Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Antiracism isn’t only an idea, it’s an action

As one who writes at the intersection of culture and social issues – racism, sexism, income disparity – I appreciated the opportunity to speak to comic, W. Kamau Bell and human rights historian Kate Schatz about their collaborative project, Do The Work! An Antiracism Activity Book. Not only was it an opportunity to learn by doing the work to become more antiracist, but it was a chance to ask the authors some of my specific questions about language, how to use it, and what steps we can all take today to be better people in a country mired in a history of racism that is yet to be fully reckoned with.

“We were thinking of people who want to know what to do but who are overwhelmed because they may be short on time or didn’t grow up around other cultures,” Schatz said. The workbook addresses white people, but its exercises may be of interest to anyone seeking to up their game and take action when it comes to identifying and abolishing systemic racism.

“One thing you learn from being Black in America is that a good preacher is also funny,” Bell said. “You have to have a sense of humor to the message. My mother was the first person who demonstrated to me the humor to keeping it real.”

I hope you will read with interest the entire article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle Datebook.

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

Frisco Life of Pablo Celebrated This Month

You might remember when I reported on the memorial for skateboarder, drummer and visual artist Pablo Ramirez who died in a fatal collision with a truck on San Francisco’s Seventh Street in 2019 (ignore the byline which says “Danny Sullivan,” it’s actually me! An installment of my SFLives column, the piece earned an award from the San Francisco Press Club in 2020).

Famed for seeking out the city’s steepest hills and riding them all the way down, Ramirez was also a great explorer of the arts – a painter and a musician – and sought to cultivate his whole being by embracing life. He’s become a sort of folk hero within and outside the skate community.

Throughout March, the month between what would’ve been his 29th birthday and the third anniversary of his passing, the foundation set up in his name is hosting a series of events in San Francisco to raise awareness of skate culture(the full story is my latest for the San Francisco Chronicle Datebook section). Aimed at delivering access to skateboarding across traditional barriers (race, gender, sexuality, income), the foundation was also set up to introduce skaters and other interested parties in skate culture and its lifestyle. Disinterested in business as usual, skaters are often counted among the societal outlaws dreaming of a better way of life. But far from the trouble and noisemakers they are often perceived to be, skaters are interested in evolving, pushing forward, living on the edge, making change and bringing others along with them. Whether caring for the environment or channeling energy into making art and music, the skate community is multi-dimensional and growing. I hope I’ve piqued your interest in learning more about where the Bay Area’s justice-seeking, visionary arts and skate communities converge. As ever, thanks for reading.

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

Poly Styrene’s Time is Now

“When we all got into music, back in the day, we got into it to be anti-establishment,” said punk filmmaker and musician Don Letts. “Nowadays, bands start bands to become part of the establishment.”

Poly Styrene, late ’70s

In the ’70s and ’80s, Letts was an intimate friend and documentarian of the Clash. He was also acquainted with punk empress Poly Styrene, front woman of X-Ray Spex and a witness to her unfurling following a difficult evening spent in the company of Johnny Rotten.

Much has been left uncovered and to the imagination concerning Styrene’s reclusive post-punk life, but the new documentary, Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché, co-directed by Paul Sng and Styrene’s daughter, Celeste Bell, corrects the record and tells the true tale of an accidental icon.

“People often ask me if she’s a good mum – it’s hard to know what to say,” says Bell in narration of the film, exploring the life, career and spiritual-questing of her mother. Decades later, Styrene is still considered one of punk rock’s mothers and its premiere feminist, anti-capitalist and Afrofuturist.

