Singer-songwriter Jack Herranen's music is an inspiring exploration of working-class struggles from Tennessee's southern Appalachia to Bolivia's Andes Mountains. A native of Knoxville, Herranen now lives and works with his wife (a Bolivian native), and their two children in Tortokawa, Bolivia, a rural farming village at the outskirts of Cochabamba. On Friday, Downtown Books and News will host the screening of a short documentary film, made in collaboration with the Cochabamba-based mutual learning center Uywana Wasi, that illuminates their work in cultural affirmation in this primarily Quechua community. The screening will be followed by an open-forum discussion, and Herranen will play an acoustic set.
Herranen in his forthcoming album, You're Not Broken, describes himself as "a poet, a father, a farming man, a rebel, a race traitor, an American."
Part of your relationship to music has been about discovering your identity through a deeper understanding of your roots. How does your connection to your own roots relate to what you observe in the primarily Quechua community in which you now live?
Herranen: My adult life has been about regaining a handhold on my roots. Where I currently live, I see the trickery at play that actually begins the incision. Neighbor kids trudge off to school and begin to feel ashamed and embarrassed of their agrarian lives and campesino (farmer) family members. Missionaries comb our village selling salvation. Folks in a region of incredible diversity (biological, cultural, and spiritual), with a still intact tapestry of communal values, begin to look towards Miami instead of La Paz for identity and meaning. Having strong ties to an actual place gets a bad rap in modern-day society. But it is only in a place, with tangible commitments and responsibilities to those who dwell there with us, that we can become fully human.
Many of your songs celebrate the "reclamation of dignity, the recuperation of worth" in a progress-driven world that has lost touch with both. The title track of your forthcoming album, You're Not Broken, whispers an assurance that even within a flawed system, we have the power of memory. How is this related to your definition of "cultural revolution?"
Dignity and memory reside at the periphery of mainstream consumer culture and traditional political policy in the modern, over-developed Global North, which is essentially a good thing. If they are bandied about in the political sphere, they can be reduced to hollow campaign slogans; call to mind Barack Obama's use of "HOPE" and "CHANGE" in the rallies leading up to his election. Shifting our notions of revolution towards the realm of culture frees us up to shape a more systemic and constructive critique of our social ills and injustices. Also, the shift permits us to think through brittle, rotten ideas that reside within the western development discourse. The tendency to drape across whole regions — whole peoples! blanket statements such as "needy" and "underdeveloped," is one such shallow and dangerous idea. The European itinerant philosopher Ivan Illich saw this slippery slope leading "ultimately towards bombing people into the acceptance of gifts."
In several of your songs you weave lyrics in English with lyrics in Spanish, which is an embodiment of the connections you make between the effects of distorted notions of progress across cultures. How did that stylistic decision evolve for you?
Out of necessity. Muriel Rukeyser said that, "The reality of the artist is the reality of the witness." I feel that we are living amidst the wreckage of the vessel known as universal progress. The journeys between Appalachia and the Andes have demanded that my creative work deepen. I want to understand what it means when a for-profit prison, built upon a former strip mine site, is seen as economic development. I want to reckon with the history of the U.S.-sponsored "Dirty Wars" in Latin America; both happened/still happen under the guise of progress. I want to explore the root causes of such horrors and to do so in a subtle and creative way. We are saturated with heavy-handed and judgmental political beliefs from both poles. We need to tend to the callous upon the human heart. To do we must be willing to shine the light upon some of our society's sacred cows.
For more information about Jack Herranen and samples of his music, visit www.jackherranen.tennesseefolk.com
who: Jack Herranen
what: Documentary film screening, open discussion, acoustic set from singer/songwriter
where: Downtown Books and News
when: Friday, Dec. 4 (7 p.m. www.jackherranen.tennesseefolk.com)