Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott-Heron and the road to MLK Day

Today would have been the 94th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. born January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a long road to the third Monday of the month when all 50 states will observe a federal holiday named in his honor. Largely owed for making the dream of MLK Day a reality is Stevie Wonder: Back in 1980, he wrote the pointed song, “Happy Birthday,” then launched a 41-city U.S. tour (and invited Gil Scott-Heron along) to promote the idea which was first mooted by Rep. John Conyers in 1968. The musical efforts were ultimately the key in collecting the millions of citizen signatures that had a direct impact on Congress passing the law signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, declaring a day for MLK.

Observed for the first time in 1986, some states were late to participate, however, by the turn of the 21st Century, all were united in some form of remembrance of the civil rights giant. “Happy Birthday,” which served as the Wonder-campaign theme (and is now the “official” King holiday tune) is the last track on Hotter Than July. The album also features “Master Blaster,” Wonder’s tribute to Bob Marley (Marley had been scheduled for the tour until he fell too ill which was how Scott-Heron came to participate. In his memoir The Last Holiday, Scott-Heron details his own journey with music and activism, as he retraces the long and winding road Wonder took to bring home the last US federal holiday, with the help of a song.

The Hotter Than July tour brought Scott-Heron and Wonder to Oakland, where they played in the name of King, along with Rodney Franklin and Carlos Santana. In a weird turn of events, the concert on December 8, 1980, coincided with the night John Lennon was killed. The musicians and crew learned of the tragedy from a backstage television, and the job fell to Wonder, with Scott-Heron and the other musicians at his side, to deliver the shocking news to an arena of music fans.

“For the next five minutes he spoke spontaneously about his friendship with John Lennon: how they’d met, when and where, what they had enjoyed together, and what kind of man he’d felt Lennon was,” wrote Scott-Heron.  “That last one was key, because it drew a line between what had happened in New York that day and what had happened on that motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, a dozen years before.  And it drew a circle around the kind of men who stood up for both peace and change.”   Scott-Heron devotes the final pages of The Last Holiday to a remembrance of how the murder of Lennon fueled the final drive to push for a federal observance of the official MLK Day.

The politics of right and wrong make everything complicated

To a generation who’s never had a leader assassinated

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

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

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Blues, Bob Marley, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Georgia

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Marley, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Georgia

The Last Holiday: On Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott-Heron and the Dream of an MLK Birthday Observance Made a Reality

150119092427-restricted-02-mlk-0119-super-169Today is the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929. It was a long road to the third Monday in January when all 50 states will observe a federal holiday named in his honor.  Largely owed for making the dream of a King holiday a reality is Stevie Wonder, who back in 1980, wrote the pointed song, “Happy Birthday,” then launched a 41-city U.S. tour (and invited Gil Scott- Heron along) to promote the idea which was first mooted by Rep. John Conyers in 1968. The musical efforts were ultimately the key in collecting the millions of citizen signatures that had a direct impact on Congress passing the law signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, declaring a day for MLK. Observed for the first time in 1986, some states were late to the party, however, by the turn of the 21st Century, all were united in some form of remembrance of the civil rights giant. “Happy Birthday,” which served as the Wonder-campaign theme (and is now the “official” King holiday tune) is  the last track on Hotter Than July. The album also features “Master Blaster,” Wonder’s tribute to Bob Marley (he’d been scheduled for the tour until he fell too ill to participate). Stepping into the breach was Scott-Heron whose 2011, posthumously published memoir The Last Holiday, details his own journey with music and activism, and helps retrace the long and winding road Wonder took to bring home the last US federal holiday, with the help of a song.

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

The politics of right and wrong make everything complicated

To a generation who’s never had a leader assassinated

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

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

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Blues, Bob Marley, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Georgia, Gil Scott-Heron, ,

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, , , ,

The Last Holiday: MLK, Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott-Heron and John Lennon

150119092427-restricted-02-mlk-0119-super-169

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


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

The politics of right and wrong make everything complicated

To a generation who’s never had a leader assassinated

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

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

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Bob Marley, Concerts, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Uncategorized

Honoring Bob Marley at 70

Bob-Marley-look-like-today-photoHad he survived the cancer that killed him in 1981, Bob Marley would’ve been 70 today. Perhaps he would’ve looked something like this computer-generated image. Perhaps he would still be on the road and recording albums with some frequency, in the way, say Bob Dylan does. Or maybe he would enjoy staying at home with his many children and grandchildren in Nine Mile, the place he was born and buried. Whatever he’d be doing, it’s certain that we’re still singing his songs, the lion’s share of which concern revolution, no more war, and universal love; sadly, they are as relevant as they were in the days he wrote them.

