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.
"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.
Now 79, Seeger lives in upstate New York, and is on a sabbatical from touring. Seeger reports that Musselman undertook the album because "he was unhappy people weren't singing my songs." And Seeger is obviously proud of it. "They've done a wonderful job, and I'm very proud that all these people want to sing my songs."
Yet, while rumors about his health abound, the Seeger I interview sounds blithe, and, as always, he is remarkably articulate. "My voice is about 70 percent gone," he jokes. "I tell people, 'From the shoulders down I'm about 80 percent here. From the shoulders up I'm about 20 percent here. Eyes gone. Ears gone. Voice gone. Brain--forget it.'"
Though this diagnosis is a charming piece of self-effacement, it doesn't ring true; this is a man with at least a couple lives left to lead. In 10 minutes, Seeger talks about his favorite South African pop song (the above mentioned "Mbube"), anarchism, and the apparent stupidity of record collecting ("I like to make music," he says).
A few albums that Seeger does listen to are steel-drum recordings: He likes to strap on skates and zip around the frozen pond behind his house with the melodic beat booming from an outdoor speaker. "That's the best music to skate to I might tell you; it beats Viennese waltzes. I once skated around to Bob Dylan's record of John Wesley Harding 'til I wore it out."
Though Seeger writes few songs these days--Feldman claims that the singer remains a prolific correspondent--his back catalog has lost none of its pertinence, as this latest album makes clear. And Seeger is ever the proselytizer. "I think the world can be saved by thousands of little organizations," he announces with the assurance of someone forecasting a sunrise. And who's to say it won't.