Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Country Music On The Move

Sometimes inspiration comes from the unlikeliest of sources.  Country music, for example, is not the kind of music I generally turn on when seeking comfort, enjoyment, or consolation. You might say I’m not a big fan. I will admit I’m slightly allergic to the sound of fiddles, banjos, mandolins, or anything that twangs.  That all said, when the lyrics are really saying something and the artist is using their notoriety to make change, I’m all ears.  In this month’s column, we celebrate Sturgill Simpson, Keith Urban, and the other country music artists who’ve decided enough is enough: These musicians are taking a stand against gun violence, misogyny, racism, and the other ills of our nation in decline. Read the entire story at Tourworthy.

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Filed under: Arts and Culture, column, Protest Songs, Women's rights, , , ,

Your Golden Sun Still Shines, an anthology of San Francisco writing, now available

Your Golden Sun Still Shines, the new collection of San Francisco stories I edited for Manic D Press is now available at independent bookstores everywhere (and directly through the publisher’s website).  I had a most gratifying experience working with all of the writers I invited and eventually selected for inclusion in the book: Part of the process for me was connecting with each individual’s writing style and finding my own voice as an editor. I found I really enjoyed the whole process, especially working one on one with fellow writers and San Franciscans and learning more about their stories. Together, we compiled what I hope is an enjoyable portrait of the City in the here and now, with flashes of the past and future added for context and your reading pleasure. Here’s a snippet from the blurb:

This collection of uniquely San Francisco stories from a wide range of voices wrests wisdom from chaos and channels boundless progressive energy into lyrical short stories and personal narratives, demonstrating that grace and resilience under pressure are as much a measure of San Francisco’s legacy as they are a determination of its future.

We had a wonderful book launch event in October at our annual literary festival Litquake. As we continue to do readings throughout this fall, winter and next spring, we hope you’ll join us (our next event is on November 12 at Adobe Books in San Francisco at 4 PM:  Featured readers are Tony Robles, Shizue Seigel and Norman Zelaya.  All three writers are also poets and fiercely proud San Franciscans whose work shares that special ingredient, “friscosity”).  On November 19 at 4 PM, San Francisco poet laureate Kim Shuck, Kelly Dessaint, Broke-Ass Stuart, Alvin Orloff, Shizue Seigel and I will be in discussion at City College San Francisco for the Howard Zinn Book Fair. The remaining contributors to the collection include Dee Allen., Jorge Tetl Argueta, Peter Case, Patsy Creedy, Stefanie Doucette, Lynell George, John Goins, E. Hagan, Michael Koch, Raluca Ioanid, Sylvia J. Martinez, Alice Elizabeth Rogoff, Don Skiles, Anna Maria Smith and Barbara Stuaffacher Solomon. I have nothing but love and respect for all of the writers, and I truly appreciate their efforts to make Your Golden Sun shine.  Please drop us a line and let us know what you think of our book.  And I’ll keep you posted on upcoming appearances and news here, too.  Thank you!

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, San Francisco News, Tales of the Gentrification City, ,

Peace Punks, Hate Speech & Berkeley

Green Day at Gilman, photo by Murray Bowles

In 1988, the peace punks who congregated at 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley, California, had a choice to make: To meet encroaching skinheads with violence or to fight back with the tactics of non-violence. Choices were made, the inevitable schisms from within ensued, and life went on, as the new documentary, Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk, tells. While the story and other tales of punk rock glory illustrate punk’s inherent contradictions and what happens when utopian ideals like egalitarianism and rule-by-committee are put to the test, the film is also in perfect synch with the hate speech controversy happening on the UC campus this fall.

“The film played in Charlottesville a few weeks back,” explained its director, Corbett Redford. “Someone from the audience commented, ‘This is how allies work. Allies stand up.’”

