Kerrville Folk Festival, 2008

Scott Ainslie: Interview
Kerrville Folk Festival, 2008

The Land That I Love: Social Activism and Music

Scott at Kerrville 2008Scott had been instructing in the Blues Guitar Workshop for several days, but in his first appearance at Kerrville’s Kennedy Theater, he showed his other side, that of activist songwriter.

FAF: You have a new song, which you performed for your encore.

SCOTT: This was the first performance of the song.

FAF: And you haven’t decided on the title for this song?

SCOTT: I haven’t quite decided yet. It’s a song that begins with the NAFTA Treaty and its impact on Mexicans. And what NAFTA has done, there were deals cut under the table that weren’t advertised, and that lowered the tariffs on American corn getting into Mexico.

And so great big huge corporate farms are competing with little tiny, hand [tilled] farms – family farms – in Mexico. And of course they are undercutting the sale of corn that’s grown an acre away from the market.

And people can’t stay on their farms and so they’re walking through the Sonoran Desert out in Arizona and crossing the border to try and make some kind of a living while the corporations are raking the cream off the market in Mexico. So this song, the working title for me is, “The Land That I Love,” which, it really is written from a migrant’s point of view. And it felt good to sing it tonight. I think it’s a song that works.

FAF: It was well received and of course the immigration issues are very, very big here in Texas and all of these nearby states. Most of us are pretty well aware of the issues, and so we were really happy to hear the song. However, it’s the first immigration song I’ve heard on Kerrville main stage this year.

SCOTT: That’s interesting. Well, I’m sympathetic of the problems that come with lots of immigrants who don’t speak the language, who crash the school system and come into communities. But I also want to point at the cause of their immigration.

These are people that are leaving the bones of their grandfathers in the ground. They’re leaving their families, they’re risking their lives, to cross the desert and deal with smugglers, human smugglers, in order just to make some kind of a living wage.

And we’ve given a pass to the corporations for causing the problem. I think that people have to know that Big Business, big corporate farms, are crushing family farms, not just in this country, but all over this hemisphere. And that, generally, the Mexicans in the desert are not coming here to become Americans. They’re coming here because they can no longer live in their own homes.

FAF: And it’s interesting, that point that you made, that they had already crushed the American small farm throughout the 80s and 90s, and into this century they have gone south of the border and are crushing farms there.

SCOTT: Largely.

The hunger of the corporations is to make money. They are designed to concentrate capital. And if they are not broken up the way we broke up Ma Bell back in the 70s, and constrained; if the monopoly laws aren’t put back on the books, laws that protected our American workers and our society for 50 years, put in place during FDR’s Administration and then un-enforced throughout the Reagan Administration (and then changed when Gingrich got to Congress)…we have wholesale monopolies now, that are destroying local economies all over our country, but also all over the hemisphere and the world.

And that is not a proper use of the profit motive. I’m kind of a Democratic Socialist. I believe in democracy. I believe in a restrained capitalism, but not Free Market Capitalism, not at all.

It’s never generated a civilized society.

FAF: We do seem to have a problem with being civilized these days…

SCOTT: We could talk for a long time about that. But your readers would know. Everybody knows about that. When you stand back and look at the state of the world, you know the main problem is the corporations are too big.

We solve that and then some of the sunlight will get to the ground and we can have a viable, diversified economy with little fish and big fish. But until the large corporations are broken up, we will not have a rebirth of freedom and democracy in this country or anywhere in the world. They have to be restrained.

FAF: Do you see the seeds of a new era starting to germinate, even as there’s still a need for some sort of major upheaval or change?

SCOTT: Yes, we need a paradigm shift. Part of the joy of seeing Obama turn up at this moment and energize so many young people to engage in the process is that, in order to solve this, we can’t just let the powers that be thrash it out – figuring it’s not gonna get too bad. We tried that. And it’s gotten very, very bad.

So, we really need every hand on the wheel. And there is a birth of hope among young people with Obama’s candidacy right now, and with the Green movement and the local agriculture movement and reducing one’s carbon footprint and global warming, climate change.

It’s generating a sense of urgency, but also a sense of possibility for ‘local.’ You know, at some point, we’re not going to be able to ship oak to China, have it made into furniture, and have it shipped back and have it be economically viable anymore.

We’re going to need a furniture factory near to where you live because putting it on a truck is going to be prohibitively expensive. We’re racing toward that right now. And what that does is open up a lot of possibilities for small businesses, local industries, local agriculture, to come back from the Third World and live here. And finding a way to make that happen: that’s our problem right now.

FAF: It is interesting that the rising cost of oil and thus gasoline seems to be what might, in the end, help to ‘fuel’ the paradigm shift.

SCOTT: I’m a traveling musician and my costs have gone through the roof and my fees have not. If anything, we’re all gonna work harder for less money, those of us who are travelers.

