emma’s revolution, the award-winning folk duo of Sandy O and Pat Humphries, sat down for an interview with me at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival in July, 2010. Following is an excerpt from that interview where Pat and Sandy explained about life as activist musicians, travelling to Canada, and what it’s like to write an award-winning peace song.
PH: I’m Emma.
SO: and I’m the revolution.This is how Pat Humphries and Sandy O introduced themselves to me when I sat down with them at the 2010 Vancouver Folk Music Festival. emma’s revolution, based in the Washington, DC area is their group. As a folk duo, Pat and Sandy both play guitar and sing songs about social change and activism, but their message is not just the protest songs of yester-year, emma’s revolution’s message is one of global peace and understanding between peoples. As they both revealed to me, hope, energy, and even dancing can be the key to changing the world.
BF: Explain to me the ‘emma’ part of emma’s revolution, who is Emma?
PH: The name is inspired by Emma Goldman. Emma lived from 1869-1940. She was part of the earliest Anarchist movement in the US and a fierce defender of free speech, the rights of women and the rights of workers. She also didn’t think war accomplished anything, for most people. Because she was such an outspoken advocate for workers and women, the US government always considered her very dangerous and they attempted many times to silence her. Emma was perhaps best known for the story of dancing at a party and a colleague felt that this was somehow unacceptable behaviour in the midst of all of their serious organizing. Her actual words to him were that “everyone has the right to free expression, to beautiful radiant things,” but it became known as her saying “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” That light and playful spirit amidst the incredible struggle and oppression is a really important balance to maintain, and one that we really focus on. It’s important for us to talk about and educate about important issues and it’s also important for us to remain hopeful and energized in order to make any change in the world.
I think war ends up serving governments and corporations, and it doesn’t serve people in general. Most of the wars we in the US have been involved in have been started under false pretences and they’ve been trumped up because a particular president needs to have that distinction item on their resume. It provides that horrible collaboration between some of the greediest, most destructive corporations and government. Nothing good has come from this.
BF: Were peace songs the reason why you started writing music, as the avenue to get that message out?
SO: We actually write songs on a whole bunch of issues, it’s perhaps activist music more than specifically peace or protest music. The term ‘protest song’ is so 1960’s referential that we try to remind people that it’s still going on. We love Pete Seeger, he’s a friend of Pat’s and we really respect everything he’s done, but we try to remind people that it’s going on right now. Sometimes we’ll sing somewhere and people older than us will come up and say they thought this music stopped in the 60’s. Actually, it didn’t! And there are a ton of younger people as well who are doing activist music. The point of the songs that we sing is that there are so many issues that you can sing about and the fact that ‘commercial music’ requires that you sing only about sex and relationships leaves a huge range of things for the rest of us to sing about. We’d love for there to be more acceptance in commercial music for the things that we sing about because we find that people are really missing the fact there can be art, including music, about issues that are going on.
BF: So why aren’t there more musicians doing that?
SO: You pay a price. You can get pigeon-holed or there’s one conservative member on a board for a concert series or for a festival who shuts you down. It’s such a double standard though, what people are allowed to talk about. The things people are writing songs about that are accepted in the commercial world; they’re still setting up an agenda and propagating a particular point of view.
PH: I think that we have been marginalized, certainly, by larger corporate-run festivals. Certainly by corporate-run record companies, and venues in the states, and of course radio. One of the trends that we’ve seen within what is broadly seen as the folk music world is that more and more people have become more and more conservative. I think they’ve been listening to the lyrics of the old songs too much. [Laughs] And have been patterning their lives around those values rather than seeking a balance between what is incredibly valuable about our history and our culture, and carrying it forward into contemporary times, needs, and values.
SO to PH: I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re so excited to be here [at VFMF] because you’ve long said that this is like the festival that has been most steadfast in representing activist music.
PH: And the true range of who the folk are, I really appreciate that about this festival. It sets a great example for other festivals on the continent.
SO: My favourite part has been that people are funny! One of the volunteers we were walking with while getting breakfast this morning got stopped by security with us because two of us were carrying three plates of food. I thought the guy was going to say we couldn’t take them out or something, but instead he said “you can’t have more than one per person!” He was just teasing us, but folks just seem to have a good time here. It’s a real community, a city for a weekend and they’re doing a great job here.
BF: And what do you think of the workshops you’ve been part of?
