April 4, 2013 • 12:17 am 0
February 6, 2013 • 9:16 am 0
“I and I vibration is positive (got to have a good vibe),” sang Bob Marley. Nesta Marley was born on February 6, 1946 in the Nine Mile village of St. Ann’s Parish, to a black mother and a white father. Shuttling between two worlds, two homes, Marley translated a fractured urban/rural experience into a music with an alarmingly positive vibration that also sent a message. Born from an expression of outrage at injustice and frustration at western societal values, Marley’s sound was as unique as it was soulful and universal; today, his image serves as an international symbol of peace and liberation. There were of course detractors—people who found fault with Marley’s brand of “Rastaman vibration”, his strength and his convictions. “Government sometimes maybe don’t like what we have to say,” he once said. “Because what we have to say too plain”, while non-believers had little patience for what they heard as platitudinous refrains, along the lines of “Every little thing gonna be alright ” from the song, “Three Little Birds.”
Doom-saying, despair, negativity and futility were not in Marley’s repertoire: “Why not help one another on the way? Make things much easier,” he sang. He also backed up the message in the music with action, as in 1978, when he was called out of exile by Jamaican authorities and asked to return home to Kingston, to join the effort to help quell escalating violence there. At the One Love Peace concert, Marley called opposing party leaders Michael Manley and Edward Seaga to the stage and raised their hands in a show of unity.
Taking his cues from the messaging in the records of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, the teachings of Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey (a Rastafari prophet), and with devotion to Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie whom he believed to be the incarnation of Jah or God, Marley, alongside Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh, brought reggae music to the world as the Wailers. Their songs provided not only temporary relief from fear, loneliness, isolation and other human conditions, they were also stepping stones toward solutions to world war, poverty, famine, and all forms of human rights violations. A short life with maximum impact, Bob Marley died of cancer in 1981 at the age of 36; his eulogy was delivered by Prime Minster Seaga.
In this upcoming clip, comedian/activist Dick Gregory pays tribute to Marley’s work as he introduces him to the stage at the Amandla–Festival of Unity for Southern Africa, held at Harvard Stadium in 1979 (the event also attempted to shed light on race relations in Boston). Marley is accompanied by his band and the I Threes, featuring Judy Mowatt, Marcia Griffiths and his wife, Rita Marley.
More on Bob Marley and music activism in Keep on Pushing
January 15, 2013 • 11:20 am 0
It was a long road to the third Monday in January when all 50 states will observe the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the day named in his honor in their own unique ways. Largely owed for making the dream of a King holiday a reality is Stevie Wonder, who back in 1980, wrote the pointed song “Happy Birthday,” then launched a 41-city U.S. tour (and invited Gil Scott- Heron along) to promote the idea which was first mooted by Rep. John Conyers in 1968. The musical efforts were ultimately the key in collecting the millions of citizen signatures that had a direct impact on Congress passing the law signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, declaring a day for MLK. Observed for the first time in 1986, some states were late to the party, however, by the turn of the 21st Century, all were united in some form of remembrance of the civil rights giant. “Happy Birthday”, which served as the Wonder-campaign theme (and is now the “official” King holiday tune) is the last track on Hotter Than July. The album also features “Master Blaster”, Wonder’s tribute to Bob Marley who had been scheduled for the tour until he fell too ill to participate. Stepping into the breach was Scott-Heron whose 2011, post-humously published The Last Holiday, details his own journey with music and activism, while it retraces the long and winding road Wonder took to bring home a US federal holiday with the help of a song. The tour brought Gil and Stevie to Oakland, where they played in the name of King, as did Rodney Franklin and Carlos Santana, on the shocking night John Lennon was killed (though that is a story better read in Scott-Heron’s memoir).
In King’s birthplace of Atlanta, Georgia, the King Center, has a full schedule of events currently underway; the celebrations and various symposiums are of course dedicated to the King’s teachings in non-violence. In San Francisco on January 21, there will be an all-day celebration of King’s life at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from 11 a.m. — 5 p.m. The City of Santa Monica also has a full weekend schedule of events beginning on Friday. The photo above was of course taken during the historic “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on August 28, 1963 at the March on Washington now in its 50th anniversary year. Had he lived, Dr. King would’ve been 84 today—and still dreaming.
January 10, 2013 • 9:03 am 0
Two albums credited for fusing the politics of black liberation with the sound of freedom are Sonny Rollins’s Freedom Suite—the first experiment in 1958—and We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite— the fulfillment of the form. Born for the record in rural North Carolina on January 10 (by his family’s recollection it was the 8th) 1924, and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Roach was not only an innovative drummer who revolutionized jazz rhythms, he was actively engaged as a civil rights advocate and performed frequently for the cause. His Freedom Now Suite was initially conceived as a performance piece to coincide with the fast-approaching centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963: Fifty years later, as the historic document that freed all slaves celebrates its 150th anniversary, Roach’s piece with vocals by his then-wife Abbey Lincoln, (with Coleman Hawkins on sax, Olatunji on congas and lyrics by Oscar Brown Jr.) sounds as radical as the ’60s revolution in words and sound it helped to launch.
