A FEW MINUTES WITH… Jean Rohe
By Don Wilcock
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
As we careen through the most contentious presidential election in our lifetime, and every day brings another blood spattering example of carnage of cops killing blacks, blacks killing cops, and religious genocide around the world, it’s not surprising that even the Caffe Lena would present an artist whose show is being billed as The End of The World. But if you’re expecting a pessimistic or even apocalyptic vision from Saturday’s headliner Jean Rohe, think again.
Jean Rohe is a thought-provoking singer-songwriter who sings in three languages and fronts a five-piece band that doesn’t begin to fit into the box of “folk music” or even “Americana” for that matter. “It’s more rockin’ (than The End of the World). It’s very like drum-set and bass-oriented,” she explains.
The End of The World is the title of her latest album with cover art that features Rohe standing up in a tiny boat about to be obliterated by waves from all around her. It deals with the subject of global warming, but, she says, it is not the primary emphasis of her show Saturday night (July 22). “I’m going to do a lot of music from a newer project at Caffe Lena,” she says. “It doesn’t really have a name yet. It’s still the band, but it’s just a new body of songs.” The five-piece group features Rohe singing and playing guitar, accordion and keyboards. Also featured will be drums, bass, synthesizer and other percussion.
At age 31, Jean Rohe is optimistic enough to envision life as an old lady, but feels her life 50 years from now will not be without challenges. “This sense of imminent apocalypse is really a part of the zeitgeist right now. Apocalyptic literature is not a new thing, but it’s definitely in the air. Global climate change is definitely happening, and we’re seeing the effect now in a way we weren’t seeing in 1972, or whatever.
“It’s too late to change some of those things, (but) I don’t think we’re totally going to get wiped out necessarily. We still have a lot of options, and we have to work really hard to make some progress on the fossil fuel front particularly, but it’s going to be a different world. That’s a lot of what I was thinking about. There’s a lot of water imagery on almost every song on the record and the cover illustration. It’s just going to be a huge part of our reality like chunks of land are going to be under water.”
In a gentle, very feminine voice, Rohe sings from the heart, presenting intimate images, both delicate and sometimes dangerous and foreboding. She sees the world through a colorful artistic prism she admits strays far from the definition of folk music, which has traditionally been Caffe Lena’s niche. “I don’t feel like I need to brand myself as one thing or another. In some ways the folk world has been really embracing of a lot of the things that I value in music. In other ways, it’s not been the most perfect fit in terms of audiences. There are all kinds of different scenes where I feel like the music I’m making makes some degree of sense.”
She doesn’t watch TV and admires the good journalism of The New York Times, The Guardian and Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker. She has invented the word “phonojournalism” (as opposed to photojournalism) for what she does. “I came up with that word a little while ago and thought it was very clever. (Laugh) Yeah, there’s a body of songwriting that I’ve done over time that really – well, I have a lot of respect for really good journalists, whether they’re reporting on city hall politics or they’re in Syria. They do such a great service for society.
“I’ve just seen the potentials of music to elevate some of these stories to a place of feeling in a different way. I can write from the perspective of a person in one of these news stories and just imagine how they’re feeling and how they would express themselves.”
She’s a contemporary woman with a soft voice who carries a big stick, often working with criminals at Carnegie Hall in “workshop settings with people in kind of marginal moments in their lives, hospitals and homeless shelters, juvenile detention facilities.” She describes working with one inmate mother who wrote a lullaby for her infant whom she will lose a year after its birth if she’s still incarcerated.
“It’s a very emotional time. Just the joy of having their child and all the complicated emotions around that and then being incarcerated and knowing if you will be there, your child won’t be with you at that time. So, we collaborate with this group of women that are writing lullabies for their kids, and some amazing stuff comes out.”
Jean Rohe first came to public attention 10 years ago as a student speaker at the New School of Communications graduation at Madison Square Garden. She had gotten ahold of a copy of Senator John McCain’s keynote address and headed him off the pass before he spoke with an indictment of his support of the Iraq War. “The senator does not reflect the ideals upon which this university was founded,” she said in comments that went viral on social media. “This invitation was a top-down decision that did not take into account the desires and interests of the student body on an occasion that is supposed to honor us above all.”
She continued, “Senator McCain will also tell us about his strong-headed self-assuredness in his youth, which prevented him from hearing the ideas of others, and in so doing he will imply that those of us who are young are too naïve to have valid opinions. I am young, and although I don’t profess to possess the wisdom that time affords us, I do know that pre-emptive war is dangerous and wrong.”
Since Rohe’s outspoken attack on the Vietnam War hero who spent years being tortured by the Vietcong, students at several universities have complained about commencement speakers whose views differ significantly from those of the majority of the student body. Opposing views constitute a preciously guarded right and freedom we Americans have fought to preserve since the founding of our country, and college campuses have traditionally been a petri dish for generating differing views on all sorts of topics. Jean Rohe’s comments sought to stifle that free exchange of opinions between generations.
However, even though she went viral on social media for skewering John McCain to his face in 2006 for his pro-war attitude, she has no patience with Donald Trump for saying McCain is not a hero just because he was a prisoner of war. I asked her what she thought of Trump’s dismissal of McCain.
“Oh, my God! What do you think my reaction was? I just remember him doing that and (thinking) you’ve got to be kidding me! I can’t let it roll off my back. But it is fascinating to watch his complete disregard for any sort of decorum. Who would even say that about anybody?”
She sees Trump and Hillary Clinton as the last gasp of a retiring generation. “Trump is making as many enemies as he’s making allies, and I think the world is changing for the better I do believe.
“This is to me the last desperate gasp of an old way, and we just have to make sure we push the ball through to the end and just let those people (the old guard) die ’cause they’re going to die in their own time. There are definitely young Trump supporters, but by and large, that’s not his base, and we as progressive people, and yourself as a writer with ambition and just citizens generally have to like keep our eye on the prize and make sure that he does not get into office, and we keep reiterating like we reject the way this person sees the world. We reject racism. We reject homophobia and anti-veterans. I mean you just kinda go down the list.”
As a 72-year-old journalist, I sometimes feel like we baby boomers are creating a terrible mess for Jean Rohe’s generation to clean up. Our experience sets red flags waving. Rohe’s youthful optimism sees beyond the immediate dangers. As a woman she sees that her gender has made great progress.
“My life is so different from my mom’s in some ways that are pretty rough and in some ways are pretty amazing. I’ve just had a very different experience as a woman because of the women who have come before, and we have a very different – like 10 years of activism and gay marriage and that’s the law of the land. I mean things have changed for the better through the social sphere.
“We have to get on the ball with a better minimum wage and lot of these other things, but changes have happened, and it’s been in large part due to the efforts of people in your generation, and those people are still around and still doing the good work. There’s just also other people who think their way of life is slipping away because gay people can get married, and people can use any bathroom, and women can speak and assert themselves and feel like it’s their right. Those are the people who make America great because they’re feeling under threat, and I think justice will prevail, but we have to do the work.”
WHO: Jean Rohe & the End of the World Show
WITH: Haas Kowert Tice
WHERE: Caffe Lena at the Grove at Neumann, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: Saturday (July 23), 6pm dinner; 7pm concert
HOW MUCH: For concert $20 in advance; $22 at the door; for concert & dinner $35