Aural History

The artist as interviewer: Larry Long

The artist as interviewer: Larry Long

"You know what would make a great record?" says Larry Long, stopping suddenly on the corner of Lake Street and 35th Avenue. "To interview people in each one of these buildings and write songs about them." He spins around to survey the intersection, pointing to the nearby African-American church, to a union hall, and to the space where a massage parlor once stood.

"I don't know who'd listen to it," he laughs, his recent jet lag giving way to what seems to be his default disposition--a spacey, boyish wonder. But if anyone could sell the concept of a neighborhood CD to a label, it's Long. His Jonathan Richman innocence and Alan Lomax sense of mission probably helped him land his current, ongoing relationship with Smithsonian Folkways, which released his seventh album, Well May the World Go, in July. Subtitled Songs of Work, Love, Community, and Hope, the disc might seem a cynic's idea of all that is overbearingly reverent in folk. Yet the methodology behind Long's songs can inspire its own reverence, at least in this cynic.

For nearly two decades, the late-40s Long has refined what might be called "collective songwriting," the antithesis of a singer-songwriter's self-indulgence. He is what Studs Terkel dubs a "true American troubadour," which means he's Studs's kind of troubadour: an interviewer who travels the country, often as an activist, writing songs inspired by taped interviews with working-class people. He's also an educator who has taken to teaching kids how to interview their elders and write their own songs as well.

"It's not too different from what you do," he says. "I teach journalistic skills: how to ask a good question, to become immersed in a subject, to try not to be judgmental, but to really absorb what it is they're saying and to honor that."

So how does one honor Larry Long, I wonder? First, maybe just hang out with the guy. If the gaunt folkie with the Guthrie good looks and round specs weren't so seemingly guileless, I'd think our stroll beneath the tall elms of his Longfellow neighborhood was somehow staged to show that he's "of the people." Or at least of the neighborhood. Not one but four residents greet him by name as we pass. And when we enter the Lake Street Garage restaurant, a shrine of his concert posters hangs to our right. It's as if Long and his family had lived their whole lives here, though they've resided in the area for only half a dozen years.

At our table, Long gets excited when I order a cherry Coke, which he has forgotten was an off-menu item, so he orders one too and we both wince at the syrup. Long will take any opportunity to bond, and it's not hard to imagine why the man has gotten to know almost as many people--maybe a thousand or so--as he has written songs. He encountered little trouble attracting a diverse ensemble of local jazz and folk luminaries to make Well May the World Go. And Friday's belated CD-release party features such scene veterans as Debbie Duncan on vocals and Peter Ostroushko on violin.

That the album can sometimes lapse into the sort of excessively polite world music endemic to A Prairie Home Companion may be more a problem of execution than conception. Long has always used music first as communication--he wrote half of the disc in local schools and community centers--and he perhaps seeks too clean an aural bed for his oral history. But the tunes stick nonetheless. Sung in his tenuous, tender wisp of a voice, the immigrant story of "Somalia" is simple but effectively moving, set to a melody that trembles evocatively. And the title track brings his interview-based approach into the studio by sampling snippets taken from a conversation with his pal Pete Seeger.

Much better are Long's songs written with children's voices in mind. His 1996 Folkways debut, Here I Stand: Elders' Wisdom, Children's Song, puts his melodies in the mouths of Alabama babes, letting school kids write verses, in the Long tradition, based on interviews with town elders. In December, the singer will reunite with those singers to perform in Montgomery for Rosa Parks to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the bus boycott. Meanwhile, he's also currently working on a compilation album (funded by the Southern Poverty Law Center) aimed at teaching grade schoolers about intolerance.

"If it crosses the generations, that's what folk music is," Long says. "What getting different generations together does is speed up the folk process, so that in one or two weeks you really have a folk song."

In a way, folk musicians have always been sociologists and social workers as well: Pete Seeger first befriended Woody Guthrie in the Library of Congress's folk archives--two librarians of American working-class culture comparing notes. And the civil-rights movement certainly cemented traditional music's place outside the church in the realm of community activism, well before Dylan's generation noticed the change. But Long's fieldwork, which has even included organizing the first hometown tribute to Guthrie in Okemah, Oklahoma, still seems uncommon, even among folkies.

In the Eighties, inspired by watching Seeger pick trash up on the Hudson, Long helped start the Mississippi River Revival, a movement that celebrated culture along the river while working to clean it up. Just days before our interview, he finished performing in more than 25 river communities as part of the National Audubon Society's Upper Mississippi River Campaign. The month before, he traveled through South African Zulu townships, speaking about the social uses of collective songwriting. He collaborated with local youth choirs to write songs and poems, and at one point found himself inside a decrepit old YMCA building where choir after choir sang for more than 24 hours.

"The thing about Ladysmith Black Mambazo," Long says, his eyes brightening, "is that there are hundreds of groups like that. Not to diminish what they've done. But the way we lift people too high above the ranks from where they come is wrong, I think. Everything falls back to community, to being part of something. That's why it's important to create a process that can be replicated without you."