Mark Rubin is the kind of person who can be charming or frustrating in equal measure, someone who walks the paths of life with the heavy burden of being "a man who is right." You meet these people in your life sometimes, and depending on who you are, you either run from them or immediately embrace them. These are the people who speak so bluntly that they piss off the phonies and gleefully burn bridges around themselves if forced to live in the companies of charlatans and bullshitters. Happily, I learned quickly in life to search these people out, since they work as a kind of "asshole kryptonite", turning away idiots and opening the door for great personal discovery. I'd like to think of Mark as one of these peoples, and perhaps he'd like it as well. I know that he's a founding member of The Bad Livers, a seminal punk-folk band that paved the way for a lot of the alt-country in the 90s that then became Americana. He's also a man that seeks tirelessly to join himself in music with friends and comrades no matter how different they may be than he is. That's an uncommonly rare trait and one that brings some of the fine, elusive moments of life that so many miss. His new album, Southern Discomfort, is a masterwork personal journey along the many branches of music that he follows. At turns a furious indictment of American white supremacy and at times a disarmingly funny careless romp, it's a deceptively complex album for all the fun he sounds like he's having making it. And when it hits hard, it HITS HARD. His song "The Murder of Leo Frank," about an anti-semitic lynching in the early 1900s, is a burn-this-shit down indictment of American anti-semitism, a kind of furious Tom Dooley that could only have been birthed in the backalleys of dark American cities. I decided it was time to get out of the Facebook bubble and to talk to Mark on the phone, trying to reach at some of the truths he's pushing towards in his album. What came out was a remarkably candid and powerful interview of a man at the frontlines of America's culture wars.
A Conversation with Mark Rubin
I was late calling you because I got absorbed in your other interviews that you’ve done. [laughing] They’re good interviews.
Mark Rubin: Thank you.
Maybe we could start our interview by talking about about some of the projects you’re working on because I know you have your fingers in a lot of different pies.
MR: Yeah. I think the way that I try and explain it to people is that, for whatever reason, be it the way I was raised, or my background or the kind of disconnectedness that comes from living amongst people and not being of them, you tend to compartmentalize how you approach things. I’ve never really been able to explain my work process. I just do it and it’s utterly unique to me and my experience. I try to have 4 or 5 separate careers going at any one time. What’s interesting about those careers is that they don’t really know each other. It’s like I’m dating 5 or 6 women and I’m hoping that they don’t meet, [both laughing] which seems counter-productive but it’s the truth. As you may be aware, I have a career playing Yiddish music which is my ethnic background and I have a career teaching Yiddish music and travelling and working with people who do that. I always have a hand in that. I’m always working with my compatriots doing that. I still stay in touch with a lot of my students and some of those students are very kind and still hire me to come and play for them. People like Michael Winograd, who has a wonderful career ahead of him and guys like Dan Blacksberg who I consider to be, not really students at all, but actually colleagues who are doing great, great work in modern Jewish music. That’s a whole career that I can check in on every now and again. That’s one version of Mark Rubin that exists, that I nurture.
On top of that, I ran a violin store for 15 years in Austin, Texas. When I wanted to focus on music, I fired myself and became a day worker there at a place called, “Violins, etc.” As it turns out, I ended up learning a lot about the violin: how it’s constructed, how it’s made, about the identification of them and the pedagogy of them and the evaluations of them and their values. I was lucky–because of my travels with the Frank London Klezmer Brass All-Stars during the early 2000s, I was going to Europe every year. I would notice that we would be going to Budapest and I would go, “Oh, well, let me go visit some violin makers.” I would take a couple of days off and meet violin makers. I ended up going to Romania and traveling to a converted AK47 factory that was now a school for making violins, true story. I ended up buying the violins at a very, very low rate and importing them to Texas for my boss. We were able to sell European-made instruments to students in Texas at a very, very low rate and compete against Chinese instruments. I did this for, literally, 15 years. I would play in the polka bands, in the Western swing and country bands on the weekends but in the summertime, I would go and play with Klezmer bands playing in Europe and then, on the side, visit violin makers. It was a Hemingway-like existence. I’ve been really blessed in that respect. Shall I continue with another whole life that has nothing to do with any of that?
