Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

New Mission Muralistas

Last Saturday on Balmy Alley, a street entirely devoted to local mural art in San Francisco’s Mission District, the latest work to grace the backside of a building on the block-long street was finally unveiled:  Women of the Resistance was conceived and painted by a collective of women artists, many of them local to the neighborhood and trained at the San Francisco Art Institute. I had the opportunity to speak to three of the painters, Lucía Gonzalez-Ippolito, Fernanda Parker Vizcaino and Michelle Williams, and to learn the story of how they chose the 38 women of the resistance to paint into the mural.  Pictured here is the mural just before the unveiling and blessing ceremony, but you can read my interview and to see photos by the Aperturist of the mural in all of its full color glory at CurrentSF.

One of the central figures in the mural is Judy Brady, a local activist I was acquainted with from my own work in the district. Brady was known to locals for her participation in neighborhood demonstrations, particularly those against the tech buses which block the way for school children and people with disabilities, of which she was one. But what most people didn’t know about Judy, otherwise known as the terse, silver-haired lady in the motorized scooter, was that she was a pioneering feminist and one of the first writers for Ms. Magazine: Her essay “Why I Want a Wife,” published in 1970 is still used in women’s studies courses to this day. Had I known this about Judy, we would’ve enjoyed talking more than we did, I’m sure. As it was, we brushed past each other regularly in the bookshop where I worked, we spoke just a few times and briefly: The bookstore closed in 2016 and Judy died the following year. Writing about this mural, I learned that there are everyday women of the resistance in our midst: I wish I’d had a chance to thank Judy for all that she did for us.  Read the entire article now:

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

Wayne Kramer’s Jailhouse Blues

The MC5. photo by Charlie Auringer

The legendary Detroit rock ‘n’ roll band MC5 was always a bit of a hard sell for me:  You just don’t have the right rock critic and fan credentials if you don’t bow down to the band and well, I frankly didn’t always hear it or have it in me to do that. Showmanship, yes. Sheer raw power, without a doubt. And a story that’s something else: Political to be sure, and sometimes problematic, but it’s fueled by a love of jazz and freedom and well, they kinda had me after that.

Wayne Kramer led the band through the early Detroit scene, back when they could manage mostly blues and R&B-based covers; eventually they graduated to grinding originals (you’ve probably heard their signature song, “Kick Out The Jams”). Kramer loved straight up Chuck Berry as well as Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, and other avant garde music and the band attempted to merge roots rock guitar with the freedom of far out jazz. When the band joined forces with a local jazz writer, John Sinclair, things started to stir:  “The MC5 grew from a unique period of social, political and musical upheaval and created a sound that reverberated through their city with resonances throughout the counter cultural movement,” is how I put it in Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop. In the course of writing that book, I spoke with Kramer about his life and times with the band and their political involvements, including all that came before and after their appearance at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. Since that interview, he’s written his own memoir, The Hard Stuff, much of it concerning his drug addiction, his prison time behind that addiction, and of course his time with the band (which sounds a little a sentence of its own variety).

Further thoughts on the MC5, Kramer and his work as a contemporary prison activist are what’s on the page in this month’s edition of my column for Tourworthy.  I hope you’ll click through and have a look at it, and as ever, thanks for reading.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Archie Shepp, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Blues, Books, rock 'n' roll, , , , ,

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.

 

 

 

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

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, , , ,

Boots Riley: The Coup, Sorry To Bother You & The Art of Anti-capitalism

Boots Riley, director of Sorry to Bother You. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Amelia Kennedy.

Readers of Keep on Pushing, published in the Summer of 2011, may remember I briefly noted The Coup as hip hop artists who use ideas and art to make change. When I was writing the book over a five-year-period mid-decade, times were such in post-9/11 USA that “political music” was annexed to the sidelines, largely unheard by the mainstream. “Movement building” was something to be considered a leftover idea from another dimension. Things have changed: Now even your grandma is woke (though chances are your other grandma and maybe even your ma or pa are among the third of folks still living in American dreamland, the one that still doesn’t/never did exist).

