Interview with musician and essayist David Rovics

Washington, DC (TFC) – David Rovics grew up in a family of classical musicians in Wilton, Connecticut, and became a fan of populist regimes early on. By the early 90’s he was a full-time busker in the Boston subways and by the mid-90’s he was traveling the world as a professional flat-picking rabble-rouser. These days David lives in Portland, Oregon and tours regularly on four continents, playing for audiences large and small at cafes, pubs, universities, churches, union halls and protest rallies. He has shared the stage with a veritable who’s who of the left in two dozen countries, and has had his music featured on Democracy Now!, BBC, Al-Jazeera and other networks. His essays are published regularly on CounterPunch and elsewhere, and the 200+ songs he makes available for free on the web have been downloaded more than a million times. Most importantly, he’s really good. He will make you laugh, he will make you cry, he will make the revolution irresistible.

What got you into folk music?

What got me into folk music? The cheeky but true answer is, being a human being. At least if you define “folk music” as “music of the folk.” which is how i define it. I’m not really into folk music otherwise, in terms of other definitions of the term. People just assume i’m into their more narrow idea of folk music because i’m a white guy with an acoustic guitar. But i reject that notion. I’m a punk rocker.

What other genres of music do you like?

Bluegrass, Irish traditional music, nueva cancion, all kinds of African music, and a lot else.

Who are some of your favorite punk bands?

Barnstormer, Rise Against, Strike Anywhere, The Clash.

Who are your biggest inspirations in activism?

Way too many to list, but the traitors are generally my favorites, if i have to choose, like the San Patricios.

I really love The Commons, can you talk about the experience of making that album?

It was pretty simple. I had a gig at club passim and thought i should get it recorded, because i knew a guy who made good recordings of concerts there. So i invited my friends Eric Royer and Allie Rosenblatt to do the show there, and without rehearsing at all, we did it, and the album was the result!

What are some of your favorite protest art pieces? And what have they each resonated with you?

I’m not sure what protest art is. If what we mean by that is art that says something powerful, then i have lots of favorites. Currently the German sculptor, Kathe Kollwitz, whose sculptures make me cry, because war is horrible, and she captures that so brilliantly in her work.

What do you see as the most effective tactics in taking down this monstrosity and building alternatives?

A combination of education, inspiration, civil disobedience, well-organized mass movements. democracy is in the streets, not so much in the voting booths, tho occasionally voting can be useful, too, especially in more democratic countries such as those in Europe.

What contemporary thinkers and organizations are you most in awe of?

Not sure if I’m in awe of any thinkers or organizations. but there are lots of organizations doing good work, and lots of brilliant thinkers. I’m a big fan of a lot of people who write for CounterPunch regularly, such as Dani Follette, Arun Gupta, Jeremy Scahill, Jeremy Brecher, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky.

What are your thoughts on situation with Syria, turkey, Russia and the YPG?

All foreign countries should stop sending arms or other forms of aid to Syria, starting with the U.S., Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The Kurds have a right to self-determination. I don’t know enough about the YPG to say whether I like them otherwise. Like the Lebanese civil war, the Syrian civil war is a proxy war. It should be up to Syrians to figure out the future of Syria, not foreign governments with their own nasty agendas. especially Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the U.S.

What do you think about Greenwashing?

Given that most people care about the environment, it’s an intelligent thing for a corporation or other organization to do if they want to win hearts and minds. The question, i think, is really more what do i think of capitalism. It sucks.

What do you think can help combat secterianism on the left?

Having a sense of humor and an open mind. Not that that’s easy. But anyone who thinks they know everything needs to be ridiculed until they learn a little humility. Maybe not if they’re under 18. Gotta make exceptions for people who are young. Then start ridiculing them if they don’t grow up. No, i don’t know if ridicule is necessarily the way forward. Really I have no idea. But sectarianism is a big problem, in any case. It creates a very cliquish, insular environment where growth is virtually impossible, equally among anarchist or socialist circles, and elsewhere.

How is and isn’t art a commodity?

Well, it’s a commodity because it’s been commodified, and it can be bought and sold. but it’s also part of the commons, a cultural phenomenon, something we all create, no matter who is being credited with being the artist, or the songwriter, or whatever. None of us invented the language, the 1-4-5 chord progression, or the 2-5-1 chord progression either. None of us invented these rhymes, or the concepts we’re singing about. Not even Dylan. Especially not Dylan, actually.

Can you give your thoughts on the following lines of thinking within anarchism? Green anarchism?

If anarchism isn’t green, it’s pretty stupid.

