Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Folk Music and Survival: An Interview with David Rovics

By Matt Dineen

Having just started a deadening temp job alphabetizing books that students had returned at the semester’s end, there was something comforting about hearing the triumphant chorus: "When all the minimum wage workers went on strike!" bouncing off the University of Wisconsin’s buildings. It was early May and rabble-rousing folk musician David Rovics was in Madison to celebrate the centennial of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). I had first heard him play "Minimum Wage Strike" six years before at a student activism conference in Boston. I’ve been drawn to David’s music ever since. He continues to leave his own unique mark on the radical folk tradition. I had the chance to sit down with him on a lovely spring day inside the Orton Park gazebo where we discussed his passion for playing music for the revolution as an antidote to crippling wage slavery.

When you’re in a social situation and people ask you: "What do you do?" how do you usually respond?

I just say I play music. It’s my sole source of income so it’s an easy answer. Presumably they’re asking, "What do you do for a living?" or "What do you do with most of your time?" Of course with most of my time I don’t play music—I stare at computer screen or drive a car or sit in a plane. [Laughs]

So what kind of follow up questions do you usually get to that response? Are people surprised that you can survive off your music and that that’s what you actually do for a living?

Yeah, sometimes they’re surprised. I guess it depends whether they already know me from shows or whether they’re just meeting me. I think when most people meet a musician and the musician says that he or she makes a living at it, usually the reaction would be one of at least mild surprise.

How long have you been able to do this as a full-time thing? And could you talk about what you were doing before this and how you used to get by? How did you make that transition? How did things change?

When I was younger—late teens, early twenties—I mostly worked doing word processing. Really horrible, mindless, menial shit: typing novels and resumes. Just looking at something that somebody had hand-written and then transcribing it essentially. And sometimes typing stuff that had already been typed because it wasn’t typed onto a computer. It was the age of typewriters where people would write shit on their typewriter and then give it to me to type again. It just always struck me as the most mindless task that I knew would be ultimately replaced, imminently replaced by computers and then eventually by voice recognition. An activity that would be one of these automatically antiquated things that you’re doing that you know is stupid and horribly boring. And then I got carpel tunnel syndrome. I always stuck to word processing because at the time—late ‘80s, early ‘90s—I could get paid like 12 bucks and hour, which for me was good money. The alternative was 6 bucks an hour in some café which seemed like a lot more fun kind of work to me, but I would get by just working 20 hours a week doing word processing. So I could spend the rest of the time doing stuff that was meaningful to me like playing music and doing drugs, going backpacking and whatever.

But then I got carpel tunnel so I had to stop typing. Then I got on worker’s comp and Etna Insurance Company accidentally sent me checks for a year and a half. They were only supposed to do it for 6 weeks. So they were sending me $160 bucks a week for a year and a half, which for me was like a gold mine. It wasn’t the lump sum settlement that I thought I would get before the law changed during the course of my case. They changed the law so that employers had to give permission to allow the insurance company to give the settlement, which is ridiculous. Of course they’re not going to admit that they caused you to get carpel tunnel even though it’s obviously true. So I didn’t get that, but the worker’s comp thing allowed me to really…I mean even working 20 hours a week I was always struck by somehow or other it was always the most energetic and creative time of the day—even though it was only four hours—that I was really squandering. I still had time for other stuff but not as much as I would have liked even back with that part-time schedule.

Getting worker’s comp was a real opportunity for me to do a lot of wood shedding, which I had never really done before: just practicing and learning songs. I went out about it very systematically, like learning songs that other people wrote for four hours a day. And I knew that I wanted to do music for some sort of living and I knew that I was not really that good at it. I felt strongly that advice of Utah Phillips and Pete Seeger and others that you really have to immerse yourself in the tradition as a way to move forward. So rather than trying to write bad songs and spending too much energy on that I just learned other songs and played in the Pike Place Market and stuff.

To read the interview in its entirety check out Toward Freedom...

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