appleseed’s 21st Anniversary: Roots and Branches,” released in Oct. 2018, mixing new recordings with notable tracks from the labels rich history.
There are contributions by Bruce Springsteen, Tom Morello, Donovan, Tim Robbins, Jackson Browne, Ani DiFranco, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Billy Bragg Sweet Honey in the Rock, John Wesley Harding, Steve Earle, John Gorka, Judy Collins, Anne Hill, actor Tim Robbins, oral historian Studs Terkel, and others.
As a longtime activist who, in another life, worked with consumer advocate Ralph Nader and filmmaker Michael Moore, Musselman has deftly melded his commitment to activism and social justice to his passion for music.
Musselman was inspired to focus on a music career after visiting Belfast in Northern Ireland in 1995 where he produced a version of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” that made a major impact.
For three years after its release, this release by Irish musicians Tommy Sands and Dolores Keane, Bosnian cellist Vedran Smailovic and a chorus of Protestant and Catholic school children accompanied the peace negotiations between Northern Ireland and England.
The song was used an anthem of peace in Northern Ireland when it was played by both sides after the tragic 1998 bombing in Omagh by a group calling themselves the Real Irish Republican Army–a Provisional Irish Republican Army splinter group who opposed the IRA’s ceasefire, and the Good Friday Agreement–that killed 29 people, and wounded over 100.
In 1998, the track anchored a 2-CD multi-artist set of the same name of songs originally written, adapted or performed by American folk music activist Pete Seeger. The tribute featured such notables as Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Tim Robbins, and Bruce Springsteen who recorded a version of “We Shall Overcome” that became a pivotal song of healing in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in America.
Since its unlikely birth, Appleseed has released music by Donovan, Eric Andersen, Jesse Winchester, Tom Paxton, Al Stewart, Roger McGuinn, Tom Rush, Buffy Sainte-Marie, David Bromberg, Johnny Clegg, Joan Baez, Steve Earle, Ani DiFranco, Wyclef Jean, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Billy Bragg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, John Wesley Harding, Christine Lavin, Holly Near, Christine Lavin, the Kennedys, Tim Eriksen, Dick Gaughan, John Stewart, Lizzie West, Kim and Reggie Harris and, of course, prominently Pete Seeger, and Bruce Springsteen.
Appleseed has also supplied CD’s at cost to environmental organizations, peace organizations, hunger and homeless organizations and others to help them raise funds.
The seed that inspired you to enter the music industry was from visiting Belfast in Northern Ireland in 1995, and working with singer Tommy Sands on a version of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
It was the first song ever played at the same time on Catholic and Protestant (radio) stations after the Omagh bombing. When I worked on the peace negotiations there, we had the kids outside singing the song during them.
You then launched Appleseed the following year, and you soon afterward issued an ambitious two-CD Seeger tribute album of the same name with multiple artists. Were you crazy?
Well, that is the thing. I talked to Pete Seeger and I knew him from working on environmental and social issues for years. I basically wanted to start a label similar to Folkways, and release historical music, but also to release music to change the world; and to work with musicians who were willing to change the world, and have changed the world. So I approached Pete Seeger to do the album (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger”), and I got Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Ani DiFranco and everybody on it.
You probably never thought that you’d eventually do a trilogy of Pete Seeger’s songs—“If I Had a Song: The Songs of Pete Seeger, Vol. 2 (2001); and “Seeds: The Songs of Pete Seeger, Vol. 3 (2003)–but Pete Seeger and the Weavers were among the first folk artists a generation of music artists heard.
Pete was sort of known for being the person who took the axe to Bob Dylan (power cords) at the Newport Folk Festival, and then all of the sudden with having Bruce Springsteen onboard, Pete got a huge second (career) wind which I was so happy to see.
Wasn’t Bob Dylan the initial draw for the first tribute album?
My Moby Dick was Bob Dylan. Dylan had done a song, “The Water is Wide,” and the funny part Larry is that he was sending the song to me by Fed-Ex the next day. I was there (home) with my daughter who was two years old, and I said, “We are waiting for Bob’s tape.” We are still waiting.” I imagined a thing (project) called “Waiting For Bob.”
That would make a dandy album title.
Oh totally. I was like, “It’s happening. It’s happening. “Quite frankly, that was one of the hardest times for Appleseed because I was mortgaging my house. Once Dylan had committed and had done a song, I had put a lot of money into it. I had got Judy Collins, and Tim Robbins, and Bob was going to be on it. Bruce (Springsteen) had said no twice. “Oh my God. My house is going to be gone because Bob’s not on this now.” So I went back to Bruce for the third time, and he agreed. That is why I call Bruce “The Guardian Angel of Appleseed” because he came galloping in at the end for “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”
Bruce recorded the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” for the album. You had approached him with a list of 14 Seeger songs to pick from. He recorded a half-dozen tracks, and then submitted “We Shall Overcome.”
