Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

“George Jackson” and “Hurricane”

Bob Dylan’s relationship to the political world and the matters he chooses to champion or protest have been the subject of much debate, discussion, and inspiration for 50 years now. His arrival in Greenwich Village in 1961, to a scene that was informed equally by poetry and politics as it was jazz and folk, marked the beginning of his journey with topical song, to be followed by his famous retreat from it, as well as from those looking to pin a generational voice or spokesman tag on him. And yet, as the ‘70s began, Dylan was back on topic, returning to his roots as a social justice singer with “George Jackson”, a memorial for the radicalized convict and Black Panther who died in a San Quentin prison shoot-out in 1971. Dylan spoke to power again in 1975 with “Hurricane”, concerning the flawed judicial process that sent away middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter for an unjust term. Certainly the names George Jackson and Rubin Carter would be remembered in the halls of political history and activism (and in Carter’s case, boxing as well), even if their stories hadn’t been the subject of Dylan songs. But it’s also safe to say that in both cases, Dylan’s songs contributed toward increasing awareness among rock fans of the shortcomings of a criminal justice system in need of reform, as well as toward an understanding that all human life is of equal value, no matter the person’s race or class. In the case of Carter, a song even affected the outcome, though for Jackson it was too late: Like Dylan, he would’ve turned 70 this year—though as the song goes, “Lord, Lord, they cut George Jackson down” in 1971.

“George Jackson”

Against a backdrop of escalating war in Vietnam and social and political mayhem to accompany it at home, by the late ’60s and early ’70s, the climate was hot for topical rock and soul songs which documented the times. John Lennon put forth “Imagine”, the follow-up to his and Yoko Ono’s initial bursts of song devoted to giving peace a chance. Marvin Gaye voiced his concerns in “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)”, “What’s Going On?”, and “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)”, while Cat Stevens boarded the “Peace Train” that would ultimately take him to study the Qur’an and inspire a conversion to Islam. It was also more or less expected that in these times of trouble, serious artists would weigh in on the events with a song. From the chart-busting Motown artists who began to draw from a repertoire that was blacker and stronger, to the rush-released recording by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young of “Ohio” concerning the shooting tragedy at Kent State, the appetite for topical songs in the US was evidenced by their chart successes. And it was in part thanks to Bob Dylan’s early ‘60s pro-civil rights and anti-war songs that rock music with a message thrived throughout the decade. Although, from 1966 through much of 1971 Dylan remained in self-imposed exile from touring, leaning more towards poetical and philosophical flavors, rather than those polemical or topical for his songs—that is, until his unexpected return.

Performing in public for the first time since his Isle of Wight concert in 1969, Dylan appeared at Madison Square Garden on August 1st at the Concert for Bangladesh, the model for contemporary all-star rock charity events. Organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, the rally for Bangladesh raised awareness and funds for the residents of East Pakistan and Bengal India, regions beset by complications of war and a cyclone and the flooding and famine that went with it. An already troubled region was now devastated, and as Shankar outlined the situation for concert-goers, Dylan helped to draw them, performing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, as well as a handful of more apolitical songs.

It was later that month at San Quentin during the summer of 1971 that George Jackson was shot to death during an alleged escape attempt following a prison riot in which inmates and a guard were killed. Less than a month after the Jackson incident in California, a historic event at Attica Correctional Facility wherein prisoners took control of the prison to protest its poor conditions resulted in more fatalities and became an unmistakable call for prison reform. Perhaps it was that call that Dylan was responding to when in November, he cut and released “George Jackson”, a 45-rpm record that reached the Top 40 in January of 1972. Opening with the blues trope, “I woke up this morning,” Dylan’s “George Jackson” is not a typical blues song, though it surely addresses the larger topic of racial and socio-economic oppression from which a certain strain of blues was born.

Jackson had made it to California from the streets of Chicago; a 70-dollar robbery landed him in prison, his sentence indeterminate. Jackson found trouble inside the prison walls too, and as his sentences were extended—chiefly behind events occurring at Soledad State Prison in which three black inmates and a white guard were killed—he used the time in solitary to educate himself.  He studied psychologist Franz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), Marx, and Mao, and came to understand the incarceration of poor blacks for petty crimes in a political context. A leader in moving prisoners to radicalize, Jackson joined the Black Panthers while on the inside, and went on to become one of the group’s most celebrated members. However by 1969, J. Edgar Hoover—declaring the Black Panthers to be public enemy number one—had set out to decimate them, and other groups like them, with a counterintelligence program, and was largely successful at it. Nevertheless, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson was published in 1971 and was greeted by a positive reception by intellectuals and political progressives. That Jackson had been framed in the Soledad incident, for conspiring to kill a guard, was a widely held belief; subsequently, a vocal celebrity chorus came to Jackson’s defense. But a few days before his trial for the murder was to begin, a riot broke out in San Quentin in which inmates and guards were again slain; Jackson was shot while running across the yard in an alleged escape attempt. The details of the case are still being debated by scholars, historians, and survivors, many of them with a personal attachment to the events of that day.

“The power of George Jackson’s personal story remains painfully relevant to our nation today, with its persistent racism, its hellish prisons, its unjust judicial system, and the poles of wealth and poverty that are at the root of all that,” wrote historian Howard Zinn in an updated version of Jackson’s Soledad Brother. Wresting larger truths from the events of 1971, Dylan delivered his summation in these often quoted lines from “George Jackson”:

“Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards”


While Dylan’s late ’60s and early ’70s performances were scarce and scarcely political, hisalbumsSelf Portrait and New Morning were the personal reflections of a more inwardly directed songwriter. Though he stepped out with the Band for Planet Waves and a tour in a new era of big-time rock ‘n’ roll concert business, he retreated again, against the backdrop of a marital disintegration that famously produced Blood on the Tracks in 1975. But by summer of that year, he came out swinging.

“Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For something that he’d never done
Put him in a prison cell but one time
He coulda been the champion of the world”

Dylan once again spoke to criminal injustice when he took on the plight of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was serving time on a triple murder conviction in a New Jersey state prison. Impressed with Carter’s book, The Sixteenth Round, in which Carter explains his history as a vocal supporter of black rights and his experience of being framed by New Jersey law enforcement, Dylan was moved to visit him in prison. As the story goes, following a five- or six-hour talk with Carter, Dylan set about writing the tribute with Jacques Levy, his collaborator at the time. “Look, there’s an injustice that’s been done and Rubin’s gonna get out, there’s no doubt about it,” Dylan told author Larry Sloman. “But the fact is, it can happen to anybody.”

“Hurricane” transcends simple topical protest song. Broadcasting as clearly as the pistol shots that rang out in that New Jersey night, Dylan sets the scene and creates a detailed picture of a world unfamiliar to the majority of his listenership—many of them now younger, and largely unacquainted with the combustible state of race relations in Patterson, New Jersey, circa 1966. The song stirs feelings of empathy and compassion; it becomes a companion for believers in the cause to free Rubin Carter, as well as for others wrongly imprisoned behind false testimonies and racial bias. Following the release of the song as a single in 1975 and the formation of a grassroots movement for Carter’s freedom based on the false evidence used to convict him, the boxer was released on bail and granted a new trial the following year. His conviction was finally overturned in 1988.

During his 1975-’66 Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan and friends performed “Hurricane” onstage every night. The entourage, including Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, T Bone Burnett, Bob Neuwirth, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, rolled into Madison Square Garden in December of 1975. They were joined that evening by singer Roberta Flack and boxer Muhammad Ali for a benefit billed as “The Night of the Hurricane.” Ali addressed the crowd playfully, in characteristic rhyme.  “I’m so glad to see you all with the cause because you have the connection with the complexion to get the protection,” he said from the stage.

Carter also spoke that night, his words delivered through the house PA via telephone. “Muhammad… on a serious note, my brother Bob Dylan once wrote, ‘Walk upside down inside handcuffs, throw up my legs and kick them off. Say all right, I’ve had enough. Now what else can you show me?’” Carter said, quoting from “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” “Speaking from deep down in the bowels of the state prison of New Jersey, the fact that I’m speaking to you and the other brothers and sisters in the audience, that’s revolutionary indeed.” Praising the love of his wife and daughter, Carter said his hope was alive. “I knew that if I remained alive, that if I kept myself well… I knew they were going to come to my rescue, and tonight, here you are.” And though eventually all charges against Carter were dropped and he was exonerated, controversy still surrounds his case.

