Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Columnist Nabs Greater Bay Area Journalism Award

For the first time since I was in high school (which was a really long time ago), I’ve received acknowledgement for my work as a reporter. This month, I was awarded third place honors in the columnist category for my biweekly column, SFLives, for the San Francisco Examiner, by the Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards, held by the San Francisco Press Club and judged by members of the San Diego, St. Louis, Cleveland and New Orleans Press Clubs. Among the 70 columns I’ve written for the San Francisco Examiner since early 2018, I have my personal favorites to be sure, and all of them were made possible with the participation of some extraordinary San Franciscans who make our city what it has been historically and what it is in these unprecedented times. Our people are freethinkers, visionaries and lionhearted beacons who lead the rest of the country in their respective pursuits and professions. Whether working in the arts, activism or as essential workers, we simply could not endure, survive and thrive in these times at the edge of the world without the everyday people who make The City extraordinary (the tagline of SFLives). Congratulations to all of the great journalists and photographers who participated and received acknowledgement and thanks to all who voted. But the biggest thanks of course belongs to the subjects of SF Lives: There is no column without San Francisco and our people. My recognition from the San Francisco Press Club belongs to all of us – thank you.

Read the latest San Francisco Lives columns

Filed under: Arts and Culture, column, San Francisco News, , , ,

Four Little Girls and Two Songs

On September 15, 1963, four Birmingham, Alabama girls, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, lost their lives during the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.  In 2011, a marker was finally dedicated in their names at the site of the vicious, racially motivated, murderous attack.

Just three months after the murder of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, and two weeks after the March on Washington and Dr. King’s momentum-building “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, the Alabama tragedy became the pivotal event in the Civil Rights Movement. Singer Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in immediate response to hearing the news: “I shut myself up in a room and that song happened,” she said of the song that begins, “Alabama’s got me so upset.” From that moment forward, Simone was committed to writing and performing material that would jolt people awake or into action.  It remains her most enduring work.

Joan Baez had of course walked alongside Dr. King at the marches in the South all along; her tribute was a recording of “Birmingham Sunday” by her brother-in-law, the writer Richard Fariña.  Each girl was remembered by name in the verses, set to the tune of a beautiful folk melody. Fifty-plus years on, both songs remain painful reminders of the brutalities waged by so-called humanity, here and yonder, year in and year out, against women, girls and Black lives.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Origin of Song, Protest Songs, racism, , , , , , , , , ,

Future of Live Music Still Uncertain

Musician David James outside his Mission District home on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Musicians and live music venues are truly hurting five months into the pandemic: With all benefits expired, and no sign of returning to work on the horizon, clubs and the players themselves have turned to crowdfunding, busking (at risk to themselves and others) and live streaming from home for a small fee. So far, the live streams have proven to be either substandard or just plain boring and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot on offer in the way of innovation or improved quality.  There are also the artists who won’t stay off the internet: broadcasting from their living rooms, hawking merch, doing what people have to do to survive. Yet art and music are important to a culture and to the well being of all people. Where is the support for it on a national, state and local level?  Where is the relief? It’s a sad state of things when the best option put forth at the highest levels of entertainment has been turning drive-in movie theaters into music venues. Ok, maybe. It’s a start (though do you know where there are still existing drive-ins? I don’t). Until there’s a real solution on offer, perhaps the best an artist can do while not drawing an income is to turn to woodshedding–the sharpening of skills, learning new tricks, deepening one’s artistry–and composing. 

San Francisco bandleader and guitarist David James finally got a break after years of hard work on the road and behind the counter: In addition to being a professional touring and recording musician (with Spearhead and The Coup), he’s held a day job as a record buyer for 35 years which means he could more easily claim unemployment than the average independent musician (there are also bands-as-corporations, like the Eagles and Pearl Jam who got gigantic PPP payouts, but this post isn’t about that, exactly). As for James, his bonus arrived just in time: An artist’s grant earmarked for the composition of a suite, based on the life of his father.  You can read the full story in my San Francisco Examiner column, SF Lives.

