Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

San Francisco: Where there’s hatred, let love rule

Sometimes there are coincidences that can’t be ignored. That’s what I said to the Reverend Roland Gordon and author/activist Benjamin Bac Sierra who echoed similar ideas when I interviewed them individually about their San Francisco lives and times for my San Francisco Examiner column, SFLives: Both men preach love and tolerance, Gordon (pictured below right) from the pulpit at Ingleside Presbyterian Church and Bac Sierra (pictured below left) from the podium in his classroom at City College of San Francisco (though for the past 365 days of the pandemic, their work has been done virtually). Both men are situated a matter of blocks from each other, coincidentally or not, just blocks from where I lived for the first several years of life with my parents, behind the restaurant and home of my grandparents. But when both Bac Sierra and Gordon conjured St. Francis, namesake of our city, I had to pause and acknowledge the source outside ourselves at play: A higher vibration that sometimes goes by the name of Love.

photos courtesy of Ben Bac Sierra and Kevin Hume for San Francisco Examiner

In this pandemic year, I’ve made fewer trips across town, had less in-person contact and left reporting from the frontlines to those who receive the hazard pay to do so. My writing has been more from the armchair and virtual perspective due to my own limitations; I’ve relied more than ever on my files and list of ideas and contacts — the ones I’d been meaning to get to but hadn’t, for one reason or another, than unearthing new discoveries. But then, that’s been the experience for many of us – exploring the great indoors, whether metaphorical or metaphysical, has been some of the work of our pandemic lives.

It’s said timing is everything and in the case of these two profiles, I can’t agree more: The stories crossed my desk/came to mind/dropped in my lap at the one year mark of the pandemic and our shelter-in-place orders. It’s been a watermark, a time when people and The City (as we call it) are suffering from the fatigue of isolation and light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel anticipation, mixed with COVID-anxiety and variant dread. For some of us, the vaccine is not yet available. It hasn’t been an easy year: Not for the families who have lost members and not for people with disabilities and high risk conditions, including those who suffer the pain of depression due to isolation. It’s been hard on essential workers, healthcare professionals and especially for Black and Brown communities disproportionately impacted by the virus. And there is an additional layer of distress on Asian American Pacific Islanders, who for the last year have been targets of an appalling number of hate crimes here — yes here, in the city of St. Francis, where over one-third of our population identifies as AAPI.

For Bac Sierra, a combat vet with an incredible backstory of survival and an evolving story of reclamation and redemption as an writer and educator, this time of year not only marks the anniversary of the pandemic: It’s been 30 years since he returned from the Gulf War and seven since his friend, Alex Nieto, was shot 59 times by SFPD. This is a solemn week in San Francisco as we once again remember those lives that were taken by police violence. Bac Sierra continues to honor his friend with Amor For Alex, an ongoing demonstration of love in action, a movement “beyond justice,” he said.

As for Rev. Gordon, the idea behind his Great Cloud of Witness, a giant building-sized collage mural devoted to Black excellence he’s crafted over several decades, is to inspire youth toward greatness. He established a basketball league and community center to develop community engagement and has been an advocate for over 30 years. Extending beyond his neighborhood, he offers the San Francisco World Peace Affirmation, based on the words of the prayer commonly referred to as The Prayer to St. Francis, but tailored so as to affirm peace in the now. “If you’re talking about love and honor and respect for everybody, San Francisco could be a microcosm of the world,” said Gordon. We still have quite a bit of work to do, thus the prayer and affirmation.

Francis of Assisi was born late in the 12th Century. By the turn of 13th Century, his visions of Christ drew him deeper toward living a life more like Jesus, renouncing his family and worldly goods and tending to the sick and poor (this is of course a general and capsule take on one of the most important figures to all of Christendom). He honored the elements, all creatures, and is the patron saint of nature and animals. It is probably needless to say that some thought he was mad. There are others, even those outside the faith, who believe in the prayer named for him, though not written by his hand: It is the prayer that begins, Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace; where there is hatred let me sow love… You may’ve heard it. If not, I encourage you to look it up, if you’re the praying kind.

The future of San Francisco, and the rest of the world, is still untold. Some would say we are at the point in our so-called civilization that only a divine source, the power of a miracle or some higher force outside ourselves is going to turn around this mess we humans have gotten into. But where there is love there is hope. I hope you will read the stories of Rev. Gordon and Ben Bac Sierra in the column and love what they have to say as much as I loved being reminded by them of the saint meant to guide our city and its actions, and the words to the prayer that bears his name: Grant that we may not so much seek to be loved as to love.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, California, San Francisco News, , , , , , ,

Bloody Sunday: Freedom Highway Revisited

Five songs into their set at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church, the Staple Singers get down to the real, and the reason, they called their gospel meeting on April 9, 1965.

“A few days ago freedom marchers marched on Selma to Montgomery, Alabama,” says Roebuck “Pops” Staples. “And from that march, words were revealed and a song was composed. And we wrote a song about the freedom marchers and we call it the ‘Freedom Highway.’ And we dedicate this number to all the freedom marchers, and it goes something like this.”

