Leo Kottke at NectarsI first met Leo Kottke in the fall of 1969. It was on my first night of college at St. Cloud State University, and Leo was playing at the Ratskeller Coffeehouse, located in the basement of the Atwood Student Union. It was a dark cellar with a dozen or so hardwood square tables and chairs. At the end of the evening, the Ratskeller was empty save Leo and I. Not by intention. I just got lucky.

A few months later Leo released Armadillo, a groundbreaking recording recorded live at the Scholar Coffeehouse in Minneapolis. The rest is, as they say, history.

Leo is more than a one-man band. Leo is a one-man orchestra. His guitar work on 12 and 6 string guitars is somewhere between the slow, barbiturate sound of John Fahey, the swift flat-picking of Doc Watson, and the electronic stealth of Jimi Hendrix gone acoustic. His singing voice is another unique mix—between the soft baritone of Dean Martin and (as Leo puts it) “geese farts.” But it’s Leo’s slow, drawn out humor that pulls it all together in a live performance. His storytelling is random mix between the Smothers Brothers, Garrison Keillor, and Samuel Clemens. There’s always a storyline woven throughout his shows. You don’t know where Leo’s heading until the night is over and even then you’re not entirely sure where the story went, but it was a journey worth taking.

Back in the ’80s a mutual friend of ours, bassist Billy (Williard) Peterson, produced several of my recordings for Flying Fish Records (now distributed by Rounder Records). Billy brought Leo into play a couple of my tunes: Catfish Rag (Troubadour CD) and Mad About The Way Things Are (Run For Freedom/Sweet Thunder CD). The Leo you see on stage is the same Leo you meet off stage. Vulnerable and genuine with a lonely rye wit.

Forty years after first hearing Leo that night at the Rathskellar, my wife and I are in Martha’s Vineyard at a small nightclub called Nectar’s near the airport, watching Leo perform. ( www.nectarsmv.com) The show isn’t listed on his tour schedule, which is crammed with concerts across the country. www.leokottke.com) As far as I can tell, he’s traveling alone.

When my wife and I arrived earlier at Nectar’s Leo was doing sound check. Afterward he sat down with us for a chat. I shared the story of hearing him for the first time at the Ratskeller. Leo said, “I remember that. They hired me to play two nights for fifty dollars. When I got done playing on the second night they handed me a twenty-five dollar check. I told them I was supposed to get paid fifty dollars. The guy in charge of the Ratskeller quickly replied, ‘Now you’re not.’ I guess he didn’t think I was worth it. And now 40 years later I’m still making a living at this.”

Leo Kottke at Nectars (flash not included)I asked Leo if it would be all right if I took a photograph of him during his performance. He chuckled. “As long as you don’t use a flash. I just can’t get this one guy out of my head that used a flash at one of my concerts years back. In the middle of my show I could feel the eyes of someone staring me down from the end of my guitar neck somewhere down by the tuners. I couldn’t help but look… and sure enough there he was, holding an old antique camera with foursquare cubed flash bulbs on top of it. He was smirking. I stopped and smiled, waiting for him to take the picture, but he didn’t. So I moved my guitar neck a few inches to the right and there he was doing it again. I stopped and posed for another picture, but he didn’t take it. He just went away. I thought that was sure odd. Then toward the end of my concert I heard the sound of someone talking to the right of me. I was lost in a song. I didn’t know what was going on. I thought it was possibly the management or something. So I stopped and looked over and there he was with that antique camera with foursquare cube flash bulbs. This time he flashed the picture and it blinded me. I didn’t think it was funny, but the audience all started laughing. Then he sat himself down in the middle of the auditorium toward the front row. Halfway through my last song he stood up and walked right out down the middle aisle. I never saw him again.”

We were concerned about the turnout for the concert, since half the folks on the island had fled in the wake of an impending hurricane that was suppose to have hit on the previous day. It never materialized, but that didn’t stop a torrential rain from poring down nonstop for over 24 hours.

This didn’t seem to bother Leo. He was in top form that night, sitting on a chair in the middle of a dark stage before an audience of a few hundred. After his first song Leo jokingly said, “I’m damp. I’ve never been so damp in my whole life.” He then went right into his second instrumental. When the song was over, Leo braced his guitar on his lap. “I’m feeling some remorse about what I said. I have been damper than I am right now. All I was trying to say is that I’m really damp.” And then off he went into the next song.

Leo played a two-hour set with no breaks held together by a meandering storyline and accentuated by rapid fire guitar playing that occasionally edged towards the gypsy sounds of Django Reinhart and the melancholy of sultry torch songs with an eastern European feel.

It was as if I blinked and the night was over. Leo simply stood up, a guitar in both hands, took a bow, and walked off stage. The audience gave him an immediate standing ovation. He walked back out with one guitar, sat down, and said, “I’ve never been so damp.” Then he launched into the encore.

