|Photo by Travis Anderson
Industry Profile: Eric Peltoniemi
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Eric Peltoniemi
Eric Peltoniemi, 60, has been an artist, a songwriter, a graphic designer, a producer and a record label executive over a four decade career.
His biggest challenge has been taking over the reins as president of Red House Records three years ago.
For 26 years, Red House Records, located in the Merriam Park neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, has been an American roots music institution.
The label was founded in 1983 by Bob Feldman. Peltoniemi was the label’s first employee three years later. He eventually became VP of production, overseeing much of the label’s in-house art and design work, as well as production, including sharing a Grammy for Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s “South Coast” album in 1995.
Over the years, Feldman and Peltoniemi worked at crafting the structure of a remarkable label. Its catalog of nearly 200 albums includes works by such seminal urban folk artists as Greg Brown, John Gorka, the Wailin’ Jennys, Ray Bonneville, Guy Davis, Bill Staines, Claudia Schmidt, Kate MacKenzie, Chuck Brodsky, and the Chenille Sisters; stellar instrumentalists, such as Peter Ostroushko and Dean Magraw; and such respected veteran performers as Paul Geremia, “Spider” John Koerner, Utah Phillips, Adrian Legg, Eliza Gilkyson, Loudon Wainwright III, Robin and Linda Williams, Cliff Eberhardt, Archie Fisher, Rosalie Sorrels, and Ramblin' Jack Elliott.
Red House has also produced several outstanding thematic compilation albums. One of the best is the Greg Brown Tribute, “Going Drftless” with Lucinda Williams, Shawn Colvin, Gillian Welch, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Ani DiFranco, Iris DeMent and others. In 2008, the company issued a 3-CD 25th-anniversary compilation, “Red House 25.”
Feldman, who grew up in Florida, was teaching high school classes about business in Minnesota in the early '80s. His enthusiasm for Iowa singer/songwriter Greg Brown was the catalyst for his entry into the music business. When he saw Brown perform, Feldman was teaching a class called “How To Start Your Own Small Business With No Money” at Eden Prairie High School in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie, Minnesota.
In 1983, Feldman re-launched Red House, Brown’s dormant label, and re-issued the artist’s album “The Iowa Waltz.” Feldman loaded albums into his car, and sold them to gift stores and music stores throughout Iowa--25 at a time. Feldman’s initial success with Brown then attracted the interest of other regional performers in the upper Midwest, including Pat Donohue, Dave Moore and Peter Ostroushko.
With Feldman’s untimely passing on Jan. 11, 2006 at the age of 56, Peltoniemi assumed being the head of the label. Despite their closeness, it was an enormous shift at the label. Feldman not only provided an editorial ear for Red House, but his devotion to its artists was unequaled.
Under Peltoniemi’s watch, Red House’s roster has grown to include Jorma Kaukonen, the former Jefferson Airplane guitarist; such alt-folk artists as the Pines and Pieta Brown; singer/songwriters Danny Schmidt, Meg Hutchinson and Heather Masse; and R&B stalwart Willie Murphy.
Growing up in a small farming town of Wadena in central Minnesota, not far from where his father grew up, Peltoniemi began performing professionally as a teenager in the early 1960s. He spent several years touring North America and northern Europe, both as a solo artist, and with the bands Suomi Orkesteri and Trova.
During the years, he has shared stages with John Prine, Kate Wolf, Fairport Convention, Rosalie Sorrels, Mary Black, Värttinä and the late Robert Palmer.
Peltoniemi’s background includes a stint with the renowned Los Angeles album design firm Pacific Eye & Ear in the ‘70s.
In the ‘80s through to the early ‘90s, Peltoniemi worked extensively in music theatre, writing music, lyrics and books for 11 original plays produced on Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles stages. His stage work included “Ten November” (a collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Steven Dietz); “Plain Hearts” (with playwright Lance Belville); and “Heart of Spain” (with playwright Peter Glazer).
With its established brand identity, and reputation for first-rate music, Red House has a catalog that largely appeals to baby boomers, who until recently tended to buy music at retail stores or directly from performers on tour, rather than downloading music onto their computers or iPods.
Peltoniemi indicates that Red House, facing an industry in transition and turmoil, is adjusting to the new digital reality.
