Harvey Reid belongs to everyone
From FACE Magazine, Portland Maine. March 1991 by Bennie Green. Reprinted
One of the most common traps into which a person can fall is believing that
there's only one way to do something. In the record business, for instance,
there's the Sony conglomerate, the Warner conglomerate, the Polygram conglomerate,
etc. You wanna be a star, you work toward a recording contract with one of the
biggies: Wear the clothes, hire the wiseguy manager, work with the hot producer,
make pretty for the video. Oh, yeah, and if you're lucky someone with more than
nominal clout will embrace you, and you'll live out your days as kings or queens.
But what happens to the other 99.99 percent who don't make that major label
Perhaps you follow the maxim that a new way of doing things often is born from
what appeared to be a deviation from the norm. Harvey Reid is one person who
tossed in the towel on the star maker routine and founded his own label (Woodpecker
Records) as a vehicle for himself. He then set his own touring schedule as well
as his own rules for what to record, when and where. No make-up, no industry
types to answer to, just music.
Actually, though, "just music" doesn't truly describe what Reid does
or how he does it. Through his own method Harvey actually has moved beyond hand-to-mouth
financial matters (a recent article in the Wall Street Journal quoted last year's
gross at more than $100,000) and into a realm where he can be concerned with
both more worldly affairs and more specific problems that directly affect him
and his career, such as those that make presenting music to the people such
a damnably difficult and haphazard affair. With his latest double-length CD
(his sixth counting a Christmas record and an anthology), Steel Drivin' Man,
Reid confronts a number of industry malpractices head-on, in not just his music
but in the packaging of the record and in his attitude toward a maximum profit
at the cost of diluting the folk music process.
"This is kind of an activist album for me, part of a bit of a large-scale
rabble rousing that I'm starting to get involved in," says Reid. "I've
always steered away from anything political, and yet this one is hitting close
to home. It's one man's answer to what he considers an abuse of the public domain
for individual and corporate benefit. It's not unlike the abuse of our public
lands and water supplies."
Public domain is that pool of songs you seem to have heard since the day you
were born, not the hits but the ditties that everyone sings in the shower or
on the playground or at family gatherings. No specific person owns a song that's in the public domain, but according to Reid that
group of tunes is shrinking to the benefit of the few and at the expense of
"The way it's supposed to work is this. Patents and copyrights were both
established under George Washington. And for weird reasons the patents go for
17 years, which actually has to do with how long an apprentice had to work to
become a journeyman. Then they gave him two periods and shaved off a couple
of years, all this weird pork barreling... For copyrights they came up with
28 years, after which, supposedly, all claim to it was gone. The whole intent
of the law, as I see it, is that you have ownership for a while, and then it's
supposed to fall into public domain. For some reason with patents it works very
well. People have exclusives on something, and as soon as the patent expires,
bam! When the Xerox machine patents expired a few years ago, a year later every
company in the world had a Xerox machine on the market. The copyright thing,
however, hasn't quite worked the way it was intended. What I assume is that
through intense lobbying by publishing companies they got it expanded to 56
years, then to 56 (and now to 90) years after the death of the author. So an amazing amount
of what's out there is owned. There's very little that's in the public domain;
some people think there's nothing in the public domain (since everyone copyrights their arrangements.).
"I've been researching this, discussing it with lawyers and folklorists,
and it is undisputed that certain well-known individuals have put their own
names on things that were unquestionably in the public domain and have profited
dramatically ever since. I won't name names because I don't have hard proof,
but in fact some of them were actually folklorists who were hired to go out
and do some research.
"That's one type of abuse. It's not illegal, though I think it's immoral
to take something that belongs to everybody and put your name on it. But they
did that back in the '20s when the first recording of traditional music started
happening. Whoever was there first nailed all the copyrights, and their heirs
and publishing companies have been living fat ever since on a lot of classic
Aside from outright thievery, the copyright laws also appear to allow for a
certain twisting of the rules that makes a song which ought to belong to everyone
actually belong to an individual... or several... or a dozen?
"There is another weird kind of abuse called the arrangement of public
domain material. It's a real subtle thing for which I cannot get a straight
answer out of either the copyright office or ASCAP. You'll see listed in the
credits, 'Traditional, arranged by Bob Dylan,' or whoever. My question to them
was, I have 50 guitar players, and each one is told to play "Red River
Valley." They would all be different. Some people would play different
chords, some people would use different rhythms, different melodies. Is that
50 different arrangements, or is it all the same thing with variations?"
"The word 'arrangement' used to mean something. It goes back to sheet music
publishing. It used to be that you had something tangible in your hand, a piece
of sheet music that said, 'band arrangement.' Then you could look at it note
by note and see if it were taken from another arrangement. Then it's copyright
violation. But those who wrote those laws as well as the ones who oversee the
licensing don't really understand the folk process and how 50 guitar player
would all do their own versions. I mean, the last time I checked there were,
I think, 81 different arrangements of 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat" listed in the ASCAP database. Everyone who sings the song violates
one of these things, but they don't seem to sue each other for infringement, pesumably because there is no money being made.
