J i m ...M u s s e l m a n
A Conversation With Appleseed's Jim Musselman
Mike Ragogna: Ladies and Gentlemen, without further ado, Mr. Jim Musselman!
Jim Musselman: Hey Mike, how are you doing today?
MR: I think I'm good. How are you sir, what's going on?
JM: I'm doing good, just a little crazy with all these releases and all this wonderful music putting out there in the universe.
MR: Yeah, how do you do that thing you do?
JM: Well we try to put out music tied to social justice and hope and healing and work with musicians who still have a lot to say. I call them the wisdom keepers of our society.
MR: Now, before we go any further, you had a really sweet Bonnie Raitt story about three seconds ago off mic. Can we share that with the audience?
JM: Yes, I was the opening act for Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne, speaking for a few cities on the West Coast when Ralph Nader was running for president in the year 2000. The last show was in Denver, Colorado, and Bonnie and Jackson double-dared me to get up and sing with them on the song, "Stay" and I figured, "What the heck, I'm in Denver, I don't know anybody and no one will see this," and I did it and it was on VH1's Rock the Vote a week later and since then, noise ordinances have been passed, so I do not sing in public anymore.
MR: [laughs] "Stay," of all songs...I remember the original Jackson Browne redo of that.
JM: David Lindley singing that high part. That's what I was singing.
MR: How'd you do?
JM: It was brutal, believe me. Now I don't do double dares anymore. Just triple dog dares.
MR: All right, let's get into a couple of Appleseed's projects. You have the album by Pete Seeger, Pete Remembers Woody. Does he really? Isn't Woody Guthrie one of those characters in Pete Seeger's life that's peripheral, totally unimportant?
JM: [laughs] Yes, easy to forget. Actually, Pete says he's the biggest influence upon him, that he taught him the reality of life and taught him so much about life and music and everything. He sort of was Pete's education, traveling with Woody.
MR: Give us a story or two about that. We've interviewed Pete but you have another kind of perspective on this. You have an objective look at his history and him being on your label.
JM: Well, Pete and Woody were total opposites. Woody was a womanizer, drinking and smoking and everything else, and Pete was like this clean-cut kid who was not a womanizer and didn't drink, really. They were two polar opposites but they really influenced each other so much and I thought it would be nice to have Pete telling the stories of how he met Woody and traveling the country and everything else with Woody and how Woody had influenced him.
MR: Now, the track "66 Highway Blues" has Woody's son Arlo on it. Arlo is one of my favorite artists, and of course he would be in your circle. I'm not sure if he's recorded any material for Appleseed Recordings, has that happened yet?
JM: Oh, yes, we did an album, Harp, which Arlo was on and he's done a few things for us over the years. But the fascinating part about that story was it was one of the few songs that Pete Seeger had ever written with Woody Guthrie. They only wrote two and the song was never recorded and I actually got Pete and Arlo in the studio in New York City and we had to write out the lyrics really big in magic marker so that they could sing them. They nailed it on the first take, but I thought, "How cool would it be to have Pete and Arlo recording a song that Pete and Woody had written and had never been recorded before?"
MR: That is awesome. What is the other song? Is it on this record?
JM: No, it's not. It was something that a bunch of people, The Almanac Singers, had written together when Pete was in The Almanac Singers with Woody. So this was the only song Pete and Woody had ever written together, and I liked them marching down to Wall Street at the end. It's sort of like the Occupy Wall Street movement twenty years ago.
MR: Right, cool. Let's talk about this other project, Pete Seeger and Lorre Wyatt's A More Perfect Union. Just how perfect is this union? Should we listen to a track and see for ourselves?
JM: Yes, I think probably "God's Counting On Me," which Bruce Springsteen is on and it's a song that Pete and Lorre wrote together and it says a lot. It was written for the oil spill that had happened with British Petroleum and everything and then other verses were added dealing with other social issues.
MR: Okay, can you go into a little history of Appleseed Recordings?
JM: I basically had to work for Ralph Nader working on social issues, dealing with corporations and the environment and everything, and I spent a long a time with Ralph working to get airbags in cars and everything, and I would work with musicians and I loved being around the creative mind, so I basically started the label fifteen years ago to put out music of hope and healing and music of social justice and then also traditional folk songs and keep folk music alive. But I had known Pete Seeger for thirty years and had been friends with him and had worked on a lot of environmental issues with him and, basically, it came out of a conversation that I was going to do the label. I started off doing The Songs of Pete Seeger as one of my first CDs and I got Bruce Springsteen interested in Pete's music, which is a long, interesting story in itself. But it was kind of a long, interesting ride for fifteen years. I never would've believed that we would've gotten Springsteen into Pete's music and folk music and everything but it's really kept Pete's music alive to another generation.
MR: I think we do need to hear that Bruce Springsteen story, especially since he has so taught the country about Woody Guthrie in addition to Pete getting the word out.