The cover art, in bold black and white, was groundbreaking graphic and image-wise in its depiction of three African American men at a lunch counter, a white waiter standing by, a reference of course to the sit-in on February 1, 1960 at a Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s store that became a pivotal action in the non-violent fight for civil rights. But inside the cardboard sleeve, the vinyl grooves were an assault on the senses, capturing as they did the sound of exploitation, degradation, and ultimately, freedom. A sonically and politically strong statement, the Freedom Now Suite is a cornerstone recording in the history of contemporary black liberation music and remains a challenging, invigorating, and inspiring listen for anyone interested in such things. Making a link between the oppression of blacks throughout the world, Roach and other politically motivated American artists like Harry Belafonte and Nina Simone sought to parallel the civil rights movement in the US with the unfolding liberation of Kenya, Ghana, Congo, and Algeria. Dubbed the Year of Africa, 1960 held hope for the continent for independence from France, Britain, and Belgium and the promise that human rights, dignity, and economic health would be restored throughout the land. Fifty-three years later, the people here and there continue the fight for human rights, and the chance to be emancipated from the conditions of poverty, ill-health, environmental crisis, and violence that defines both our lands, while Freedom Now Suite still pounds out the sound of impending liberation.
The following clip depicts civil rights power couple Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln with their band performing the suite’s “Triptych (Prayer/Protest/Peace)” on Belgian television in 1964. Roach passed in 2007, though in his lifetime he he’d been a recipient of the USA’s MacArthur genius award, a commandeur in France’s Ordre des Artes et les Lettres, and a RIAA (Grammy) honoree. Read more on both Rollins, Roach, and their respective Freedom Suites in Keep on Pushing.
December 8, 2012 • 6:26 pm 0
Remembering John Lennon (October 9, 1940—December 8, 1980) today, I offer an excerpt from Keep on Pushing and a clip from The Dick Cavett Show.
“Upon the release of Some Time in New York City in June of 1972, critics and consumers decreed that a heavy does of politics with their music was not what the people ordered. The album became the couple’s worst-received recording in their catalog. ”We thought it was really good,” says Yoko Ono. Though Dylan had a hit with “George Jackson” and the Rolling Stones wrote “Sweet Black Angel” for Angela Davis, Lennon and Ono took the most heat of all for supporting radical ideals in song, and Ono got her fair share of abuse. “I wasn’t heardthen. Ok, I was heard, and then they trashed me for it,” she says. And yet the prescience of the concerns that the Lennons reaised in the high-era of public protest and their position at the vanguard of musical revolution —-raising ideas like making art and music for peace, standing together, and suggesting we engage in small acts of human kindness as a way to change the vibration of the world—were deemed threatening to national security and rejected by fans. With his commercial potency at a low ebb and his position on nonviolence officially committed to government documents [translation: he was for peace], one might think there was no case for the US government against the Englishman and his Japanese wife. But their problems with the immigration service and the Nixon White House had only just begun…”
December 2, 2012 • 9:58 am 0
Everybody’s humming “Keep On Pushing” again, thanks to it being the soundtrack to a new ad, but there are a few details that even LeBron’s smart phone doesn’t know about the wonderful song that also stands in for the title of my book concerning political movement and music.
Among the young songwriters who knew the power of an anthem and made the Freedom Movement swing was Curtis Mayfield of Chicago. Just 17 and straight out of the Cabrini-Green housing projects when he hit it big with “Your Precious Love,” recorded by his vocal group the Impressions, Mayfield was a highly conscious, conscientious, and musicially gifted individual. By the early ‘60s he had already sustained the departure of his childhood gospel choir buddy, Jerry Butler, from the group and was leading Samual Goodens and Fred Cash on his own as he became a formidable writer of inspirational R&B hits.
The Impressions captured the ephermeral spirit of gospel’s lift and married it to Mayfield’s layered melodies with a message. In 1964 Mayfield came up with the black-powered “Keep on Pushing,” its sentiment and language borrowed from a gospel groove and easily adapted to the civil rights cause: “Hallelujah, hallelujah, keep on pushing.” “Keep on Pushing” was in perfect synch with Dr. King and the march forward; it has been characterized as one of the movement’s unofficial anthems. “Move up a little higher,” “I’ve got my strength,” “keep on pushing,” all phrases from the song, also borrowed from gospel’s language and its inspirational intent. These were elements that never strayed far from Mayfield’s consciousness, and combined with the melodious strains to which he set his words, he could disguise the tougher sentiments by weaving them into the complex harmonies, while never losing the threads. As time went on, Mayfield became more direct lyrically, but these early works were foundational to setting soul music in its new direction while they also passed in the mainstream.
