Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

The Staple Singers: The Long March on Freedom’s Highway

StapleSinger_cover-450x450In April of 1965, just weeks after the historic marches for voting rights across Alabama, the Staple Singers convened at a South Side Chicago church for a service dedicated to the marchers. The resulting live album, Freedom Highway, has since become a recorded classic, merging soul-solid messages and spirit-rising music. Long out of print, it was reissued in an expanded edition this week to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches, though its gospel-sung dreams of justice for all are yet to be won.  Read my full review at Blurt online.

Filed under: Civil Rights, Concerts, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, Gospel, Reviews, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , , ,

Love Your Local Bookstore

4344631_origThis week, KQED-FM, San Franciso’s NPR- afffilate and longstanding listener-supported radio station aired my Perspective on the economic boom and resultant gentrification situation here in San Francisco specific to how it impacts small business and in particular, bookstores.  Longtime readers know that since I moved home following a decade-in-exile in Southern California, I’ve become more than a little concerned about the changing book scene here.  I observed as two beloved West LA community insitutions, Midnight Special and Dutton’s, closed their doors. Citing emerging technology and real estate development as part of the complex, the closings left an area arguably already culture-spare without an accessible, substantial independent bookstore. Believe me when I say readers were bereft, though they were at a loss at how to turn things around without the assistance of major donor intervention or legislation.

And yet, a question I’m often asked is, what’s my personal stake in the matter of San Francisco bookstores? As an author, my livelihood depends in a small part on the sales of my books. I review books. Many of my friends are authors and I want them to succeed:  I support their work as I can—much of our work goes on in bookstores and on the backs of each other’s books.  I like bookstores.  I work parttime for a bookstore. Without bookstores, my husband wouldn’t know what to do with his spare hours when he isn’t working tirelessly; they feed him with more inspiration and fuel so he can work some more (books are part of his creative process and ability to earn too).  Children need books so they may learn how to read. People learn languages, new things, chart new paths, and cure diseases thanks to the knowledge found in books. Must I go on? I could, but you can just as easily listen.

This small effort in San Francisco, from the campaign to support 50-year-old Marcus Books to the ongoing progressive mission of 43-year-old Modern Times Bookstore Collective has resulted in the formation of United Booksellers of San Francisco (UBSF).  We have a long way to go, but I hope you will tell your friends what we are doing and that you will join us in the struggle to keep our small bookstores and the literary culture to which they contribute strong and vital.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, column, Editorial, income disparity, It's Personal, , ,

Honoring Bob Marley at 70

Bob-Marley-look-like-today-photoHad he survived the cancer that killed him in 1981, Bob Marley would’ve been 70 today. Perhaps he would’ve looked something like this computer-generated image. Perhaps he would still be on the road and recording albums with some frequency, in the way, say Bob Dylan does. Or maybe he would enjoy staying at home with his many children and grandchildren in Nine Mile, the place he was born and buried. Whatever he’d be doing, it’s certain that we’re still singing his songs, the lion’s share of which concern revolution, no more war, and universal love; sadly, they are as relevant as they were in the days he wrote them.

In honor of the Tuff Gong’s 70th, his family has launched the #Share1Love campaign; it encourages hashtag activism—video-making and sharing—and the Marleys will donate a dollar for every creation to charities bringing clean water to countries and regions where it is most needed. The family also oversees the 1LoveFoundation, its mission to “do good in honor of Bob Marley’s vision of a better tomorrow.”

If you are unable to give, the best thing you can do today to remember Bob Marley is to keep it positive. In that spirit, I can’t resist this crazy rare clip of him lip synching with the  I Threes (“Roots, Rock, Reggae,” “One Love” and “Positive Vibration”).  It’s followed by the classic Wailers appearance on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1973 performing the more downbeat, “Concrete Jungle.” Happy Bob Marley Day to everyone.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Marley, Environmental Justice, income disparity, ,

Tales of the (Gentrification) City: Tom Heyman and Deirdre White

I’ve been working on a new column series based on real life stories from the heart of Gentrification City. The first one concerns songwriter and recording artist Tom Heyman and visual artist and community college instructor Deirdre White, a couple of longtime Mission District residents who’ve found a way to survive in high-tech town as working artists.

