Q&A: Greg Brown
The veteran singer-songwriter discusses his new CD, "Freak Flag," his influences, his family, and causes dear to his heart.
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Which raises the question, what do you think of Occupy Wall Street?
As far as I can tell, it's pretty unfocused—but I think it's an indication of a lot of frustration, fear and anger, and despair over where the ship of state is going. Particularly, a lot of young people are going through college and building up huge bills, then are not able to get jobs. They're just upset.
The general feeling of the protest I agree with, in that I think the worst thing we could have done was bail out the companies that screwed us over so badly, and give them even more money. When the whole thing was starting, if we'd have offered all the people with the bad mortgages . . . if we'd said, "Hey, guess what, we're going to take these over at a reasonable rate" . . . if we'd helped the bottom of the country, instead of the top once again, I think we'd be in much better shape today. It seems when we get in trouble, money never goes to the ordinary people who need it, it goes to the giant corporations. In my opinion, they're destroying the world—so I'm not very happy with the way things are going, either.
I know you were an Obama supporter in 2008. How are you feeling about him now?
Well, I'm in his corner. I think he's a great man and a compassionate man. I think he stepped into an unbelievable role there. But he's made a lot of decisions I completely disagree with, and I really thought he'd go more toward regular folks. I also thought he had a little stronger spine.
But he's dealing with a bunch of corporate idiots on both sides of the aisle, Republicans and Democrats. Nine-tenths of them are bought and sold. It's really a parliament of whores. That's what he's dealing with, and I've got a lot of feeling for the guy. I think, in this case, if he had taken a lot of his energy directly to the American people, and let the pressure come that way . . . he had such a huge amount of support; it was such a huge relief when George Bush crawled off to Texas. I think that moment was very important, and I think he was not ready to step into it. But I'm still with the guy, when you see what's available out there—I think he's head and shoulders above the rest.
I just hope that if he does get a second term, he'll really start kicking some butt.
Every time you hear anything about the Republican debates, and see that lineup of . . .
I don't think the Republicans have a chance, but I'm also dismayed with the Democrats. They have not stood with him; they're not looking at the big picture of what's good for the country—they're looking out for what's good for them. Both political parties are dismal failures. The only hope I see for the American political process is the rise of a big third party, with its energy centered around green issues. The world will die if we don't get on it. I don't think that's going to happen, but I've lost faith, as has most of the country, I think, in the Democrats and Republicans. The house is on fire, and they're in there arguing. Y'know, first put the fire out, guys and gals, and then we'll talk about our differences.
Another project you've been involved with is the folk opera Hadestown . . .
That was written by this gal Anaïs Mitchell, who's a friend of Ani DiFranco. She showed up at my house a couple of years ago. I thought I was going to sing harmony on two or three tunes, but she told me I was singing lead. We went down to the studio and—well, the results are there on the record. All I know is that i was the King of Hell, which I enjoyed.
Did you hear the final product?
I did; it's the kind of thing I'd like to see staged. I have a hard time getting a grip on the storyline just from the songs. I assume it's got some kind of libretto holding the whole thing together. Anyway, it's a very interesting idea.
It reminds me of Randy Newman's Faust . . .
I happened to open a show for Randy Newman when he was doing his Faust tour. James Taylor was God, I believe.
You and Iris now have a young daughter, who you adopted from Russia . . .
I feel sorry for the poor little thing, having such an old dad. She's very cheerful about it. When we adopted her, I was about 55 or so. I told Iris, "I'm too old for this," but she said, "Oh, you'll be all right." I've done the best I can.
Does it feel different from being a young dad?
Completely. I can't keep up. I used to be right in there, now I'm staggering along behind, trying to stay on my feet.
But are you more relaxed as an older parent?
I was always a pretty relaxed dad, I think—also a weird dad in that all of a sudden I'd have to go off somewhere and scribble in a notebook for an hour. They all pretty much got used to that, I think. Being a father is the best thing I ever did, that's for sure.
Have you ever thought about writing a memoir?
Not really, there's so many of them out there. Iris told me the other day that she thought I should put out a book of song lyrics. I might do something like that.
You might do what Stephen Sondheim has just done—he put out two books of lyrics from his musicals with historical annotations.
I might work on that.
You and Iris did a benefit last month in Kansas City . . .
That was very personal. Sam Mann, who was the preacher at St. Mark's Church in Kansas City for 35 years—it's a black church, and Sam is white; he was very involved in the civil rights movement—asked us to do it. Sam's a Pentecostal-style preacher, which Iris and I both grew up with and loved. Because the message of that sect is all love.
Iris took me to St. Mark's before we got married; I think it was kind of a test. We walk into this little black church and there's a white guy in the pulpit, doing his sermon Pentecostal-style. The first sermon I heard him give—he's from Alabama—was, "O Lord, let the bombs and missiles falling on Iraq be turned into buses and medicine for the people." I said, "That's my guy."
So here's this poor little church, and Sam somehow raised $5 million to build a center for kids to go to during the work day, before or after school. It's a beautiful, beautiful building, with great teachers and a great emphasis on the arts. Of course, it needs funding because our government doesn't actually fund anything that's for the people. So that's what this benefit was for. Sam has retired from preaching but he's still involved with the center.
Most of the benefits I've done have been when I've gotten to know people—like the people who were trying to protect the headwaters of the Yellow Dog River in Michigan, or the girl in Oregon who was trying to start a program to build housing for foster children in the state adoption system, who kept getting shuttled from house to house. Usually, I start with something I really believe in, get to know the people involved with it and put my shoulder to the wheel.
I understand that you're going to be playing the Cayamo Folk Fest on the Norwegian Pearl cruise ship in February.
Yeah! The first thing I thought when I got the offer was, "February in Iowa, or February in the Caribbean?" It seems like it's going to be fun; every folksinger and his or her brother will be there. John [Prine] went last year and really liked it; when he heard Iris and I were going he decided to sign up again. Iris and I will do separate sets, though we might sing together on a few songs. We'll see what develops.