Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Freedom Singer Len Chandler and the March on Washington

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Today marks the 57th 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 Columbia Records, but little is known about him or his life.  I sought out Chandler 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 nearly 10 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 with 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.

 

 

 

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Civil Rights, Folk, Freedom Now, , , ,

How to support small presses, indie films and theaters during the pandemic

Notes, Contacts, Name CQ's here

Liam Curley, warehouse manager at the Small Press Distribution, Berkeley, CA. During the high season of the pandemic’s shelter-in-place orders, it was lonely in SPD’s warehouse where Curley worked by himself, receiving and shipping orders by hand at a fraction of his usual pace.(Photo by Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle)

During the early phase of the coronavirus shutdown, small publishers and the Northern California distributor that ships those books to market were doing all right, operating with scaled down staffs and shipping customer orders direct. But as the fall publishing season approaches, with no end to the virus in sight, the closures indefinite, and college course texts and bookstore futures shaky, the small press industry is navigating the same uncertain future as everyone else. If there is a silver lining to this catastrophe, small presses are generally more attuned to matters of race, gender and class than the big five publishing houses: There is a demand for books authored, edited and published by Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). I wrote about the longstanding spirit and principle of intersectionality in small press publishing for the San Francisco Chronicle. I hope you’ll read the full story here.

SFE-SFLives

Documentary filmmaker Anne Flatte stands outside the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Her film,  “River City Drumbeat,” is about a year in the life of drum corps in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Some of the changes from digitization that impacted publishing even before the pandemic also reverberate through the art of producing, making and presenting independent film – a corner of the film business where woman traditionally find more opportunity than they do in Hollywood.  For the small art houses that regularly show movies by and about subjects that might not otherwise be seen on the big screen, the pandemic closures threaten to wipe out old time cinemas and movie-going entirely, though the best makers and curators are adapting.  Here in San Francisco, we can stream directly from our beloved Roxie, Balboa and Vogue Theaters, among others.  Filmmaker Anne Flatté is screening her latest work, River City Drumbeat, via virtual cinema. She and her co-director chose a youth drum corps as their compelling subject and made a visually captivating and emotionally powerful film about cultural legacy and survival. As a viewer, you can choose to watch indie films like River City Drumbeat in a way that supports local businesses instead of using your typical streaming services. Why would you? Well, the main multi-media/marketplace exploits its workers.  And the business models of the big streaming services also steal a disproportionate amount of revenue from the people who actually make the art. Those fat cats don’t need your money and artists need to be compensated for their work. Read more here.

Please support a small local press, filmmaker, theater or business today or this week: They need us – and we need them – if ever we’re going to get through this mess.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, film, San Francisco News, , , , , ,

One of The Survivors: 75th Remembrance

190202-sfe-sflives-005Jack Dairiki is an old-time Californian: His maternal grandfather was a hotelier and grocer in Sacramento. But in 1941, as a firstborn son, he was called with his father to the rural village outside of Hiroshima where his father was originally from.

“We received a letter in the mail that my grandfather was ill,” he explained. “We planned a summer vacation trip.” Traveling by ship to Yokohama, they proceeded to Tokyo and into the lush, green countryside where aunts, uncles and cousins he didn’t even realize existed eagerly awaited the arrival of their American relatives.

“My experience of seeing Japan for the first time was I noticed everything was petite: The cars, the railroad,” said Dairiki, while pouring into crystal glasses water and green tea for us to share. He recalled the culture shock upon his arrival.

“The only time I ate with chopsticks was in Chinese restaurants,” he said. He was unaccustomed to taking off his shoes and sitting on the floor, to the sliding doors and the tatami mats.

“I criticized my father for taking his shoes off,” he remembered. “We don’t do that in the United States, I told him, but my father had grown up in Japan. It was like being home for him.” One summer of running through rice fields and swimming in streams passed quickly. Dairiki was ready to return: to Sacramento, to Lincoln Grammar School, to his mother, his brothers and his sister. And then, World War II.

“My father tried to secure our passage back and was told we couldn’t go,” he said.
At home, his mother and siblings had been rounded up and taken to the Tulelake detention center; his younger brother died while in custody.
Read the rest of my interview with A-Bomb survivor, Jack Dairiki of San Francisco in the San Francisco Examiner as we remember with horror the US attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bomb killed somewhere between 100-200,000 people, most all civilians, this week 75 years ago. “When will we ever learn?”

Filed under: anti-war, San Francisco News, , , , , , , , , ,

Surviving the Pandemic with Frisco Style

Since March, I’ve been devoting my SFLives column in the San Francisco Examiner to people who are taking the virus and caring for others seriously by living their lives responsibly and generously. They are people like Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, who tracks the health of people in Bayview-Hunters Point where airborne toxins put the community at risk of all kinds of respiratory ailments and cancers.  Or Leroy F. Moore Jr, an international disability rights activist who is leading fellow artists in a fight for increased visibility and against police violence. And then there is Ericka Scott, who takes an interest in society’s forgotten and neglected population  – the people who are incarcerated, including her husband – by facilitating discussions among families with loved ones in prison. And there are the small business owners like Tricia Principe of Cal’s Pet Supply, where they took precautions early so the store could remain open for the sake of employees, locals pets and the community. Every neighborhood has its leaders, people like the Cruz family, who not only run a cleaning business but a sewing workshop.  Victor and Ariana call their custom goods and embroidery business Sew Frisco and started turning out masks when they heard of the shortages.

I am so proud of my fellow citizens who are doing their own thing and getting the job done in a way that’s so Frisco in these most difficult times. If you’re interested, you may read all about them in this collection of columns about our SFLives.

If you’re much of a traveler, well, hopefully you haven’t been to San Francisco in awhile. You see, our city, known to locals as The City, is taking quite seriously the shelter-in-place orders during the pandemic, as well as the guidelines to WEAR A MASK (as you will see in the above photos, all by photographer Kevin Hume for the Examiner). Aside from the essentials, only a fraction of our businesses have reopened; cultural destinations like museums have not reopened. Services like salons and barbershops remain closed. Restaurants are take-out only, some have adapted to outdoor seating but many remain shuttered. Some, like historic legacy businesses Louis’s at Seal Rock and the Tadich Grill downtown are closed forever. Sure the orders to close or limit services have been a terrific let down for small businesses and tourism: Without government assistance and cooperation from lenders, our beloved site-specific and characteristic businesses aren’t making it. However, the compliance with the orders has meant that for those of us invested in controlling and eradicating the coronavirus, staying at home and wearing a mask remain the best options. These are confusing, terrifying and disappointing times.

Despite the illness in the air, we must celebrate and breathe in our lives, particularly the lives of folks making a difference. Their devotion to community wellness has a ripple effect: I invite you to be inspired by them to follow your calling and do what you can in your own home and in your own community to make these days a little brighter for someone else. Until next time, I send wishes for you to stay healthy. And if you can are able, stay at home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filed under: anti-capitalist, Arts and Culture, column, Environmental Justice, San Francisco News, Tales of the Gentrification City, , , , , , ,

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