Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

The Last Holiday: On Stevie Wonder, Gil-Scott Heron and the MLK Observance They Turned From Dream to Reality

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It was a long road to the third Monday in January when all 50 states observe the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the day named in his honor.  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 (he’d been scheduled for the tour until he fell too ill to participate). Stepping into the breach was Scott-Heron whose 2011, posthumously published memoir The Last Holiday, details his own journey with music and activism, and helps retrace the long and winding road Wonder took to bring home the last US federal holiday, with the help of a song.


The Hotter Than July tour brought Gil and Stevie to Oakland, where they played in the name of King, along with Rodney Franklin and Carlos Santana. In a weird turn of events, the concert on December 8, 1980, coincided with the shocking night John Lennon was killed. The musicians and crew learned of the tragedy from a backstage television; the job fell to Wonder,  with Scott-Heron and the other musicians at his side, to deliver the news to the arena of assembled music fans. “For the next five minutes he spoke spontaneously about his friendship with John Lennon:  how they’d met, when and where, what they had enjoyed together, and what kind of man he’d felt Lennon was,” wrote Scott-Heron.  “That last one was key, because it drew a line between what had happened in New York that day and what had happened on that motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, a dozen years before.  And it drew a circle around the kind of men who stood up for both peace and change.”  This year marks the 50th remembrance of Dr. King’s assassination on April 4. Scott-Heron devotes the final pages of The Last Holiday  to a remembrance of how the murder of Lennon fueled the final drive to push for a federal observance of an official MLK Day.

The politics of right and wrong make everything complicated

To a generation who’s never had a leader assassinated

But suddenly it feels like ’68 and as far back as it seems

One man says “Imagine” and the other says “I have a dream”

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Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Georgia, income disparity, racism, , , , ,

Happy Xmas

Some time in New York City, 1971, John Lennon and Yoko Ono came up with a Christmas song for the ages, its subject peace on earth during wartime, its melody extraordinarily similar to “Stewball,” a hoary folk song about a racehorse. Behind its veil of bluegrass, “Stewball” has deep roots plus class and race resonances, but only a tangential connection to the “Happy Xmas” song (if you’ve got the time to delve into these matters, there’s more where this came from, including clips and further linkage).

In his final major interview, Lennon explained, “‘Happy Christmas’ Yoko and I wrote together. It says, ‘War is over if you want it.’ It was still that same message—the idea that we’re just as responsible as the man who pushes the button. As long as people imagine that, somebody’s doing it to them and they have no control, then they have no control.” Lennon and Ono had used the slogan “War Is Over! (If You Want It)” in their 1969 billboard campaign that sold peace to the people just as aggressively as consumer goods and war were promoted in the public sphere.

Recorded in October at the Record Plant and assisted by producer Phil Spector, the Plastic Ono Band (who for this session included Jim Keltner, Nicky Hopkins, and Hugh McCracken) were joined by the children of the Harlem Community Choir (they sing, “War is over if you want it”). The single was released in the US on December 6th and held until the following November of 1972 for release in the UK.

Spector’s influence is clearly a presence—you can hear his signature claustrophobic effects, similar to those on the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” and the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him.”  But there is another ghost of rock and roll past in the room: The song borrows the feeling and the melody of “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace, a well- known Lennon favorite.

As for the slogan War is Over, the Doors had previously  used it in their 1968 anti-war song, “Unknown Solider” as had W.S. Merwin in his anti-Vietnam poem, “When the War Is Over,” published in 1967.  “Happy Xmas” bears traces of all the aforementioned melodies and influences, in addition to their somber moods, along with the note-for-note cadence of “Stewball.” Opening with a whisper to their children from whom they were estranged at the time (“Happy Christmas Kyoko, Happy Christmas Julian”), the lyrics open with a rather pointed question (“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?”) and wishes for a better world to follow. All is forgiven by the final uplift.

As most readers know, Spector is currently serving time in a California state prison for using a firearm to murder Lana Clarkson. Legend has it Johnny Ace shot himself by accident, and the persecution of peacenik Lennon as well as his end have been well-documented. Ono continues to work for peace and against gun violence.  The song “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” itself has inspired many covers,  none of them worth mentioning, and at least one (Billy Bob Thornton) worth calling out as being unmentionable. The only version worth a bleep I’ve ever heard is the original:  It just might be the best rock’n’roll song to capture the spirit of Christmas.

