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Ben Harper And Mom Ellen Reflect On A Lifetime Immersed In A Folk Music 'Wonderland'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Ellen Harper, grew up in the 1950s and '60s surrounded by folk music icons, immersed in songs about unions and civil rights, as well as blues, hymns and gospel music. Her parents founded the Folk Music Center in Claremont, Calif, east of LA. Ellen has worked there much of her life in addition to having been a professor of education at Cal State in San Bernardino and singing and playing with several bands. She runs the center now.

Her son, Ben Harper, who is with us, too, also grew up in the folk music center and became a Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and guitarist. Ben has written the foreword to Ellen's new memoir, "Always A Song: Singers, Songwriters, Sinners, And Saints - My Story Of The Folk Music Revival." The Folk Music Center became a place to buy, repair and restore guitars and banjos, learn to play guitar and banjo and gather with other musicians.

Her parents founded the Folk Music Center in 1958 after her father was blacklisted for refusing to name names and lost his teaching job. At the time, the family was living in Massachusetts. And Ellen's mother was teaching guitar and banjo with Bess Lomax Hawes, who sang with Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers and was the daughter of John Lomax and the sister of Alan Lomax, two of the best-known American folklorists. Ellen's father had already learned to repair guitars. It was Pete Seeger who suggested that if he started a shop selling and repairing instruments, he would never have to worry about being hired or fired in spite of the blacklist.

Ellen Harper, Ben Harper, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you on our show. I want to start with a song. It's called "A House Is A Home." And it's from the album of duets that you recorded together called "Childhood Home." You recorded this in 2013. It was released in 2014. And, Ben, this was when you decided you wanted to do an album of duets with your mother. What made you decide to do that?

BEN HARPER: Well, I recorded a record with my mom because it was something I had always wanted to do. We used to sing around the house constantly. So for me, growing up and growing into being a professional musician, it just made too much sense. She's so good and has so many great songs, is such a great writer. And I had to take the opportunity.

GROSS: Well, let's hear the song. This is Ellen and Ben Harper duetting on Ben's song "A House Is A Home."


ELLEN HARPER AND BEN HARPER: (Singing) A house is a home even when it's dark, even when the grass is overgrown in the yard, even when the dog is too old to bark and when you're sitting at the table trying not to start. A house is a home even when we've up and gone. Even when you're there alone, a house - a house is a home. A house is a home even when there's ghosts, even when you got to run from the ones who love you most. Screen door's broken paint's peeling from the wood. Locals whisper, when they going to leave the neighborhood? A house is a home even when we've up and gone. Even when you're there alone, a house - a house is a home.

GROSS: That's my guests Ellen and Ben Harper duetting on "A House Is A Home." So Ellen Harper, home was where you lived. But the Folk Music Center was where you grew up in a lot of ways. What was it like as a childhood home for you?

ELLEN HARPER: I think, sometimes, when you're young, a child growing up, you accept what is in your environment as what's normal and what is home. It wasn't until I was a little older that I realized it was a very unique situation and learned to appreciate the different kinds of people that came through our lives both at the store and in our actual home.

GROSS: You know, I didn't mention this in the introduction. But in addition to having, you know, the store, your family also had a performance space in which a lot of folk musicians and blues musicians would come and perform. And many of them would stay at your house. So who did you - who stayed at your house? Who are some of those luminaries?

E HARPER: We had - there were many of them. The - Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry stayed quite often. We had Doc Watson. And sometimes Doc Watson would have Clarence Ashley with him. And we also had Kathy and Carol, who are a lovely duo from - a local LA duo, Hedy West, Jean Ritchie, who is - both Jean and Hedy became very good friends of my mother. We had Mike Seeger. In fact, the whole New Lost City Ramblers stayed at the house from time to time. We had Tom Paley, John Cohen and Mike Seeger.