MR: I still have connections with the Texas folklife community. I play with a Czech dance orchestra that I’ve been playing with for 20 years, Mark Halata and Texavia... I also work very closely with Brian Marshall and the Texas Polish community and I still keep my ties with the folks at Texas Folklife Resources in Austin, Texas. I’ve actually come back to Texas a couple of times to help out with a couple of their festivals of Texas fiddle and accordion music. I still keep a hand in the folklore world as a musician and as a cultural presenter.
Then, independent of all of that, I live in New Orleans and I work as a musician in New Orleans. I just work as a working stiff musician. After you and I are done talking here, I’m going to go put a shirt and a tie on and go down to the French Quarter and play traditional New Orleans jazz music upon the tuba with a bunch of guys at a place called The Mahogany Hall. Playing strictly traditional New Orleans music because that’s what people come here to hear. It’s a thing about the law of supply and demand. That’s the same reason that I moved to Texas: there was a lot of money to be made playing traditional music when I first moved there. There is, I won’t call it a lot of money, but you can make a living here, if you hustle and you play good and people like you and you want to play music with them.
Had that changed in Texas? Had you felt that there was no longer as much space for traditional music?
MR: Oh, absolutely. I can’t say Texas per se, I can say, without a doubt, Austin most assuredly. I can say that the communities, each one of the communities, that I served, was under such economic duress that paying for music was certainly no longer in their budget. It’s started with the price of gas actually. When gas came up to be about $4 a gallon, and you would routinely have to drive 150 or 200 miles to go play these dances and you realized that most of the people who were coming to the dance, were driving about 100 miles to get there themselves, especially in the Czech and Polish communities, that bit into the bottom line.
Little bit by little bit, less and less people were coming to the dances. Little bit by little bit, the age group aged out, the younger people stopped showing up. So, the culture of live music for dancing died out entirely in the Czech Bohemian community and it did in the Mexican-American community as well. I watched it go from being a regular business to being old-folks dances and down to nothing which was sad because, when I first moved to Texas in ’89, you would go to a Czech dance hall on a Sunday afternoon and you would see 4 generations of people. It seemed very healthy and vibrant and then, in my short lifetime, I watched it winnow away. That was depressing! It was soul crushing if you want to be honest about it. I have to contrast that entirely by saying that in the exact same time that I saw that the German speaking and Czech and some of the Tejano traditions die, I also watched the French speaking traditions in Louisiana do the opposite and the traditional music scene in New Orleans start to rise up. The Polish speaking tradition in Texas has blown up and, to be frank with you, there’s more people playing Yiddish music today than I would have ever, ever imagined would have. For every loss, you got to take your wins as well.
Is the Yiddish music in Texas tied to the Polish music community?
MR: No, I would never say that there was Yiddish music in Texas. I was just saying Yiddish music period.
Oh, I see.
MR: Yiddish music, like all things Jewish, is cosmopolitan and international. My favorite band playing Yiddish music today is Russian, for instance.
Are they in Russia?
MR: Oh yeah, oh yeah. They’re awesome. It’s really, in the same way, that you’ve got now people like Dom Flemons and Jerron Paxton who are re-introducing their own communities to their own music. When it’s finally gets back into the hands of the people it should have been in in the first place, something special happens.
I wonder because Dom Flemons and Jerron are great but they haven’t sparked a huge revival of African-American roots music among African-Americans.
MR: When you say huge, let’s look at it from the jaundiced point of view that I have. Alright? Just look at it from the little Jewish kid from Oklahoma. The fact that we have people of color re-claiming their own cultural legacy, in such a brazen way... Corey Harris and Alvin ‘Youngblood’ Hart, Hubby Jenkins. I can continue. Bear in mind, I live in New Orleans, a city of color, still with musicians of color, playing music of color. From my point of view, I would stop and disagree with you. Let’s put it this way, to quote Screamin’ J Hawkins: “Even the shade of the toothpick can beat the hot, boiling sun.”