If, after reading this and enduring the year we’ve shared, you’re seeking something a bit cheerier, I’ve included a clip of “Run Rudolph Run” by original rock ‘n’ roller Chuck Berry—yet another Lennon-inspirer who we lost in March of this year. Consider it a seasonal gift: Merry Christmas Everybody, and God Bless Us, Everyone.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Jim Morrison, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , , , ,

Country Music On The Move

Sometimes inspiration comes from the unlikeliest of sources.  Country music, for example, is not the kind of music I generally turn on when seeking comfort, enjoyment, or consolation. You might say I’m not a big fan. I will admit I’m slightly allergic to the sound of fiddles, banjos, mandolins, or anything that twangs.  That all said, when the lyrics are really saying something and the artist is using their notoriety to make change, I’m all ears.  In this month’s column, we celebrate Sturgill Simpson, Keith Urban, and the other country music artists who’ve decided enough is enough: These musicians are taking a stand against gun violence, misogyny, racism, and the other ills of our nation in decline. Read the entire story at Tourworthy.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, column, Protest Songs, Women's rights, , , ,

Your Golden Sun Still Shines, an anthology of San Francisco writing, now available

Your Golden Sun Still Shines, the new collection of San Francisco stories I edited for Manic D Press is now available at independent bookstores everywhere (and directly through the publisher’s website).  I had a most gratifying experience working with all of the writers I invited and eventually selected for inclusion in the book: Part of the process for me was connecting with each individual’s writing style and finding my own voice as an editor. I found I really enjoyed the whole process, especially working one on one with fellow writers and San Franciscans and learning more about their stories. Together, we compiled what I hope is an enjoyable portrait of the City in the here and now, with flashes of the past and future added for context and your reading pleasure. Here’s a snippet from the blurb:

This collection of uniquely San Francisco stories from a wide range of voices wrests wisdom from chaos and channels boundless progressive energy into lyrical short stories and personal narratives, demonstrating that grace and resilience under pressure are as much a measure of San Francisco’s legacy as they are a determination of its future.

We had a wonderful book launch event in October at our annual literary festival Litquake. As we continue to do readings throughout this fall, winter and next spring, we hope you’ll join us (our next event is on November 12 at Adobe Books in San Francisco at 4 PM:  Featured readers are Tony Robles, Shizue Seigel and Norman Zelaya.  All three writers are also poets and fiercely proud San Franciscans whose work shares that special ingredient, “friscosity”).  On November 19 at 4 PM, San Francisco poet laureate Kim Shuck, Kelly Dessaint, Broke-Ass Stuart, Alvin Orloff, Shizue Seigel and I will be in discussion at City College San Francisco for the Howard Zinn Book Fair. The remaining contributors to the collection include Dee Allen., Jorge Tetl Argueta, Peter Case, Patsy Creedy, Stefanie Doucette, Lynell George, John Goins, E. Hagan, Michael Koch, Raluca Ioanid, Sylvia J. Martinez, Alice Elizabeth Rogoff, Don Skiles, Anna Maria Smith and Barbara Stuaffacher Solomon. I have nothing but love and respect for all of the writers, and I truly appreciate their efforts to make Your Golden Sun shine.  Please drop us a line and let us know what you think of our book.  And I’ll keep you posted on upcoming appearances and news here, too.  Thank you!

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, San Francisco News, Tales of the Gentrification City, ,

Remembering Tom Petty

Tom Petty was born today in 1950 in Gainesville, Florida.  He died suddenly earlier this month at home in Los Angeles.

Like countless rock ‘n’ roll fans of my generation, I loved the music of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers from the first notes I heard.  I saw the band perform countless times in every decade they worked, from an early band show at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, to an intimate gig at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, where Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell sat in with J.J. Cale.  The Heartbreakers and their leader made it look easy, in the way that only musicians who are of one mind do: The mastery of their musicianship and its intensity, particularly over the three nights I saw them during their historic Fillmore run, remains burned in my consciousness. When I call up the memory, I can feel the room levitate as it did each night during “Runnin’ Down A Dream.” Not every concert is like that.

This month’s column is dedicated to the music and memory of Tom Petty with a focus on his quiet work as a philanthropist, and not so quiet work as a rock ‘n’ roll giant.  READ THE WHOLE ARTICLE at Tourworthy.

 

Filed under: Obituary, rock 'n' roll, Rock Birthdays, , , ,

Peace Punks, Hate Speech & Berkeley

Green Day at Gilman, photo by Murray Bowles

In 1988, the peace punks who congregated at 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley, California, had a choice to make: To meet encroaching skinheads with violence or to fight back with the tactics of non-violence. Choices were made, the inevitable schisms from within ensued, and life went on, as the new documentary, Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk, tells. While the story and other tales of punk rock glory illustrate punk’s inherent contradictions and what happens when utopian ideals like egalitarianism and rule-by-committee are put to the test, the film is also in perfect synch with the hate speech controversy happening on the UC campus this fall.

