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.

"I was just blown away," recalls Feldman about Brown's performance at the coffee shop. "I had never seen anybody like Greg before. He said everything to me that I liked about music--soul music, folk music. I thought to myself: Everyone has to know about this person." A year later Feldman took his course title to heart, and started Red House as a way to release Brown's records.

For 15 years, Greg Brown has remained the Red House standard-bearer, releasing 13 records on Feldman's label, and he's the only artist on the label (with the exception of the newly signed Roche) whose career has transcended the "urban folk" market. His best records sell about 50,000 copies, where the average Red House release sells about a fifth of that. A small, and deserved, legend follows him: Brown's ability to breathe new life into worn-out sentiments, and his skill at turning a thick, confrontational, almost mean-sounding voice into one of the more evocative instruments around, has made him a truly distinct, if underappreciated, American original.

"I couldn't imagine recording anywhere else," Brown says, speaking on the phone from his latest tour. "I've had many major-label offers, but the thing I value Red House for is complete freedom. I can record whatever I want. A couple years ago I did an album of the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. I don't think most labels would have let me do a bunch of poems by William Blake. I see a lot of value in the small. That stuff is where my own personal values lead me."

Incredibly enough, none of this is bullshit. Though artists do leave the label--the New Dylans are one example--Feldman has never dropped one. "We're very happy if a record sells 10,000 copies," he says. "And if it doesn't, that's fine too."

Yet the last time I stopped by Red House to see its "keep it small" aesthetic in action, the adage was starting to take on some paradoxical implications.

"Bob's on the phone, he'll be with you in a minute," Megan Rubiner Zinn, the publicist, tells me. "I think it's Letterman...or Oprah. There's been tons of calls from people interested in getting some of the artists from the record."

Actually, the guy on the phone is Jim Musselman. Flowers Gone (which hits the stores March 17) is being released on Musselman's tiny Appleseed label. Yet, by taking full responsibility for all "marketing, manufacturing, and distributing," Red House is now affiliated with its biggest project to date.

You may have to go back to USA For Africa to find a more impressive list of humanitarian heavyweights. Yet, unlike "We Are the World," these discs don't come with the stench of faux globalist humanism, and they aren't being distributed by the corporate structures of global capitalism. Simply put: This album is real.

Bruce Springsteen turns the civil-rights classic "We Shall Overcome" into an intimate, love ballad ("We shall overcome, someday...darlin," he sings). Greg Brown does a spare, gorgeous version of "Sailing Down My Golden River." Tim Robbins (whom Musselman calls "the film Pete Seeger") does a fine job with "All My Children of the Sun," and the "literature Pete Seeger," Studs Terkel, offers two must-hear readings of Seeger poems. Disc one ends with the Weavers' sensational cover of the South African a cappella classic, "Mbube." Disc two ends with Pete doing his own gentle reverie, "And I'm Still Searching."

It's a great collection, and Musselman is elated. "I never could have done this record the way I wanted to without Bob," says Musselman of his Red House partner, speaking from Philadelphia where he lives and runs Appleseed. "I could've put it out on just about every major label, but if you go with a major you're not gonna have input on certain decisions. Everyone at Red House has this love and passion for the music that you don't see in the industry. I like to do things cooperatively, and I thought it was a good fit. The Seeger project was a labor of love and I didn't want to lose control of it in any way."

His passion is more than mirrored in Feldman. "I was listening to this album and I was in tears," Feldman says. "I called Jim and I said, 'I can not believe what you've done.' I'd been working on this thing for nine months, and here I am--a basket case in tears--listening to it. I've given it to friends, and people call me back and they're amazed. When you listen to it you can hear how much the artists love Pete Seeger. You can hear Pete Seeger in the songs."

Which might be a new experience for some people. Unless you're a 5-year-old (or a fascist) you know (and love) Pete Seeger's most famous songs--and those he made famous: "Turn, Turn, Turn," "The Hammer Song," "We Shall Overcome," "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine." Yet, the myth of the man who made a soundtrack for the Depression, the man who wouldn't buckle under for Joseph McCarthy, the one who wrote songs with Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly and saw those songs become anthems for people from South Africa to India--this man has become distant to two generations of music fans whose conception of folk music is forever clouded by the solipsistic yuppismo miasma that is Sweet Baby James.

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