Bonnie Raitt's Legacy of Activism and Hope
Talk to people who know acclaimed rhythm and blues artist Bonnie Raitt and each one will tell you:She's the real deal.The daughter of the renowned Broadway performer John Raitt, she has earned her rep as a consummate performer. Coming from a Quaker background and having discovered her social identity during the tumultuous '60s -- she dropped out of college in 1969 -- Raitt's commitment to the ideals of social, economic and environmental justice are no mere posture.That was evident when Raitt called about her upcoming Montana concerts to benefit four environmental groups working to protect Montana waterways from a handful of potentially disastrous mining projects. The slight and sultry rasp that has marked the 48-year-old redhead's songs was present in her conversational tones, as was the mixture of sadness, anger and determination that comes so clearly through her vast catalogue of recordings.Her involvement in political issues, which she acknowledges is not reflected in her songwriting, goes back to the anti-nuclear movement of the early 1970s. She has also been involved in women's issues, working for reproductive rights, and in more recent years (like the Indigo Girls who visited Missoula on their Honor the Earth tour), Raitt has been drumming up support for Native Americans who would rather not see their reservations turned into dumping grounds for nuclear waste.By her own reckoning, Raitt says, the complexion of her music is not so different from that of her activism -- which goes a long way in explaining why the discussion we have is almost poetic in its depth and scope."To me," she says, "the same thing that makes you care about the environment, or find someplace beautiful, is the thing that would make you want to be an artist. "Traditionally artists have been the conscience of our society. They have reflected our concerns. That's the history of folk music, a history I come from, and the love, pain, anger and feelings of loss are all there whether I'm upset about the rape of the environment or about the way some man treats me."Raitt says that she was first drawn to plight of Montana's rivers and streams while traveling on a plane back from a swing through Europe with her father.She had been through Montana before -- the last time, she says, was 1988 -- and when she read about the proposed mine for the Blackfoot River in a magazine, the singer -- who frequently uses her notoriety while on tour to focus light on various issues -- was determined to get involved."It's not like I have all the answers," she says. "But with "A River Runs Through It", which everybody knows about now, it was obvious that this was a special place in need of some help."It's not like 20 years down the road there's going to be mining jobs there, and there won't be any tourism in the area either."So Raitt turned to Tom Campbell, a veteran promoter who has run the California-based, environmental Guacamole Fund for nearly three decades, and within a few months Campbell had a bead on a venue -- the Adams Field House at the University of Montana and the Helena Civic center. Before the end of October, with the help of UM Productions, the promoter had nailed down Sunday, Dec. 14, and Friday, Dec. 12, as respective concert dates, and had picked out a handful of worthy beneficiaries.(Campbell, who once raised money for Earth First! founder Dave Foreman's legal defense fund, will not talk to the press about his work. But Raitt insists that he was instrumental in this effort and has been in many others.)For her part, Raitt continues, it's not so much a matter of shutting down the mines as moving the decision-making process out into the open. Raitt, who has also been involved in the Headwaters Forest campaign to save ancient redwood forests in Northern California -- where she called from while taking a break from recording -- is well aware that many decisions being made by the government concerning the environment lack full citizen involvement and public disclosure.By lending her name and fame to the cause, she says, she hopes to enliven the debate if nothing else. "These organizations really have no voice," she says. "And the people who are trying to get these deals done, they're making them in the back rooms."But if we're going to have a democracy, then we need to have informed consent." At a campfire not long ago, a Missoula-based activist related a story about Bonnie Raitt.The two had been arrested with a bunch of other people during a protest in Northern California's redwood forest in 1996. This fellow, who had plenty of experience dealing with celebrities and who had found them cloying and self-centered, harbored no such feelings towards Raitt.I've been around these Hollywood types, he said, and she's not like them. It was one of those stories that sticks out, in part, because the teller was clearly showing off. But at the same time, listening to Raitt's own characterization of the incident, it's clear that she is different."They've been holding demonstrations there for the last three years," she says of the redwood campaign, explaining that the biggest day of action always comes just about the time when the Marbled murrelet -- the endangered bird that prompted the logging moratorium in the redwoods -- decision comes up for review."Something like 900 people were arrested last year," she says. "I was acting on my conscience."To listen to Raitt, acting on one's conscience should be the most natural thing in the world. Most of us