A Conversation with Larry Long, Lifelong Activist and Folksinger
Smithsonian Folkways recording artist Larry Long has been an activist for decades. At various times he has used his musical talents to help organize citizens in protest and in celebration. Throughout his long career, he says he has, “employed art and oral history for the benefit of reconciliation and building community.”
Among Long’s many successful projects was the creation of the Mississippi River Revival. He is a longtime friend of famed folksinger Pete Seeger, whose acclaimed Great Hudson River Revival has been instrumental in cleaning up the Hudson River, and who has mentored Long over the years. Today, Larry Long serves as executive director for a nonprofit called Community Celebration of Place.
Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) spoke with Long by phone from his Minnesota home. In today’s post, we’re pleased to bring you part one of our three-part conversation, in which we focus on the Mississippi River Revival. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
BPGL: The Mississippi River Revival has had a long and influential effect in the Midwest. We learned about your work from your old friend, Jamie Rosenfels, who was a local organizer for one of the Mississippi River Revival festivals in the 1980s. After hearing you speak and then perform “Blue Highway,” your original folk song about the river, Jamie and her friends were inspired to create a festival in Bellevue, Iowa.
LONG: Yes, Jamie is a good friend. She was instrumental in starting the Bellevue, Iowa chapter of Mississippi River Revival.
“Blue Highway” is a very simple song I wrote while I was sitting on a WPA bridge in Minneapolis above St. Anthony Falls. It’s about the river being circular, what goes up comes down, and the spiritual aspect of water.
You may also want to listen on the Pete Seeger Collection, “Well May the World Go,” where I interview Pete Seeger and I put his spoken interview to music.
BPGL: I understand that Pete Seeger inspired the work that you did with Mississippi River Revival. How did the two of you meet?
LONG: In 1979, I was singing with farmers who were trying to stop a high-voltage power line in Minnesota. I wrote and recorded a song for them that got a lot of attention around the country; especially in the Midwest. Through that, I met Elmer Bensen, a former governor of Minnesota.
Bensen and Floyd D. Olson before him were the two farmer-labor governors of Minnesota back through the Depression. They were also tied into such things as the Non-Partisan League of North and South Dakota, which established one of the first state banking systems in America.
Bensen was involved in stopping farm foreclosures. And his descendants were involved in the American Agriculture Movement. Do you remember when farmers drove their tractors to Washington, D.C.? I was on that and documented it.
When I met Elmer Benson in Appleton, Minnesota, he said, “You remind me of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.”
I asked Elmer, “How do you know about Woody and Pete?” He laughed, “They use to come through Minnesota and sing for the striking miners and lumberjacks when I was Governor.”
Unbeknownst to me, Governor Bensen called up Pete Seeger. When I got to Washington, D.C. on the tractorcade, Seeger called me at the National American Agriculture Movement’s strike office and invited me to his home. He also took me out on the Clearwater sloop, that Pete helped build, which sails up and down the Hudson River to educate and inspire people to clean it up. Since then, he has been a mentor to me.
After the tractorcade, I came to Minnesota, and started the Mississippi River Revival. We had, at one time, over 20 chapters, like Jamie’s, all the way from the headwaters of the Mississippi down into the Quad Cities [Moline, Illinois; Rock Island, Illinois; Bettendorf, Iowa; and Davenport, Iowa].
BPGL: Did you start the Mississippi River Revival on your own, or did others help you?
LONG: I received a small stipend from an organization called the Youth Project, which was trying to merge farm politics with land stewardship work — supporting sustainable practices, and so forth. After the tractorcade, the Youth Project employed me as a field organizer. I worked on a combine crew the summer of 1980, harvesting wheat. While I was a harvester, I helped identify progressive farm groups through the wheat belt on their behalf. Later, they supported my work, which I redirected into organizing the first Mississippi River Revival festival.
I had a lot of help from a woman named Dawn Stockmo, and the beloved African American poet Louis Alemayehu. We organized a large, multicultural celebration on the banks of the Mississippi River that included the American Indian Movement, a large constituency of the African American community, including the choir from the first African-American church in St. Paul, the Pilgrim Baptist Church. The choir director at that time was J. D. Steele. (You hear his sister on the Prairie Home Companion all the time.) We had a great crew of people. It was very successful!
All of this was done with steady communication with Pete. He knew everything I was doing and supported it. He flew me out to sing at the Clearwater, and we ended up flying people from the Hudson River up to the Mississippi River to educate people about the work. Pete Seeger and I did several concerts together to raise money, which then supported the work.
May 3, 2009, Pete invited me to perform in Madison Square Garden for his 90th birthday party with Joan Baez, Ani de Franco, Bruce Springsteen, and others.
BPGL: Jamie told us about a canoe flotilla that traveled from one chapter’s festival to another. What was the purpose of the flotilla?