Richie Havens, a frequent interpreter of Dylan’s songs who opens all his shows with “All Along the Watchtower” (to name just one of Dylan’s pointed “post-protest” era tunes), says that “Hurricane” remains his favorite among all of Dylan’s songs. “That was an incredible job of going in there and winning, getting him out of there. Unbelievable,” Havens said in 2008.

If I had to pick just one, I would have to say that “Hurricane” is my favorite song by Dylan too. From the first time I heard it in 1975, it spoke to matters that as a young person I had little experience with, and yet I felt the truth in the lines, especially the one about the criminals in their coats and ties and how they put the wrong man behind bars. Everyday, I couldn’t wait for the song to come on the radio so I could stop whatever I was doing, and for an entire eight minutes and some odd seconds, be transported, away from whatever real or imagined injustice was happening in my immediate sphere. This was not my parents’ Dylan (not that they listened to him), the vast catalog of songs from the ’60s that at the time meant so much to so many yet very little to me; this was the new ’70s Dylan. His exciting return to protest, and of course rebellion, was something that  I as a member of a new generation of listeners could totally get with.

Perhaps the goodwill of however many Dylan fans, young and old, diehard or just discovering him, rushing toward the Carter case and the folks who feverishly worked on it gave the cause a boost. Without a doubt, it was a song that set a direction for me—toward further discovery of folk and story songs, topical singing and freedom movement, liberation, cultural celebration, and message songs; the kind that contain secret, hidden histories of ourselves and of our country; the kinds of stories that aren’t often told in school but rather handed down in oral tradition, read in books like Carter’s and Jackson’s and, of course, heard in Bob Dylan’s songs.–

published on May 24, 2011 in Crawdaddy!

Filed under: Bob Dylan, ,

Richie Havens

“For some odd reason, I know everybody,” says Richie Havens. Whether it was destiny or a cosmic hiccup, the musical climax of the ’60s was an auspicious day for Havens when an unplanned three-hour set opening the Woodstock Festival opened his doorway to worldwide recognition. “We landed, they chased me, I went on,” he explains. And yet, even if things hadn’t gone down that way, Havens would still have made his mark on rock history as a graduate of the original Greenwich Village folk scene, as a writer and interpreter of substantive songs, and as the third point in the magic triangle that connects Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix.

“I gave him the words to that,” says Havens, speaking of Hendrix and “All Along the Watchtower”, the song Havens still uses to open all his shows. The first song Havens ever covered by Dylan was “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”; he’s since reworked “If Not For You”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, “Lay Lady Lay”, “Maggie’s Farm”, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, and, most recently, “Tombstone Blues” for the surreal biopic I’m Not There in which he also appeared. As for Hendrix, Havens first witnessed him in action in an uptown club and was so impressed, he hipped him to the Village scene. “I did share that with him—that he didn’t need to be a studio musician, at the whim of everyone else—that he could be in his own band… that’s how we started out knowing each other.”

The last time Havens saw Hendrix was at the second Isle of Wight Festival; the pair had planned to meet in London soon after but Hendrix never made it. “He was a very shy person, quiet person, until he got on stage; then he grew two feet tall,” Havens continues. “He created himself and this showed when he walked up on that stage, how powerful it was and how necessary it was… he loved Bob Dylan’s songs too.”

Beatnik Beginnings

With his ears that catch the rhythm of words and a heart that stays constantly tuned to the station of brotherly love, Havens is a fellow traveler for freethinking ’60s grads and a father figure to those who wish they could’ve been there. As someone who falls in the gap, I can be easily mesmerized by stories of Allen Ginsberg, Hendrix, Dylan, and Woodstock among other things, and so I was willing to take the leap into Havens’ world. Like a new age beatnik who broadcasts the subterranean news through his songs, poems, artwork, and stories that reach across generations (his latest album is No One Left to Crown), Havens fits Jack Kerouac’s description of Beats as “characters of a special spirituality.” A self-proclaimed “song singer” and “all-around expressionist,” he was not only present, but he participated in the cultural shift that began with the Beats and carried over into a mass movement in the ’60s. And yet for Havens, the decade was just the staging ground for the bigger change that’s going to come, the one he says is taking place right now: He calls this phenomenon humanity’s becoming. “I’m blessed to see that we’re really just beginning on what it was we were supposed to be working at, in order to bring about the connection of all of us to each other,” he says.

Back in 1958, when Richie Havens was a teenage doo-wop singer in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, the kids there called him a beatnik. Not knowing for sure what that meant, he took a train with a friend to Greenwich Village to see what he could find out.

“We found out these guys in the neighborhood were talking about poets, and what they might’ve thought was derogatory became a very positive thing to us,” says Havens. It wasn’t long before he was reading his own poems in Village coffeehouses. “We’d sit at a table with our little books and Ginsberg would say, ‘What’s in those books? Get up there and read them!’ That’s how it began for me.

“A lot of people say, ‘What did we do? We didn’t do much.’ Oh yes we did,” he says, in answer to the cynics. “That which was a part of us was connecting up with what we were becoming at that point. And so it was wonderful to see changes. We made an atmosphere. That’s what we’re doing now. Backgrounds and atmosphere. Oh, that’s a good title! Backgrounds and atmosphere.”

Finding work in the Village as a portrait artist, he also discovered folk music in the coffeehouses and began to spend more and more nights in them, arriving later and later to the painting gig, while moving further away from his Bed-Stuy roots. He might crash in the city with singing pals like Little Anthony and the Imperials, but doo wop was no longer compelling to him, nor was the Brooklyn he knew as he watched his neighborhood and old pals take directions he wasn’t going. And so he left doo wop and a potential life in “show biz,” and became a part of what he calls the “communication business,” joining up with the folk scene. “I gave up show biz when I found a different song to sing, like Freddie Neil’s song to ‘Tear Down the Walls.’ In 1959? I’m going, ‘wow.’”

“The music’s in the air, where every man is free,” sang Fred Neil on “Tear Down the Walls”, one of his early-period folk songs. “When I think about it, that’s a heck of a time, when almost nobody was asking those kinds of things or projecting them,” says Havens.

“And Dino Valenti, ‘Love is but a song we sing, and fear’s the way we die,’” he sings, quoting “Get Together.” “He wrote it in 1958! We were awakening by these songs… I couldn’t wait for them to write another song so I could sing it from the audience with them.” Havens took to singing-along, especially while Fred Neil performed, “in harmony no less,” while Neil, who had a reputation as friend-to-the-new-folkie, advised him to get a guitar and learn his own. Three days later, Havens returned to the Village and began to perform six nights a week for the next six years.

“I thought it was time for my friends to hear something more than what we were relegated to do,” he says, referring to the diminishing options for his street corner pals. Havens’ parents were working people; his paternal grandfather was a Blackfoot Indian who traveled east with Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show. His maternal grandmother was a Caribbean Islander from Great Britain, “born on Christmas Day,” who helped raise him while his parents worked. He recalls one day, as she hung laundry on the line in the backyard, she asked him what he wanted to do with his life. “I said, ‘I want to meet everyone in the whole world.’ I was about five. I’d sit outside and look at the moon in daylight all the time… I’d make a circle with my hands, like a big open eye, and just cut out everything but the clouds going by… I was always fascinated to be a part of this becoming. I don’t think there was any negative feeling I could have.”

A Mixed Bag

He cut some songs in the early to mid-’60s, but it was his 1967 and 1968 albums, Mixed Bag and Something Else Again, that revealed his own growing consciousness, as well as the imprint of Fred Neil, whose strong strumming style and suspended notes echo through Havens’ own work. Tangling with war and the civil rights issues on “Handsome Johnny” (the lyrics were written by his friend, actor Lou Gossett, Jr., himself a onetime Village folkie), he also took on “The Klan.” He laid down his famous version of Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman”, the song which he says personally illuminated the multi-dimensionality of womankind for him. Simone would go on to perform the Havens song “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed;” it was her commitment to dynamic, emotional song interpretation that also freed Havens to sing the songs of others in whatever mode moved him. And though Simone’s music defied boundaries, by virtue of his acoustic guitar strumming, Havens is most often put into the folk or folk-rock bag.