Photo of Henri Cash by Gilbert Trejo

During the pandemic season, I also visited (by phone) with young guitarist, Henri Cash of Starcrawler: He was set to visit the DMZ in Korea for a peace festival when live music and festival gathering came to a halt and the possibility of a long flight overseas was out of the question. Lucky for him, Cash had seen a good part of the world as a teenager with his band’s several tours of Europe and Asia before the world went awry.  Until further notice, he’s chillin’ at home with his family like the rest of us. His thoughts on pandemic life appeared in my column for Tourworthy.

And early in the breakdown of the nation’s health and welfare, I spoke to singer-songwriter, Betty Soo. She decided to come off the road early, out of precaution for herself and others, and immediately learned what she could about live stream production. As early as March, she was concerned about the future of the tiny folk clubs and coffeehouses where artists like herself are traditionally best heard and it was her aim to share her earnings with them. I also talked to Soo’s friend, singer-songwriter, Jaime Harris (the two paired up for some broadcasts). Read the full story about Soo and Harris here.

Everyday citizens and the people in congress who represent us don’t seem to understand the income streams and the way musicians earn their pay – If they did, the laws about music monopolies and online streaming would change. Nothing I or anyone else can say can will make it any more clear: There is no money to be made from streaming. Musicians earn money when they play on the road. The rest of the time, the pay pie is eaten up by everyone but the person who creates it. Please think about that the next time you pay nothing for a piece of music. Musicians are people trying to survive the pandemic too.

What in the world are we and the musicians of the world going to do about the future of live music? Rest assured, there is hope. Where there are artists, there is a solution in the works: Musicians have the insight and vision to imagine new realities for all of us. It’s just a matter of when.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, rock 'n' roll, Women in Rock, , , , , , ,

Freedom Singer Len Chandler and the March on Washington

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Today marks the 57th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Among those assembled to help Dr. King push forward his dream of racial harmony and economic justice was Len Chandler (often overlooked in the history of civil rights work), one of the voices in a trio that day which included Bob Dylan and Joan Baez (he appears at about 17 minutes into the following clip, though the whole 25 minutes is worth your time).

 

Chandler would march with Dr. King and travel throughout the South in the name of voter registration, informing rural Southerners of their polling rights, often at great risk to his own life. His poems were recognized by Langston Hughes, he wrote the folk standard “Green, Green Rocky Road” with poet Bob Kaufman, and recorded two albums for Columbia Records, but little is known about him or his life.  I sought out Chandler when I wrote Keep on Pushing, my text that tracks the origins and evolution of freedom music, and its roots in African American resistance and liberation movement: a fraction of what we discussed was included in the book. I remain curious why nearly 10 years after publication, few scholars have pursued the lead and why so little is known about him…

Originally from Akron, Ohio, and studying on scholarship at Columbia in the ’50s, Chandler made his way to Greenwich Village folk music by accident: Lured to the sounds of Washington Square Park by the downtown youths he was mentoring, he easily fell into the scene with his natural ear for songwriting and his familiarity with the songs of Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, and Woody Guthrie.  Following a performance at the popular Village coffeehouse, the Gaslight Cafe,  Chandler landed a contract to go to Detroit, writing and performing topical songs for local television. A few months later, when he returned to New York, the folk thing was in full swing:  Bob Dylan was the latest arrival to town and the pair started to trade ideas and songs.

“I hadn’t yet begun writing streams of songs like I would, but Len was, and everything around us looked absurd—there was a certain consciousness of madness at work,” wrote Dylan in his book Chronicles.  Chandler remembers it like this in Keep on Pushing:  “The first song I ever heard of Dylan’s was ‘Hey ho, Lead Belly, I just want to sing your name,’ stuff like that.”  Dylan used Chandler’s melody for his song, “The Death of Emmett Till.” “Len didn’t seem to mind,” Dylan wrote (today, as it happens, is the anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till).

