Up-and-coming protest singer Smith sings for peace

Juneau musician Jane Roodenburg will open for Stephan Smith

Posted: Thursday, October 07, 2004

Stephan Smith

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 12

Where: Northern Light United Church

Tickets: $10 in advance at Hearthside Books or $12 at the door

Sponsor: Juneau People for Peace and Justice

Opening act: Juneau's Jane Roodenburg

Singer, guitarist, fiddler, international affairs analyst and political activist Stephan Smith played about 20 times in four days during the recent Republican National Convention in New York City. One of those shows, a party with four Iraq veterans opposed to the war on Aug. 29 at Joe's Pub, turned out to be one of the most memorable concerts of his life.

"It was heavy to say the least," Smith said. "The head of Vietnam Veterans Against the War was there, introducing them in the middle of my set. To play, after they had been talking about killing civilians, was pretty deep."

Smith, an up-and-coming songwriter-activist, has allied himself with causes and organizations opposed to the current war in Iraq. He released his first album with a band, "Slash and Burn," this June.

He plays at Northern Light United Church at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 12, in a show sponsored by Juneau People for Peace and Justice. Tickets are $10 in advance or $12 at the door and available at Hearthside Books. Local musician Jane Roodenburg will open.

Smith's father is Iraqi, and his mother, Austrian and Catholic with a Jewish great-grandfather, had family members who were Kurds. About 30 members of his father's family, ranging in age from 2 to 70, live in Baghdad and Mosul.

"Since the Najaf and Fallujah incidents, I have not been able to reach them at all," Smith said. "In the last two months, I've tried so many times. When you try repeatedly, and you can't get through, you don't know what the hell is going on."

Smith was born in Cleveland and began playing piano when he was 3, violin when he was 4.

He toured with a punk band out of high school, then he traveled and squatted throughout the United States and Europe. He returned to the United States and worked as a migrant farmer in the South, before moving to New York City. He toured with Allen Ginsberg for a year, and later toured with Dave Matthews, Ani DiFranco and Paul Simon. Last year, he toured the United States, playing more than 140 shows as fund-raisers for political causes and organizations.

"It was inspired by the way that Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly toured in the 1930s and 1940s," Smith said. "You're using songs and your music to help create and strengthen a network of organizations and activists."

The 140-show tour ended in December in Alaska, where Smith performed in several shows in Anchorage, Homer and Fairbanks.

"It was a matter of urgency mainly," Smith said of the tour. "I love to play, so I love to be on tour. The past year and a half to two years has been certainly a time of perceived urgency for lots of us, in the world and in the U.S.A. I think there's an art to making songs that truly have an effect," he said. "There's a lot that music can do. It's whether or not you know how to do it. There's been a tradition of people using it for protest for thousands of years."

That tradition went into "The Bell," a song Smith released in 2002.

"The topical song tradition has always been a tradition by which songs could affect the consciousness of people," Smith said. "It came out at a time when the mainstream media had not covered the anti-war movement. It became a media item by being a song that helped affirm and create the movement at a time when the movement needed fanfare."

Smith believes his songs are successful at motivating people to action. Less than a month from the presidential election, he's confident in the chances of presidential candidate John Kerry.

"I see getting the current administration out as being a small but major step on regaining America's integrity in the international community," Smith said. "We need to reassert the core values of equality and human rights both domestically and internationally if we want to regain that stature. It's common knowledge among the international affairs community that the only way to achieve democracy is to actually have equality first. And to have that is going to take a real shift that humankind has never been able to achieve."

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