The Impressions album Keep on Pushing was a Top 10 hit, making its impression on the masses as well as on two major 20th Century songwriters: Bob Marley had begun performing with his vocal group the Wailers in Kingston Jamaica, as if they were their country’s answer to the Impressions. “Amen” and “I Made a Mistake” from Keep on Pushing were an important part of their early repertoire. In 1965, Bob Dylan featured a picture of Keep on Pushing on the cover of his own album, Bringing It All Back Home. That same year, the Impressions hit again with “People Get Ready,” a song Mayfield was first inspired to get busy on following the March on Washington; it ultimately became the song for which he would be best known. “When humans from all walks of life can experience a piece of music and feel the same way—that’s soul,” he once said. Fifty years later, “People Get Ready” and “Keep on Pushing” are still turning heads and inspiring people to singalong, though sadly Mayfield is gone. Following a distinguished career as a groundbreaking solo recording artist and performer, Mayfield became paralyzed as a consequence of an in-concert accident (a lighting rig fell on him). He still wrote, but didn’t perform; he died the day after Christmas in 1999 of complications from diabetes.
You can read more on Curtis Mayfield and “Keep on Pushing” in Keep on Pushing. And next time you see that LeBron spot, I hope you enjoy the Curtis song just a little bit more.
Amoeblog: There’s a lot of “Keep On Pushing” titled songs. Which one were you thinking of when you titled your book?
Denise Sullivan: I was thinking of the original song by the Impressions, written by Curtis Mayfield and the way “keep on pushing,” and “move up a little higher” reoccur in his other songs, like “We’re a Winner” and “Move on Up.” Mayfield isn’t talking about the ladder of success and financial status. He’s talking about raising consciousness and about transcendence–about moving above and beyond circumstances. Combine those themes that are of deep interest to me with the genius of his composition and you get a title that I hope conveys the potential for extreme unity, between message, music and people.
October 8, 2012 • 1:26 pm 0
There is only one voice like Mumia Abu-Jamal’s, its tone perfect for professional broadcasting, and its message carrying necessary information for our times. But Abu-Jamal as most people know, is not an announcer by trade; better known as Mumia to the worldwide community of human rights activists who support his case, the former radio journalist has been serving time in prison for 30 years now. He has spent much of that time writing and appealing his case.
In a new film, Long Distance Revolutionary, which made its worldwide premiere over Columbus Day Weekend at the Mill Valley Film Festival, filmmaker Stephen Vittoria and co-producer/Prison Radio sound recordist Noelle Hanrahan, make a compelling case that Mumia’s situation as a prisoner for life is more than a miscarriage of justice: Rather than rehash the circumstances that lead to the incarceration of the journalist/activist forced to moonlight as a cabbie, they shine a light on how he’s used the misfortune as prophetic opportunity, to become a voice for the voiceless.
In the film, Angela Davis, Amy Goodman, Alice Walker, Cornel West, Tariq Ali, Ruby Dee and James Cone are among the scholars, theologians, journalists, actors, activists, writers, colleagues, and family members who speak to the important role Mumia, the writer as political prisoner, plays on the world stage, as he reflects the revolutionary’s role in contemporary American society. Through interviews, news reel footage, photographs and most of all, interviews and sound recordings of Abu-Jamal, Long Distance Revolutionary tells the story of an intuitive and self-described “nerd” of a child, Wesley Cook, who journeyed into the Black Panthers, then followed his call to report on his city as he saw it, much to the distaste of its notoriously racist law enforcement. Of course, that’s business as usual in the land of the free; the mystery that unfolds onscreen is more to the point: Just how does a death row inmate as sharp as Mumia keep his mind in shape and his spirit alive while the state does its job squeezing the life out of him? Of particular note are the words of his literary agent Frances Goldin who I’m unable to quote here, but who was sufficiently moved by Mumia’s prose to take a chance on him. Of course the most resounding voice of all is Mumia’s own which can be read in his multiple books in print all over the world; it can also be heard on Prison Radio, still recorded by Noelle Hanrahan. For the Mill Valley premiere, Mumia delivered an address, especially recorded for the Bay Area which he remembered from visiting once as having a “luscious sun,” where he, “a tall, skinny, dark sunflower,” could be among some of the “best, boldest, blackest, sweetest” brothers and sisters he claims to have known.
Curiously, the film’s only musical voice was M-1 of Dead Prez; traditionally, it is musicians who sing out for injustice, in the way that Bob Dylan once did for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (who also appears in the film), indirectly leading to his exoneration. Eddie Vedder’s recording of ”Society” (previously associated with the feature film, Into the Wild, concerning environmentalist/adventurer, Christopher McCandless), serves as a closing theme. So where are the other contemporary Musicians for Mumia? According to director Vittoria, the usual suspects were approached, but only Vedder responded to the urgency of the call.
Abu-Jamal was taken off death row late last year; he remains sentenced for life without possibility of parole and lives among the general prison population at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy. But the system has not vanquished his spirit or his message. Mumia is on move: Long Distance Revolutionary is on its way to festivals in Denver, Copenhagen and New York City. It opens in wider release in February of 2013. Here’s the trailer.
