House of the Rising Sun

Next week Red House Records issues a momentous tribute album of Pete Seeger's songs. But after 15 years at the margins of American music, this St. Paul label proudly aims to stay there.

In hip hop, "keep it real" is the imperative used to champion authenticity with a capital "A." The roots-music equivalent might be keep it small. The sentiment remains one of the central fiats of musical purism. Yet, more often than not, "keep it small" is a slogan that can lead to elitism, fear of success, glib self-satisfaction, the inability to express passion, or any combination of the above. In 1998, it remains one of the more flammable straw men in pop music.

But then you go over to Red House Records, a tiny folk label with nine employees and about 15 releases a year, located on University Avenue in St. Paul, right behind Porky's, the drive-in restaurant with the unnervingly playful pig emblazoned across its sign. The Red House offices are miniscule, and there aren't a lot of decorative whatnots on the walls that might indicate what kind of business goes on inside. You have to look around a bit before you see the picture of 48-year-old label owner Bob Feldman and the late country singer Townes Van Zandt. And you'd have to be a well-traveled folk fan to notice the print-sized cover of Red House's great 1995 label compilation House On Fire: An Urban Folk Collection, which Feldman and Co. were so excited about that they celebrated its release by handing the CD to passing motorists on University Avenue.

Yet, what the House lacks in size (or adroit mass-marketing techniques) it makes up for in consistency. In 1994, roughly 4,000 albums were released in the United States. In 1997, due to unimaginable technological advances and the extremely low cost of manufacturing CDs, that number skyrocketed to about 30,000. The vast majority of these were, of course, gratuitously unlistenable. Yet, buried in that slag heap were about a dozen discs on Red House. They included an excellent album by Iowa City singer-songwriter Greg Brown called Slant 6 Mind, a great album by mandolin player Peter Ostroushko, and another fine label compilation called House On Fire II: An Urban Folk Collection.

Red House also pulled a bit of a coup, releasing Holy Smokes, the beautiful solo debut by folk-pop heroine Suzzy Roche of the singing sisters the Roches--a record that stands next to Dylan's Time Out of Mind and Janet's Jam & Lewis-produced The Velvet Rope as one of the best Minnesota-related albums of 1997. That's not a bad batting average for a little label trafficking in simple, hard-to-sell, unpretentiously small folk music. Compared to the recent track records of some of its pop peers--hello Geffen!--Red House's achievement is fairly amazing.

And this month they've managed another coup. Red House is putting out and distributing Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger, a two-CD, two and a half hour, 39-song "celebration" of the folk singer/activist's songs and poetry, featuring contributions from Bruce Springsteen, Ani DiFranco, Judy Collins, Donovan, Tim Robbins, Studs Terkel, Jackson Browne, Billy Bragg, the Indigo Girls, Odetta, and, of course, Seeger himself.

To understand Red House Records, you almost have to sit in Bob Feldman's sparse office and hear him drop sentences like "Everything we do has to have a foundation for it to succeed." For Feldman evinces no sense that such sentiments have been turned into cliché by scores of hackneyed indie rhetoricians.

At first sight, Feldman doesn't look like a grassroots-music evangelist at all. His bald head and industrial-strength frame suggest a middle-aged high-school football coach, not a fiftyish folk-music and -culture enthusiast. Only a salt-and-pepper goatee offers the indication that he might be affiliated with any kind of culture at all.

In fact, Feldman's passion for music goes back to his adolescence. Raised in Jacksonville, Florida, he grew up Jewish in the Deep South and discovered folk while young. He was 14 when he got involved with Operation Head Start, and, in turn, the civil-rights movement. "That's how I got into folk music," Feldman says. "Ramblin' Jack Eliot, who's on our label, was one the first records I ever had." At 16, Feldman discovered Bob Dylan ("When I heard my first Dylan record I was about ready to run away from home," he says) and Otis Redding ("The best live soul music I ever saw.").

Throughout his teens a love for soul music and a "fascination with black culture" took Feldman to the Jacksonville Coliseum where he saw every major black artist of the 1960s. I almost get teary as he places himself in a convertible, singing "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" at the top of his lungs while speeding home with some friends after an Aretha Franklin show in 1967. I almost do it again when he recounts the moment, a year later, when James Brown's "Say It Loud--I'm Black and I'm Proud" turned the Coliseum's soul shows into "BLACKS ONLY" events.

After a couple aborted attempts at college, and a decade in L.A., Feldman got a degree in education and eventually took a job at Eden Prairie High School. This is where the Red House Records story begins.

Red House got started for the same reason these things often get started: Feldman saw a singer and fell in love. In 1982, Greg Brown was making a living as a writer and performer on A Prairie Home Companion. He had released two records and sold them out of his living room until they'd gone out of print. Bob Feldman was teaching a class at Eden Prairie High called "How To Start Your Own Small Business With No Money." One winter night Feldman did what he often did on winter nights: He wandered down to the now-defunct Coffee House Extempore on the West Bank. But this particular night he had one of those experiences with pop music we should all get to have at least once in our lives.

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