The punks of Gilman, far more of them straight, white, and male than queer, people of color, or women, did indeed stand up to the Nazi strain in their midst. And yet, the politics of waging peace and the how music fits into those politics is often more nuanced and complicated than taking up of pitchforks, tiki torches, or baseball bats.

READ THE WHOLE STORY AT DOWN WITH TYRANNY!

Filed under: Arts and Culture, film, Punk, , , , , ,

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World Is A Revelatory New Documentary

Forget everything you think you know or have been told about the birth of the blues and the histories of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll: Rumble – The Indians Who Rocked The World has a different story to tell and by the sound of it, much of what’s been handed down to us about North American music and its origins has been wrong.
The sound of the American South – the rush of its waters, the song of the bird, the crack of thunder and the rain that follows – informs the sound of Native American music, the root of all other American forms.

Take the story of the Mississippi Delta’s Charley Patton, widely acknowledged to be the father of the country blues. An existing photograph of him reveals he is likely a man of mixed race origins, though without clear proof, historians have remained inconclusive in their findings. Rumble reveals through interviews, research, and recordings, that Patton’s blood ties are to the Chocktaw nation and moreover, his connection to Native American music contributed to the rhythmic and vocal patterns of what we know as country blues. In the film, musician Pura Fé (Tuscarora) a/b’s his technique with a turntable and her voice: “That’s Indian music with a guitar,” she says. Calling on a kind of pre-blues origin of his sound, the assembled scholars and musicians, including modern day bluesmen Corey Harris and Alvin Youngblood Hart, go into deeper explanation of Patton’s relationship to Dockery Plantation, the setting where he developed a showstopping style living among Black, Choctaw, and European farmworkers. He went on to pass on what he knew to other area musicians like Son House and visiting players like the young Roebuck Staples and Chester Burnette (who of course became Howlin’ Wolf). So why is Patton’s history generally painted so sketchily in the history books? READ THE ANSWER & THE ENTIRE ARTICLE in Down With Tyranny!

Filed under: Arts and Culture, film, , , , , , , ,

Amadou & Mariam: Visionary Mali Music

From Ali Farka Touré to Tinariwen, the music of Mali is as diverse as that of the US. This summer, one of the country’s finest combos, the rock/electronic/blues duo Amadou & Mariam, return to the states for a series of shows. For this month’s column in Tourworthy, I capsulize their history and speak to some of their collaborations with alternative musicians around the world.  I also talk to noted disability scholar, Leroy Moore Jr. about the realities of musicians from Africa touring with disabilities (Amadou & Mariam are both legally blind).  Take a look and listen to the couple’s new single, “Bofou Safou,” and link to the full story here.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, column, cross cultural musical experimentation, Mali, video, , ,

Latinas And The Roots of American Music

For my monthly column on music making a difference, I tried to capsulize the long history of Latinas contributing to popular music in America. From the earliest phonograph records made by San Antonio’s Lydia Mendoza, to LA’s Alice Bag (pictured here) who helped invent West Coast punk, and into the 21st Century with Fea, that’s nearly 100 years of recording history on their side. Read the entire article here and let me know what you think.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, column, cross cultural musical experimentation, Latino culture, Mexican American/Latino Rock, Punk, Texas, , ,

Shonen Knife Keeps Going and Going

Formed in 1981 in Osaka, Japan, Shonen Knife, founded by sisters Naoko and Atsuko Yamano are still going strong. Cheered to hear of the pop-punk band’s recent US tour dates which they dubbed The Ramen Adventure Tour, I’m reprinting a portion of an interview with Naoko which appears in my book, Rip It Up: Rock ‘n’ Roll Rulebreakers.   20151214-181016-466913.jpg

Three Japanese women named after a brand of penknife seem the unlikely embodiment of punk rock, yet Shonen Knife may be among the genre’s last rebels.  The power trio makes a pop-punk noise comparable to the Ramones, and counts Sonic Youth, Redd Kross, and the former members of Nirvana among their fans.  But after six albums, fifty singles, and more than ten years together, in 1995, the band was headed stateside in search of a record deal, having cut all management and US label ties.