September 27, 2012 • 12:23 pm 0
There is a section in Keep on Pushing which addresses how the songs of black power made way for the songs of liberation of other oppressed groups: women, homosexuals, brown, yellow, and red folks, as well as the disabled. At our Keep on Pushing events over the last 12 months, Cindy Lee Berryhill has been among the musicians accompanying me at readings, singing the songs of freedom and pitching in with anti-war and other anthems. Her song, “Make Way For the Handicapped,” is meant to empower those with missing parts—or anyone who feels unaligned and out of sorts, I suppose. Personally, I have a new appreciation for the song by Berryhill and her old bandmate Max W. Temporarily impaired due to injury, I am relying heavily on the three limbs that are still able, and the kindness of new friends and neighbors as I hobble down the street. New to a culturally diverse neighborhood, it’s a bit of a sociological experiment to observe how people are taking to me, the gimpy new gal. There are those who avert their eyes, while others will nod or say hello as they pass by, leaving me in the dust. And then there are those who’ve got California soul; they see beyond skin color and age and physical disability; they see a member of the human race who’s falling behind. “That looks like hard work on a hill. If you’re going a short distance I could give you a ride—I have a dog,” said the young man apologetically. He was wearing a wool cap, likely on his way to work—general contracting by the looks of his truck. “I’d take you up on it,” I told him, ”But I need to learn how to use these things,” motioning with my crutch. And that was how it went, in a matter of about 30 seconds. But that simple gesture made by a stranger turned my day around. Later in the afternoon, a bank teller intercepted me as I walked toward the line, offered me a seat, and suggested I take one of the candies from a dish on his desk. ”Sometimes a sweet makes the day a little nicer” he said. I couldn’t disagree and grabbed a lemon Dum Dum. So thank you, wool hat guy, and thank you bank teller. I am grateful to you for your kindnesses. Now here’s that song by Cindy Lee Berryhill (with Lenny Kaye on guitar) I was talking about:
July 6, 2012 • 1:20 pm 0
By Bliss 07/05/2012
We live in undeniably restless times. Parallels can be made to the far more tumultuous 1960s, one critical difference being the lack of unifying music. The Occupy movement’s impacted pop culture but no anthems have emerged a la Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the Staple Singers’ “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)” or Edwin Starr’s “War.”
Music’s motivating role in protest movements is the focus of Denise Sullivan’s absorbing book “Keep On Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip-Hop,” from which she’ll read at Vroman’s Saturday. Five years in the making, it traces how freedom songs contributed to folk, punk and rap.
“I started by wanting to look at the music from the Black Power era, which is basically defined from about 1967 to about 1975,” Sullivan explains. “It grew into this larger survey of American resistance music, because all of that music comes out of the African-American struggle for equality and freedom.”
In following connections from blues legends (Leadbelly, Lightnin’ Hopkins) through Woodstock-era icons (Jimi Hendrix, Buffy Saint-Marie, Gil Scott-Heron) and ’70s/’80s pop stars (Marvin Gaye, Public Enemy, Bruce Springsteen) to contemporary activist/artists (Michael Franti, Tom Morello), Sullivan quotes Dave Alvin, Solomon Burke, Chuck D, Odetta, Phranc, Bobby Seale, John Trudell and Little Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams amidst a broad spectrum of artists.
Wayne Kramer recalls how MC5 received “intense criticism” from some who believed they should play for free. His comments feel particularly timely in light of recent controversy surrounding David Lowery’s response (http://thetrichordist.wordpress.com/2012/06/18/letter-to-emily-white-at-npr-all-songs-considered/) to an NPR intern’s essay (www.npr.org/blogs/allsongs/2012/06/16/154863819/i-never-owned-any-music-to-begin-with) asserting her peers will likely never buy music they “love.” Kramer also says MC5 wanted to make records because “it was a way to reach a lot of people.” Can music still reach and motivate large segments of the population?
Sullivan believes it potentially can, while acknowledging music doesn’t have the “currency” it had in the ’60s. She compares 1985’s star-laden, anti-apartheid single “Sun City” to recent disaster fundraisers.
“Everybody knew that song, everybody knew that video,” she says, citing “Sun City’s” MTV rotation. “We don’t have that kind of common experience. The concerts for New York City or Katrina — those were things we could experience collectively. Does it take a disaster, though, to get us all to plug into the same channel?
“A lot of artists are contributing to the Occupy effort, playing at charity efforts and all kinds of events every day. Probably now more than ever, there are musicians working at that level. Do we get a chance to hear them? Not always. You have to seek them out. It takes work.”
On Saturday, accompanied by Buddy Zapata and other musicians TBA, she hopes to create what music provides: an intimate sense of community.
“The way our lives are set up today, it seems we are less often able to gather in those kind of community spaces and have those kind of experiences. That’s how movements grew, and that’s how topical songs develop.
Denise Sullivan reads from “Keep on Pushing” at 2 p.m. Saturday at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Free admission. Info: 449-5320. denisesullivan.com
June 28, 2012 • 8:14 am 0
As the sun sets on June and Gay Pride Month, today marks the 43rd anniversary of The Stonewall Riots. The event officially marked the beginning of the movement for gay liberation, the time when activist groups in the New Left tradition began to form a militant alliance for equal rights; one year later, the first Gay Pride parade was held on Christopher Street in New York.