Before a handful of musicians rallied behind the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements, and decades before the current moment of resistance, there was Boots Riley.

Born into the movement in Oakland, California, Riley was politicized from the gate. Since the early ‘90s he’s used his innate talent and acquired knowledge to make change as a community worker and as a hip hop artist, leading The Coup.  The activist and auteur’s latest project, is the film he wrote and directed, Sorry to Bother You.  It’s an important surreal and absurd social satire, at once entertaining and disturbing (because it hits so close to home, which is also one of its strengths).

Riley, who studied film at university, also understands the wages of capitalism and the politics of labor and the economy; the lyrics he spit with the Coup were loaded with often cinematic displays of the details of his interests. For this month’s column, I delivered a sweeping overview of his band’s catalog as a sort of prelude to the film: I hope every working American will see it.

Read the entire article at Tourworthy.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, California, film, Keep On Pushing, , , ,

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.

Fifty 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. Here in the US, in this fiftieth year since the assassination, we have perhaps more than ever felt the effects of the long term absence of a movement leader the likes of Dr. King. The world remembered him today. But what of the other 364 days of the year? If only we heard the kind of programming we heard all day today during the rest of the year…

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 version of the 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: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., , , , , , , , , ,

The ’70s Jesus-Rock Boom and the Resurrection of a Superstar

In light of this year’s revival of Jesus Christ Superstar (to be broadcast on live TV Easter Sunday, starring John Legend in the title role) I’m re-posting this piece which I wrote about 10 years ago on the ’70s Jesus-rock boom the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice concept album had a hand in creating.

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In 1969, Norman Greenbaum had a worldwide hit and US #3 record with “Spirit in the Sky.” Greenbaum sold over two million copies of the single in which he claimed he had a “friend in Jesus,” never mind he was Jewish. “Spirit in the Sky” was not the first or the last time Jesus hit the charts, but its success marked the unofficial beginning of a Jesus movement in and outside of rock in the ’70s that impacted the popular arts, from Broadway to Bob Dylan.

Partly a reaction to the hippie culture and also a part of it, the Jesus people, or Jesus freaks, as they were proudly known within their movement, generally sought to return Christianity to its origins. The seeds of today’s Christian right as well as its progressive left-wing were both sown in the loosely established communities/communes, and in some cases cults, which sought to throw off religious strictures as well as its staid music. Ironically, the so-called devil’s music conservatives railed against is massively marketed today as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), a major tool to keep young people interested in faith, though that isn’t the subject of this post. Rather, this is an overview of the songs sung by generally secular rockers who went sacred at the height of the Jesus music movement of the ’70s, a 10-year period bookended by ’69’s “Spirit in the Sky” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” (1979, the last time Dylan had a high-charting single at #24).

In 1966, John Lennon joked the Beatles were bigger than Jesus and caught hell for it, though by the time he invoked Christ’s name and sang of his own crucifixion in 1969′s “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, all was forgiven and only a few outlets banned it, branding it sacrilegious.  By the end of the year, the Beatles were all but said and done, and it was the Quiet One who revealed himself to be the spiritual seeker of the group. Sporting a look that was rather Christ-like, George Harrison spent four weeks at #1 in the US and five weeks at #1 in the UK at the end of 1970 and the beginning of 1971 with “My Sweet Lord,” the song that kicked off a kind of Jesus-mania in ’70s rock.

Speaking to his Krishna consciousness, while throwing in a couple of hallelujahs, Harrison was famously accused of copping the “doo-lang” backgrounds from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” (a song about a boy which has been known to double as a spiritual). And yet, Harrison disavowed the influence, claiming his inspiration came from “Oh Happy Day”, a top five 1969 hit for the Edwin Hawkins Singers. “Oh Happy Day” grew from a Northern California gospel choir’s homemade record derived from an English hymn dating back to the 18th Century (Spiritualized also revived “Oh Happy Day” in the late 20th Century).

