The Keswick Theater, an aging beauty in Glenside, Pennsylvania, was throbbing with the anticipation of toddlers and their exhausted parents, whose faces betrayed both pride in having made it to kid song nirvana and deep exhaustion. We were all gathered to watch Raffi, the 70-year-old, Cairo-born troubadour turned singer of songs about arctic whales turned timeless naptime Willie Nelson.
Raffi Cavoukian, in case you just woke from an extended coma, burst onto the scene with 1975’s Good Luck Boy but really lit people’s wigs on fire with 1976’s Singable Songs for the Very Young, which included such hits as “Down by the Bay” and “The More We Get Together.” Over the years, as Raffi went from swarthy Lothario to saintly eminence grise, his fan base maintained a sempiternal innocence. He aged; they didn’t. Well, mostly. The Keswick, a stop on Raffi’s never-ending tour to support his new album called Dog on the Floor — about his dog, Luna, who hangs out on the floor — was filled with kids and former kids eager to pass the aural baton. Also, there was also a contingent of childless Raffi superfans, middle-aged ladies in overalls who knew the words to every song and laughed heartily at his pat banter.
Walking on stage with nothing but a guitar strapped over his shoulder, Raffi looked spritely, like Dylan at Royal Albert Hall — a man and his guitar against the world. In a plaid shirt and brown thick-wale corduroys, Raffi’s once-obsidian beard has turned salt-and-pepper, though his fulsome eyebrows remain jet black. He isn’t stylish; he is comfy and comforting, a man of the little people.
One of Raffi’s most engaging qualities as a performer is, unsurprisingly, his child-like sense of wonder. Onstage, this takes the form of (mildly) self-deprecating banter. “You might not know this song….” he leads off with, before breaking into “Baby Beluga,” which everyone knows. The audience goes wild. Or at least the parents do. The enthusiasm is half-real, half-faux, meant to model excitement for the kids, but it contains the true pleasure of recognition. The kids smile contentedly and join in on the chorus. Raffi smiles from his perch. This is nothing new, but that doesn’t matter. Joy is joy.
Onstage, Raffi’s persona is avuncular and avowedly apolitical. But on social media — yes, even Raffi tweets — he has become something of a lightning rod, frequently trolling Trump with impish abandon. Recent entrants in the endless Raffi drag: “The word #emoluments sounds oddly exotic. crazy language, English.” and simply “#ResistFascism.” If this feels like a shocking twist for a man seemingly obsessed by the various motions of bus parts, it’s not. Raffi is a folk singer, in the mold of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, whose guitar sported the famous sticker, “This machine kills fascists.” That’s not precisely what Raffi’s machine does, but it’s not far off.
Fatherly spoke to Raffi about being an icon, an old hippie, and a working musician.
I wanted to talk a bit about your inspirations and music, which may not get the critical attention it deserves. Can you tell me a little bit about… I’d love to start with your musical background.
I was born of Armenian parents in Cairo, Egypt, but we moved to Toronto when I was 10 years old. In my teens, I was singing in the Armenian church choir where my father was the choirmaster. So I was singing soulful songs with beautiful harmonies. That was, in a way, my introduction to music.
When I was 16, I got my first guitar at a pawn shop, I learned how to play a bunch of chords. I was learning songs from the Beatles, and Gordon Lightfoot, and Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary. Pete Seeger was a hero of mine as well.
So you wanted to be a folk singer.
I was a folk singer. I dropped out of university in my second year, with six weeks to go. I said to myself, “I want to sing.” I’d hoped for a modest career entertaining adults, someone like James Taylor who, at the time, was doing nice shows and so on. But that wasn’t to be; I would always get nervous in the coffee houses and I wouldn’t maybe perform my best anyway. Then I had the idea to sing for children. I found myself relaxed with kids and I learned about them because my then-wife was a kindergarten teacher and she taught me. We didn’t have kids of our own, but she was always working with kids. So I came to understand and respect the young child as a marvelous human being.
What was the final push from adult folk music to young folk music?
