Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Author Q&A

by Billy Jam

September 17, Amoeblog

The recently published Keep On Pushing (Black Power Music – From Blues To Hip-Hop) (Lawrence Hill Books/IPG) is the latest book from longtime California music journalist/author Denise Sullivan whose last book was 2004’s The White Stripes: Sweethearts of the Blues. This ever-engaging book by the Crawdaddy columnist and self-described “record geek” could as easily be filed under American political history or American music history (she thinks the latter to be more fitting) as it explores how American history of the past numerous decades is so closely intertwined with protest/revolutionary music (from the early blues, through the musical soundtrack of the civil rights movement, up to the role of contemporary hip-hop as voice of protest).

In Keep On Pushing, the “Nor Cal through and through” music writer examines the cultural interchanges of black and white musicians (many Bay Area artists included) and, along the way, takes numerous enlightening tangents uncovering tidbits of musical history not normally unearthed.
This week I caught up with the author, who tomorrow (Sunday, September 18th) will be at  Stories Books & Cafe on 1716 Sunset Blvd from 4pm to 7pm  and next month at both D.G. Wills Books in San Diego and at San Francisco’s literary festival LitQuake, for an in-depth discussion on Keep On Pushing and many of the areas it explores.

Amoeblog: Following a book on the White Stripes, how did you decide on the theme of this book next? How long did you work on this book for?

Denise Sullivan: It’s complicated, which is the exact thing I noted in the White Stripes book when I was writing about them covering “Your Southern Can is Mine” by Blind Willie McTell. Matters of race and thesexes, the Great Migration, what was once called the “American Dream,” industry, ingenuity, and the entire great American songbook are of deep interest to me and all are tied up in the White Stripes story. Keep on Pushingis a similar story, only it has a lot more people (many of them black, others are Native American, women, or economically strapped, most all of them are trying to survive America), and music is big part of their toolkit. Specifically though, in the case of both books, it was fine art photography that initially inspired me to launch my investigations: American Ruins by Camilo Jose Vergara, and The Black Panthers by Stephen Shames.

The time I started researching in late 2006 till publication was four and a half years. Sometime in 2007, my friendPat Thomas sent me a mixtape of songs he’d put together for a boxed set and a couple of the tracks–one by Amiri Baraka and another by Elaine Brown–both released by Motown‘s Black Forum label–sparked my imagination. First off, you can’t get those records and I wondered why that was. So now we have juicy record collector-type records and a question, and that for me as a writer and journalist who likes to ask questions and tell stories is enough to get started. And as it turns out, the story is largely in the songs: Song after song after song, detailing the struggle of people trying to get out from under. As Odetta said, “you can either lie down and die or insist on your own individual life. Those people who made up the songs were the ones who insisted upon life and living…” I found the essences of their stories so personally inspiring, I thought it was important to share my findings, hoping that it might help someone else who identifies with the conditions of oppression–whether systemic or personal–and that they may find some solutions, or relief, and a companion in the book and in the songs.

I can’t even get my head around how we can allow our musical heritage cities like  Detroit, Memphis and New Orleans, as homes to our greatest cultural export, American music, be left to fail. I think about that  all the time. Amoeba and the music community did such an amazing job stepping up after the Hurricane Katrina disaster.  We know the debt owed to our great music cities but the general population and the power structure doesn’t make that connection as quickly.

Amoeblog: In writing/researching the book what unexpected tangents or historical areas did it lead you into?

Denise Sullivan: I had initially intended to write a book about the music from the Black Power era of 1967-1975, which is a well-documented time of war on the streets of the U.S. as well as in Vietnam. Somewhere along the way though, I decided I was better equipped to create a kind of labor-saving device for anyone interested in the general subject of music and political movement, and so I began uncovering the roots of that music and movement, and the strains that grew from that root, because that’s really what I’m most interested in–the origins of songs. Rather than focusing on the rare grooves and black power jams themselves, for me it’s always an attempt to connect the dots, this case, between the people I’d read about in alternative histories, the records I owned, the forces that converged to condemn them, and how the people and the music survived that mess. What I kept finding were the same songs and musical phrases kept cropping up and got handed down in folk/oral/hip hop tradition.

Amoeblog: There’s a lot of “Keep On Pushing” titled songs. Which one were you thinking of when you titled your book?

