An Exclusive Interview with Peter Mulvey – ‘Take Down Your Flag’
Cindy Howes: You wrote the song “Take Down Your Flag” in response to the Charleston, SC shootings on June 17. When did you actually write the song?
Peter Mulvey: I wrote the song in the dressing room, next to Ani Difranco, underneath the Calvin Theater in Northampton, on Friday June 19. I wrote it about a half hour before I went on stage, it took ten minutes.
Can you explain the moment that you were moved to write it?
It was the two days of talking. The shootings, I found out about them Wednesday night, Thursday I spent the day alone and hanging out with Pamela Means. She and I are Milwaukee ex-patriots, although I have since moved back. We’ve been talking about race for 25 years, she’s of mixed race and we have our own stories. Then I talked to Ani and her band members before our show. Then I wrote the song just before the show. What led up to it was 25 years, actually 40 years, of thinking about this and then two days of conversation and then it was all distilled in ten minutes.
How did you come up with the idea of using other songwriters to add their own verse? Why was it important for other songwriters to add their voice and verses?
There’s only so much one song can do, and the only verse I wrote which mentioned any of the victims was a verse for Susie Jackson because I was appalled that an 87-year old person could be murdered. I wrote a verse only for her as sort of a window to get into this tragedy. A fan of mine wrote and asked if I was going to write 8 more verses (for each of the victims). At that moment, a friend called and ask to cover the song. I said “Fine, but write another verse.” Then Pamela Means, Ani Difranco, Erin Mckeown, Melissa Ferrick, Birds of Chicago, Paula Cole and many others have all written a verse. Jeff Daniels, the actor, told me he wrote a verse, but hasn’t recorded it yet. This has kind of gotten out from under me.
Whose verses have you been surprised the most by?
Vance Gilbert. I wrote to him at one o’clock in the morning on Saturday. He told me he would do it the next morning, but then he got out of bed and wrote a verse right that moment. He sent it to me by 3 in the morning. He chose Dylan Roof as his victim. He chose the shooter as his victim. That surprised me and then what startled me more is when I wrote to him “That’s an Olympic level amount of forgiveness,” he wrote back and said “No. It’s a verse in a song. Forgiveness is a process and I’m going to be working on it”. That was a really bracing clarification of what it must feel like to have the same color skin as the people who were killed for the color of their skin and nothing more. It’s like messing with the Taliban, in that; you don’t even have to mess with these people for them to kill you. You can just be alive and they’ll kill you for it. We who are not marked as targets, we can’t know what it’s like until we talk to somebody who is. That’s the thing I most hope: that people will talk to each other, so they can wake up to the realities of their fellow human beings.
You told me that you only wrote one verse for “Take Down Your Flag”, but in actuality, you wrote two?
Yes. I wrote a verse for Bree Newsome the incredibly brave hero who climbed that flag pole and took that flag down. She did it respectfully, with love, she had a smile on her face, and she was quoting from the bible. She and her pal who helped her, James, they didn’t even let the flag touch the ground, they didn’t burn it and they didn’t shout profanity. They just took it down. She’s made an amazing statement and she is my hero. She is in real danger now. She has messed with people who will remember her name. I am awestruck by her courage. You know, I’ve written a song, politicians have talked and Walmart has weighed in, but every funeral that was happening, had to happen underneath that flag. She is the only human being who has managed to give even an hour or two of relief from that small measure that must add to the pain and sorrow of those people.
The classic way of presenting a “folk protest song” is in a live setting usually feeding off the energy of other protestors (Pete Seeger, Joan Baez), but can you talk about the experience you have felt writing a protest song in 2015 and using social media as your way of spreading the word?
Yeah, it’s super weird! It’s super beautiful and super weird. The whole world is like this giant amalgamated, atomized, on-going concert/high school reunion. Everyone can talk to everyone in real time. I remember seeing a documentary about “We Shall Overcome” and it took months for the version to solidify, and then it swept. Now we have this weird thing where it’s only been ten days and it’s been sweeping, obviously a shallower version of impact within the culture, but it happens more quickly and happens in a more surreal way. I know the internet is a weird place and Facebook is a weird place, but I’m glad to see this song get out there. The first inkling of how powerful this stuff was for me was The Arab Spring and The Black Lives Matter moment. Some of the central figures, Deray McKesson and Netta Elzie, their work is almost exclusively on Twitter. It’s amazing what they are accomplishing. They are holding to the fire, the President of the United States of America and twitter is allowing them to do this. It’s just head spinning how everything has changed. I think it’s changing for the good.
What is the next step for “Take Down Your Flag”?
We’re going to be doing a benefit concert via Concert Window on July 12th in the afternoon. It’ll probably start with me and probably be a rolling tag-team thing where everyone will be streaming on their feeds. The idea is to raise money. I did an impromptu one with almost no promotion on a hotel room on Friday night and about 50 people watched and donated $700 to the Emanuel Hope Fund which was immensely soothing to all the heartache here. I’m hoping we can raise thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars. There are so many bereft children here who are going to need braces and tuition and probably therapy. The last funeral happens this Thursday when Rev. Simmons is laid to rest in Colombia. Then everyone’s just gotta walk through the alien landscape of loss and we have to help them. It’s just imperative that we help them.