In honor of the Tuff Gong’s 70th, his family has launched the #Share1Love campaign; it encourages hashtag activism—video-making and sharing—and the Marleys will donate a dollar for every creation to charities bringing clean water to countries and regions where it is most needed. The family also oversees the 1LoveFoundation, its mission to “do good in honor of Bob Marley’s vision of a better tomorrow.”

If you are unable to give, the best thing you can do today to remember Bob Marley is to keep it positive. In that spirit, I can’t resist this crazy rare clip of him lip synching with the  I Threes (“Roots, Rock, Reggae,” “One Love” and “Positive Vibration”).  It’s followed by the classic Wailers appearance on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1973 performing the more downbeat, “Concrete Jungle.” Happy Bob Marley Day to everyone.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Marley, Environmental Justice, income disparity, ,

For Earth Day: The Story of Van Dyke Parks & The Esso Trinidad Steel Band

For Earth Day, I invite you to read the story of how 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. Thanks and congratulations to both Parks and Esso: Not only is their album a foundational contribution to the catalog of music that matters to the earth, the post you will be directed to is the number one most-read on this site, receiving daily views. Thanks for your readership and if you are able, please do something today as a steward of the ground beneath our feet (Mr. 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 his Calypso Years. Read the full story here:

 

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Bob Marley, Calypso, Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Earth Day Music, Environmental Justice, Georgia, Harry Belafonte, Interview, Reggae, video, , , , , ,

Bob Marley Day

“I and I vibration is positive (got to have a good vibe),” sang Bob Marley. Nesta Marley was born on February 6, 1946 in the Nine Mile village of St. Ann’s Parish, to a black mother and a white father.  Shuttling between two worlds, two homes, Marley translated a fractured urban/rural experience into a music with an alarmingly positive vibration that also sent a message.  Born from an expression of outrage at injustice and frustration at western societal values, Marley’s sound was as unique as it was soulful and universal; today, his image serves as an international symbol of peace and liberation. There were of course detractors—people who found fault with Marley’s brand of “Rastaman vibration”, his strength and his convictions. “Government sometimes maybe don’t like what we have to say,” he once said. “Because what we have to say too plain”, while  non-believers had little patience for what they heard as platitudinous refrains, along the lines of “Every little thing gonna be alright ” from the song, “Three Little Birds.”

Doom-saying, despair, negativity and futility were not in Marley’s repertoire: “Why not help one another on the way? Make things much easier,” he sang. He also backed up the message in the music with action, as in 1978, when he was called out of exile by Jamaican authorities and asked to return home to Kingston,  to join the effort to help quell escalating violence there. At the One Love Peace concert, Marley called opposing party leaders Michael Manley and Edward Seaga to the stage and raised their hands in a show of unity.

Taking his cues from the messaging in the records of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, the teachings of Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey (a Rastafari prophet), and with devotion to Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie whom he believed to be the incarnation of Jah or God, Marley, alongside Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh, brought reggae music to the world as the Wailers.  Their songs provided not only temporary relief from fear, loneliness, isolation and other human conditions, they were also stepping stones toward solutions to world war, poverty, famine, and all forms of human rights violations.  A short life with maximum impact, Bob Marley died of cancer in 1981 at the age of 36;  his eulogy was delivered by Prime Minster Seaga.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Marley, Protest Songs, Reggae, video, , ,

In The Name of MLK

mlkIn one of those weird, under-reported facts, the origin of the third Monday in January when all 50 states are set to observe the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929) is not widely acknowledged, but it is in fact a musician we may largely thank for the creation of a federal holiday in the name of MLK.  Back in 1980, Stevie Wonder wrote his pointed song “Happy Birthday,” then launched a 41-city U.S. tour (and invited Gil Scott- Heron along) to promote an idea first mooted by Rep. John Conyers in 1968. The city to city tour was ultimately the key in collecting the millions of citizen signatures which had a direct impact on Congress passing the law signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, declaring the day for MLK. Of course it took some more years, more activist effort, more songs, and more applied pressure for the idea to catch on and the day to become a reality.