That Cool Blue Feeling album by Tom Heyman. Cover photo by Deirdre White

That Cool Blue Feeling album by Tom Heyman. Cover photo of sunset in the Outer Richmond by Deirdre White

Debuting this week at Down With Tyranny, I’m seeking a permanent home for the serial (it might be here, there or elsewhere).  Until then, please find the first installment here and let me know what you think:  The story is just beginning. Turns out this 49(ish) square mile patch of scenic beauty is smaller than ever before. The lives of those of us who remain here are all very much interconnected.

I look forward to sharing the stories of 21st Century San Francisco with you and am exceedingly grateful I’ve been given the opportunity to do so.  Until the next installment, I’ll be here riding the waves and the ropes, too. Stand strong people:  They can’t take away our souls or the songs in our hearts…

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, column, serial, Sunnyside Up, Tales of the Gentrification City, , , , , ,

MLK: The Last Holiday

01269r-1“In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.

This weekend I joined hands with Down With Tyranny! to present a series of guest blogs. Following a bit of background on the creation of the King holiday by a musician, I write a little about the music in the extraordinary film, Selma, and direct listeners to the old songs that still sing out strong during the current justice movement afoot in the US.

Yesterday’s post concerns the State of San Francisco following last week’s mayoral address.  Tuesday will feature an everyday story of gentrification and how it is impacting the lives of two working people here in town.

Wishing you peace and enjoyment of this day of service.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, , , ,

We’re On The Freedom Side

There’s a new version of the labor standard, “Which Side Are You On?” going around: Sung at the Black Lives Matter and Blackout Coalition actions, it’s also been used as the intro and outro marching song at some of the Black Brunch protests.

Malcolm X was a freedom fighter
And he taught us how to fight
We go’n’ fight all day and night
Until we get it right
Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on?

In the early ’30s when the United Mine Workers of America began to organize around Eastern Kentucky (in an effort to end practices like payment in scrip and pay docking toward rent in substandard housing) it was Florence Reece, a Kentucky miner’s daughter and wife who wrote the original lyrics to “Which Side Are You On?”.  It remains a labor movement standard.

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

Blair was the sheriff who rousted Reece’s family during the strike among Harlan County mine workers, just one of the struggles which contributed toward the region earning its nickname “Bloody Harlan County.”   In the ‘70s, workers struck again and Reece reprised the song for striking miners (preserved in this clip from Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award-winning documentary, Harlan County U.S.A.).

The song’s melody is said to be based on a hymn, “Lay the Lily Low.” Some researchers believe it is the same song that forms the basis for the traditional “Jack-a-Roe,” (also known as “Jack Munro”), its best-known version performed by the Grateful Dead. But I think that somewhere in the Kentucky mountains, singers have been intoning this strange melody for hundreds of years, its deep minor tones more reminiscent of the mystic drone of a Gregorian chant than anything known to folk or gospel. Whatever its melody’s true origins, “Which Side Are You On?” was first repurposed during the Civil Rights Movement by topical singer-songwriter Len Chandler (you can hear his recorded version on the album, WNEW’S Story of Selma).

Come all you Northern liberals,
Take a Klansman out to lunch
But when you dine instead of whine
You should serve nonviolent punch
Which side are you on? Which side are you on?

Chandler told me his story, of how he came to be a topical singer in Greenwich Village, then moved on to marching with Dr. King from, Selma to Montgomery (he appears in archival footage in the new film, Selma). “I’d write a song like that and then I’d be singing it in a mass meeting that night. People would be playing and singing for forty five minutes, until you were just worn out,” he said. Fifty years later, he remains in pursuit of social justice through action and song (Chandler’s full story appears in Keep on Pushing). I learned from listening to Chandler’s songs and to his songtalk, and by studying the work of freedom singers like Odetta, Bernice Johnson and voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, that group singing among activists gives people who may start the night as strangers a chance to bond. Communing over songs, we become more bound to purpose. Singing together is energizing, nourishing, and feeds the spirit; it provides strength to move forward, together as one. But group singing for justice serves a further purpose beyond what some mock as a moment to join hands and sing “Kumbaya”:  In the fight for non-violence, singing has the ability to disarm.