Yes. Bruce has been a wonderful supporter of the label. He’s just an amazing human being. He’s done 7 songs for us.
(Springsteen was inspired by his involvement in the “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” to release his 2006 album “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions CD” with several songs suggested by Musselman)
How do you even start to choose what Bruce Springsteen track to pick?
Oh, he’s an amazing human being. He’s “The Guardian Angel of Appleseed,” as I said because we have approached him with 8 ideas over the years, and he’s been responsive to every one. When the Iraq war broke out, I got Pete Seeger into a recording studio and we did 5 songs in Woodstock, New York, and I sent Bruce, “Bring Them Home” (Seeger’s Vietnam-era protest song), and the three of us co-wrote the (new) lyrics (for inclusion on 2003’s “Seeds” album). Bruce then performed it on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” and “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” and he also performed it at every concert in Europe and America on his “Seeger Sessions” tour.
How truly cool is that?
I know. It was unbelievable.
You dedicated “Roots and Branches” to Bruce and his long-time manager Jon Landau.
I did because, Larry, in this industry everybody makes promises, and they never follow through. Bruce and Jon have kept every single promise that they have made. They have just understood everything we do. When Bruce tweeted out about this new anniversary album, it was the biggest shock of my life because I was not expecting it. I was like, “I can’t believe this. I can’t believe it.” Jon Landau is just an incredible person. He has just been so responsive. He has understood the big picture of what we are doing.
I knew Jon in the ‘70s when he worked at The Phoenix– Metropolitan Boston’s Weekly Journal of News, Opinion, and the Arts. Of course, he went on to write for The Real Paper, Crawdaddy, and Rolling Stone before becoming a record producer and a manager. Jon is one of the great music men of our time.
Totally, and he gets music, the history of music, and the roots of music. I dedicated the CD to them because every promise they made they have kept, and followed through on. They understood the vision, the big picture of what we were trying to do. It is just amazing what human beings they both are. I had done Bruce’s song “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (the title track of his 1995 album), with Pete, and I sent it to Jon: and I said, “Pete is going to recite this. He doesn’t know it, but he’s really Tom Joad in this.” Bruce and Jon were like, “Well, there’s probably one person at Harvard who understands what you are doing here.” So we had recorded it, and Bruce performed it at Pete’s 90th birthday party (at Madison Square Gardens in 2009), and said that song was representative of Pete’s life. Okay, now people are going to get it.
(Among the 70 guests on the 4 1/2 hour Pete Seeger birthday bash bill on May 3rd, 2009 were: Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, (Kate’s children Rufus and Martha Wainwright), Kris Kristofferson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bruce Cockburn, Billy Bragg, Richie Havens, Tom Paxton, Taj Mahal, Arlo Guthrie, Del McCoury, Tom Morello, and Roger McGuinn..)
Have you written other songs?
Well, I’ve written poems. I can’t write lyrics. I just write the words. I wrote “Blessed Be the Nation” with Pete, and Maya Angelou recited it at the United Nations. I was touched by that. We had oral historian Studs Terkel recite it on “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”
Still, to have a song recorded by Bruce Springsteen is like holding a poker hand of four aces.
That was bizarre. I grew up listening to Bruce. I am still waiting for somebody to tap me on the shoulder and say, “This is all just a dream.” I have no music background. I have never played a musical instrument. I can’t read music. So I am just waiting for somebody to call me out.
What is the power of music in your eyes?
Music can touch people in ways that words cannot or other things cannot. It has a way of unifying people, but also reaching people in a way that other mediums can’t. That is why I started the label because of the power of music. It changed my life because I was exposed to Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson and Woody Guthrie which taught me the real history of America. So I believe that music can change people, and it can change the world on a macro and a micro level.
Many nursing and memory care facilities today are treating those who suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia with music programs with such benefits as improvement in alertness, engagement, mood, sense of community, feelings of acceptance, and improvement in the patients’ interaction with their caregivers, and loved ones. I have only met one person ever who said they had no interest in music.
Yeah, it’s the universal language, and it’s a way to reach people in so many different ways. As I said, it changed my life. I heard Bob Dylan’s song (“Positively 4th Street”), and I was like, “Oh my God, the power of words.” I would have been a corporate attorney if not for hearing that Dylan song because it just changed me.
Did you hear “Positively 4th Street” on the radio?