We’re not talking about tokens anymore. We’re not talking about Keb’ Mos and Gary Clark Jr’s anymore. I meet a new person of color playing black music, black American music on a regular basis but, to be frank with you, I wish… If I had an angle in any of these conversations or agency in these debates, I simply wish that I could say the same for my fellow Jews because, if I have any melancholy, truly, about being a traditional music musician and working within traditional cultures, it’s the understanding that even when exposed to their own culture, American Jews today tend to reject it and continue to prefer, in my opinion, to glom off of somebody else’s. Evidently, this is my mishegoss; this is my craziness. It doesn’t affect anybody else but me. My friend, Danny Barnes, used to talk about it. He goes, “You have that short list written on a 3 x 5 card that you carry around in your life of stuff that really, really bothers you.” Then, what you do is you do interviews. He said this about himself but it applies to me too. Then, you go back and you read the interviews and you go, “There’s those 5 items from the 3 x 5 cards that get repeated over and over again.” That only you care about, that only no one else cares about. No one, no one else cares about! How many times do I meet some wonderful Cajun fiddler whose last name is Cohen? How many times do I meet a staggeringly fine–insert name of some other culture here–and find a jew? If you were raised within the Ashkenazi diasporic tradition, you should have within you, like the way Marc Savoy says, “You already have that music in you.” It’s not a question about learning the tunes, the music.
If you’ve been exposed to the worship routine and prayers and melodies that are the core of the Eastern European Jewish diaspora, then you have been raised with all of the tools that make Yiddish music. So, it should be your home base. But, for some reason, for whatever reason, I find these Jewish musicians who have studied other people’s music, as we do. And I’m one of them, obviously, who has studied other people’s music, to a point to where we play it back at them, probably at a higher rate of skill than the natives sometimes, which we have to acknowledge, is based entirely upon a deeply ingrained survival mechanism.
What do you mean?
MR: We have to acknowledge this is 100% a tool of assimilation. If they’re not going to let you vote and they’re not going to let you move into their neighborhood, but they will hire you to come and play, if you play at a high enough level. This is the thing about the outsiders. In America, there are very few ways to assimilation but one of those has always been through the cultural arts. It’s one of the reasons that you saw in post-war America that it was so incredibly dominated by Jews. That’s one of the reasons why today it is so incredibly dominated by Asian-Americans. Are these new concepts to you?
I hadn’t put those pieces together.
MR: The only reason why I play bluegrass is to get along, was to fit in. If I got so good at it, then, maybe they would finally the heck include me. Do you see?
Hmmm, I do understand what you’re saying.
MR: By being able to be local, whenever I would be around my neighbors and they would be talking about, “These goddamned Yankee Jew bastards”, right? They would say, “Present company excepted,” because by becoming useful to your neighbors, by mimicking and observing, yet not participating in their culture... and your skin was white. Your skin was white! So, you could be tolerated. We couldn’t live in certain neighborhoods. My family’s name wasn’t in the phonebook because the phonebook was laid out by church affiliation. I got pulled out of a public pool because these things were restricted. Now, your readers who will read this blog now will not believe what I’m saying. They won’t believe you when I tell you that my town of Stillwater, Oklahoma had a “Niggertown" that had no running water because the city didn’t have to.
It sounds like it was so long ago and it was this other world, but we’re in a period now where they’re ramping oppression to equal degrees, certainly among Jews. There’s an exodus of Jews out of Europe at the moment, basically fleeing Europe. Do you feel that we’re moving backwards? Do you get the impression that we’re in a backwards state?
MR: I will quote my rabbi, “The more things change, the more they’re the 15th century.”
[laughing] I like your rabbi.
MR: Look. I’m not making this up, okay? This is the kind of Jew I am. My family fled Russia to evade conscription and the first thing we did when we got here was to join the army! 5 generations deep. There’s a Rubin in Afghanistan now. We like guns! A lot! [laughing] Guess what I got for my bar mitzvah? The reason why it is explained to me why we like guns and why we all have them is that we all have relatives who didn’t have them. I’ve had a passport since I was 6 weeks old. Passport, loaded weapons, foreign currency in a small leather satchel. Doesn’t everyone have one of those under their beds?
Your white skin gives you privilege and I will never deny that that’s a fact. But the moment–and there are these weird, weird moments that happen–where you would be outed and everything would change. When you live amongst people, you get to hear how they talk, and I’ve said this so many times. Trust me on this about white people: I grew up around them. I’m not making this up! You develop a really jaundiced view. There’s 2 ways to look at this: I either look at this as making someone a delusional paranoid or someone who is really well prepared.