Chandler went on to record two albums for Columbia:  To Be a Man and The Loving People. He continued to work as a topical songwriter, a peace and civil rights advocate, and as a songwriting teacher; his tour of Pacific Rim bases with Donald Sutherland, Jane Fonda, Holly Near and Paul Mooney was documented in the Francine Parker film, FTA, a must-see for anyone interested in US history and anti-war efforts within military ranks. Catch a glimpse of Chandler at the end of this trailer for the film:

It was an extreme privilege (and I have since found out a rare opportunity) to meet one of the true unsung heroes of singing activism (as well as his wife Olga James, a pioneering performer in her own right), and have him tell his story to me. Though largely retired from performing, he remains well- informed on human rights, politics, and the arts and will step up and step out for civil rights. You can read a portion of our talks in Keep on Pushing, and someday I will post the complete unedited transcripts, though for now, enjoy the voice of Chandler from back in the day, when singing was a huge part of moving the movement forward.

 

 

 

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Civil Rights, Folk, Freedom Now, , , ,

How to support small presses, indie films and theaters during the pandemic

Notes, Contacts, Name CQ's here

Liam Curley, warehouse manager at the Small Press Distribution, Berkeley, CA. During the high season of the pandemic’s shelter-in-place orders, it was lonely in SPD’s warehouse where Curley worked by himself, receiving and shipping orders by hand at a fraction of his usual pace.(Photo by Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle)

During the early phase of the coronavirus shutdown, small publishers and the Northern California distributor that ships those books to market were doing all right, operating with scaled down staffs and shipping customer orders direct. But as the fall publishing season approaches, with no end to the virus in sight, the closures indefinite, and college course texts and bookstore futures shaky, the small press industry is navigating the same uncertain future as everyone else. If there is a silver lining to this catastrophe, small presses are generally more attuned to matters of race, gender and class than the big five publishing houses: There is a demand for books authored, edited and published by Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). I wrote about the longstanding spirit and principle of intersectionality in small press publishing for the San Francisco Chronicle. I hope you’ll read the full story here.

SFE-SFLives

Documentary filmmaker Anne Flatte stands outside the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Her film,  “River City Drumbeat,” is about a year in the life of drum corps in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Some of the changes from digitization that impacted publishing even before the pandemic also reverberate through the art of producing, making and presenting independent film – a corner of the film business where woman traditionally find more opportunity than they do in Hollywood.  For the small art houses that regularly show movies by and about subjects that might not otherwise be seen on the big screen, the pandemic closures threaten to wipe out old time cinemas and movie-going entirely, though the best makers and curators are adapting.  Here in San Francisco, we can stream directly from our beloved Roxie, Balboa and Vogue Theaters, among others.  Filmmaker Anne Flatté is screening her latest work, River City Drumbeat, via virtual cinema. She and her co-director chose a youth drum corps as their compelling subject and made a visually captivating and emotionally powerful film about cultural legacy and survival. As a viewer, you can choose to watch indie films like River City Drumbeat in a way that supports local businesses instead of using your typical streaming services. Why would you? Well, the main multi-media/marketplace exploits its workers.  And the business models of the big streaming services also steal a disproportionate amount of revenue from the people who actually make the art. Those fat cats don’t need your money and artists need to be compensated for their work. Read more here.

Please support a small local press, filmmaker, theater or business today or this week: They need us – and we need them – if ever we’re going to get through this mess.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, film, San Francisco News, , , , , ,

One of The Survivors: 75th Remembrance

190202-sfe-sflives-005Jack Dairiki is an old-time Californian: His maternal grandfather was a hotelier and grocer in Sacramento. But in 1941, as a firstborn son, he was called with his father to the rural village outside of Hiroshima where his father was originally from.

“We received a letter in the mail that my grandfather was ill,” he explained. “We planned a summer vacation trip.” Traveling by ship to Yokohama, they proceeded to Tokyo and into the lush, green countryside where aunts, uncles and cousins he didn’t even realize existed eagerly awaited the arrival of their American relatives.

