An interview with John Roth

In 2010, Minneapolis-based writer and curator Joan Rothfuss recommended arts attorney John Roth to the CLHP, proving once again our belief that exactly the right people come along at exactly the right time in the course of this project. (Lena, are you continuing to book people up there?) For 31 years, John has focused his legal work entirely on the arts and publishing.  He is one of the founders of the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, an international organization that produces and tours museum exhibitions of photography.  He knows publishing from all sides, since he has represented numerous authors as well as publishing companies, and has dealt with the full range of publishing houses,from the very small to the largest, including Random House. John’s interest and involvement with the CLHP has been a blessing, allowing us to move forward with project partners to preserve Lena’s materials and prepare select materials for publication to a wide public audience.

This summer CLHP intern Hannah Rank, another Minnesota native, joined the project. In a phone interview, Hannah had the opportunity to talk with John Roth about their shared Minnesota connections, Bob Dylan, arts advocacy, and John’s contributions to the CLHP:

My recent interview with Caffè Lena History Project’s legal advisor John Roth has made me realize how far this project has truly reached. Hailing from Minnesota, Mr. Roth speaks passionately about a project happening more than 1200 miles from his front door.

As a Minnesota native myself, the first CD given to me by my father was naturally a Bob Dylan compilation pack titled simply “The Essential Bob Dylan.” I was interested to hear Mr. Roth’s take on Caffè Lena, considering Dylan’s rich folk ties to Minnesota.

Mr. Roth’s connection to Caffè Lena started with an email from CLHP Director Jocelyn Arem, who had heard about him from a client of his: “…and that began the relationship with me responding to Jocelyn, looking at the website, becoming totally intrigued by the entire project…intrigued for a lot of reasons, you know, one being that I grew up listening to [folk music], as did a lot of people my age. I’m 60 now, so in the 60s what I listened to was the music that was being played at Caffè Lena!”

When I ask him about the type of work he does, and how that connects to Caffè Lena, he explains, “my legal practice is focused entirely on helping individuals and publishers and the like with their contractual and legal needs…so everything that Caffè Lena History Project was doing is exactly the sort of stuff that I worked on.” He tells me that his work with CHLP involves not only a legal role, as he helps in putting together contracts and release agreements, but also an advisory role because of his experience with other nonprofits.

His involvement with other nonprofit organizations shows his commitment towards and support of cultural preservation of all kinds. He is on the board of the Ernest Oberholtzer Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to preserving Mr. Oberholtzer’s impressive collection of books, photographs, and Native American artifacts. Oberholtzer, as Mr. Roth describes him, is one of the “unsung heroes of Minnesota and the wilderness protection of the North Country.” He has also worked as a director on the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, which explains another part of his motivation to work with CLHP: “It was not just simply my interest in music, it was also my strong interest in photography. I’ve work on a lot of photo books and photo exhibitions, and am a pretty large collector of photography.”

He has always been a music enthusiast though, and indeed was a co-founder of an organization called Concerts for the Environment, which for eight years produced concerts to help raise awareness and money for issues relating to the environment. These concerts, describes Mr. Roth, played all over the U.S., with the largest on the Washington D.C. mall with over 400,000 attendees. “So I’m fairly passionately interested in music as well,” he explains.

Growing up in another region of the U.S., South Carolina, also generated some of the interest for his work on the project, as his commitment to fighting racial inequality fit naturally into the work that many of the artists that Caffè Lena promoted: “That’s another thing that intrigued me about Caffè Lena: the involvement of the Caffè and the performers in the efforts to integrate this country.”

Beyond the essential work he’s doing as an advisor and legal counsel, he also contributes his enthusiasm for the focus on preservation of historic materials, which is apparent when I ask how he thinks the outcomes of this project will benefit those outside the Caffè Lena community:

“I think there’s an enormous benefit for everybody, because of the historical significance of the Caffè and performers that got there start there. And one of the things that I think is rather interesting is when I’ve talked to people in Minnesota about this and what we’re trying to do, with the exception of one person, no one had heard of Caffè Lena, BUT [regardless] everybody got excited about it. That is because of the importance of the music and what it did to the culture of America. Preserving that and informing people about what it is, I think it’s inherently valuable.”   -Hannah Rank

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