“The film played in Charlottesville a few weeks back,” explained its director, Corbett Redford. “Someone from the audience commented, ‘This is how allies work. Allies stand up.’”

The punks of Gilman, far more of them straight, white, and male than queer, people of color, or women, did indeed stand up to the Nazi strain in their midst. And yet, the politics of waging peace and the how music fits into those politics is often more nuanced and complicated than taking up of pitchforks, tiki torches, or baseball bats.

READ THE WHOLE STORY AT DOWN WITH TYRANNY!

Filed under: Arts and Culture, film, Punk, , , , , ,

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World Is A Revelatory New Documentary

Forget everything you think you know or have been told about the birth of the blues and the histories of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll: Rumble – The Indians Who Rocked The World has a different story to tell and by the sound of it, much of what’s been handed down to us about North American music and its origins has been wrong.
The sound of the American South – the rush of its waters, the song of the bird, the crack of thunder and the rain that follows – informs the sound of Native American music, the root of all other American forms.

Take the story of the Mississippi Delta’s Charley Patton, widely acknowledged to be the father of the country blues. An existing photograph of him reveals he is likely a man of mixed race origins, though without clear proof, historians have remained inconclusive in their findings. Rumble reveals through interviews, research, and recordings, that Patton’s blood ties are to the Chocktaw nation and moreover, his connection to Native American music contributed to the rhythmic and vocal patterns of what we know as country blues. In the film, musician Pura Fé (Tuscarora) a/b’s his technique with a turntable and her voice: “That’s Indian music with a guitar,” she says. Calling on a kind of pre-blues origin of his sound, the assembled scholars and musicians, including modern day bluesmen Corey Harris and Alvin Youngblood Hart, go into deeper explanation of Patton’s relationship to Dockery Plantation, the setting where he developed a showstopping style living among Black, Choctaw, and European farmworkers. He went on to pass on what he knew to other area musicians like Son House and visiting players like the young Roebuck Staples and Chester Burnette (who of course became Howlin’ Wolf). So why is Patton’s history generally painted so sketchily in the history books? READ THE ANSWER & THE ENTIRE ARTICLE in Down With Tyranny!

Filed under: Arts and Culture, film, , , , , , , ,

Mavis Staples & Buffy Sainte-Marie: Over 100 Years of Singing Strong

Two American icons of freedom singing, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Mavis Staples, are out on the road entertaining this summer, though don’t expect them to stay quiet on matters of national and international interest.  This pair were on the front line of the Civil Rights Movement and have been strong presences for peace in our time, as well in the movements for African American equality, women’s rights, Native American sovereignty,  religious freedom, and environmental healing.  Between them, they have over 100 years of speaking truth to power in a song.  Read all about them in my monthly column for Tourworthy.

Filed under: anti-war, column, Women's rights, , , ,

Amadou & Mariam: Visionary Mali Music

From Ali Farka Touré to Tinariwen, the music of Mali is as diverse as that of the US. This summer, one of the country’s finest combos, the rock/electronic/blues duo Amadou & Mariam, return to the states for a series of shows. For this month’s column in Tourworthy, I capsulize their history and speak to some of their collaborations with alternative musicians around the world.  I also talk to noted disability scholar, Leroy Moore Jr. about the realities of musicians from Africa touring with disabilities (Amadou & Mariam are both legally blind).  Take a look and listen to the couple’s new single, “Bofou Safou,” and link to the full story here.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, column, cross cultural musical experimentation, Mali, video, , ,

Mumia Abu-Jamal & Matters Of Black Life

I have composed my thoughts about the new book, Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? by political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal. Read the piece by clicking through to Down With Tyranny!

Abu-Jamal’s collection of essays, published by City Lights Books, covers the extrajudicial killings of Black Americans since the late ’90s to the present. The writings are an attempt to examine how the country arrived at its new stage of intolerance and what can be done from here. As told from the perspective of a writer who has spent the last 30 plus years behind bars, and most of those years on Death Row, the analysis proves to have been prescient in its wisdom and precise in its depiction of the US problem with white supremacy and law enforcement’s impunity when it comes to taking Black lives. I hope you’ll let me know what you think.

 

Filed under: anti-war, Books, income disparity, police, racism, , , , ,

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