I would think that this would drive you out of these areas, out of these different cultural things but it seems to have driven you deeper into exploring other cultures and becoming a part of these cultures.
MR: I’ll tell you why: because I can make actual, real change here. I have made a difference. I am the guy who got in the van with Dale Watson as he turned to me on an all-night drive from Austin non-stop to the Wisconsin State Fair and he turns to me and goes, “So, Mark, what’s all this bullshit about the Jews killing Jesus anyway?” Like, I’m that guy. I am absolutely the guy to answer that question because I’ve had to do that.
Just like Dom Flemons is the guy to answer those questions. Somebody has to take the hit to be an ambassador that shows the human face that people refuse to see until they actually meet somebody.
MR: Thank you. My dad called us "the town Jews." “They’ll feel for your horns, son.”
That’s really a thing, goddamn.
MR: It’s really a thing, Devon.
MR: And God bless their dear little hearts. The thing is that I almost have Stockholm syndrome about my Oklahoma. There’s so much good in these people, I could literally cry about it. For all the bullshit they put me through, they’ve been lied to, these poor people. They’ve been lied to for so long; I get emotional about it. At their core, people are people. When you ask me why do I delve into these traditional cultures, it's because I was removed from my own. There were no Jews to hang out with. I should add; my brother was Native American. He was adopted and he was a Kiowa and we raised him culturally as a Kiowa and we had lots of Kiowa and Sac and Fox and other Native American friends to help him off in that direction. This idea of being immersed in other cultures was de rigeur in our family. No, I didn’t have a lot of Orthodox Jews to hang out with but I did have a lot of Kiowa and Sac and Fox people to hang out with. When I hung out with white people it was the same sort of experience. We observe what they do and we respect what they do but we don’t participate in what they do. My parents are from Arizona. This is where cultures get so strange. Oklahoma is farmland but my father was a rancher. I don’t know if you know this but there’s amazing enmity between ranchers and farmers for some reason. He took that with him to Oklahoma. He never let me wear western wear because he said, “Son, Jews aren’t cowboys. We own cowboys.” That was one of my favorites. But because he and my mother were both from Arizona where they don’t have an accent, they took me to a speech therapist when I was a kid so I wouldn’t talk like the people from Oklahoma.
When you said, “Why do you go into all these different kinds of music?”, I'm looking for all the differences in all of the different kinds of folk expressions. I’m looking at the differences, and I’m trying to find what is the space of the void that is in-between all of those that’s the same. Because, what I come to find in my life is that, having been introduced to musicians all around the world, the only way that I could communicate with them was musically. It wasn’t the particulars of our music that we were able to enjoin with, it was, in fact, the empty space that we were able to meet at. That’s magic stuff. There was a musician that I worked with and had the pleasure of collaborating with in 1993, by the name of Ross Daly. If you would be good to look up his Ted talk on modality in music, how that relates to socio-economic political thought, which was revolutionary and was a big influence on me and how I look at culture.'
The musicologist and fiddler Hank Bradley, from Seattle, Washington, wrote a book on good manners in the field of learning fiddle tunes called, “Counterfeiting, Stealing and Cultural Plundering: an Applied Guide to Ethnomusicology.” It’s essentially a long-winded essay but I got to be honest with you, I go back to it all the time. I gave my last copy to Jerron Paxton, as he was leaving. It’s been a really great reminder of the purpose of music in culture and in context. It’s led to one of the guiding aspects of how I look at music, especially within traditions and that is, that I feel very strongly that music is simply a by-product of a living and working culture. It is only one of many, many by-products which are absolutely integral to the other and, if you remove one from the other, it becomes superfluous. It dissipates. It goes away. What I’ve learned and to give you a fine example, I talked about the Czech-Bohemian culture in Texas, basically drying up and going away yet the French culture in Louisiana, is burgeoning. It’s just as easy as this: it comes back to the language. Louisiana, for 25 years had the CODIFIL, had the French language taught in the schools, re-introduced and taught in the public schools in a way that now young Louisianans could re-connect with their relatives and could now speak to their grandparents and have conversations about what life was like. This re-connected them to their culture. In Texas, however, the Bohemian language is entirely dead. No one speaks it. The bands don’t even sing it. I, Mark Rubin, Jew of Oklahoma, who does not speak Bohemian, sings about 15 Czech tunes. I know as much Czech as any Czech band leader does these days. The language has effectively died in public, daily use. Therefore, with the language goes everything else, goes the context which the language is used, goes the events with which the music would be performed, goes the dress, that would be used for the dances. It continues: visual arts, poetry, theater, everything, are all tied together.
