Growing up in Seymour, Indiana, John Mellencamp (born October 7, 1951) listened to his parents’ Guthrie recordings, and before long virtually invented heartland rock.
Rebellious by nature, Mellencamp played in local bands and worked various blue-collar jobs before releasing an album as “John Cougar,” a name his then-manager bestowed on him. His fifth album, American Fool (1982) went to #1, thanks to its Grammy winning single “Hurts So Good” and “Jack & Diane,” a tale of small-town love.
1985’s “Scarecrow” moved Mellencamp out of bar-band territory, into socially aware lyrics that addressed life in the heartland and the plight of the American family farmer. That same year, with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, he helped found Farm Aid, and remains heavily involved in its efforts (See Farm Aid review this issue.). In 1988 he joined Pete Seeger, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen, among others, on Folkways: A Vision Shared—A Tribute to Woody Guthrie & Leadbelly, and in 2003 received the Huntington’s Disease Society of America’s 2003 Woody Guthrie Award for his embodiment of Guthrie’s ideals.
In mid-1994 Mellencamp suffered a serious heart attack, forcing a break from major touring and recording. Back on his campaign for peace and social reform, the 2001 Cuttin’ Heads album featured the Top 20 hit “Peaceful World.” A live acoustic version was included on God Bless America the benefit album to help the victims and families of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
But in the post-9/11, pre-Iraq War climate of 2003, Mellencamp drew fire for “To Washington,” (from Trouble No More) the album’s sole original song, based on earlier works by Guthrie, the Carter Family and the Carolina Ramblers. Mellencamp’s version was critical of the Bush administration and the impending war, and when he and his wife posted an open letter declaring “It’s time to take back our country” he was criticized for his stance. Mellencamp participated in the 2004 pre-election Vote for Change tour; “Small Town,” was then-Presidential candidate John Edwards’ official campaign song.
Mellencamp wrote and produced all ten songs on Freedom’s Road, including a duet with Joan Baez, and released the album in January, 2007, although “Our Country,” the album’s first single, hit radio and Chevrolet commercials in late 2006. Mellencamp believed that including the song in the ads would bring it in front of a mass audience, a tempering of his earlier refusal to accept sponsorship from beer and tobacco companies. (See Review in Elmore, May 2007.)
Mellencamp performed for patients, staff and families at Walter Reed Hospital, underscoring his support for the troops, and on the opening night of his fall 2007 tour performed “Jena,” “Troubled Land” and “If I Die Sudden” and also debuted two other songs from the new record, “A Ride Back Home” and “Young Without Lovers”—both performed solo acoustic.
Perhaps his greatest recognitions came when his close friend, the late Billboard editor Timothy White, awarded him Billboard’s highest accolade, the Century Award for distinguished creative achievement, and additionally he was given ASCAP Foundation’s Champion Award in recognition of “his outstanding use of music in the service of humanity.”
Folk troubadour and ardent humanitarian, Pete Seeger is one of the most politically charged music figures of the 20th century. Born in 1919, Seeger’s musical parents were both faculty members at Julliard. Seeger attended Harvard University but left two years later. He worked with music scholar Alan Lomax and roamed the American South, setting the foundation for Seeger’s prodigious repertoire of folk songs.
Attending a Folksong and Dance Festival in Asheville, NC in 1936, he heard a five string banjo for the first time, and it changed his life. In 1940 he met Woody Guthrie, and the two started the Almanac Singers, a loosely-organized musical collective that disbanded after a year, but whose pacifist attitudes and ability to draw large crowds brought them under FBI scrutiny. Seeger was drafted in 1942, performed for troops in the South Pacific and in 1943 married Toshi Ohta, who remains his wife to this day.
In the late ’40s Seeger and fellow Almanac Singer Lee Hays wrote “If I had a Hammer” and by 1950 had formed the Weavers, which found success with bright renditions of folk songs like “Wimoweh,” and “Goodnight Irene.” Seeger and Hays’s leftist leanings caused them to be subpoenaed by the House of Un-American Activities Committee in 1955 and Seeger was blacklisted for 17 years. He was officially cleared on charges of contempt only in 1962.
Seeger began a solo career in 1958, spending much of the ’60s in the South, where he marched in civil rights protests. His arrangement of an old spiritual into “We Shall Overcome,” became the worldwide anthem for equality. In 1962, he put words from Ecclesiastes to music in “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season).” In 1967, he objected to the Vietnam War during an appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour with his performance of the song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”
Seeger focused his attention on environmental issues in the ’70s and ’80s, notably with the 1969 launch of the sloop Clearwater into the pollution-ridden Hudson River.
