Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Tongo Eisen-Martin: The revolution is live

Today April 30, marks the end of National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month. The bookend to my April 1 post on musician, poet, and literary artist Gil Scott-Heron is in tribute to Tongo Eisen-Martin, San Francisco’s newly appointed poet laureate, and a multidisciplinary artist in his own right. Eisen-Martin’s inaugural address and the reading he curated for the occasion was live-streamed on April 22 by the San Francisco Public Library in cooperation with local literary institutions, City Lights Books and Litquake. You can watch the entire 90 minute program here:

Please be patient as I am only just now realizing the how and why of Eisen-Martin’s standing as a natural torch-bearer for a modern style of poetry the likes of which Scott-Heron forged and the performing hip hop poets of the ’90s brought back into vogue: Both Eisen-Martin, like Scott-Heron, make substantive use of revolutionary rhetoric and their dead serious lived experience as Black men in America. While rooted in Black experience, the content expresses a profoundly deep love of and want for liberation of all oppressed peoples which leads with the dismantling of the structure of a capitalist society built on white supremacy, the one we historically and presently inhabit. That’s a lot for some folks, I know. There is also a spiritual core to the content that veers from the satirical to the surreal, all of it of a piece with its message.

Scott-Heron famously followed in the footsteps of his inspiration Langston Hughes, and Eisen-Martin has direct links to that lineage of jazz and blues poets: I’m not going to give away the hand, so if you’re interested you can dig around on your own and make the connections.

Though familiar as I am with Scott-Heron’s work, and in the several hours I’ve talked poetry and in the many more spent reading and listening to Eisen-Martin, Scott-Heron didn’t come up. Why? Well, Gil is the poet most often checked when people not-so-well-acquainted with poetry, Black poets, hip hop, Black music or Black Arts think of the first time they hear Eisen-Martin at work: I didn’t want to be that person, so I didn’t say so. Besides, that, I knew Eisen-Martin was more likely to name revolutionary, feminist, activist poet Audre Lorde, as someone he’d read widely and revered; that he’d studied with scholar Manning Marable, who’s written extensively on Malcolm X, and that he has appreciation for a spectrum of music, from Handy to Hendrix. But anyone who’s a regular at Eisen-Martin’s virtual readings will have noticed the image tacked to wall of his Zoom background: A picture of Scott-Heron, preaching to thousands.

For his inaugural event, friends, family, fans and San Francisco poet laureates emeritas Janice Mirikitani, devorah major and Kim Shuck were in attendance as Eisen-Martin passed the virtual mic to a cast of extraordinary poets, their work helping to give him his start and sustain him: They were, in no particular order here, his brother, Biko Eisen-Martin; early supporter, Marc Bamuthi Joseph; running mates during his New York years, Jive Poetic, Anthony Morales and Mahogany L. Browne, and the local network upon his Bay Area return: poet Joyce Lee, community organizer Uncle Damien and Alie Jones, co-founder of his newly established independent publishing house, Black Freighter Press. All contributed to making the poet and his inaugural event unprecedented in its power and presence. The humility of Eisen-Martin, and all of the poets, their collective ability to be attentive to each other’s work as they prepared to respond then perform their own considerable pieces without any interruption to their respective flows was part of the revelation. The intensely personal and political content was extraordinary, alive with excellence, contributing to the livestream’s immediacy, prescience and what will be its staying power: It was epic, in all respects. These poets of the Bay Area and beyond are the voices of the here and now, speaking to our precarious times, to neverending police violence and murder of Black people, and the everlasting oppression of indigenous people, women and the environment – matters that impact all people – delivered through Black (and Brown) lenses.

I hope readers of this space will set aside time to listen to the 90 necessary and critical minutes archived here, so that you may see and hear what we are doing here in San Francisco under Eisen-Martin’s steady guidance. “It’s the best decision this country ever made,” said Mahogany L. Browne of Mayor London Breed’s appointment of Eisen-Martin. “You’re a soul survivor – you are the best of us,” said brother Biko Eisen-Martin. ”Tongo might be the greatest poet of our generation but he’s a very, very good man,” said Marc Bamuthi Joseph in an introduction that also served as a lead up to a piece in which he conjured the life, slow death and words of Gil Scott-Heron.

And so the month ends where we began it: The revolution is in good hands.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Book news, Poetry, video, , ,

National Poetry Month and Jazz Heritage Month Open with Gil Scott-Heron, Born 4/1

April marks National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month. This month’s posts will attempt to shine a light on great moments and people in jazz and poetry, past and present.  

Gil Scott-Heron is a timeless poet and performer who published poems and prose, in addition to performing songs on piano–often classified as jazz–but with an emphasis on words. There are echoes of blues and gospel, rock’n’soul in his grooves. And prophecy. Always ahead of the game and yet right on time. Alien (Hold On To Your Dreams) is one of his classics, a song I think of often in these trying times for

In 1970, Gil Scott-Heron was barely 21 when his first novel, The Vulture, was published and his startling, spoken-word record, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, caught his incisive cool on tape. “I consider myself neither poet, composer, or musician. These are merely tools used by sensitive men to carve out a piece of beauty or truth that they hope may lead to peace and salvation,” he wrote in the album’s liner notes. Accompanied only by conga drums and percussion, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox featured a reading of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, Scott-Heron’s most enduring work and an early masterpiece, its flow combining elements of both poetry and jazz.

