Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Len Chandler: He, too, sang at the March on Washington

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photo of Len Chandler at Newport Folk Festival, 1964, by John Rudoff

Today marks the 55th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Among those assembled to help Dr. King push forward his dream of racial harmony and economic justice was Len Chandler (often overlooked in the history of civil rights work), one of the voices in a trio that day which included Bob Dylan and Joan Baez (he appears at about 17 minutes into the following clip, though the whole 25 minutes is worth your time).

 

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

Originally from Akron, Ohio, and studying on scholarship at Columbia in the ’50s, Chandler made his way to Greenwich Village folk music by accident: Lured to the sounds of Washington Square Park by the downtown youths he was mentoring, he easily fell into the scene 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 he returned to New York, the folk thing was in full swing:  Bob Dylan was the latest arrival to town and the pair started to trade ideas and songs.

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Folk, Keep On Pushing, , , , , ,

“Lord, they cut George Jackson down”

GeorgeJacksonGerFrontBob GeorgeJacksonSpainFrontBob Dylan’s 1971 single, “George Jackson,” a remembrance for the radicalized convict and Black Panther who died in a San Quentin prison shoot-out on August 21, 1971, remains one of his most mysterious recordings.  Not only does “George Jackson” mark the songwriter’s return to topical song form and to touring after a long hiatus, his subject remains as misunderstood to a general audience as does the singer and his songs.
Less than a month after the prison shooting 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—an unmistakable call for prison reform. Perhaps it was that call to which Dylan was responding 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 style of blues was born. It also leaves a record of Jackson and his story.
“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

Dylan cut two versions of “George Jackson” for a double sided seven-inch: A “big band” version featuring Kenny Buttrey (drums), Ben Keith (steel guitar), and Leon Russell (bass), and a solo acoustic version. Among the various issues of the single—and there are many—is a picture sleeve with an image of Dylan performing at the Concert for Bangladesh (pictured above, it remains sought-after by record collectors). Here’s a version of Dylan’s song recorded by reggae band, Steel Pulse:

The details of the Jackson case are still debated today by scholars, historians, and those who remember the events. As the story goes, it was a 70-dollar robbery that landed Jackson in state prison, his sentence indeterminate. Guards took an instant dislike to Jackson on the inside and his sentences were extended following events occurring at Soledad State Prison in which three Black inmates and a white guard were killed.  Using his time in solitary to educate himself, Jackson studied psychologist Franz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), Marx, and Mao, and came to understand the incarceration of poor Blacks for petty crime in a political context. A leader in moving prisoners to radicalize, Jackson joined the Black Panthers and became one of the group’s most celebrated members, despite  J. Edgar Hoover’s declaration in 1969 that the Black Panthers were public enemy number one.

Published in 1971, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, was greeted with a positive reception by intellectuals and political progressives. That Jackson had been framed for conspiring to kill a guard in the Soledad incident was a widely held belief; his defenders were vocal and his case was a cause célèbre. But a few days before the Jackson trial was to begin, a riot broke out in San Quentin in which inmates and guards were again slain and Jackson was among those killed as he ran across the yard in an alleged escape attempt. In 2015, Hugo Pinell, the last incarcerated member of the San Quentin Six, was killed while serving his life sentence, much of it in solitary confinement.

The following is a live recording of Joan Baez singing “George Jackson.”

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Filed under: Angela Davis, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Bob Dylan, Protest Songs, , , , ,

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Eco-Warrior

Japanese composer, pianist, and electronic music innovator, Ryuichi Sakamoto, has had a celebrated career, to be sure, though the new documentary, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, is less about his personal biography and high achievement and more about his process, what drives him, and what he hopes to leave behind.

The film, directed by Stephen Nomura Schible in quiet, understated style that echoes his subject, begins with Sakamoto exploring the aftermath at Fukushima. At times dressed in full hazmat gear, he checks out the landscape for any remaining sounds of life and discovers he likes the tuning of a piano that was damaged and washed ashore, post-tsunami.

Through the course of the film, intimate discussion between filmmaker and composer reveal the genesis of Sakamoto’s initial interest in environmental concerns; he likens his ’90s awakening to climate change to a kind of knowing or vision common to artists. The story also asserts Sakamoto’s longtime interest in the rub between the natural world and the industrialized, high-tech tools of his trade, the latter popularized and pioneered by his own Yellow Magic Orchestra. Since the ’90s, he’s composed several pieces inspired by communing with the natural world: his soundscapes are more fully informed by it than one might realize upon casual listening (and there is audio and visual documentation of the process on offer in the film). And then there’s the cancer that gripped him in recent years and the challenges of navigating his condition alongside the complicated business of maintaining vitality over decades as an artist.

In one sample sequence, he is thrilled to have received a call from Alejandro González Iñárritu — one of his favorite directors — asking for a score to The Revenant; Sakamoto can’t contain his urge to get back to work, despite the demands on his health. And while the archival footage of him as a young performer/composer/actor and conductor underscores the impressive breadth of his career and his ability to have it all, the soul of the film rests in his Sakamoto’s creative flow in the face of his own mortality and the illness of planet earth, whether war or nuclear disaster. Despite the grim forecast, the musician not only manages to find joy, but delight in the act of creation, whether found in the natural world or in his own sound designs. His pleasure at discovering a new pop, squeak or jangle is ably captured on screen every time, and every time, it appears just as genuine and new to Sakamoto as the discovery before it.

The Coda in the movie’s subtitle seems to imply this may be the beginning of the final act in Sakamoto’s unique and esteemed career, yet it’s also the perfect introduction to his influential life in art and activism. And while this career-spanning summation with its unique focus zeroes-in on the art-making that’s ultimately the meat of any artist’s life, it may also serve as a prayer for Sakamoto to continue his work, for as long as it takes to get it done.

 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Earth Day Music, Environmental Justice, film, , , ,

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