Denise Sullivan: I was thinking of the original song by the Impressions, written by Curtis Mayfield and the way “keep on pushing,” and “move up a little higher” reoccur in his other songs, like “We’re a Winner”and “Move on Up.” Mayfield isn’t talking about the ladder of success and financial status. He’s talking about raising consciousness and about transcendence–about moving above and beyond circumstances. Combine those themes that are of deep interest to me with the genius of his composition and you get a title that I hope conveys the potential for extreme unity, between message, music and people.

Amoeblog: What do you think distinguishes your book from the others on this area of American music?

Denise Sullivan: Ultimately I don’t know if that’s for me to say, though I don’t think there can ever be too many books or too many versions of history on a subject that takes in so much music and so many people. More histories are better than one history.  American music history has the same problems as “American history”: Too many of our heroes and heroines have been left back and left behind. As someone interested in the people’s history, alternative histories, shadow histories, I tried to include as many of those voices as possible, or at least the ones that captured my imagination. Artists like Len Chandler, Eugene McDaniels, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Swamp Dogg are usually left out of the books for reasons I don’t really understand because their music has touched me just as deeply, if not more than some by music’s considered giants. I also admittedly have a thing for unsung heroes. I can rarely understand why the masses aren’t  hearing what I am, though what I know for sure is that it’s not artistry or talent these artists lack, it’s an infrastructure or support system for their work and a lack of imagination and vision on the parts of their record labels that kept them back. But their humanity and soul runs just as deep, sometimes deeper, because they’re relentlessly facing things down with their voices, in their songs.

Amoeblog: Can instrumental music (with no vocals at all) be revolutionary in nature?

Denise Sullivan: Absolutely. There was classical music that served that function and certainly avant garde music has done the same. In terms of black liberation, jazz was that music, especially as it moved into be bop and into freer, avant garde forms.  You can hear a full spectrum of emotion in the compositions of Charles Mingus, in the way Bird and Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Archie Shepp blow. Not only were these players breaking free from tradition, they were changing the vibration in the room through sound. By breaking the rules, largely imposed by European tradition, the music is free to be what it wants to be, go where it wants to go, it moves beyond limitations. I don’t know, but those ideas really speak to me and have spoken to a lot of people, especially the players and fans of the revolution in jazz.

Amoeblog: Some contend that all American popular music isblack music. What do you think?

Denise Sullivan: The thing that makes American music unique and interesting is the black component. I have no doubt that American culture as a whole is deeply rooted in black expression and experience. Personally, I am interested in intersections–for example where politics and the races meet, around music. These are sometimes uneasy and complicated alliances, and other times it’s quite simple: Music is a gift and black, white, however we get to it, it’s good.

Amoeblog: For those who have not read the book and may have preconceived notions of what artists should be included in a book subtitled “Black Power Music – From Blues To Hip-Hop” can you explain what part such non black artists as Phranc, Yoko Ono, Deborah Iyall, and Penelope Houston, who are featured inKeep On Pushing, play?

Denise Sullivan: It’s largely accepted by scholars and historians that the black power movement, which grew from the Civil Rights and Black Arts Movements earlier in the decade, provided the model not only for the gay liberation movement and the women’s movement, but for all cultural minorities to move forward and gain some political traction. Women and Native Americans worked side by side in the abolition era, just as they did in the black power era—partly because it was in their best interest to do so–though here we are, all these years later, still dealing with inequality and these various isms. The non-black artists featured in Keep on Pushing sing-out loudly for equality, among the races, the sexes, the classes. Gay rights is the civil rights matter of our time, racism is still with us, as are gender and sexual orientation biases. I would’ve preferred a different subtitle and was leaning toward the term liberation music, but it wasn’t quite ringing bells at the sales and marketing discussions that happen before books come out. I thought it was important to see a book like this in print, rather than to get in a battle behind its subtitle.

Amoeblog: I enjoyed some of the little known facts you unearthed such as the fact that Michael Franti’s dorm room at USF was right above KUSFradio studios in Phelan Hall or that Louis Farrakhan was originally a calypso recording artist. What were some of your favorite side facts you discovered in your research?