“My experience of seeing Japan for the first time was I noticed everything was petite: The cars, the railroad,” said Dairiki, while pouring into crystal glasses water and green tea for us to share. He recalled the culture shock upon his arrival.

“The only time I ate with chopsticks was in Chinese restaurants,” he said. He was unaccustomed to taking off his shoes and sitting on the floor, to the sliding doors and the tatami mats.

“I criticized my father for taking his shoes off,” he remembered. “We don’t do that in the United States, I told him, but my father had grown up in Japan. It was like being home for him.” One summer of running through rice fields and swimming in streams passed quickly. Dairiki was ready to return: to Sacramento, to Lincoln Grammar School, to his mother, his brothers and his sister. And then, World War II.

“My father tried to secure our passage back and was told we couldn’t go,” he said.
At home, his mother and siblings had been rounded up and taken to the Tulelake detention center; his younger brother died while in custody.
Read the rest of my interview with A-Bomb survivor, Jack Dairiki of San Francisco in the San Francisco Examiner as we remember with horror the US attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bomb killed somewhere between 100-200,000 people, most all civilians, this week 75 years ago. “When will we ever learn?”

Filed under: anti-war, San Francisco News, , , , , , , , , ,

Surviving the Pandemic with Frisco Style

Since March, I’ve been devoting my SFLives column in the San Francisco Examiner to people who are taking the virus and caring for others seriously by living their lives responsibly and generously. They are people like Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, who tracks the health of people in Bayview-Hunters Point where airborne toxins put the community at risk of all kinds of respiratory ailments and cancers.  Or Leroy F. Moore Jr, an international disability rights activist who is leading fellow artists in a fight for increased visibility and against police violence. And then there is Ericka Scott, who takes an interest in society’s forgotten and neglected population  – the people who are incarcerated, including her husband – by facilitating discussions among families with loved ones in prison. And there are the small business owners like Tricia Principe of Cal’s Pet Supply, where they took precautions early so the store could remain open for the sake of employees, locals pets and the community. Every neighborhood has its leaders, people like the Cruz family, who not only run a cleaning business but a sewing workshop.  Victor and Ariana call their custom goods and embroidery business Sew Frisco and started turning out masks when they heard of the shortages.

I am so proud of my fellow citizens who are doing their own thing and getting the job done in a way that’s so Frisco in these most difficult times. If you’re interested, you may read all about them in this collection of columns about our SFLives.

If you’re much of a traveler, well, hopefully you haven’t been to San Francisco in awhile. You see, our city, known to locals as The City, is taking quite seriously the shelter-in-place orders during the pandemic, as well as the guidelines to WEAR A MASK (as you will see in the above photos, all by photographer Kevin Hume for the Examiner). Aside from the essentials, only a fraction of our businesses have reopened; cultural destinations like museums have not reopened. Services like salons and barbershops remain closed. Restaurants are take-out only, some have adapted to outdoor seating but many remain shuttered. Some, like historic legacy businesses Louis’s at Seal Rock and the Tadich Grill downtown are closed forever. Sure the orders to close or limit services have been a terrific let down for small businesses and tourism: Without government assistance and cooperation from lenders, our beloved site-specific and characteristic businesses aren’t making it. However, the compliance with the orders has meant that for those of us invested in controlling and eradicating the coronavirus, staying at home and wearing a mask remain the best options. These are confusing, terrifying and disappointing times.