Gospel music had been rocking souls since at least the 18th century in the Americas, where African rhythms joined field, work, and folk songs, to old hymns from the British Isles, and made way for a new form of expression giving voice to the inner lives of the oppressed. In his book People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music, author Robert Darden speaks to the theological ideas and arguments behind the music:  By evoking a more powerful spirit, gospel-inspired music served to fight the demonic institutions of slavery and Jim Crow law. The 20th Century story of how church singers like Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, and more turned gospel into soul is among the greatest stories in music history ever told, as is the origin story of the blues, a music where heaven and hell, and Jesus and the devil, go head to head regularly. Rock ‘n’ soul were built on this gospel and blues foundation and remain inextricably intertwined, their resonances in rock proving to be everlasting (I write about gospel, blues, soul and music’s connection to people’s liberation extensively throughout this site and in my book, Keep on Pushing).

Here’s an example of how a song traveled in the Year of Our Lord, 1971, a big one for Jesus and his greatest hits: In May, Gene MacLellan’s song “Put Your Hand in the Hand,” the title song from the debut album by Canadian rock group Ocean, became a million-seller and high-charting Billboard hit (I’ve seen it listed as a #2 as well as #3). The song was originally cut by Anne (“Snowbird”) Murray and went on to be recorded by Jesus-loving artists from Elvis Presley to Loretta Lynn. “Put Your Hand in the Hand” hearkens back to the first gospel song to score a number one crossover hit: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” as done by Laurie London in 1958. Mahalia Jackson—gospel’s reigning queen of soul during the civil rights era—would also put the song in Billboard’s Top 100. The Jesus rock of Ocean did not turn out to be quite as enduring or memorable, though the Jesus music movement continued to gain momentum in the ’70s thanks to, well, Jesus, and the 1970 Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice album project turned hit Broadway play bearing his name.

In May of 1971, songs from Jesus Christ Superstar with Ian Gillan (Deep Purple) in the role of Jesus were also making their way to the charts. Murray Head (as Judas) and his version of “Superstar” were sitting at #20 and peaked at #14 in the US in June. Another song from the show, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,”  the “Him” being Jesus, and the “I” being Mary Magdalene (as sung by Yvonne Elliman) rose to #28, also in 1971.

Even the Rolling Stones got into the Jesus spirit that year: After the darkness that marked Altamont, they traded “Sympathy for the Devil” for when the Lord gets ready  andYou Got To Move” by Mississippi Fred McDowell (from their Sticky Fingers album). Here’s a clip of them in 1975 performing it with Ollie Brown and Billy Preston joining on vocals.

In 1972, the gospel-based Staple Singers busted the crossover charts with Be Altitude, featuring the hits, “I’ll Take You There,” “Respect Yourself,”  and the lesser-known “Who Do You Think You Are (Jesus Christ the Superstar)?”

In 1972, the Off-Broadway play, Godspell, scored a hit off its original cast album with “Day By Day” which went to #13 on the pop charts. Following the West End success of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973 it was turned into a hit film, directed by Norman Jewison. Here’s a clip of Carl Anderson in the role of Judas, rockin’ the Jehovah out of the title song, followed by Murray Head’s chart hit version.