Like well-aged wine stored in an oaken barrel Leo Kottke just keeps getting better. Thank you Leo.

Reverend Denniston speaking at dedicationHalf of Martha’s Vineyard fled to the mainland yesterday to avoid the oncoming storm that arrived this morning. We were ferrying over as they were leaving.
We started our trek from South Station, Boston, to catch the ferry at Woods Hole. Along the way I met Reverend Dean Denniston, who was sitting across the aisle from us on the South Station bus. Looking rather dapper in a black suit coat and tie with a folded red striped cane on his lap, he was reading Braille during the two-hour trip. He looked a bit like Ray Charles with his black sunglasses.
Once we arrived I waited to exit last, as I had my guitar with me. The Reverend was waiting as well and after a bit we were the only ones left on the bus. Hearing that I was carrying a guitar case, the Reverend mentioned that he played the blues slide guitar and was just learning “Little Red Rooster”.
He asked if I could help guide him off the bus and onto the ferry, so we chatted all the way to Martha’s Vineyard. Reverend Denniston had grown up in Oak Bluffs, a town with a large African American community.
His father was Rev. Oscar E. Denniston. He presided over Bradley Memorial Church, the first African-American Church on the island. The senior Reverend Denniston had founded the church and remained pastor until his death in 1942. The family lived in the church’s sanctuary.
The Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society, in partnership with the NAACP, acquired the building earlier this year, and is turning it into a museum honoring the African-American history of the island. The second floor where Rev. Denniston was raised will be converted into two affordable housing units.
Reverend Denniston was asked to give a family blessing at the groundbreaking ceremony, where the Governor of Massachusetts and other local dignitaries were scheduled to speak.
The Reverend confided that he had mixed emotions about returning to his family home. “But as in most times when one is truly called,” the Reverend said, “the calling seldom comes at convenient times.”
It felt to me like he had been called to this event for a reason. He agreed. I said, “There are miracles that happen each day if we find the time to take notice.” The Reverend quickly responded, “No, it’s not a miracle, it’s simply grace.”
As we continued to talk, we found a shared friend in Guy Davis, musician, actor and son of Ozzie. (Guy and I both performed at Madison Square Gardens for Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday celebration.)
The Reverend invited my wife and I to the dedication, which we accepted. Half of the attendees were African-American, most of whom have lived in Oak Bluffs for decades.
Church HistoryLindsey Lee, oral historian for the historical society, said there was a treasure trove of history inside Reverend Denniston’s home — photographs of parishioners and family members, church letters and documents, and well-worn pews. She and her staff had cataloged almost 80 boxes to be added to their permanent collection.
Mass. GovernorAfter the Governor and local politicians spoke, the Reverend gave a simple blessing for the memories his father’s home, the blessed Bradley Memorial Church, with the wish that a new vision will be created for generations to come.
After the dedication the Governor left for the JFK Library, where he was speaking at the family service for Senator Edward Kennedy along with Vice President Biden, Senator Hatch and McCain and others.
This morning Senator Edward Kennedy’s public memorial service was held at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica in Mission Hill. President Obama gave a beautiful eulogy.
The last of the Kennedy brothers. A man who spent his life in service to others. A man who never gave up, weathering great storms of both family and personal tragedies. The last of a political dynasty.
The impending hurricane that sent locals scattering never materialized. Instead it was a rainy and windy day as my wife and I walked the quiet streets of Oak Bluffs…

Waiting in Line Outside the Kennedy LibraryMy wife and I waited three hours in line last evening to show our respect for Senator Kennedy with thousands of others at the JFK Library in Boston, Massachusetts. The stories of those in line were rich with affection for the Senator and his family.

In Memorial: Edward Moore KennedyOne gentleman behind us talked of when he was young and being Irish Catholic reduced him to second class citizenship. Let alone being a gay Irish Catholic. “The Kennedy family changes all of that for me.” he said. “Senator Kennedy not only lifted up the Irish, but all dispossessed people. He was the first in the Senate to speak up and secure funding for those with HIV and AIDS during the era of President Reagan. He opened the doors for immigrants from around the world to find a home on our shores. He will be greatly missed, especially in these times of trying to secure health care for all Americans.”

Looking out onto Madison Square Gardens was like looking out onto the Grand Canyons for the first time. Breathtaking. I walked up to a security guard and asked him, “Where did Mohammed Ali box?” He looked at me and said, “I don’t know. I’ve never thought about that before, but I will now.”

There was no distance between the audience and performers. The moment was when Pete Seeger sang Amazing Grace and all 20,000 people stood up singing. No one can engage an audience like Pete.

Bruce Springsteen spoke with great eloquence. Maggie’s Farm with Ramblin Jack, Kristofferson, Richie Havens, and Arlo Guthrie was a hoot. Rufus and Martha Wainwright sang a most beautiful, tender ballad of Pete’s. Before going up on stage Kris Kristofferson turned and laughed, “ I don’t know what I’m doing.” He did well! Ani DeFranco and he sang, “There’s A Hole
In The Bucket.”