Well, I used to say I helped drive the Riverboat Coffee House in Toronto out of business. My adult gigs didn’t go well. For a while I tried to keep both going, but then I said to myself, “You know, I get it now.… Music for kids is a really important thing if it helps them learn about their inner emotional world and helps as a social activity.” And the responses were great. I started early sessions in a nursery school in north Toronto where like 12 of us would sit on the rug on the floor. My first concert — we called it the Young Children’s Concert and the poster said 45 minutes — was in 1977. The moment I started singing “The More We Get Together,” my first song, everyone chimed in. I thought, “Wow. They know it. They know my music!”
The method of distribution between adult music at the time and children’s music was quite different. Because you would go through book stores rather than vinyl shops or the radio. Did that make reaching a broader audience easier or make money?
I think we sold something like 2,000 copies of my first album in four months through bookstores and the like. Then it caught the attention of a regional distributor. Keep in mind, I kept my album at so-called full list price of $7.29, which was unheard of in those days. In the mid-’70s, children’s albums were usually in a bin in the back of the record store. They were like $2.99 or $3, marked down as though there was something wrong with them. So I stressed from the beginning that, no, this was a quality recording. Parents appreciated that and they were willing to pay the full price.
That’s consistent with how you approach children and now, more overtly how you advocate for the idea of children being worth it. You were selling a real album for real, albeit young, people.
Exactly. Children are just as whole as anyone else is later in life. They’re just at a beginning stage but it doesn’t mean that they’re any less whole. They’re a whole person worthy of respect. Respect became the core value of my work from early on.
How does that express itself in the musical Idiom? I’m very familiar with your music and there’s some through lines that I can see in terms of chord progressions, which like most of rock and roll, are a strict I-IV-V with an up tempo. You don’t have many weepy ballads. From a songwriter perspective, what about your songs, do you think, make hits?
I think it’s the playful tone of my voice. That really connects with the young child because children, in the early years, are in a play mode of being. That’s where they live. So, when you come along and you’re playful with them, they sort of feel that you get them on some level. Then there’s the fact that I wasn’t into, “Say it again. Louder. Abracadabra.” It wasn’t that, it wasn’t a show, it was music to share. So the folkie in me, the entertaining-audiences chops that I learned being a folk singer, came in handy when I did a children’s concert.
In terms of musical influences in your own writing, you mentioned James Taylor. To me, when I listen to the gentleness of your voice, it reminds me a little of Harry Nilsson. Who are and who were some of your influences?
I was listening to pop music in my teens in Toronto — what we used to call Top 40. I was listening to Motown, Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” and Pete Seeger singing “If I Had a Hammer.” In those days, folk songs, what we used to call singer-songwriter folk songs, could make it to the top of the charts as much as music by bands like the Beatles, the Stones, and others, right? So I was influenced as much by the vocal styling of Joni Mitchell and Frank Sinatra, who always sang a touch behind the beat, as I was by anyone else.
Recently you’ve been making headlines for some pointed statements against Trump and his policies. On one hand, people seem surprised because they don’t often see a musician who focuses on children’s music taking a public stand. On the other hand, understanding that you came from a folk background, that seems fairly logical. When did you find your political voice?
l was inspired by Pete Seeger to sing and speak my truth. He was an amazing, amazing man and he had the integrity with which he conducted his career. He didn’t shy away from important topics to sing about. I’m similar except that it’s not so much in the music that I make for children. You know, I keep my voice in the public sphere to social media these days. I don’t politicize my concerts and I don’t even think of myself as an activist. But, if you care about democracy, if you care about a free society, if you care about fair elections, how can you not get involved these days?
You have to fight fascism with everything you’ve got.
I just keep on thinking of that famous picture of Woody Guthrie with his guitar that says, “This machine helps kill fascists.”
And on Pete’s banjo, it said, ‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.’
Is anything written on your guitar?
No, I don’t need that, it’s on my face. Love is the most potent force in the world. And when you’re about love, when you sing with love, you have a power that people hear.