“The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox

In four parts without commercial interruptions.”

Excoriating the media and marketing, the song’s structure burrowed its way into the collective consciousness of musicians—both mainstream and underground—and listeners alike; it is referenced throughout music, and rather un-ironically the title phrase has been repurposed to advertise consumer goods, from sneakers to television itself. The piece is also, of course, foundational to hip-hop, its words potent and direct, even if some of the allusions and references may be lost on those uneducated in ‘60s or ‘70s culture. It also sounds great, which explains why it’s a standard-bearer for all music, whether it be politicized rock’n’soul, funk or jazz. Pulsing throughout the piece is Scott-Heron’s projection, a foreshadowing of the realities of global connectivity and the pacifying effect on the brain produced by viewing from a small screen. Heron’s vision was a word to the wise:

“The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal…
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
thinner, because the revolution will not be televised.”

Positing a necessary parsing of media-generated “reality” from truth and setting his poem to music on his 1971 album, Pieces of a Man, Scott-Heron was caught in the chasm between jazz and soul, poetry and rock, and few knew just what to do with the new poet and big bass voice on the scene, though time would reveal his impact: As the years rolled by, this poet of vision would weigh in on matters environmental and racial, as well as political and social. Though Scott-Heron’s voice was too often a cry in wilderness, it served as a clarion for future generations of conscious writers and thinkers.

Born in Chicago April 1, 1949, Scott-Heron was raised in Tennessee by his grandmother until he and his single mother, a librarian, eventually moved north to New York City. As a teenager, he excelled at writing and earned enrollment at Fieldston, a progressive Ivy League preparatory school. Upon graduation, he chose to attend Lincoln University in Philadelphia, quite simply because it was the alma mater of poet Langston Hughes. As a musician, Scott-Heron’s style was conjoined with the word styles of Hughes, as well as those of talkers like Malcolm X and Huey Newton. But it was “musicians more than writers” who inspired him, and he used the rhythms of folk, blues, soul, and jazz to fulfill the intensity of his emotion. “Richie Havens—what he does with the images and themes, Coltrane—the time defiant nature and thrust of his work. Otis Redding—the way he sings lyrics so that they come through as sounds. You can really appreciate how close a saxophone is to the human voice when you hear Otis singing. I sometimes write poetry, in a way, like Otis sings. The sounds form shapes. Like clouds banging into each other. That’s how I get loud sounds in my poetry,” said Scott-Heron to Jazz and Pop‘s Nat Hentoff.

Read: More on Gil Scott-Heron in Keep on Pushing.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Jazz, Poetry, , ,

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, , , , , , , , , , ,

On Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott-Heron & the federal holiday in the name of MLK, Jr.

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Today is the observance of a day for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. born January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a long road to the third Monday of the month when all 50 states would observe a federal holiday 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 (Marley had 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 Scott-Heron and Wonder 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.”   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-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Blues, Bob Marley, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Georgia, Gil

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

San Francisco Names Eighth Poet Laureate: Tongo Eisen-Martin

“My poems are a product of a complete life of resistance,” said Tongo Eisen-Martin when I interviewed him for the San Francisco Examiner in 2018. On Friday, the San Francisco-born movement worker, educator and poet was named the city’s Eighth Poet Laureate. With the civic appointment and as author of (the award-winning) “Heaven Is All Goodbyes,” No. 61 in the prestigious City Lights Books “Pocket Poets Series” — which includes “Howl and Other Poems” by Allen Ginsberg and “Lunch Poems” by Frank O’Hara — Eisen-Martin is receiving the kind of recognition it often takes poets a lifetime to achieve. Yet, he is exceedingly humble, his head in his work as a social and racial justice teacher, and his eyes on the prize. “The best reality for me is the reality that’s better for everybody,” he said, his extra-tall self contained in what looks to be a chair too tiny for him in the back of a Mission District bookstore. “If not that, I’m deluding myself and not living the ideas I’m championing in my poems. READ THE COMPLETE PROFILE in my column, SF Lives in the San Francisco Examiner

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Books, California, Civil Rights, Poetry, , ,

Columnist Nabs Greater Bay Area Journalism Award

For the first time since I was in high school (which was a really long time ago), I’ve received acknowledgement for my work as a reporter. This month, I was awarded third place honors in the columnist category for my biweekly column, SFLives, for the San Francisco Examiner, by the Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards, held by the San Francisco Press Club and judged by members of the San Diego, St. Louis, Cleveland and New Orleans Press Clubs. Among the 70 columns I’ve written for the San Francisco Examiner since early 2018, I have my personal favorites to be sure, and all of them were made possible with the participation of some extraordinary San Franciscans who make our city what it has been historically and what it is in these unprecedented times. Our people are freethinkers, visionaries and lionhearted beacons who lead the rest of the country in their respective pursuits and professions. Whether working in the arts, activism or as essential workers, we simply could not endure, survive and thrive in these times at the edge of the world without the everyday people who make The City extraordinary (the tagline of SFLives). Congratulations to all of the great journalists and photographers who participated and received acknowledgement and thanks to all who voted. But the biggest thanks of course belongs to the subjects of SF Lives: There is no column without San Francisco and our people. My recognition from the San Francisco Press Club belongs to all of us – thank you.