JM: Well, I felt like Bruce really carried on the tradition of Pete and Woody in his The Ghost of Tom Joad album and his writing about the working man and everything was really carrying on a wonderful tradition, so I asked Bruce to participate on the songs of Pete Seeger tribute album, which Bonnie Raitt was on and Jackson Browne and Ani DiFranco and so many other artists. Bruce said, "No," and then I went back a second time and Bruce and his manager said, "No," and for some crazy reason I went back a third time and sent Bruce a bunch of songs and he said, "Yes." He recorded like seven songs in a week and gave me the song "We Shall Overcome," which I had asked Bruce to sing because I felt it was an important song and Bruce changed a few of the words in it and personalized it and I was really proud that that song that Bruce did has now been used for Hope and Healing in northern Ireland, the Hope for Haiti concert, after 9/11, after Columbine, and also after the shootings over in Denmark. Bruce has been wonderful, he's done six songs for the label now and he did the whole Seeger Sessions albums and tours and everything. It's sort of like this dream come true that Bruce carried on the tradition of Pete and carried on all this wonderful music. But I think it's about persistence, persistence, persistence.
MR: An important moment in music history.
JM: Yes. Bruce is such a genius and Pete had always said, "The beauty of a song is its adaptability and how it could be changed up." Bruce took "We Shall Overcome" and he gave it a very different feel and he added the word, "Darling" to it and at first, people were shocked by that. But I started getting letters from parents whose children had leukemia or things like that and they were saying that they used that song for Hope and Healing and it really touched a nerve in people because he personalized the song. He took this wonderful song which has been used all across the world for healing and for social justice and everything and then he personalized it and brought it to the personal level which was just absolutely amazing. It just shows you the genius of Bruce Springsteen. I had twisted his arm to do this song but then he made the changes in it, which personalized it.
MR: So that was on Where Have All the Flowers Gone? The Songs of Pete Seeger. That's interesting because there was also a Volume Two to that.
JM: Yes, it was actually three volumes. It was eighty-five songs that I did of different artists recording Pete's songs. It was Steve Earle and Natalie Merchant and Indigo Girls and it just kept going and going. I really was amazed at how many wonderful songs that Pete had written over the years and how he was not really known as this songwriter for a long time.
MR: Let's point out the joy that must have been in the hallowed halls of Appleseed Recordings when the Grammy went to Pete Seeger's Tomorrow's Children.
JM: Yes, and we also won a Grammy for Pete Seeger At 89, which I had helped produce and it was wonderful. I always get more touched when our songs are used for Hope and Healing. Our songs have been used in Northern Ireland and some of the artists we've worked with--like Sweet Honey in the Rock, Johnny Clegg from South Africa, Tommy Sands in Northern Ireland--their songs have been used for peace movements in those countries. That always makes me more proud than a Grammy award because it's really touching people's lives in a positive way.
MR: Very sweet. You've obviously been influential by getting all these recordings centered around Pete Seeger, but also by participating in social movements. What's got your eye right now, Jim?
JM: Well, I think there's a resurgence of folk music in this country. Mumford and Sons has the number one selling album in this country for three weeks in a row and you're just seeing people getting back to a lot of real music played on real instruments and I kind of like to see that in many ways. There's a lot of young people who are being brought into folk music and seeing the beauty of it and the history of it and the tradition of it.
MR: Nice. Speaking of young people, what advice do you have for new artists?
JM: Oh, it's tough. I would say "Persistence, persistence, persistence." I think it's the key to everything. Don't ever give up on your dream. I think it's about being persistent and continuing to knock on doors and not giving up when you're a musician and you have something to say or you have belief in yourself.
MR: Nice. With the many artists that you've worked with over the years, would you say could be the key on why they turned the corner and "made it," whatever that means?
JM: Yeah, I think it's a real discipline and a persistence and a drive, but also not being so quick to give up on a dream. I've always said, "Let your dreams be blueprints for the next year" and I think that's really important so that people don't give up on it, because so many times in my life when I was trying to get a job with Ralph Nader or working to get airbags in cars or peace in Northern Ireland, it's always about persistence and sticking with it as opposed to giving up too early.
MR: All right, we're going to have to wrap up, but let's listen to one or two more songs here. I tapdanced around it 'til now, but you're the owner of the label, aren't you?
JM: Yes, owner and founder of Appleseed Recordings.
MR: So you headed up the creation of these albums, Pete Remembers Woody and A More Perfect Union, which has many special guests, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Tom Morello, Dar Williams.
JM: Yeah, I love Tom Morello, I just think he's carrying on an incredible tradition of Pete and Woody and he's so real and his songs are real and his vision is very strong.
JM: I basically feel very strongly about tolerance and feel very strongly about economic justice. I feel like economic justice and non-violence are two of the most important issues. I've seen non-violence work in Northern Ireland and I think it can be used in a lot of other places around the country, which can save money for people and also save lives, which is the most important thing. I think one of the main things with Appleseed is we're committed to non-violence and economic justice and a lot of our CDs are sold by progressive organizations and they get to keep half the money so it's sort of been a nice way to save funds for a bunch of progressive organizations also.
MR: Nice. Okay. Thank you very much for visiting solar powered KRUU-FM. By the way, we're the only solar powered radio station in the Midwest. Just thought I'd mention that right about now.
JM: Yeah, we also have that song "Solartopia," which Dar Williams sang with Pete.
MR: That's right! Thanks for your time, Jim.
JM: Thanks, Mike.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne