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How West Chester’s tiny Appleseed Recordings attracts stars like Bruce Springsteen

The Grammy winning West Chester record label with a political mission is celebrating 21 years in the business.

Jim Musselman, head of Appleseed Recordings in his West Chester home office Friday October 12, 2018. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer .
Jim Musselman, head of Appleseed Recordings in his West Chester home office Friday October 12, 2018. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer .Read moreDavid Swanson

How does Jim Musselman persuade big-name artists like Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Morello, Joan Baez, and Donovan to put out music on the tiny label he runs out of his West Chester home?

"A lot of persistence," says the founder of Appleseed Recordings, the music-with-a-mission label he founded in 1997. "And they understand the big picture of what I'm trying to do."

The Chester County company is celebrating an odd-numbered anniversary with a new three-CD release called Appleseed's 21st Anniversary: Roots and Branches. "The label is now old enough to drink," Musselman quips.

It's a 57-song overview of the label, which has released 160 albums — and garnered 16 Grammy nominations — mixing new recordings with songs from the company's two-decade history. There are contributions from all those named above, plus Sweet Honey in the Rock, John Wesley Harding, Steve Earle, Judy Collins, Ani DiFranco, actor Tim Robbins, oral historian Studs Terkel, and many more.

Musselman is a true-believer folkie and political crusader whose life was transformed when he heard Bob Dylan singing "Positively Fourth Street" on the radio while in high school in Allentown in the 1970s.

He got his musical education as an undergrad at Villanova, hanging out at the legendary Main Point in Bryn Mawr, where he first saw many of the acts he would later work with at Appleseed.

He then prepared for a career in the music business in an unorthodox way: by working as a lawyer in Washington alongside Ralph Nader. The former Green Party presidential nominee wrote a  blurb for Roots and Branches with a consumer advocacy joke: "Appleseed is safe at any speed."

With Appleseed, Musselman's modest goal has always been to do with music the same thing his heroes, like Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger and Baez and Dylan, did: change the world.

"Appleseed is a link in the chain," says the record exec, who has run the company with longtime employee Alan Edwards, as well as with assistance from his daughter Justine, 22.  "I'm trying to use music as a tool for social change."

In its own little-label-that-could way, Appleseed aims to shine light on injustice, and to do justice to older artists whom Musselman feels the fickle music industry has been short-sighted in casting aside.

"It's about educating people through music," says Musselman. "And also keeping songs alive."

Appleseed made its mark from the start. Musselman was inspired to get into the business after visiting Belfast in Northern Ireland in 1995. Working with singer Tommy Sands, he produced a version of Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" that achieved the rare feat of getting radio play on both Catholic and Protestant stations in the divided country.

That song became the title track of a two-volume 1998 Seeger tribute album, a various-artists compilation that included the Springsteen version of "We Shall Overcome" that became a popular song of healing in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks.

The song pointed the way forward to Springsteen's 2006 Seeger Sessions, an album that Musselman catalyzed by feeding song ideas to the Boss and his manager Jon Landau.

Roots and Branches connects back to Appleseed's beginnings. It starts off with "Oh Sacred World," a spoken recitation from Seeger, who died in 2014 and who released five albums on Appleseed, two of which, 2008's At 89 and 2010's Tomorrow's Children, were Grammy winners. It's followed by a previously unreleased Springsteen recording of the folk standard "If I Had a Hammer" that's a Seeger Sessions outtake.

Roots' first disc, Let the Truth Be Told, "is a snapshot of America today," with issue-oriented songs that take on various in-the-news topics, several of which are addressed in the album's most surprising track: Rage Against the Machine guitarist Morello's politicized rewrite of AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap."

Other topics addressed include the opioid crisis in Anne Hills' "Needle of Death," police violence against African Americans in Sweet Honey's "Second Line Blues," immigration with Tom Russell's version of Springsteen's "Across the Border," and school shootings in John Wesley Harding's "Scared of Guns," which includes the Philly songwriter's 12-year-old daughter Tilda reading aloud amounts that the National Rifle Association has donated to various Republican lawmakers.

The second disc, The Wisdom Keepers, is less politically inclined. Its subtitle comes from "the Native American term for elders in society who, as they got older, were respected more and more," says Musselman, who's in his 50s but who won't reveal his exact age.

"One of my great prides with Appleseed is to give second winds to the careers of artists like Jesse Winchester and Tom Rush," he says.

Roots' final disc, Keeping Songs Alive, means to revive tunes drawn from oral folk traditions, Musselman says, "going back to when immigrants came here and all they had was the shirt off their back and their songs." Mexican American vocalist Lila Downs sings "El Quinto Regimiento" from Appleseed's 2003 Spain in My Heart: Songs of the Spanish Civil War, and Kim and Reggie Harris' "Wade in the Water" is from 1997's Steal Away: Songs of the Underground Railroad.

Harding, the English-born songwriter who writes novels under his given name, Wesley Stace, is also on the third disc, with "Canadee-I-O," a song from Trad Arr Jones, which gathered folk songs arranged by British guitarist Nic Jones, and which Appleseed released in 2003.

Stace says Musselman "knows the worth of not only making money, but also something bigger than that. There are plenty of artists like that. But not too many businesspeople."

The British songwriter rewrote "Scared of Guns," originally recorded in 1988, at Musselman's request. Recorded with his new band Corporal Quorum — a play on Procol Harum — it's the hardest-rocking track on Roots and Branches.

It's also typical of the issue-oriented approach to protest music that Musselman feels is the most effective. "It's about being on the right side of history," he says.

He finds the divisions in American society "terrifying. Nobody's ever going to change their minds about anything because there's just total polarization in the media." Most of all, he's concerned about the compassion deficit. "We don't feel anymore when 20 kids get shot. We've become numb to it."

He does see reason for optimism, though: "My faith is in the millennials. The way they're ripping down everything. They don't want to put up with the B.S.  … That's my rare hope, the millennials," he says with a laugh. "I hate to put that pressure on them."

While compiling Roots and Branches, Musselman resisted temptation. "I didn't put an anti-Trump song on there," he says. "Believe me, I've got a thousand of them. But it's issues that matter, and issues will be here long after Trump is gone, so I wanted to stay focused on that."

Appleseed's issue-oriented protest folk runs the risk of coming across as lecturing and less than artful. But in today's contentious environment, the Musselman mission is in step with the zeitgeist, says Stace.

"It's a great label," the songwriter says. "The reason that he gets Springsteen and Morello and Baez and Donovan is that they know he's one of a kind. Sometimes that one-of-a-kind thing can be a little old and square. And sometimes it can seem very  with-it and current. And I'd say his time is now."