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The Providence Folk Festival returns to the capital city Sunday August 26th with a full line-up of local and national acts on two stages. Headlining the free festival this year will be musician, activist and former Congressman John Hall, who’ll be playing the Roger Williams National Memorial for the first time.
Hall is perhaps best known as a founding member of Orleans, the group known for classics like “Still the One” and “Dance With Me.” He is also famous for his solo work and his involvement with MUSE, Musicians United for Safe Energy, the organization responsible for the “No Nukes” concerts in 1979. He later put his principles to practice when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representative from 2007-2011.
We interviewed Hall by phone last week, and learned that the New York resident is still very busy, “playing four shows in three days this weekend. I’m performing with Orleans a lot and occasionally with the John Hall Band and doing an acoustic duo thing with my friend Fly Amero from Orleans.” He’ll be performing solo in Providence … “just me and my guitar,” he noted.
Orleans ruled the airways in the mid-70’s, with big hits and catchy hooks that came about with the help of a talented producer. Hall explains…
“I was in my 20’s when those songs were written and recorded. Talk about being too close to the project – when we finished the Waking and Dreaming album there were three or four songs that we thought could be the big single off the record. Our producer Chuck Plotkin made us re-record “Still the One” three times to get what he thought was the right track. He said ‘this song is too important for us to get wrong.’ Turned out he was right. I still hear those songs in the grocery aisle in the supermarket … and I hear Bonnie Raitt there a lot too. I always tell her when I do.
“We were a bunch of guys who got together and started playing music because it was fun. I was part of that generation of musicians who saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and said that’s what I want to do. It wasn’t just playing and singing, it was writing your own songs, doing things your way as opposed to having a producer or a record company tell you what to do. Although they still did.
“I’ve gotten to go places, see things, perform for different audiences, especially for me when you combine the travel that I’ve done as a musician with my four years serving in the House of Representatives and my trips overseas as a Congressman to places like Afghanistan and Europe.”
He recalled his successes serving his two-term stint in the US House of Representatives.
“It was very rewarding being in Congress, where you can have an effect on an individual’s life. I wound up being appointed the Chair of the Subcommittee on Veterans Disabilities. (Upon returning from Afghanistan,) “I told wife that after a visit to Khandahar, I’d never complain about our roads again. I wrote about a lot of that in my memoir.”
Hall is still quite focused on political causes, especially the environment. We reminded him that next year is the anniversary of the “No Nukes” concerts, which he organized with Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt and Carly Simon among others.
“It’s the 40th anniversary of the MUSE concerts but also the 40th anniversary of Three Mile Island. It was a worse accident then they told us at the time and it’s had more health effects and caused more cancer and disease than they told us it would. Our generation is aware, and hopefully generations since then are aware that they were lied to repeatedly about these kinds of things.”
“On one hand it’s a better time, the No Nukes product – the concerts, the album, the movie had the desired effect, it certainly pointed a lot of people in the direction of renewable energy. My song ‘Power,’ with the line ‘just give me the warm power of the sun,’ was part of that.
“Today the solar and wind industry each employ more people than the coal industry in the United States. Some very red states, Texas and Kansas for example, have a huge output of wind energy. It’s become a thriving business. At the same time, we have a political climate right now where the government is trying to steer us backward into fossil fuels and nuclear energy, which is totally against the marketplace. But there’s definitely been progress made.”
Back to the Music
As for his future plans, it seems elected office is not the cards.
“I have songs to write and gigs to play and a stack of papers in my office that I can’t seem to get through. I was 5 for 6 in elections, when I lost the 6th one, I said that it was somebody else’s turn.”
Hall reflected on his career in music.
“I’m a very lucky man and a very blessed man to be able to do what I love for a living basically all my life. It’s amazing how music can bring people together and speak to them at the same time. It was something that Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie found – over the years various people have learned to write songs with messages in them. People are being entertained so they don’t react the same way they would if they were listening to a speech.”
As far as the Festival, it’s not Hall’s first time playing Providence. “I used to visit my grandmother on East Manning Street when I was a child. I first heard Pete Seeger on her Weavers’ records on the third floor of her apartment. My dad was a Brown grad and his father was Dean of Engineering at Brown. I’ve always had a good time performing in Providence and I have relatives in Rhode Island who I hope to see at the Festival. It’ll be good to be back in New England.”