In your memoir First Time Ever your childhood sounds unusually relaxed and open.
Everyone walked around naked in my first Maryland home. And, although I do remember exotic musicians like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly visiting, it was really just two parents, four kids and that’s all we needed. Later on, in our Kirke Street home, we started having family jams. My brother Pete was always a torch, an inspiration.
How would you contrast your mother’s relationship with music with your own?
My mother was a classical musician through and through: she had trouble with spontaneous music-making. She only ventured into folk music in her thirties because Alan Lomax asked her to transcribe and make arrangements of field recordings for the Archive of American Folk Song.
If you listen to her accompaniments, they’re really quite difficult. But as she was meticulously transcribing those songs, we listened and were drawn to them. I helped her transcribe some of those that eventually went into her American Folk Songs for Children and Animal Folk Songs for Children.
How do you feel about your mother’s composed music?
In her lifetime I only heard her lovely folk-inflected orchestral piece Rissolty Rossolty but it wasn’t until I was 35, long after she had died, that I heard the string quartet and piano music. I was astounded: they were so dissonant. I love some of her music now: I can see she wanted to innovate, and she had an exceptionally mathematical mind. I once heard a lecturer spend an hour dissecting her Study in Mixed Accents: it’s an amazing piece.
‘My advice to young songwriters? Be relevant, listen’
What do you look for in fellow musicians?
I want to hear their words, and know that their song has been properly honed. A song needs something in it that people can grab and take home. Variety is important: singers need to know when a different pace or tone is wanted. I’ve literally fallen asleep on stage when every song is just slow, sweet and lyrical.
My advice to young song writers is…
Be relevant. Listening to what other people think. I could never have dreamed up some of the words of the best songs I’ve written. ‘Lullabies for Strangers’, for example, which I wrote with my daughter-in-law Kate St John, uses the words of a Filipino woman who hadn’t seen her daughter for six years. Her words reduced to a song are pure poetry.
What’s your current focus?
Keeping myself going. I have a community of four or five hundred songs rattling around my head, and I still try to write new songs.
What makes you rage?
I rage against the idiocy of mankind: we’re still doing all the same old things wrong, and we’re ruining the world. Civilisations collapse when growth is the only priority: this one will too. I also rage against all the women in America who voted for Trump.
What’s been the most positive societal change in your life?
I think feminism has been the most important. I’m an eco-feminist, personally and politically. If the world can be saved, it will be women who do it.