“All music is folk music,” says Havens. “There is a folk-music quality to my generation’s rock ‘n’ roll. We were singing about things without thinking of them as social commentary.” Then, as now, if Havens has an overriding message, it concerns freedom, something that he says “we are supposed to have already.”

“Freedom” is the name of Haven’s best-known song, the one that famously evolved out of an improvisation at the end of his accidental three-hour opening set at Woodstock. He and his two-man group were meant to be fourth on the bill, but they were thrown on stage as the first because, unlike some of the other acts, Havens and company were present and accounted for, easy to set up, and all importantly, had not ingested the infamous brown acid.

“I went and did my 40 minutes, I walked off and they said, ‘Richie, can you do about four more songs?’ No one was there to go on. I went back and sang the four songs. I walked off. ‘Richie… four more?’ They did that six times until I realized, I don’t have another song. I’m done. I’ve sung every song I know. It’s two hours and forty-five minutes later… and that’s when I start that long intro, that’s me trying to figure out what I’m going to play, and I yell out the thing about the guitar microphone… please, let me stall a little bit more!”

After about a minute of freelancing a percussive riff in his distinctive open-D tuning, accompanied by an Afro-Cuban conga beat, he cried the word “freedom,” and then repeated it eight more times. “I just went with that… all of a sudden, ‘Motherless Child’ came out. I hadn’t sung that song in 14 or 15 years. I used to sing it early on in the Village.” He also slipped in a couple of secularized verses from a song he calls “I Got a Telephone in My Bosom” (a variation on the song that became known as “Jesus is on the Mainline”), which he learned during a brief gospel education. And though he was in a state of improvisational ecstasy, Havens could still sense that by participating in Woodstock, he was taking part in history.

“They can’t hide us anymore” was the thought that went through his head upon seeing the masses at Max Yasgur’s Farm that day. At first observing the scene through the floorboards of the helicopter that was delivering him to the gig, and later from his vantage point on the stage, “I thought, ‘when the pictures come out in the newspaper, they’ll see we are now above ground. We’re no longer relegated to the underground.’”

The Here and Now

Part of Havens’ method for delivering his message remains through singing the work of others. OnNobody Left to Crown, he finally got around to recording Jackson Browne’s “Lives in the Balance”, an urgent missive on the human cost of war that he’s been performing for some time now. He also pulls out a show-stopping version of the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

“I wanted to do it right after it came out, I loved it so much, but I thought, ‘it doesn’t need to be said twice—the Who’s done it.’ I held that in a box—my hold it box. It took this long to come back around and it fit.”

He wrote and recorded the title song live years ago, but saved the studio recording of it until now. “What if they gave an election and nobody came? What would we be doing? There’s nobody left to crown but us, for all of the things we’ve been through because of politics… for example, we learned this year that every law that was passed was passed in the middle of the night and no one knew it.”

For all of his political awareness, Havens has never been one to exercise his right to vote—until now. He went to the polls for the first time for the 2008 presidential primaries. “I found that it was now necessary to do that.”

Soon after the Woodstock experience, people all over the world started to request he play his own creation, “Freedom.” “And I’d say, ‘Freedom? Which freedom?’ And they’d say, ‘You know, “Motherless Child.”’ Holy smokes! Then it turns out to be in the movie and this is a big time change for me.” Havens had never seen himself perform until the Woodstock film came out months later. “It scared me to death, it was just so large. It wasn’t me, you know. It was a song. I became a mechanism to get that song out.”

The Woodstock Festival and the Isle of Wight shortly thereafter introduced Richie Havens to audiences on a massive scale as a dynamic acoustic performer and ambassador of socially conscious song and thought. He never tires of his responsibility as a ’60s generational spokesperson, though he’s an even bigger supporter of youth and the environment; in 1990, he helped to found the Natural Guard in New Haven, Connecticut, an organization where kids began to “guard the natural” in their own surroundings. From a community garden that fed the homeless to a lead poisoning awareness campaign, kids spotted the problems and created solutions that had a lasting impact on their community as well as their own lives. “It really was based on children using their own community as the endangered environment. The most put-upon group is children.” Children from three different chapters were recognized by then-Senator Al Gore for their environmental justice efforts.

If Havens has learned anything through his years of becoming, it’s that his work here isn’t yet done. “Don’t expect everything that happens to finish itself at once. It’s still happening, and it’ll reveal itself to you.” As he travels (he works three nights a week, down from his Village-era six), he finds that the local talent who open his shows seek his counsel on how to proceed with their careers. Advocating the digital DIY approach, he tells them, “Make your record, get someone to help you put it out, and go to the world directly. Get your feedback from the whole planet. That’s where you connect.”

Of course, that’s easy to say if you’re Richie Havens, the boy who told his grandmother he intended to meet everyone in the world some day and a man who believes music can change the world. But can it, really? “Absolutely,” he says. “And it will soon.” —published on September 10, 2008 in Crawdaddy!

Filed under: Richie Havens, , , ,

Strange Feelin’: When Rock Meets Jazz









In July of 1969, while Neil Armstrong took his walk on the moon, here on earth, Tim Buckley and Miles Davis were taking their own giant steps toward where only few had gone before: Buckley changed his style and went jazz-rock on his acoustic odyssey Happy Sad, while Davis went entirely electric, forever changing jazz and launching fusion with In a Silent Way. Both men had their reasons for changing their songs… Dig these origins of the new music.

Davis’1959 album Kind of Blue had already revolutionized jazz, steering away from chord progression and toward modes or scales as the base for its jams. Contributing to Miles making the leap in his own music was his contemplation of the piano style of Ahmad Jamal. “In Jamal he recognized a kindred spirit and freely borrowed whatever he could from him,” wrote Jack Chambers in Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis. “Davis made no effort to conceal his debt.” Nor would Buckley try to hide his 10 years later when he used Miles’ “All Blues”, from Kind of Blue, as the inspiration for his vocal improvisations on “Strange Feelin’”, which opens Happy Sad. Improvisation, interpretation, and expression of influence are of course just a part of what makes jazz swing.

Buckley had been studying up on the music’s construction while hanging out at his Venice, California pad, listening to Miles and guitarist Gabor Szabo and saxophonist Roland Kirk, among other jazzers. He was a fan of the Modern Jazz Quartet, especially its vibraphonist Milt Jackson, who specialized in cool, and was inspired to secure a vibes player of his own, David Friedman, for his new lineup. In December of 1968, Buckley, with his 12-string acoustic, headed to Elektra Sound Recorders in Los Angeles with Friedman, Lee Underwood on lead guitar, Carter Collins on congas, and John Miller on acoustic bass for the recording of Happy Sad. The acoustic lineup was a switch, as was the absence of Buckley’s writing partner, Larry Beckett—an attempt to break free from the constraints of poetic social protest and into the revolution of his own mind. Guitarist Underwood recalls this period and his time with Buckley in his memoir, Blue Melody: Tim Buckley Remembered.

“Tim treasured his independence above all,” he wrote. “Right from the beginning, the music industry’s business categories never fit. Buckley was unique. He played Buckley music.” As a singer-songwriter Buckley appreciated the spirit of Fred Neil and his acolyte Richie Havens, both of whom pushed folk’s limits with the use of suspended chords and improvisatory jams. Underwood confirms the genesis of “Strange Feelin’” as the result of Buckley walking in on Friedman and Miller playing Miles’ “All Blues” at the recording session.

With roots planted in the same American soil that sprouted the work and sacred songs that bloomed into blues and R&B, it was inevitable that by the mid-’60s, post-bop/modern jazz and rock (which was doing its Beatles/Dylan self-contained band and singer-songwriter thing) would meet. Twenty-two-year-old composer and pianist Herbie Hancock had pointed the way in 1962 when he used the blues as a base for “Watermelon Man” and scored a pop hit with it; he was then promptly snapped up by Miles for his band. Young guitarist Larry Coryell created a synthesis in 1966 when, with drummer Bob Moses and saxophonist Jim Pepper, he formed the Free Spirits. They released one album, Out of Sight and Out of Sound, before Coryell left the group and went on to conquer the world of jazz fusion guitar, while Jeremy Steig, with Jeremy and the Satyrs, gave jazz-rock-fusion a shot in 1968, too (you may know Steig’s “Howlin’ for Judy” as the main sample from the Beastie Boys track, “Sure Shot”). Though one-offs, Coryell and Steig had succeeded in bringing a touch of rock’s freaked-out psychedelic vibe to jazz, while freaked-out rockers were getting all jazz-like. As Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, and Jerry Garcia were taking soloing and improvisation to new extremes, rockin’ the jazz organically grew: The Doors specialized in Miles-forged modalities, while acts diverse as Blood Sweat and Tears, Frank Zappa, and England’s Soft Machine all drew from variations on jazz themes. So too did Van Morrison on his singer-songwriter-folk-jazz-solo-acoustic album Astral Weeks in 1968, for which real jazzers (including bassist Richard Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Connie Kay) were hired for the sessions.