Expertly weaving archival film with ephemera, testimonials and additional voicing of Styrene’s diaries by actor Ruth Negga, Bell’s very personal story is centered on the art itself, along with a narrative that underscores the artist’s ability to create lasting work in the face of the odds and a world that was built in opposition to her. That the artist was her mother makes for a complex telling but those complicated feelings never get in the way of keeping the focus on Styrene’s values as an artist; her contemporaries like Letts, ska music’s Pauline Black and Rhoda Dakar, and latter-day punk spokespeople like Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore are all quick to corroborate her impact. Bell does away with the documentary convention of talking heads which effectively keeps her subject in the spotlight rather than creating a distraction by fixing a camera on so-called experts. A daughter’s understanding of her mother’s role as a pioneering biracial feminist environmentalist with a spiritual directive to deliver a message to the world is a testament to Bell’s own commitment to making a film about art as opposed to conforming to commercial ideas of what makes good entertainment. Read full article here:

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Environmental Justice, film, Protest Songs, Punk, Women in Rock, , ,

Looking For A Home

Dear Reader,

Living and working in major U.S. cities throughout my adult life, I always came back to thinking, and sometimes writing, about San Francisco. Maybe it’s because I was born here, have spent the majority of my waking and working life here, and expect to remain here (unless I make it out alive). But writing about this place I call home – whatever home means – for myself and for publication has been my preoccupation, and for the past four years, my vocation. One of the spaces I’ve found for my work as a reporter has been as a biweekly columnist at The San Francisco Examiner.

In 2018, I was invited to create and contribute SFLives, a series about people, to the paper. Since launching, I’ve written over 100 columns, earned two awards in the columnist category (from the San Francisco Press Club in 2020 and 2021), and curated and hosted a monthly hour-long talk series, live streamed from Bird & Beckett Books and Records (continuing on the second Sunday of each month). Writing the SFLives column, intended to celebrate the extraordinary lives of everyday people who make this a singular city, has been one of the greatest honors and privileges of my life. To get to know people, to be invited into the homes, businesses and lives of so many San Franciscans, particularly during the pandemic, and be trusted to tell their stories in a metropolitan newspaper, has helped me to better understand a complex city, though I can’t claim to know all its secrets just yet.

I don’t do the work alone: trusted friends and contacts have introduced me to people I may not have otherwise encountered. And of course the subjects themselves, San Francisco’s people, fulfill the major role in filling the column inches with their survival tactics, wisdom and personal histories every other week. Occasionally I get a little closer to the bone and to home, but it’s generally other people’s unsung, everyday achievements I’m interested in celebrating. Surely, I benefit far more from these tellings than do my subjects, though some of them reported back wonderful things that happened following the publication of their stories. I can’t think of anything more gratifying to me professionally, to be living and working in a complicated city with its neighborhood identities, and introducing its people to each other and to the larger community. I intend to tell these stories until my work here is done, though SFLives will no longer be hosted by the Examiner.

My consideration of our city’s emergency plan to bring “law and order” to the Tenderloin – San Francisco’s most long term troubled neighborhood – is my farewell for now. That the column concerns San Franciscans living unhoused on our streets is a sort of bittersweet occurrence but is not a coincidence. The city and its power base has not done right by its least fortunate and most vulnerable people (and the United Nations backs up that claim). Meanwhile the convulsive changes at the Examiner, a newspaper claimed by new ownership and management seeking a new identity, has recently made for a less than comfortable home for SFLives. I’ll be using my time away from it to continue my work as a teaching artist/writing instructor and a cultural reporter at other news outlets, and to further develop the SFLives project.

I am grateful to be among the housed in one of the wealthiest cities in the wealthiest region of the country, and to continue my work, documenting the lives and times of my fellow San Franciscans living through perilous times. But please keep the faith, friends and readers, that San Francisco, as a city, as an idea, as a state of mind and as a people, does the right thing and cares for its most vulnerable people this winter, as the COVID variants surge. There are plenty of good folks and organizations here, with open hearts and a willingness to communicate with care and compassion: I intend to stick with them, to keep doing my job, and telling your stories, in conjunction with partners whose values and mine are better aligned. Thank you for supporting independent thought and reporting and please return or subscribe to this space for updates.

In solidarity,

Denise

SFLives

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

Real SF Lives Talk Real: New Series!