Yeah, I heard it on the radio. I pulled over to the side of the road, and I was just blown away. I was just like, “Oh my God.” I went and got “Writings and Drawings” from the Allentown Public Library, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, the power of these words.” Then Dylan led me to Woody Guthrie and led me to Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson, and Phil Ochs and so on.
(“Writings and Drawings” (1972, Alfred A. Knopf) is a collection of lyrics and drawings from Bob Dylan. It contained his lyrics from 1962’s “Bob Dylan” album to selections from “Greatest Hits, Volume 2” in 1972. Also included were poems and other writings, including album liner notes.)
My introduction to folk music came through Ian & Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Phil Ochs, but I soon gravitated more to artists like Judy Collins on Elektra Records.
Oh yeah, absolutely. Judy’s incredible. Her voice was just so incredible. It’s amazing that she’s going so strong right now. She’s just an amazing creative artist.
Vanguard and Elektra in the early ‘60s were two vastly different folk-based labels.
One hundred percent. I loved both labels, and I loved Folkways, what Mose Asch was doing. That’s what I set as an example for Appleseed.
(Folkways Recordings, created in New York in 1948 by record collector Moses Asch, specialized in traditional music; folk, blues and children’s music: and spoken word. Its catalog contains recordings by Pete Seeger, the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Elizabeth Cotten, Reverend Gary Davis, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Alice Gerrard & Hazel Dickens, and by children’s educator/performer Ella Jenkins. After Asch passed away in 1986, his family donated the Folkways’ catalog to the Smithsonian Institution. Due to the Smithsonian’s novel agreement with the Asch family, every release from throughout the label’s history must remain in print, and be available to purchase.)
Appleseed is based in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Well, I do a lot in New York.
How many people work at the label?
There are four people who work directly for us with in-house publicity, and working on the website and so on. I did everything co-operatively with Red House Records in St. Paul, Minnesota, but Red House went out of business (being sold to the Compass Records Group in Nashville in late 2017).
The founders of Compass, producer Garry West and musician Alison Brown, were mentored by Red House’s owner Bob Feldman when they started their label in 1996. Bob’s untimely passing in 2006, at 56, was a blow to Red House which continued with his widow Beth Friend.
Bob Feldman was my friend and mentor, and I was with Red House for 20 years. We did everything co-operatively. He was a great guy. I had no idea they were going out. I was sitting there with a new Tom Rush release (“Voices”), and my 21st Anniversary “Roots and Branches” album, and I had no distributor. I had nothing. I did everything co-operatively with Red House. So I had this thing of going from 20 employees (with Red House) to two with no distribution; no manufacturing, nothing. I was thrown out there into the cold 18 months ago. It was like all of a sudden a hurricane hit, and a flood hit, where do you go? Luckily, it all came around. The whole dynamics changed, and I sort of rose up like the phoenix, and sort of reinvented everything. It was crazy. I would not want to go through that again.
How is Appleseed Recordings distributed now?
I’m with AMPED ( part of Alliance Entertainment) in the U.S., and all over the world, except for England where I am with RSK.
Today it’s quite a harder game to operate a label and be profitable with the sharp business practices of YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Music.
Larry, don’t get me started on that because if musicians don’t start fighting back against YouTube, and Google, it’s the end of the industry in 10 years, and that’s my strong prediction.
Throw Spotify onto that list too, particularly for independent labels and artists being offered paltry payouts.
And yes Spotify as well, but Spotify is better than YouTube-Google. Google is the number one enemy as they own YouTube, and have Google Music and also allow many illegal pirated sites to be listed on Google which are protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Protection Act so you cannot sue them.
Nevertheless, labels and artists alike line up early to have content on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, and the other streaming platforms.
Oh, yeah. You have 48% of the streaming is YouTube and only 7% of the revenue is YouTube (according to a study of 2018 music streaming rates by David Lowery of The Trichordist). I don’t understand musicians not getting together, and saying that, “Enough is enough. We are pulling all of our stuff off YouTube so they pay a fair amount because it’s an unsustainable business model.”
There is a litany of music industry complaints about YouTube including manager Irv Azoff’s assertion in 2016 that, “You have built a business that works really well for you and for Google, but it doesn’t work well for artists.”
Yeah. They don’t pay anything. They put up things without your permission. You can have an entire album on YouTube, and you get absolutely no revenue from it. It can actually be up there before the album comes out. I don’t get it. I came from an activist background, fighting corporations; and I fought every major corporation when I worked with Ralph Nader; and Google is the worst that I have ever seen, and the industry won’t fight back. It’s just shocking to me. I am like, “Wow, maybe, for the next generation, you should fight back.”
