Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Len Chandler: Fifty Years of Marching and Singing the Songs of Freedom

As most readers know, today is the 50th anniversary of the the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  What you may not know, even as an astute observer of civil rights and music history and where they meet, is the name Len Chandler:  He was among those assembled to help Dr. King push forward his dream of racial harmony and economic justice on that day, as well as on the marches in the Southern States.  At the March on Washington, Chandler was one of the voices in a trio that included Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. He marched with Dr. King and traveled through the South in the name of voter registration, informing rural Southerners of their polling rights, at risk to his own life. It was a now-you-see-it-now-you- don’t YouTube clip of Chandler’s inspirational performance of “Eyes on the Prize” that contributed to inspiring me to track him down and move forward with the writing of Keep on Pushing, my text that unpacks the origins of freedom music, and its roots in African American struggle and triumph.images

Originally from Akron, Ohio, and studying on scholarship at Columbia in the ’50s, Chandler made his way to Greenwich Village folk music a bit by accident. Lured to the sounds of Washington Square Park by the downtown youths he was mentoring, he easily fell into the scene based on his natural ear for songwriting and his familiarity with the songs of Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, and Woody Guthrie.  Following a performance at the popular Village coffeehouse, the Gaslight Cafe,  Chandler landed a contract to go to Detroit, writing and performing topical songs for local television. A few months later when the gig was through, he returned to New York to find the folk thing in full swing:  Bob Dylan was the latest arrival to town and the pair started to trade ideas and songs. “I hadn’t yet begun writing streams of songs like I would, but Len was, and everything around us looked absurd—there was a certain consciousness of madness at work,” wrote Dylan in his book Chronicles, remembering when.  Chandler remembers it like this in Keep on Pushing:  ”The first song I ever heard of Dylan’s was ‘Hey ho, Lead Belly, I just want to sing your name,’ stuff like that.”  Dylan used Chandler’s melody for his song, “The Death of Emmett Till.” “Len didn’t seem to mind,” wrote Dylan.

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

Today, Chandler is largely retired from performing, but he remains well- informed on human rights, politics, and the arts, and can write and perform songs that still pack a punch.  I must say it was a privilege to meet one of the true unsung singing activists of my lifetime (as well as his wife Olga James, a pioneering performer in her own right), and have him tell his story in Keep on Pushing (which is where you will find more straight talk from Chandler, as well as my own perspectives on his contribution to civil rights history). I had hoped to see him on television today,  in the crowd in Washington, or better yet, onstage with Peter and Paul, reviving a freedom song for our times. Perhaps I missed him, but Len Chandler belongs on the guest list of esteemed names assembled for any kind of 50th anniversary commemoration of the March, the Civil Rights Era, and anywhere Freedom Songs are still sung.

Advertisements

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Folk, Freedom Now, Greenwich Village, Keep On Pushing, , , , ,

The Long Distance Revolutionary: Mumia Abu-Jamal

freedom

There is only one voice like Mumia Abu-Jamal’s, its tone perfect for professional broadcasting, its message carrying necessary information for our times.  But Abu-Jamal, as most people know, is no longer primarily an announcer by trade.  Better known as Mumia to the worldwide community of human rights activists who support his case, the former radio journalist has been serving time in prison for over 30 years now. He has spent much of that time writing and appealing his case.

In the documentary Long Distance Revolutionaryfilmmaker Stephen Vittoria and co-producer/Prison Radio sound recordist Noelle Hanrahan, make a compelling case that Mumia’s situation as a prisoner for life is more than a miscarriage of justice:  Rather than retell the circumstances that lead to the incarceration of the journalist/activist (whose views forced him to moonlight as a cabbie, just to survive), they shine a light on how he’s used misfortune as opportunity, to become a prophetic voice for the voiceless.

Angela Davis, Amy Goodman, Alice Walker, Cornel West, Tariq Ali, Ruby Dee and James Cone are among the scholars, theologians, journalists, actors, activists, writers, colleagues, and family members who testify in the film on the important role Mumia—the writer as political prisoner—plays on the world stage, reflecting the revolutionary’s role in contemporary American society. Through interviews, news reel footage, photographs and most of all, interviews and sound recordings of Abu-Jamal, Long Distance Revolutionary tells the story of an intuitive and self-described “nerd” of a child, Wesley Cook, who journeyed into the Black Panthers, then followed his call to report on his city as he saw it, much to the distaste of its notoriously racist law enforcement. Of course, that’s business as usual in the land of the free, while the mystery that unfolds onscreen in Long Distance Revolutionary is more to a specific point: Just how does a death row inmate as sharp as Abu-Jamal  keep his mind in shape and his spirit alive while the state does its job squeezing the life out of him? Of particular note are the words of literary agent Frances Goldin who I’m unable to quote here, but who talks of how she was sufficiently moved by Mumia’s prose to take a chance on him in the book market.  But the most convincing voice of all is Mumia’s own which can be read in his multiple books in print all over the world and heard on Prison Radio, still recorded by Noelle Hanrahan.  At the film’s premiere in Mill Valley, California last October,  Mumia delivered an address, especially recorded for the Bay Area. He remembered its “luscious sun,” and the Bay as a place where he,  “a tall, skinny, dark sunflower,” could be among some of the “best, boldest, blackest, sweetest” brothers and sisters he claims to have known.

Curiously, the film’s only musical voice in the chorus is M-1 of Dead Prez. Used to be musicians sang out for injustice, the way that Bob Dylan once did for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (who also appears in the film); in that case, the musical association indirectly lead to Carter’s exoneration. But the music community has largely remained silent on the subject of Abu-Jamal. So where are the other contemporary Musicians for Mumia? According to director Vittoria, the usual suspects were approached, but only Eddie Vedder responded to the urgency of the call.  “Please know that I (and my co-producers) tried hard to get…and a number of other musicians into the mix—on numerous occasions and through numerous fronts—but not one of them would agree to interview (except M-1) and/or offer a musical piece or new selection,” Vittoria wrote in an email to me.  Vedder’s song “Society” (previously associated with the feature film, Into the Wild,  concerning environmentalist/adventurer, Christopher McCandlessserves as the film’s closing theme. “I was fortunate that Eddie allowed us to grace the film with his powerful song,” added Vittoria.

Abu-Jamal was taken off death row late last year; he remains sentenced for life without possibility of parole and lives among the general prison population at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy. But the system has not vanquished his spirit or his message. Mumia is still on move: Long Distance Revolutionary has been on the festival circuit and in general release throughout the year. It opens August 23 at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco and next month at Spokane’s Magic Lantern.  Here’s the trailer:

Filed under: Angela Davis, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Book news, film, France, Never Forget, Now Playing, Poetry, , , , , ,

Update: Free Marcus Books

UnknownMarcus Books and its supporters won a small victory in the ongoing fight to save the store when this week, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution supporting the preservation of the historic building.  In business for over 50 years, Marcus is America’s oldest black-owned bookstore and a San Francisco literary institution that’s hosted James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Toni Morrison, among countless other writers and thinkers; it is a huge part of the City’s African American heritage. Before it became a bookstore, the Victorian building originally located on Post Street was home to Jimbo’s Bop City, the legendary Fillmore District club that staged Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, among other jazz giants. The resolution put forth by Supervisors London Breed and Malia Cohen, and supported by Supervisors of all districts, urges the new owners of the property to “uphold the building’s community serving purpose.”

At a rally and press conference Tuesday afternoon, hours before the resolution was passed, about 100 community and church leaders, as well as activists, artists and supporters gathered on the steps of City Hall (never mind the persistent sound of horns you will hear in this clip—in a separate but related issue, cab drivers were protesting the rogue transportation companies that have taken over the roadways in the face of SF’s latest tech boom).

“Tell everyone you know who loves truth and justice and tell them to get involved,” said Archibishop Franzo King of Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church. The Fillmore has historically been the scene of systematic removal of it residents, whether the internment of Japanese Americans in the ‘40s or the ‘50s and ‘60s relocation of its African American dwellers who were promised housing that never materialized. After a decades-long, so-called redevelopment project (which is now widely and finally acknowledged at the city government level as a failed undertaking), the Fillmore has rebuilt and rebooted more than once, but the well-documented exodus of middle to low-income people of color, and the working and artist classes from throughout San Francisco continues unabated. To state the  plainly obvious, unlike buildings, people cannot be replaced.

“This isn’t just about the bookstore,” said Marcus Books owner Greg Johnson.  “It’s about humanity.”

“This is about transfer of wealth, out of the hands of working class black folk…” said Rev. Arnold Townsend, Vice President of the local NAACP, at Tuesday’s press conference.

Most all of the speakers noted the persistent effort to save Marcus Books goes beyond highlighting the failing of brick and mortar book stores in the 21st Century; it touches realms of historical preservation of culture and ideas, and bores straight into matters regarding maintenance of a community hub. Literacy, education, and generally freely traded  knowledge of self and others are also at stake.

“When we lose our artists, we lose our stories,” said Tony Robles of grassroots arts organization, POOR Magazine.

“I would not be where I am without this book store,” stated devorah major, author, educator, and a San Francisco poet laureate.

The Marcus situation is sadly indicative of the changing demographics of the so-called sanctuary City of St. Francis, “with its widely advertised liberal and cosmopolitan tradition.”   But San Francisco’s track record with its African American population is not good, a contradiction that did not escape the notice of James Baldwin who participated in a film specially broadcast on public television station KQED in 1963.  I recommend the entire series of clips that follow from Take This Hammer.  And I especially commend San Francisco’s elected officials for taking the matter of Marcus Books and the larger problems it represents with the seriousness it demands.

For updates on the effort to Support  Marcus Books,  visit the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.

Filed under: Books, James Baldwin, San Francisco News, video, , , , ,

Tweet Tweet

Recent Posts

Browse by subject or theme