Saving Our Planet:
Danny O'Keefe Speaks up for Conservation
and Land Stewardship, Feathered Friends & Tuneful Buddies,
and Making Music That Has a Purpose.
by Mitch Lopate
Danny O'Keefe's singing and playing bring immediate recognition as a long-time friend and ally. His warmth and reflective personal lyrics burrow deep into your heart and soul, and his guitar picking has found a place with anyone who has found the magic hidden in an acoustic. Danny's 1972 hit, "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues" is a classic that evokes thoughts from audiences of long summer nights, wondering where time has gone. Another tune, "The Road," became a huge success for Jackson Browne, and remains in my memory as a staple for an old navy buddy of mine from Michigan, Harley Powell. Danny's versatility as a songwriter has made him a valuable asset on the West Coast, where he has found comfort and security on a small island near Seattle.
Danny has taken up a noble crusade that deserves national recognition: the preservation of habitat that is home to the multitudes of songbirds that populate our country. By tying this together with agricultural practices and resourceful preservation of land that has been devoted to a major product--coffee--he has dared us to be consumer-conscious and ecologically practical and responsible.
He has also been active again in the studio, and his latest CD is coming on strong and should be an immediate "must-have" for listeners who want the best. Danny is also a very articulate journalist-writer, and his website should be bookmarked for reading and composition samples for advanced classes. My undergraduate students will get their share!
Your voice--who influenced your style of singing? I've heard you do jazz (as mentioned, with John Klemmer on Magnificent Madness (and I truly dig "Heartsong"), you're known as a balladeer, and I know you did the Hank Williams-style "Honky Tonkin'." You were also very much at home on a Clarence (Pinetop) Smith-inspired song, "I'm Sober Now." May I mention that your timbre (to my ears) has the resonance of a cello being bowed--it has this phrasing that is like a spider's web: light but amazingly strong.
There are many influences that go into one's voice. My chief inspirations are Miles Davis, Billy Holliday, Mississippi John Hurt, Nino Rota, Stan Getz, Jimmy Rodgers and many of the country singers, but I couldn't say any one of these could be heard in my voice. They are, however, what and whom I listen to for creative ideas. These ideas go deep into the subliminal conscious where they are called on by musical and lyrical ideas and feelings. Feeling is what you initially go for in your attraction to anything creative.
As long as I mentioned those songs, that bit with Klemmer--how did you meet? I just thought it was a surprise to find you alongside a jazz saxophone--but his playing is similar to your singing.
Our two managers thought it would be an interesting pairing. I wanted to write with a jazz player in order to explore many of the jazz leanings that I had. John wanted to write pop songs. The songs on that record (there were several others unrecorded) are the result. I would still like to write with someone more committed to exploring the possibilities of lyrics in jazz contexts. Bill Conners would have been someone whom I think would have been interesting to work with but I haven'Õt heard of him for a while. I loved the work he did with Jan Garbarek on ECM in the '80's.
Obviously, your songs are autobiographical, and are just marvelous snapshots of life. Who was/is "Good Time Charlie"? and how did that come about as a song? Jackson Browne also made "The Road" a popular FM hit; can you fill in the legacy of that one?
I'm woven into "Goodtime Charlie's Got the Blues," but it is also about a good friend and mentor who is no longer with us. Friends in a band were headed for L.A. to build the next steps in their musical careers and I wanted desperately to go with them, and I did. The rest is the mystery of history. "The Road" is one of the truest songs I have ever written. It's clubs instead of dance halls now, and the girls in daddy's cars are long gone (as are the drugs), but much remains the same about the road: You spend your days working towards that moment of performance where, ideally, you may be able to transcend yourself, if only for a moment. Jackson originally wanted to call the album that became "Running On Empty," "The Road and The Sky." He had a wonderful song in "Late for the Sky" and thought "The Road" would work to complete the idea. I showed him the chords and how I played the song and the rest is the history of mystery.
Speaking of autobiographical, you've released a new CD on Miramar Recordings as of this spring, "Runnin' from the Devil." You have been quoted as saying this is an extremely personal album, one you have wanted to make for years. It seems that some of the songs ("Can't Outrun the Years," "Sheila," and the title) are what you do best: painting musical portraits of your experiences. What has made the biggest difference to you as a survivor of a very intense occupation: musician. How about your way of reflecting on life--you penned in "Good Time Charlie," 'You know my heart keeps tellin' me, you're not a kid at thirty-three.' Does it get better as you grow older and start confronting things with a greater sense of maturity? (I personally hope this for myself--your wise man's counsel is well appreciated!!)
What always makes the difference, then and now, is the song. It is the funnel through which you concentrate knowledge and experience of feeling and idea to create something in which you invest with your hope. My songs have saved my life many times. The music business is a killing business and you must live for the creative moment that lifts you beyond and above the machine that is designed to grind you up and leave you behind. If what you do continues to open up your heart to greater life experiences, you are doing something right. If what you do makes you angry, depressed and bitter, you must change. Someone brighter than myself said, "The only constant is change." The truth of that is the closest we ever get to experiencing the Creative Force of the Universe. If you can accept and love the changes you go through in your life, you will be ever closer to freedom and the responsibility it entails.
And-- a few titles for which you're well-known: "Magdalena" (a marvelous vocal--that excellent "yearning" touch that you have); "If Ya Can't Boogie Woogie (You Sure Can't Rock and Roll)"--(this can't be understated!!) "Farewell to Storyville (Good Time Flat Blues)" "So Long Harry Truman" (still is one of the most popular presidents we had...) You're pretty much a "west coast" wayfarer--homebased near Seattle. Is it the appeal of the city, the people, or just being able to live a quiet lifestyle on an island?