In 1969, Janis Ian did not yet identify as a lesbian, but as an 18-year-old folksinger who’d made her name at 13, inspired by the Greenwich Village folk scene, she was sensitive to the civil rights fights of her day and made a point to sing out. Her 1965 song, ”Society’s Child,” concerned interracial romance at time when it was still illegal in some states; in 1967 “Society’s Child” became a hit. Forty years later, Ian was among the few people to write a song and sing about gay marriage (titled “Married in London”).
Her views on the very 21st Century issue of file sharing were also cause for controversy: As an early adapter to the Internet, in 2002, she came out strongly in favor of free downloads which was not the position the record companies were taking. (For an economic breakdown on the ways in which file sharing is harmful to recording artists, I recommend you read everything David Lowery has written on the subject, starting with this letter to a file sharing enthusiast, which went viral last week). Ian paid for her outspokenness and details the story in a series of articles and within the interview below.
Though I regret that more of my conversation with Ian didn’t make it into the manuscript of Keep on Pushing (our conversation took place while the book was in editing), I am presenting my talk with her here, largely as it appeared in Crawdaddy! Since we talked in 2010, the writer of “Society’s Child” has since turned 60; she and Pat Snyder have also celebrated 20 years of love and partnership.
“I predict that within the next two to three years everyone is going to go back to telephones,” says Janis Ian. Sound unlikely? That’s what people said when she launched a website and message board in 1992 and bet on music’s future at the dawn of the world wide web, too. Proving the skeptics wrong, Ian took more heat in 2003 when she came out in favor of file sharing, a view not generally shared by her contemporaries. And yet, as the decade closes, Ian, a self-managed artist, has found the totally wired life to be less than satisfying; though it’s great for her business, it’s not necessarily good for her art.
“This is my year of I Can’t Cope Anymore,” she says. “I don’t Twitter; I have a MySpace page that hasn’t been updated since 2008. I have a Facebook page, and I get a gazillion friend requests everyday. Why would I want to be friends with you? I don’t even know you!” Though Ian’s exasperation may sound like every boomer’s reaction to the interweb, she’s clearly no techno-phobe or old fogey; she’s simply a techie with a desire to unplug and, as an early adapter to online music and one of its biggest advocates, she’s allowed to vent. “I’ve always been interested in technology. I had a home IBM machine when they first came out. When I was 16, I did binary programming to earn extra money for awhile,” she explains. “I had been online really early—early enough that my AOL name is janisian. It was just obvious that this is where it was going. I mean, it was really obvious. It wasn’t obvious to me that we’d have iPods. I would never have dreamed about that. But it was obvious that this might be an amazing means of transportation and connection.”
“Connection” is a word that that comes up often in Ian’s story—as a songwriter, her career is based on reaching people—but plugging into a collective, connective power has been more like a mission for her. In 2002, Performing Songwriter published her piece “The Internet Debacle”, though before the article had even gone to press, Ian had royally pissed off the powers at the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and others in positions of influence in the music industry. “Am I concerned about losing friends, opportunities, my 10th Grammy nomination by publishing this article?” she wrote. “Yeah, I am. But sometimes things are just wrong, and when they’re that wrong they have to be addressed.” Ian took the position that free downloads were good for catalog sales, contrary to the industry’s claim that they were killing the business. And though she didn’t expect the article to be posted on over 1,000 websites and become subject of discussion from USA Today to the BBC or to create the firestorm of controversy it did, she is no stranger to friction: Her career was founded at age 13 when “Society’s Child”, her song about interracial love, was initially hated, banned, and ultimately honored as the groundbreaker it was. It is amidst a similar backdrop of high achievement, low ebbs, and complete chaos that Ian has constructed a life that has included not only music, but the study of acting and writing science fiction. In 2009, she released her recorded best on a two-disc collection of Essential Ian and told all in a book, Society’s Child: My Autobiography, now released in paperback. But make no mistake about the compiling: They’re just warm-ups for another song, another tour, and another day at the job site. As for so many workers, slowing down isn’t an option for Janis Ian.
A Virtual Life
“I was just reading a New York Times article that said Americans have now added the equivalent to a month of work hours to our work year since 1955,” says Ian. “But to be fair, almost every independent artist I know over the age of 30 is going through the same thing. The world has gotten so much more complicated and immediate; it’s sucking all our time. None of us have time to write, to play with each other… though I don’t know if it’s that different than it’s ever been. You could probably listen to Beethoven bitching about business… We’re all trying to guard our legacies, and at the same time, make a living.”
When Ian titled her 2006 album Folk Is the New Black, she wasn’t kidding: Compared to when she wrote her first song in 1963 and began to haunt Greenwich Village, there are exponentially more folksingers in the land than there are coffeehouses for them to perform in, though few of them will leave the legacy to protect that Ian will. As an exceptional product of her times, Ian played the B-3 organ into the wee hours alongside Jimi Hendrix in Village clubs, while she also had an interest taken in her by Leonard Bernstein, among other extraordinary highlights. As a teen, Ian walked with music’s giants. “[Dave] Van Ronk was great to me, always. Baez was great to me, Odetta was wonderful to me… Joplin was great to me, Hendrix was great to me, the guys in Joplin’s band were great to me… everybody except for the folk Nazis… I was pretty fortunate.” Yet none of her experiences embedded in the ’60s rock scene prepared her for the 21st century and what it had in store for her as a performing singer-songwriter.