"The sinister thing that really made me want to do this album, the thing
that is the worst abuse of the public domain, is that because that royalty system
is set up that way there is no financial incentive for the people that control
the large entertainment organizations to have anything to do with public domain.
A big part of a record company's share is publishing rights. They only want
to sign original artists. If you had a chance to go to the Arsenio Hall Show
you'd sing your own song, because then you'd get royalty money, but only one-tenth
of that if you did a public domain song.
"So I've just determined that there's a real over-focus now on the songwriter.
Everybody plays originals, and nobody pays attention to this very important
body of traditional music. So I thought I would. Kids aren't hearing these songs,
but folk songs are only as cool as the people who play them. If Hammer came
out with his version of 'John Henry,' it would be very cool, and the kids would
love it. But if you try to make them listen to Burl lives records they make
"Unlike other art forms, traditional music takes the shape of the container.
In classical music you have the feeling that it's important to play it just
the way Mozart intended it, and they try to make all version of it as same as
possible or as close to this community standard about what is the right way
to play this. In folk music, each time a new person does it in a different way
it can be a whole new standard. You have to celebrate that there are 500 different
versions of the same song, and I guess that's hard for some mentalities. I'm
afraid that the only places little kids will get to hear traditional American
folk songs is on Walt Disney records or from a camp counselor or on Sesame Street.
So, to a certain degree, this album is, for me, my kid's album. It's my most
primal album, I'll admit that." [Laughter]
AS YOU MIGHT HAVE GUESSED, Steel Drivin' Man is a CD that draws entirely on
material from that ever-shrinking public domain. As is always the case with
Reid's releases, SDM combines instrumental numbers such as "Jack Tarr the
Sailor," "Red River Valley," and "The Cuckoo" with
story songs like "Texas Ranger" and "The Fox" to create
a depth and variety that recalls the old-time radio variety shows. The package
itself is a beauty, a woodcut depicting a railroad worker in a striking bronze
on black color scheme. (The design is repeated on the CD itself.) Once again,
Reid's insistence on doing things not usually done has accounted for a wonderful
graphic presentation and the involvement of others who might have been aced
out in the major label scheme of things.
"I do the design work myself and use a local printer," Reid explains.
"I only do two-color print jobs; I don't do expensive printing. A lot of
times I'll just go looking for an illustration that's in my photo archives or
in an old book that I've bought at a yard sale. Sometimes I'll find an old etching
or something that is usable. But I went looking for an old woodcut to illustrate
this, and I couldn't find one. So I hired this guy to do it, the guy who did
my old company logo 10 years ago [Duane Bohlman], I found him living in a teepee
AS ATTRACTIVE AND INTRIGUING as the graphics to Steel Drivin' Man are, it's
another aspect of the package that's something of a ground-breaking step forward
in the marketing of music outside the mainstream. SDM (as well as his last couple
of CD's) contain a coupon that urges the listener to mail $3.95 plus $1 for
postage and handling to Woodpecker. In return you receive an insert with liner
notes as well as a high bias chrome cassette. It's home taping aided and abetted
by the artist himself.
"I don't lose money doing it," Reid admits. "It's a service.
The idea occurred to me watching a rental video when the very first thing that
happened was the FBI warning. I've had friends apologize to me for taping my
CD's so they can play them in the car, so there are some really concerned people.
If they get the blank tape from me they can feel good about it. I want them
to enjoy the music, and I know damn well that people who buy a CD are not going
to buy a tape from me. They are going to make the tapes themselves, so what
I am trying to do is teach them something. They're gonna make their tape, and
it's going to run out in the middle of a song, and they're going to scribble
on the tape box. Then they're going to be driving around, and a friend is going
to say, 'Man, what's that?' Everybody has a shoe box in the car filled with
tapes in their shitty handwriting. If there's one that look a lot better they
might be more likely to listen to it. And I want people to listen to it. This
way they can do the Dolby any way they want, put the level any way they want.
They'll know the names of the songs.
"Unlike with big business once the album is sold I don't lose all concern
with it. I really enjoy hearing about it if people actually enjoy it and play
it a year after they buy it. This way, instead a making Japanese corporation
money while they rip me off at least maybe you'll know my name and come see
Another departure from business as usual was Reid's decision not to record Steel
Drivin' Man in a studio but to return to The Cottage near Bath last fall and
essentially create a one-man work. (This is the third of his records recorded
there.) The Cottage is simply what its name says it is, and aside from the obvious
financial advantages recording there was simply an extension of Reid's belief
that people too often are lost in the process of making music.