Denise Sullivan: Oh man, I live for side roads and diversions so thanks for asking that question! Len Chandler, the third voice in the trio that includedBob Dylan and Joan Baez at the March on Washington was a great source for side facts. When he told me how his friend David Henderson (poet and Jimi Hendrix biographer) was his friend and the person who sent on his poems to Langston Hughes, it unlocked this whole door for me that connected literature and poetry to Greenwich Village and the Freedom movement and Jimi Hendrix, Richie Havens, his stories about Allen Ginsberg, and I thought aha! Poetry. It has links to Gil Scott-Heron and punk rock San Francisco where again Ginsberg turns up, as does Bob Kaufman who also cycles backward, collaborating with Len Chandler. These are all my favorite things! I get thrilled just thinking about it. It was these little glimpses, these demonstrations of how the human family is all connected, that really moved me. Record geeks– and I am one, so I can say that– love their trivia, but I had to wear a different hat to tell this story and move out of encyclopedia-mode and can-you-trump-this-esoteric-fact-with another-one, into a space where I could deliver these vignettes and make them real for the next generation, so they could take this old world with them on their journey into the future.  When I held the telegram in my hand that Langston Hughes had sent to Len Chandler, I felt connected to something I knew was much bigger than me, that was also symbolic of a lost world–the days of telegrams, when music and poetry and speeches and marches were changing the world! There was energy in that piece of paper, and it took over and sent me in a direction where history came alive for me and I wanted to pass that on.

Another example: I guess I didn’t really know just how big of an influence Olatunji and Nigerian music had been back in 1960 and how he had touched jazz and folk and the Freedom movement and the Greenwich Village scene and then connecting that up to how he influenced Santana and landed in the Bay Area. It just kinda blows my mind, this big river and how it all rolls and there are all these tributaries to it. I just tried to flow and catch some of the things that called out to me. I grew up around jazz records, I thoughtAhmad Jamal and Roland Kirk were members of my family, I studied those covers so closely as a kid. But attempting to create any kind of sensible narrative from all this information was my challenge.

Amoeblog: You have a lot of Bay Area based or Bay related artists in your book. Is this because of your personal history/ties to the area or because the San Francisco Bay Area is so relevant to the theme of Keep On Pushing?

Denise Sullivan: I’d say both:  Again, I realize that San Francisco’s ties to counter-culture history are well-documented, but I don’t think it hurts to explore them through another lens. I get tired of the New York and LA-centric view of the world just as I’m sure Southerners get tired of the Northern view and Midwesterners are sick of hearing the coastal perspective. I’m Nor Cal through and through, whatever the implications of that may mean to you but to me it means I want to demonstrate tolerance. As a small child, I was very close to the activity that was taking place at San Francisco State in the ’60s and yet, I was also very far away from it because my family left the city limits. But my grandparents stayed to serve the diverse population in their restaurant, rented to gay tenants, and sometimes I like to imagine that they served the members of Sly and the Family Stone who moved into the neighborhood.

I know for certain that earlier in the decade, my grandfather had let Peter Paul and Mary sing for their supper. My family heritage includes immigrants who experienced discrimination and laborers who fought for their rights to organize. I mention this because people have made a lot of assumptions about who I am and where I’m from but the facts are, I am a proud native, third generation San Franciscan and California woman.  I know some things about survival.

Amoeblog: Who was your favorite person to interview for Keep On Pushing and why?

Denise Sullivan: It’s hard to pick one but I have to say Solomon Burke because he gave me some words of wisdom that helped me to tell this story, right around the time I had some personal difficulties andsetbacks and was ready to pack it in and quit. I never laughed and cried so much during an interview before or since. His kindness restored my faith in the project, and in myself and I’ll be forever grateful to him.  Sadly he passed in late 2010 so I didn’t get to tell him personally how much his words and music inspired me. His final album, Nothing’s Impossible, made with Willie Mitchellat Royal Recorders in Memphis has some of his best performances on it.

Amoeblog: It seems that, over the decades leading up to his presidency, that there were many black music protest songs complaining about how there would never be an African American president. But then when Obama got elected the number of songs celebrating his landmark victory seemed minimal in comparison. So are people, like in general life, quicker to complain about wrongdoing than to celebrate the good?

Denise Sullivan: That’s an interesting point but I guess like protest songs, pride songs have fallen out of favor. “Obama Song” by Michael Franti and Spearhead didn’t really get around that much, did it? Perhaps it’s time to strike it up again.

Amoeblog: And if a Republican gets elected president in the upcoming election – do you think that will signal a new wave of protest music?

Denise Sullivan: I refuse to even entertain the possibility of that idea; if that happens we’ll need more than protest music to pull us through–we’ll need a miracle.