“We didn’t have enough control, so we quit,” explains guitarist, songwriter and group leader, Naoko Yamano, at home in Osaka.  She was due on the West Coast in a few days, where she intended to test the waters and play a couple of dates with a newly organized Shonen Knife.  “We have about twenty new songs, and we’ve demoed all of them. Our shows in America are going to be our showcase to play our songs and find a record company.” She reels off the new titles:  “‘ESP’ is about people who have extra power, ‘Explosion!’ is about anger, ‘Buddah’s Face’…how he looks at you as if you’ve gone too far this time.”

The band’s album prior to its split with Virgin Records,  Rock Animals, had a metal-lite sound and hellbent for leather meets Spinal Tap graphics that may’ve given the wrong impression to listeners.

“I love hard rock and punk,” says Naoko.  “Hard rock has the spirit of punk.  But I think our managers may have pushed things in the wrong direction…”

Shonen Knife are true fans of rock and quite simply aren’t afraid to let their enthusiasm shine. They’ve played ’60s pop, psychedelic rock, Asian pop, reggae, Motown, ’80s punk and more.  As natural musicians they’ve diversified and developed technically. Nevertheless, the Knife have been teased mercilessly, often by otherwise intelligent male critics, who note they “can’t play,” that they are “cute,” and have “funny accents:” The criticisms betray a wild misunderstanding of what it means to be “of the Knife.”

The members of Shonen Knife came of age at a time when forming a rock band was a serious transgression for girls in Japanese society; they’ve since toured the world, including a stint opening for Nirvana, and remain duty-bound to their mission.

“Shonen Knife is our life’s work,” Naoko says of a vow taken by the women long ago.  “It is equal to ourselves.  So we will do it as long as we live.”

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Punk, video, Women in Rock, , ,

I Called Him Morgan

ichm_lee-morgan-color_publicity_kcpab_francis_wolff.jpgI reviewed the new documentary on the life of jazz trumpet player and composer, Lee Morgan, in the new edition of No Recess! magazine. Let me know what you think.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, film, Jazz, , , , ,

The Rock ‘n’ Soul of Jesus

This repost is an annual tradition. Happy Easter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Three Women: Yoko Ono, Buffy Sainte-Marie & Nina Simone

Coincidence or likely story, three of the great freedom singers of our time, Yoko Ono, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Nina Simone were born on nearly consecutive days in February.

 

Yoko Ono is of course a conceptual artist, a recording artist, a peace activist, wife of the late John Lennon and mother of Sean Ono Lennon. Born on February 18 in Tokyo, at 84, Ono remains a working artist and advocate for peace and human rights.

Born on February 20, 1941, Buffy Sainte-Marie turns 76 this year.  She is still a vital recording and touring artist, fronting a band, and waging peace and freedom, particularly for the First Nations people of North America.

Though she passed on in 2003 at the age of 70, North Carolinian and world citizen Nina Simone continues to win over listeners with her unique vocal and composition style and revolution rhetoric that truly remains unmatched since her prolific ’60s and ’70s period. Though she adapted her songbook as times changed, Simone kept it fierce and strong until breast cancer took her off the road in her 60s. She would have turned 84 on February 22.

All three women hold unique distinctions as pioneering vocal stylists and composers of depth and substance—pro-woman, anti-war and anti-racist—which found them as revered as they are reviled.  Yet those of us who appreciate the work, who lived in times that crossed with theirs, who were lucky enough to have seen them perform or simply feel the enormity of their contributions to the modern music canon shall pause, listen, and give thanks in the coming days that these three extraordinary 20th Century women were born.

Read more on Ono, Sainte-Marie and Simone in Keep on Pushing:  Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop.

 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Nina Simone, Protest Songs, Rock Birthdays, video, Women in Rock,

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