This is a very, very powerful lesson that I learned when I was working for Living Traditions at Klez Camp for so many years from 1996 until they finally folded, after the 30th anniversary. We didn’t teach people music. As a music instructor there, I didn’t teach people music. I taught them why they should be playing. It sounds like a brag but I’m just saying that I didn’t show them what notes they’re supposed to be playing. We were trying to show them why those were the notes they were supposed to be playing, to try to show them the context which these things are supposed to exist. Every one of my bass students had to go learn to dance. “Are you kidding me? You’re going to play dance music and you don’t even know where to put your body in motion?” I realized that these people would be going home and they’d have no context with which to work this out but we were dealing with something really, really important. We were dealing with a genuinely endangered species: Yiddish culture. Not the Yiddish language, the whole culture attached to that language. Not just the culture, but the politics, and the social justice and the tradition and culture of speaking truth to power. It was in danger and, at a time, when it is our birthright, absolutely the most important thing we’re supposed to be doing. When Jewish culture today is Ben Stein on FOX news saying that the poor are lazy, I’m here to present the actual narrative of the Jewish experience in America. I think that’s what I’m trying to do with my record.
You talk about the language being really key but Yiddish is alive and well in the Hasidic community. Is there too great a divide between the Hasidic community and the Ashkenazi community?
MR: Yeah, I think you’ve hit it right on the head. However, what’s fascinating is that the Hasidic community is so large. It’s now so vast that you just can’t call it the Hasidic community anymore. There’s a gay Hasidic community. It’s deeply closeted but it’s there. A friend of mine sent me some YouTube videos of Hasidic rappers trash talking each other in a brand new street Yiddish that was amazing. Hasidism, by its very definition, is a world unto its own. I think they’ve got some really great stuff happening in that community... I only skirt around that world, because Hasidic music is Hasidic music. It’s designed to meet their needs, and not being from that community I don’t share those standards. It doesn’t really appeal to me. A lot of it is disco. Seriously, a lot of it is like Donna Summer. It’s pretty out-there. Some of it sounds like acid rock. My friend Binyomin Ginzberg is really wonderful because he’s actually got a live band of Klezmer trained musicians that he takes with him and he’s trying to re-connect those communities in a really holistic way in New York. That’s one of the reasons why I like him a lot. The Yiddish language is still mildly Esperanto-ized in its secular form and it is the secular Yiddish culture to which I most closely identify, musically, culturally, politically especially.
The truth is… that world is never coming back. It’s very interesting, however; there a lot of millennial aged kids who are the products of some of these camps that we put on and some of my students in Austin. There’s a lot of younger people who are learning Yiddish because it’s an international language, still is. You can really get far with it. You’d be surprised. Also, it’s a fine language for the sub-culture, "Gevayvens Loyshen", the thieves’ language. There’s still a lot of carny talk in it. I think a lot of people are attracted to its other nature. To be frank, Yiddish has got some of the greatest poetry, some amazing poetry. But let’s also be honest, Sholem Aleichem, the greatest Yiddish writer ever, raised a household where his kids couldn’t read his own writings. His own kids read Russian. In some respects, there is an inherent nostalgia already built in; it’s almost a nostalgia for something that never was. In this respect, I’m no different than the urbanites who don Southern clothing and affect a Southern accent.
[laughing] Yeah, we have a lot of those in Seattle.
It goes back to what my dad told me years ago. He said, “90% of anything you do or anything you’re involved in is going to be utter bullshit. You better like that 10%.” Best advice I ever got. I’m not going to sit here and say that I’m upset about this or that I think something's wrong, like Mumford and Sons–Awesome! Take those banjos and put them on TVs across the world! I don’t exist in that world. There is active anti-Semitism in this world. When my record shows up; I guarantee that there will be radio stations that will look at the title and put it in the trash. There is real live, active anti-Semitism in this world.