GROSS: And this was during the folk music revival. So the musicians who you mentioned were really revered. And there was a growing awareness and growing popularity of folk music. So you were a part of this really important culture or subculture as a child and as a young woman and an adult. Then when you were a child, your mother was working at the Folk Music Center. And she had her hands full because she had three children. You had two brothers.


GROSS: So after school, you'd go to the Folk Music Center. Describe what it was like for you as a child growing up there.

B HARPER: It was a wonderland. It was a wonderland. You know, any sound that you could imagine could be made seemed to be inside those four walls. And the players that would come in and pick an instrument off the wall and be as high a level of virtuoso as you could possibly hear - to walk out the doors, and the next one could come in that day or the next morning, it was - at the time, like my mom had mentioned, you take it somewhat for granted because you think that it's normal. And then you grow into recognizing that her parents, my grandparents, created one of the most special music environments - musical environments I've ever seen.

And also, that carried over to the home as well. I mean, the - when we'd run out of room for storage, the instruments would end up in our living room. So as a child, I got to - my brothers and I got to put our hands on so many different instruments and were allowed to. It wasn't - even - you know, my mom, I think, let me play her most expensive Martin guitar until I finally put a ding in it, a scratch on it. And she said, enough is enough. And, you know, pulled me a $25, nylon-string guitar.

GROSS: You both grew up surrounded by your parents' music. But you both developed music tastes of your own. Ellen, what were your parents' music? And what was the music taste you developed on your own?

E HARPER: I always had as a foundation the folk music. Call it three chords and an old guitar or - is what we used to say. And so pretty much, my taste developed from that, from the roots music. And I went into some different areas. I played for a while. I played in a Norteno band, which is a northern Mexico - like corridos. And it's a combination of ballads and polka, really. And I played in country Western bands. And I do - I liked country music for one thing, and especially the old country music. And there was money to be made at that time. And so my taste kind of evolved as I went and - with people that I met. But always, a voice and a guitar has been my favorite and my most motivating force.

GROSS: But you also, when you were in your teens, got interested in, say, psychedelic music and...

E HARPER: Oh, yes.

GROSS: ...You know, rock. And how'd your - what'd your parents think of that?

E HARPER: Oh, they were fine with it. My mother was very open minded, really, about all kinds of music. I think it was the traditional folk music when it went commercial, with, like, the Limeliters and the Kingston Trio, I think that's what bothered her the most. But as far as the music that evolved from that, the singer-songwriter, the whole psychedelic movement, she was fine. And she would not ever - no matter what her feelings, she wouldn't censor anyone's listening in the family. And I think that helped broaden my taste and scope and willingness to look at other music.

GROSS: Ben, how did the music you grew up with affect the music that you make as a singer and songwriter?

B HARPER: In a very deep way, in a profound way. Being - having access to not only my mom's instruments, but her incredible record collection that, per my memory - per memory ranged from Judy Collins and Woody Guthrie all the way to Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke - does that all sound right, Mom?

E HARPER: Oh, yes. Absolutely.

B HARPER: And this may be out of turn. But I don't think I've ever seen you as frustrated as - we had to leave our childhood home for a while because things got bad. When we came back, the one thing that was missing from our house was my mom's record collection. Mom, I don't think I've seen you that upset to this day.

E HARPER: Yes. And the only record that was left on the shelf was "Blood On The Tracks," Bob Dylan.

B HARPER: I remember that.

GROSS: You said, I think the title was supposed to mean something (laughter).

E HARPER: It was - yes. I think it was sending a message.

B HARPER: Terry, a long-winded way of saying, I had access to that collection. And finally, again, when I had put the final scratch in her - one of my mom's coveted albums, she got - she - what'd she do? She went to RadioShack and got me a small turntable, small speakers and said, here. You know, here's some lunch money. Get yourself - start-your-own-collection kind of thing. And here's a few of mine that - since you've already kind of had your way with, you can have those ones as well. So the music from my mom - the music I was hearing in the music store, then my mom's personal collection and then my personal evolution towards music that grew through my formative years into hip-hop, solely hip-hop for a good decade, all of that ends up being some part of the sound that I make.

