My 5: Larry Long, Musician, Activist, Teacher

March 15, 2010 by  
Filed under Blog, Community, Elders, Front Page, My 5, Slideshow, U.S.

Larry Long is co-founder and executive director of Community Celebration of Place. Photo: Courtesy Larry Long

Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) asked Larry Long, troubadour, social activist, and teacher, two questions we like to ask all our interviewees. Long is the founder of the Mississippi River Revival. He’s the man who brought Woody Guthrie’s memory home to Okemah, Oklahoma. And, he’s the founder and executive director of Communitiy Celebration of Place. Following are his responses. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

5 Ways to Save the Planet

BPGL: What are the five most important things we can do to save the planet?

1. Listen.
2. Be awake.
3. Begin from where you are.
4. There’s no better time than now.
5. Be kind to all that live.

2 Minutes with the President

BPGL: If you had two minutes with President Obama, what would you say to him?

LONG: Who I’d really like to sit with is Michelle. [He laughs.] I’ve been told by people who know them personally that Michelle is very wise. She’s his pillar.

What would I say to President Obama? In the short term, abstain from getting mired in a part of the world that even Genghis Khan couldn’t control.

Larry Long

Community Celebration of Place

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts

Part One: A Conversation with Larry Long, Lifelong Activist and Folksinger

Part Two: Larry Long on Bringing Woody Home

Part Three: Folksinger Larry Long on Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song (Top of Page)

Folksinger Larry Long on Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song

Larry Long (on stage, far right) with honored elders and students at a community celebration. Photo: Courtesy Larry Long

A few weeks ago, Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) interviewed troubadour and social activist Larry Long about some of the many significant projects he’s engaged in during his adult life. He was the founder of the Mississippi River Revival, a group that worked tirelessly to clean up the river and celebrate the culture of the people who lived there. Long helped the city of Okemah, Oklahoma to “bring Woody Guthrie home” by spearheading an event that celebrated both Woody’s music and the community’s contribution to his life and work.

In this part of our conversation, we talked with Long about Community Celebration of Place, which includes Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song. Long is the founder and executive director. We asked him to begin by describing the program, which has been implemented in schools across the U.S. and in several countries around the world. This is the final installment of our conversation, but watch for Long’s “My 5” responses, coming soon. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

LONG: Community Celebration of Place works with communities to use music, performance, art, and oral history to bring together children and elders, and people of different backgrounds — economic, faith, racial, and cultural — to honor and celebrate our commonalities and differences through a program entitled Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song.

Elder Albert Alexander receiving handshake, a rose, and a picture before his song is sung by the students Photo: Courtesy Larry Long

Through Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song, stories of different cultures emerge. This helps create an understanding of others and the possibility of more civil engagement and the ability to work with one another.

I also do teacher and artist institutes around the world and throughout the country, to train people into the methodology of the work. I personally do 12 school residencies a year. And we’ve written over 1,000 songs honoring over 1,000 elders — long established or newly arrived from every continent of the world — who now call America home. It’s exciting work.

Our work is presently featured on the U.S. State Department’s website as an international model for teaching tolerance. There’s also a nice article about Elder’s Wisdom, Children’s Song in our local newspaper, the Longfellow Nokomis Messenger (see page 5).

BPGL: What prompted you to start this organization?

LONG: Honoring the life stories of others has been a thread throughout my life. One of the slogans for the Mississippi River Revival was, “A river for all people.” Water is life. Since water doesn’t discriminate, why should we?

Through river organizing, I discovered that people wanted to reach out beyond their immediate community of comfort, but simply didn’t know how to, or were simply afraid to do so. Community Celebration of Place helps to give people the tools to do so.

BPGL: As I look at the list of projects involved in Community Celebration of Place, I’m awed by their breadth and depth. What do you see as the unifying thread of the organization?

LONG: Empathy.

BPGL: Who chooses the elders to be honored during Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song?

LONG: This varies from community to community, but generally speaking, the elders are selected by a committee of teachers, community members, administrators, and students.

Often the elders are family or extended family members of students in the classroom. Often they are the people who have never been honored before, but are known throughout their community for doing good for others. At one school they wanted an environmental focus, so besides honoring three humans, we also selected an elder of the natural world, an eagle, to honor. The process was obviously a little different, but the lessons learned were of equal value.

