By Lee Zimmerman
Anyone who’s followed the career of John Hall knows that his involvement in activism has always been as important to him as his ability to make music.
Although best known for helming the band Orleans and the two hits he procured with that band — “Dance With Me” and “Still the One” — his efforts were initiated long before that. He actually began playing piano at the age of four and later dropped out of college to pursue performing in Georgetown (Virginia) and Greenwich Village. He recorded his first album under the aegis of “Kangaroo” in 1968 and a short time later composed a Broadway theater trilogy. Hall’s first solo album, Action, appeared in 1970.
“I was learning to write songs and learning to record back then,” Hall recalls. “There are some really good songs on those records and there are also somethings that sound incredibly juvenile, but I was juvenile then.”
It was while he was in Greenwich ViIlage that he met his first wife Johanna Shier, and the two of them turned their personal relationship into a lucrative professional partnership as well, penning songs that later became successful entries in the Orleans catalog and with other artists as well. “Half Moon” remains the most famous of those, given the fact that it became an integral part of Janis Joplin’s repertoire.
In addition to his tenure with Orleans, Hall also served as a session player for artists such as Seals & Crofts, Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt, but his greatest activity took place after he left the band and restarted his solo career. He became a leading light in the No Nukes movement, and his song “Power” became a signature song of that activist involvement. He made a notable appearance at the No Nukes Concerts at Madison Square Garden, joining such notables as Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Graham Nash and Bonnie Raitt. Later he went on to co-found two citizen’s groups, Saugerties Concerned Citizens and the Winston Farm Alliance. Most notably, he successfully ran for Congress and served four years, finding ample opportunity to put his environmental ideas into the public record.
In 2012, Hall reunited with Orleans in its current incarnation following the passing of Larry Hoppen and Wells Kelly. However, those two players are still present courtesy of the song they recorded in 1974 on the album Orleans II, an environmental anthem titled “Wake Up” (view below), a song Hall has chosen to re-release due to the fact that it still shares timely concerns. A call to action, it echoes an appeal to protect the planet and the various natural resources essential to its sustenance.
Goldmine recently caught up with Hall during a songwriting session in Tennessee and asked him the reasons behind the re-release, his political perspective and his current music plans.
GOLDMINE: You’ve re-released some songs that you recorded with Orleans as a reminder of the ecological malaise we’re going through these days. Is that the idea?
JOHN HALL: A couple of people mentioned to me that it seemed like “Wake Up” could have been written today. The stuff that Johanna and I wrote when we wrote that song, things about environmental issues, it’s sad that it’s still so relevant today. Back then we thought that by the time we turned 30, all these things would be resolved. Of course they were not, so I thought it would be worth reissuing this particular song. We did some remastering and editing on it and put out a video. We had no video shot on the song in ’74. We didn’t have digital cameras. But this was just an obscure album track, so if it helps get the word out, that’s the main motivation.
GM: Was there any thought of re-recording the song, or were you happy to reissue the Orleans version?
JH: This one has Orleans original members Wells (Kelly) and Larry (Hoppen) on it, but they have passed on to the next life, so it became a historical thing... the photographs of the four original Orleans guys. So it’s all period stuff, and as a document, it’s good to have that, and not a re-recording. Although we certainly could have re-recorded it. But we have new songs and we’re touring and in between, everybody in the band is doing something else. I’ve been writing new songs and doing the occasional solo stuff with the John Hall Band.
GM: What are the other guys doing?
JH: Lance (Hoppen) lives in Nashville and he’s the band leader for these oldies tours with the Temptations and folks like that. So it’s a lot. He’s got a kind of second career. It’s not easy to get everybody together, and when we do go into the studio, we’ll probably record something new. It makes more sense than going back and recording something from 1974. That’s among the reasons why we don’t go back and re-record it. We don’t own the masters, but ABC, which is Universal now, does, although I’ve been talking to some people about maybe seeing a financial statement of some kind. Nevertheless, the idea is to add to the chorus of people who are saying if we don’t stop polluting the air and the water and the land, we’re going to have more trouble, more floods, more oil spills, more wildfires, more hurricanes, and it’s just going to get worse.