The loss of retailers like Tower Records in 2006, and Borders Books cutting back on music inventory, must have had a significant impact on the physical side of Red House’s business.
Absolutely. It is staggering how much (physical) sales have dropped off. However, our sales figures from artist sales off the stage are consistent. Our digital downloads have been exponentially growing. If it wasn’t for downloading, we would be in big trouble. Also our Amazon business is growing. Amazon and ITunes have filled the void for us.
Boomers haven’t tended to download music.
Well, I think the tide has turned. I have been talking to people in our demographic, and they now tell me that they are interested in their iPods and things like that. I was at a dinner recently with people I didn’t know, and I polled them at the table if they downloaded music. Almost all of them had downloaded once or twice.
The company's sales aren't enormous by major label standards. But you’ve got your 40,000 sellers.
That’s a big hit now. Our minimum we wanted to get out of an artist was once 10,000 to 12,000 (units). That’s pretty good record right now. We have some artists that, by today’s standards, are selling incredibly well.
It’s easier to release a record today; but it’s harder to get noticed.
It really is. It is a challenge. We are more careful today about where we throw our money because it’s hard to quantify how much of what is being done (to market and promote an album) is actually effective.
How do you figure out what to do on a release today?
We have lowered our expectations on brick and motor. We’re not throwing as many units out there. Borders will leave something on the shelf for a month or two, and then they send it all back. Then you have to store it when it comes back. So we are being a little leaner with our outlays.
Brick and mortar retail wants detailed marketing plan of where and when the act is touring and what your marketing spend will be before they commit.
Yeah, and a lot of that (marketing) is a waste of money. We’re trying to spend our dollars wisely. We really work radio. Radio makes a big difference. When we have an album that charts on Americana, that helps. "All Things Considered" being on NPR (National Public Radio) or (West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s) “Mountain Stage” will put (an album) through the ceiling for a week or so. We’re also doing more of the things that everybody else has been doing, like placing a song in television or a movie.
Do you have someone working that side?
Not on a regular basis. We are trying to do it with various people. We don’t have exclusives. Most of the success that we’ve had has walked through our door. There are some (shows) that we really cultivate like the Ken Burns’ specials and things like that. We have done a few of those shows. All of these little things count. And we try to build our artist and their audiences up on the road.
Like many folk labels, Red House has derived most of its sales from the high visibility of its acts on the road. Are off-stage sales still holding?
A lot of it is. That’s a very important component, but it always has been.
House concerts are growing in importance in the folk sector.
House concerts have become a lot more important. They are great places for artists to sell product. Artists tend to sell a high percentage of product at house concerts. Some artists enjoy them. I know that Richard Thompson does two or three just for fun. Some of the better ones, like in Los Angeles or Austin, are quite good. The thing I hate about house concerts is that (as an artist) you are trapped by your audience. Sometimes as a performer, you need that space away from the audience.
Does much of the roster work in Europe?
Certain artists. Not everything we do translates there. In England, and Ireland it does, and even Holland it does. France is horrible for anything but blues. Greg Brown, however, does well in France. Paul Geremia, Guy Davis, and Ray Bonneville all do great in Germany. We are starting to break some other artists over there.
Does it help that Red House has a distinct brand, and that many of your artists have brands?
They do. One of the things that Bob always believed in, as I did, is that when we chose an artist to work with, we were thinking in terms of a long term career, and a long term relationship. That this record we are working on now might not pay for itself or be the one (to break the act). That we were looking farther down the line. We are still doing that. For example, artists like Meg Hutchinson and Danny Schmidt, we think are two of the best writers we’ve ever worked with. So we are thinking of the long term.
Most of the acts Red House has signed have had records out previously. They have either managers or agents in place. Do you look at those factors in picking up an act?
Well, we do. Danny Schmidt has an agent and the Wailin’ Jennys had one (when they signed). Meg has one. The Pines were the exception. Normally, we would never have signed these guys. But, I just loved them, and I loved their work ethic. They were out there slogging in the trenches themselves. I have been struggling trying to get an agent for them. I try every so often. I know the whipping post with these (agents). The thing is that the Pines are doing well on their own. They are selling more than some of our other artists.
How big is the Red House staff?