GROSS: Ellen, how'd you feel about hip-hop when Ben started listening to it? Did you feel like you understood it?

E HARPER: I don't know that I understood it. I think it took some time. But again, you know, taking a page from my mother's book, I would never censor what he read or what he listened to.

B HARPER: But let's also say, Mom, N.W.A. is a lot further out from Bruce Springsteen or Leonard Cohen than the Birds were from Woody Guthrie. So it challenged a sense. I mean, that's all right.

E HARPER: That's true. And there was, you know, a certain amount of violence or misogyny and - which bothered me at the time.

GROSS: So would you have conversations about that?

E HARPER: Gosh, Ben, did I - I don't think I - we really did, did we? I think you listened to what you wanted to listen to.

B HARPER: Well, you know, I reflect that back to conversations I try to have with my teenagers. So if you did, I hope you had better luck with me than I have with them.


E HARPER: Yeah. I hear that.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, I have two guests, Ellen Harper and Ben Harper. Ellen is the author of the new memoir "Always A Song: Singers, Songwriters, Sinners, And Saints - My Story Of The Folk Music Revival." Her son is Ben Harper. He's a Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and guitarist. He wrote the foreword to the new memoir. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Ellen Harper, author of the new memoir, "Always A Song: Singers, Songwriters, Sinners, And Saints - My Story Of The Folk Music Revival." In 1958, her parents founded the Folk Music Center in Claremont, Calif., which Ellen runs now. Her son, Ben Harper, who is also with us, like his mother, grew up in the center. He's now a Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and guitarist. He wrote the foreword to his mother's new memoir.

Ellen, your family was very political. Your grandmother was accused of being a communist. And she was jailed. The center, the Folk Music Center, was started because your father was blacklisted. And he lost his job as a teacher. What was it like for you as a child to know that your grandmother had been jailed, that your father had lost his job, your family had to move as a result to start over again? And so you felt - I would imagine you felt that politics was important, and it was also risky and dangerous.

E HARPER: That's true. I - when my father was blacklisted and called before the HUAC in Massachusetts, I was 7 years old. And I can tell you, like, a brief story, what it was like, as a 7-year-old, to go back to school the first day after this news broke, that my father was fired for being a communist, because it was on the radio. It was in the newspaper. And it was even on the evening news, television news. And I went to school, as usual. It was a drizzly day. And when I - lining up in front of the school to go on into the building, the secretary of the school - that's what they were called at the time - asked me to step aside out of the line. And I noticed that kids were pointing and giggling and saying, you know, commie Jew remarks, pinko, pinko.

So she sent me out of the line. And then everyone went inside. She closed the door. And I was standing there looking at the door. I was wearing my most beloved pink raincoat and red galoshes. And it's drizzling rain. And I looked at that big door, and I thought, I am never wearing this raincoat again. It was pink. And that was that literal 7-year-old mind. So then to go home and try to tell my parents what a horrible day it was and to hear an ideological argument about why I have to get over it was not - it was not something that I could - that brain, that age of brain, could really absorb. So to me, it felt like, suddenly, nobody liked me anymore, something was wrong with me. And it took a few years to overcome that.

GROSS: Oh, yeah, because you were getting insulted at school because of your father's politics. And your parents, instead of - sounds like instead of comforting you, they said, hey, toughen up; just go back.

E HARPER: That's exactly what they did. And that's exactly what I did.

GROSS: So do you think it did strengthen you?

E HARPER: I think it strengthened me. But I think having your world turned upside down, just having the rug pulled right out from under you, from one day to the next, makes you feel that the world is not a secure place, that nothing is permanent.

GROSS: So - you know, Pete Seeger told your father, set up your own business. Do - you know, start this, like, shop to sell and repair instruments. And then you won't have to worry about being hired or fired. So your father must have known Pete Seeger - or I guess it was your mother who knew Pete Seeger well enough to say, hey, help us out here; give us some advice.