On the Miles side, this was the period in which he was said to have proclaimed, “I could put together the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band you ever heard.” Until then, he assembled a great band period for the recording of In a Silent Way, its individual members going on to inform the direction of jazz fusion from those days forward. Convening at CBS Studios in February of 1969 were Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea on electric piano, Wayne Shorter on sax, Dave Holland on double bass, John McLaughlin on electric guitar, and Tony Williams on drums, with Joe Zawinul, the composer of  “In a Silent Way”, on organ. The album’s electric keyboard sounds would become identifiable as one of fusion’s prime instruments. Having opened the door to electric music on the albums just prior to In a Silent Way, Davis’ follow-ups, Bitches Brew and On the Corner, took melding new tastes and textures even further out, while fusion became the dominant direction for jazz in the ‘70s. In the wrong hands, fusion is a senseless mess, which is how it earned its bad rap. But in the hands of experts, it served as a gateway to funk and hip-hop and a great harmonizer between all styles. Hancock specifically would become fusion’s jazz warrior with the full synth sound of Head Hunters, but he’d been working the borders since his “Watermelon Man” was recorded by Afro-cuban bandleader Mongo Santamaria. Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” is said to have brought the funk rhythms to jazz as early as 1964; his slamming ‘80s “Rockit” period (on which DXT rocked the turntable) and the return of “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” with a rap by Us3, put Hancock at every juncture of rock ‘n’ rap and jazz.

Down through the years, it’s been widely acknowledged that Davis’ wife at the time, singer and scenester Betty (Mabry) Davis, exerted her rock ‘n’ soul interests on her husband, introducing him as she did to Hendrix, among other rock ‘n’ rollers. But it was all part of a logical progression for Miles, who had even tried the slogan “Directions in Music by Miles Davis” to lift him beyond the limits of just jazz. Buckley’s record company had tried a slogan to describe him too—“Buckley music”—though Buckley liked “heart music” to describe his work, if in fact he had to have a label at all. “I feel proud of Happy Sad,” writes Buckley guitarist and friend Underwood. “Rough spots and all. Its heartsong flies in spring’s blue skies outside of time. Some of the music on it will last for decades to come.” True that, though it would take another folk-singing switch-hitter to turn rock toward jazz and into something entirely new, and then sustain that direction for the rest of her career: Joni Mitchell had also studied Miles, and following a period of woodshedding with the blue notes in 1971, she released Blue. Composed with alternate tunings and unusual juxtapositions of notes, the album was a game-changer in pop and certainly a milestone for Mitchell, who steadily moved into regions you could only call “Mitchell music.”

I asked my friend Pat Thomas, who leads the contemporary jazz-prog-rock consortium Mushroom, to weigh in on the subject of jazz and rock, and he pointed to 1970 England and Soft Machine’s Third,another considered classic of the genre. “Some of the most over-the-top fuzzed-out and distorted playing I’ve ever heard,” he says. The Soft Machine’s meeting of jazz, rock, and classical also equals the birth of prog, another subject for another column. Jazz-rock-prog is alive and kicking on Mushroom’s latest, Naked, Stoned & Stabbed, an adventure in Afro, Latin, and jazz rhythmics mixed with freaked-out folk, blues bases, and ambient, Alice Coltrane-trance states. Like Tortoise, Mushroom use music—all music—to travel outta sight and outta sound. If you’ve got any contemporary or classic fusion faves, we’d love to hear your comments, as you’ve just read some of mine save for one:

In 2007, though you couldn’t call it fusion, you wouldn’t call it rock, though you might call it jazz, two legends collided after four decades of music making. River: The Joni Letters, was a collection of mostly Mitchell songs performed by Herbie Hancock, joined by Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, and special guest vocalists for the sessions. The jazz cats would call it too much, but I think it’s out of this world. Better yet, leave off the label and just call it Music: It’s the next big thing.–published May 13, 2010 in Crawdaddy!

Filed under: Jazz, , , , ,

Keep On Pushing: Phase One

Welcome to Keep On Pushing, the blog, beta version. Have a look around, get acquainted with the material and let us know what you think.  In these weeks leading up to the book’s publication you may see content appear, disappear or reappear as we fine tune things around here.  We look forward to presenting you Phase Two of the site soon. Until then, here’s the introduction to Keep on Pushing, the book:


Not long before she died in 2008, the singer Odetta was asked if there were a song she’d like to be remembered by. “Yes,” she said, then from her depths rose the notes of the lamentation “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Outlining the song’s genius, she noted, “Not all the time, but sometimes, I feel like a motherless child.” Odetta had spent a lifetime devoted to singing and to the study of the songs of her African American heritage. Following my own research in preparation for writing this book, it’s Odetta’s remarks on the songs of slavery—and why they are also the songs of freedom and liberation—that I found to be the most valuable in conveying the essence of music’s potential to unleash power. She said,

You’re walking down life’s road, society’s foot is on your throat. Every which way you turn you can’t get out from under that foot. And you reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die, or insist upon your own individual life. Those people who made up the songs were the ones who insisted upon life and living, who reaffirmed themselves. They didn’t just fall down into the cracks or the holes. I think that was an incredible example for me and I learned from that.1

Odetta’s words speak directly to the question of power—who’s got it and who does not—and its fundamental relationship at the intersection of music and political and social movement. That Odetta was an African American, and a woman giving her fierce voice to the concept of power, is no coincidence. That she first took a stand in the pre-civil-rights era of the fifties is purely inspirational; that she kept up the momentum for fifty years is miraculous. She was a champion of life, and she sang as if she’d die for her people. Born on New Year’s Eve in Birmingham, Alabama, Odetta was just nineteen when she was introduced to the music of Lead Belly. He immediately became her favorite singer after she heard his music on the coffeehouse and cafe scene just starting to brew in San Francisco in 1949, the year he died.

The old songs were still very much alive to her, waiting to be put to use for a new purpose, and she set about learning Lead Belly’s slave songs, work songs, prison songs, and freedom songs, trusting in her bones that these musical depictions of human strength and suffering would still need to be sung one hundred years or more from when she was born. Picking up the guitar and letting her hair go natural, Odetta claimed her power. “Folk music straightened my back and kinked my hair,” she said, and it did so just in time for a new style of music coming on. It was a little more forceful, a little more demanding, and it spoke to the new generation, with its mind set on freedom.

Long before civil rights, Black Power, and women’s liberation were designated the most powerful people movements in the twentieth century, Odetta was among those visionary souls who dared to sing a dream of freedom. Her story, like those of the musicians you will read about here, creates a bridge from the old world to the new, from the time when black folks and women were supposed to know their so-called places to the era of broader freedoms and equality in the ongoing fight for justice. Like prayers, the songs were free for the singing, and Odetta was free to sing them, though as an earthbound woman, it wasn’t always going to be easy—the look on her face often revealed more than the songs did. The civil rights movement with which she was aligned has been well documented; plenty has also been written on the connection between the gospel and soul music that immediately followed in the new era of black pride and consciousness. Less documented is the collective exploration of cultural heritage and identity, the pride, power, and political changes identity creates, and music’s key role in those explorations and changes. To put it another way: among political and social historians it is widely accepted that the Black Power movement was the model for women’s liberation, gay liberation, and other minority and cultural liberation movements that followed, winning rights for Native, Latino, and Asian Americans, and seniors, children, and the handicapped, among other people. And just as Black Power had its roots in the freedom movements that preceded it, the music that accompanied Black Power was rooted in earlier movements, though the way it grew is trickier to delineate. The soundtrack to Black Power was created by all kinds of soul-powered people: activists, orators and poets, as well as musicians of all types, from classical to rock. The soundtrack’s route from there to here is circuitous, with unexpected twists, standstills, violence, surprise breakthroughs, and glass ceilings. It also includes white and Native people, as did the Freedom Rides organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the sixties and John Brown’s and Harriet Tubman’s abolitionist efforts one hundred years earlier. Indeed, there were inspirational moments along freedom’s road in the sixties—good reasons to celebrate and occasional victory songs to be sung. But the soundtrack to liberation dared to question the new freedoms and the quality of life “freedom” brought in the face of liberty’s inconsistencies and its costs, especially in a time of war: “What’s Going On?” “Who Will Survive America?” and “Compared to What?” And though the movement may have been extinguished, its soundtrack will not be vanquished—though like the movement, there were some serious attempts made to silence it.

