Songwriter pens tunes about local issues

By Larissa Gula

Local songwriter Mike Stout works not only as a musician, but also as an activist and community… Local songwriter Mike Stout works not only as a musician, but also as an activist and community leader.

In recent years, he’s worked on the board with Just Harvest, an organization that aims to end local hunger and poverty. He’s collaborated with the Coalition Against Offshore Drilling. And he’s gotten involved in the attempt to bring affordable health care to Pennsylvania.

“I only sleep four hours a night,” he said.

The people he works with on each project are as enthusiastic as he is, but Stout’s lack of sleep reveals just how much work he is doing and how much there is to be done with each project.

“There are dozens of people out there willing to help,” he said. “Unfortunately, we need hundreds.”

Stout’s work often chronicles the stories of people who, like him, have stood up to authority.

At a young age, in 1968, Stout played anti-war and civil rights songs in New York City, inspired by players like Bob Dylan. When he joined the steel industry and worked at Homestead Steel Works, he was elected a union head grievance man. The title would stay with him long after his steel industry days because of  a journalist’s review in which he was called “the world’s grievance man.”

“In the old steel mills people would register complaints with him and he would take it up with management,” said Paul Carosi, a publicist with Radio Free Tunes who assists with Stout’s music distribution online.

Stout worked in the steel industry for 20 years and used music to rally his co-workers in the union, fighting for pensions and unemployment benefits within the workforce. He went on to organize a benefit concert that drew international press in an attempt to combat foreclosures and unemployment within the steel mill.

Stout said his  experience in the industry “affected my outlook in the sense that, as a worker, you saw the need to see a manufacturing base. If it doesn’t provide decent jobs for people, everything else goes downhill. When you don’t have a manufacturing base it isn’t long before you lose a center. Then you have no jobs, and that’s what young people will experience if things aren’t reversed.”

Stout went on to compose upwards of 10 new albums since then, writing in a mixture of folk, rock and pop styles about his experiences and the experiences of people he finds interesting. He financed the recording of each album himself.

“I think 12 CDs by himself is more than almost anyone else, even people with labels,” Carosi said. “He just never quits. He finishes one CD and writes more. And he does it not because he’s become a big star making money. He does it because he believes in it all. He’s always going to meetings and is always involved with activities. He’s a busy guy. Even if you don’t agree with him you have to admire [that] he never quits.”

Stout said he writes about a mixture of topics, but primarily creates “songs about ordinary people we should remember.”

Carosi described those people as “heroes who stood up for people.” And after 40 years of songwriting, the challenge isn’t writing the music so much as telling the story.

“The stories are so deep and heavily laden with facts and biography,” Stout said. “Often it is difficult to tell as story in a three- or four-minute song. But it’s not difficult to write a song, so much as the life story.”

Stout’s most recent songs focus on contemporary issues, such as “29 Miners Buried and Gone,” which tells of miners who died following an explosion in the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. He also wrote a piece about the Marcellus Shale environmental issue that has attracted attention recently.

Songs that Stout writes “change my view of Pittsburgh and American history,” Carosi said. “Just hearing his music changed how I look at things. If you read history, people were protesting and people were killed, for years. But I was taught growing up people were loyal to their government.”

Stout simply believes that people “have to do what’s right” and that ignoring contemporary issues will only make problems grow. He protested during the civil rights movement and against the Vietnam War, despite negative comments.

“Young people at Pitt have the energy and passion, and enough brain left to go out and change the world for the better,” Stout said. “If you don’t now, you pay the price later.”