Elder selection crosses lines of class, complexion, culture, and gender. Teachers, administrators, and community members are asked to look at the demographics of their student population and reach out to those individual communities for elders who reflect the best of their intentions. It’s important to note that for the new immigrant communities, their elders are often much younger than those of us whose people have been here for many generations.

For example, if I’m working with fourth-grade students, I tell them that they are elders for students younger than them, if they choose to make the right decisions and learn from their mistakes.

BPGL: How are the children’s songs and the elders’ stories incorporated together?

Elder Rosario De La Torre with middle school students. Photo: Courtesy Larry Long

LONG: After three to five elders are selected, they individually share their life story with students for roughly 30 minutes. Students are asked to write down from 5–10 questions based upon what they’ve heard the elder say, but are only allowed to ask one of them.

The student interview process roughly takes an additional 60 minutes.

All interviews are digitally recorded and then transcribed. Each interview session is roughly 8 to 12 pages, single spaced, in length. Every student receives a copy of the transcripts. From each transcript we create a one page narrative and song. I would urge your readers to visit the Community Celebration of Place website. We have several free downloadable songbooks with one-page narratives and songs.

The students then perform their works at a large community celebration attended by their parents, teachers, members of the community and honored Elders. At the celebration, each one-page narrative is spoken by the children prior to each respective song sung. It’s important to note that at the end of every interview the elder is asked to share words of advice or wisdom with the students. These words of wisdom conclude each spoken one-page narrative and are often used as the chorus to their song.

It’s quite amazing, really.

BPGL: Why do you include interviews with elders in your work?

Elementary Students rehearsing for an Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song Celebration. Photo: Courtesy Larry Long

LONG: The question is at the core of all good learning experiences. And before you can ask a good question, you must first listen. Before there is reconciliation, one must first know the story of the ‘other.’

BPGL: What do you see as the most direct benefit to the children?

LONG: After observing the interview process, a school psychologist, Dr. Richard Erickson, discovered that children’s questions are often directly connected to struggles they are going through. He noted:

  • A student whose family struggles with poverty asked, “How did you have enough money if you only made two cents each selling magazines?”
  • A student who lost his father in Iraq asked, “How did you feel when your friends died?”
  • A student whose family struggles with prejudice and racism asked, “Did you ever like the Japanese after the war?”
  • A student whose parents are divorced and fighting asked, “How did you handle the hard times in your life?”
  • A student whose parents have been fighting all of his life asked, “Do you really love your wife after sixty-one years of being married?”
  • A student with autism asked, “Did anyone ever make fun of you because you were different?”

Elders, therefore, become surrogates for resolving conflicts students feel internally, at home, or in the larger world.

BPGL: Is there a cost to schools for this program?

LONG: Yes, though we do receive some foundation support.

BPGL: What are the greatest impacts of the program after you leave?

Teacher Gail Beall with her third-grade students joining hands for the finale. Photo: Courtesy Larry Long

LONG: I have received emails and phone calls from students many years later, who say the Elders’ Wisdom project was the highlight of their educational experience. Family members reach out to us to get their grandparents’ life stories for their archives. Teachers are beginning to incorporate our many narratives and songbooks into their yearly curriculum.

As Dr. Erickson noted, “Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song encourages students to become active, compassionate, and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their different lives and perspectives, can also be right. The program aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people, who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural and intracultural understanding and respect.

The chosen elders, through their own personal stories, teach all of us about the beauty and the purposeful life found in the midst of difficulty, hard work, and perseverance.

Each and every one of us searches for meaning and purpose in our lives. All too often we are so busy with our own fast-paced daily existence that we fail to see the beautiful journey we are actually on. It is through these stories that we can understand and put into perspective our shortcomings, our detours and our frustrations. It is through these stories that we can see more clearly our own developing stories of accomplishment, survival and hope.

William Lewis Dye, Jr. with Middle School Students. Photo: Courtesy Larry Long

The Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song program has resurrected a culturally lost art. Our elders have always taught us important lessons about life and our purpose in this world. Somehow modern society has forgotten how to take the time to listen.

In the first paragraph of The Road Less Traveled, Scott Peck wrote, “Life is difficult; it always has been and always will be.” The Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song program helps us to learn more about our life by discovering how the elders handled their lives.