(In an open letter issued to the media on February 7th, 2019, group of organizations representing European creatives and rights holders in the music, audio-visual, broadcasting and sports industries, including the ICMP (The Global Voice of Music Publishing), the IFPI, which represents the global recorded music industry, and the independent music trade body IMPALA., called on European negotiators to cancel the new European Copyright Directive with an Article 13 provision intended to legally penalize user-upload services like YouTube for copyright infringement on their platforms
In Sept. 2018, the European Parliament had approved a draft version of the Directive.
The letter to the media states, “The key aims of the original draft Directive were to create a level playing field in the online Digital Single Market and strengthen the ability of European rights holders to create and invest in new and diverse content across Europe.
“Despite our constant commitment in the last two years to finding a viable solution, and having proposed many positive alternatives, the text – as currently drafted and on the table – no longer meets these objectives, not only in respect of any one article, but as a whole. As rights holders we are not able to support it or the impact it will have on the European creative sector.”)
Streaming services have taken control of music delivery and marketing away from the labels and artists by fully controlling the distribution process. The trade-off was that the majors wrestled equity stakes, and revenue sharing conditions out of Spotify, Apple and others streaming services; while the independent label sector led by London-based Merlin, a non-profit organization representing independent music companies on a global basis, had to fight for a seat at the table Are you a member of Merlin?
You should be.
I will be. It is just mind-boggling. They (the majors) made the deal and everybody has to abide by and they were getting the money under the table.
Is Appleseed Recordings’ catalog up on Spotify?
It is. I’m with E1 Digital.
Appleseed Recordings’ original mission statement stated, “Sowing the seeds of social justice through music, and exploring the roots and branches of folk and world music.” Have you adhered to that lofty ideal?
Yes. Totally, because we had the goal of (working with) the roots and branches of folk music, and getting these folks songs out there. Immigrants came to this country with just the songs on their back, and many of these songs were being lost. When we got Roger McGuinn of the Byrds to do an album of traditional folk songs called “Treasures from the Folk Den,” and he had Joan Baez and Judy Collins on the album, that was keeping the songs alive; and then planting the seed for Springsteen’s 2006 album “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” where he did all of the folk songs all over the world.
So, to me, the goal was to keep folk music alive, real folk music, with these traditional songs, and also to put out music with (lyrics about) social change and social justice. I guess Larry what I am most proud of is that we have been on the right side of history on everything. We opposed the Iraq War early. Our artists have worked on the right side of history. Johnny Clegg in South Africa. Pete Seeger dealing with civil rights, and the Vietnam War. So our artists were always on the right side of history but, as a label, we were taking stances on gay rights, on the Iraq war, and on civil rights, and on equal rights. I really feel that we have followed through on the mission statement, and being on the right side of history is probably the one thing that I am most proud of about the label.
Appleseed Recordings’ site lists such revered veterans as Donovan, Johnny Clegg, Tom Paxton, Eric Andersen, Al Stewart, David Bromberg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Roger McGuinn, John Wesley Harding, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Tom Rush as well lesser knowns Tim Eriksen, Kim & Reggie Harris, and Anne Hills.
The label also has catalog recordings by Pete Seeger, Jesse Winchester, and John Stewart who have passed on.
So you do indeed have signed artists?
Oh yes. Tom Paxton has done albums for us; Sweet Honey in the Rock, we have done three albums with them.
You also have access to some of Pete Seeger’s catalog.
Well, we did 8 albums with Pete.
Do you license recordings?
No, not really that much. One or two we have licensed over the years, but is rare.
You have a bit of a silver-tongue in that you coaxed veteran artists who hadn’t recorded in years back into the recording studio. Tom Rush hadn’t recorded for 35 years; Donovan, 8 years; Buffy Sainte-Marie, 13 years; and the late Jesse Winchester, it was more than a decade. And you brought David Bromberg out of retirement.
Yeah, and that is something that I am so proud of. I call these artists, “The Wisdom Keepers.” The music industry tends to be, “What’s new; what’s young; what’s hot.” I was shocked by so many of these artists not recording. Tom Rush hadn’t done an album is over 30 years, and he is just such an incredible musician, and human being. David Bromberg ,and Donovan, these are artists who still had so much to say. I am so proud of Tom Rush coming back and recording. Also Jesse Winchester (who died in 2014). Jesse would have been the next James Taylor, but he had to leave during the Vietnam War to go to Canada, and he was never bitter about it.