GM: You clearly speak from experience. After all, you served in Congress.
JH: I was on the congressional committee for energy and climate. I heard a lot and learned a lot. I’d been involved in environmental causes long before that however, ever since trying to stop my neighbor from putting a hundred junked cars on his lawn. You can get motivation very easily if you try to get involved and actually do something. But we’re getting to the point where everybody needs to be more aware.
GM: Of course you also wrote the song “Power” which became a rallying cry for the No Nukes campaign. The fact that this particular song, “Wake Up,” was recorded some 45 years ago says an awful lot about how oblivious we’ve become to these environmental issues in particular. But when you look at a lot of music, particularly the folk and protest songs that were written in the ’50s and ’60s, it becomes clear that these issues never really go away, and the songs are still relevant today.
JH: It is amazing. It goes back to Woody Guthrie and way before that. To Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. I was listening to the radio the other day, and on came Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me,” and of course that was recorded and released in the early ’70s. I was listening to the verse that goes, “Mercy, mercy me, things ain’t what they used to be. What happened to this overcrowded land?” It’s so prescient. So there have been a lot of musicians in different genres and authors as well who have said, “Hey, wake up.”
GM: Of course you went several steps further when you ran for Congress, got elected and served on that committee. You did more than merely bring the matter to our attention. You played a role in trying to help solve the problem. That’s rather unusual. So how do feel about your tenure in public office?
JH: I served a tenure of 10 years in all in public office. I served in the Ulster County legislature in 1991 and ’92. Then I went back to being a musician and returned to private life. Then when my daughter was in her sophomore year of high school, I ran for the school board because by the time she entered her senior year, I wanted there to be a budget so that they could afford new computers or have advance placement programs and to have history and languages in these departments and not be cut back. I was eventually elected president of the school board by my fellow trustees. It was the purest form of democracy that I could see because you don’t run as a member of a party. You run as an independent. You sit on this nine-person board, and on one issue you might have allies, but on another issue, it’s a different bunch of alliances. There’s no pay and no benefits, and no matter what you do, somebody’s mad at you. (chuckles). That’s true service.
Of all the service though, being in Congress was the hardest job I’ve ever done — politically and time-wise — but you have a staff. When you’re on the school board, you don’t have a staff. And you don’t get paid anything. So for me, it’s been really interesting to observe all these issues. In some ways, I’d rather write and sing about these issues, because it’s better than being one of a finite number of votes. Also, I think I’m probably best at music, and since I always try to do what I’m best at, it was probably better that I stick to music and let somebody else do the other things. And I’m also much happier, and my doctor’s much happier, and my wife’s much happier that I’m back to private life.
GM: You served two terms in Congress, correct?
JH: Yes. I was elected in 2006, reelected in 2008, and in 2010, which happened to be the first election after the Citizens United decision, when corporations and millionaires could throw unlimited amounts of money at a candidate, that’s the one I lost. I’m not saying that’s the only reason I lost, but I do know that there was five million dollars in negative advertising thrown in during the last two weeks of the campaign that I couldn’t answer because I didn’t have the money.
GM: Still, you could claim some victory knowing you ran as a progressive Democrat in a very conservative Republican district.
JH: Yes, but at the same time I’d like to think that I listened and considered other opinions. I grew up in a West Point family and at Thanksgiving dinner, we didn’t get into any big fights or anything. I wasn’t dogmatic and I thought with that perspective, things might work. There are actually a lot of people in Congress who are like that. There a number of senators, congressmen and governors that I went through orientation with, and I think they’re serving for the right reasons. People have all kinds of misconceptions about Congress and politicians in general. I’ve even had friends of mine who say, “You’re still getting your salary, right? You’re still getting 174 grand, right?” No! I don’t get anything. I don’t get healthcare. I don’t have a pension.