I sang with others beside Joan Baez on Jacob’s Ladder and Bernice Reagon on We Shall Overcome. We were all F.O.P.’s (Friends of Pete), according to the techs. A polite (or not so polite) way of referring to the lesser known musicians who were personally invited by Pete. To us it was a compliment.

Seeger90 will be televised as part of Great Performances for PBS in the coming months. Will be interesting to see how the editing is done.

He Was A Real Good Man

(Honoring Craig Wilkins)

I met Craig along time ago
When I went to college
Right after I left home
Much older and wiser than me
He just got out of the military
He was real good man. A real good man.
They don’t make ‘em much better than Craig

With a smile hard to resist
With a twinkle in his eye
He called himself a feminist
Long before Robert Bly
The last in the room to say good-bye
He was real good man. With a real slow man.
They don’t make ‘em much better than Craig

Listening to some old fiddle tune
With Diane Odegard
And their friends at the Grand Mantel Saloon
Life with Craig it wasn’t hard
He was real good man. A real good man.
They don’t make ‘em much better than Craig

From that South Jersey front porch stoop
A real class act people say
Always one to tell the truth
One beer to mourn. Two beers to celebrate
He was real good man. A real good man.
They don’t make ‘em much better than Craig

His mother taught him how to cook
When he was just a kid
From recipes not found in a book
Until Craig said, “Mom, I want to get slim.”
“So cook your own damn food!”,
His mother told him
He was real good man. A real good man.
They don’t make ‘em uch better than Craig

With Candy the love of his life
Together they built a home
Not long after she became his wife
They got that FHA loan
Craig cooked for Candy
each night when she came home
He was real good man, with a real slow hand
They don’t make ‘em much better than Craig

Through their love they had a son
Ethan, a real good guy
Who like Craig, has now become
The last in the room to say goodbye
With a twinkle in his eye
He’s a real good man, with a real slow hand.
They don’t make ‘em much better than Craig

On that bus his father rode
To work each morning
To MN DOT where they love his Dad a lot
Craig their ‘Newsline King’
The ‘wittiest, pithiest editor you have ever seen!’
He was real good man. A real good man.
They don’t make ‘em much better than Craig

When you lose someone you love
What more can one do
But to love those who are
Still here with you
What more would Craig want us to do?
He was real good man with a real slow hand.
They don’t make ‘em much better than Craig

He was real good man. A real good man.
They don’t make ‘em much better than Craig

Words & music by Larry Long

 Larry Long 2009 / BMI

This afternoon I received a note from Jack Niedenthal, who is producing a film called “Ña Noniep” in the Marshall Islands. He was asking to use one of my songs, Freedom, Oh Freedom, in the movie.

I originally wrote and recorded Freedom, Oh Freedom with the youth of Alabama. It tells the story of Ezra Cunningham, who was a pioneer in Civil Rights and a member of their community. It was originally featured on Here I Stand: Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song. You can listen to a gospel recording of the song here.

Jack sent me the recording that he would be using in the movie, which you can listen to here. He also included more about the film and the Marshall Islands as well:

Kery Ann Lejjena, Carly Ann Note, Lulani Note and Cinderella LajidrikI am currently wrapping up production on a film I am making in the Marshall Islands. All the music in the film was performed by four 8th grade girls from the Majuro Cooperative School, of which I am a Board member. We are a private school and so we must constantly look for ways to raise money. I funded this movie out of my own pocket (also wrote, directed and produced, and yes, even acted). All proceeds from the film go to the school.

As we were wrapping up the recording of the Marshallese music we selected for the movie, the girls asked me if they could sing an English song they knew. They sang your song, Freedom, Oh Freedom. They did it so well I almost passed out while recording it….

Na Noniep - Marshall Islands“Ña Noniep” is a film about the spiritual battle between a ri-anijnij (an evil Marshallese witch) and a noniep (a Marshallese fairy) for the soul of a 13 year old boy, Liki.

Liki is an off-the-chart brilliant student who can solve math problems without using pencil or paper and who can read a thick novel in a few days. His goal is to attend high school in America…. Miko, Liki finds his life threatened by Miko’s evil grandmother, Lijimu, who is a woman known throughout the islands as a horribly diabolical witch. Lijimu casts a spell on Liki…. Only the noniep can help him, but first the noniep must overcome the enormous power of the evil Lijimu.

“Ña Noniep” is in Marshallese with English subtitles, and English. The film stars Randon Jack, Lulani Ritok, Kyle Trevor, Netha Gideon, Matiti Johnson, Alson Kelen and Sarah Enyeart. The film is scheduled to open at the K & K Theaters on March 6.


