Timely though it may be, Larry Long wrote “White Sheets in the White House” before the latest expression of America’s racist white underbelly exposed itself for all to see.
The veteran Minneapolis songwriter, educator, and activist wrote the tune before Donald Trump tweeted “America First!” (a slogan historically favored by the Ku Klux Klan). Before the photo of the smug white Catholic school kid and native elder became the official which-side-are-you-on? portrait of America 2019. Before “The red MAGA hat is the new white hood” started trending on Twitter.
Long chatted with City Pages about “White Sheets in the White House,” which he said was inspired by Billie Holiday’s 1939 song “Strange Fruit” and recorded at Creation Audio in Minneapolis, and rush-released two days later.
City Pages: Not many songwriters are putting their necks out there like this. Talk about the courage it takes to write a song like this in these times.
Larry Long: After the last election, I had told myself, “I’m just going to write love songs,” and that’s what I’ve been doing because the world was in need of, and I was in need of, love songs. And reminding myself of what life is really meant to be about, which is take care for others and have others care for you and family. But the chorus line to “White Sheets in the White House” hit me and I thought it was an interesting hook. I ran it by some friends of mine and asked if I should be pursuing this. Some people from within the community of color in particular really urged me to proceed, because as a white man coming up with such privilege, and 70 percent of the white community voted for this guy, so it’s really a white issue because the majority of people of color didn’t vote for this guy.
I proceeded to write the lyrics, and they went all over the map, and then I spent a month getting the lyrics down and being really thoughtful and hoping that this song would not just be about my race, but that it will impact other people. I’m also hoping that people who did vote for this guy would bring them into some sort of reconsideration about why they did so. It took some pretty deep reflection, because some people felt like I shouldn’t do it. But in terms of my life work, this song is no different than “Polk County Blues” that I recorded 40 years ago and the response to the times that we were in then.
CP: Does it feel odd to you that, given the current administration and the tradition of protest songwriting, there haven’t been many new tunes that have made a dent?
LL: That was a strong basis for why I did it. I’ve noticed that there’s been kind of a void. The best work came from Eminem. His piece of work was incredible, and you’ll hear it coming out of the hip-hop community and other places, but a definite void on the scene as well, even in the folk community. So I felt an obligation and I thought, “This is just off the chain, what’s going on.” It’s brutal, and every day is an assault on core values of what I hope to be true of our children and myself and what I expect from others and what others expect from me. I just thought, ten years from now if I look back and there is no statement that comes out from me as an artist, I’m going to feel pretty badly about it. And that was a strong calling for completing the song and recording it.
CP: What do you hope to happen with the tune? What impact?
LL: My hope really is that it inspires others do the same and plus, in a small way, it breaks the silence. I mean, the fact is I’ve had over 20,000 hits on this song in a week, which tells me that there’s a need and from the generous and kind comments people have made, it’s [been appreciated]—along with the hatred coming out. Some people cut like a knife blade and don’t think about the words they use.
CP: Who would have ever thought that you’d be writing a song about the Klan in the White House, or white supremacy and the growing white nationalism and anti-Semitism being emboldened by the president of the United States? You’re one of the few white men standing up in public and singing about it all.
LL: I was reflecting on it yesterday, and Donald Trump is merely a limb grown from the roots of historical trauma of our nation. His name is not mentioned in the song, and that’s with intentionality. People obviously know who I’m talking about. He’s a liar and he’s a bigot, and he’s using the old playbook that goes back to Adolf Hitler. If you tell a lie long enough, people start to believe it.
CP: Woody Guthrie did not think twice about writing a song like this. Did he inspire you?
LL: I did think about Dylan’s “Masters of War” as I wrote it. I met Pete Seeger because of Governor Elmer Benson, who was a farmer-labor governor of Minnesota after Floyd B. Olson. Governor Benson called Pete and said, “There’s somebody out here in the farm community who’s doing what you and Woody did.” Pete called me on the phone, wanting to meet me, and Pete and I got connected because of the connection of building community through song. It wasn’t about the style of music you played, it was about what we can do as fellow musicians to make the world better.
Pete went through the blacklist of the McCarthy years, and that is the tradition I chose to walk in years ago. Meeting Pete was transformational, because everything you would hope Pete to be, he was, and even more so. I got drawn to Pete of course by Woody, because Woody was the romanticized minstrel who wrote a lot of hard-hitting songs and he died young. Woody’s now institutionalized with the Woody Guthrie museum in Tulsa and Dylan’s archives are right next to him, but there’s a problem with institutionalization.
CP: Good that there are songwriters like you out there, free of the institutionalization, alive and well and writing.
LL: I’ve been doing this a long time, as you know, and I’ve somehow gotten away with it. At 67, I have incredible gratitude for that. But I worked as an educator for several years, and as an educator it wasn’t my job to speak out like I did on “White Sheets in the White House.” It was my job to give voice to young people and for them to speak their truths. The question is still always the answer, but I stepped out of doing that work two years ago, and I’m back to doing this—really working out melodies and lyrics and hopefully helping educate people, along with myself.
My new record, Slow Night, just came out, and I’ve been working on my art as a musician, and I think that came through on this recording. The other thing is, all these musicians—Joe Savage, Daryl Boudreaux, Sid Gasner, Robert Robinson, Van Nixon—these people all donated time. And I’m going, “I sure hope they’re OK with what they stepped into here.”
It was recorded on a Sunday, and we had it out in two days as an artists’ response to Donald Trump’s speech to the nation and justification for the wall. It was done pretty rapidly, and Creation studio gave us that space at no cost because [owner/engineer] Steve Wiese believed in the message. Everybody contributed with great generosity.
CP: How does it feel now, hearing it back these days as a soundtrack to what comes over our newsfeed every hour?
LL: I believe in every word I wrote, and the last verse, “Let’s build a wall around you and make you pay for it, too/We’ll be great again when your term is through.” I did think about “Masters of War” with that verse, and it put a smile on my face and it still does.