That said, the silver lining behind this is probably the fact that it’s going to cause all of us to have more local economies, to pay attention to how far things are coming and try to eat locally and support local farms. And it may just buy us a sort of back door way out.

While the captains of industry are going in one direction, we can actually go the other. And we might just wind up winning. To say it’s interesting doesn’t betray how invested I am in the outcome, but it is an interesting time.

FAF: Please discuss the song you wrote and performed about Stephen Biko.

SCOTT: It’s called “Confession” and it’s on my CD The Feral Crow, which is an album of original songs.

I make my living largely playing Blues and talking about the African roots of American music. But I’m also a songwriter, and I decided to put a whole bunch of the original songs that aren’t Blues on one record, and “Confession” is there.

I sang that first in 1997 at the Swannanoa Gathering, another gathering like this one but that [specializes] in teaching music, in the mountains of North Carolina. And I told the story, as I did this evening, about Biko’s murder and the abuse of the love of one’s country to make torturers out of someone. And the torturers kiss their kids and then jump in the car and go out and separate people’s souls from their bodies in those savage ways…

… I think a love of one’s country can be abused and to the extent that we’ve become a torturing nation, I think this is what we’re facing now.

I think we have to accept the mantle of that song, which I was pointing at Stephen Biko, at El Salvador, and at Central America. But I wasn’t pointing at us, until seven years ago when the Bush Administration made us a flagrant, torturing nation for the first time in our history (though we learned waterboarding from the Spanish during the 1898 Spanish American War in the Philippines (a hold over from the Spanish Inquisition).

FAF: And now that we are being identified as a nation that not only tortures but also kidnaps on foreign soil against other nations’ laws, it looks as though, even though we are unable to bring our own government to justice, other governments are going to.

SCOTT: Well, other governments will. And just a note: in my hopeful moments, I tell myself, it took them 30 years to go after Pinochet and I’m betting it’s going to take less than 10 to go after these guys: Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, and even, sadly, Colin Powell, who were all in the meetings that were discussing specific torture techniques that the United States was going to approve in the White House as the war was beginning, right after 9-11, and the push for war was beginning.

They are complicit in compromising the honor, the integrity, and the Constitution of the United States; breaking international treaties – along with the bodies of innocent victims.

Most of the people who have been tortured, of course, were sold by the Afghan warlords to the Americans for, like, $1,000.00 a piece. We were buying prisoners. We didn’t catch them doing something: they were turned over to us for money.

No system of justice works like that, military or otherwise. And these guys have done this in the coldest of blood, and they deserve to answer for it and I’m quite sure they will. It may take us 10 years, but I’ll bet it won’t take 30. We’re not Chilean.

FAF: On the subject of South Africa: one thing that broke the back of that whole regime was the musicians rising up around the world and protesting, and boycotting Sun City and other areas of entertainment in that country. Do you think the musicians in this country are capable of rising up and doing that in this country?

SCOTT: I can’t speak for the great body of musicians.

What I can say is that

And I think that is the proper role for an artist and a performer, who have the microphones, and should try to make good use of them. And also to generate compassion, not just for each other – for us – but for a widespread compassion around the world, for the victims of the actions of our own culture, as well as people who are just suffering because of the way money is distributed around the world.

FAF: And on the healing vein, your wonderful song about healing the effects of the Vietnam War is a beautiful, beautiful piece. So, did you get to record it first before your friend Tom Chapin, whom you sent it to?

SCOTT: “Rice Grows Again in Vietnam.” Yes, it’s on The Feral Crow. Tom is a dear friend and I tell that story in jest.

He’s a man I love dearly and we’ve been friends for a very long time. But Tom called me when he got the song and said, “This is a great song.” And I said thanks, and was worried he was going to say, “I’m going to put it on the record,” but he said, “I can’t record it,” and I thought, thank God, because I wanted to record it first, and I did.

What Tom did say to me, which I have never forgotten (and it meant a great deal to me) was “Don’t underestimate the power of this song. Don’t sell this short. Don’t keep it under your hat. Sing it a lot.”

And it’s a song that’s aimed at the Vietnam War, but you know, when we send someone to war, it’s often a life sentence of nightmares and broken emotional lives and violence, addiction and escape. I mean, we’re putting people in inhumane situations and then expecting them to come back human beings.

And there’s a great deal of damage that we do not see. I mean, we’re going to see thousands and thousands of people with wounds we can see, but there are going to be tens of thousands of people with wounds that we cannot see.

And we cannot let the returning veterans from this war or any other war go through what the Vietnam vets go through. I never saw any vet spat on. You hear about this all the time. But I do know that they were shunned. And we cannot shun these young people who were caught in the machinations of a corrupt administration. We have to welcome them back and give them a chance to weep, swear and beat their fists on the ground – and heal.

FAF: Thank you very much Scott. It was great to meet you and hear your songs.

Photo & Test Copyright 2008 Joy H. Hance. All Rights Reserved

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