The Marshall Islands are between Hawaii and Guam in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The entire country only has 50,000 people. The Marshall Islands are most famous for their use as a nuclear testing ground by the US in the 1940s and 1950s. All 4 of the girls singing your song and playing the ukulele are Bikini Islanders, whose families have been displaced by this
nuclear testing for over 60 years. More info on the US nuclear testing in the Marshall
Islands can be found here: http://www.bikiniatoll.com.

K & K theaters is a 3-plex theater (the only one in the Marshall Islands) who will show our film. The arrangement is that they get half of the $3 price of admission, and our school gets half. We are not talking about a lot of money here. Most people here get $2 an hour as wages….

It is indeed an honor to know that this song’s pure message transcends cultures and geographic borders even today. For more information about Ezra Cunningham or to hear him speak about his life, visit the Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song website.

Thank you to Jack Niedenthal for sending this to me, and a special thanks to the singers, Kery Ann Lejjena, Carly Ann Note, Lulani Note and Cinderella Lajidrik.

Scottish Castle and Graveyard

Scottish Castle and Graveyard

I have had the opportunity to tool around in some beautiful European cities and until now I would say I would rate them for beauty and interest—Paris, Leningrad, Barcelona, Florence, with Amsterdam, Venice and Warsaw also on the list. But Edinburgh just became number two behind Paris. It is a beautiful city with a funkiness that is hard to describe. Like you’re walking around in a Harry Potter scene or a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson (like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which is based on a real person here)  Both authors grew up here by the way. There are these gothic buildings everywhere with creepy  black spires, even on public schools. And  the city is just full of cobblestone little narrow “closes” which pass as streets on 3 different levels.

The original city was the Royal Mile which starts out with the castle that is on a huge 4 story volcanic rock and then runs, cobblestone street, with shops on each side much like the wizard shopping area in Harry Potter for a mile down the hill to the Holyrood Palace where Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles etc still stay in when they are here. There are these little 4 foot closes that run off of that street with historical names like John Adams, John Knox, etc. lived in apartments off them. There originally were water or cow pastures along each side so huge stone arched bridges were built to get down to the main land on each side. With as many as 9 to 12 arches to span the distance. Over time the water was drained and tenements developed under these bridges with buildings being built here and there so much that it is impossible to see the arches of the bridges any more. The city is literally on different levels so when you try to follow a 2D map, you think I will go here and turn right on this street but that street turns out to be 50 feet below you!  And half are one way. After walking around for 5 days I finally have the gist of how to at least make my way across but driving would have been twice as hard.  And people drive on the left side of the street here so forget it. We walked or took cabs.

It’s easy to see how J.K. Rowling who grew up here came up with the atmosphere for Harry Potter. It feels like the novels here. (The buses look like theirs too.  They just dont fly.)

4,000 Accused Witches Died Here

4,000 Accused Witches Died Here

But it all is great fun and Scottish people are very jolly. The food is great and the history is amazing.  We have been staying and eating in 700 year old establishments all week.  The place is full of stories of creepy things like tenements bricked off during the plague and people left to die inside, or the lake next to the castle used to dunk women to prove they were witches—over 4000 of them!  And then there were the 2 serial killers who ran an inn on one of the closes and smothered 18 guests to sell their body parts for cash. Several Stevenson stories are based on real people here. The ancient cemetery has a watchtower in it to watch that the bodies were not stolen by gravediggers. Then there are all the royal stories of people killing each other like Mary Queen of Scots having her husband kill her lover in her rooms (we saw the blood stain on the floor at the palace today) and then her husband mysteriously dying etc.

The Royal Museum displays the quillotine that was used on over 400 people, etc, etc.  

Every corner is full of pictures and history of the different kings or the Catholic/Protestant struggles that were played out a great deal here. We also spent a lot of time studying kilts and colors. I actually got a kilt in the historical colors of my region.

Roslyn Castle

Roslyn Chapel

Our hosts were very gracious and took us out to dinner at some lovely places at St. Andrews, the home of golf on the coast, and in Edinburgh, traditional haggis and steak or little villages.  A musician friend drove us all over for two days.  Today we visited Roslyn Chapel which was displayed in the movie The Da Vinci Code and is Totally mystical much more than even shown in the movie.  There is a spot within the chapel where two ley lines of geographical/spiritual importance cross and when you stand there you feel this electticity in our head, hard to describe—something is happening there. I tried it 5 times with the same feeling in the same place above my forehead. Different from a holy feeling like we had at Mary’s house in Ephesus—like some kind of physical feeling. And there are over a thousand elaborate carvings everywhere with all sorts of references to the Knights Templar and all of that mystery.  The land is owned by the St. Clair family (name said to be perhaps the descendants of Christ).  They won’t allow the excavation of the tombs below the building which by radar have been shown to hold the bodies of at least 20 knights in armor and who knows what else.

There are carvings of aloe vera, corn and other plants only known to grow in America but the carvings were done in the early 1400’s. The explanation being that the Knights of Templar visited Indians in America before Columbus?  Lots of fun stuff.  We bought a ton of books to read so more on that later.