know it's not, but either the Quaker background or the cushion of fame, or perhaps a little of both, has given her a lot of confidence.And so it should be, given her long history of activism. Raitt explains that she grew up in under the constant specter of "nuclear annihilation," and that by the time she had decided to become a musician -- she first picked up a guitar when she was 12 -- Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez were leading marches and playing peace demonstrations across the country.Those folkies, along with Woody Guthrie, she says, were her heroes, and while some may not consider her to be a folk artist, Raitt maintains that the blues she learned to play, and the slide-guitar style that she excels at, are very much a part of the American folk music tradition."I come out of that background, and part of what I do has always been folk music," she says. "Blues is folk music, and some might say I play pop, but ever since Michael Jackson took that over and began calling himself the King of Pop, well, I try to stay as far away from that as possible."Raitt says she's finished a new album, one which could easily set this question to rest from the sounds of it.It's the second follow up in a decade (not including a greatest hits collection) to her Grammy Award-winning "Nick of Time". That late-coming, breakthrough album was produced by the legendary Don Was, and features efforts with Raitt's longtime friends David Crosby and Graham Nash, as well as jazz piano great Herbie Hancock.And it put Raitt on the map in a serious way. "Fundamental" is the name of the new record, which Raitt expects to be released sometime in March or April 1998. She says it's "a left turn" which reflects a "grittier, bluesier" sound and involves a new set of musicians.Raitt explains that the title comes from a song called "The Fundamental Things" and reflects her efforts to trim away the fat. The results clearly please her, and she laughs a little as she explains that, well, "it's less pop than usual." When "Fundamental" does finally hit the stands, Raitt says, she will probably return to Montana with a full band. But the concert this weekend, she says, will feature only acoustic sets -- which means in her words "no rockers" as well as increased revenue for the groups benefiting from the shows: the Clark Fork-Pend Orielle Coalition, the Montana Environmental Information Center, Island Mountain Protectors and the Rock Creek Alliance. There are those in Montana who have written to this paper and others, complaining about this out-of-state artist bringing to bear her elitist influence on a matter they say doesn't concern her. In one case, she was labeled a country singer who had turned her back on her natural fan base -- the people who the mines would put to work.When she hears this, Bonnie Raitt pauses for a moment. She's surprised, she says, first of all to be called a country singer; she maintains she's not. Then she addresses the meat of the matter, which she sees as an issue of elitism, calling into question her role as a "global citizen.""Look at who owns the companies who own the mines," she says. "What's more elitist that an international conglomerate, than these Canadian and Colorado-based mining companies who want to come in and rape the land for some short term gains?"With her experience in redwoods and the anti-nuke movement as an education, Raitt says she now sees environmental racism -- the documented, systematic locating of hazardous sites near poor communities -- as a vital issue and possibly the next battle."We're dealing with the lowest rungs of society, often people of color, and these companies are going to end up raping the environment and taking jobs away in the long run."Despite the fact that Raitt's conflating the issues, she has her eye on an argument which moves one step beyond the old jobs-vs.-environment debate. Raitt, who talks at length about conserving what's left, is well aware that the jobs that can be sustained are those which do not deplete resources such as wilderness or clean water.And these are the resources which opponents of the mines view as most threatened.*In the Cabinet Wilderness, they say, the Rock Creek Mine threatens not just to pollute the water supply, but to literally undermine the federal wilderness designation and potentially cause the land to sink into the huge tunnels to be dug underneath the drainage.*The most well-known of the projects locally, and potentially the most devastating, the McDonald Project gold mine at the headwaters of the Blackfoot River stands to re-contaminate a classic trout stream and sometime -- whitewater playground. The use of cyanide to draw gold out of the minerals stands paramount in the minds of critics, while naturally-occurring arsenic also stands to be disturbed if the plan goes through.*Efforts being made by Zortman/Landusky to expand what is already the biggest cyanide-heap leach gold mine in the world on the Fort Belknap Reservation bring up many similar concerns, and the opposition consists not just of mainstream environmental groups, but the largely Native American Island Mountain Protectors as well."All of us could use more help," says Raitt finally. "After all, how much development does anybody need? That's the main question that we should be trying to answer, and that's really about what communities want and what they need. But there needs to be a conversation about it, even an argument."That's not all bad, I just don't see it happening, and it needs to happen."