Folksinger Seth Martin on protest and the power of roots music in a rootless age

Many experienced the political turmoil of the last year as a nauseating, all-consuming blitz, but for American folk artist Seth Martin, the turmoil was particularly inescapable. Not only was his home country in a state of upheaval, but so too was his adopted home of South Korea, where a stranger-than-fiction scandal led to massive demonstrations that drew over a million protesters and eventually resulted in President Park Geun-hye's removal from power.

Brought up near the mountains of Toledo, Washington, Martin has been recording music for over a decade and performing for even longer, often with a crew of musical comrades dubbed the Menders. Among the Menders's former tour companions are the legendary anarcho-Christian collective Psalters, four members of which can be heard on Martin's most recently released record, This Mountain. The album marks something of a turning point for Martin - not only has his songwriting shifted from a barefoot pastoralism to anxious, Guthrie-like woe-betides, but the newly-married musician has settled in South Korea long-term with his wife, visual artist Nan Young Lee. He's even adopted a parallel moniker (이산 - literally meaning "this mountain") for when he performs in Korean-language settings.

When Spirit You All met with Martin at the couple's home on a recent March evening in Seoul, (Editor's note: Spirit You All is based in Seoul, too, if you're wondering. We don't have the funds for globe-hopping interviews) it was only days since South Korea's highest court had approved President Park Geun-hye's impeachment and formally removed her from power (but weeks before military tensions started to ratchet up on the peninsula thanks to provocations from... people who should know better). We talked with Martin about he and his wife's involvement in the protests that led to the removal, as well as his new record and the enduring relevance of folk music:

SYA: What has your involvement in the recent, nationwide protest movement against (now-former) President Park Geun-hye been like?

SM: The short of it is that almost every weekend for the last several months, Nan Young and I have been at [historic city center] Gwanghwamun together, singing and marching and crying and yelling and laughing. On my personal end, everything I'm learning I'm trying to share through music and through writing. Sometimes actual published articles, but usually through online updates to whoever's reading, whoever's listening to me.

I feel a burden, or a responsibility, to use my voice as a writer and a musician in a different way than I did before. When I was in the States, I focused much more on spiritual and environmental "mending" and seeking peaceable relations. That's still what drives me now - the "mending" concept of seeking whatever brings us closer to home and to each other and to God. But being an American who mostly speaks English in a modernized South Korea, how that plays out is very different. 

I'm trying to learn to listen more. It sounds obvious, but with a long tradition of racism, colonialism and Orientalism, it still needs to be said: Koreans know more about Korea than a Westerner like me. My job is to lend support to whatever seems good, in whatever way I can. I believe there is a communication gap or a communication twist that happens when [information] comes through the pipeline back to the States. So I do have a valuable voice. I don't say so much my own opinion as I validate and say in English that what's going on here isn't what you're hearing in the news. Like any other place, this is an amazing, complicated place full of people who are doing hard work and are trying to make their lives better.

I start with the premise that I know very little. But the majority of my friends being Korean, I try to soak up everything I can, and when I have a chance to express or say something to a non-Korean audience, I try to reflect what they say. And almost always, it's counter to what everyone expects.

SYA: Apart from maybe your first album, The Iraqistan War and Other Stories, this is your most topical collection of songs. What motivated that shift?

SM: Time and place. I feel like the last two years, I've found a much more concentrated voice. It's not necessarily a voice I'll keep for future albums, but it definitely came about during the year before I came back to Korea [permanently] with Nan Young. There were similar things happening in the States and in Korea. One of them was poverty. (laughs) I should say, I am privileged and lucky, but it was always living to the last dollar and uncertain.

Also, I think, getting more involved than I ever had been in solidarity actions here. More direct things, like going on anti-nuclear, anti-militarization peace walks and stands, moving away from the abstract to focusing on concrete controversies and issues right now. And then I also have been studying so much of the art and the legacy of topical songwriters, and learning to hone and change some of my skills to communicate more clearly about specific things. So those things all mixed together.

Then on a personal level, I'm in a different culture and trying to ask questions like What kind of American am I? and What do I identify with? In this historical moment, my own country and my own heritage and my own religious foundation all seem to be in the death throes. Or maybe committing some kind of weird prolonged suicide and taking everyone else down with them. Yet I'm still in love with my homeland. I'm still in love with the people who raised me. I'm still a Christian. And I'm still in love with the legacy of American music and labor. So trying to distinguish those things in my own identity, while being in a different culture and seeing my home from the outside really sharpened my focus and my desire to communicate in a way that linked directly to these specific older traditions.

Every song on the album is not just influenced by but lives directly within the older songs. I intentionally used the old melodies, and that was almost a meditative, therapeutic practice. Like, when I'm walking or taking my commute, I'd listen to these older songs - hymns, labor songs, protest songs - that moved me, reminded me about what I love about home, and also made me nostalgic and touched me and gave me something to be proud of in my own heritage. At some point the concept emerged to make a whole batch of songs that speak to now the way those songs originally spoke to their time.

I tried to match the tone or the voice of the old song, to continue believing that the song is alive, all the culture connected to it is still alive, and then add my voice to it. It's something that's simultaneously humbling and also probably requires a lot of ego because you're putting yourself under a tradition - but also claiming that. So you're simultaneously honoring it, saying, "I'm incomplete without you, tradition." But also, "I'm ready to break and change you because I'm the most current form of you." You know what I mean? (laughs)

SYA: Can you provide some background for the track "Gureombi Norae"?

SM: I tried to tell the narrative as best I understood it from my Korean friends. Gureombi is the name of a volcanic rock formation that was almost completely obliterated - dynamited - in 2012 to lay the groundwork for the Gangjeong Naval Base, which is a joint South Korea-US naval base that docks warships that will be part of the war with China, if needs be. And hundreds of villagers and activists have been arrested trying to stop that base from happening. When one group was arrested, one of the police leaders said to them, "I'm not arresting you - Samsung is." It's a terrible story of local, small, not-very-powerful people getting wiped out by modern business contracts and the war machine.

Gureombi is the name of the main rock which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. But it was dynamited, and I tried to tell the story through the eyes of a long-time villager, watching it, wanting to stop it, not knowing what to do. It's connected to the melody of the old American hymn "Farther Along", and that hymn is also referenced by the Woody Guthrie classic "I've Got to Know". So ["Goreombi Norae"] connects that spiritual tradition and that activist tradition together. Legend says "I've Got to Know" was Woody Guthrie's almost-last or last song he wrote before he died. According to Utah Phillips and others in the folk tradition who have updated the lyrics, he was writing mostly about the bombing of Korea. "Farther Along" is a church song that's talking to someone who's depressed and sad, and basically says, "Why do the evil people not suffer? Why do they get on?" And the great spiritual truth that is so powerful for those who are suffering is, "Cheer up, we'll understand it farther along." But Woody Guthrie felt that that sentiment sometimes kept people from fighting back. So his version takes a similar lyrical bent, but he says, "I've got to know now." So I took that, with the history of those two songs, and made it about Gureombi.

This Mountain is available now on Bandcamp

*All photos by Grace Hilton*