Scottish Dogs for Obama!

Scottish Dogs for Obama!

We also visited the Royal Palace today and across the street is the Parliament of Scotland, a new building.  We couldn’t understand this modern building and the excitement of our hosts over it until we stopped in and realized that Scotland was not allowed to have its own parliament until 1998 so this is tremendously exciting to the locals. That lack of political understanding was a bit embarrassing when you see how much people here are aware of our news. The press here is so great and every paper is front page on Obama and their excitement over him.  We have been wearing our Obama buttons and everyone comments—there is such excitement and even working folks expressed to us that they stayed up all night to watch the results and hear Obama’s speech.  That is how involved with our election the folks over here are.  I collected front pages with amazing headlines and huge pictures of Obama in 7 languages.

Well, I need to get back to bed.  More adventures later…..

Larry & Jacqueline Long

Be The Change

When all do better we all do better
     Children of earth standing together
     Be the change you believe in

—Be The Change by Larry Long

After completing a successful run of the play Wellstone! at the Sabes Jewish Community Center through September, I received the following email from Deb Harley:

“Hi Larry,

So how would you feel if we used your song “Be The Change” for the video we’re hoping to create in support of the Obama campaign?”

Be the ChangeOne week later Deb brought together a large group of people to film, “Be The Change— Minneapolis for Obama” at the Rose Gardens across from the Lake Harriet Peace Garden. With the help of Joe Chouinard and video production from Jeff & Rita Nohner, Deb Harley pulled it off!

Be The Change—Minneapolis For Obama was posted on YouTube, Friday, October 10th and at the time of writing this newsletter it has already had over 1,700 hits!

“So here it is… we’re proud of our grassroots effort! If you can take a few minutes, we would really appreciate you reviewing it. Our video will also be on the Mn. Campaign headquarters for Obama site. I’ll be interested to see what you think….even if you may be McCain fans! Love to all, deb”

The song, Be The Change, was written for Senator Paul Wellstone, and his wife Sheila. Paul said, “When all do better we all do better!” Senator Barack Obama carries that vision forward.

Thank you Deb Harley for the inspiration behind this video. Vote November 4th!

Music credits for Be The Change:

Vocals: Larry Long and Tonia Hughes

Arrangement: JD Steele

Bass: Enrique Toussaint

Piano: Peter Schimke

Guitar: Dave Berry

Drums: Brian Kendrick

Engineer: Joe Johnson

Studio: Furseal Recording Studio

Photos by: Peter Leach

Be The Change: Paul and Sheila Wellstone were my friends for over thirty years. During their last Senatorial campaign, I flew with Paul & Sheila to a debate in southwestern Minnesota. On the flight home, I asked Paul how he was able to handle what I perceived to be personal attacks. Paul simply quoted Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Pope County Blues: Paul and I first met in the 1970’s when we were both active with farmers fighting to stop a high-voltage power line in central Minnesota. Pope County Blues was released to help get the word out. Radio stations wouldn’t play it, so the farmers made sure it could be heard on jukeboxes across central Minnesota.

Agent Orange: My Country Tis To Thee: Paul was a voice for the Vietnam Veterans exposed to Agent Orange, the code name for a chemical herbicide used as a defoliant on 17.5 million acres in Vietnam. Veterans, who were exposed to Agent Orange from 1962 – 1971, suffer from a variety of medical problems including: chloracne, cancer, birth defects, mutations, metabolic disorders, and kidney dysfunction. Agent Orange: My Country Tis To Thee is the soundtrack for Agent Orange: A Story of Dignity and Doubt, narrated by Martin Sheen and financed by the Minnesota Chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Let Us Rise Up & Sing: Paul’s political roots go back to the Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota. One of the early champions of the Farmer-Labor Party was Governor Elmer Benson (from 1937–1939.) When the lumberjacks went on strike, Governor Benson called out the National Guard on the company. The lumberjacks won! Being moved by his courage, I wrote Let Us Rise Up & Sing for Governor Elmer Benson after he died in 1985.

On The Bus: On The Bus was collectively written by Ann Hoff’s 4th grade students at Paul and Sheila Wellstone Elementary School in St. Paul as part of my Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song™ program. The song is based on Paul Scott’s story of meeting Paul Wellstone:

“My name is Paul Scott. After a short time in the Korean infantry, I came home and got a job driving the Greyhound bus. When I was asked if I would drive the Green Bus for Paul Wellstone, I didn’t know who he was. I said, “Where is his bus?” “It’s in a garage in Shakopee.” When I went there and said, “I’m the new Wellstone bus driver.” The man said, “You owe me $340!” I paid it. I drove it for one day and it broke down! Then I heard Paul talk, and I was hooked.”

