It takes unusual talent to write a song with a great hook that becomes a perennial hit. Longtime Hudson Valley resident and Orleans co-founder John Hall has done it more than once. Is there a wedding anniversary party anywhere that doesn’t have “Still the One” on the playlist? But it takes truly extraordinary talent to write a political anthem that tugs at the heart and gets sung in unison by crowds at rallies. John Hall has done that, too. If you lived through the environmental movement or ever attended an anti-nuke demonstration, you know his gorgeous song “Power.” You’ve probably even sung along on the chorus.
Anthems being a thing that Hall is good at, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a highlight of his 2021 album Reclaiming My Time falls squarely into that category. “Save the Monarch” is a plaintive hymn to the endangered creatures of our beleaguered planet, citing a roster of species with royal names and bringing a guilty tear to the human eye every time the refrain comes around again: “Save them from us.”
While the LP has been out since May, a new video of “Save the Monarch” has recently been released, viewable at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3y2L4jyyJo. It was produced by “a keyboard player named Rob Arthur who played with Peter Frampton for a couple of decades,” Hall explains. “It turned out that he had a talent for directing and editing video.”
Hall duetted on vocals at Millbrook Sound with Dar Williams, and the instrumental tracks were laid down at Scott Petito’s studio in Catskill, NRS Recording. But the visuals of the two singers were shot separately, with Hall in front of a green screen to make room for plenty of stock footage of charismatic fauna. “Dar had her son shoot her on her porch in Cold Spring,” Hall says. It’s not hard to tell that the recording was done in the thick of COVID social distancing, as both performers look about as scruffy as we all did during lockdown, with Hall sporting several days’ growth of stubble.
The animals make up for it, though, supplying ample eye candy to accompany the song’s stirring message. The species featured in the lyrics each have some sort of regal title: monarch butterfly, king condor, emperor penguin, queen honeybee. Hall explains how he arrived at this particular hook: “I realized that there are more people worrying about what’s happening to the British royals than about the white-nose disease that’s killing bats or the insecticides killing butterflies… We’re in the middle of what some are calling the Sixth Extinction. Habitats are being disrupted, roads are being built through them, wetlands are being paved.”
Environmental activism has been in Hall’s blood for decades now. Inspired by the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, he was one of the founders of the organization Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE) and helped organize the 1979 No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden and Battery Park. He went on to serve, along with Dar Williams, on the board of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. Alternative energy was a major plank in Hall’s platform when he successfully ran for the US House of Representatives in 2006 and 2008, representing the 19th District, although his most enduring legislative success – “my biggest impact in Congress” – was passage of the Veterans’ Claims Modernization Act.
Reclaiming My Time, the title of his sixth and most recent solo album, is a phrase commonly heard when representatives get interrupted on the floor of Congress. For Hall, it’s an allusion to the music that he might have written and played during ten years in elective office. It’s also a reference to the time that so many of us feel that we have lost to the isolation necessitated by COVID-19. “We’ve all been suffering to some degree from PTSD due to the pandemic. The losses have an impact on everybody.” Thus, a song that he wrote and recorded for release in Japan back in the 1990s – “Welcome Home,” about a Vietnam veteran suffering from flashbacks – fits in well with the new LP’s overall theme.
Currently living in Nashville, though he keeps a pied à terre in Columbia County and continues to visit the Hudson Valley regularly, Hall says that he has mainly been spending his time writing of late. His main songwriting collaborator on Reclaiming My Time was John Paul Daniel, to whom the song “Alone Too Long” is dedicated. But a couple of numbers were co-written with local author Tad Richards, and one each with Sharon Vaughn, Jonell Mosser and Steve Wariner. Hall even reunited for one song, “Now More than Ever,” with ex-wife and longtime collaborator Johanna Hall.
Rattled by the 2012 death of founding member Larry Hoppen, Orleans is once again an active band, recently releasing a Christmas album called New Star Shining. They’re back on the road to celebrate the group’s 50th anniversary this year. “As the Omicron variant fades, it’ll be safer for people to get together and listen to music,” John Hall predicts hopefully. You can catch him with Orleans live at the Paramount Hudson Valley in Peekskill on Friday, May 13; visit www.orleansonline.com/tourdates.html for more touring info. You can stream Reclaiming My Time online at https://johnjhall.bandcamp.com/album/reclaiming-my-time.