E HARPER: Yes, he did. My mother taught guitar and banjo lessons at Hecht House, which is a community center in Boston. And she took the classes over from Bess Hawes when Bess moved to California. And Pete used to come into the classes to see Bess and help out. So some of the classes were huge, and he'd help out. And he would come to my mother's classes occasionally as well. And one day I think my mother just prevailed on him to come to the house for dinner because my father was really sinking under that morass of no job and not able to protect his family.

So Pete came out and had dinner. And they got to talking politics, and then they got to talking banjos. My father, raised on a farm in New Hampshire, could fix anything. So it didn't take him long to figure out how a banjo would play at its best - what the action should be like and how to set it up and all the moving parts. And so he started with banjos and then moved to guitars. And he and Pete, in that conversation, got to talking about banjos, and he showed Pete some of the banjo bridges that he had designed. And Pete said that was just, you know, a phenomenal idea because banjo bridges always never seem to be right. And that's when he encouraged him to start his own store so that he wouldn't be beholden to the whims of politics.

GROSS: And, Ellen, you learned how to repair instruments, and you've done that in the Folk Music Center. And, Ben, you grew up learning how to do that.


GROSS: And it sounds like you almost did that professionally instead of becoming a musician.

B HARPER: Yeah, that - I was full-steam-ahead in luthiery and instrument construction and repair.

GROSS: So you almost did that professionally until your grandfather, Ellen's father, told you after a performance that you had a calling musically.

B HARPER: Yeah, I was doing repairs and fielding repairs from all the local music stores and had committed a good four or five years to learning the art of instrument repair - violin repair, the violin family, rehairing violin bows and all that. And yeah, it started to - the time I was spending playing the instruments that I was fixing started getting out of balance. I was playing them more than I was fixing them.

GROSS: Let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, I have two guests - Ellen Harper and Ben Harper. Ellen is the author of the new memoir "Always A Song: Singers, Songwriters, Sinners, And Saints - My Story Of The Folk Music Revival." Her son Ben is a Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and guitarist and wrote the foreword to the new memoir. We'll be right back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


E HARPER AND B HARPER: (Singing) My daddy is a farmer. That makes me the farmer's daughter. But it's no joke. We're always broke. Can't live on dirt and water. We can't live on dirt and water. We can't plant, and we can't grow. We can't reap, and we can't sow. Don't the own the seed. Can't plant our rows. It all belongs to Monsanto. It all belongs to Monsanto. Dupont, Dow and Monsanto - we are what we eat. They own the pollen, own the seed, own us from head to feet. They own the air we breath.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Ellen and Ben Harper. Ellen is the author of the new memoir "Always A Song: Singers, Songwriters, Sinners, and Saints - My Story Of The Folk Music Revival." In 1958, when she was 11, her parents founded the Folk Music Center in Claremont, Calif., which sold and repaired banjos and guitars, and where her mother taught banjo and guitar and where Ellen eventually did the same. When she was growing up, she was surrounded by folk music luminaries and was good friends with their children, like Jean Ritchie's daughter Judy, and Woody Guthrie's son Bill, who died in a car crash when he was in his 20s. Ellen grew up in the center, spent much of her life working there, giving music lessons and repairing instruments. She runs it now. She also spent years as an education professor at Cal State University in San Bernardino. Her son, Ben Harper, who is with us, too, also grew up in the Folk Music Center and became a Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and guitarist. He wrote the foreword to Ellen's new memoir.

Ellen, you became very close with Woody Guthrie's son Bill, and he died in a car crash when he was 23. And I think you were still in your teens.

E HARPER: I think I was about 15 1/2. I don't think I was even 16 yet.

GROSS: And you were very close to him. And it sounded like you really had a crush on him, too.

E HARPER: Yeah, I did have a crush on him. I guess he was sort of a first love.

GROSS: So one of the things he told you was that he didn't want to have children because he was afraid of inheriting the disease that killed his father, Huntington's disease. And when he died, you thought maybe he killed himself. Do you still think that?