We are down to 7 people. We were at 9. They are very talented. The talent runs deep in each position. The unfortunate thing here is that if one person goes a big chunk (of the company) goes. But it’s a great staff and they are very committed. A lot of them are very young, and they have a great energy.
Being based in St. Paul, Minnesota still seems odd for such an established label.
There’s a spirit and mentality in the upper mid-west that I think works to our favor sometimes. (Bob) Dylan talks about it, and other artists who come out of here do too.
Well, you did release the Dylan tribute album, “A Nod To Bob.”
Dylan’s office was very helpful and co-operative with us on the project. You know Dylan is here more than people realize. In fact, I didn’t even realize it. He’s got a farm north east of Minneapolis. I was talking to someone who works out there, and I asked if Bob got there once a year or so for the holidays or something. He said, “Well, he’s here more than you think he is.” That’s surprising. Nobody knows he’s here when he’s here.
Being near the Canadian border, you are close to Winnipeg which has a vibrant folk scene.
We’re in Minnesota so people think we’re the lost (Canadian) province. We are close to Winnipeg. Everybody here goes back and forth. Our big folk festival is the Winnipeg Folk Festival that everybody from here goes to. I grew up halfway between the Twin Cities, and Winnipeg, so I was there often. I remember some of the Canadian artists (from growing up) because I was close to the border, like Lenny Breau. I was always impressed with Lenny Breau. He’s one of the legends, one of the giants of guitar.
Proportionally, we probably have more Canadian acts for our size than probably anybody. Or as much as anybody. We have the Wailin’ Jennys (from Winnipeg), and Ray Bonneville. We have also worked with Dave Wilkie, Hart Rouge, Lynn Miles, Jerry Alfred, and the Paperboys.
What was the personal impact on you of Bob’s death?
It was, and continues to be, a devastating thing. When we started working together it was like, “Where the hell have you been the rest of my life?” We were instant best friends. Our families were intermeshed and very close. When Bob got married, his wife Beth and my wife became best friends. He had a son, and I had a son, and they are best friends. When we went on vacations, we went together.
It was more than business.
I felt like we were two halves of the orange in a sense because we filled the space the other one didn’t have. It was a very simpatico and complete partnership.
You found out that you were born in the same hospital a couple weeks apart.
It was Midway Hospital on University Avenue in St. Paul. We didn’t find out until years later that the homes that we were brought home to were across the alley from each other. We didn’t know each other until 1984.
How did you meet?
Before I met Bob, I had produced a couple of records for Bruce Kaplan at Flying Fish (Records) in Chicago. We were aware of each other because we lived in the same town. Bob was just working by himself at the time.
You had independently financed a “Spider” John Koerner album you were looking to place. He wasn’t touring, and labels weren’t interested.
That’s right. That’s what brought us together. I had independently produced that record (“Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Been” that Spin magazine would name as one of the Top Albums of the Decade). Bob had heard it at a party somewhere. When we met I told him that Bruce Kaplan (at Flying Fish), Sugar Hill and Rounder didn’t want to (license it) but that it was one of the best records I’d ever produced. He said, “I love that record. I would love to put it out.” So we started our relationship. When Bruce found that I was going to work with Bob he said, “Why do you want to work there? Singer/songwriter is dead.” That was mainly what Bob was into.
Flying Fish was a great label.
I don’t think Flying Fish was in too bad a footing before Bruce died. He kept (the label) small and he was good at what he did. He had a few good acts that sold pretty well, like Sweet Honey in the Rock, and the Red Clay Ramblers. So he was doing okay. But, the last thing that he wanted to put out was singer/songwriter music.
[In December 1992, Bruce Kaplan developed an infection that did not respond to antibiotic treatment and died very unexpectedly. After a brief period under the direction of long time employee Jim Netter, supported by Kaplan's widow Sandra Shifrin, a social worker, the label was sold to Rounder Records.]
Did you handle the creative side and Bob handled business? Or were the roles blended?
It was pretty much a true partnership. There were projects that were mine, and he would have his. I brought Guy Davis, Eliza Gilkyson, and Chuck Brodsky to the label, for example. I remember when I had been trading tapes with Eliza, and I had driven all night from up north, and I burst into his office, and said, “Bob, listen to this!” He was instantly as passionate (about her music) as I was.