“I’m on the same treadmill as every day-jobber I know, in that, I’m fighting to stay current and am getting further and further behind. Part of it is my choice: I would love to have a great manager, but a great manager is not going to make enough money off someone like me. I would love to have a great personal assistant, but I really can’t afford a great personal assistant. On the other hand, I’m dragging around 45 years of luggage. In this brave new world, I’m looking at five boxes of audiovisual tape that need to be transferred to digital. I’ve got two tables of CDs of myself, which I haven’t listened to, things like living room concerts and master classes. I’ve got two bags worth of slides that need to be transferred to digital, but first I have to go through them… I’ve got boxes and boxes of CDs that need to be sorted. I have two piles of CDs that people want me to listen to, and my desk is an archaeological dig. Meanwhile, I’m trying to deal with a former webmaster who went AWOL about six weeks ago and left me with nothing… this one went off with all my artwork.”
Remember, this is Janis Ian talking: Former child prodigy, writer of “Society’s Child”, “Jesse”, and “At Seventeen”, maker of over 20 albums, including one that went to number one. If things are so difficult for her, the average working songwriter is likely to be screwed. “My friend Jeannie said, ‘You know what, Janis? So you’ve got extra zeros in what you have, but you’ve got extra zeros in what you owe.’ And if you think about it, if I didn’t have hit records, I wouldn’t be paying $600 a month in storage to make sure my masters are safe. It’s all this extra stuff that comes with it that means someone like me is eventually going to start talking with places like Berklee College and saying, ‘Take this stuff off my hands and I’ll leave it to you.’” I’ve heard of the acquisition of a living artist’s ephemera by institutions of higher learning—surely there is one awaiting her call.
“I don’t even want them to buy them,” she clarifies. “I just want them to store them. It would be great to find buyers. If you find any, send them my way! It’s the same problem with instruments. I have probably 20 guitars and they’re wonderful guitars. I bought a lot of them in the early- to mid-’70s. I have a really nice vintage Les Paul. I’ve got one of the first Eddie Van Halen’s. I’ve got a Lloyd Baggs, and he doesn’t even make guitars anymore. I look at them and think, ‘If I sell all these, I could probably finish paying off the mortgage.’ So why am I looking at all these guitars that I never play? I looked at my partner yesterday and said, ‘You know, we keep working our asses off, so we won’t ever be impoverished. At what point do we get to sit back and enjoy it?’ I feel like we’ve all fallen into my parents’ trap… much as we tried not to, here we are. I’m sorry, I’m blathering on.”
No need to apologize, I tell her, I’m listening hard. As a self-employed writer married to a self-managed musician, I doubly understand Ian’s dilemma of running her self-proprietorship while keeping an eye on the future. Plus, Ian’s stories are not only relevant to self-employed writers and artists, they contain valuable information for anyone interested in this business we call music.
The Industry of Music
“We used to be in the business of music, as in busyness. We are now in the industry of music. That makes us more like US Steel, Alcoa, GE, than anything to do with the arts. I hope that it would be self-limiting, like museums are, but it’s not because of technology. So what you have are these huge, moribund institutions—what are there, three record companies now, maybe four? And they change just as slowly as any institution.” Ian suggests that it’s literally a lack of vision that prevents the changes from rolling. “If you’ve ever tried to get a streetlight put up, you know how slowly these things work. I think what’s happened is something very similar to why Columbia Records lost out on the Beatles and the Stones and the early wave of pop music: Mitch Miller was head of A&R, he detested rock ‘n’ roll and said it was pap. When my first webmaster and I first went to BMI and ASCAP, back in the early ’90s, and we said, ‘People are buying albums off of this new medium; there is going to be a way to give them sound bytes off of this new medium and you have to start negotiating right now [for payment of royalties],’ they laughed at us. They thought we were stupid. The record companies are the same. It’s only this last year that things have begun to change at all.
“It took them ’til three or four years ago to realize that domains would be a good thing to own. Remember when they were all trying to compete with Napster? The crappy websites they put up? Oh my god! Thank god for Amazon and iTunes, because those two have done more to help the music business than the record business has done. Sorry, but we’re on a pet peeve of mine!”
There is plenty of irony in Ian’s early argument for ownership and online music, and it isn’t lost on her. “Here I sit, worrying about how I pay the enormous cost of maintaining a huge website and I noticed Sony maintains Leonard Cohen’s and James Taylor’s and Paul Simon’s. They get a free ride. And that’s a huge advantage. On the other hand, you don’t own your own domain. I don’t know, maybe they have leasing deals. Knowing Paul, that’s entirely possible. Pluses and minuses,” she says. “Free downloading wasn’t hurting anyone but songwriters. Songwriters are getting screwed by free downloads.”