Undeniably, considering how it motivated young people and documented the times, music’s intersection with political and social events in the sixties has not been matched since. The period was a clear demonstration of how anger at injustice and a desire for change could galvanize large groups of people for a cause, just as sure as the music could. The songs of black liberation are about pulling together as a people in the name of survival. The songs ask listeners to join together and do something. The songs stir the soul in the place where the universal chords of sisterhood and brotherhood ring. Liberation music is music as a necessary companion, a friend who entertains, tells stories, and soothes pain—in a time of rising tension, war, and senseless violence.

Though some music from the sixties sounds dated and clearly belongs to the psychedelic era, the music rooted in black liberation is unbound by time. It is always relevant, any time or any place in the world where people are broke and hungry and in need of relief. Empowering music—the old songs and the new—felt essential in the run-up to the 2008 election of Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States. It remains essential now—in a time of war, economic disaster, health crises, and ecological emergency. The lyrics offer incendiary rage and righteousness, while in the music are ineffable sounds of every deep emotion, from despair to elation. The songs are perfect accompaniments for people in search of their constitutional rights to freedom, equality, and the ever-elusive liberty and justice, not just for some but for all. The songs of black freedom carry us from sleep to awakening, from hopelessness to faith, from bravado to true courage, from chaos to peace, sometimes all within the same song. Like a traditional ballad of mixed origins that gets handed down and rearranged over time, parts of the story you are about to read will ring through while other parts will evaporate quickly, lost in the mist that fogs the unique lenses through which we see our own histories. In the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, “I pray you then receive my little book in all charity, studying my words with me, forgiving my mistake and foible for the sake of faith and passion that is in me, and seeking the grain of truth hidden there.”

Some of the songs and singers you will read about are familiar, and legendary,while others have largely gone unheard; some were deemed by government and law enforcement so strong as to be dangerous—a threat to national security. But in stark contrast to the words and actions of oppression, singing is an act of life and liberation. As we sing along, these songs invite us to tap into an energy reserve that is accessible to all, if only we choose to plug into it. It’s about power: who’s got it, who needs it, how to get it, and what to do with it once it’s got. And it’s what Odetta was singing about all along.

Filed under: Keep On Pushing, Odetta

Van Dyke Parks on Mighty Sparrow and The Esso Trinidad Steel Band

When 80,000 barrels of oil spilled into the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel in January of 1969, the crude-splattered water, beaches, and birds along the California coast in its aftermath became the symbols of modern eco-disaster. While the ensuing public outcry helped hasten the formalization of the environmental movement as we now know it, for musician Van Dyke Parks, the spill and “the revelation of ecology,” as he calls it, was a very personal, life-altering occasion. “It changed my M.O. and changed my very reason for being,” he says. The Union Oil rig rupture in Santa Barbara made Parks go calypso.

“When I saw the Esso Trinidad Steel band, I saw myself in a Trojan Horse,” he says. “We were going to expose the oil industry. That’s what my agenda was. I felt it was absolutely essential.” From 1970 to 1975, Parks waged awareness of environmental and race matters through the music and culture of the West Indies, though in the end, “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That’s what makes Van Gogh go,” he says, “That’s what great art does.” Though Parks is referring directly to Esso Trinidad’s happy/sad steel drum sounds, he could just as easily be talking about his own experience during what we’ll dub the Calypso Years.

Over a five-year period, Parks produced albums by the Esso Trinidad Steel band (1971) and Bob Dylan favorite, the Mighty Sparrow (Hot and Sweet, 1974); he also recorded his own calypso-inspired works, Discover America (1972) and Clang of the Yankee Reaper (1976). Born from his passion for popular song and launched at a time when grassroots protest was at an all-time high, Parks had every reason to believe calypso consciousness would prevail. But he hadn’t factored in the complications of taking on big oil, nor of touring the US with a 28-man steel drum corps from the Caribbean. He was unable to predict that the sessions with Mighty Sparrow would be fraught with rage, and that his efforts would earn him the enmity of Bob Marley, whose production requests he ignored in favor of calypso. And yet, you get the feeling he’d agree in one hot minute to do it all over again the exact same way if given a chance to revisit this section of his checkered recording history.

Parks is generally a well-mannered and affable Southern-born gent with a mildly mischievous streak. A one-time child prodigy on clarinet, he’s often mentioned in tandem with his Southern California work with Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who was reportedly too tripped-out to continue theirSmile-era collaborations. A formidable freethinker and raconteur of psychedelic dimensions himself, you can hear the Parks imprint, curly-cuing through “Heroes and Villains” and “Sail On, Sailor”; songs that made a lasting impression on the Beach Boys sound. Rarely at a loss for bookings as a composer, arranger, musician, and producer (Parks would go on to work with artists from Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr to Joanna Newsom and Rufus Wainwright), his song “High Coin” traded freely on the hippie covers market while he juggled sessions by psychedelic bands as well as singer-songwriters Randy Newman and Phil Ochs. It was following the critical success of his first solo work, Song Cycle, in 1968 and the oil spill in ’69, that Parks began in earnest his pursuit of the music of the West Indies—specifically calypso and steel drum (also known as steel pan). Initially played on instruments made from clankity household odds and ends, by the ’40s, steel drums were made from a surplus of oil barrels, washed ashore the islands of Trinidad and Tobago from the coast of Venezuela. “America pollutes its environment with oil: Little Trinidad makes beautiful music from the drums that you throwaway,” says pan player Godfrey Clarke in the Esso liner notes.

Serving as the accompaniment to Carnival (for which Trinidad is world-famous), calypso is also often accompanied by lyrically potent verses that alternately use breezy and nasty humor to signify its weighty concerns: Imperial oppression and the extreme poverty of the islands. Ideally, the counterculture audience could’ve dug this political/party music with its motives to create equality and earthly harmony. Surely younger folks could identify with the calypsonian struggle, more than say, Liberace’s audience in Las Vegas, which is where Parks found the Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steel band working in the late ’60s. “I saw them as enslaved in their relationship to Liberace; I thought it was a vulgarity. I wanted to save them from their trivialization.” What had begun as Parks’ desire to popularize calypso at that point became his crusade.

The Land of the Hummingbird

“I just love that performance of ‘Aquarium,’” Parks says of Esso’s album finale. “You see, it represents that eco-consciousness that the album should project. I’m just telling you why I did it: I devoted the album to Prince Bernhard, who was the head of the World Wildlife association. Everything was directed to making it a proper, political, green album.” Nearly 40 years later, the Bananastan label has issued newly-minted versions of the Parks-produced  Esso and Sparrow’s Hot and Sweet. Not only are the calypsos strangely contemporary, I find I’m deeply moved by Esso’s environmentally-tuned music from the island officially nicknamed the Land of the Hummingbird. When Parks suggests we meet beside the Santa Monica Bay, I agree:  There is no better place than under the sun for a talk about his rarely-discussed calypso intermezzo. “This has been a well-kept secret,” he begins with a whisper. “The promotion men were successful at that.”