LONG: Instead of building a big boat like the Clearwater, we decided to organize a canoe flotilla. The Mississippi River is different than the Hudson, because you can sail on the Hudson. On the Mississippi, you can’t really do it. It’s a paddlewheel river. We couldn’t reconcile the fact that a big boat would end up using a lot of diesel and a lot of fuel. We figured canoes would become the symbol, and we eventually built a French voyageur that became a symbol for the upper river. It was a hand-built canoe from up around Bemidji.
So we canoed from the headwaters into Lake Bemidji. When we got to Bemidji, there was a river cleanup and a river festival. We showed off all of the garbage we collected at the festival, and then recycled it.
People from Bemidji got canoeists on the river with me. I think we had about 30 canoes. I canoed the Mississippi all the way to the Quad Cities and eventually got onto a larger boat. I went all the way down the Mississippi River twice.
And we used the same model that I use today, with Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Songs, which is, honoring the many cultures and generations from within each community you’re working.
We reached out to not only other existing environmental organizations, but also to the faith and peace communities, American Legions, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFWs), and to anybody and everybody who cared about the river.
The Bemidji chapter, the first river town on the river, later organized an Upper Mardi Gras on the Mississippi River. Their slogan was, “We can’t all live upstream.” They continue to build linkages to people in New Orleans.
BPGL: Do they still hold that event?
LONG: I think so. They did it for a long time, separate from us. And in many ways, that’s the greatest success of any good community work: It all eventually becomes anonymous and owned by the people.
BPGL: After the festival in Bemidji, then what?
LONG: We canoed from Bemidji to Grand Rapids, and Grand Rapids had a festival. And then it took us three months to make it all the way down to Bellevue, Iowa. So, every weekend of the summer — or every other week — there was another festival, all organized locally. We kept doing the same thing: river cleanups, multicultural festivals, chapter building.
Then we would say, “We’re here to pick up the physical litter. But the physical litter is a metaphor for the invisible litter that we cannot pick up. To pick up the invisible litter, we have to have legislation.”
To have good legislation, we needed to connect it to the larger population. So by picking up garbage, we were able to bring everyone together around picking up garbage. Or, as Woody Guthrie would say, “Left wing, right wing, chicken wing.”
From that, we petitioned the state of Minnesota to upgrade sewage treatment plants. In addition to the environmental arm, there was the cultural arm. We had 10- to 20,000 signatures to change the marker of the headwaters. At the time, it read, “Henry Rose Schoolcraft discovered the source of the Mississippi River,” when in fact he was led there by the First Nation Anishinabe Ojibwa guide named Oziwindib.
There was an older park ranger up there who called me a “Communist,” after saying something to the effect, “How dare you try to rewrite history!” Well, we did. We succeeded, and the marker is changed.
Not only that, but Governor Perpich from Minnesota heard about our work, and then brought us in to meet him. I personally met the governor, and he then declared a Clean Rivers Movement in Minnesota. And now, throughout the state of Minnesota, people pick up trash on the rivers — not only on the Mississippi, but throughout Minnesota. That’s one of the successes of the Mississippi River Revival.
BPGL: When does the Clean Rivers Movement do the Minnesota cleanups?
LONG: It goes all summer. Now, neighborhood groups do it. It’s become a push throughout the whole state; it belongs to everybody. But it got started through Governor Perpich and the Mississippi River Revival.
BPGL: Are you still involved in the Mississippi River Revival?
LONG: I stepped out of a leadership role in the early ’90s not only to perform and organize as an artist around the country, but to help raise a family.
After I moved on, the Mississippi River Revival began to focus more on litigation, than cultural organizing work.
BPGL: How did moving into litigation impact the organization?
LONG: They’ve won several legal battles that have given them financial support to keep pursuing further upgrades of sewage treatment plants along the river. But without continued flotillas, festivals, and river cleanups, they lost much of their membership base.
It’s important to note that around the time I stepped aside, Amy Middleton, a young woman who worked with Clean Water Action, and my wife, Jacqueline, who is a public defender, teamed up to expand our work through grant writing.
Paul Schollmeier was the president of the River Revival at the time. Through their hard work, they received support to do an aerial study of the Twin Cities to look for point pollution sources along the river. Amy and Paul went out on the river to check out some aerial photographic studies. They discovered that the City of Minneapolis was polluting the river big time.
From their discovery, a major lawsuit against Minneapolis was filed — and won! Out of that financial settlement, Amy Middleton founded another organization called Friends of the Mississippi River. They continue to do great work up and down the river.
I guess, all in all, this gives you a big picture of where the event at Bellevue with Jamie happened. They were a small part of a very big vision that had to be maintained by many, many people and many organizations, although by different names.
Now that my kids are grown, I’m getting back involved in the cultural part of helping to build and sustain good environmental work around the country, such as the good work happening in Iowa and beyond.
BPGL: You have said that there are a number of different aspects on these river projects: educational, cultural, legal, and artistic. Is there any other category? Historical, possibly?
LONG: History is a key component — and oral history, which is my life’s work. It’s been a thread of my whole life — oral history and written history, and transferring it into songs in ways that can be long lasting.
This is the end of part one of our conversation with Larry Long. Watch for part two coming soon.
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