David Rovics’ life has been political since the day he picked up a guitar. Listening to his songs one can hear that storming from his guitar and lyrics. His latest album, Ballad of a Wobbly, covers topics such as the recent Grenfell tower fire in London, the Rojava conflict, the FBI’s Palmer Raids of 1919, the attack in Charlottsville, as well as general pleas of love and understanding for the people, creatures and nature all around us. The first and title track of the album focuses on the so called Wobblies, or the International Workers of the World (IWW), a union formed in 1906 and still operating today is some way. From there David takes us on a journey around the world and back and forth in time. I contacted David and asked him a few questions about his career, the educational part of his music and about an upcoming Facebook Live Event that he is hosting in a few days.
As a veteran protest singer and songwriter, many people know your work, but for those still in the dark, who is David Rovics?
Well, that’s a very existential question to begin with…! I grew up in a woodsy suburb of New York City and I was raised by musicians, one of whom is a lifelong union member (the other of whom would have been, given the opportunity). I haven’t really fallen too far from the tree (not that I would have admitted that when I was younger).
Has your music been political since the day you picked up the guitar?
I guess I have been political since I first picked up a guitar, but whether the music has been has varied. I’ve gone through phases of playing a lot of bluegrass, Irish traditional music, and other kinds of things. There are political elements everywhere, but in terms of writing songs about current and historical events, I got into that pretty early, but not right away.
Political music has not been known to go hand in hand with popularity. How do you feel people are accepting your activist music these days? Has it changed since when you were starting out?
I’ve never had any kind of mainstream success, I would say to put it simply. Whether that’s because the music is political or not is hard to say, because most artists never have mainstream success, whether they’re political or not. But I have a good base within the left in many countries. In Europe this has been a brilliantly consistent thing ever since I started touring there almost 20 years ago. In the US it’s been much less consistent. I used to mainly tour in the US, but now I mainly tour in Europe, as a result of these changes, out of necessity.
What do you hope to achieve with your music?
Hopefully it functions on many different levels. My hope is to educate people about current and historical events they’ve never heard about, or to help them think about events they have heard about in different ways. In addition to the education aspect there’s the very important aspect of community-building — for that, people need to get together physically in physical spaces and do things together, like talk, sing, eat, drink, tell stories, listen to stories. As a musician I give people an excuse to get together, which is important. So basically there’s education and there’s inspiration, I suppose, those are the two main elements.
Do you think you will ever run out of subjects to write and sing songs about?
No, as long as the universe continues to constantly be in flux, there will be things to write about — as long as the Earth turns on its axis. If the universe became completely static, that would be a problem, but it shows no signs of stopping.
If all of a sudden all people on the planet were simply patient and kind to one and another, as well as to all creatures and the nature, what would you like to write about then?
There would be many beautiful stories within all of that patience and kindness. That’s also true when kind people save others from being massacred, for example, but then there’s also death involved with such a song. But it could be a great song with nobody dying in it, too. In some of my favorite songs, nobody dies…
Outside the music, do you partake in any activism?
Well, I’m currently organizing a gig for someone else — a Nigerian actor/singer named Tayo Aluko, so I don’t know if that counts…? But basically no. I found a long time ago that for me it’s best to specialize. I sing at a lot of protests and do a lot of fundraisers for activist groups, but my only role within the unions, left parties, squats, etc., is to sing for them. I know a lot of really good musicians and a lot of really good organizers, and I know very few who do both really well. Which makes sense to me, because just between writing songs, recording albums, organizing tours, doing the tours, and raising kids, there’s no time left for anything else as far as I can tell.
Do you follow other active protest musicians? Do you have any favorites, current or old
Oh yes. Favorites include Jim Page (Seattle), Robb Johnson (England), Christy Moore (Ireland), Silvio Rodriguez (Cuba).
You have a Facebook live event coming up on the 4th of August. Can you tell us about that? What else is on the horizon for you?
One of my main projects over the past year has been writing and organizing a section of my website that teaches people about history and current events through music and prose, at www.davidrovics.com/history. As part of that project, I’m doing monthly internet broadcasts where I talk about this month in history, and any other subjects people want to discuss. I’ve been moving from one platform to another to do these broadcasts because I can’t decide which to use, and I was banned from Facebook for a long time. But this time I’ll use Facebook (I know it sucks, but I want to broadcast to people rather than to crickets). Oh and as for what else is on the horizon, I have tours coming up in various parts of North America and Europe from August through November, and my first vinyl album coming out in December. I’m going to the studio in a couple hours to record some songs for it…
Lastly, thank you very much for participating and for the music you make. Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?
I love the image of shouting from rooftops. It makes me think of the art of Eric Drooker of New York City, which has the world’s best rooftops. And it makes me think of my friend Brad Will, with whom I smoked joints on many rooftops, whether or not we shouted from them. So yeah — go to www.drooker.com and look at some of my favorite paintings of my favorite rooftops…
Halldór is the managing editor of Shouts – Music from the Rooftops!, an investigative journalist, audio engineer and an animal rights activist on a nomad journey through Europe – still without a definite destination.