BPGL: As far as you know, do the communities make this an annual event that they replicate on their own?

LONG: Yes. Not always in its entirety, but elements continue to be incorporated into the yearly curriculum of particular schools. There’s one school in Minnesota that’s been doing Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song for close to 15 years without me. This was the 5th year in Custer, South Dakota and the 10th year in Spearfish, South Dakota, free from my direct help, as well.

It’s important to note that each step of the Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song process is built upon a win-win model. Through elder selection you reach out to communities of difference and give them a place at the table. Through listening to the life story of another, you develop respect. Through honoring the life story of another you develop empathy and respect. Through organizing cross-cultural and intergenerational community celebrations, you are building community.
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On a personal level, the success of our work comes directly through the comments of young people, adults, and elders themselves. A child’s self esteem is lifted. Once the door has been opened, an elder keeps returning to the classroom to mentor the children. Families and organizations donate resources to the school following EWCS celebrations to continue multi-generational work. Bond issues are passed for public education. A resource pool of elders is developed to assist in school instruction and mentorship for children in need.

BPGL: Do any of the elders’ stories stand out for you?

A young participant in Elders' Wisdom, Children's Song. Photo: Courtesy Larry Long

LONG: Honestly, they all do, but there is one elder story that is quite personal.

My father passed away when I was thirteen years of age. One of the best memories I have of my father was when I played Little League baseball. He never missed a game I played.

When my dad passed away, my coach, Mr. Mayeda, wrote the most beautiful letter of comfort to me. When I turned 40, now with kids of my own, I found that letter and decided to track down Mr. Mayeda, who had moved to California some years back. I called him to thank him for that letter and to tell him how much it meant to me. Mr. Mayeda was dying of cancer and he asked me if I would write a song about Japanese American internment camps — camps that he and his family were sent to during WWII. Shortly thereafter he passed away, before I learned his story.

I traveled to several sites of Japanese-American internment camps and read several books in search of inspiration to fulfill my promise to Mr. Mayeda, but nothing came.

Ten years later I was in Northfield, Minnesota, working with Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song at the Prairie Wind Community School. After the celebration, a Buddhist scholar from Carleton College came up to me and asked if I would be willing to write songs about Japanese American Internment survivors. I said I would be honored to!

Soon after, I received a call from the Eden Prairie School District outside of Minneapolis. They wanted me to develop the Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song program in all of their elementary schools.

Elder Helen Tsuchiya, surrounded by fourth graders in Eden Prairie, Minnesota: Photo: Courtesy Larry Long

I agreed and then called the Buddhist scholar to ask if she knew of any internment survivors living in Eden Prairie. She told me about Helen Tsuchiya, the grandmother of an Eden Prairie student and a survivor of the camps. We brought her in and soon learned that she was not only a survivor, but also the camp photographer and had brought these photos with her to teach the children.

I also learned that her husband coached baseball with Mr. Mayeda and that they were very good friends of the Mayedas. Through Helen Tsuchiya, a promise was fulfilled and a history lesson was shared with the children.

In the recent edition of Teaching Tolerance magazine (Number 37: Spring 2010), I was able to feature Helen’s life story, titled “Beyond the Barbed Wire.”

BPGL: Are the stories and songs archived so that readers can see and hear them?

LONG: Yes they are. We are presently trying to put all of them up on our website. We are reaching out to friends and graduate students in the library sciences to help us organize the collection. You can also download our songbooks online.

BPGL: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

LONG: Keep doing what you’re doing! The world depends on it!

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Donations to Community Celebration of Place help the group’s mission “to use Oral History, Music and Art to strengthen communities and foster reconciliation.” To find out how your school can participate in Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song, fill out the contact form for Community Celebration of Place or call 612-722-9775.

Related Posts

Part One: A Conversation with Larry Long, Lifelong Activist and Folksinger

Part Two: Larry Long on Bringing Woody Home

Part Three: Folksinger Larry Long on Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song (Top of Page)

Larry Long on Bringing Woody Guthrie Home

February 9, 2010 by  
Filed under Blog, Community, Events, Front Page, Musicians, Oklahoma

Larry Long helped the community of Okemah celebrate their heritage by "welcoming home" native son Woody Guthrie. Photo: Courtesy Larry Long

Through activism and song, Larry Long has fought for social justice and environmental preservation his entire adult life. He has also spent his life focusing on the culture and history of the people and places he sings about.

Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) spoke with Long about three significant projects he created during his career as an activist and a musician. Part one of our conversation discussed his work with the Mississippi River Revival. Today, we look at how he brought long-overdue honor to fellow folksinger Woody Guthrie, in Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma. Guthrie is best known for his folksong, “This Land Is Your Land.”

Guthrie’s liberal political leanings did not always make him welcome in his hometown. In fact two water towers stand in Okemah, advertising both Hot and Cold attitudes toward being the birthplace of Woody Guthrie. Two decades after Guthrie’s death — thanks largely to Long’s important community work — the people of Okemah finally welcomed Woody Guthrie home.

This is part two of a three-part conversation with Larry Long, whom writer Studs Terkel once called, “a true American troubadour.” You can listen to some of Larry Long’s music on his website. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

BPGL: Where did you turn your attention once you left the Mississippi River Revival?

Larry Long relaxes with Pete Seeger before a performance. Photo: Courtesy Larry Long

LONG: At the end of the 1980s, I got invited to sing and travel on the Delta Queen from St. Paul to New Orleans down the length of the Mississippi River and on the Makim-Gorky along the Volga River. These were the first-ever Soviet-American Peace Cruises. In fact this was the largest contingent of Soviets and Americans to travel together in either country.

When we came into Iowa, thousands of people greeted us with community choirs, including all of my dear friends from the Mississippi River Revival chapters in Dubuque and Bellevue. In many ways, this form of citizen diplomacy helped put an end to the Cold War. It’s important to note that through Pete Seeger’s good word I was able to travel on those cruises. All of this interconnects with bringing Woody Guthrie home.

BPGL: Tell us about your work honoring Woody Guthrie.

LONG: After performing at the Tulsa Mayfest in Oklahoma, the Harwelden Artist Institute and the Oklahoma State Arts Board put me on the road throughout Oklahoma teaching children in schools about Woody Guthrie. I worked in dozens of communities along the “Dust Bowl Highway” on out toward the Texas Panhandle.

Long poses in front of the famed "Hot" and "Cold" Okemah water towers. Photo: Courtesy Larry Long

One of my dreams was to work in Okemah, Oklahoma, where Woody was born. That dream came true.

After several years of working on and off in Oklahoma, I met the principal at the Okemah High School, Dr. Larry McKinney, who thought it would be a good idea to bring Woody home.

Dr. McKinney brought me into the Okemah schools, and I had the children go out and talk to their parents and grandparents, interview them, bring their life’s histories into the classroom. (This was the birthing of the work I do today, which is called Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song.)

We wrote new lyrics to several old melodies that Woody borrowed from other places, like “This Land is Your Land,” which comes from a Christian hymn. The Carter Family had recorded that hymn, and Woody had heard it sung in churches all around Okemah. So, in the tradition of Woody, we borrowed those melodies back from him.

I lived and worked with the people of Okemah for three years and fell in love with Okemah. The fruits of that experience not only brought Woody Guthrie back home, but now honor the good folks who nurtured him.

BPGL: When you say, “We brought Woody Guthrie home,” what do you mean by that?

Woody Guthrie, sharing a song with children. Photo: Courtesy Larry Long

We organized the first hometown tribute for Woody Guthrie and held a festival on December 1, 1988. Again, it’s important to note that we weren’t simply honoring Woody but also the community that nurtured Woody Guthrie. Bringing Woody Home became a bridge and a metaphor for that.

There’s a live recording of the celebration called It Takes a Lot of People, which was released by Flying Fish Records and is now distributed through Rounder Records. On the recording, you’ll hear Scottish- and Irish-American kids singing with African American children, plus the First Nation Seminole and Creek languages spoken throughout. It was truly a multilingual, multicultural celebration of Woody, which is reflective of Okemah not only today, but when Woody grew up also.

The event was featured on NBC Today. The Wall Street Journal hailed it as the signal event of the end of the Cold War in America. Portions of it were broadcast all over the world, because Woody was and still is such an internationally beloved figure.