E HARPER: I really don't know. It was a lot to absorb for someone my age if someone that I had a crush on, someone older than me - that he - when he confided in me how he felt, that was what came to mind. I just felt he was so distraught after having seen his father and then when his other - he had two sisters, and the second one got the disease - I felt that he may have been - have wanted to or thought about committing suicide because he just couldn't see a life for him. He thought if 2 out of 3 of the kids got it, he would probably get it. And I really don't know. It could have - it was a terrible railroad crossing. It was dangerous. They put in an underpass eventually, and perhaps it was just an accident. I don't think I'll ever know.

GROSS: There's a story that you tell, Ellen, that I'd like you to tell 'cause I think every woman who isn't, like, beautiful but has a friend who is very attractive might relate to this story. And it's a story about meeting Bob Dylan with a friend of yours who wasn't a close friend, who came backstage with you. And you had backstage access 'cause your parents knew everybody, including Bob Dylan.

E HARPER: Yeah, that's - you know, I had turned - what was I by then? Seventeen, I think. And my eye for fashion, the latest Nehru jacket and went to meet Bob Dylan after the show. And I got - what? - superseded by an attractive woman who was somewhat more maybe precocious than I was. And he was introduced to my parents. And he met them, and he shook their hands. And then his eyes just went straight past me to this lovely gal that had - was from my school. And they went to an after-after-show party. And standing there in my - like I think I said in the book - in my Nehru jacket, still wearing a training bra which I didn't need, I realized that she was a better choice for an after-after-show party, but I was stung by being overlooked.

GROSS: And you're the one who got the access.

E HARPER: Yes. And she just sort of slithered in behind us. And in retrospect, I have to hand it to her, you know? She was bold.

GROSS: You met your first husband, Leonard Harper, at a party in which there were some musicians jamming and Leonard was playing conga. And you write, he was the rare Black person among the usual mix of white Claremont musicians. So - you know, you met. You dated. You fell in love. You eventually married. You both knew that there would be problems that you would face as an interracial couple. And he had first split up with you claiming that it was because, you know, if you had children and - 'cause he thought marriage would be the next step - and if you had children, that will be really hard on the children. But you got together again. You had three children. What were some of the problems that you faced at the time? And what year are we talking about when you got married?

E HARPER: We got married in 1969 - early 1969. And I think I read a statistic that in 1968, only 17% of the American population approved of interracial marriage. And in fact, I think the Loving v. the state of Virginia had just - had very recently passed or been won. And so there was still a tremendous lack of acceptance of interracial couples.

And you know, we were pretty - if I could say so myself, pretty stunning. He was, you know, tall and slim and good-looking. And I wasn't so bad-looking myself back then. And we dressed to the nines and went out and did attract attention and a lot of it negative. I mean, there were times when - there was one time when Leonard was actually beaten up at a party we had stopped in. And that was pretty shocking. I didn't put that in the book. But that and the housing situation was very tight. Claremont, like so many Foothill communities, had covenants against selling to people of color or mixed couples. But you know, those - we were very together on that, and we were strong and we supported each other, and we challenged the system.

GROSS: So you had seen what could happen to a Black person in a white community that didn't want him there. When you were growing up, the couple who owned the house next door was leaving for a few years and was going to rent while they were gone. And they rented to an African American couple. The husband was a doctor, and there was a cross burned on the lawn. I mean, they were basically driven out in spite of their intentions to stay.

E HARPER: They were driven out. But they went straight back to that property that they purchased and where the cross had burned, and they built their house, and they lived there for the rest of their days.

GROSS: But you'd seen how the hatred can really become violent.

E HARPER: Yes, I had.

GROSS: So you weren't naive about that?

E HARPER: No, I wasn't. And I think Leonard and I both knew what we were facing when we made that choice and that there would be hard times. But that's not - interestingly enough, it wasn't about color or racism that brought the marriage down. It was addiction.

