Big Red Sessions

Original Liner Notes

Download Big Red Sessions

The recording

This is certainly the finest studio recording I've been a part in in many years, quite likely my best effort to date, and it happened on a bit of a fluke. I haven't been financially able to do big studio projects like this (OK, “big” is relative but for me this is) since my daughter was born five years ago – and before then I wasn't able to do many of them, either. Mostly I did solo guitar recordings or something close to it because that's what I could afford to do. Same reason I rarely tour with a band.

At the beginning of January I wrote about Wikileaks, and specifically about the soldier who allegedly leaked most of that stuff, Private Bradley Manning, now a political prisoner in the USA, being tortured daily by his captors, held without charges up til now. I put up a video of me singing the song on my iPhone, which was getting thousands of downloads pretty much right off the bat. I thought, OK, well, if people like the song so much maybe they want to pay for me to do a decent recording of it with a band, 'cause I sure couldn't swing that expense otherwise, but it seemed like something that should be done. Band recordings I've made usually garner more interest online, I've noticed. And while many of my songs are about things that happened in the past that bear remembering, “Song for Bradley Manning” is about an issue that isn't going away anytime soon – Wikileaks, and the many invaluable and horrifying revelations they are continually uncovering.

My appeal for funds was more successful than I had anticipated – within a few weeks close to a hundred people made contributions ranging from $10 to $500, totalling over $6,000. I used a chunk of that to launch this project. I asked Billy Oskay at Big Red Studio if he'd be willing to be the producer, engineer and fiddle player for the endeavor, and he agreed. Billy lined up a bunch of the finest young musicians in the Portland area for the project and we went to work, spending much of the month of February in Billy's beautiful, converted barn in the hills of Corbett, Oregon working on songs in many different combinations, recording as a band sometimes, sometimes one track at a time, and giving some songs a more scaled-down treatment.

Studio projects with other players are always situations where I must daily confront my limitations as a musician, especially my rhythmic challenges. It would be hard to overstate Billy's abilities as a musical coach. To get me to do a passionate rendition of a song while at the same time sticking to some kind of a consistent beat is no small task. He could always tell quickly if I was hitting a wall, and always knew when it was time to try a different tack -- including relying now and then on the wonders of ProTools to straighten things out.

When I proposed the project to Billy he told me to pick out a dozen or so songs. “Song for Bradley Manning” was obvious. Then I wrote a song about the uprising in Tunisia and I knew that had to go in. The selection of the other eleven songs was based mainly on the idea of recording songs I'd written in the past couple years which I either thought are especially well-written songs or are songs that would really come alive with a good band treatment. Other songs I picked because they'd provide a bit of comic relief.

Many of the songs on the recording existed as solo guitar versions on Troubador: People's History in Song (2010). Follow the link for some very extensive liner notes (written and in spoken audio form) and a lot more background on the events surrounding “Cordova,” “Sugihara,” “John Brown,” “Song for the Mavi Marmara,” “Up the Provos” and “The Last Lincoln Veteran.”

Why a web-only release?

It's always a challenge to figure out how to make a living as a musician, nothing new about that. Generally, on a practical level, people who make a living as performers would be better off with no technology of any kind – including radio, record players, and even central heating and air conditioning, for that matter. But if you're going to have technology, the best kind is the most interactive – at least for all of us except the few who were really benefitting from the closed shop that was the mainstay of the music industry for so long, until the web started breaking up the pop oligarchy in its own messy way.

There are pros and cons to releasing music on the internet, just as with physical media. With both physical media as well as free downloads on the web, a disadvantage I've noticed is that for everyone who buys a CD or downloads a song, from my experience very few of them sign my email list or do anything that means we'll be able to stay in touch in any way. The great advantage of having music on the web for me has been the vast expansion in the numbers of people exposed to my music, even if they have mostly been getting it for free. But fundamentally, if only about 0.1% of them are getting on my email list, say whatever you want about the relevance of email, spam, etc., I'm not able to keep in touch with these people in any serious way and the overwhelming majority of them aren't coming to my shows. Also, less than 0.1% of people who download my music ever make a donation to my “virtual guitar case.” This means that although my songs have been downloaded millions of times in various formats by people throughout the world (especially the English-speaking world, naturally), my shows are generally attended by not more than a few dozen people and I can hardly ever afford to make a serious studio recording.

My hope with this recording is to reduce some of those cons a bit and take advantage of those pros a bit more effectively. So after giving it quite a bit of thought, I arrived at what I hope might be a practical solution to my dilemma, and I figured the time to apply the theory was with my best and most expensive studio recording to date.

So I thought, I don't want to curtail anyone's desire to download my music for free. So it's all still available for free, but mainly via the link on my website, which requires everybody to give me an email address, and to have to say yes or no to a financial contribution. My hope here is that I won't scare off too many people who want to download the music for free, but I will increase the numbers of folks who make donations and help people realize that it is through their donations that I'm able to make recordings like this one. My hope is also to dramatically increase the number of people who will be receiving my semi-monthly email missives about upcoming shows and such. I figure if people give me an email address in order to download the music and they really don't want to receive my occasional emails, they can unsubscribe from my list with a click of the mouse, so it's OK.


1.  Tunisia 2011 5:48
2.  Song for Bradley Manning  4:21
3.  Riot Dog  1:59
4.  Cordova  3:26
5.  Sugihara  4:59
6.  I'm A Better Anarchist Than You  2:15
7.  East Tennessee  3:19
8.  John Brown  4:25
9.  Burn It Down  3:00
10.  Song for the Mavi Marmara  6:00
11.  Pirate Santa  3:38
12.  Up the Provos  6:12
13.  The Last Lincoln Veteran  5:07


Produced by David Rovics and Billy Oskay
Recorded, mixed and mastered by Billy Oskay at Big Red Studio
Production ideas and mixing assistance: Nick Angelo
Assistant engineer: Jim Cuda
Studio intern: Zach Stamler

The band:
Vocals and acoustic guitar: David Rovics
Electric guitars: Nick Angelo, Tim Murphy
Bass: Arcellus Sykes
Drums: Demitrius Keller
Keys: Asher Fulero
Harmonium and fiddle: Billy Oskay

Claps and crowd (on “East Tennessee” and “Burn It Down”):
Lauren Sinead, Jackie Emm, Tessa Makai, Sienna Ohia, Reiko Maeda, Zach Simon, Ed Howler, Lizzy Marie