GM: No pension?
JH: Well, there is if you serve five years. It’s the same as being a park ranger or air controller. With every federal job, there’s a pension plan after five years, and then it’s based on how many years you’ve been there. With me, after only five years, I didn’t get anything and that’s true of anybody in that situation.
GM: The other perception is that nobody gets along and it’s strictly divided along party lines.
JH: There were and still are people who work across party lines. When I was there, my main accomplishment was that I was the chairperson of the subcommittee on veterans’ disabilities, and we were trying to deal with the plague of suicide, bankruptcy and homelessness that were impacting our returning veterans. I wound up putting together a bill with the subcommittee that I was chairing that had a lot of really good things for vets. It passed unanimously in the House and Senate. Every Democrat and every Republican voted for it, and President George W. Bush signed it into law. It proves to me that there is common ground and there’s a way to find that common ground. But it can only be done if you’re looking for it. There’s a lot of posturing going on now and a lot of tribal loyalties, and that’s the problem.
GM: What’s your view of the divide that’s taking place in Congress these days?
JH: There’s still a little bit of that school board attitude where you think about the issue and not about who’s on your side and who’s on the other side. It should be about doing the right thing. When I was in Congress, it was during the last two years of a George W. Bush administration and the first two years of Barack Obama. Certain people were saying from the first moment that Barack was sworn in, “He’s not American. He was born in another country.” Donald Trump was one of the people pushing that, and it didn’t help the communication level in Congress. That actually proves a fact, that there’s an alternate reality, an alternate universe as far as facts. The attacks on the media and on journalism are troubling, and it goes beyond who’s next president. If people can’t agree on a set of facts, then we’re all in big trouble. There are things that are happening. The climate is definitely changing and that affects a lot of places in this world and a lot of places in this country. There are farmers whose fields are under water and they can’t plant crops in the ground. They’re hanging on due to subsidies. I don’t begrudge them that, but I do begrudge the fact that our current administration is denying that these things are happening.
GM: It’s hard to make upbeat music when you’re dealing with issues like that.
JH: Chuck Plotkin, the guy who produced “Still the One,” told Johanna and me once that as songwriters, if you’re going to write a depressing lyric, put it to happy music. “Wake Up” is a tough piece of music. It’s a depressing lyric. The tension between the mood of the lyric and the mood of the music is what makes the song work. I think it’s an impressive arrangement, it’s an impressive vocal piece, and I’m especially pleased with the acapella breakdown. It talks about the beauty of nature, this beautiful creation that we’ve all been able to live and thrive in, and be healthy in. And then it goes back to “Wake up, people, wake up.” I think it’s a very compact way of saying what we wanted to say.
GM: Will you be campaigning for any particular candidate in next year’s presidential election?
JH: I don’t know yet. There are some really interesting potential candidates and unfortunately some are not running, but of the people who are running, there are some that I really like a lot. I think that’s true of a lot of people. They just don’t know yet. And that’s okay. We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. I hate the fact that the press talks about this like it’s a horse race, like who’s got more money now and who’s ahead in the polls instead of whose position is this, and who’s proposing this particular position. There’s some of that but it’s mostly, who’s ahead. And it’s too soon to say who’s ahead and too soon for me to say who I’m going to vote for.
GM: So what’s ahead for you musically?
JH: I’m co-writing songs like crazy and sending them out to the world. At the moment there are new Orleans songs, but there are no plans yet to go into the studio. We have a song called “Beautiful World” that’s on a compilation album we sell at our shows and it’s available online, but that song’s never been promoted. We’ve been told by our sources in the business that you have to have a video to go along with it or it won’t have nearly the reach. So maybe that will happen. In the meantime, there will be a John Hall solo CD released (soon).