(In 1967, Jesse Winchester, who would write and record some of the most memorable singer/songwriter recordings of the ‘70s with “Yankee Lady,” “Mississippi You’re On My Mind,” and “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz,” received a draft induction letter, and soon afterward flew to Montreal. He arrived with only $300, no connections, and no regrets as he settled into a new life. “I was so offended by someone’s coming up to me and presuming to tell me who I should kill, and what my life was worth,” Winchester told Rolling Stone in 1977.)
It ruined his career. Jesse was a wonderful and very gracious human being. I felt so proud we gave his career a second wind, and that Elvis Costello had him on his TV show (“Spectacle”), and Jerry Seinfeld tweeted out about Jesse’s song. I was just so honored that Jesse got the huge acclaim his career again before his death (in 2014),
(It was actor Albert Brooks who first tweeted a link to Winchester’s performance of “Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding” on Elvis Costello’s “Spectacle” TV show, saying, “If you watch this and you’re not moved you’re dead.” Jerry Seinfeld then re-tweeted Brooks’ posting to his 2.3 million followers.)
Check out Jesse Winchester’s performance of “Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding,” with singer Neko Case crying alongside him, on “Spectacle”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uKGWpqnS8E
These are artists that were slipping through the cracks of the recording industry.
These were so many artists that had just given up on the music industry. Like, “No, I’m not recording again.” It took a lot of persistence and a lot of pounding on doors to get some of them.
Artists used to put out music on two or four-year cycles, As recorded music sales waned, it became obvious to some that it was impractical releasing new music. Also, with Spotify, Apple, and the other platforms breaking up the album into single tracks, an album’s cycle has been extended, and for lesser-known or niché artists, the impact isn’t always evident. Yet, I don’t believe the album is dead. I still listen to albums.
And I still believe that the album is alive. I like to do an album like a book or a movie; with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is a wonderful way to get a whole thought across. I think that one of the problems for the music industry now is that everything is so disposable. It‘s a single, and it’s disposable, and next week something else is moved forward.
Do you release vinyl?
Yeah, we did Tom Rush’s “Voices” on vinyl and it sold out. Larry, I’m a vinyl junkie. I have 10,000 vinyl in the basement. I believe that vinyl is the ultimate. It’s shocking to me how everything is disposable, and there’s no longevity in the music industry. I still like the concept of an album because you can get so many thoughts across. You can have humor. You can have death. You can have so much on an album. On a single, you can’t have all of these things. And you can get through so many emotions on an album as you listen to it. There are so many emotions that are there.
While Appleseed Recordings isn’t focused on having hit singles you’d take one if it came up?
It sounds as if the creation and the execution of the music project are what you most enjoy.
Totally. The fun thing is coming up with an idea, and working with an artist. We have always given artists full artistic creativity to paint their own pictures. I always say that, “Nobody should be telling Michelangelo how to paint a painting.”
Such a pitch to an artist is like putting high-quality fish bait into a lake. Surely, you don’t always allow that freedom of expression.
No, I do. I have had artists having full artistic control of covers, and I have had tanks and guns on covers. So I give the artist 100% full creative. I have never had a song taken off. I have never told an artist to go this or that way because to me the artist is the artist; and they are painting their picture, and I want them to paint the picture that they want to paint.
No censorship. No. An artist is doing what they feel in their heart, and in their soul. To me, that is what an artist is. I am not going to tell an artist what to do because it’s their vision, and it’s their vision that they are putting out into the world.
You are, however, working with top-line artists; In many cases lauded veteran pros and you have, for the most part, avoided celebrated dysfunctionals.
Yes, totally, working with “The Wisdom Keepers,” as I call them. Like Donovan, he had a vision. He hadn’t done an album in 8 years. He was like, “I want the cover to be like this. This is my vision.” I was like, “You’ve got it.” He was like, “The art is as important to me as the album,” and to me, it’s the artist’s name that is going out there into the universe. You want to do right by the artist.
My friend songwriter/music publisher Billy Mann’s motto is: “No dicks. No divas. No Drama.”
It’s true. I have been so blessed. Artists like Tom Rush, Tom Paxton, Jesse Winchester, Al Stewart are really sincere gentlemen. I am just so honored to work with these people who are just really good people. A lot of them didn’t have the artistic temperament they are just wonderful human beings to work with. Eric (Andersen) is a genius, with his visions. We did this one album “Beat Avenue” this 27 minute song about the John Kennedy death, and he was with the Beat Poets (according to Andersen, he sat in with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and Michael McClure as they read poetry in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district reflecting on what happened), and it was one of the longest things we have put out. I said, “Let’s do it.”
The artist that would have been perfect for Appleseed is Harry Chapin who tragically died in a car accident in 1981. He was the most politically and most socially active American performer of the ‘70s.
You know Larry, Harry was one of my heroes. He had a thing (saying) of, “Let your errors in life be errors of commission, not omission. This will lead to a life of fewer regrets. When in doubt do something” I have it up on my wall in calligraphy from my dad. When Bruce said “no” to me twice on the first Seeger tribute, I looked at Harry’s quote, and I said, “I’m trying Bruce a third time.” Harry would do so much. He would do one concert for the planet’s good, and then he would do one for himself. He was an amazing human being with such energy. He’s the one person I wish I could have worked with, Harry, because Ralph Nader was his hero. His heroes were Pete Seeger and Ralph. Everything he did with World Hunger, but he had such a passion and an energy for social justice.
(In 1987, Harry Chapin was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his humanitarian work, particularly for work on behalf of world hunger and being a key participant in the creation of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger in 1977.)
Harry did so much for Michael Moore in the early days. When Michael had his alternative weekly newspaper, the Michigan Voice, Harry would do concerts for Michael, and they would sell out. Harry would say, “Let’s do three in a day. Let’s do four in a day. Let’s do five.” He did so much for Michael
Trump as America’s president?
It’s just a bad dream. I’m just going to wake up, and Trump would not have been president.
America has great resiliency. It survived slavery; a civil war; the blacklist; the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. I hope you retain some optimism that America will get past what you see as dark days.
Well, that’s the point. To plant the seeds of optimism, and hope. We’ve come through everything. We have come through McCarthyism. We have come through unjust wars like Vietnam. We will survive. But the problem is that it is all darkness now.
Do you not think broadcast outlets like CNN, MNBC and Fox TV are 24/7 driving that darkness as well as social media and right-wing radio?
Fox is not really news. People don’t get the news if they are watching Fox. It’s all biased. But the problem is that it’s (the environment is) all darkness. Trump has created hate between black and white; between women and men; and he has created schisms in a country divided because of his options.
It may take decades to roll back the changes he’s already brought about with the Supreme Court appointments, the environment, and the military.
I think it going to take 20, 30 or maybe 50 years because of the Supreme Court. With POTUS (President of the United States) we had (Vice President Dick) Cheney for years who was running the Bush administration, and we had so much darkness. Cheney lived in darkness, and Trump lives in darkness. So we have had so little light compared to the darkness of what has occurred. I do feel that it is going to be at least 30 years before we recover from Trump because everything about him is divisive. Everything with him is hatred, but also everything is conflict. He’s not a peacemaker. There’s no love in his heart.
Within the current political arena, other than the Parkland Student Activists and #WomanMe movement, where is the rebellion in America today?
You are seeing it from the millennials. The millennials are ripping down all of the preconceived notions. They are ripping down everything on prejudice, gay rights, everything. I think that it is a silent rebellion with the millennials where they are making the change. I will be honest with you. I am shocked by the lack of people getting upset in this country.
Where’s America’s mainstream musical community? Not at the barricades making demands for change.
That’s the point. I am just shocked because I always felt that musicians had the responsibility, and if you take down that work, that means that they have the ability to respond quickly, and it is just shocking. There are so many sophomoric, “Trump’s an idiot.” We all know that.
Say “Trump’s an idiot,” and the conversation is over. Trump is a symptom of a problem. The things to address really are misogyny, racism, and fear. That is how to be political. Trump departs the White House, and there’s a lengthy line of politicians like him waiting to step in.
Totally, you are absolutely right. He’s a symptom but the problem is that that in the ‘60s with music you had people who were changing the world with music. With anti-war and civil rights. The music of today it doesn’t get mass exposure.
You are right about the ’60. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater, James Brown, Barry McGuire, Sam Cooke, and the Buffalo Springfield had protest songs played on AM and FM radio formats. Meanwhile, Phil Ochs, Buffy Ste. Marie, Country Joe and the Fish were being played on FM radio.
In the ‘80s, Jackson Browne, Harry Chapin, Bonnie Raitt, and James Taylor were among those having activist voices as did Steven Van Zandt, and Billy Bragg later on. These days, you could release a social message-styled recording, and nobody would play it, nor buy it.
And that’s the point. You don’t see that because in the mass media it (such music) is just is not going to get the attention because radio is just playing a lot of music that is non-political. Plato (the pre-eminent Greek philosopher) once said, his famous quote was, “Watch music, it is an important art form. Rulers should be careful about what songs they allow to be sung,” and that’s about the power of music. And it’s always been that way. You can see that the ‘60s, as an example, because music was then at the forefront. But now it is just shocking to me with what is going on in America that there isn’t more…
Well, there are pockets of protest in America from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Logic, MILCK, the Downtown Boys, and the incendiary rock outfit Priests. In the UK, there’s Billy Bragg, Martyn Joseph, Nancy Kerr, Sam Carter, and Maz O’Connor.
(“Protest songs are no longer seen as an effective form of communication,” says Malcolm Taylor, a folk music expert and former librarian at the English Folk Dance and Song Society. “There’s so much ammunition for them, and if you wrote one that happened to catch on, you could potentially reach millions. But whereas Billy Bragg and his generation would have strapped on their guitars and headed for a street corner to make their point, today’s discontents prefer Facebook and other social media.”)
Tom Morello is one of those in the U.S. who speaks the truth. I have this whole concept of living your truth, and there are so many artists that do speak their truth but they don’t get the mass exposure like Tom Morello does. But it’s the exception rather than the rule.
With this 21st anniversary CD, I said, “Okay, I’m going to make this relevant to today. Who do I respect the most? Okay, Tom Morello,” So I did songs dealing with racism, dealing with guns, dealing with social justice, dealing with the environment, dealing with the heroin crisis, dealing with the border issue, and dealing with every major issue facing America today because I wanted to make it relevant to what is happening today. One person said that this CD is a time capsule of America in the year 2019. I wanted to make it relevant so I got the songs dealing with that. I just wanted it to be representative of what’s happening right now in the country. To set that example.
Nevertheless, there’s nothing on the anniversary release addressing such hardcore issues as massive politcal spending on campaigns or special interest lobbyists. To me, you took on low hanging fruit.
Well, it’s hard because you have to pick your battles, and what is important and everything else. You are trying to make a statement. I do my CDs with a beginning, a middle, and an end as I said. Starting off with planting a seed and ending with non-violence. In-between that you can’t hit every issue. If you listen to Tom Morello’s song “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” (a politicized rewrite of AC/DC track o the same name) on Roots’ first disc, “Let the Truth Be Told,” that is the essence; that is the core of American foreign policy, and how we screwed up the world in so many ways. That is why I think that it is such an important song. These refugees are coming to America because of what we did in Guatemala and what we did in these countries.
The point is that I want to paint the picture, “This is the truth. It’s pretty heavy.”
Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “Second Line Blues” is about the treatment of African Americans. It’s really heavy, but we live in a really dark country right now. I an just trying to bring some light by bringing attention to the issues. You know issues are going to stay long past when Trump is gone and to me what I think is important are issues and fighting for issues, and fighting for them to change because they stay on long past the politicians being there
You have a law degree at the Syracuse University College of Law.
You also attended Villanova University, in Radnor Township, a suburb of Philadelphia.
I grew up in Villanova near the club called The Main Point (on Lancaster Ave. in Bryn Mawr). I could see Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Andersen, Tom Rush, everybody.
(The Main Point closed in 1981, but it was renowned for taking chances with emerging artists.)
Where are you from originally?
I’m from Allentown, Pennsylvania. My father was an artist. So I always had wacky artists around the house. He taught me to be “creactive” rather than to be creative; which is to act on your ideas, on your creative ideas. My mother was a businesswoman who started an ad agency with my father. So I kind of got the best of both worlds with the creative, and the business side.
Your father was no fool. As an artist, he was smart to marry a lady who knew business.
That was exactly it. They were the perfect team. I got half and half and that helped a lot.
How did you come to connect with consumer activist and former Green Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader who wrote a blurb for “Roots and Branches” with the joke, “Appleseed is safe at any speed”?
I had graduated from law school, and a close friend of mine had died in a car accident. I found out that he could have lived with airbags in cars. So I wrote Ralph about 15 letters to work with him, and he kept saying no. Then he finally gave me an opportunity, and it was to help get airbags in cars and get seatbelt laws passed. So I worked I worked for him. I got celebrities to buy the first car with an airbag, and I advocated against (Chrysler’s chief executive) Lee Iacocca, and (then-Transportation Secretary) Elizabeth Dole, and just pushed to get airbags in cars.
(In 1966, Congress passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Act, requiring automakers to put seat belts, but not airbags, in every car they manufactured. While Ford and GM began to install airbags in some vehicles during the 1970s, it wasn’t until airbag technology improved that automakers began to install them in more vehicles.
In 1984, then-Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole issued an order requiring new cars to be equipped with air bags or automatic seat belts by 1989. The order, however, stipulated a revocation of the federal automatic restraint requirement (including airbags) by states whose combined populations represent two-thirds of the nation’s populace. The same year Chrysler’s chief executive Lee Iacocca in his best-selling autobiography “Iacocca” wrote: “There are those who believe that airbags are the answer. I disagree. I’ve been speaking out against them since they were first developed almost twenty years ago.”
On September 1, 1998, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 finally goes into effect. The law required that all cars and light trucks sold in the United States have airbags on both sides of the front seat.)
What years did you work with Ralph?
The ‘80s. It was from 1984 into the ‘90s. I worked and traveled with Ralph for 8 years, seeing America and seeing the real America in a Woody Guthrie type way.
Ralph sent me to Flint, Michigan to get airbags in cars to Michigan where I worked with Michael Moore. I actually discovered Michael in Flint. I started working on the GM Plant closing, and tax abatement issues with Michael for over a year in Michigan. I convinced Michael to leave Flint, and eventually work for Ralph in Washington DC. We started a campaign to bring attention to GM plant closings and GM’s callousness towards communities. Michael and I spoke frequently about doing a movie about Flint which became “Roger and Me.” We did a lot of the conceptualization and everything.
(The 1989 documentary “Roger & Me, written, produced, directed, and starring Michael Moore. portrays the regional economic impact of General Motors CEO Roger Smith’s action of closing several auto plants in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, reducing GM’s employees there from 80,000 in 1978 to about 50,000 in 1992).
At point did you think, “Okay I have the law degree, but I’m not always going to be a lawyer?”
Well, it was when I started working with Michael Moore in Flint, Michigan, and with the movie that ended up being “Roger and Me.” and seeing the power of the arts to convey messages. I was like, “Lawyers play games of semantics and law is boring and it takes a lot of patience.” I was like, “Nah I want to make social change in a quicker way and reach people.” So I was basically like, “Okay I think that I will do something in music” because I love music but also I think that you can reach people in so many ways. Pete Seeger was a friend, and his life was amazing. The amount of social change that he created in his life was amazing to work with him.
Ralph Nader is a fascinating contemporary American figure. He leveraged his popularity to establish a number of advocacy and watchdog groups including the Public Interest Research Group, the Center for Auto Safety, and Public Citizen. He is said to live in a modest apartment; has never married; doesn’t own a car, but prospered substantially from owning stock in Cisco Systems.
Yes. He’s is somebody who has stayed so consistent to his values. Ralph has stayed the same, the world has changed. He is somebody who has always fought for the little guy; always fought 24/7 for them. He’s a workaholic, but the number of lives he’s saved and the number of lives that he’s touched in a positive way. He’s fought against the power structure constantly, but he stayed consistent to his beliefs. They also say “Make sure that your heroes are dead because that way they stay your heroes.” He is somebody that I’m glad that have worked with. The more I know him and interact the more that I respect him.
Ralph Nader also, perhaps, may forever go down in history as helping make George W. Bush president In the 2000 presidential due to the unreliable election returns in Florida, Bush defeated Al Gore by 537 votes when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Bush v. Gore, stopped a recount that had been initiated upon a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court. Nader received 97,421 votes, which led to claims that he was responsible for Gore’s defeat. In 2004, Michael Moore argued that Ralph had helped make Bush president
Well, that is where I think that democracy is a fraud in America because we will just constantly discourage people from running.
It’s a money race.
You are speaking to the converted.
The election cycle for an election in the UK is 4 weeks with limits on spending by those running for Parliament. In Canada, the election period is 37 days, with campaign spending limits in each riding according to population, and limits nationally too. American presidential elections are high stake games that with the primaries starting in Iowa go on for nearly 18 months at a staggering cost.
And that is where the special interest’ money comes in, and that’s where the politicians sell their souls for the special interest’s money.
A “60 Minutes” report in 2016 revealed members of Congress dialing for dollars, spending 30 hours a week out of the office as telemarketers, cold-calling for campaign donations. The pressure on candidates to raise money has ratcheted up since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 which T allowed unlimited spending by corporations, unions, and individuals in elections.
America’s whole democracy is a fraud, and it’s just run by special interests, and it is not truly a democracy in any way.
Looking back at Appleseed Recordings’ history what strikes you the most?
When you turn around 21 years later, and it’s 160 releases, 24 artists in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Grammy Awards, all that doesn’t matter compared to the songs being used for hope and healing around the world. Springsteen’s “We Shall Overcome” was used after 9/11 by NBC News; “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” being an anthem of peace in Northern Ireland; “Bring Them Home” was used in opposition to the Iraq War. What matters most to me is not the Grammy Awards. It’s not any of those things. It’s that these songs were used for positive social change, and that we are helping people, and healing people.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.