GROSS: He had been addicted in high school. It sounds like he had a really bad alcohol problem in high school. He wasn't drinking when you met, at least not visibly. But then the first night you saw him falling down drunk was on your wedding night. And eventually, it got really bad.


GROSS: And you tell the story of how, like, one night he beat you really badly.

E HARPER: Yes, he did. He - when I met Leonard and he said that he had had a drinking problem in high school, but that he had - he was - had taken care of it. He wasn't - he didn't have a problem anymore. I believed him 100%. We just didn't know much about addiction back then. We didn't have rehab centers. And people just weren't aware of what it meant. If you were an alcoholic, you probably - you didn't have the willpower to stop drinking, rather than having a disease or - and so as we approached life and our marriage, Leonard's problem did come back and get worse and worse. And I did - I went to Al-Anon as a way to learn to cope with it. And that was something he did not - I snuck out, actually. And he caught me, and he got very angry, yes. And he did get violent.

GROSS: Why was he angry that you went to Al-Anon?

E HARPER: I think Leonard - you know, with all the accumulated knowledge - and I've looked into lots of research on addiction - I think he probably had a serious anxiety problem. He had been - he went to therapy for a while, and they suggested that he was manic depressive, as they called it back then. And I think that alcohol was his medication. I think it was self-medicating. I think he was terrified of not having alcohol.

GROSS: Sounds like he'd been a high-functioning alcoholic, at least for a good deal of the time. He was an administrator, a college administrator, who was, you know, very respected and did quite well.

E HARPER: He was very respected. He was high functioning in the world, out in the world. And - but at home, it was a different story. And in one - I don't know if there was a time when he made a decision that he would just - he just wasn't going to fight it because there were times when he quit and stayed dry for quite a while. But as soon as he had one drink, he was lost again.

GROSS: Let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, I have two guests, Ellen Harper and Ben Harper. Ellen is the author of the new memoir "Always A Song: Singers, Songwriters, Sinners, And Saints - My Story Of The Folk Music Revival." Her son Ben is a Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and guitarist and wrote the foreword to the new memoir. We'll be right back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Ellen Harper, author of the new memoir "Always A Song: Singers, Songwriters, Sinners, And Saints - My Story Of The Folk Music Revival." In 1958, her parents founded the Folk Music Center in Claremont, Calif., which Ellen now runs. Her son Ben Harper, who's also with us, like his mother, grew up in the center. He's now a Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and guitarist. He wrote the foreword to her new memoir. When we left off, we were talking about Ellen Harper's first husband, Leonard, who developed an alcohol addiction and became physically abusive.

So the turning point for you was a night when he punched you several times, and you ended up with deep bruises, two dislocated ribs, one of which was fractured. You took your three sons and left, and that was that. You hired a lawyer and filed for divorce. You went to the ER, you know, that...

E HARPER: I did.

GROSS: ...You know, hours later. And the nurse there said to you, don't go back because he'll kill you. Maybe not the next time; maybe it'll be the time after that. But your mother gave you the advice - no, go back to him. You should be married - you were married, I think, for eight years. And she said, you should be married at least 10 years before you give up on the marriage. I was surprised she gave you that advice.

E HARPER: You know, my mother and Leonard were very close. My mother loved him. He loved her. And I think she just didn't want to see the end of the marriage. She was afraid that she'd lose him completely. I don't honestly know. You know, she had kept her marriage together through thick and thin, and maybe she just felt that - I was the first divorce in the immediate family. And maybe she just felt that divorce shouldn't happen in the family. I never did really figure that out with my mother. My father had a very different approach.

GROSS: Ben, how old were you when this happened?

B HARPER: I was 6.

GROSS: Were you afraid of him?

B HARPER: I was afraid of what I was seeing.

GROSS: That last time, when your mother had two dislocated ribs and one fractured, did you know the extent of her injuries then?