“Happy Birthday,” which served as the Wonder-campaign theme (and is now the “official” King holiday tune) is the last track on Wonder’s Hotter Than July album which also features “Master Blaster,” his tribute to Bob Marley.  The reggae giant was also scheduled for the tour until he fell too ill to participate. Stepping into the breach was Scott-Heron whose 2011, post-humously published memoir, The Last Holiday, details his own journey with music and activism; he retraces the long and winding road Wonder took to bring home a US federal holiday with the help of a song.  In a a strictly horrific twist of fate, the tour brought Gil and Stevie to Oakland, California, where they were playing in the name of King (as did Rodney Franklin and Carlos Santana) on the night John Lennon was assassinated.  The story of the evening is better read in Scott-Heron’s book, though here’s a clip of Wonder delivering the news to the assembled crowd, back in the time before we carried our own tracking devices.

Observed for the first time in 1986, some states were late to the party, however, by the turn of the 21st Century, all were united in some form of remembrance. On Monday January 20, cities all across the country will attempt to honor Dr. King’s dream the best they can, given our nation’s state of economic and moral poverty.  In King’s birthplace of Atlanta, Georgia,  the King Center, has a full weekend schedule of events culminating on Monday (the King Center’s events are dedicated to discussing and teaching non-violence). In San Francisco on January 20, there is an all-day celebration of King’s life, its theme Now is the Time, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from 11 a.m. — 5 p.m. Among the events scheduled are author readings sponsored by Marcus Books, America’s oldest black-owned bookstore engaged in a final push to preserve culture and community in the City’s historic Fillmore District. San Francisco is generally struggling with displacement of its African American population, as well as other issues related to the City’s techsploitation of housing and services. City of Santa Monica hosts Southern California’s largest King Day event; this year’s theme is Unity in the Community. I am permanently dumfounded by the American shame that is Skid Row LA:  Just spitting distance from the unfathomable displays of wealth that define Beverly Hills, Hollywood and the Westside, human life and dignity are compromised there everyday.

Much like Dr. King’s vision, justice and equality in our democracy remain very much a dream. But wherever we go, whatever we do that day, let us not only continue to dream of love and peace, but to take an action toward eradicating poverty, eliminating racial injustice, and loving our fellows, in the name of MLK.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Marley, Concerts, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Georgia, income disparity, Origin of Song, , , , , , ,

Veterans Day: War Is Over

Iraq Veterans Against the War asked supporters to use social media this Veteran’s Day to speak about personal experience with militarism.  I don’t have much direct contact to report, unless you count carrying a sense of American shame and holding a deep well of sadness for the amount of senseless violence, killing, overspending, and harm done to the world’s people and resources in the name of liberty and justice for all.  My immediate family is not militarily descended, though among my few relatives who were called up, I remember an uncle named Charlie who went to Vietnam and mercifully returned, then asked to be called Charles from there on; I have not seen much of him in 30 years, but I suspect he’s suffered, the result of time served.

My own conscientious objection and moral opposition to war developed out of the lessons taught by a few good teachers who waged stealthy anti-militarism campaigns in their high school classrooms: Images from documentaries on the Holocaust and post-atomic bomb Japan have stayed with me strong since I saw them. An education in war’s atrocities, along with my own love of the message music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I believe schooled me well, until I went on to research and learn more.

Created at the height of the Vietnam era, conceived with strength and intended as a balm and wake-up call for all that had gone wrong, artist/activists from Buffy Sainte-Marie (“Universal Soldier”) and Phil Ochs (“I Ain’t Marching Anymore”) to giants Bob Dylan (“Blowing in the Wind,” “Masters of War”), John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band (“Give Peace a Chance,” “Imagine”), the stars of Motown (Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”, Edwin Starr’s “War,” written by Whitfield and Strong) and singers, songwriters and performers of all forms (“Peace Train” by Cat Stevens and “Love Train” by the O’Jays”), delivered the songs of peace. Quite often they took anti-war sentiment to the top of the charts. It was a time when an anti-war view didn’t have to fight for space on the front page or evening news—it was the news. Back then, unless they were complete squares, members of the silent majority or total idiots, men and women were not afraid to stand against war.