Parks’ devotion to calypso puts him in the unique position of serving as the music’s chief 21st century stateside ambassador; as it is, his relationship to calypso predates his own childhood and runs in the family. According to Parks, his mother’s uncle was the founder of the University of Miami and a calypso devotee. “Of course, they were touched by calypso down there. He had been to Trinidad at the same time as FDR,” explains Parks. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 trip to Trinidad, documented in the song “FDR in Trinidad”, is among the first calypso standards. By the 1940s, “Rum and Coca-Cola”, as sung by the Andrews Sisters, had brought calypso music to the American masses. “Of course, everyone was aware of ‘Rum and Coca-Cola’, which was incidentally my mother’s favorite drink,” says Parks. Though, everyone was not necessarily aware that the jolly little song was also a critique of American military presence in Trinidad (nor would it be a truly great calypso without the double edge). But the Andrews Sisters’ vocal stylings would soon be outdone by authentic calypsonian Harry Belafonte’s ’50s success with the Jamaican folk song “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”, calypso’s most enduring hit. In the early ’60s, Parks recalls he and his brother were “left in the dirt” on a bill they shared with calypso’s Andrew “Pan” de la Bastide. But it is in the music’s details rather than its broad overview where Parks gleans inspiration: The origins of the intensity of the music, the unparalleled musicianship of the pan players, the wordplay of the singers and their emotional extremes—from treachery to triumph—are the elements of interest to Parks.

“I was serious about serious music from an early age. Hardwired to a lot of music of dead white guys—very serious discipline—I had three brothers who played. We had this musical oleo in the house, from Bill Haley and the Comets to Les Paul and Mary Ford, Fats Waller, George Shearing, Paul Whiteman, the usual popular American diet, from 78s on. To me, calypso music was everything that the Memphis blues was, everything that Schubert and his sort were of the 19th century Romantic songwriters. Melody: Fantastic, like studying a novel with many subplots, seeing all of them resolved by the conclusion of the work. Lyrics: The scansion, the absolute art of phrasing, it had absorbed everything proper from the British Empire, so you find this incredible intelligence of mind. These are the scions of African nobility, the protectors of the musical and oral tradition. That’s what I think of calypso—the greatest pop music.”

The music of the West Indies was begotten from a 19th century slave history. “Barbados, adjacent to Trinidad, is direct in line of the slave trade that unfortunately plagues us all,” says Parks. But while European settlers imposed customs and traditions on the islands’ people, the indigenous population and those whose origins were African engaged in their own forms of expression. It’s that combination of sound, from two hemispheres and at least three continents, that make up the basics of calypso. Working with the large ensemble steel band, “I took it as an incredible opportunity… from a standpoint of my very American identity,” says Parks. “This group presented such a great opportunity in testing my ethics.” Though were the ethical challenge not combined with the band’s esthetic of extreme musicianship, individually and as a collective, Parks probably wouldn’t have traveled the distance he did with Esso.

“It was really a profound experience to me, to hear the small fish that run by quickly in the ear during Saint-Saëns’ ‘Aquarium’ from The Carnival of the Animals. Those fast notes that shimmer through the piece, they are 32nd/10th notes, there are 10 in a figure, and these guys memorized this thing in a matter of two days and they did an incredible job.” The band was led, as it were, by Hugh Borde. “He was their captain, there was no leader,” explains Parks, though for those two days in the studio he passed his captain’s hat to Parks and pan man Kenrick Headley, who led the group through versions of songs like “Apeman” by the Kinks, “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five, and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia.” The Rev. Fr. John Sewell, an Episcopalian missionary who served transcribing the ultimately jaw-dropping versions of the playful classical and orchestral pieces in Esso’s repertoire, also assisted the group. “They were the first to do it,” says Parks of Esso’s classical works on pan, “and it became a requirement for all steel bands to have a classical test piece. So they might do ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ by Tchaikovsky or ‘Unto Us a Child Is Born’ from Handel’s Messiah.” For the recording, they chose the aforementioned Saint-Saëns and the frantic “Sabre Dance.” The steel band also cut a Parks favorite, “Erasmus B. Black”, a wordplay tune penned by the Mighty Sparrow in which an innocently christened baby ends up with an unfortunate double entendre of a name. “I thought there was a great deal of theater and comedy in the group. I’ve never enjoyed myself so much, almost understanding what was going on!”

Keep Your Eye on the Mighty Sparrow

Steel band players gain entry into the prestigious ensembles through a highly competitive audition process. The spirit of musical competition and excellence is rooted in poverty, though it’s a celebratory event, staged each year at Carnival, the annual pre-Lenten festival that finds pan players and wordsmithing calypsonians performing for cash and crowns. The annual Carnival Road March is a calypso competition at its fiercest and reigning supreme eight times was the Mighty Sparrow—his wins rivaled only by contemporary calypso’s Super Blue and Sparrow’s friend and competitor, Lord Kitchener. While Sparrow had traveled to the US seeking help from Belafonte at the height of calypso’s popularity, Kitchener was making a name for himself in England. Upon their respective returns to the islands, Kitchener and Sparrow spent the rest of the decade and into the early ’70s duking out the Road March and Calypso Monarch crowns.

“I wanted very much to do Lord Kitchener,” admits Parks. “Lord Kitchener, to me, is the greatest of all the calypso singers, but Sparrow was absolutely rhapsodic.” In his liner notes to Biograph,Bob Dylan wrote of the Sparrow: “… as far as concept and intelligence and warring with words, Mighty Sparrow was and probably still is the king.” “I thought he would be more difficult to sell than Kitchener,” says Parks. “Sparrow would show up with a cape; Kitchener would’ve shown up in a fedora.” Perhaps Sparrow could sense Parks’ preference for Kitchener upon his arrival at Miami’s famed Criteria Studios. Or maybe it was a hurricane, just about to make its way to land, that turned the session into a perfect storm. “We got to Miami. Phil Ochs appears,” begins Parks, referring to his friend and fellow traditional music enthusiast, famous for folk-singing and a notorious unraveling that had already begun. “Phil is somewhat deranged. The rain starts to whip against the wall absolutely horizontally. We are near the eye of the hurricane. It’s a big one. The studio owner Mack Emerman wondered if we should airboat the whole thing to Barbados.” In a world without Pro Tools, the crew obtained remote power from their own generator and hunkered down as the hurricane passed.  “What you hear, we did in two days. Sparrow would step up to the piano and go pht pht—pht pht. You notice that’s irregular,” explains Parks, pounding on the picnic table before us for emphasis. “It’s not pht, pht, pht, pht. You know, it’s said that irregular beat is something that started in Curaçao as the natives imitated the Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant… he had a lame leg and so he would pht pht—pht pht. That’s what I heard… it’s the rhythm that Sparrow played for two bars before the piece begins. And then the band came in. This didn’t take a producer. This didn’t take an efficiency expert. This was incredible.”

Rather than arriving at the studio with a finished set of lyrics, Sparrow came with phrases. “Sparrow knows exactly where he’s going… he knows how to get the cat out of the tree, get the cat down; he’s got the chorus solved. He’s very able. There is nothing false about his incredible musical skill. That he can ideate phraseology with such powers of deception is a very good quality of his work. It’s the very same power of deception that I see in Schubert, that also likes to take you out somewhere, then puts you somewhere subtly that is surprising and refreshing.” Of the songs he compiled for Hot and Sweet, Parks cites two standouts: “More Cock” (“I asked for it. I know, it’s my fault.”) and “Maria.” “My favorite. As Ted Turner said… ‘it only looks easy.’ To me, it’s as good as anything I’ve heard out of Allen Toussaint. It’s tight.”

Co-produced with Andy Wickham, the session with Sparrow was not without incident. Parks describes British Wickham as “right wing” and in thrall to “Country and western and super-America, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.” Parks says, “I remember he was ecstatic with ‘Okie from Muskogee,’” Haggard’s toast to redneckism. And yet, like Parks, Wickham loved calypso. “He came to realize how much the butt [of the jokes] the British were.”  Wickham could also appreciate the melodies (“He loved Wagner, secretly,” says Parks) and the lyrics (“Very good turn of phrase,” he’d say). But it was sport that bound Wickham to the calypsonians. “He knew all the West Indian super heroes of cricket,” says Parks; however, that did not make him the boss of Mighty Sparrow.

Sparrow was not one to take studio direction. “Which is a big mistake. Every bullet counts on a record,” says Parks. “It was hard. It was a bumpy ride. It was occasionally filled with rage and great hostility. And blackberry brandy; I think the record was a four quarts of blackberry brandy record.” The necessary lubricant relieved some of the tension courtesy of the elephant in the room: The British Empire. “Well, the British were leading the decolonized African freeman, and I was right in the middle of all that. The Sparrow is filled with bravado and severe opinions that aren’t always convenient… There were moments that you hoped the guy in the cape wasn’t going to show up at dinnertime to protest his individuality to everyone.”