Hamer practiced the power of song when she sang alongside Chandler and other SNCC volunteers at the mass meetings and marches, through her representation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic Convention and on to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Women at the forefront of workers organizing, who’ve pushed for voting and employment rights, and led the fights to end war, poverty, and racism across the planet all know well the power of song: Whether Hamer, Reece, or Ani DiFranco (who updated the song in 2012 then titled her collection of socially conscious songs, ¿Which Side Are You On?) or the Black Lives Matter and Blackout Coalition organizers, women are allied in a long and storied legacy of traditional and gospel song.  With songs we have contributed to toppling apartheid in South Africa, had voting rights granted in the US, fought warlords in Liberia and begun to make corrections to the broken justice system in the USA. With songs that have traveled the road from blues to hip hop, we will continue toward freedom for all people. It’s good to hear the timeless soundtrack to justice making a comeback. Now, which side are you on?

Filed under: anti-war, Civil Rights, Coal Mining Songs, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Origin of Song, , , , , ,

Margaret Cho’s on a Mission: Helping Homeless Youth in San Francisco

“If you have, give. If you need, take.” That is comedian and San Francisco native Margaret Cho’s simple, seasonal message to the people of her hometown and so far the directive is working: Staging impromptu street performances, Cho is devoting two months to raising awareness and much-needed funds and supplies for the homeless here, in memory of her philanthropic comic inspirer, Robin Williams.

Cho for change, Market and Powell, San Francisco (photo courtesy Gerard Livernois)

Cho for change, Market and Powell, San Francisco (photo courtesy Gerard Livernois)

“With Comic Relief he raised 70 million dollars for homelessness causes,” claims Cho of the series of televised charity shows and events hosted for over 20 years by Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, and Billy Crystal. Calling from San Antonio where she was performing her stand up act over the weekend, Cho explained, “He had written into his contracts that a certain percentage of homeless workers had to be employed on the set. He was very conscious of homeless people and he turned in perhaps the greatest performance of a homeless person ever in The Fisher King.” The loss of Williams this year she says, was more than the death of a dangerously depressed fellow comedian and street theater vet. “We lost a passionate activist.”

Read the Entire article at 48 Hills:

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, income disparity, new article, San Francisco News, , , , ,

December 8: Strange Days, Indeed

Remembering Jim Morrison’s birth and John Lennon’s death.  Rest in peace, brothers. Your energies and ideas are still very much needed here on earth.john-lennon-eyeglassesjim-morrison-2

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, , , , , ,

New Doors Single Benefits All Tribes

Ghost Song FNLYou have to hand it to the Doors’ drummer John Densmore: For over 40 years he’s refused to cave-in to requests from advertisers to use his band’s music in commercials when artists of more stature have not hesitated to compromise.

So why has this drummer (largely regarded to be a rock band’s low man) managed to stay so hardline and true when it comes to decision-making? “You know a long time ago Jim Morrison kinda blew up at us because we were considering ‘C’mon Buick light my fire…’ Because the dough looked good and we were young.  And Jim didn’t primarily write that song, and I thought God, he cares about the catalog, what we represent in general, the whole thing.  And he’s dead. And I’m not.  So I’m not gonna forget that,” said Densmore. His most recent book, The Doors: Unhinged, chronicles his battle with his former bandmates for the rights to the Doors name and his efforts to keep their musical legacy clean, while serving as the drummer’s meditation on greed—how it impairs people and society.