Amoeblog: Considering that oppression, including economic oppression, oft brings out the best protest songs aren’t you surprised that there are not more protest songs coming out in these bleak economic times?

Denise Sullivan: I’m disappointed, but not surprised. Topical songs and direct protest music has been out of fashion for a long time, which isn’t to say that there aren’t people doing them, it’s just that there’s no movement in place or an organized way to present them or sing them. When the economy took that first big hit before the 2008 election, Solomon Burke cut a song by Keb’ Mo called “We Don’t Need It,” about a man breaking the news to his family about losing his job. Hard times have traditionally brought about great songs, and I see no reason for artists to hold back bringing them on, to rewrite the old ones or to write new ones: “Buddy Can You Spare a Dime” and “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out” might be good starting places…

Amoeblog: Of those artists making protest music or songs to inspire social change today in 2011 (recordings that eclipsed the book’s deadline) who are the most noteworthy?

Denise Sullivan: Two records I’m listening to right now are Shabazz Palaces [Black Up] on Sub Pop and the new record by Malian group,Tinawiren produced by friend of the Bay Area/LA, Ian Brennan, and featuring contributions by Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio, along with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. I am only beginning to uncover the depth of these records and believe they will stand up to repeated listening. Like most all the music I’m drawn to, their mysteries will be slowly revealed, in unexpected ways, over time. I admire Ian’s work as a producer as well as a his work in the area of non-violent conflict resolution, how he combines his art with activism. I expect that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West, from late in 2010 will be one that shines on in years to come. It’s a pretty complex stew but by the end of the album, in “Who Will Survive in America” he asks a question Gil Scott-Heron and Amiri Baraka and asked before him, which sets up Kanye nicely to carry the torch of literary tradition, if he should so choose to go that way.

I’m not generally a pop fan but I loved the idea behind Wake Up, the album John Legend made with the Roots in 2010. They took classic songs of black protest, “Compared to What” by Gene McDaniels, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” by Billy Taylor, and songs like “Hard Times” by Baby Huey which is less known to the mass audience but well known inside hip hop, and brought them back.  I love that kind of legacy project, a handing down of songs, passing on information and historical content, presented in a way
that a young audience might receive it and respond. I don’t know the sales figures on it, but my guess is it didn’t do as well as Gaga that year, if you know what I mean. That said, Lady Gaga‘s “Born This Way”might be the best protest pop has to offer right now, though it’s not actually to my taste either: Voice and a minimal instrumentation is my preferred way to receive the message in the music.

Amoeblog: What can people expect at your reading at Stories in LA on Sunday, or at D.G. Wills in San Diego next month and at the LitQuake literary festival in San Francisco on October 14th?

Denise Sullivan: I plan to generally accompany my brief readings with performances by a revolving cast of poets and musicians whose work sings out to today’s social justice concerns. At Stories I’ll be accompanied by Phranc, Cindy Lee Berryhill and Lisa Sanders, and Peter Case, as well as the young poets from the 826 tutoring center. At Litquake we have a limited time so I’ll be on my own: Actually I’m seeking a clarinet, saxophonist or stand-up bass player to provide some backup for me if you know anyone looking for a gig. The readings shall reinforce the connections between message and all kinds of music, and how they can be combined to effect positive change, personally and politically.

Amoeblog: What is next for you as an author? Any plans?

Denise Sullivan: I’ve already started the research on my next book, about the poetry of Jim Morrison. Iwill be joining a tiny chorus that’s begun to sing the praises of his work as a visionary poet–work that has been largely ill-perceived by the analytic wing of music criticism. I am also considering subjects for a single person biography–all artists with some ties to activism. I work in the niche of music journalism that attempts to keep history vital and make it come alive for young readers, while underscoring music’s function in a democratic society.

Amoeblog: Anything to add?

Denise Sullivan: Yes. You may’ve gathered that I am an advocate of liberty and justice for all which is why the most important thing to do is to take action in your own community, get into it and get involved, and above all, vote. People died fighting and marching and singing for voting rights for all and every voice and every vote counts. It is important that we exercise our voting rights, no matter how hopeless or disenfranchised we might feel about the situations at hand.  Faith in change and in a brighter future has always been part of the solution, hopelessness pretty much insures perpetuation of problems. As music lovers, we know that there’s faith and strength inside the songs.  So put on a record and learn the songs of freedom so we can sing them together again: We might just change the world.

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