"What I'm after is to capture a performance, something elusive. I learned
a lot, though it took me a whole summer to do it. I logged all of my boxes and
boxes of cassettes of live shows and radio interviews, years of material. And
that is what steered me into this obvious direction. I had gone into studios
and hired the best engineers that I could find, but I never really felt good
about the recordings I was making. It started to occur to me that there was
"So it turned out when I was loggin all these tapes I discovered that I
had 35 versions of one song on various tapes, of which I really liked three,
20 were so-so, and 10 of them really sucked. Yet this is the same guy playing
the same stuff, and that's when it really sunk in that the moment is really
important. When you're in the studio there's a lot of pressure on you to get
the basic track down, then get to work on the next phase of it. But when you're
working on your own time and have your own studio equipment, that time doesn't
matter. I'll do as many takes as it takes for me to feel good about the take.
So you can't book a session a month from now and know that you're gonna be 'on.'
It shouldn't be stealing from the gods to get a good recording of yourself where
you're really playing well, but I know that feeling. I remember years ago playing
in a bar right after my first guitar album came out and just jammin' and I'm
thinking, 'Why can't I just play like this when the tape recorder is on?'
"A Zen description of it would be simple. You turn on the tape machine,
you play the song, you turn off the tape machine, and you have it. It sounds
really simple to do that, but it isn't. Yet I'm convinced that if I go some
place where the music really happens for me, and I've set up recording equipment
around me I can get something that has more life in. I do a lot of jamming,
too, and I've learned that I can accidentally end up with some really nice stuff
that I had no intention of recording. And I don't allow myself to get frustrated.
As soon as frustration sets in, I quit immediately and play a different song.
But as long as it is enjoyable I'll do another take. On this album I actually
did 36 takes of one song, 'Arkansas Traveler.' I just felt like doing it more.
I was into it."
Often it's that basic kind of instinct that will lead Reid to chose a particular
song to include on a record. As he explains in the liner notes to "Duncan
& Brady," "I don't think anything about the meaning of the song
when I play it, just the groove.
"Folk songs are strange in that sometimes only certain fragments of them
have been preserved. It's almost like nursery rhymes or skip-rope kind of things.
But some stuff has a meaning that's beyond the dictionary meaning. The way that
they are sung adds meaning. Song lyrics, to me, are two-dimensional poetry.
I think a lot of songwriters miss that point. So they're worried about the way
their lyrics read in a literary sense. The sound quality of the vowels sometimes
has as much to do with it as anything. Actually, a lot of pop music understands
that real well. But certain phrases are fun to sing, and you don't know why.
Luckily, I've just tapped into something with it. There are enough people out
there who are tired of fake stuff, and they just want to hear somebody play."
REID'S HYPOTHESIS IS BORNE OUT by the recent startling sales performance of
Columbia's compendium of original blues sides by the great Robert Johnson as
well as the unplugged phenomenon and the insistence of players from Eric Clapton
to Stevie Ray Vaughan on returning to those acoustic underpinnings that, in
one way or another, have informed almost all of rock 'n' roll.
"For years and years all they did was stick mics in front of musicians,
and that was an album. So I think, 'Damn, what if they'd had DAT machines and
stereo when they make Robert Johnson records?' They did a good job then, but
the more knobs you have in the studio almost the more you interfere with the
music. I'm a real purist about recording technique. If I have two takes of the
same song and one is a slightly better take technically while the other has
more energy. I'll go with the one with more energy. Occasionally they'll happen
to be one and the same.
"The real hard thing is not to splice and tinker, but there's a lot of
impurity going on. In a lot of ways, I think that hurts the music industry,
and I think the industries that are more pure are doing better. When the guy
is throwing the ball to another guy who is really trying to hit it, you're not
watching anything that's scripted. And if they find out that anything is rigged,
they throw em out of the game for life. They do not tolerate fake stuff in sports.
Classical music is another example. Whether you like Pavarotti or not you have
to respect something that good. Also comedy. And it's all led me to believe
that going back to more pure forms of human being-based art is where it's at.
I think a lot of music people have lost that for a number of reasons. Part of
it was the Beatles influence, making everyone think they had to do a Sgt. Pepper.
When I watch friends go into the studio they tend to feel very insecure, and
the first impulse is to bring in more people, a bass player, a rhythm section,
back-up stuff; bury it, bury it.
"So it just makes sense for me to do it this way. Luckily, I was born without
a Robert Goulet voice, so if I'd been carted away at a young age by some big
company I might not have come to where I am today, and I'm thankful for that.
With digital technology and information technology so I can do my own graphics,
everything is meeting right now so that there's a little opening that people
like me can squeeze through. I think it's really cool that the individual has
a chance again, because I've gotten on the charts in a couple of places, and
that's not supposed to happen."