Nevertheless, Ian has always made music available for free on her website. You can go there right now and download her topical song about gay marriage, “Married in London.” Ian is so hot on providing music for free that record executives once suggested a boycott on her, though there has never been much love lost between her and her former labels. “Again, from personal experience: In 37 years as a recording artist, I’ve created 25-plus albums for major labels, and I’ve never once received a royalty check that didn’t show I owed them money,” she wrote. As an artist who has always made her living from touring, the exposure the web affords her has been worth the trade-off. “… When someone writes and tells me they came to my show because they’d downloaded a song and gotten curious, I am thrilled!” again, quoted from “The Internet Debacle.” Ian may be the exception to every rule, but seven years after she and others fought in its favor, the free download is an expected and accepted part of music consumption.
“I own a lot of my work, because I had very good lawyer. I don’t own the early stuff, I own 13 of my albums in North America and I own 16 worldwide. That’s the only way an artist can survive the new model, by keeping ownership and publishing. Because I was successful, I could go back and renegotiate. What I keep telling younger artists is the truth is that no one has sold a million albums or made a living only through the internet. Once that happens, the whole paradigm changes. But at this point, if you want a career that’s lucrative or powerful or has that amount of exposure, you still need a major. Certainly, if you want an international career, you still need a major. I think if the majors start behaving like responsible adults, who knows, it may work out. But greed always gets the best of everybody. It’s hard to convince young artists that 100 percent of nothing is really nothing. Half of my songs were reacquired, after I’d given up 50 to a hundred percent of the publishing. If you aren’t in a position of strength, the stuff is lost forever.”
Society’s Child Comes of Age
Ian’s first demo was recorded in 1963. Even in her earliest works, like “Hair Spun of Gold”, a kind of “It Was a Very Good Year” rendered as a folk ballad for the teenage set, she revealed an understanding of the world beyond her 12 years of age. The songs, as well as “Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking)”, were featured on her 1967 self-titled, Shadow Morton-produced debut album. Morton was known for his involvement with the three-minute teen dramas by the Shangri-las from Queens, but Ian was a different kind of New York girl: Her parents were subjects of surveillance for their political beliefs and Ian was pressured to adapt “Society’s Child” to steer away from race matters. However, her folk roots and convictions told her not to back down. Though the song was withdrawn, two years later it became a hit, and helped secure Ian’s future as a working musician when she was featured singing it on a television special hosted by Leonard Bernstein. Ian’s teenage hit-maker status also made her the perfect fodder for the teeny bopper magazines, of which she was no fan. The more conservative New York Times didn’t write much about her and Ian didn’t like Rolling Stone’s treatment of female artists. But she fondly remembers Crawdaddy!, which she said filled the breach. “Crawdaddy! would write about you like you were a full artist and you were doing work that might survive your life,” she says. But Ian was having trouble surviving her own life: Burnt out by the demands of teen stardom, she took what would become her first in a series of breaks from the spotlight. In her autobiography, she writes of the time between “Society’s Child” and her next success, the heartbreak song “Jesse”, as a time when she felt as if something was terribly wrong with her. Accidentally discovering the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, she found in his lines the freedom to devote herself to being an artist instead of pop stardom.
My eternal soul
Redeem your promise
In spite of the night alone
And the day on fire.
“I’d finally connected,” she writes. “Someone else felt like I did. Someone else had been an outsider, had tried to fit in, and had failed. Someone else gave words to my feelings, made me aware that out of such torment could come great art. And what a concept, that the artist must remake himself daily, and redefine himself in every waking moment! What a notion, that words had colors, feelings of their own!” And so it was Ian who remade herself for the first time. She broke back into the business at the time of a new women’s singer-songwriter’s movement, the outgrowth of the larger women’s liberation cause. Her song “At Seventeen” revealed the experience of teen alienation from a woman’s point of view and earned her a Grammy and a number one album in 1975. But there are days when Ian feels remorse about her greatest hit. “I hate to think that ‘At Seventeen’ is any part of that whole bleeding-all-over-yourself school of songwriting, writing from the internal rather than the external, that really started with the whole Joni Mitchell thing and hit a heyday in the ’70s and came right back at us after disco. At the end of the day, all of our lives are so boring compared to the grand scheme of things.” I suggest that “At Seventeen” still strikes a universal chord of outsider experience. “I would hope so, that would be great. That’s certainly how I approached it. But in my occasional ‘My god, what have I created?’ moments, I don’t think so.” She continued to write while her songs were getting cut by major artists, but after a good run and dogged by personal and health problems, by the mid-’80s, Ian was ready to retreat again. “My career was pretty much over in 1986,” she says. She used the time-out to study acting with the Stanislavski Method teacher, Stella Adler. “She gave me a language for what I only felt in my heart,” Ian wrote in her autobiography. “She set me free, telling me it was not only good to be an artist, it was noble.”
Returning to recorded music again in the early ’90s with her album Breaking Silence, she used the moment to come out as a lesbian, convinced that if sharing her experience could help someone, her pain would be redeemed (today she lives in Nashville with Pat Snyder, her partner of nearly 20 years). The comeback had her juggling positive press attention and live dates, but once again, she was on the recording and touring treadmill. “I had something of a resurgence… but it got really old really fast.”