Were there differences between you two?
I had more technical background than he did as far as recording and graphics and (working with) artists. I was kind of the production supervisor. Bob was the heart and soul, and the impetus (of the label). For a guy who wasn’t trained in music, he really had an ear.
Was there any consideration of Red House not continuing when Bob passed away?
Well, that was in my mind. I had seen what had happened to Flying Fish because of my relationship with Bruce Kaplan. How it was sold to Rounder and how it was not possible to sustain that vision when you had, basically, a force of nature leading the label and also a visionary not there. How do you sustain that?
How do you fill the shoes?
The one thing that was different (from Flying Fish) was that Bob’s wife Beth had always been a believer in what this label was about. She was adamant that his vision would be carried forward. Because we were close, she wanted me to do it. Also Chris Frymire, our COO, has been here almost from the beginning as well. So we had a lot of cultural memory here. It has always been team work. So for awhile, it was, “What would Bob do?”
You also had to go to the veteran artists on the roster and keep them under the tent.
That was it. And, everybody’s relationship with Bob was personal. Everything was family here, and that continues. The hardest part for me was the first few months. It was a state of triage around here. Emotionally, I couldn’t allow myself to go where it eventually had to go. It was very tough. But my staff pulled through marvelously. We also brought in lots of new talent, and filled some of those holes (on the roster).
Are we living in another golden age of folk music today?
I would say so. When I go to Folk Alliance, for example, the amount of young people that are now into traditional music is amazing. You go through the lobby and you see people playing string band type music. If they are doing original music, it is often through that channel or through that mentality. It’s pretty impressive. There was a real stale period (for folk music) for a long time.
Still, the folk culture has changed over time.
There’s so much more an enmeshment of culture today. It’s not the way it was years ago. I listen to some of these kids at Folk Alliance playing really obscure stuff, like from the North Carolina Ramblers (an American old-time string band that recorded between 1925 to 1930) and stuff like that and I think, “Where did those guys get this music?” I had to hunt for that stuff (growing up). I was one of the few people that knew about these guys when I was growing up. Well, they find (this music) on the Internet and other places.
After the collapse of the '60s commercial folk revival, folk slowly rebuilt itself into a grassroots community that functions on its own energy and free of the mainstream.
There was a scene change between the Vanguard and Elektra era, and when Red House came around. There was a scene change between Ian & Sylvia jumping to Greg Brown, for example. I wouldn’t say that there’s been a scene change since then, in the sense of a new generation of artists. Jumping from Greg Brown and John Gorka to Meg Hutchinson, and the Pines, that’s not as much a sizable shift because these are artists who have been out there doing everything themselves. Their expectations are entirely different (than the veterans). Because of the realities of the music business it’s harder for some of the older artists to accept what has happened.
Despite the talk about the folk genre being healthier today because there are more artists, there’s the problem that every act now has a record to sell.
That’s true. And let’s face it there’s far too many of them that really shouldn’t be out there working, as far as I am concerned. With the democratization of the digital revolution there’s no filter anymore.
Does that make it difficult to break newer acts like Meg Hutchinson, Danny Schmidt, and and the Pines when there are so many new acts out there?
That’s true. But, in Meg’s case, she had released, I think, two albums by herself. Danny Schmidt did the same, and the Pines had one album out on their own. In a way, I feel like we are becoming more important than ever before (being a label) because of that slew of artists out there To get your head above the water where people can see your face, you need that extra something. I hate to use the word brand in the commercial sense, but you need a brand attached to your artistry that says that you are different, and that you have passed some kind of a bar.
So many independent artists find it difficult balancing being a musician, and business.
Some do it better than others. (Organizing) really drains from the same creative sources that writing and singing draws from. It can really imperil your art. So, it’s great to have a great organization you can trust that values your artistry and allows you the freedom to do what you want.
Is it difficult for the newer acts at Red House to get attention against the veteran acts? At any label, there’s a pecking order.
Well, we try to peck evenly. We may not be able to allocate the same amount of financial resources (to each act) but there are alternatives. We still put out only a few records. This year we put out 12.