As time went on, the wealth of Vietnam-themed Hollywood feature films (Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon) depicting the horrors of war, and set to a rock music soundtrack of songs associated with the time period (Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” for two)  further informed my own beliefs about  that time.  The truth had surfaced and history was beginning to support the unjust nature of all that war’s ill concepts and casualties. Bombing unarmed innocents in the name of freedom is pure and simple, illegal, immoral, and just plain wrong. One of the movies, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now!, so convincingly used “The End” by the Doors  to convey a soldier’s pain, one could be forgiven for thinking the music was written to fit the sequence(s) in which it was used (it was not). Here is the opening scene of the film that stars Martin Sheen as the fictional Captain Benjamin Willard:

Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain, and all the children are insane.  Jim Morrison’s apocalyptic visions and anti-imperialist artistic views were tied up in a deep study of history and the humanistic concerns he shared with the artists of peace and vision who inspired him. Given his own generation’s stand against the war, Morrison’s radically left of center way of approaching life and art was complicated by his own family ties to militarism:  His father, Admiral Steven Morrison commanded the forces in the Gulf of Tonkin incident that sent the Vietnam war into overdrive. The Doors cut at least one specifically anti-war song, or at least we can deduce that theme from the action in their own short film for “Unknown Soldier.”

“War is over,” the present tense affirmation that serves as the chorus to”Unknown Solider,” predates the use of the phrase in the Plastic Ono’s Band “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” (1971); it coincided with the Phil Ochs song “The War is Over” (1968) and knowing Morrison’s influences, was likely borrowed from French filmmaker Alain Resnais’ 1966 film, War is Over, a political thriller set in Franco-era Madrid and Paris.

As time went on, the anti-war song fell out of favor, at least in the U.S. where our direct involvement in wars was mostly covert and away from our shores.  Now and again, we’d get a crucial reminder that war is bad and killing is no good in songs (“War” by Bob Marley), while other times when war was declared and battles raged on, anti-war songs experienced a tiny revival (“Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine comes to mind, as does “Living With War” by Neil Young who continues to wage peace every day of the year). But unless mandatory service makes a comeback, it is guaranteed you’ll hear fewer songs of resistance to war, or resistance to much of anything, really. Killing for peace, bombing for safety and drones from here to kingdom come are not really what the people want from their songs anymore. Until further notice, the rocket’s red glare shall shine on, while few take a stand in song to abhor them.

Where are the songs that urge calling off drone strikes?  I know there are some, but they are not on the Top 40, blasting from jukeboxes and commanding the dancefloor the way Edwin Starr made a stand: “War! Huh-good God, y’all, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again. Yea.” Though once again, the ’60s generation—I’m not saying they’re the only ones, but in terms of longevity, staying the course, consistency of message and laying it down—comes through. Septugenarian Graham Nash cut a song with James Raymond for Bradley Manning.

Nash had done the same for Bobby Seale and the Chicago Seven who among other things, opposed the war.  I’m not telling fans of ’60s rock anything they don’t already know.  But for the sake of the song, if you’re a singer or a songwriter and think that killing and torture in the name of what is wrong, use your stage to sing out and decry the lie, even if it’s just one song. Or do something: Professional musician Darden Smith is writing songs with vets. Recounting their experiences with war and turning them into songs, Smith has aided soldiers in coming to terms with their opposition to violence of all kinds.

The Veterans Against the War say on their website that everyday, 22 veterans take their own lives. Could it be that they cannot stand the post-traumatic stress of remembering?  Were they tortured, or asked to torture someone else?  We will not know now or ever because they’re gone, as are the great mean of peace, Gandhi, Dr. King and John Lennon. Today I thank all, veterans and others, who fought and now work for peace: You remind us that we can not tell ourselves that war is something that only happens over there, far away, to other people. We cannot continue to pretend that we are  not connected or impacted too. We are responsible. The horror, the horror.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Buffy Sainte-Marie, film, France, , ,

Earth Day and Esso

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 his Calypso Years.

My interview with Van Dyke Parks originally appeared in the pages of Crawdaddy! in 2009. Four years later, the story of one man’s adventures in art and activism The Day Van Dyke Parks Went Calypso, remains the most most-read and most searched piece here at denisesullivan.com. Parks had a goal and an idea ahead of its time: To forge environmental healing through music made by instruments made of cast-off oil drums. Read the full story here or at the link above.  And happy Earth Day.

Filed under: Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Calypso, Civil Rights, Earth Day Music, Environmental Justice, Protest Songs, video, , ,

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