When Bad Livers looked like we weren’t going to be together much longer, and we had been doing really, really well, and our name had gotten around Nashville, and we were hobnobbing with all the other Sugar Hill bluegrass acts, we were up there doing a big show. At the end of the show, I was hanging out with a bunch of well-known, beloved and respected bluegrass musicians. I said, “Well, boys. I’ve been playing this bluegrass music my whole life. I’ve always thought, ‘Maybe I should come up here to Nashville and think about making that my full-time job.’” There was an absolute chill in that tour bus until one of them put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Well, you know Mark, we already got a bass-playing Jew already.” He was referring to Mark Schatz. I said, “Is it really like that?” And he goes, “I don’t reckon anybody’s going to see you in the church parking lot.”
MR: I thank that man. I learned more about him and I learned more about them. You understand what I mean?
Yeah, at least he was honest.
MR: But I appreciate that. That’s the South I know.
Can they take it as well as they can give it? Can they receive it on their end? That’s the problem.
MR: No, hell no.
It’s all a power play.
MR: Hell, no. Come on. Are you kidding? You understand, Devon. That’s the day I had to close that chapter and go be a Klezmer musician.
You finally hit the wall.
MR: Hit the wall? Like a bug on a bus windshield. Now, your readers aren’t going to believe that because today, their level of enfranchisement exists, which is wrapped around consumerism and because consumerism is based on capitalism and capitalism wins. Capitalism beats Christianity; it beats racism; it beats everything, right? Capitalism: that’s what it does. It grows. People who come from well-off means, who’ve been allowed to do whatever they want; who aren’t aware that it’s because of their capital that they’ve been able to do so, that that’s their enfranchisement. They’ll read this and they will say, “Aw, this guy’s full of shit.”
Moving back to your new record... I think that you took a lot of chances. It took a lot more chances than anyone else I know is taking chances. That’s why I liked i: because you were willing to sacrifice a lot to make a point, which I think was great. You were more interested in the point that you were trying to be making than in the construction of the record. That’s what I liked so much about it. There was a message that had to get out and you were forcing the music into that message which made it really fascinating.
MR: Thank you. Then, that is one of the higher compliments that I’ve gotten and I appreciate that because I see the music as being simply the delivery mechanism for the thought or the idea that I’m trying to get across. Sometimes that thought or idea is just a laugh, hopefully...
I might have killed myself if I hadn’t got some of these ideas out. The fact of the matter is, is that the real ideas that you and I are talking about right now, that’s for the next record because, this right here, was simply an exercise. Am I capable of doing this?
Why did you title your album, Southern Discomfort? I liked that title.
MR: It’s a great title and I cannot take credit for it. It was actually the title of the radio show, the radio documentary that Westdeutscher Rundfunk did on me. They did a series on American musicians and their struggles, given the economy. They talked to a Mexican-American guy in L.A., a black rapper in Detroit. The series was called, “Made in USA”. Then, they did the piece on me. It was literally in the time I was moving between Austin and New Orleans. Because they had a budget, that’s what got the record started. The record was not like, “Hey, I think, I’m going to make a record.” The record was, “They need a soundtrack for this documentary.” Then, it was like, “Oh, this record is going to sound pretty good. I probably should mix it.”
I love the cover!
MR: [The artist] Howard Rains and I go way back. Our careers are somewhat intertwined in some very deep and strange ways. I knew that he shared a lot of the same issues and problems that I have that are also wrapped around love and respect of Southern American culture and I said, “ Do me a favor. I want you to do this cover. Here’s the name of the record.” I asked him to describe injustice. I wanted him to describe injustice and use imagery but to turn it on its head. I sent him a copy of the record and he did 10 different versions of it. He put such stuff in there and he added some narratives to it that I thought were really great. I will say that, if anybody can name 7 of the injustices, send me an email. I will send them a free copy of it. I hope that the record itself matches the imagery. If all this interview does is expose the imagery, then I will consider the entire thing worth it. I’m very proud. Seriously, I’m very proud.