Hard Times Coming Our Way: Mary Harris Jones (1830 – 1930), better known as Mother Jones, was a prominent American Labor and community organizer, and Wobbly. Mother Jones began organizing at forty years of age while Paul Wellstone (1944-2002) began organizing in his twenties. They both left an indelible mark on the progressive politics of our nation. The foundation of Hard Times Coming Our Way is my earlier song, We Love You, Mother Jones.

My Father’s Eyes Are Looking Down On Me: My father, Red Long, passed away when I was young. Without the help of government programs, family, and friends, my family would not have made it. My Father’s Eyes Are Looking Down On Me was inspired by Why Do The Good Die Young, a the song I wrote for my father.

Lay Me Down Easy: LeAnn Little Wolf wrote after the Wellstone plane crashed: “As the rescue crews were approaching the crash site, eagles were sighted soaring above . . . though our time here is brief, an ancient truth circles with the eagles: Spirits never die.”

All songs: © Larry Long 2006

Special Note: “This Land Is my Land. It’s not your land. Get the hell off my land. Go find your own land. From California to the New York Islands this land is mine it’s not yours!” I first heard these new words sung to Woody Guthries’s song, “This Land Is Your Land”, by the Lakota singer, actor, and activist, Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman

The Dalai Lama

For five amazing days in July of 2008, over four thousand people gathered at a coliseum in Madison, Wisconsin, to listen to His Holiness the Dalai Lama speak. He guided us through fifty hours of selected readings from his book Stages of Meditation and Santideva’s A Guide To The Bodhisattva Way Of Life.

His talks, focused on reverent topics of religion and spirituality, were often broken up by a spontaneous burst of laughter from His Holiness.

“Oh, that’s mistake number one!” he said after a false start. He tried to begin again. “Oops! That’s mistake number two.” On and on he would go.

The morning sessions ran from 9:30 am to 11:30 am. After a break for lunch, the afternoon sessions ran from 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm. Evenings were taken up with Tibetan cultural activities like competitive basketball, talent shows, concerts and shopping at dozens of small stands in the ad hoc coliseum bazaar.

During the afternoon the Dalai Lama often fielded questions from the assembled crowd:

“What is the quickest way to enlightenment?” “Lay down.”

“What is the smallest form of a sentient being?” “A sentient being is something that can move on its own from one place to the next. As far as we know now, it’s the amoeba. That may change, though.”

“Does Buddhism believe in a force of universal good?” “All organisms are in this manifestation. Consciousness is the energy of the Buddha arising.”

One woman had a more personal question: “This morning I discovered a lump in my breast. There’s a history of cancer in my family. We have little money and no medical assistance. Should I call my husband and let him know about this now or wait until I get home? I don’t want to worry him.” The Dalai Lama thought for some time and with a slight quiver in his voice said, “Possibly you can get some help from a non-governmental agency for your medical care. I know this is difficult for you, but only you know what is best in terms of letting your husband know directly or not.” The Dalai Lama thought awhile longer and continued. “I will give you a little bit of money to help with medical costs.” He then moved onto another teaching.

Halfway through he stopped. “I just can’t go on with this teaching. I’m still thinking of the woman without medical care and the lump she found.” He then spoke to her again. “My doctor is with me now. I will instruct him to meet with you. Sometimes Tibetan medicine works where western medicine does not. Just come up and my assistant will help you.”
On the fourth day the Dalai Lama did a layperson’s initiation where all those who chose to read vows together from A Guide To The Bodhisattva Way Of Life:

Devoid of merit and destitute, I have nothing else to offer. Therefore, may the Protectors, whose concerns are for the welfare of others, accept this by their own power for my sake.

I completely offer my entire self. . . . O Supreme Beings, accept me! I reverently devote myself to your service.

Being free from fear of mundane existence due to your protection, I shall serve sentient beings; I shall completely transcend my earlier vices, and henceforth I shall sin no more.

In sweetly fragrant bathing chambers whose beautiful pillars are radiant with jewels, glowing canopies made of pearls, and crystal floors transparent and sparkling.

. . . Death does not differentiate between tasks done and undone . . . for it is like an unexpected, great thunderbolt.

. . . Just as a blind man might find a jewel amongst heaps of rubbish, so this Spirit of Awakening has somehow arisen in me.

. . . It is the great sun dispelling the darkness of the world’s ignorance.

For the caravan of beings traveling on the path of mundane existence and starving for the meal of happiness, it is the feast of happiness that satisfies all sentient beings who have come as guests. (selected readings)

Long Life Offering Ceremony (July 24, 2008)

On the fifth and final day of the conference, the Tibetan community gathers from across North America to hold a Long Life Offering Ceremony (Tenshung) for the Dalai Lama. It is the first ever performed in the United States.

The drums sound. Dancers in traditional Tibetan clothing appear. One hundred Lamas stand from where they are sitting on stage to face His Holiness the Dalai Lama as he enters. Cymbals crash and the sound of Tibetan horns resonate like bagpipes throughout the coliseum.