In a world filled with clutter, contradiction, and compromise, this past Black Friday, the Doors issued a limited edition single of “Ghost Song” b/w “Drums,” its sleeve designed by Shepard Fairey. “Ghost Song” is of course plucked from Morrison’s poetry, the one that nods to Indians…scattered on dawn’s highway, bleeding… “Drums” is a composition by Peter La Farge recorded by Densmore for Rare Breed, a tribute to the songs of La Farge (first popularized when Johnny Cash cut them on his 1964 Native American-themed album, Bitter Tears).  Both Fairey and Densmore advocated staying out of stores on Friday, but for those who ignored the boycott (protesting over-consumption and the shooting of Mike Brown) and just couldn’t resist shopping, proceeds of their Doors purchase went to the Honor the Treaties organization which funds collaborations between Native artists and Native advocacy groups. Again, you can thank Densmore for that.

So when people ask me, as they often do, why I should want to write a book about Jim Morrison and the Doors, I tell them there is more to the band than its singer’s alcoholism and “Light My Fire.”  In fact, there is a deep well of influence from which the band has drawn, though it generally remains hidden from view. Tonight at the Balboa Theatre in San Francisco, I will be noting the publication of my book Shaman’s Blues which delves into some of those influences by introducing the Doors documentary When You’re Strange (2009), directed by Tom DiCillo. Both the film and the book are additions to an already healthy pile of Doors-related material on view and for sale—it is arguable whether the world needs more of the same.  And yet these two 21st century Doors artifacts drive home a similar point: Here is a band that succeeded where its peers and contemporary artists have failed to hold the line: They chose not to sell-out.  That’s something worth remembering, documenting, and celebrating.

Filed under: Uncategorized, , , , , , ,

November 20, 1969: Indians Claim Alcatraz

On November 20, 1969, All Tribes of the Native Nations occupied the island of Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay. The taking of the former state penitentiary (the one that once held down gangster Al Capone and the notorious “Birdman,” famous for escaping it) was a major awareness-raising event, illuminating the treatment and near-extinction of Native people in the US. Issues like land theft and other deceptions served to Americans were in process of being clarified for all of us by members of the Native Nations: the Indians had longer-term plans to establish a culture center on the Rock, but federal authorities ultimately ended the peaceful occupation—with force—after a 19-month stand. Today, the former prison operates as a museum; it is presently hosting an art installation of work by renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, with reference to the island’s Native American protest past)

Among those who heard the call to gather in 1969 was John Trudell (Santee Sioux) who served as a broadcaster, the Voice of Alcatraz. Radio Free Alcatraz reached the airwaves daily via KPFA in Berkeley and KPFK in Los Angeles (the Pacifica radio network). “He is extremely eloquent, therefore extremely dangerous,” says the note in Trudell’s FBI file. In 1979, Trudell lost his wife, his three children and his mother-in-law in a mysterious house fire. The event was a turning point toward his life as a poet, musician and actor; miraculously his spirit remains outspoken and free.

Deborah Iyall (Cowlitz) was just a teenager at the time of the occupation: She ran away from her childhood home (with her mother’s blessing) to join the protestors on Alcatraz. “I remember a song this woman Oona taught me at the powwow… I felt like I had these little nuggets and culture to hang on to.” Iyall remained on the Rock for a few foggy and cold nights before returning home, but her introduction to a creative Native person helped shape her own identity as a professional visual artist, poet and musician (Iyall recorded and toured as the frontwoman of Romeo Void and remains a solo artist. Read more on the lives of Debora Iyall, the work of John Trudell, Buffy Sainte-Marie and other artists inspired by the American Indian Movement in Keep on Pushing).

The anniversary of the Alcatraz occupation, the annual sunrise Thanksgiving Day ceremony there, the team sports protests and the ongoing violation of Indian lands made it an Indian news-filled week here in Nor Cal, but then, here in the US, everyday is an opportunity to remember what the Indian people sacrificed for US and to say thank you for their land which the rest of us occupy.

Thanks to Mary Jean Robertson—host of Voices of the Native Nation, broadcasting every second, third, and fourth Wednesday of the month on KPOO—for bringing the news to Natives and their allies. Last night she played the above clip by Redbone, released in 1970 at the height of the occupation, with footage collected from more recent sunrise ceremonies. 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Buffy Sainte-Marie, California, Environmental Justice, income disparity, , , , ,

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