Post left anarchism?

Playing with words, spending too much time talking with other anarchists and not enough time doing something useful.

Participatory economics?

I haven’t read the book, but it seems like a great idea.


Anarchists and labor unions have a long history together. It’s a very good thing. what is an anarchist If not a syndicalist? Any anarchist who is not a syndicalist probably is more interested in skateboards and piercings than in history. Not that these interests are mutually exclusive or anything.

Which of these theories do you see as having the most pragmatic and effective solution at ending inequality and the destruction of livable habitats? Or do you not find common ground with these particular labels?

I’m not sure what either “left” or “post left” means. And I still won’t be sure after someone explains it to me, I promise. But otherwise, these concepts are all good. What they mean for different people will vary dramatically. But we clearly need to be scientific in terms of preserving life on earth, which means being a “radical” environmentalist for sure. We clearly need a different, more participatory form of economics, since capitalism is busily destroying the world and has never worked for most people. And the way forward is undoubtedly with lots of syndicates. Individuals can’t do shit. Collectives of individuals, well-organized, working towards a common goal, can accomplish great things, history amply demonstrates.

How do you feel about Bernie Sanders?

I think a Sanders presidency could be good. If he were elected, he’d probably be the most progressive president the U.S. has ever had. However, unfortunately if he doesn’t get the democratic nomination, he’s going to tell us all to vote for the frontrunner democrat, which, whoever that may be, is akin to stabbing us in the back.

How do you feel about prison abolition?

I think probably 99% of people in prison in the U.S. shouldn’t be in prison. I think total prison abolition is something that would and needs to come hand in hand with the successful creation of an egalitarian, open, non-racist, feminist society. Until we have an egalitarian society, there may be some serial killers and serial rapists and people like that who need to be locked up. Maybe even after, I don’t know — haven’t ever been there, and neither has anyone else.

What have you learned from indigenous resistance?

That’s a bit like asking what I’ve learned from resistance, generally. It’s a very big question. Speaking of which, I just read the book, an indigenous people’s history of the United States, and I thought it was fantastic. But I think some things I/we can learn from indigenous resistance include the following: unity is very important. Divide and conquer will destroy us all. Treaties are worthless. By the same token, the IWW thought the same about labor contracts. All that matter is being unified, well-organized, and showing strength. Constant vigilance. The settlers and the capitalists are always a threat, no matter what they say, they always lie. Settler-colonialism is an ideology, and it must be challenged and those of us who are descendants of settler-colonialists must understand it and overcome the bullshit that our minds are generally full of.

What do you do when you feel cynical, grieved, or burnt out that helps you center and maintain focus?

Friendship, companionship and community is something that really feeds me. Doing tours, playing music, hanging out with people can all be very therapeutic, even if often tiring, too. Exercise is very important. I like to take long walks. Reading things that are significantly longer than your average Facebook post is very good for you.

In Will Potter’s ‘Green is the New Red’ he highlights tactics by the state to surprises environmentalists efforts much like the Red Scare targeted communists. Is resistance more difficult now for the same reason that organizing is more fluid, ie the internet?

I don’t actually think the internet has changed anything in this sense. It’s just changed the vehicles through which we get confirmation bias. There were other ways that worked before, just as insular. Now it’s this alienated, atomized, online thing. Before it was ghettos. It is now, too, still, but there’s also this online version of the ghetto now. But it’s still the same basic phenomenon. Now, as before, certain types of people gravitate to certain physical (as well as online, now) spaces. The hipsters move to Portland and Austin. The country music fans move to Nashville. The people who are into organic farming or growing pot move to Humboldt County or wherever. You know, if they can — obviously most people move, if they move, to find work, not for some other reason. But this ghettoizing thing has been going on for a long time, and the internet only created a new avenue for it to happen in.

What are some characteristics of a successful movement?

A culture of inclusiveness, a culture of valuing culture and its importance in inspiring, educating, and building movements, a commitment to effective tactics such as nonviolent civil disobedience, an understanding of the destructive, movement-destroying nature of certain tactics, the rejection of what some people call “diversity of tactics” while still embracing actual diversity of tactics.

So when you talk about certain tactics that aren’t nonviolent civil disobedience which tactics do you mean and why do you see them as counterproductive?

Different tactics work in different parts of the world at different times depending on many factors. A tactic is useful if it’s popular and effective. Currently in the US there is not mass support for trashing at a protest. It alienates people. The cops love it. If the cops love it, it’s probably bad.

Image Source: Facebook

Image Source: Facebook