Despite the illness in the air, we must celebrate and breathe in our lives, particularly the lives of folks making a difference. Their devotion to community wellness has a ripple effect: I invite you to be inspired by them to follow your calling and do what you can in your own home and in your own community to make these days a little brighter for someone else. Until next time, I send wishes for you to stay healthy. And if you can are able, stay at home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filed under: anti-capitalist, Arts and Culture, column, Environmental Justice, San Francisco News, Tales of the Gentrification City, , , , , , ,

Writers making change in the pandemic age

This week, and what a week it was, I’m pleased to introduce you to several writers living and working in San Francisco, all of them striving

Poet and activist Thea Matthews in the Mission District on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

toward a more just and equitable society in their own unique ways.  First, poet and activist Thea Matthews is a San Francisco born and raised writer, celebrating the publication of her first poetry collection for a local press. She’s also deeply involved and on the frontlines of the Movement 4 Black Lives. Read more about where she’s been and where she’s going in this week’s San Francisco Examiner column, SFLives.

Also publishing today, a story I was reporting on and off for about five months on the Writers Grotto, a community of authors who found they needed to recreate their organization so that it would be more inviting to writers of color. You can read the full story in today’s San Francisco Chronicle Datebook  (and one day, I promise to a write story about the process of reporting it).

I love my work, seeking out the stories on the lives of the people and places that show San Francisco at its best. What a privilege it is to be trusted to tell these stories and deliver them to you, especially in these times. As ever, I thank you for taking the time to read and I bid the best to you and your families as the pandemic runs its course. May the moral arc of the universe continue its bend toward justice.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Books, Poetry, racism, San Francisco News, ,

Come Back Little Stevie (for JW)

It’s been years since I saw you at Gilbert’s El Indio

We waved but I didn’t stay. It was clear you were in deep

They say I wouldn’t recognize you so I’ve kept my vision pure

Giddy, ridiculous, sun bombed, self-conscious, unselfconscious

Like Stevie

Back then, we knew everything there was to know about

Everything

You couldn’t tell us

Anything

We hadn’t yet left home or done much

But we were destined

For the big screen and magazines

You knew the names of all the actors and the models, even the minor ones

Patti Hanson, Kim Alexis

I committed it all to memory. Documenting the rise. I’d write your bio, say I knew you when

We were 15 but said we were 16, just so we could work

At Woolworths

I thought you were smart, had things wired

And you did

Until the switch flipped

I don’t know when you found trouble or how it found you

These things have gone wrong since the dawn of time,

Or at least since the dawn of 7-11 parking lots

But we who belong to the sisterhood of checked-out mothers, stay at home mothers, gone to the club mothers, corporate executive at the bar mothers, overwhelmed by life and death and disappointed by life and divorce mothers, hooked on their own unique blend of white wine and Valium mothers, frozen in time mothers, younger than we are now that some of us are grandmothers mothers are here

And we love you

So tell us

Is it over now? And

Do you know how

To pick up the pieces and go home?

Filed under: Poetry, rock 'n' roll, video, Women in Rock, , , , , , , , , ,

Poetic activism in the pandemic age: Tony Robles writes home

I first heard of the work Tony Robles was doing to stem the tide of gentrification in San Francisco when I returned here, following a decade of living in Los Angeles. A housing advocate, particularly devoted to keeping seniors in their homes, and a cultural worker whose art is poetry, whether in the fight to preserve bookstores or entire neighborhoods, from the Fillmore to the Mission, Robles was a strong presence in the various communities he represented, from North Beach to City Hall and South of Market. Combining community and culture in the spirit and tradition of his uncle Al, one of our city’s beloved poet activists, Robles is a fighter for the city he’s allowed to hate — because he loves it — even though he’s left us for rural North Carolina…

In 2017, I was happy to include Tony’s piece “Conversation With A Buffalo,” in Your Golden Sun Still Shines, the San Francisco story anthology I edited for Manic D Press (and which his open letter to another Tony, Bennett, helped deliver the book’s title, a reference to “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”). Now that Robles has left his heart here for real, having relocated to Hendersonville, he’s receiving some well-deserved recognition for his work as a poet. I hope you’ll read the full story of his life and work, particularly as it relates to the role of artists in the age of the pandemic in my biweekly column for the Examiner, SF Lives. And oh yes, a big thank you to Tony: Mabuhay! Read the column here.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, Poetry, San Francisco News, Tales of the Gentrification City, , , , ,

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