By Laura Ferreiro
With his deep, gravelly baritone and his acoustic guitar, Kris Kristofferson has championed causes ranging from promoting tolerance to defending human rights for decades. Often described as an outlaw poet, his journey has taken him from Oxford, England where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar, to working as a janitor at Columbia Studios in Nashville in hopes of breaking into the music business.
Since then, Kristofferson has become one of the world’s most respected singer-songwriters, formed the country super-group The Highwaymen with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, penned songs for hundreds of artists including Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Janis Joplin, and has starred in several Hollywood films.
Now, at age 75, he’s as active as ever, and will headline six concerts starting this week to raise funds and awareness for the United Farm Workers (UFW), marking the union’s 50th anniversary. UFW was co-founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in 1962, and works to provide farm workers with health and social services and to ensure fair working conditions.
“I’ve been working with the farm workers for about 30 years,” Kristofferson tells Music for Good. “I started doing it because I could identify with them and I admired Cesar Chavez. I grew up in the lower Rio Grande Valley in Brownsville, Texas and I was told that I spoke Spanish before I spoke English, so I could identify with the Mexican workers and was glad to do something to bring attention to their needs.”
Kristofferson says that witnessing Chavez’s work defending the rights of immigrant workers first-hand greatly inspired him, and he has supported UFW ever since he and the late civil rights activist became friends several decades ago. “The farm workers are doing work that’s needed everywhere and they need help because people pay them as little as they can get away with,” he explains.
The UFW is the oldest Latino organization to come out of the 1960s civil rights movement and the largest farm worker organization in America. Even 50 years later, many farm workers do not receive fair wages and must work and live in substandard and often dangerous conditions. UFW continues to be at the forefront of protecting America’s farm workers, ensuring a safe and just food supply and a safe working environment, free from intimidation and threats to achieve a higher standard of living for the workers and their families.
Kristofferson says that the struggles he’s endured throughout his life and his array of life experiences have helped him relate to the farm workers and become the artist and activist he is today. “I’ve had a lot of different jobs in a lot of different places and been in contact with a lot of human beings, which has made me who I am and affected how I look at the world around me,” he says.
Things have not always come easily to Kristofferson, who swept floors at Columbia Studios when trying to break into the music business. He even had the nerve to land a helicopter on Johnny Cash’s front lawn in hopes of persuading him to record one of his songs. When asked what possessed him to do it, Kristofferson explains: “I thought I might make an impression. I was flying with the National Guard for a brief time and I landed almost on his roof. But he wasn’t there. His groundskeeper came out and took the tape from me. (Cash) didn’t cut the song I gave him and I can’t believe I did that. I was hoping it would make an impression but I don’t know if it would have been a good impression!” he laughs.
Kristofferson, who says his schedule has opened up now that his youngest of eight children has finished school, plans to actively support Barack Obama in this year’s presidential election, and believes it’s his duty as an artist to speak out for the causes he cares about most. “If you can move somebody’s emotions, you can move their brains too,” he says. “If you have the opportunity to affect people’s way of thinking, then it’s your duty to do it. I’m glad that I’ve not antagonized enough people to make them kick me off the stage yet!” he laughs.
The week-long tour supporting UFW kicks off in San Diego on June 15 and will hit several cities throughout California including Bakersfield, Stockton, Fresno and San Jose. A different Latin artist will join Kristofferson for each night of the tour, including Los Lobos, Ozomatli, Mariachi Divas, and Los Tex-Maniacs featuring Mingo Saldivar.