I have to live in a place that feeds my soul and my creative needs. It can't be a place that is only concerned with "the bizness." I have many friends in Nashville and L.A., but I can't live there. I don't want my songs based on the latest trend or to whom I can pitch a song. I hope my songs find themselves in the voices of artists who truly appreciate them and can make them their own. That's the greatest compliment a writer receives. Alison Krauss recently cut a song of David Mallett's and mine called "Never Got Off the Ground," and it was a thrill to hear her sing it. She has one of my favorite instruments in the world: her voice; very "birdlike" and self-possessed. The other reason I live in the Northwest is because I am a native Northwesterner. This is where everything feels best. I'm close to reasonably good fishing water, to good art and cultural interests, as well as many friends involved with creative living themselves.
Your friends are some of the most recognized names in the music industry regarding social responsibility and environmental concern: Bonnie Raitt, Jackson, Browne, Bob Dylan, Mary Chapin Carpenter. How did you first meet up with them (individually)--was it for the music or the environmental considerations?
I met Jackson through David Geffen in the early '70's. I have a great appreciation for his music, his character and commitment to ideas and ideals he believes in, and for the person he has always been and continues to become. I worked with Bonnie at the Troubadour in the '70's and we appreciated each other's humor and music as we continue to do. Watching her career is like being able to appreciate one of the great wines, the grapes of which you once saw growing on the vine, its heritage filled with promise and expectation. What a great artist she is. I can't say that I know Bob Dylan in any personal sense, even though I have appreciated his work from the beginning, have met him a couple of times, worked for his company and written a song with him. Bob is the ultimate enigma and will remain so. Mary Chapin Carpenter came to a show I was on with John Stewart at the Birchmere in the D.C. area many years ago. Her musical partner, John Jennings, was with her. I remember her commenting that she'd like to sing "Pieces of the Rain." My mistake was never getting the song to her. She is a great talent and very committed to social justice and environmental issues and has been a great support to my work with The Songbird Foundation (www.songbird.org).
With the exception of Bob Dylan, I am still involved with musical projects connected to environmental and social justice issues -the two are almost always intertwined- with these artists and many others to see if we can somehow make a difference while we are on the Earth.
You're the director of the Songbird Foundation, which is helping protect the forests and habitation of wildlife, especially birds. In response to this, you've emphasized the influence of the coffee industry and their bean-growing practices. Obviously, since coffee is such a largely- consumed commodity (and heavily impacts farming techniques), the public needs to be more aware of how our consumables affect our environment. What can we do to help?
The first thing we can do is to examine how we live on a day-to-day basis and what the impact of our consumption patterns has on the environment and others lives -not just humans but all others. We are in one of the largest extinction periods ever experienced on Earth and we'e barely aware of it. Coffee makes a good starting place in the understanding of sustainable strategies because it's the traditional "commodity of dialogue" We discuss things over coffee. It wakes us up, and it is indeed time to wake up to the urgent call being made by the Earth and the many species that are being pressured out of existence by Man.
Coffee traditionally was grown under a forest canopy, but increasingly over the last twenty years the trees are being cut down in "coffee country" and replaced by sun-tolerant hybrids, which require increasing amounts of chemicals. These shade trees are the wintering grounds for all those pretty migratory songbirds that come back to us each spring. We hope they continue to come back. One way of helping them is to drink shade-grown coffee. Most organic coffees (although not all) are grown under shade trees, so you can be fairly sure when you buy organic coffee. By purchasing fair-trade certified coffee, you are helping guarantee that the farmers who grow the coffee are being paid an equitable price for their coffee and that the money is actually getting to them. The farmers are the true Òstewards of the environment,Ó and we need to make an investment in them if we are to be assured that those environments and habitats in which coffee is grown will remain for the birds and other creatures that depend upon them. You can find out much more about this issue on the Songbird Foundation website (www.songbird.org). Start by asking the people where you buy your coffee to please supply you with shade-grown coffee. Most retailers are very sensitive to their customers wishes.
You're a songwriter's magic lamp: Jackson Browne, Judy Collins, Elvis, Leon Russell, Charlie Rich, Waylon Jennings, Earl Klugh, just to name a few, have recorded your work. Is it more comfortable to let them carry on your legacy as a composer, rather than being up-front in the public?
I am very proud that other artists have found something of interest in my work, but I would love to be able to perform my songs more for audiences around the country. My health precludes it a bit, and I'm afraid I've never had much of a musical business sense. I don't, at the moment, have an agent or manager to help put performance situations together for me, although I am a strong believer in synchronicity and the idea that when the time is right, the proper forces come together. Like the perfect wave, however, you must be ready to surf when it comes along.
Last question. What's it like being a bird-watcher? Anything memorable or special about a sighting? What's your favorite bird (mine, for the record, is the cardinal--I love hearing them call early in the spring here in New Jersey--I like to answer back to them, and their color just makes me glad to see them in the bare trees).
To me, birds have the ability to inspire and lighten the soul. Seeing different birds arriving at my feeders each spring is always a source of delight and anticipation. Seeing a bird I've never seen before, perhaps in a place I've never been before, always increases my perceptive ability. As I watch the birds, I become more aware of the environment they, and I, am in. The flowers, the trees, the insects, other animals all begin to speak to me of place. We tend to become so detached from where we are because of electronics, houses, cars, etc., but to stop and not only smell the roses, but see how they grow in the garden they are in, and listen to the voices of the birds and others who share the garden with us, always serves to remind us that we are not really alone.
For more info on Danny's music and writing, as well as more information about the preservation of songbird habitat, please click into the following sites: