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, , , , ,

Take Down The Statues

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All around the country, bronze statues are coming down, thanks to a movement started in the South in 2015 following the church shooting in Charleston. A city, a whole region, holding on to a vision of the past that was not very honorable in the first place is no way to acknowledge true history or let the generations of people who were harmed by that history heal; instead these megaton renderings glorify injustice and beget more violence. A nation in the middle of a prolonged racial crisis can no longer continue to inflict harm on its citizens and yet, these statues are a daily reminder of how twisted, inaccurate, and dated our history has become.  It’s time for a change.

The movement to unpack and teach a more accurate version of our state’s history has finally reached the far west, where we of course are supposed to understand and know better (yet by and large, I’m sad to report, there are those who still don’t get it).  Here in San Francisco last week, Native American activists and their allies achieved a victory that was 30 years in the making:  The rendering of a piece called Early Days depicting a Spanish conquistador and a Franciscan missionary lording over a Plains Indian (who by the way, was not from this region), was finally removed at the break of dawn following a contentious hearing process. I talked about statuary and other civic concerns with San Francisco’s poet laureate, Kim Shuck, a member of the Cherokee nation as well as a Polish American and a native to San Francisco.  She’s an educator with a masters in fine art and knows well the precedents for public art display; as a Native American, a person of conscience, and a mother, she was personally aggrieved by the sight of the statue as she moved in and out of the public library, her primary place of work as our city’s poet laureate.  And we talked more in-depth about the battle to topple the statue and about her San Francisco life.  I hope you’ll read on and link to this week’s edition of my San Francisco Examiner column, S.F. Lives: READ NOW

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, Poetry, racism, Tales of the Gentrification City, , , , , , , , ,

Another displaced: Irwin Swirnoff’s SF Life

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Photo of Irwin Swirnoff by Kevin Hume, courtesy of The San Francisco Examiner

My Sunday Examiner column S.F. Lives, continues to chronicle the comings and goings of people I’ve determined to be of The City, Franciscan or how we say, Frisco Kids.  This week’s subject, Professor Irwin Swirnoff, and his story of multiple displacements that’s culminating in a job search and possible relocation away from the Bay Area really hit close to home for me. Irwin and I share many of the same interests, from broadcasting, DJ-ing and interviewing to a love of books, records, and films.  We’ve crossed paths at various cultural institutions and alternative retail outlets in town and we’re interested in the history of the arts here, as well as in preserving and passing on the underground esthetic we gravitated to and continue to develop via our respective crafts (he’s a filmmaker). I have no doubt he’ll land exactly where he needs to, and that his outcome will be better and more beautiful than anything we could predict for him, but if you have a moment, send a shout-out to the universe, launch a flare and say a little prayer for Irwin and the artists like him who’ve made The City’s reputation sparkle and shine,  far beyond our seven super-square miles and western horizon.

Catch up on all the S.F. Lives columns

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Tales of the Gentrification City, , , , , ,

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, , , , , ,

“Lord, they cut George Jackson down”

GeorgeJacksonGerFrontBob GeorgeJacksonSpainFrontBob Dylan’s 1971 single, “George Jackson,” a remembrance for the radicalized convict and Black Panther who died in a San Quentin prison shoot-out on August 21, 1971, remains one of his most mysterious recordings.  Not only does “George Jackson” mark the songwriter’s return to topical song form and to touring after a long hiatus, his subject remains as misunderstood to a general audience as does the singer and his songs.
Less than a month after the prison shooting in California, a historic event at Attica Correctional Facility wherein prisoners took control of the prison to protest its poor conditions resulted in more fatalities—an unmistakable call for prison reform. Perhaps it was that call to which Dylan was responding when in November, he cut and released “George Jackson,” a 45-rpm record that reached the Top 40 in January of 1972.
Opening with the blues trope, “I woke up this morning,” Dylan’s “George Jackson” is not a typical blues song, though it surely addresses the larger topic of racial and socio-economic oppression from which a certain style of blues was born. It also leaves a record of Jackson and his story.
“The power of George Jackson’s personal story remains painfully relevant to our nation today, with its persistent racism, its hellish prisons, its unjust judicial system, and the poles of wealth and poverty that are at the root of all that,” wrote historian Howard Zinn in an updated version of Jackson’s Soledad Brother. Wresting larger truths from the events of 1971, Dylan delivered his summation in these often quoted lines from “George Jackson”

Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards

Dylan cut two versions of “George Jackson” for a double sided seven-inch: A “big band” version featuring Kenny Buttrey (drums), Ben Keith (steel guitar), and Leon Russell (bass), and a solo acoustic version. Among the various issues of the single—and there are many—is a picture sleeve with an image of Dylan performing at the Concert for Bangladesh (pictured above, it remains sought-after by record collectors). Here’s a version of Dylan’s song recorded by reggae band, Steel Pulse:

The details of the Jackson case are still debated today by scholars, historians, and those who remember the events. As the story goes, it was a 70-dollar robbery that landed Jackson in state prison, his sentence indeterminate. Guards took an instant dislike to Jackson on the inside and his sentences were extended following events occurring at Soledad State Prison in which three Black inmates and a white guard were killed.  Using his time in solitary to educate himself, Jackson studied psychologist Franz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), Marx, and Mao, and came to understand the incarceration of poor Blacks for petty crime in a political context. A leader in moving prisoners to radicalize, Jackson joined the Black Panthers and became one of the group’s most celebrated members, despite  J. Edgar Hoover’s declaration in 1969 that the Black Panthers were public enemy number one.

Published in 1971, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, was greeted with a positive reception by intellectuals and political progressives. That Jackson had been framed for conspiring to kill a guard in the Soledad incident was a widely held belief; his defenders were vocal and his case was a cause célèbre. But a few days before the Jackson trial was to begin, a riot broke out in San Quentin in which inmates and guards were again slain and Jackson was among those killed as he ran across the yard in an alleged escape attempt. In 2015, Hugo Pinell, the last incarcerated member of the San Quentin Six, was killed while serving his life sentence, much of it in solitary confinement.

The following is a live recording of Joan Baez singing “George Jackson.”

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Filed under: Angela Davis, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Bob Dylan, Protest Songs, , , , ,

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, , , ,

Extra: More S.F. Lives to read all about

Since the first of this year, it’s been my great pleasure to write a column for the Sunday San Francisco Examiner in which I introduce readers to some of the everyday citizens here who make our city a better place under difficult circumstances.  Yep, I said it:  For the last couple of years, you’ve probably been hearing about what some of us politely call “the changes” and what one of my favorite artist/activists calls the problem of gentrif-c-ation. Despite the pressures of living in the city with the highest cost of living in the United States, if we’re lucky (and I am) we’re making it with some help, some compassion and on the wings and the prayers of our best and brightest residents.  I hope you’ll read the latest published stories in our ongoing series of profiles: On artist Marco Razo, poet and movement worker, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Cherokee broadcaster, Mary Jean Robertson, Japantown preservationist Karen Kai, and public health advocate Mike Shriver and let me know what you think.  This Sunday we’ll be featuring the super-charged electrical contractor, Hanson Lee. Oh, and I get to collaborate with a great photographer, too: Here’s a snap I took of Kevin Hume at work photographing Karen Kai.  Thanks for reading!

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

On Oil Barrels, Calypso & Van Dyke Parks

This is your Earth Day long read: The story of how musician, composer and arranger Van Dyke Parks came to produce the 16-man steel pan band, Esso Trinidad, following the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. I interviewed Parks in 2009 for Crawdaddy! and since that time, this story has become the most-read on this site, receiving the top number of views daily from around the world. Thanks for your continued readership and for your stewardship of the earth today (Parks suggests planting milkweed, to save the Monarch butterflies).

When 80,000 barrels of oil spilled into the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel in January of 1969, the crude-splattered water, beaches, and birds along the California coast in its aftermath became the symbols of modern eco-disaster. While the ensuing public outcry helped hasten the formalization of the environmental movement as we now know it, for musician Van Dyke Parks, the spill and “the revelation of ecology,” as he calls it, was a very personal, life-altering occasion. “It changed my M.O. and changed my very reason for being,” he says. The Union Oil rig rupture in Santa Barbara made Parks go calypso.

“When I saw the Esso Trinidad Steel band, I saw myself in a Trojan Horse,” he says. “We were going to expose the oil industry. That’s what my agenda was. I felt it was absolutely essential.” From 1970 to 1975, Parks waged awareness of environmental and race matters through the music and culture of the West Indies, though in the end, “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That’s what makes Van Gogh go,” he says, “That’s what great art does.” Though Parks is referring directly to Esso Trinidad’s happy/sad steel drum sounds, he could just as easily be talking about his own experience during what we’ll dub the Calypso Years.

Over a five-year period, Parks produced albums by the Esso Trinidad Steel band (1971) and Bob Dylan favorite, the Mighty Sparrow (Hot and Sweet, 1974); he also recorded his own calypso-inspired works, Discover America (1972) and Clang of the Yankee Reaper (1976). Born from his passion for popular song and launched at a time when grassroots protest was at an all-time high, Parks had every reason to believe calypso consciousness would prevail. But he hadn’t factored in the complications of taking on big oil, nor of touring the US with a 28-man steel drum corps from the Caribbean. He was unable to predict that the sessions with Mighty Sparrow would be fraught with rage, and that his efforts would earn him the enmity of Bob Marley, whose production requests he ignored in favor of calypso. And yet, you get the feeling he’d agree in one hot minute to do it all over again the exact same way if given a chance to revisit this section of his checkered recording history.

Parks is generally a well-mannered and affable Southern-born gent with a mildly mischievous streak. A one-time child prodigy on clarinet, he’s often mentioned in tandem with his Southern California work with Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who was reportedly too tripped-out to continue their Smile-era collaborations. A formidable freethinker and raconteur of psychedelic dimensions himself, you can hear the Parks imprint, curly-cuing through “Heroes and Villains” and “Sail On, Sailor”; songs that made a lasting impression on the Beach Boys sound. Rarely at a loss for bookings as a composer, arranger, musician, and producer (Parks would go on to work with artists from Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr to Joanna Newsom and Rufus Wainwright), his song “High Coin” traded freely on the hippie covers market while he juggled sessions by psychedelic bands as well as singer-songwriters Randy Newman and Phil Ochs. It was following the critical success of his first solo work, Song Cycle, in 1968 and the oil spill in ’69, that Parks began in earnest his pursuit of the music of the West Indies—specifically calypso and steel drum (also known as steel pan). Initially played on instruments made from clankity household odds and ends, by the ’40s, steel drums were made from a surplus of oil barrels, washed ashore the islands of Trinidad and Tobago from the coast of Venezuela. “America pollutes its environment with oil: Little Trinidad makes beautiful music from the drums that you throwaway,” says pan player Godfrey Clarke in the Esso liner notes.

Serving as the accompaniment to Carnival (for which Trinidad is world-famous), calypso is also often accompanied by lyrically potent verses that alternately use breezy and nasty humor to signify its weighty concerns: Imperial oppression and the extreme poverty of the islands. Ideally, the counterculture audience could’ve dug this political/party music with its motives to create equality and earthly harmony. Surely younger folks could identify with the calypsonian struggle, more than say, Liberace’s audience in Las Vegas, which is where Parks found the Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steel band working in the late ’60s. “I saw them as enslaved in their relationship to Liberace; I thought it was a vulgarity. I wanted to save them from their trivialization.” What had begun as Parks’ desire to popularize calypso at that point became his crusade.

The Land of the Hummingbird

“I just love that performance of ‘Aquarium,’” Parks says of Esso’s album finale. “You see, it represents that eco-consciousness that the album should project. I’m just telling you why I did it: I devoted the album to Prince Bernhard, who was the head of the World Wildlife association. Everything was directed to making it a proper, political, green album.” Nearly 40 years later, the Bananastan label has issued newly-minted versions of the Parks-produced  Esso and Sparrow’s Hot and Sweet. Not only are the calypsos strangely contemporary, I find I’m deeply moved by Esso’s environmentally-tuned music from the island officially nicknamed the Land of the Hummingbird. When Parks suggests we meet beside the Santa Monica Bay, I agree:  There is no better place than under the sun for a talk about his rarely-discussed calypso intermezzo. “This has been a well-kept secret,” he begins with a whisper. “The promotion men were successful at that.”

Parks’ devotion to calypso puts him in the unique position of serving as the music’s chief 21st century stateside ambassador; as it is, his relationship to calypso predates his own childhood and runs in the family. According to Parks, his mother’s uncle was the founder of the University of Miami and a calypso devotee. “Of course, they were touched by calypso down there. He had been to Trinidad at the same time as FDR,” explains Parks. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 trip to Trinidad, documented in the song “FDR in Trinidad”, is among the first calypso standards. By the 1940s, “Rum and Coca-Cola”, as sung by the Andrews Sisters, had brought calypso music to the American masses. “Of course, everyone was aware of ‘Rum and Coca-Cola’, which was incidentally my mother’s favorite drink,” says Parks. Though, everyone was not necessarily aware that the jolly little song was also a critique of American military presence in Trinidad (nor would it be a truly great calypso without the double edge). But the Andrews Sisters’ vocal stylings would soon be outdone by authentic calypsonian Harry Belafonte’s ’50s success with the Jamaican folk song “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”, calypso’s most enduring hit. In the early ’60s, Parks recalls he and his brother were “left in the dirt” on a bill they shared with calypso’s Andrew “Pan” de la Bastide. But it is in the music’s details rather than its broad overview where Parks gleans inspiration: The origins of the intensity of the music, the unparalleled musicianship of the pan players, the wordplay of the singers and their emotional extremes—from treachery to triumph—are the elements of interest to Parks.

“I was serious about serious music from an early age. Hardwired to a lot of music of dead white guys—very serious discipline—I had three brothers who played. We had this musical oleo in the house, from Bill Haley and the Comets to Les Paul and Mary Ford, Fats Waller, George Shearing, Paul Whiteman, the usual popular American diet, from 78s on. To me, calypso music was everything that the Memphis blues was, everything that Schubert and his sort were of the 19th century Romantic songwriters. Melody: Fantastic, like studying a novel with many subplots, seeing all of them resolved by the conclusion of the work. Lyrics: The scansion, the absolute art of phrasing, it had absorbed everything proper from the British Empire, so you find this incredible intelligence of mind. These are the scions of African nobility, the protectors of the musical and oral tradition. That’s what I think of calypso—the greatest pop music.”

The music of the West Indies was begotten from a 19th century slave history. “Barbados, adjacent to Trinidad, is direct in line of the slave trade that unfortunately plagues us all,” says Parks. But while European settlers imposed customs and traditions on the islands’ people, the indigenous population and those whose origins were African engaged in their own forms of expression. It’s that combination of sound, from two hemispheres and at least three continents, that make up the basics of calypso. Working with the large ensemble steel band, “I took it as an incredible opportunity… from a standpoint of my very American identity,” says Parks. “This group presented such a great opportunity in testing my ethics.” Though were the ethical challenge not combined with the band’s esthetic of extreme musicianship, individually and as a collective, Parks probably wouldn’t have traveled the distance he did with Esso.

“It was really a profound experience to me, to hear the small fish that run by quickly in the ear during Saint-Saëns’ ‘Aquarium’ from The Carnival of the Animals. Those fast notes that shimmer through the piece, they are 32nd/10th notes, there are 10 in a figure, and these guys memorized this thing in a matter of two days and they did an incredible job.” The band was led, as it were, by Hugh Borde. “He was their captain, there was no leader,” explains Parks, though for those two days in the studio he passed his captain’s hat to Parks and pan man Kenrick Headley, who led the group through versions of songs like “Apeman” by the Kinks, “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five, and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia.” The Rev. Fr. John Sewell, an Episcopalian missionary who served transcribing the ultimately jaw-dropping versions of the playful classical and orchestral pieces in Esso’s repertoire, also assisted the group. “They were the first to do it,” says Parks of Esso’s classical works on pan, “and it became a requirement for all steel bands to have a classical test piece. So they might do ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ by Tchaikovsky or ‘Unto Us a Child Is Born’ from Handel’s Messiah.” For the recording, they chose the aforementioned Saint-Saëns and the frantic “Sabre Dance.” The steel band also cut a Parks favorite, “Erasmus B. Black”, a wordplay tune penned by the Mighty Sparrow in which an innocently christened baby ends up with an unfortunate double entendre of a name. “I thought there was a great deal of theater and comedy in the group. I’ve never enjoyed myself so much, almost understanding what was going on!”

Keep Your Eye on the Mighty Sparrow

Steel band players gain entry into the prestigious ensembles through a highly competitive audition process. The spirit of musical competition and excellence is rooted in poverty, though it’s a celebratory event, staged each year at Carnival, the annual pre-Lenten festival that finds pan players and wordsmithing calypsonians performing for cash and crowns. The annual Carnival Road March is a calypso competition at its fiercest and reigning supreme eight times was the Mighty Sparrow—his wins rivaled only by contemporary calypso’s Super Blue and Sparrow’s friend and competitor, Lord Kitchener. While Sparrow had traveled to the US seeking help from Belafonte at the height of calypso’s popularity, Kitchener was making a name for himself in England. Upon their respective returns to the islands, Kitchener and Sparrow spent the rest of the decade and into the early ’70s duking out the Road March and Calypso Monarch crowns.

“I wanted very much to do Lord Kitchener,” admits Parks. “Lord Kitchener, to me, is the greatest of all the calypso singers, but Sparrow was absolutely rhapsodic.” In his liner notes to Biograph,Bob Dylan wrote of the Sparrow: “… as far as concept and intelligence and warring with words, Mighty Sparrow was and probably still is the king.” “I thought he would be more difficult to sell than Kitchener,” says Parks. “Sparrow would show up with a cape; Kitchener would’ve shown up in a fedora.” Perhaps Sparrow could sense Parks’ preference for Kitchener upon his arrival at Miami’s famed Criteria Studios. Or maybe it was a hurricane, just about to make its way to land, that turned the session into a perfect storm. “We got to Miami. Phil Ochs appears,” begins Parks, referring to his friend and fellow traditional music enthusiast, famous for folk-singing and a notorious unraveling that had already begun. “Phil is somewhat deranged. The rain starts to whip against the wall absolutely horizontally. We are near the eye of the hurricane. It’s a big one. The studio owner Mack Emerman wondered if we should airboat the whole thing to Barbados.” In a world without Pro Tools, the crew obtained remote power from their own generator and hunkered down as the hurricane passed.  “What you hear, we did in two days. Sparrow would step up to the piano and go pht pht—pht pht. You notice that’s irregular,” explains Parks, pounding on the picnic table before us for emphasis. “It’s not pht, pht, pht, pht. You know, it’s said that irregular beat is something that started in Curaçao as the natives imitated the Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant… he had a lame leg and so he would pht pht—pht pht. That’s what I heard… it’s the rhythm that Sparrow played for two bars before the piece begins. And then the band came in. This didn’t take a producer. This didn’t take an efficiency expert. This was incredible.”

Rather than arriving at the studio with a finished set of lyrics, Sparrow came with phrases. “Sparrow knows exactly where he’s going… he knows how to get the cat out of the tree, get the cat down; he’s got the chorus solved. He’s very able. There is nothing false about his incredible musical skill. That he can ideate phraseology with such powers of deception is a very good quality of his work. It’s the very same power of deception that I see in Schubert, that also likes to take you out somewhere, then puts you somewhere subtly that is surprising and refreshing.” Of the songs he compiled for Hot and Sweet, Parks cites two standouts: “More Cock” (“I asked for it. I know, it’s my fault”) and “Maria.” “My favorite. As Ted Turner said… ‘it only looks easy.’ To me, it’s as good as anything I’ve heard out of Allen Toussaint. It’s tight.”

Co-produced with Andy Wickham, the session with Sparrow was not without incident. Parks describes British Wickham as “right wing” and in thrall to “Country and western and super-America, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.” Parks says, “I remember he was ecstatic with ‘Okie from Muskogee,’” Haggard’s toast to redneckism. And yet, like Parks, Wickham loved calypso. “He came to realize how much the butt [of the jokes] the British were.”  Wickham could also appreciate the melodies (“He loved Wagner, secretly,” says Parks) and the lyrics (“Very good turn of phrase,” he’d say). But it was sport that bound Wickham to the calypsonians. “He knew all the West Indian super heroes of cricket,” says Parks; however, that did not make him the boss of Mighty Sparrow.

Sparrow was not one to take studio direction. “Which is a big mistake. Every bullet counts on a record,” says Parks. “It was hard. It was a bumpy ride. It was occasionally filled with rage and great hostility. And blackberry brandy; I think the record was a four quarts of blackberry brandy record.” The necessary lubricant relieved some of the tension courtesy of the elephant in the room: The British Empire. “Well, the British were leading the decolonized African freeman, and I was right in the middle of all that. The Sparrow is filled with bravado and severe opinions that aren’t always convenient… There were moments that you hoped the guy in the cape wasn’t going to show up at dinnertime to protest his individuality to everyone.”

By the time Parks was finishing with Sparrow, calypso’s rhythmic energy was in the process of being subsumed by disco, while the war on poverty was being fought by reggae, the Caribbean’s other music. “Calypso was feeling very disco-ed, which is funny because they wanted to feel disco-ed, and yet, they were bothered by the fact that disco was calypso. It was a dead ringer,” Parks says, once again sounding out beats at the picnic table. “They were mad as hell about that. And then reggae hit the fan—in a big way—and I was delighted.” This is when Parks received his call from Bob Marley.

Clang of the Yankee Reaper

“‘Let’s face it, Mr. Parks, the white man is finished in the Caribbean,’” said Marley to Parks. “I thought that was a rather harsh thing to say. He was so pissed at me, because I didn’t have time to work for him because I was so trying to get 28 toothbrushes… I was just too busy and he took it as a slight.” Though, what may’ve been a missed opportunity with Marley, Parks made up for it by recording with his contemporary, Jimmy Cliff. “Jimmy Cliff was a big deal to me,” he says. Believing Cliff’s melodies often prevailed over Marley’s “rhythm machine,” Parks helped the singer secure his publishing and played keyboards on Cliff’s 1976 album, Follow My Mind. “I honestly think that the Jamaicans showed a greater power of adaptability against ‘guns, germs, and steel’ than calypso. Trinidad is more removed—it’s a different world…”

Following the Sparrow production gig and Parks’ own Clang of the Yankee Reaper (a good half of its material bearing the earmarks of calypso), by the end of the ’70s, Parks was back in the bosom of the California singer-songwriter scene, working with Lowell George, Nicolette Larson, and again with Harry Nilsson. So what then of calypso, his first Caribbean love?

“Calypsonians were an uncapturable lot, really, and I’ll tell you why… They never had any regard in an engagement in copyright. Maybe it’s an uncommon modesty of sorts.” Matters of contractual arrangement were a formality that, according to Parks, was of no interest to calypsonians. “It finally dawned on me there is an undeniably vulgar aspect to contract agreements because they’re built to check coercion and that’s a sad way to approach any mutual trust. These songs are for a moment’s discovery, born of such a highly extemporaneous, unanticipated purpose. A solution to a problem is what it’s all about.”

Artistically, he was satisfied by the calypso interlude. “Those two recordings were made at the apex of analog. Such a phenomenon of sound and so nuanced… small notes that all make up the way it feels in the bones,” he said.

Environmentally, the idea to link calypso or any music to the earth’s wellness was visionary on Parks’ behalf; the frontiers of such thought combined with activism are yet to be fully explored. Although at one time he’d hoped to deliver his message directly to consumers at the pump as a “premium gift” with fill-up (the idea was a sound sheet of the Esso Trinidad Steel Band singing “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby), his dream of harmony, enlightenment, and environmental healing through steel band music was too far-reaching. Idealistically, Park could not fulfill his full vision with Esso.

“I was in the crosshairs of the racial divide with these gentlemen who had no idea about such things,” explained Parks. “A guy shot at us—a farmer up on a hill with a shotgun—when the bus broke down on the road in the South. The culture collision was probably among the top five benchmark psychological events of my life, for so many reasons.” Esso’s US tour ground to a halt for good when their aforementioned bus crashed. Several men were hospitalized and one was laid up at the Parks household for four months. “I came up as quickly as I could with another record about calypso to keep the focus on the medium. I put a Greyhound bus and a Continental Trailways bus on the front cover, just to get these men out of bed.” The Parks album Discover America contains interpretations of “FDR in Trinidad”, “The Four Mills Brothers”, and “Bing Crosby”, among others from the calypso canon. Parks’ time with the steel band was drawing to a close, though not before one last act in which he finessed a potentially sticky situation with Standard Oil of New Jersey that ultimately okayed the Trinidad Steel Band to retain the use of Esso in its name, without an injunction.

He still stands by a statement he made of Esso, those years ago: “The greatest group I’ve ever had the privilege to produce.” Like his calypso brethren, Parks may’ve been bloodied, but his confidence in the art of calypso is unyielding. “All of the bravado of such poverty—poor people speaking plainly, representing the disenfranchised—is what calypso is all about,” he states. “It’s not only topical songs that are optimally crafted, both lyrically and melody—it’s that they do things: They move mountains. It’s a life force.”

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Calypso, Earth Day Music, , , ,

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