BPGL: Was this a one-time event, or does Okemah still have celebrations for Woody Guthrie?

LONG: It helped to spawn WoodyFest, a free Woody Guthrie festival held every year on Woody’s birthday in July, Bastille Day. It’s a huge celebration that brings thousands of people into Okemah and helps the local economy. Woody’s son, Arlo, has had a lot to do with its success, plus a trainload of volunteers who come every year to help out. Quite amazing, really.

The "next generation" of Okeman students and their parents sing in celebration at WoodyFest. Photo: Courtesy Larry Long

In 2009, we had a 20th anniversary reunion celebration at WoodyFest with the kids who helped to bring Woody home. The kids who performed 20 years ago now have kids of their own, who are the same age as they were when we brought Woody Guthrie home. If you go to, you’ll see photographs of the kids then and how they look now.

All of this is now archived in the Okemah Historical Society. It was a very difficult project. It’s hard to imagine now, but back then, I had some moments that were rather frightening. There were several people who were very angry.

BPGL: Why were they angry?

LONG: In the 1980s, when Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, the Cold War was still on. Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger were seen by the religious right and the very conservative, xenophobic people as “Communists.” A few people in Okemah — a banker and a mortician — were some of those who kept the good town of Okemah, Oklahoma from honoring Woody.

Larry Long with Olen Edwards, the Pentecostal preacher who supported Long's efforts to celebrate the town's cultural heritage by bringing Woody home. Photo: Courtesy Larry Long

I would be amiss if I didn’t acknowledge, Olen Edwards, retired Pentacostal preacher, who is now in a Veterans Home outside of Okemah.  Olen Edwards, sang and performed This Train Is Bound For Glory, on It Takes a Lot of People. He risked his ministerial position by engaging himself in this secular pursuit of bringing Woody home. Olen simply felt it was about time that Okemah begin to honor their own.   My friend, Fiddlin’ Pete and I, performed at his church not only throughout the time I lived in Okemah, but for decades after, whenever we rolled through town.

In the spirit of the American Constitution, inalienable rights are those rights bestowed upon you by God, or a Divine Creator. They can neither be neglected, nor taken away by any government, authoritative regime, or institution.

But those days are long gone. Woody was finally brought back home. And through it all, the thread that brings it all together is Pete Seeger!

This is the end of part two of a three-part conversation with folksinger and activist, Larry Long.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts

Part One: A Conversation with Larry Long, Lifelong Activist and Folksinger

Part Two: Larry Long on Bringing Woody Home (Top of Page)

Part Three: Folk Singer Larry Long on Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song

A Conversation with Larry Long, Lifelong Activist and Folksinger

Larry Long, cleaning up the Mississippi River in the early 1980s. Photo: Courtesy Larry Long

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

Mississippi River Revival festival organizer Jamie Rosenthal at the stage set up in Bellevue, Iowa, in the early 1980s. Photo: Courtesy Jamie Rosenthal

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?

A youthful Larry Long early in his career as an organizer and a musician. Photo: Courtesy Jamie Rosenthal

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.”

The Clearwater sloop is a working symbol of Seeger's Hudson River Revival. Photo: Courtesy Larry Long

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].

The Mississippi River Revival logo. Courtesy: Jamie Rosenthal

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.

Long (in brown jacket and blue jeans), Joan Baez (silver hair, red scarf), and others play at Seeger's 90th birthday party. Photo: Courtesy Larry Long

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.

Long and a friend pull debris out of the Mississippi River. Photo: Courtesy Larry Long

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.

A volunteer shows a huge piece of junk he pulled from the Mississippi River. Photo: Larry Long

A volunteer shows a huge piece of junk he pulled from the Mississippi River. Photo: Larry Long

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.”

Volunteers load garbage onto a barge to take to recycling. Photo: Larry Long

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.

Volunteers carry a load of trash pulled from the Mississippi River.

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.

As others brought trash in from the river, another team separated it for recycling. Photo: Larry Long

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.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts

Part One: A Conversation with Larry Long, Lifelong Activist and Folksinger (Home Page)

Part Two: Larry Long on Bringing Woody Guthrie Home

Part Three: Folksinger Larry Long on Elder’s Wisdom, Children’s Song