SO: We’ve been part of three so far, and the groups we’ve sung with and just sort of jammed with together…we had a blast and we heard from the audience that they had a blast too. You don’t always have all the way from Irish kind of punk sound to the music that we do and Playing for Change just getting together and having a great time together supporting each other…
BF: Let’s go back to acceptance. You say you haven’t been widely accepted on radio and such, but your songs have been featured by United Nations Conferences and peace rallies around the world, so what has been the highlight so far? You’ve also performed in many different places, including Palestine correct?
PH: [Pauses] It’s so hard to choose because everything that we’re involved in is really amazing. The people are so inspiring, it’s hard to select out one favourite. There’s a song that Sandy wrote [Silent No Longer] that’s about a highlight of an event that happened. It was a lawsuit against a US oil corporation that was a landmark lawsuit. In this case, the US corporation had contracted with the Burmese military to perform security on a pipeline, and the Burmese military is notorious for its human rights abuses. This fantastic group called Earth Rights International got together in a coalition with other groups and they won this lawsuit against the company and revealed the fact that this contract was happening and the military was committing atrocities. It’s the first time someone has been held accountable. These people are our friends and we heard the story about it, and it was so remarkable that Sandy wrote this song. It has connected us to these people and groups around the world who are involved in these struggles that would otherwise go uncelebrated. And we get to come in contact with those types of people and we get to tell those stories…that’s an amazing thing!
BF: Is there a line between art and protest? Should there be a line?
SO: I definitely don’t think there should be a line, if you mean that they should be kept separate. I haven’t experienced that protest has gone too far in the direction of art in the sense that we experience 800 people come out to hear a very important speaker, which is great because we need to hear from them, but there can be this feeling in the activist community that I need to listen to a speech about something, whereas if you participate in some art about it you are also going to be moved and changed and find out information about it.
PH: I think people create culture around issues that are meaningful to them. I think corporations create culture around issues that are profitable for them. Human beings’ natural inclination is to find creative ways to express whatever it is: their sorrow, their grief, their trauma, their joy, their elation, their need to celebrate. I think that is what human beings do. There is a business to being an activist songwriter and it takes being mindful of the system within which we are working. We certainly want to encourage people to support our work but we also want to be mindful of how we put it together. We make them in such a way that we minimize the amount of plastic for instance. There’s a context for all that we do and we try to be mindful of that.
BF: So what about your neighbours to the north, what is your favourite thing about Canada?
[Slight pause, then at the same time]: Health care!
BF: But you have that now! …Sort of…?
PH: No we don’t!!! It’s nowhere near it, it’s ridiculous, a joke if anyone thinks it is anywhere near the Canadian system.
SO: And I think awareness too, whenever we’ve come here there has been a much more international vibe, there is an awareness of the rest of the world which is missing in the US a lot.
PH: I would guess that Canadian media must be somewhat more open to have us come in contact with communities that are better informed in general. Your media must be showing more of what’s really going on than the media in the US. We sort of make jokes about people in the states not being well informed, but in truth they have been so thoroughly lied to and the media they’ve been fed has been packaged to look like it is the whole story, but it’s been very much the corporate view.
BF: So were you surprised we’re not all living in igloos up here?
[Laughs] SO: No, we’ve been here before, so we knew the igloo thing… And you don’t all say ‘eh.’
PH: I say ‘eh’ when we’re here!
BF: What bit of advice would you have for a new artist, perhaps starting to get into the activist music world?
SO: I find it’s very…satisfying is the only word I was going to say. To write a song that then gets used in a demonstration, I love that. Songs can be used to bring people together, and I find that very satisfying.
PH: One of the biggest things that we have to remember ourselves is that though you may not get the support in the media that you would like to get or you may not get the kind of financial support you would be like to be getting, stay with your audience because they are the ones who are going to feed you. They will feed you literally and they will feed your spirit too. Pay attention to the response that you get from the community; they will be the indicators of whether you are really doing your job and whether you are really serving the greater good. We keep a big basket of words of encouragement, and we don’t necessarily read them all, but it is good for us to remember that we hear from people all the time about how our music has helped them.
SO: We just heard from a woman volunteering with youth in Kosovo and she was at a conference with Serbs and the Kosovo youth, and she ended up singing our song Peace, Salaam, Shalom with them, and they ended up putting in the words for peace in their own languages and singing the names of cities, just like we do but they were putting in the names of cities in their area on both sides of the conflict. That keeps us going.