Curiously, it’s another Norman—not Jewison nor Greenbaum but Larry—who is widely considered to be the godfather of the aforementioned contemporary Christian rock. Bob Dylan followed his work, and the Pixies’ Black Francis grew up on it. A bit of a wild card, Larry Norman is generally well-regarded as an artist, remembered as a risk-taker, an experimentalist, and an iconoclast who didn’t cotton to the status quo in rock or Christian music. Also contributing to the coalescence of contemporary Christian music was Explo ’72, a festival concert that gathered over 75,000 young Jesus people in Dallas to see Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Larry Norman, and gospel artist Andrae Crouch for a kind of “religious Woodstock,” so-called by the Reverend Billy Graham, who was in attendance. According to author Andrew Beaujon’s book Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock, Explo set in motion the beginnings of the contemporary Christian music industry. Soon after, specialty labels formed, and the contemporary Christian music market was born to boom. “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music” was Norman’s answer to conservatives, who thought rockin’ for Jesus was not in concordance with the road to salvation. Though surely as the Jesus rockers were dismissed from the inner sanctum of evangelical Christiandom, they had also impacted the sound of church hymns too: Catholic mass went “folk” in the ’70s and some of those freshly arranged hymns remain in church repertoire today.

In 1972, Rhodes Scholar Kris Kristofferson sang “Jesus Was a Capricorn” on the album of the same title. He didn’t stay a Jesus rocker for long, though he had a definite claim in Jesus, given he was named for him—twice. “Morning Has Broken”, a Top 10 Cat Stevens hit in 1972, was based on the Gaelic hymn “Bunnesan” that’s been sung in churches as “Morning Has Broken” since at least 1930s. The Englishman of Greek origin has long since converted to Islam, first as a non-singer, now singing again. “Jesus is Just Alright” as covered by the Doobie Brothers was also a chart hit in 1972, though the Byrds had already recorded the Art Reynolds song in 1969.

Though by far, the biggest news in Jesus rock of the ’70s was Bob Dylan’s conversion to Christianity. Before developing his own distinct song style in the mid-‘60s, his lyrics vigorously opposed to injustice, Dylan had started out his career adapting old spirituals for his own form of protest song. By the mid-‘70s his Rolling Thunder Revue was as devoted to seeking justice for falsely accused prisoner Ruben “Hurricane” Carter as it was to an excessive rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Following that harrowing passage, Dylan, in characteristic retreat mode, embraced Christianity. Born again, he cut two gospel albums, 1979’s Slow Train Coming and Saved (1980) produced by self-proclaimed Jewish atheist, Jerry Wexler.

“Gotta Serve Somebody” from Slow Train Coming won the Best Male Rock Vocal Grammy and has since been covered by gospel artist Shirley Caesar, blueswoman Etta James, Neville brother Aaron, Texas troubadour Willie Nelson, marvelous Mavis Staples, and Hammond B-3 giant Booker T. with the M.G.’s. while John Lennon (“Serve Yourself”), and Devo (undercover as a Christian rock act, Dove) famously parodied it. At the time of recording, Dylan was pilloried: His 14-night stand at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater in 1979 featured nightly picketers stationed outside the theater. The reviews were radically divided. On 1981’s Shot of Love, Dylan answered some of his critics on songs which mixed secular and sacred and yielded at least one of his most enduring spiritual works, “Every Grain of Sand.”

In part owed to the controversy inspired by Bob Dylan’s gospel period, some believers choose to keep distinctly sacred references to Jesus out of their songs while others use his name as an invocation. Dylan faithful Patti Smith famously opened her rendition of “Gloria” with the line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”; she titled a song and an album “Easter”, while “Ghost Dance” features the holy incantation, “we shall live again.” Her friend and collaborator Robert Mapplethorpe’s Catholicism left its fingerprint on her; she continues to be inspired by poet and artist William Blake whose portraits of the divine move beyond confines of religious dogma.

Punk and alternative rock depictions of Jesus are not unheard of: Joey Ramone sang “I’m Not Jesus”, and Jesus rode beside Paul Westerberg in “Can’t Hardly Wait”, while a rather unholy trinity of bands, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Jesus Lizard, and Jesus Jones all named themselves after the big man. Flaming Lips, Ministry, and Spacemen 3 have got their Jesus songs too; they are but a small sample of alterna-Jesus references. Indie rock has its share of artists like Pedro the Lion and Sufjan Stevens whose Jesus-inspired work stays more on the downlow, like that of U2, Bruce Cockburn, Moby, Midnight Oil, Polyphonic Spree, and Lambchop: All make allusions to JC and Christianity while enjoying success in the secular world.