And yet it has, with songs such as an LA Law kind of version of the old romantic
triangle chestnut "Frankie & Johnnie" ("In my recent versions
Mike Tyson's been showing up, Noreiga, Willie Smith, Anita Hill...") to
the story of "John Henry," one Reid assures us is not a legend but
fact. The real John Henry died about 1870 of a burst blood vessel in his head
after having out-drilled a steam drill 14 feet to nine. Reid's first performance
of the song came before an unsophisticated yet most appreciative audience.
"The first place I ever played the 'John Henry' song was at an elementary
school. A relative had asked me, and I said, 'Sure, I'll come over.' I was terrified
because I didn't know how to connect with these kids. But I'd promised the school
authorities that I'd do something educational, so I whipped up an off-the-cuff
program about American folk music and played them some of the well-known ones.
And I startled at the reaction. I really wanted to get back into some kids'
shows, because the only things most of them have ever seen are on television,
but if you sit down in front of those kids and do something for real, they are
blown away. No matter how tame it seems to you, if you can play 'Jimmy Cracked
Corn,' they've never seen that and get really buzzed. You'll see a kid just
go, 'Wow!' when you pick up the banjo, and I remember those same sort of reactions.
It's how the baton gets passed."
One way in which Reid is not interested in seeing the process propagated is
by the signing of other, like-minded artists to his label. It's a hands-on experience
that, for him, would create more of a drain than a flow.
"Well, it seems like I should inevitably do that. But the reason that I
have my own label is that I don't want the baggage that I see a lot of other
artists carry. They get frustrated, angry or impatient with their record companies.
The thought of having other people look at me and say, 'Oh, that jerk didn't
promote my album at all,' I don't want that baggage."
And so he goes it alone. As is his custom. Harvey made his way for the West
Coast shortly after Christmas for a series of dates in coffeehouses, colleges,
and a few clubs for so-called industry showcase dates. And, in what just may
be a kind of foreshadowing of things to come, a rather unusual assortment of
people found their way into Reid's audiences.
"In fact, it was about five years ago when I first noticed young, beautiful,
urban teenagers paying any attention to acoustic guitars. I've seen some things
in Hollywood that just shocked me: packed rooms full of younger people, songwriters.
Their coffeehouse scene in Los Angeles is fascinating. No liquor, poetry reading,
backgammon, and it just seems to be a little deeper than just another urban
cowboy thing, which was a brief manipulation of public taste by large companies.
I was playing with a country band when the urban cowboy thing hit, and you could
see the beginning and the end simultaneously.
"I played this place in Long Beach last year that was called The Rock 'n
Roll Suburban Dance Palace or something, with a thousands seats, mirror ball,
the waitresses actually has zebra-striped spandex. They were losing money, so
they started a Saturday night acoustic songwriters' showcase. They'd have five
guys each do a set, and it drew better than whatever thrash bands they'd been
having. They love it as long as you crank it, and I love to crank it. And they'd
never heard anybody play Autoharp before. Don't think they'd ever seen anybody
play slide steel guitar. The people who were coming up to me after the show
were people I never thought would show any interest for what I was doing. They're
very hip urban young people. A guy brought down that house doing an a cappella
version of "The House Carpenter," and he had steel-toed boots and
studs all up and down his jeans.
"This is a weird time in history, I think, where anything goes. It reminds
me on an analysis of television I saw that said kids don't watch just the three
networks. They'll watch anything, they're channel surfing. So now people do
not all have the same influences. It was almost predictable with the children
of 20 years ago, and what they heard and saw and worried about. So LA is like
this great Petri dish of culture, because they completely wipe out the old.
There an no coffeehouse roots like in Boston. These people are people have not
seen an acoustic gig in, like, 15 years. They'll be really into Stevie Ray Vaughan
and 10,000 Maniacs simultaneously with Woody Guthrie.
"Guitar Player magazine really likes me, and they're doing another feature.
Because of that I get a bunch of kids at my shows that have one side of their
heads shaved, and they scare the hell out of the blue hairs who come to hear
me play Autoharp, but it's wonderful to have some folk noir, Generation X guitar
heavies coming. If you'd have told me this would happen five years ago, I'd
have said, 'No way.' "
Way. And thought it's not yet in what the major labels would call a big way,
to convince Harvey Reid that he's doing things the right way. Essentially, he's
found another method by which to measure success than money.
"Money has never been a primary concern. I lived in my van for five or
six years of my life. Now I feel almost like a farmer, the old definition of
the word. It used to be that you could make your living by your skills and your
tools, grow your own food. I'm not really part of the big food chain. If General
Motors went out of business it wouldn't dramatically affect me as a musician.
You've got a van and a PA, and you carve out your living. It's a nice feeling
of independence. I'm not kissing anybody's butt. That's what art is supposed
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