B HARPER: Yeah, that was the worst one. That was the one - that was the only one where I had tried to break it up, like, really, like, all right, enough. And then I had kind of just gotten tossed what felt about 20 feet against a wall. So that was the one where I was like, all right, that's it. Like, I've now got skin in the game here. That's it.

GROSS: Wow. What were the odds that a 6-year-old would be able to break up that fight?

B HARPER: It - you know, at that point, I wasn't so much about the odds as just having - had seen enough. And also, to be really clear, I had - much to the frustration at the time of a lot of my family - I did reach back. I made a point of reaching back to my dad. And a lot of people, all through the years - I don't understand why it didn't work. And that's not - I don't know your dad like that. But every interaction I would have with him, I mean, he'd have his flask. You know, he'd have - he'd always be carrying. It was always - you know, catching him sober was an art form, you know. And so it dogged him. It dogged him to the very end.

GROSS: So, Ellen, after you left your husband, you were the single mother of three young boys. What were their ages?

E HARPER: Six, 4 and 2.

GROSS: OK, that's hard. You were supporting yourself. And also, your children were biracial, and you were living in a predominantly white area.

B HARPER: And let's also be clear about that. Biracial didn't come into fashion until maybe, like, 2003. Like, Obama's the first Black president, you know what I mean? I mean, it's like, biracial is this wonderful pie-in-the-sky concept that America can't seem to really catch up with.

GROSS: Right. So you were Black, is what you're saying.

B HARPER: I mean, yeah. Let's just - pardon the pun, but let's call a spade a spade here.

GROSS: Yeah (laughter). Yeah. So, Ellen, what did that mean for you? Because that - you know, single mother, three Black children, white neighborhood. What were some of the things you were up against as a mother?

E HARPER: Well, as a single mother, there's plenty of challenges anyway, aside from the fact of not having any money or very much money. I did - the town, as much as it could make things difficult, could make things easy. It was a small town, knew everybody. There was a very close circle of people, and we did look out for each other. And my parents were very strong. They were always there for me and for my kids, whether they approved of me or how I was raising them or not. But they were definitely there and provided, I think, a really strong support system for the kids.

That being said, yes, I was raising three Black male children in a white area. Ben, I don't know if you remember this, but one time I was - we were - I don't know where I was driving, somewhere. And I had the three boys in the back of the car. And I got pulled over. The cop comes up to the window, and he said, do you know what you did? I said, no, I don't. He said, well, you rolled a stop sign. And meanwhile, the kids in the back seat - they're really little, maybe 3, 5 and 7 - saying, Mom, what is the policeman - what is the policeman asking? Mom, what - and he leans in the window, and he looks at the kids in the back. And he says, yeah, it's policeman now, but it'll be pig pretty soon.

And I realized at that moment that I had a lot to try to teach these kids that I hadn't really realized. I mean, it was a real - a dawning of me on what this meant. And I said something to the cop about - you know, I've raised my children to respect the police. And he said, well, I'm going to let you go with a warning. But it was real - I don't know if you want to say come-to-Jesus moment, but kind of that for me.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, I have two guests - Ellen Harper and Ben Harper. Ellen is the author of the new memoir "Always A Song: Singers, Songwriter, Sinners, And Saints - My Story Of The Folk Music Revival." Her son Ben is a Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and guitarist. We'll be right back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Ellen Harper, author of the new memoir "Always A Song: Singers, Songwriters, Sinners, And Saints - My Story Of The Folk Music Revival." In 1958, her parents founded the Folk Music Center in Claremont, Calif., which Ellen now runs. Her son Ben Harper, who is also with us, like his mother, grew up at the center. He's now a Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and guitarist. He wrote the foreword to her new memoir.

Ben, what are some of the things that you felt you were up against as a Black boy growing up in a white community?

B HARPER: Yeah, it was just always on the plate. It was always out in front of you. It was always - there was a couple of us, and we were friends. You know, from the whispers to the screams, I mean, it was always around the corner. It was always in front of us - what it meant and that we stood out in our own way. You know, nobody else used an Afro pick. Just nobody else looked like us in the neighborhood. But that - it was OK. My brothers and I had each other. And like my mom said, the neighborhood was insulated enough to where kids don't know any better until a certain age anyway.