The Dalai Lama laughs in the midst of the low chant of the Lamas. “I am not here to teach today, but to enjoy the atmosphere.” His laughter is infectious. A long line of Tibetans and admirers of the Dalai Lama begin to walk down the aisle with their hands lifted up, holding small gold prayer vessels and sacred texts on white prayer shawls.

Rice with raisins is passed out to everyone in the coliseum by hundreds of organized volunteers. Everyone eats together, including the Dalai Lama, who is now singing from the sacred text.

Above the Dalai Lama hangs a colorful cloth image of a 50-foot-tall Buddha. Four directional images of the White Tara, Tibetan goddess of compassion, surround him.

Drinks are now passed out to everyone, which tastes like diluted mango juice.

The Dalai Lama puts on a pointed gold and yellow hat. He is wearing the traditional red and yellow robes of Lamas, as he sits in the lotus position. Comfortable. Smiling. Voice deep. Resonate. Chanting. The Dalai Lama explains the ceremony as it unfolds.

Twenty Lamas put on large yellow and orange hats with feathery cloth that fans upward like a mohawk haircut from the back of their heads to the front, looking like exotic birds of the Amazon.

Three monks give the Dalai Lama three strands of string that he rolls outward into the Lamas who surround him.

As I watch this all unfold, I think about the many rich cultures of the people I have known across this earth. How so many seem to be fighting for their very survival. How could anyone be afraid of these teachings, this religion of kindness, this beloved Dalai Lama? To support the sovereignty of Tibet is to simply be a supporter of justice.

The chanting stops. The Dalai Lama is lost in meditation. A soft wind blows through the coliseum and the White Tara prayer cloths start to sway.

The Dalai Lama shares a story, “Through the years I have received many teachings. In 1958 one Lama came to visit me. He was the reincarnation of a great teacher. He brought me the gift of the White Tara. While reciting the mantras he saw a strong white light that reached into his heart. He told me that I would live a long life. I have been with you now for six days, sharing fifty hours of teachings, and still no sign of tiredness. The Lama’s prediction may well be true.”

The chanting returns as Lamas bring more food. The Dalai Lama laughs and exclaims, “I made another mistake.”

For the young Tibetan children in the audience, this moment in time will be a powerful memory, like the one I have of listening to Billy Graham speak when I was a child with my Grandmother. For these are times when giants walk upon the earth. This 14th Dalai Lama—this child of a peasant—now challenges the emerging Chinese Empire with the kindness of Christ.

Three monks stand and sing in a low monastic voice of sacred scripture. The procession stands again. Everyone follows in song. One of the standing Lamas is holding orange seeds. Another is separating orange seeds from a large bowl and gingerly placing them into a smaller one.

One hour has passed. There is a wonderful feeling of ritual in the coliseum as the spirit of the low chanting resonates from the Lamas. Four other monks now stand, draped with green, blue and yellow sashes.

My troubadour and spiritual brother, Mitch Walking Elk, says, “Fill your life with ceremony.”

The Dalai Lama says, “Practice. Practice. Practice.”

Mitch says, “Take it slow. Be careful. Take your time.”

Mother Teresa says, “From silence comes prayer. From prayer comes faith. From faith comes love. From love comes service. From service comes peace.”

As I reflect on their words, the procession begins to move. One lone Lama chants sacred text while standing before His Holiness. Yellow and gold sashes are draped over the top of the Dalai Lama’s throne which is decorated with wooden carvings of thousands of incarnations.

The procession walks onto the stage with sacred objects to give The Dalai Lama, who then places the gold cloth crown back on his head. The chanting of sacred text is complete. The Dalai Lama returns to the text. One by one the gifts are offered to His Holiness, blessed by him and then brought over to the banquet table which is already overflowing with flowers and blessings.

The head Lama redons his large Mohawk-styled yellow hat. Cymbals crash again. The Tibetan horns blow like bagpipes. The single voice chanting the sacred text returns.

Volunteers begin passing out snacks to the crowd. The procession concludes with Canadian, Tibetan and United States flags flying. All hats are removed. The Dalai Lama places his hands in a prayerful way to his chest, chanting. Everyone receives Sweet and Salty Mix or Keebler Chips Deluxe Mini-Rainbow cookies.

Three monks return, mixing orange seeds. The Dalai Lama reads from sacred Sanskrit. Lay Buddhist now stand in line with white scarves to be blessed and draped over their shoulders by the Dalai Lama, followed by red scarves. The Lamas place hats back onto their heads. The Dalai Lama, too, places this hat back on after the last person’s scarf has been placed on their shoulders. The hats are then removed.

An elder from Tibet reads from sacred text. An elder reads a blessing for long life to the Dalai Lama: “Since 1959 you have worked on the development of the Tibetan people and to find a just solution. You have tried to bring happiness to the six million Tibetan people. We recommit ourselves to your leadership. We now see how this effort for our children has increased their interest in learning Tibetan. They now, too, make this effort to participate. We stand in solidarity with those in Tibet, until justice is brought to the Tibetan people.”