Having risen to the challenge of re-establishing herself as a musician in a fickle business, Ian then proceeded to reinvent herself as a science-fiction author and as a columnist (her sci-fi short stories have been published in various anthologies and her work as a columnist for Performing Songwriterand The Advocate is archived at her website). She continues to devote more time to prose writing and a couple of years ago took a year off to write her autobiography; she found that she liked the stay-at-home writer’s life, way more than the road. “For the first time in a decade and a half, I actually had spare time. I reaffirmed some friendships and I made a new friend, which for me is a lot; I don’t make friends quickly. And I went to the clubs a bunch and re-familiarized myself with a lot of songwriters and singers, got to listen to music, I took some trips… I went to Virginia to hear bluegrass. I actually had a daily life. And then I looked at the economy, because I was thinking of trying to build my world around a life like that, and I thought, ‘I can’t afford this.’ So it’s back on the road. In some ways, that’s my day gig. Why should I be any different from anyone else with a day job? At least my day job is something I love doing.”
But she’s back on the road with a difference: Ian’s full rig, the outboard gear, the bank of pedals, and the guitar hero solos have been traded in for an acoustic. The only augmentation to her set comes in the form of stories, something she learned to tell while on her book tour. “The first time I tried to read from the book it was just horrible. So I apologized and put the book down and started telling the chapter as I remembered it. For me, the stories have become like the songs. They have their own rhythm and their own beat.” And if the book is any indication, they’re juicy too, though they are ultimately the stories of a woman in search of making a connection, with her muse, herself, and her people, the fans with whom she connected through the message board she built up in 1993.
“When my book came out last summer… they rented a bus and went all over the United States with me. If you do it right, it becomes a community,” she says. “I’ve been very clear from the beginning… I didn’t intend to make money off of that part, that I considered me paying for it part of the cost of doing business.”
Ian has also returned to songs of societal concern: “Married in London” tells of a marriage recognized everywhere but at home. “I normally don’t get up on a soapbox about things, but I was really furious. First I had to watch the Reagan years and the Bush years co-opt my country and turn it into a place that is not the place my grandparents wanted to come to, and then I was watching as my country turned its back on me and those like me, on every level—politically, socially, economically—and I was watching these people say to me, ‘All right, never mind the wedding ceremony.’ They were saying to me, ‘You can’t inherit social security. You can’t leave your partner everything.’ To me, as a songwriter, the copyright act now has reversions built in; well, those reversions can only go to your wife or husband, they can’t go to your spouse. So I can’t leave any of that to Pat. She has no standing. I couldn’t even leave it to her children. I was furious. My tour manager at the time said, ‘You need to move away from this; you need to put this in a song.’ I was writing a song that was really angry and then about halfway through I looked at it and said, ‘This is terrible… no wonder people don’t write angry songs anymore.’ It’s so rare to hear anything on the level of ‘I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore.’ I thought, ‘I need to laugh at this,’ and so I started to write it, and it was funny. And then I thought, ‘How do I explain it to a straight audience without scaring them?’ Because that’s the trick with something like the gay rights issue. How do you present it without excluding anyone?”
There are a few more changes to the new Janis Ian: “Edging toward 60, letting my hair go white, getting rid of my lenses, wearing glasses on stage, which was always anathema, weighing more than I want to weigh… It’s all a part of saying, ‘You know what? I’m going to be 60 in a few years and this is not the same person, even if I sing the same songs a lot of the time.’” She has accepted her status among music’s elders. “You know, with Odettta’s death, between her and Van Ronk, I think it really came home for me, how limited these people older than me are. I mean, there’s Pete [Seeger], of course, who will apparently endure forever, and there’s Joan… Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell… Dylan, a lot of lost people like Ochs, Janis Joplin, those folks. And then there’s me, who’s kind of between the Baez/Collins’ and the Ani DiFrancos. I suddenly realized at Falcon Ridge [folk festival], I was being looked up to by the younger artists, as somebody to learn from and as a mentor… it’s really a weird feeling.”
Despite the usual complaints, Ian assures me there is an upside to the inevitable decline. “One of the cool things that you might look forward to about getting older, that I really learned from my book, is there is no shame in looking back. When I was younger, that seemed really embarrassing, but as you get older, you look back and you suddenly realize how many things you thought were so important were so meaningless and how many things you thought were not important are really a big deal.” Like? “Writing an article for Performing Songwriter about internet downloading would assume such huge proportions. It does kind of act as a leveler in your own head and your heart. It’s like being able to look back and go, ‘Pat and I are 20 years this year.’ That’s a leveler. I would never have thought that would happen. I think at the half-century mark we become conscious that, at its best, half our life is gone. But whether there is a way to start stripping away from my business, and stripping away at other things, and figure out what I’m going to give up in return for gaining some time, I haven’t figured it out yet.”
Perhaps when the telephone makes its comeback in a couple of years, as Ian predicts it will, we’ll give her a ring and find out how things turned out.