In hip hop, the Lord’s name is occasionally given a shout-out, but none took on Jesus better than Kanye “Yeezus” West whose 2004 single, “Jesus Walks” dared to speak of the very subject we’re talking about: With the Jesus movement in rock long in decline, to sing about him was often considered the equivalent of career suicide, yet West’s success was an exception. “Jesus Walks” peaked at #11 Pop and #2 R&B, sold over half a million copies, and was certified gold.

In 2008, the gospel songs of Dylan were compiled by the music’s greatest stars on Gotta Serve Somebody. The career of gospel songstress Mavis Staples has achieved a full-blown rock revival and continues to grow stronger following her contemporary albums produced by Ry Cooder and Jeff Tweedy. Southern California roots band Dead Rock West revived the Staples classic, “This May Be the Last Time” (the song the Rolling Stones borrowed for “The Last Time”), alongside works by Blind Willie Johnson and the Jesus and Mary Chain on their gospel-inspired collection Bright Morning Stars. Though the charts may never again see the high number of Jesus jams the ‘70s saw, if you’ve got the time to seek, you’ll find plenty more from where these came.

Happy Easter to all Jesus rockers, readers, and to people of all faiths: May your spirit be refreshed as you continue in the struggle for peace and justice (A version of this column originally ran in Crawdaddy! as The Origin of Song and appears elsewhere on this site annually).

 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Gospel, , , , , , , ,

The Last Holiday: On Stevie Wonder, Gil-Scott Heron and the MLK Observance They Turned From Dream to Reality

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It was a long road to the third Monday in January when all 50 states observe the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the day named in his honor.  Largely owed for making the dream of a King holiday a reality is Stevie Wonder, who back in 1980, wrote the pointed song, “Happy Birthday,” then launched a 41-city U.S. tour (and invited Gil Scott- Heron along) to promote the idea which was first mooted by Rep. John Conyers in 1968. The musical efforts were ultimately the key in collecting the millions of citizen signatures that had a direct impact on Congress passing the law signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, declaring a day for MLK. Observed for the first time in 1986, some states were late to the party, however, by the turn of the 21st Century, all were united in some form of remembrance of the civil rights giant. “Happy Birthday,” which served as the Wonder-campaign theme (and is now the “official” King holiday tune) is  the last track on Hotter Than July. The album also features “Master Blaster,” Wonder’s tribute to Bob Marley (he’d been scheduled for the tour until he fell too ill to participate). Stepping into the breach was Scott-Heron whose 2011, posthumously published memoir The Last Holiday, details his own journey with music and activism, and helps retrace the long and winding road Wonder took to bring home the last US federal holiday, with the help of a song.


The Hotter Than July tour brought Gil and Stevie to Oakland, where they played in the name of King, along with Rodney Franklin and Carlos Santana. In a weird turn of events, the concert on December 8, 1980, coincided with the shocking night John Lennon was killed. The musicians and crew learned of the tragedy from a backstage television; the job fell to Wonder,  with Scott-Heron and the other musicians at his side, to deliver the news to the arena of assembled music fans. “For the next five minutes he spoke spontaneously about his friendship with John Lennon:  how they’d met, when and where, what they had enjoyed together, and what kind of man he’d felt Lennon was,” wrote Scott-Heron.  “That last one was key, because it drew a line between what had happened in New York that day and what had happened on that motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, a dozen years before.  And it drew a circle around the kind of men who stood up for both peace and change.”  This year marks the 50th remembrance of Dr. King’s assassination on April 4. Scott-Heron devotes the final pages of The Last Holiday  to a remembrance of how the murder of Lennon fueled the final drive to push for a federal observance of an official MLK Day.