An organizer of the event addresses the Dalai Lama and everyone in the coliseum. He reads off the amout raised from the event, minus expenses, and says, “This amount will be offered to His Holiness. Thank you.”

The Lama looks solemn and then responds, “I do not take money for teaching. I suggest this money be given to the Tibetan community in India and to lowly Indian people who are suffering for medical care and education. You might wish to put it towards health facilities and education inside and outside of Tibet. So that’s that.”

Returning Home (July 26, 2008)

After my return I spoke with my instructor at the Common Ground Meditation Center in South Minneapolis. I told him that I had just completed two days of fasting and dancing at the Sundance in Porcupine, South Dakota followed by five days of teachings with the Dalai Lama in Madison.

He asked, “What are you doing now?”

I laughed. “Tomorrow I fly to Las Vegas for a reunion with my two beloved sisters without our spouses.”

He smiled. “After the Buddha reached enlightenment, he rode a donkey back into town to see if he could apply what he had learned with others.”

I laughed again. “I’m flying on Northwest!”

The Psalms

As a child, I would close my eyes and allow my finger to drop on the scripture that God wanted me to read. In times of need God’s revelations leaped off the pages of the PSALMS. The PSALMS gave me the poetry of the vastness of creation and the concentration of human longing. With the wail of a mother giving birth, the PSALMS cry out in joyous song. With the heartbeat of every person thrown into exile, the PSALMS take us home again.

I was born into a southern Baptist family, raised in a Jewish community, adopted by Franciscans and rediscovered God in a Dakota sweat lodge. But as Mark Twain writes, “travel is fatal to prejudice,” and so it is when one journeys through comparative translations of religious text.

What is the difference between lacking and wanting? What is the difference between justice and righteousness? What is the difference between enemy and tormentor? What is the difference between forever and long years? Each question brings us closer to the community of God. Through discussion we find each other, delighting in the span of God’s net.

My mother would sing the PSALMS to us at bed time; consoling us by affirming the presence of God in our every sleeping and waking hour. Now, with the same breath, I sing for my children. One night, while singing with my three year old daughter in a canoe beneath a full moon, she said, “Daddy, look at all the angels. Just look at all the angels.”

As my grandmother underlined in PSALMS 139 of her Bible, given to me at her death, ‘the night shall be light about me.’ Surely it is so.

I give thanks with all of my heart

I give thanks with all of my mind

In the presence of angels I sing

Calling out to you one more time.

When Gorbachev opened up what was then the Soviet Union through perestroika and glasnost in the 1980s, poets and singers began to emerge on the streets of Arbat, an historic district of Moscow dating back to 1493. On every corner in Arbat there were painters, singers, poets, jesters, people with kids, people without kids, kids with kids, walking and running free in an expression of freedom I’d not known before or since.

I was invited to sing with Kris Kristofferson in Moscow. We stayed at Hotel Russia in Moscow—one block from Red Square, the changing of the guards, the iridescent moon, and a few miles from Arbat Street. We soon discovered that some quarters of Moscow were pro-perestroika and some quarters were not.

Our first performance was in an auditorium filled with 50,000 people. In the front row were a line of police officers, who stood up when Kris’s band was ready to play, then cancelled the rest of the show. The reason, we were told, was because on that side of town they didn’t want to have American singers. The problem, for us, was that there was no way to get out of the auditorium. One of Kris’s people had a screwdriver, and he ended up unscrewing the window out of the back door so we could get out of there and into the bus. 

While in the bus I told Kris about Arbat Street and suggested we should go there and do some street singing. Kris and his band agreed, but when we got to Arbat Street there were no people. It was shut down. We didn’t pay it any mind, though. We just went running out of the bus and down the street with our guitars and mandolins and voices. Pretty soon hundreds of people came out from everywhere to join us on Arbat Street.

Our Russian translator, Sasha, began to chant, “We are glasnost. We are perestroika.”

Soon the police arrived and told us that we had to break it up, but nobody listened. Everyone kept singing and chanting. The next thing we knew, three police officers had grabbed Sasha. I ran over to Sasha and grabbed his arm. Kris came over and locked his arm around the other side of Sasha. We were then engulfed by the crowd. They pushed us out the other side of Arbat Street, while blocking off the police. We all jumped into a cab and headed to Hotel Russia.

Sasha was very scared, because the authorities had taken his identification card. Kris and I met with KGB agents in the bathroom of the hotel and told them that we wouldn’t leave the country until we were assured that Sasha would get his identification card back and nothing would happen to him. By 2:00 a.m. Sasha had his identification card back.

One year later I was singing along the banks of the Mississippi River at a Soviet-American peace walk that was crossing the United States and, sure enough, there was Sasha. Then I knew it had turned out okay. 

As for the former Soviet Union, I certainly hope things improve for them.

(story taken from the liner notes of Well May the World Go)