Read the latest San Francisco Lives columns

Filed under: Arts and Culture, column, San Francisco News, , , ,

Four Little Girls and Two Songs

On September 15, 1963, four Birmingham, Alabama girls, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, lost their lives during the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.  In 2011, a marker was finally dedicated in their names at the site of the vicious, racially motivated, murderous attack.

Just three months after the murder of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, and two weeks after the March on Washington and Dr. King’s momentum-building “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, the Alabama tragedy became the pivotal event in the Civil Rights Movement. Singer Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in immediate response to hearing the news: “I shut myself up in a room and that song happened,” she said of the song that begins, “Alabama’s got me so upset.” From that moment forward, Simone was committed to writing and performing material that would jolt people awake or into action.  It remains her most enduring work.

Joan Baez had of course walked alongside Dr. King at the marches in the South all along; her tribute was a recording of “Birmingham Sunday” by her brother-in-law, the writer Richard Fariña.  Each girl was remembered by name in the verses, set to the tune of a beautiful folk melody. Fifty-plus years on, both songs remain painful reminders of the brutalities waged by so-called humanity, here and yonder, year in and year out, against women, girls and Black lives.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Origin of Song, Protest Songs, racism, , , , , , , , , ,

Future of Live Music Still Uncertain

Musician David James outside his Mission District home on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Musicians and live music venues are truly hurting five months into the pandemic: With all benefits expired, and no sign of returning to work on the horizon, clubs and the players themselves have turned to crowdfunding, busking (at risk to themselves and others) and live streaming from home for a small fee. So far, the live streams have proven to be either substandard or just plain boring and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot on offer in the way of innovation or improved quality.  There are also the artists who won’t stay off the internet: broadcasting from their living rooms, hawking merch, doing what people have to do to survive. Yet art and music are important to a culture and to the well being of all people. Where is the support for it on a national, state and local level?  Where is the relief? It’s a sad state of things when the best option put forth at the highest levels of entertainment has been turning drive-in movie theaters into music venues. Ok, maybe. It’s a start (though do you know where there are still existing drive-ins? I don’t). Until there’s a real solution on offer, perhaps the best an artist can do while not drawing an income is to turn to woodshedding–the sharpening of skills, learning new tricks, deepening one’s artistry–and composing. 

San Francisco bandleader and guitarist David James finally got a break after years of hard work on the road and behind the counter: In addition to being a professional touring and recording musician (with Spearhead and The Coup), he’s held a day job as a record buyer for 35 years which means he could more easily claim unemployment than the average independent musician (there are also bands-as-corporations, like the Eagles and Pearl Jam who got gigantic PPP payouts, but this post isn’t about that, exactly). As for James, his bonus arrived just in time: An artist’s grant earmarked for the composition of a suite, based on the life of his father.  You can read the full story in my San Francisco Examiner column, SF Lives.

Photo of Henri Cash by Gilbert Trejo

During the pandemic season, I also visited (by phone) with young guitarist, Henri Cash of Starcrawler: He was set to visit the DMZ in Korea for a peace festival when live music and festival gathering came to a halt and the possibility of a long flight overseas was out of the question. Lucky for him, Cash had seen a good part of the world as a teenager with his band’s several tours of Europe and Asia before the world went awry.  Until further notice, he’s chillin’ at home with his family like the rest of us. His thoughts on pandemic life appeared in my column for Tourworthy.

And early in the breakdown of the nation’s health and welfare, I spoke to singer-songwriter, Betty Soo. She decided to come off the road early, out of precaution for herself and others, and immediately learned what she could about live stream production. As early as March, she was concerned about the future of the tiny folk clubs and coffeehouses where artists like herself are traditionally best heard and it was her aim to share her earnings with them. I also talked to Soo’s friend, singer-songwriter, Jaime Harris (the two paired up for some broadcasts). Read the full story about Soo and Harris here.

Everyday citizens and the people in congress who represent us don’t seem to understand the income streams and the way musicians earn their pay – If they did, the laws about music monopolies and online streaming would change. Nothing I or anyone else can say can will make it any more clear: There is no money to be made from streaming. Musicians earn money when they play on the road. The rest of the time, the pay pie is eaten up by everyone but the person who creates it. Please think about that the next time you pay nothing for a piece of music. Musicians are people trying to survive the pandemic too.

What in the world are we and the musicians of the world going to do about the future of live music? Rest assured, there is hope. Where there are artists, there is a solution in the works: Musicians have the insight and vision to imagine new realities for all of us. It’s just a matter of when.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, rock 'n' roll, Women in Rock, , , , , , ,

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, , , ,

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