Tearing into their new song as if it was a longtime traditional favorite, the Staples evoke the energy and resistance of the historic freedom trail for voting rights, right there at their South Side parish. Though few could’ve predicted or believed that the messages of the Martin Luther King, Jr.-led movement would still be necessary or relevant 50 years on, this timeless performance at the height of the fight has been mercifully preserved, restored and reissued on Legacy’s new Freedom Highway Complete—Recorded Live at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church, April 9, 1965, for all the world to once again bear witness and hear the beauty in a song.

The whole world is wondering what’s wrong with the United States

Yes, we want peace if it can be found

Marching freedom’s highway, 

I’m not gonna turn around…

Stay on freedom’s highway until the day is done

Following an introduction from Pops encouraging folks to sing, clap, and shout amen, the group (accompanied by Al Duncan on drums and Phil Upchurch on bass) eases in parishioners with the familiar invocation, “When The Saints Go Marching In.”  But they waste no time getting to the darker stuff, slipping in the Hank Williams tale of “The Funeral,” concerning the closing of the casket on a little curly-headed boy. The secular movement standard, “We Shall Overcome” is delivered easily enough, serving as the crowd-participatory number it was built to be, though in the Staples’ hands, all is holy. Their originals like “Freedom Highway” and “Tell Heaven,” and the arrangements of spirituals like “He’s All Right” strive to tear the roof off the chapel and touch greener pastures, delivering the listener from all earthly distraction. For gospel singers like the Staples family, “Jesus Is All” (one of the set’s previously unreleased tracks) and “Help Me Jesus” are not just proud declarations of their savior’s name, they are a way of life, a deep faith that does not ask its adherents to acquiesce in God’s presence; it puts the holy spirit in charge, so that the faithful may take action on the streets and in all matters of the everyday, fearlessly and free.

Church was where the gospel group first practiced its faith as family singers—Roebuck, Pervis, Cleotha, Yvonne and Mavis—in the late forties and early fifties, developing an acoustic folk-gospel style with a bluesy feeling, distinguished by soul-solid lead vocals by Mavis and piercing, bending guitar by “Pops.” They recorded for a number of labels including Vee-Jay (famous for releasing blues acts and later, the Beatles) where they had some early success with “Uncloudy Day,” (a song Bob Dylan recently called the “most mysterious thing” he’d ever heard). In later years they joined the Stax label where during the apex of soul music, they enjoyed Top 40 success with funk-based, gospel-powered hits like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.”  In between these distinct eras, the Staples were signed to Epic where their A&R man and producer Billy Sherrill (remembered mostly for his Nashville productions) assisted in the development of merging their sacred and soul sides. For the Freedom Highway session, he arranged the necessary equipment be brought to the church and recorded the service/rally. Mobile units were in their infancy at the time, but the project was not conceived as a “field” recording. Before release, the tracks were edited, telescoped, and worked to conform to studio and broadcast standards, purposefully leaving behind the churchy and ambient parts, though even with the tweaking, the set was a revelation. Becoming one of the era’s most beloved recordings, it was also long left out-of-print, only to become highly sought after (a 1991 Legacy reissue titled Freedom Highway is not the original recording, but rather a compilation).

StapleSinger_cover

Bolstered by the anticipation of the tracks becoming once again available digitally and on vinyl, the new and expanded edition produced by Steve Berkowitz and Nedra Olds-Neal stands to surpass the original’s already relic-like status. By daring to return the tapes to their original form and to recreate the evening from front to back, Freedom Highway becomes all at once a historical document, a spirit-lifting gospel session, and a fist-raising call for freedom now. Accompanied by rock and soul historian Robert Gordon’s liner notes which ascertain the place of race in music and in the country then and now, the Staples brand of “message music” is spelled out for non-believers and anyone else in need of a nudge.

Leaping into faith-based music in times of uncertainty is natural; gospel survives on rock solid melodies and timeless messages of liberation which by design were created to subvert slavery and oppression. And while the marchers in Ferguson, New York and Oakland in recent months may not have exactly had the notes of “Freedom Highway” on their minds when they shut down roadways, its words were already written on their souls.  Built to travel the distance, and as necessary as in the hour they were recorded, these songs performed 50 years ago (and some scored a hundred years before) are available to accompany movement, anytime, anywhere, there is a fight for voting rights, civil rights and human need. These songs’ messages are as urgent now as they were then, as is faith in the idea that the march will ultimately be won, mile by mile, hand in hand.

“Let’s say amen again,” says Pops Staples on the restored set’s recovered audio tracks. “Let’s keep on marchin’…Keep on marchin’ up freedom highway.”

(This review appeared originally in Blurt online, upon the release of the 50th anniversary edition of Freedom Highway)

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Bob Dylan, Civil Rights, Folk, Freedom Now, Gospel, Protest Songs, , , , , , , , , , ,

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