First Stop/Last Stop photo by Denise Sullivan

If you read the national news- or even some of our local papers – you might think San Francisco is beyond redemption. I blame it on seven dollar coffee and toast (the fourteen dollar snack). Some will tell you it’s the corruption inside city hall, the mishandling of affordable housing, and the public school system, and I would believe them: All of it part of the unfinished jigsaw of our city’s story and there is more to it than that. But one thing we handled, and handled well, was the pandemic. So thanks for that, to the medical professionals and city officials, essential workers and everyday citizens who did their part to mask up and slow the spread. Though it might be fair to say the statewide reopening on June 15 felt hasty and confusing to those who adhered to the guidelines for the duration -no non-essential travel, social or business activity, six feet of distance, masking and no gathering. The mask off and the rush back to life is stress-inducing and no-wonder: There is so little known about the mutation of the virus, the variants; as it is, hospitalizations are up in some California counties…

In an effort to air some of the public’s immediate practical and emotional concerns and to feel uplifted during the transition, on June 13, a couple of days before “reopening,” we kicked off a livestreamed discussion series with our fellow San Franciscans, hosted by Bird & Beckett Books and Records. Our first guest was artist Anna Lisa Escobedo, an extraordinary San Franciscan with an LA background and a story to tell. Our second guest was columnist and independent publisher, Kelly Dessaint. Future guests will include many of the subjects of my column, SFLives, which runs every other week in the San Francisco Examiner: The folks I cover and tend to want to speak to in-depth are our on-the-ground leaders and everyday workers in arts, culture and various essential jobs that make San Francisco the place we call home.

In recent columns, I’ve covered the controversy surrounding the opening of the Great Highway from a very personal perspective; I’ve spoken to photojournalist/filmmaker Lou Dematteis, musician/composer Jon Jang, artist/urban farmer/community historian Lisa Ruth Elliott and Japantown community leader Grace Horikiri (You can peruse nearly 100 columns at the Examiner’s website).

Porthole photo by Denise Sullivan

In some of these talks we take on gentrification issues, the ways in which the city has ceded the people’s interests to newly minted tech barons and their minions and pretty much successfully destroyed our international reputation as a sanctuary for artists and outsiders. Yes, that. But mostly in 2020 and beyond it, we confronted pandemic issues, how we coped and how our hometown did that aforementioned exemplary job at keeping the spread under control, even though we as a city continue to fail our most vulnerable — those without homes, seniors without families, and developmentally and physically disabled folks. As for the rocky “reopening,” we’ll be talking about that too: Nobody really knows how to handle the summer rush. There are no workers for low-wage jobs. And as the unvaxed and unmasked descend upon us, the most committed lovers of this place are at the brink: There are stories we’re moving out in droves, moving to Tahoe (and ruining the way of life there). A recent New York Times story about organized shoplifting crimes at Walgreen’s is the latest outrage, meanwhile, children remain out of school while a dysfunctional school board (we voted for) squabbles over….don’t ask, most of us have lost the plot; discontent –no, rage–directed at the district attorney (we voted for) has degenerated into moms shouting down other moms at the neighborhood farmer’s markets. Finally, the web of deep corruption within city hall and other city agencies continues to be investigated by the feds. These are just a few of the challenges confronting us in perilous times. Yes, this place is for the birds. And where isn’t right now?

What I feel like I’ve failed to put into words, ever, but especially in these times, is there is nowhere else I would rather be. This is that elusive place called home. There is something about waking up in the City and County of San Francisco seeing the sun (or at this time of year, fog), and feeling in your bones it’s the right place to be; that there is something to be said for enduring our cold summer winters, days like these. And on other days, one peek at the sky, if it’s that particular shade of blue I have not yet found words to describe, with clouds that seem to move as I go, the contentment and acceptance that I’m in San Francisco turns to deep joy and gratitude that I’m San Franciscan. In the blue, I can breathe more deeply, though why that is I haven’t yet discovered. So until then, I’ll keep talking about this place with you. And taking photos. And writing about it. Here’s to another day in the beautiful city. I have so much left to learn.

Please join the conversation with San Francisco’s artists, essential service providers and and everyday people as we talk about this place we call home. Coming up, Sunday August 8, 10 a.m. live from Bird and Beckett, filmmaker Eric Goodfield.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, photography, San Francisco News, serial, Tales of the Gentrification City, , ,

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, , , , , , , , , , ,

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