The song, “The Murder of Leo Frank,” is one of the key pieces of your new album. It's the most subversive. You’re taking a Tom Dooley structure and really pushing it to the limit, in terms of what you can fit into it, in terms of anger. Did you feel that you wrote that from a place of anger?
MR: I had been doing a lot of research on the subject. It’s still incredibly contentious. It’s amazing the amount of hatred that still is wrapped up around that subject to this very day. I literally wrote that after reading the comments on “Little Mary Phagan”, on the YouTube of “Little Mary Phagan” by Fiddlin’ John Carson. I mean recent comments by people that were like, “Are you kidding me?” It was like a blood libel, it was like a medieval blood libel. People are still hung up on the lies; they’re still attached to this absolutely-proven-to-be-a-lie narrative. It just shows that the truth doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because the truth is only going to be useful if it serves someone’s preconceptions. Like I sang in the song: this is about murder. I don’t want to talk about the trial or anything else at all. This absolutely innocent person was murdered by a bunch of people who were then trumpeted, they were the captains of local industry, The founder of the local scout troop made sure that his picture was taken with this man’s body dangling from a tree. That’s the culture we live in that the perpetrators of that crime, their families are still in power today. They got away with it. They will get away with it again.
It’s not just Jews. Everyone else is under the gun here.
MR: I just want to leave you with this one thought, Devon. Just this one thought is that you’re a nice guy, right?
MR: But, I know for a fact that you will turn me in and that that’s okay. That’s how I was raised.
That’s how you view it.
MR: I was raised to understand that all the people around me, they’re really nice, right? And this is great and everything is going really, really well but at the drop of a hat, they will turn against me and my family, my whole community, and that you would too but that’s okay.
Yeah, and that’s okay.
MR: Like I said before… that either creates a delusional maladjusted person or it prepares someone really well.
It’s true. These things turn so fast, you look at the Balkans or you look at any incident in history, and it can flip in an instant.
MR: I’ve been to the Balkans; I’ve been to both Serbia and Croatia and I’ve stood there in front of people who were my age, who were combatants in that event and I’ve had them lie to my face. I’ve asked them point blank what happened and they’ve lied to my face. It wasn’t until I was in Croatia and I was at a dinner table and they were having a little get-together and they were all sitting around singing songs that I was able to get up and go, “Hey! I think I know a song y’all know.” I got up and I made them all sing a Bosnian song.
MR: And the song is called, “Kad ja pođoh na Bembašu” which means, “We will all drink from the well at Basu.” It says, “Even though you are Catholic and I am Orthodox; she is a Muslim and he is a Jew, we all drink water from the same well.” They started sobbing. They all sang it. They sang that thing and then, there was a pause and then, they told me. They told me what they did. They told me exactly what they did. Every time I see these memes on the Internet about music healing people and the beautiful healing power of music, I just think to myself, “Tell that to the String Quartet at Dachau. Tell that to the brass band that played outside of the rape battalion at Sebrinica? Once you’ve gone to these places; once you’ve experienced these things; those narratives become real and you can no longer; I can no longer that is link myself to the same system of enfranchisement any longer. If that means, as you said once before, making enemies and losing friends or calling out people about it, I want to reiterate, I’m not speaking for me, I’m speaking for people who cannot speak for themselves. I feel like I’m really speaking for the ancestors in that respect. Once again, that’s either delusional or it’s admirable. It all depends entirely on your point of view.
Let me ask you one question to end on a happier note because that was a little intense… Who is a key artist that you wish wasn’t unknown? You know a lot of amazing artists who have been passed over. If you could pick one artist that you wish people knew about, who would that be? In any genre.
MR: People already know about Danny Barnes; they really already know about him. I would say Eric Hokkanen, a fiddler in Austin who has 9 solo records out. He’s an utterly unique individual and a wonderful musician and a unique voice and talent. For whatever reason, he’s just made bad choices or whatever and never “made it,” or gotten out of Austin. But, I think if you like “hot” music and interesting song writing from a really quirky, unique point of view, I think you should seek him out.
Thanks to Mark Rubin for being so open and candid in this conversation. You can pick up a copy of his new album, Southern Discomfort HERE.
For more from Mark's perspective, here's a link to the German radio documentary that was done about him: