Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

For Earth Day: The Story of Van Dyke Parks & The Esso Trinidad Steel Band

For Earth Day, I invite you to read the story of how composer and arranger Van Dyke Parks came to produce the 16-man steel pan band,  Esso Trinidad, following the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. Thanks and congratulations to both Parks and Esso: Not only is their album a foundational contribution to the catalog of music that matters to the earth, the post you will be directed to is the number one most-read on this site, receiving daily views. Thanks for your readership and if you are able, please do something today as a steward of the ground beneath our feet (Mr. Parks suggests planting milkweed, to save the Monarch butterflies).

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 his Calypso Years. Read the full story here:

 

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Bob Marley, Calypso, Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Earth Day Music, Environmental Justice, Georgia, Harry Belafonte, Interview, Reggae, video, , , , , ,

RIP: Rubin “Hurricane” Carter

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter passed away on Easter Sunday at the age of 76. “Hurricane” was Bob Dylan’s protest song concerning the story of the middleweight boxer and the flawed judicial process that sent him away for an unjust term. The recording was a landmark: Over eight minutes long, it was released at a time when the media perceived Dylan to have moved away from topical subjects and protest songs; moreover, the song played a contributing role in Carter’s case to have his sentence overturned.  Here was clear-cut evidence of music attempting to forge change actually doing so.

As a listener, the song forever changed me: I will never forget the moment I heard the song on the radio, its content crashing with my understanding of the American judicial system, the clarity of the message and the dissonance it created so upending to me as a young person, I froze.  For many years, I could only refer to Dylan’s line from the song as a way to describe what I felt: “Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game.” Not knowing what to do or say or think about these matters, without access to organizations for change or discussion about it, “Hurricane” would become why I would write about music with meaning, though I would not know that for many years to come.

The following, reprinted in the spirit of the memory of Carter, picks up threads I’ve written on Dylan’s post-“political period,” the time in which he wrote and recorded “George Jackson” and “Hurricane.”

While Dylan’s late ’60s and early ’70s performances were scarce and scarcely political, his albums Self 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. By summer of that year, he was ready to come out again, 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”

Speaking to criminal injustice, Dylan took on the plight of  Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, serving time on a triple murder conviction in a New Jersey state prison. Impressed with Carter’s book, The Sixteenth Round, in which the boxer outlined his history as a vocal supporter of black rights and his framing by New Jersey law enforcement, Dylan was moved to visit him on the inside. As the story goes, following a five- or six-hour talk with Carter, Dylan set about writing a 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.”

This photo is a re-recreation of Dylan's prison visit to Carter.

This photo is a re-recreation of Dylan’s prison visit to Carter.

“Hurricane” transcends simple topical protest song. Broadcasting as clearly as pistol shots 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 than his original folk peers, and for the most part unacquainted with the political world, much less the combustible state of race relations in Patterson, New Jersey, circa 1966. Certainly the name Rubin Carter would be remembered in boxing and prison justice activism even if his story had not been the subject of a Dylan song. Yet the song comes by special stature, not only for increasing awareness among rock fans of the shortcomings of a criminal justice system in need of reform, but for reinforcing a perennially misunderstood concept: All human life is of equal value, no matter a person’s race, class or crime–real or imagined.

During his 1975-’76 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.”

The song’s intensity, a unity of frantic fiddle and verse, stirs feelings of empathy and compassion; it becomes a companion for believers in the cause to free Rubin Carter, as well as 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. Eventually all charges against Carter were dropped and he was exonerated; Carter went on to become an activist for falsely accused prisoners.

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 told me in 2008.

“Hurricane” is my favorite song by Dylan too: It spoke to matters for me that as a young person in 1975,  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. I couldn’t wait for the song to come on the radio so I could stop whatever I was doing for an entire eight minutes and be transported, away from whatever real or imagined injustice was happening in my own adolescent world. Dylan’s exciting “return” to protest was my first meaningful engagement with a protest song.  Though it took many years for me to unpack its importance to who I am personally and professionally,  it was this song that set me in a direction for further discovery of folk and story songs, topical singing, freedom movement, liberation, and message music, the kind that holds secret, hidden histories of ourselves and our country that you won’t often find written about in history text books; rather these relevancies to American social, political and cultural history are handed down in oral tradition, read in books like Carter’s and heard in Bob Dylan’s songs.

a version of this originally published on May 24, 2011 in Crawdaddy!

 

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Concerts, Keep On Pushing, Obituary, Origin of Song, Protest Songs, video, , , ,

For National Poetry and Jazz Appreciation Month: Langston Hughes

Chronicling the New Negro Movement of the 1920s and 1930s, Langston Hughes was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance.  Writing about life in a familiar and authentic vernacular, he incorporated the sound of music into his prose and poems:  “Take Harlem’s heartbeat, Make it a drumbeat, Put it on a record, Let it whirl.”  Originally a midwesterner with a family history that included mixed-race people and abolitionists, Hughes’ ability to distill truth and outrage while maintaining an uncommon faith in humankind made a deep impression on the voices of the Freedom Movement in the ’60s. His style was a breakthrough in modern literature and its lyricism translated into the development of blacker voices in music, too.  Nina Simone, Len Chandler, Richie Havens and Gil Scott-Heron are among the musical artists who say they were profoundly influenced by Hughes’ jazz-inspired work.  As decades wore on, his imprint resounded in the work of poets Amiri Baraka, Al Young, Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni and many more.  Decades later, Hughes remains a continuous source of inspiration and influence, his words impacting the work of artists and scholars diverse as Cambio and Dr. Cornel West.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Freedom Now, Gil Scott-Heron, Greenwich Village, Harlem, Jazz, Poetry, Richie Havens, video, , , , ,

The King of Love

“Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right,” said Dr. King in his final speech, delivered on April 3 to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. The following day, April 4, the civil rights leader, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and beloved hero to millions around the world, was shot to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Forty-eight years later, the work of non-violent protest in the name of desegregation, voting rights, racial harmony, jobs, freedom, opportunity, and an end to wars, is carried on by an international community of civil rights advocates and human rights and anti-war activists. Among the musical tributes in response to the tragedy were Dion’s popular “Abraham, Martin and John,” Otis Spann’s less-known “Blues for Martin Luther King, ” and Nina Simone’s enduring and emotional “Why (The King of Love is Dead),” first performed in his memory on April 7, 1968, the national day of mourning following the assassination. For further reflection on Dr. King’s message of love, please start with the The King Center archives, dedicated to the non-violent eradication of poverty, racism and violence.

Filed under: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Keep On Pushing, Nina Simone, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, “Why (The King of Love is Dead)”, April 4 1968, Memphis TN, Striking Sanitation Workers

Filed under: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, income disparity, Keep On Pushing, Never Forget, Nina Simone, Protest Songs, , , , ,

For National Poetry and Jazz Appreciation Month: Gil Scott-Heron

April marks National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month. This month’s posts will attempt to shine a light on great moments and people in jazz and poetry history, specifically where the two forms meet and get real. Gil Scott-Heron is a timeless poet and performer who published poems and prose, in addition to performing songs on piano–often classified as jazz–but with an emphasis on words. Truth was, there were echoes of blues and gospel, rock’n’soul in his grooves, though if ever you go and seek his work in the record bins, cross-check the jazz or “miscellaneous” sections and you’re likely to find discs there. Come April 19, Record Store Day, there will actually be a new slab of wax in the stacks by Scott-Heron: Nothing New is a collection of stripped down tracks, recorded in 2005.  This sample cut, “Alien (Hold On To Your Dreams),” was originally released on the 1980 Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson album, 1980. Amazing how timely the song and its sentiments remain, though that is of course the nature of visionary poetry–and jazz. 

In 1970, Gil Scott-Heron was barely 21 when his first novel, The Vulture, was published and his startling, spoken-word record, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, caught his incisive cool on tape. “I consider myself neither poet, composer, or musician. These are merely tools used by sensitive men to carve out a piece of beauty or truth that they hope may lead to peace and salvation,” he wrote in the album’s liner notes. Accompanied only by conga drums and percussion, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox featured a reading of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, Scott-Heron’s most enduring work and an early masterpiece, its flow combining elements of both poetry and jazz.

“The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox

In four parts without commercial interruptions.”

Excoriating the media and marketing, the song’s structure burrowed its way into the collective consciousness of musicians—both mainstream and underground—and listeners alike; it is referenced throughout music, and rather un-ironically the title phrase has been repurposed to advertise consumer goods, from sneakers to television itself. The piece is also, of course, foundational to hip-hop, its words potent and direct, even if some of the allusions and references may be lost on those uneducated in ‘60s or ‘70s culture. It also sounds great, which explains why it’s a standard-bearer for all music, whether it be politicized rock’n’soul, funk or jazz. Pulsing throughout the piece is Scott-Heron’s projection, a foreshadowing of the realities of global connectivity and the pacifying effect on the brain produced by viewing from a small screen. Heron’s vision was a word to the wise:

“The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal…
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
thinner, because the revolution will not be televised.”

Positing a necessary parsing of media-generated “reality” from truth and setting his poem to music on his 1971 album, Pieces of a Man, Scott-Heron was caught in the chasm between jazz and soul, poetry and rock, and few knew just what to do with the new poet and big bass voice on the scene, though time would reveal his impact: As the years rolled by, this poet of vision would weigh in on matters environmental and racial, as well as political and social. Though Scott-Heron’s voice was too often a cry in wilderness, it served as a clarion for future generations of conscious writers and thinkers.

Born in Chicago April 1, 1949, Scott-Heron was raised in Tennessee by his grandmother until he and his single mother, a librarian, eventually moved north to New York City. As a teenager, he excelled at writing and earned enrollment at Fieldston, a progressive Ivy League preparatory school. Upon graduation, he chose to attend Lincoln University in Philadelphia, quite simply because it was the alma mater of poet Langston Hughes. As a musician, Scott-Heron’s style was conjoined with the word styles of Hughes, as well as those of talkers like Malcolm X and Huey Newton. But it was “musicians more than writers” who inspired him, and he used the rhythms of folk, blues, soul, and jazz to fulfill the intensity of his emotion. “Richie Havens—what he does with the images and themes, Coltrane—the time defiant nature and thrust of his work. Otis Redding—the way he sings lyrics so that they come through as sounds. You can really appreciate how close a saxophone is to the human voice when you hear Otis singing. I sometimes write poetry, in a way, like Otis sings. The sounds form shapes. Like clouds banging into each other. That’s how I get loud sounds in my poetry,” said Scott-Heron to Jazz and Pop‘s Nat Hentoff.

Read: More on Gil Scott-Heron in Keep on Pushing.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, cross cultural musical experimentation, Earth Day Music, Environmental Justice, Gil Scott-Heron, Immigration Reform, Poetry, Protest Songs, vinyl, , , , , , ,

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