Seeger’s awards include: the National Medal of the Arts, National Living Legend, a Grammy, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His ceaseless passion is summed up by the inscription on his banjo, which reads “ is machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” Pete Seeger’s music has truly changed the course of history during the nearly 70 years he has been performing.
(For more information on Pete Seeger, check out Jim Brown’s Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, reviewed in this month’s Also Appearing.)
Elmore: What are you listening to right now?
John Mellencamp: I just got off the treadmill, and I have been listening to T Bone Burnett’s production of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ new record.
Pete Seeger: I haven’t listened to canned music regularly since 1929, I would say. I once had a job where I had to listen to thousands of records, working for Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress and he had me listen to thousands of what they called hillbilly songs in those days, and I was supposed to throw away the ones that weren’t worth listening to and Alan would listen to the ones that I thought were important. That’s the only time I ever listened to phonograph in my life. I have a little skating rink in my back yard, and I listen to steel drums when I’m skating. It’s much better to skate to than Strauss waltzes. I wouldn’t drive safely if I played the radio in my car, I’d start playing along with the music. If I go to a restaurant where they’re playing music, I usually leave and don’t eat there. I can’t hold a conversation if there’s music playing. My knowledge of pop music is laughable. I did listen to The Seeger Sessions once.
John Philip Sousa said in 1910 “What is going to happen to the American voice now that the phonograph has been invented?” Women don’t sing lullabies like they used to, men don’t sing in bars like they used to. In some ways I’m very conservative. If I had been around when somebody was inventing the wheel, I would have said “Don’t!”
EM: What was the first record you ever bought?
JM: Probably Chubby Checker and “the Twist,” or Bob Dylan “Blowin’ in the Wind,” or “Satisfaction.” I bought all those singles.
EM: Where do you buy your music?
JM: I’m old school so what I generally do is if I’m in LA or New York that has those mega record stores, I’ll go buy a pile of records. My kids and my wife download stuff, but I don’t really like doing that.
PS: Once or twice in my life, I have bought records. In ’52 I was curious as to what black people were listening to, and I walked into a record store on 125th street and came home with 10 or 20 recordings, and that’s where I heard Clara Ward singing “This Little Light of Mine;” I introduced the song to a lot of other white people and picked up sexy rock songs, like “Rocket 69.”
EM: What was the first instrument you played?
JM: Probably the first instrument was bongos, because my Dad had bongo parties in the ’50s. Him and a bunch of guys would bongo along to records and all be bongo-ing to anything from Odetta to Julie London to Woody Guthrie. I was exposed to all kinds of music. They wore button down shirts and sat in the living room and thought they were being primitive and cool.
PS: I probably banged on the piano because my parents were music teachers, and there was a piano and an organ in the house, but I played the ukulele at eight. My mother was quite a violinist, and bought miniature violins for my brothers, but they rebelled. My father said “Let Peter enjoy himself, let’s see what happens,” and he refused to let her force me to play the violin. So what she did was leave instruments around the house: a marimba, a squeeze box, an auto harp, pennywhistles; by age five I knew a major or a minor chord. I absolutely refused to learn to read music; I wanted to play music for the fun.
EM: What brought you to the instrument you now play?
JM: My older brother got a guitar when we were real young and he didn’t play it much, so it sat in our bedroom. We had that Mel Bay “How to Play Guitar” so I taught myself to play guitar. The bad news is that I don’t play any better now than I did then, I play about like a beginner ten-year old. I noodle around on the piano because we had a piano in our house.
Pete SeegerPS: I like the rhythmic approach. The tenor banjo, all you go is clunk clunk clunk clunk, four times a measure. I was down in Asheville, NC, at a Mountain Dance Festival, run by Baskin Lunsford in a baseball stadium. I knew the tenor banjo, but Lunsford showed me the first five-string lesson. I could hardly wait to get one.
I didn’t know how to play the banjo well until three years later. I met Woody Guthrie in 1940, when he came to NY for the first time; he also showed me how to hitchhike, and how to sing and make a few pennies in a bar: “Kid, go in and buy yourself a nickle beer and sip is as slow as you can. If somebody asks you if you can play, don’t be too eager, say ‘Maybe. A little.’ Sooner or later someone will have a quarter for you and say ‘Kid, can you pick us a tune?’” I managed never to go hungry for maybe six months.
I spent most of my time in the Southern Appalachians, because that seemed to have the best banjo pickers and singers. Every time I saw someone who could play a banjo, I said “Let me see how you do that.”
EM: Who would you like to write with that you haven’t?