The politics of right and wrong make everything complicated

To a generation who’s never had a leader assassinated

But suddenly it feels like ’68 and as far back as it seems

One man says “Imagine” and the other says “I have a dream”

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Georgia, income disparity, racism, , , , ,

Happy Xmas

Some time in New York City, 1971, John Lennon and Yoko Ono came up with a Christmas song for the ages, its subject peace on earth during wartime, its melody extraordinarily similar to “Stewball,” a hoary folk song about a racehorse. Behind its veil of bluegrass, “Stewball” has deep roots plus class and race resonances, but only a tangential connection to the “Happy Xmas” song (if you’ve got the time to delve into these matters, there’s more where this came from, including clips and further linkage).

In his final major interview, Lennon explained, “‘Happy Christmas’ Yoko and I wrote together. It says, ‘War is over if you want it.’ It was still that same message—the idea that we’re just as responsible as the man who pushes the button. As long as people imagine that, somebody’s doing it to them and they have no control, then they have no control.” Lennon and Ono had used the slogan “War Is Over! (If You Want It)” in their 1969 billboard campaign that sold peace to the people just as aggressively as consumer goods and war were promoted in the public sphere.

Recorded in October at the Record Plant and assisted by producer Phil Spector, the Plastic Ono Band (who for this session included Jim Keltner, Nicky Hopkins, and Hugh McCracken) were joined by the children of the Harlem Community Choir (they sing, “War is over if you want it”). The single was released in the US on December 6th and held until the following November of 1972 for release in the UK.

Spector’s influence is clearly a presence—you can hear his signature claustrophobic effects, similar to those on the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” and the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him.”  But there is another ghost of rock and roll past in the room: The song borrows the feeling and the melody of “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace, a well- known Lennon favorite.

As for the slogan War is Over, the Doors had previously  used it in their 1968 anti-war song, “Unknown Solider” as had W.S. Merwin in his anti-Vietnam poem, “When the War Is Over,” published in 1967.  “Happy Xmas” bears traces of all the aforementioned melodies and influences, in addition to their somber moods, along with the note-for-note cadence of “Stewball.” Opening with a whisper to their children from whom they were estranged at the time (“Happy Christmas Kyoko, Happy Christmas Julian”), the lyrics open with a rather pointed question (“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?”) and wishes for a better world to follow. All is forgiven by the final uplift.

As most readers know, Spector is currently serving time in a California state prison for using a firearm to murder Lana Clarkson. Legend has it Johnny Ace shot himself by accident, and the persecution of peacenik Lennon as well as his end have been well-documented. Ono continues to work for peace and against gun violence.  The song “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” itself has inspired many covers,  none of them worth mentioning, and at least one (Billy Bob Thornton) worth calling out as being unmentionable. The only version worth a bleep I’ve ever heard is the original:  It just might be the best rock’n’roll song to capture the spirit of Christmas.

If, after reading this and enduring the year we’ve shared, you’re seeking something a bit cheerier, I’ve included a clip of “Run Rudolph Run” by original rock ‘n’ roller Chuck Berry—yet another Lennon-inspirer who we lost in March of this year. Consider it a seasonal gift: Merry Christmas Everybody, and God Bless Us, Everyone.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Jim Morrison, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , , , ,

Mavis Staples & Buffy Sainte-Marie: Over 100 Years of Singing Strong

Two American icons of freedom singing, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Mavis Staples, are out on the road entertaining this summer, though don’t expect them to stay quiet on matters of national and international interest.  This pair were on the front line of the Civil Rights Movement and have been strong presences for peace in our time, as well in the movements for African American equality, women’s rights, Native American sovereignty,  religious freedom, and environmental healing.  Between them, they have over 100 years of speaking truth to power in a song.  Read all about them in my monthly column for Tourworthy.

Filed under: anti-war, column, Women's rights, , , ,

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