GROSS: And you were seen not as biracial but as Black. So did you have a Black community outside of the one friend that you mentioned? And I'm wondering, too, if you know, like, books and music helped you find at least, like, an intellectual community and a musical community, even if they weren't physically with you?

B HARPER: Well, Terry, once you get into junior high and high school, you are no longer at liberty to decide where you want to be because you are placed by class, culture, creed and race the minute you walk on campus. The rich whites here. The poor whites there. Latin Americans here. Mexicans here. Blacks here. It's just waiting for you. You just walk into the machine. There's one part natural selection, one part institutional racism that you just walk straight into, and it spits you out the other side.

GROSS: Ellen, how did you try to protect them from racism?

E HARPER: Well, I guess I probably did what - how my father tried to protect us from the anticommunism, you know, very in a cerebral way, maybe too much so, you know, with the explanations about race and culture and history, which I'm sure they probably - it may have gone right past them at that age. So I tried to protect themselves - have them be able to protect themselves with knowledge. And we did have some friends around. I think that in the school that they went to, the elementary school, they made up about - what? - 30% of the Black population of the kids that were there. And, you know, protected - I went to bat at the school very often and, you know, to try and set things straight when things seemed unfair.

B HARPER: But also, Mom, important to note, you always - you provided us black role models on a regular basis, whether it be Bob Marley, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King. And, Terry, that comes full circle to your point of of her providing a knowledge of Black celebration, Black culture, Black arts. That was always - I mean, we just - we watched as much "Good Times" and "What's Happening!!" as we did "Happy Days" and "Laverne & Shirley." I mean, she brought - my mom brought a cultural awareness, a heightened cultural awareness into our home that always kept things balanced and level.

GROSS: I want to end with another song. And this is another duet that you recorded from the album of duets that you recorded in 2013 called "Childhood Home" that was released in 2014. Ben, you decided you wanted to do an album of duets with your mother. And this album was...


GROSS: ...The result. This is your song I want to play, "Born To Love You." Can you tell us about writing it before we hear it?

B HARPER: Yeah, it was one of the songs that came through in one swoop, went straight to the piano. And it was one of the songs, when I wrote it, I knew immediately where it was going to go, or I knew - I hoped it would go to my mom and I's record. And I held on to it for a good couple of years, and it made it on the album.

GROSS: It's a great song. Listen. I want to thank you both so much. You know, there are many takeaways from your book, Ellen, but one of the takeaways from the book and I think from this interview is that you both are part of a remarkable family and that you are both remarkable. Thank you so much for sharing some of your stories with us. Thank you.

E HARPER: Thank you so much for having us on the show.

B HARPER: Terry, thank you so much for having us on. It's a real honor. Thank you.


E HARPER AND B HARPER: (Singing) I was born to love you, born to love you, to love you. I was born to love you, born to love you, to love you.

E HARPER: (Singing) Thinking just the other day of something I've been trying to say, but I couldn't find the way to tell you I was born to love you.

B HARPER: (Singing) Some born to lose. Some born to win. They say we're all born into sin. That's a hard way to begin. But I was born to love you.

E HARPER AND B HARPER: (Singing) I was born to love you, born to love you, to love you.

B HARPER: (Singing) Some come in with a burden.

GROSS: That was Ellen Harper and her son Ben Harper from their album "Childhood Home." Ellen is the author of the new memoir, "Always A Song." Ben wrote the foreword.

When you think of the mob, you probably think of things like "The Godfather." But as Russell Shorto knows, there were also mob families in small cities all over America. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, he'll talk about his new memoir, "Smalltime," about his grandfather, a mob boss in Johnstown, Pa. The story involves rackets, political payoffs and the unsolved murder of a bookie. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineers is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


E HARPER AND B HARPER: (Singing) I live to love you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.