By the time Parks was finishing with Sparrow, calypso’s rhythmic energy was in the process of being subsumed by disco, while the war on poverty was being fought by reggae, the Caribbean’s other music. “Calypso was feeling very disco-ed, which is funny because they wanted to feel disco-ed, and yet, they were bothered by the fact that disco was calypso. It was a dead ringer,” Parks says, once again sounding out beats at the picnic table. “They were mad as hell about that. And then reggae hit the fan—in a big way—and I was delighted.” This is when Parks received his call from Bob Marley.

Clang of the Yankee Reaper

“‘Let’s face it, Mr. Parks, the white man is finished in the Caribbean,’” said Marley to Parks. “I thought that was a rather harsh thing to say. He was so pissed at me, because I didn’t have time to work for him because I was so trying to get 28 toothbrushes… I was just too busy and he took it as a slight.” Though, what may’ve been a missed opportunity with Marley, Parks made up for it by recording with his contemporary, Jimmy Cliff. “Jimmy Cliff was a big deal to me,” he says. Believing Cliff’s melodies often prevailed over Marley’s “rhythm machine,” Parks helped the singer secure his publishing and played keyboards on Cliff’s 1976 album, Follow My Mind. “I honestly think that the Jamaicans showed a greater power of adaptability against ‘guns, germs, and steel’ than calypso. Trinidad is more removed—it’s a different world…”

Following the Sparrow production gig and Parks’ own Clang of the Yankee Reaper (a good half of its material bearing the earmarks of calypso), by the end of the ’70s, Parks was back in the bosom of the California singer-songwriter scene, working with Lowell George, Nicolette Larson, and again with Harry Nilsson. So what then of calypso, his first Caribbean love?

“Calypsonians were an uncapturable lot, really, and I’ll tell you why… They never had any regard in an engagement in copyright. Maybe it’s an uncommon modesty of sorts.” Matters of contractual arrangement were a formality that, according to Parks, was of no interest to calypsonians. “It finally dawned on me there is an undeniably vulgar aspect to contract agreements because they’re built to check coercion and that’s a sad way to approach any mutual trust. These songs are for a moment’s discovery, born of such a highly extemporaneous, unanticipated purpose. A solution to a problem is what it’s all about.”

Artistically, he was satisfied by the calypso interlude. “Those two recordings were made at the apex of analog. Such a phenomenon of sound and so nuanced… small notes that all make up the way it feels in the bones.” Environmentally, the idea to link calypso or any music to the earth’s wellness was visionary on Parks’ behalf; the frontiers of such thought combined with activism are yet to be fully explored. Although at one time he’d hoped to deliver his message directly to consumers at the pump—as a “premium gift” with fill-up: A sound sheet of the Esso Trinidad Steel Band singing “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby—his dream of harmony, enlightenment, and environmental healing through steel band music was too far-reaching. Idealistically, Park could not fulfill his full vision with Esso.

“I was in the crosshairs of the racial divide with these gentlemen who had no idea about such things. A guy shot at us—a farmer up on a hill with a shotgun—when the bus broke down on the road in the South. The culture collision was probably among the top five benchmark psychological events of my life, for so many reasons.” Esso’s US tour ground to a halt for good when their aforementioned bus crashed. Several men were hospitalized and one was laid up at the Parks household for four months. “I came up as quickly as I could with another record about calypso to keep the focus on the medium. I put a Greyhound bus and a Continental Trailways bus on the front cover, just to get these men out of bed.” The Parks album Discover America contains interpretations of “FDR in Trinidad”, “The Four Mills Brothers”, and “Bing Crosby”, among others from the calypso canon. Parks’ time with the steelband was drawing to a close, though not before one last act in which he finessed a potentially sticky situation with Standard Oil of New Jersey that ultimately okayed the Trinidad Steel Band to retain the use of Esso in its name, without an injunction.

He still stands by a statement he made of Esso, those years ago: “The greatest group I’ve ever had the privilege to produce.” Like his calypso brethren, Parks may’ve been bloodied, but his confidence in the art of calypso is unyielding. “All of the bravado of such poverty—poor people speaking plainly, representing the disenfranchised—is what calypso is all about,” he states. “It’s not only topical songs that are optimally crafted, both lyrically and melody—it’s that they do things: They move mountains. It’s a life force.”—published on November 19, 2009 in Crawdaddy!

Filed under: Calypso, , ,

Swamp Dogg

Think of rock ‘n’ soul, social and political protestations, and song-cycles from the ‘70s, and there’s a catalog of music by Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder that fits the bill. Ambitious, self-contained songwriters making meaningful music in a time of political upheaval was business as usual back then, though how the big statement records got made often leads to a story itself. The way Gaye, for example, created a mood for his masterpiece What’s Going On (based on his brother’s experience in Vietnam) and delivered it to a less-than-excited Motown is a dramatic story of personal and professional challenge that’s been well-documented. Lesser known is the story of Jerry Williams, also known as Swamp Dogg. He’s one of those singer-songwriters who’s got it all, from melody and message, to rock and righteousness.

His 1970 album, Total Destruction to You Mind, is his own slice of rage against the madness, and his song “Synthetic World” is one of his greatest “hits” of the era, a kind of personal excellence/eco-conscious statement, compassionate and ready to blow, though you can’t be blamed if you haven’t heard of it or him. Most folks have left Swamp Dogg’s records out in the cold based on their eccentric cover art alone. Plus, he was dropped early on from his label Elektra for getting “too political.” The whole mess conspired to make his titles hard to find, but through the years they’ve slowly become available again and this month Kent released It’s All GoodA Singles Collection 1963-1989. Thanks to the miracle of polycarbonate, you can still get “Synthetic World”on a disc.

“Hey you, I’m up from the bayou, where wild life runs free, you could say that I’m country,” is how Swamp Dogg begins, and then he hits it: “But let me tell you what I see: Your world is plastic. I can see through to the other side.” The great reggae singer Jimmy Cliff heard something in “Synthetic World” and cut it around the same time it was released. Cliff was no hack in the message music department. He wrote “Vietnam”, a pretty heavy-hitter when it comes to anti-war songs, and a story circulates that Bob Dylan called it the best protest song he ever heard. Not long after recording “Vietnam” and “Synthetic World”, Cliff’s career broke wide open when he played the hard luck reggae singer turned to crime in The Harder They Come; the film helped deliver reggae music to the world.

But Cliff must’ve really liked something he heard in Swamp Dogg’s songs: In “The Harder They Come”, there’s a shout-out to him when Cliff sings, “as sure as the sun will shine,” the very words that Dogg used on his track, “Total Destruction to Your Mind.” A bit nonsensical lyrically, “Total Destruction to Your Mind” is nevertheless a serious musical burst of country-soul, from the album of the same title—the same one on which Cliff heard “Synthetic World.” Total Destruction to Your Mind was Williams’ debut as Swamp Dogg, with an album cover you can’t miss: It’s the one where he’s riding on the back end of a garbage truck with some kind of pot or pan on his head.

Little Jerry Williams was an iconoclastic singer with some minor hits like “I’m the Lover Man” and “Baby You’re My Everything”, and a ‘60s career as a producer, engineer, and songwriter for Atlantic under his belt. Raised on old-time country radio and trained on the road and in studios, Williams hung out and wrote with the likes of Gary US Bonds, Charlie and Inez Foxx, and Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells. For Williams, writing songs with layers of social and political content and depth was no sweat, but as Swamp Dogg, he could do that and then some.

A soul singer of the ages, an original rocker paid low wages, a put upon showman, trash talker, and the original d-o-double-g, Swamp Dogg says on his website that he’s written and sung on matters as similar and disparate as sex and love, war and peace, his daughters and Sly Stone, as well as “politics, revolutions and blood transfusions (just to name a few),” and he’s done it without missing a beat. But hardly anyone could have predicted the riot of words and sound going on throughout 1970’s Total Destruction to Your Mind, credited to this new persona. In the high era of psychedelic topical soul, Total Destruction was an attempt to turn the music inside out and upside down and it did, its point of view irreverent, its music a fusion of country, blues, and rock. It was definitely on the leading edge of “country-funk,” if not on the edge of something else entirely.