JM: I don’t do that. When I was a kid, I did it with a guy I grew up with, George Green. In the last 15 years I collaborated with John Prine once, but generally I have no real desire to do that. If I had to write with somebody, I’d think it was funny to write with Bob Dylan, or Woody Guthrie. I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t get anything, but it would be a fun experience.
PS: Pat Humphries and Sandy Opatow, and they call themselves Emma’s Revolution, after Emma Goldman. She wrote the words to “Swimming to the Other Side.” It’s a magical song (he sings the song).
EM: What musician influenced you most?
JM: All the way from Woody Guthrie to Iggy Pop. I was never snobby about music. If I learned something, it would be from Woody Guthrie. I now have a song called “Jena,” and it’s funny to me that people are resistant to anything social like that. I started out a singer in a bar band, so that’s what I wrote, songs like “It Hurts So Good,” but that was a different time.
I now tiptoe lightly through familiar songs to songs people haven’t heard before. The general public who wants to hear all the hits will have to have some patience. I talk about compassion and understanding, but at the same time try not to make people feel like they’re being preached at. It’s a tough line. John Mellencamp is not for everybody any more. If people need to get their rock and roll from Rush Limbaugh, they probably won’t enjoy the show—don’t even come.
PS: Woody Guthrie, Lee Hayes, who sang bass in the Weavers, and made up the words for “Kisses Sweeter than Wine.” Malvena Reynolds —she’s one of my heroines, along with my wife.
EM: What was the song or event that made you realize you wanted to be in music?
JM: Oddly enough, it was probably Elvis Presley, because he became very popular when I was four or five years old. My mother was young, and I remember all my Mom’s girlfriends and my aunt all being ajitter about Elvis Presley.
EM: Surely at that age you weren’t thinking “I could get girls this way”?
JM: What, are you crazy? I was definitely interested in girls. There were so many of them. You [girls] were everywhere. Camping out with a girl in the backyard was quite an event.
PS: I have an aunt who was a schoolteacher, and she said to me, “Peter, come sing for my class, I can get five dollars for you.” Whoo! It seemed like stealing. Most people had to work all day, or two days, to make five dollars in 1939. But I went and took the money, and quit looking for an honest job. Just today I sang for a little alternative school.
EM: Who would you like in your rock and roll heaven band?
JM: Somebody who’s not going to complain or take drugs, no being drunk; that whole lifestyle is behind me. That limits it drastically, doesn’t it? On guitar, T Bone, for sure, a straight Jimmy Page and a straight Jeff Beck. The Raconteurs’ drummer, Patrick Keeler, and an old-school drummer like Charlie Watts. On bass, those low, annoying tones? No answer on that. I need all the help I can get on vocals, that’s for sure. Maybe Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Ricky Lee Jones and June Carter. I’d have to get Johnny Cash on guitar, because I’d need another shitty guitar player, as shitty as me. That’d be a hell of a band. I’m sure rehearsals would never happen. I’d say “When you guys get your stuff together, give me a call, I’ll be there.”
PS: I admire people who can play wind instruments, but I think I would hire a fiddle player first. There are a lot of good fiddlers; Ruthie Unger, the daughter of Jay Unger. I’d need a country fiddler who has that hard-driving tone. I’d hardly need any other instruments, ’cause I love the sound of banjos and fiddle, but I suppose it wouldn’t do any harm to have a guitar picker in there. There are so many good ones. My grandson’s pretty good, Tao Rodriguez.
EM: Would you like Woody in your band?
PS: Not necessarily.
EM: What’s your desert island CD?
JM: You mean like Manhattan? I’d probably have to have a compilation: Ray Davies for levity, Woody Guthrie for seriousness, a little Bob Dylan, some early Rolling Stones, when they were a blues band. Maybe a Robert Johnson song. I could probably make it on that.
Ray wrote a perfect song about (he sings the song) “Sitting in my hotel room, looking at the world go by in my window” and it’s a song about what his friends would think about him. Beautiful song.
PS: Steel drums, or African music, or some good Irish music. I love a good melody, and Ireland is full of great melodies.
EM: Tell us something that’s important to you.
JM: My personal cause it that of having compassion for other people and other races. And more than compassion, showing interest in people who are unlike you. The older I get the more I see somebody not like me, the more I want to talk to them. I don’t need to talk to any more white people. I’ve been around white people all my life, I want to learn about other cultures. Take it down to the lowest common denominator: I like red apples, green apples, I like yellow apples. I don’t know why people can’t like all kinds of different apples.
PS: Participation. My main purpose in life is getting audiences to sing with me. I don’t think the human race will survive if they don’t learn how to participate—in jobs, fun, learning, and politics.
God gave us brains. If we use them, who knows what miracles could come?