The Keswick Theater, an aging beauty in Glenside, Pennsylvania, was throbbing with the anticipation of toddlers and their exhausted parents, whose faces betrayed both pride in having made it to kid song nirvana and deep exhaustion. We were all gathered to watch Raffi, the 70-year-old, Cairo-born troubadour turned singer of songs about arctic whales turned timeless naptime Willie Nelson.
Raffi Cavoukian, in case you just woke from an extended coma, burst onto the scene with 1975’s Good Luck Boy but really lit people’s wigs on fire with 1976’s Singable Songs for the Very Young, which included such hits as “Down by the Bay” and “The More We Get Together.” Over the years, as Raffi went from swarthy Lothario to saintly eminence grise, his fan base maintained a sempiternal innocence. He aged; they didn’t. Well, mostly. The Keswick, a stop on Raffi’s never-ending tour to support his new album called Dog on the Floor — about his dog, Luna, who hangs out on the floor — was filled with kids and former-kids eager to pass the aural baton. Also, there was also a contingent of childless Raffi superfans, middle-aged ladies in overalls who knew the words to every song and laughed heartily at his pat banter.
Walking on stage with nothing but a guitar strapped over his shoulder, Raffi looked spritely, like Dylan at Royal Albert Hall — a man and his guitar against the world. In a plaid shirt and brown thick wale corduroys, Raffi’s once-obsidian beard has turned salt-and-pepper though his fulsome eyebrows remain jet black. He isn’t stylish; he is comfy and comforting, a man of the little people.
One of Raffi’s most engaging qualities as a performer is, unsurprisingly, his child-like sense of wonder. Onstage, this takes the form of (mildly) self-deprecating banter. “You might now know this song….” he leads off with, before breaking into “Baby Beluga,” which everyone knows. The audience goes wild. Or at least the parents do. The enthusiasm is half-real, half-faux, meant to model excitement for the kids, but it contains the true pleasure of recognition. The kids smile contentedly and join in on the chorus. Raffi smiles from his perch. This is nothing new, but that doesn’t matter. Joy is joy.
Onstage Raffi’s persona is avuncular and avowedly apolitical. But on social media — yes, even Raffi tweets — he has become something of a lightning rod, frequently trolling Trump with impish abandon. Recent entrants in the endless Raffi drag: “The word #emoluments sounds oddly exotic. crazy language, English.” and simply “#ResistFascism.” If this feels like a shocking twist for a man seemingly obsessed by the various motions of bus parts, it’s not. Raffi is a folk singer, in the mold of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, whose guitar sported the famous sticker, “This machine kills fascists.” That’s not precisely what Raffi’s machine does, but it’s not far off.
Fatherly spoke to Raffi about being an icon, an old hippie, and a working musician.
I wanted to talk a bit about your inspirations and music, which may not get the critical attention it deserves. Can you tell me a little bit about, I’d love to start with your musical background.
I was born of Armenian parents in Cairo, Egypt but we moved to Toronto when I was ten years old. In my teens I was singing in the Armenian church choir where my father was the choirmaster. So I was singing soulful songs with beautiful harmonies. That was, in a way, my introduction to music.
When I was 16, I got my first guitar at a pawn shop, I learned how to play a bunch of chords. I was learning songs from the Beatles, and Gordon Lightfoot, and Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary. Pete Seeger was a hero of mine as well.
So you wanted to be a folk singer.
I was a folk singer. I dropped out of university in second year, with six weeks to go. I said to myself, “I want to sing.” I’d hoped for a modest career entertaining adults, someone like James Taylor who, at the time, was…
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