The lyric “sitting on a cornflake,” from “Total Destruction to Your Mind” was, of course, a Beatles-borrowed reference to acid dreams and nightmares, but Swamp Dogg himself was anti-drug. He preached his own original brand of unaltered mind expansion; his songs were also anti-war, pro-equality, and upfront on matters interpersonal and sexual. A totally conscious offering to communicate and entertain, without forsaking the twisted truths and humor of life, the bold combination of words and musical styles fell on deaf ears in the marketplace. Primed to release a follow-up to Total Destruction, titled Rat On!, (1971),  the album became known primarily for its cover, depicting him riding the back of a white rat, instead of its hard truth-telling, Memphis soul-styled ”Remember I Said Tomorrow,” and others like it.

Swamp Dogg told author Richie Unterberger, who profiled him in his book, Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll, that the combination of race matters and his anti-Vietnam stance didn’t do him any favors at Elektra Records either. “When they signed me, they had one black act on the label,” he said, referring to the Voices of East Harlem. “And when they signed me, they released that act. It was like one to a customer.” With a spot in Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland’s satirical song and sketch comedy revue FTA (Free the Army), “I was with Jane Fonda… we were out protesting the war and all that and they said…’we don’t need this.’” Dogg also got in hot water with the Irving Berlin people who didn’t like his “God Bless America For What.” “I wasn’t trying to help overthrow the government… I was just trying to enlighten people and say what I thought,” he says. (You can read a full transcript of Unterberger’s profile with Swamp Dogg at Perfect Sound Forever.)

Since taking on the name Swamp Dogg in 1970 the handle stuck, if only because the handler’s made of stubborn stuff. He’s released countless albums, many of them repackaged and resold and some of them available at the Bandcamp Swamp Dogg store.

Not quite 70, he’s still in business, touring the world. Beloved in the UK and throughout Europe, Swamp Dogg’s brand of musical satire and solid songwriting remains better appreciated there than in the US. “Houses are paper but folks don’t hear a word you say. Friendship’s like acid, it burns as it slides away,” he still sings in “Synthetic World”, as if he’s a force of nature. The last studio album I heard was 2007’s Resurrection (it’s the one with the picture of him in a crucifixion pose), and he’s still writing topical songs, like “In Time of War (Who Wins)?” and “They Crowned an Idiot King.” Jimmy Cliff’s obscure compilation, Goodbye Yesterday, was reissued in 2004 and includes his take on “Synthetic World” that’s lost none of its sweet bite in the years since its 1970 recording.

Through the years, Swamp Dogg’s own covers by his fellow songwriters show a taste for a common thread, whether its “Sam Stone” (John Prine’s story of the plight of a vet), to the hopeful turnaround in “Got to Get a Message to You” by the Bee Gees. (If I had a dime for every time I mentioned them in this column, I might have a dollar by now.)

I never know why I choose what I’m going to write about each month, though it’s true I like a good ode to the earth when I hear one. But that wasn’t really why Swamp Dogg’s “Synthetic World” called out to me this winter. The song’s deeper, not-so-hidden meaning got under my skin. Sometimes it’s not so much the origin of the song I’m interested in, but the origin of why I’m feeling it. As I write this I realize I’m tired and need a vacation. Once again I find myself uncovering the unheard and the unsung. I need to get outdoors more, visit with friends. I want stuff I can’t have but I know that stuff isn’t the solution to feeling discontent. “So you see, my patience is growing thin with this synthetic world we’re living in.” Funny how all my passing thoughts in this cold, short month were tied up in a Swamp Dogg song, and for a couple of minutes, it also provided relief from them.–published on February 28, 2011 in Crawdaddy!

Filed under: Swamp Dogg,

Solomon Burke

Who: Solomon Burke (1940-2010)

Classic Track: “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.”

Recorded by the Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, the 13th Floor Elevators, the North Mississippi Allstars, and even the Blues Brothers, Solomon Burke used his tune to testify his message of love until the very end (he died on the morning of October 10th on his way to a sold-out gig at the world famous rock club, the Paradiso in Amsterdam). Burke first hit the Top 10 R&B charts in 1961 and 1962 with “Just Out of Reach (Of My Open Arms)” which was immediately recorded by Betty Harris, and followed with the Bert Berns song, “Cry to Me”, also cut by the Rolling Stones in 1965. That year Burke scored an R&B number one with his own song, “Got to Get You Off Of My Mind.” The decades in between the ’60s and the present have in part been described by Burke as his “pits of hell,” but by the millennium he’d made a comeback: Don’t Give Up On Me was a 2002 Grammy-winning blues album featuring songs by Elvis Costello, Brian Wilson, Nick Lowe, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Tom Waits.

Career Highs: Crowned by a DJ who called him the King of Rock ‘n’ Soul in 1964, Burke took the scepter and the cape and ran with the gimmick, paying no mind to what James Brown or anyone else had to say about the title. Performing perched atop his onstage throne, Burke was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. He was extraordinarily honored to have performed at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II.

Career Low: He perceived that Atlantic Records honcho Jerry Wexler stonewalled his dream project, the Soul Clan, a super-group projected to make bank and fund much-needed community-based projects in the late ’60s. Initially conceived to include Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, Redding’s death by plane crash was the first devastation. Pickett’s exit followed, which left Burke, Don Covay, Ben E. King, Arthur Conley, and Joe Tex to record a rousing single, “Soul Meeting”/”That’s How I Feel.” But when the recording budget was withdrawn, the album was filled-out with substandard tracks. “Those dreams got crushed… it shattered us,” Burke told me in 2008.

Essential Listening: Burke’s swansong Nothing’s Impossible was released in 2010; it may also be considered his masterpiece: An old-school Memphis soul record made in collaboration with legendary producer Willie Mitchell at Mitchell’s Royal Recorders, home of Al Green’s and Ann Peebles’ hits, it’s got the stylized, Hi Records rhythm and sound—and is a fitting farewell from two soul masters.

And if you like that: Nashville, his 2006 album, is a nod to Philly-born Burke’s love of country music, produced by Buddy Miller and featuring duets with Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and Patty Griffin.

Quotable: “The best soul singer of all time.” – R&B Producer Jerry Wexler

Watch the action then: “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”

And now: “None of Us Are Free”

Filed under: Solomon Burke, ,

Gil Scott-Heron

Who: Gil Scott-Heron (1949-2011)

Classic Track: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” So nice it was recorded twice, first on his debut recording, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, and again as the opening track to 1971’s more music-based Pieces of a Man. Scott-Heron’s “Revolution” has been sampled, synthesized, digitized, and name-dropped more times than we can comprehend. Like a gospel in the Bible of hip-hop, it’s what helped earn him his rap as one of the music’s founders.

Career highs: His album collaborations with flautist Brian Jackson from 1974-1976 are foundational to Scott-Heron’s fusion of funky jazz with black-powered poetry and contain some of his best work, from the ghetto lament, “The Bottle” and the national confusion depicted in “Winter in America”, to the anti-apartheid solidarity anthem, “Johannesburg.” Scott-Heron has joined his music with activism, whether opposing nuclear power (“We Almost Lost Detroit”) at the No Nukes fest, or speaking out against Reagan’s presidential credentials (“B-Movie”).

Career Low: Drug addiction led to time served on possession charges.

Essential listening: The early works: 1971’s Pieces of a Man and ‘74’s Winter in America.

And if you like those: The even earlier coffeehouse style and live percussion driven Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. After a 12-year hiatus, the comeback album Spirits, especially its “Message to the Messengers”, directed at all the young mcs out there, still sounds pretty fly, in a ‘90s way.

Final Hour:  I’m New Here, his 2010 recording on the XL label includes songs penned by Robert Johnson, the singer-songwriter Smog, and spoken-word clips of Heron’s own vintage poetry.

Quotable: “You ain’t insane, you have got a brain, you haven’t gone lame, you have got your game. Remember: Keep the nerve.”

Watch the action then:

And now:

Filed under: Gil Scott-Heron,

Coming Soon

                                                                               “A pleasing survey of soul music, from Lead Belly to Johnny Otis to Michael Franti to Louis Farrakhan.”–Kirkus Reviews

Filed under: Keep On Pushing, , , , ,

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