We have certain artists that we have to devote attention to because they are the financial drivers of the label. Artists like John Gorka, and the Wailin’ Jennys, which is the largest act that we have right now. Our second biggest artist is Jorma Kaukonen
One of the things that I do when I choose an artist (to sign) is that we really are a team when we we go through this process. I want everybody to a champion of the artist that we bring in. Some are better loved than others with one person or another here, but I want to sign artists that everybody can be passionate about. We wear so many hats, and we’re so small. We need to have that passion and that energy for every record that we put out. We can’t afford to put out a record that is not going to work.
As a consumer looking at a Red House CD, I know there’s a certain quality to the record. This is similar to when I bought records on Elektra, Vanguard, Atlantic or Prestige in the ‘60s.
Bob and I had grown up admiring those labels. They were the models that we were looking at. In later years, both (Elektra Records co-founder) Jac Holzman, and his brother Keith who was the senior vice-president at Elektra and ran Nonesuch Records (and who wrote “The Complete Guide to Starting a Record Company”), became mentors. Those are the people that we honored, and revered and who we aspired to be. Keith laughs because some times I remember more dates about Elektra releases than he does.
For many people of your generation their introduction of folk music was the Kingston Trio.
Absolutely. Mine was the Kingston Trio, and the Limeliters. Actually, a little bit earlier I didn’t realize that it was folk music but my dad liked Terry Gilkyson and The Easy Riders. They were kind of in that black hole between the Almanac Singers and the (‘60s) folk revival. They were in the middle there. They carried the torch in a way. Their biggest hit was “Marianne” (which, adapted from a Bahamian folk song, reached #4 on Billboard in 1957). They backed up Dean Martin on “Memories Are Made Of This” (8 weeks at #1 on Billboard in 1955). There’s a video clip of Dean with the Easy Riders standing behind him. It’s amazing how spare that is for a Dean Martin recording. Terry wrote the song. I loved that song when I was kid in the ‘50s.
[Terry Gilkyson and The Easy Riders also backed Frankie Laine on “Love is a Golden Ring” which reached #10 on Billboard in 1957. Gilkyson’s daughter Eliza Gilkyson records for Red House. His son, guitarist Tony Gilkyson, played with the Los Angeles-based bands Lone Justice and X.]
I can remember the excitement of going to see Peter, Paul & Mary.
Me too. I don’t think that Peter, Paul & Mary get enough credit from a lot of the so-called hip people of today. But, for many of them, the group was their avenue to folk music. They may or may not admit it, but it was the Kingston Trio, and Peter, Paul & Mary. I got interested into folk music through people like Peter, Paul & Mary, the Kingston Trio and then Bob Dylan.
What did you think of the 2003 mockumentary about a folk music, “The Mighty Wind?”
I loved it. I remember living in the Village (Greenwich Village) and my manager Bernie Clay got me an audition with the New Christy Minstrels. I couldn’t understand why because I was trying to be my own musician. I just went down and auditioned. I was accepted, but I passed on the offer.
Kenny Rogers was in the New Christy Minstrels.
Yes he was. In the first group, there were a lot of great people. There was Gene Clark from the Byrds, Barry McGuire, and Larry Ramos, who was later in the Association. And Kim Carnes joined later.
What period of time were you in New York?
I was there from ’71 to ’73.
The New York folk era had come and gone.
I know. I thought it was still there. I was on my way to Boston. In those days, you could stop and crash at someone’s apartment. I knew this woman in Chinatown, and I crashed there, and I just never left. I think I would have been better off in Boston at the time.
Do you perform anymore?
I have been trying to start again. I used to record for a tiny Finnish label EiNo Records, and they are now badgering me to do another record. The label went dormant, and has been revived. The people who now own the label are in their ‘20s, and they are after me to record again.
While a sophomore in high school in Wadena, you met up with the late American blues legends Reverend Gary Davis, and Elizabeth Cotten for a guitar clinic.
That was one day of my life that was a big turning point. I had no access to folk music other than my dad’s Kingston Trio records, and things like that. Everybody I knew that were musicians played country guitar with a flat pick or played rock and roll.
One of the arts centers in the Twin Cities had a (folk music) series they put on. One show was with (old-time singer, songwriter and banjo player) Dock Boggs, J.E. Mainer's Mountaineers and (clawhammer banjo player and guitarist) Clarence Ashley. I wish I could have seen that.
A couple of months later, there was Rev. Gary Davis, Jesse Fuller and Elizabeth Cotten. Part of the deal was that they had a guitar clinic for people who wanted to sign up for it the next day after the conference. I wanted to learn how to finger pick. So I talked my parents into letting me come (to town).
It turned out to be 4 or 5 people for each one (artist) sitting in a circle. A couple of the people who had signed up were beginners so (the session) was lost on them. I felt like the sessions were more the three of us. I studied Gary and Elizabeth very closely. I didn’t realize that these were probably the only two people who picked with just their index finger and thumb to play. I took that back home with me. I still to this day just pick with my thumb, and index finger.
I was supposed to get to play with (Georgia blues musicians) Jesse Fuller but he said, “I didn’t come here to do this.” He was a problematic guy to deal with. He had a couple of songs I loved like “Take It Slow and Easy,” and “San Francisco Bay Blues.”
[Elizabeth Cotten, in fact, developed her own original style. Her approach to left-handed guitar playing involved keeping the guitar in standard tuning but holding it upside down. This position required her to play the bass lines with her fingers and the melody with her thumb. Her signature style became known as "Cotten picking.”]
These performers were quite a contrast considering where you are from.
We were on the Mississippi, but not a real part of it. We had (the blues) but it dissipated down river. But, even into Davenport, Iowa (located on the banks of the Mississippi River.) which isn’t too far here, the blues was pretty solid. And jazz was. That’s where (jazz cornetist) “Bix" Beiderbecke came out of. There were blues in St. Paul, but not to the extent you would find it in St. Louis or elsewhere.
[Bix Fest is a three-day music festival held annually in Davenport, Iowa in tribute to internationally renowned jazz cornetist, pianist, composer, and Davenport native Bix Beiderbecke. The festival was started in 1971. 2009 was the 39th consecutive festival.]
From 1972 to 1974, you worked at Pacific Eye & Ear design studio, recognized as one of the premier album design firms in the country. Were you a graphics artist?
I wouldn’t call myself a graphic artist. I was more of a designer. I was an art major in college. I went to three colleges in 18 months.
You have to remember, it was still the “Summer of Love” (period). They didn’t think I was their type of guy, and they were right. They threw me out for my long hair and rebellious attitude. But I did study art. I have been into art my whole life.
How did you end up at Pacific Eye & Ear?
One of my managers Tony Grabois (who died Nov. 4, 2009) worked originally with Craig Braun who is one of the designers who did the Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” and did “School’s Out” For Alice Cooper. Tony was another designer; and he was more of a business guy. He started Pacific Eye & Ear. He was also interested in (music) artist management. He and another guy in New York took me on and worked with me for three or four years trying to get me a label deal. We never got the deal, but we ended up being lifetime friends, and he was a mentor to me up until just recently. He was a great man.
Back then, Tony didn’t want me to starve to death so he let me be a “Guy Friday” around Pacific Eye & Ear in Los Angeles. I eventually started doing mock-ups. I did my small part on packages for the Doors, and the Jefferson Airplane.
We did the first Doors’ album after Jim (Morrison) died called “Full Circle” (1972) and then we did “Long John Silver” (1972) for Jefferson Airplane. I was not a principal around there. But it was very educational, and I bring a lot of my experience from there to my work here every day. That’s where I met Jorma and all of those people...
Were you able to bring the experiences you had in music into the theatre in the ‘80s?
Yes. The first play that I did that had some success regionally in the mid west was “Plain Hearts” (with playwright Lance Belville) which was about women on the Great Plains. It was a lot of my own family stories, and other peoples’ stories. It was basically a folk opera because I was a folk musician. I was aware of some of the things that Ewan MacColl had done in Britain with music and theatre. So I was thinking about that sort of stuff.
We were also looking at (Bertolt) Brecht, and how with “Mother Courage” (“Mother Courage and Her Children” written in 1939) there would be a song, but it was not like music theatre in the “Oklahoma” sense. We were trying to write serious theatre where the song was almost a scene onto itself, and it propelled the story in a more artistic way. We fooled around with that model and that’s what we brought to “Ten November.”
[In 1986, Peltoniemi and Steven Dietz co-wrote the musical “Ten November “in memory of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald's sinking. In 2005, the musical was re-edited into a new musical called “The Gales of November,” which opened on the 30th anniversary of the ship’s sinking at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota.]
What is the appeal of a play about the sinking of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald that sank suddenly on November 10, 1975 in Lake Superior?
It’s a very primal story. It’s about nature. Ultimately, we are all helpless in the face of nature. One of the things we latched onto while writing the play was talking about all of the other ships that have gone down on the lakes. We sort of abstractly look at humans and nature. It’s about loss. I think that’s why we were successful at (writing the play) and why the families and people who saw the show loved it. They thought it was cathartic. We were gratified by the response by all of the surviving families.
[The Great Lakes have a long history of nautical disaster; nearly 6,000 shipwrecks occurred between 1878 and 1898 alone, with about a quarter of those being listed as total losses. Some ships and crews simply vanished in storms. A number of marine preserves have been established that contain multiple sunken ships.]
Do you remember hearing the news when the Edmund Fitzgerald went down?
I was driving, and I heard the radio report. I perked up because my uncle sailed on the Great Lakes. He ran a ma and pa resort in the summer. When everything shut down, he got on the lakes. I had lived for a short time in (the Minnesota port city of) Duluth. I always felt connected to the lakes. Also, through folk music I was familiar with the old ballads like "Sir Patrick Spens" (the most popular of the Child Ballads) and all those tales about ships.
So, when I heard that the ship went down, I thought, “Someone should write a song about this.” It was the first thing that popped into my head. And, I thought that maybe I would do it. Then a couple years later, I heard Gordon Lightfoot’s "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald" (1976) and I thought, “Well that’s been done.” And he did it so well.
When I graduated from high school in 1967, I went on a trip to Sault Ste. Marie (Ontario) and I believe that I watched the Fitzgerald comes through (the locks). I swear there’s a part of me that remembers the name Edmund Fitzgerald on the bow. I took pictures, and I have been searching of them.
How did “Ten November” develop?
I was working in the theater on the side for a long time doing music for shows. Actor’s Theatre of St. Paul came to me with some grant money wanting to do a creative script in a special project. They were very progressive. They worked with a lot of well-known national playwrights. They paired me with Steven Dietz, a great playwright. Steven and I were trying to come up with a concept. We had an entire plan on how to pitch this proposal for a play. As we were going to the theatre we were listening to Lightfoot’s "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald" and Stephen said, “Why don’t we do a play about the Edmund Fitzgerald?” So we pitched them on that, and they said great.
As we were driving away I thought, “How the hell are we going to do this? It’s about a ship going down.” It turned into probably one of the greatest experiences of my life. It was one of those transcendental creative experiences that was really remarkable in that it was a play that ended up writing itself.
Through this play, like Gordon, we became very connected to a lot of survivors. We’ve gotten close to these families ourselves.
Did working in theatre spill back into your musical world? Theatre is collaborative, and in real time.
Theatre is live time, and it is a world that is brought to life for just a short time and then it ends. Very intense. When you are inside of a play, it is real. That’s the tough part of (the experience). I learned a lot about performance from people in the theater. I learned a lot about the pacing of an album. That’s less meaningful today with iTunes, but in the days when the album was the album song sequence, I would think about it in terms that it was like a play. “What’s our opening? What’s our 11’o’clock song?”
With iPods, it is difficult to have that experience of listening to an album.
That’s very true. My son is 17 and he’s totally into vinyl right now. I was listening to vinyl the other day, and it sure sounded great to me. The thing I miss about (vinyl) and, I didn’t realize until my son started buying albums, is that it is a tactile experience. You set the needle on this plastic. You can even spin the turntable with the sound off and you still hear the song. It’s just more real in that sense (than digital).
My son is getting into music through the world of hip hop. He’s in a group called the Last of The Record Collectors. They are really into vinyl. He’s going far back into jazz and stuff like that.
Do you have Red House vinyl?
It is expensive to manufacture today. We were approached by a company in Cleveland to put out Jorma Kaukonen’s last album (“River of Time”) on vinyl. It was a limited issue for a record store. It all sold out instantly. Now, we are thinking about getting back to vinyl on certain artists. I think it will primarily be with our younger artists.
Larry LeBlanc was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.