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

Which side are you on, boys?

The stats are in: 66 songs, 110 writers, four songs performed by women and seven written by them. The woman pictured between Little Richard and Eddie Cochran is Alis Lesley, an obscure pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll. Nicknamed “The Female Elvis Presley,” she recorded one single and left the business before ever getting started. Lesley is a footnote in rock history and a link in the chain of so many women before, and thousands more after, who helped shape modern song as we know it today.

But this is not a further critique of the exclusion of women in Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song: you may read my review and plenty more elsewhere (though they don’t get much better than this one). In fact, in the best case scenario, the book’s omission of women is an invitation to further exploration – an opportunity to learn more about say, Sharon Sheeley, Cochran’s occasional co-writer and girlfriend and the youngest woman to reach the top of the charts with “Poor Little Fool,” the song she wrote for Ricky Nelson. But I’m not so sure it’s that simple. Or complicated…

“It seems reasonable to hope that an artist of Dylan’s magnitude would publish words in solidarity with half of humankind in this critical hour of rights rescinded, rather, he chooses demeaning stereotypes,” I wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle. “There are also several admonishments on “political correctness” that, given the current moment of extreme polarization, are disappointing, especially coming from an artist who is known for his care with language.”

There is hardly anything that bothers me more than a missed opportunity: A book publishing in yet another long, wintry season in America could’ve served as a chance to lift up women when we really need some light – allies, friends and champions. What we want are equal rights and justice. What we need is for men to stand with us. What this woman can’t use are more vulgar characterizations, slights and crude names leveled at us – whether in the name of art or satire. The world is cruel enough. Yes, for the historical record, there have been many demeaning names for women, and Dylan chose to use as many as could be called to mind. He did not choose to do the same with racist epithets throughout the book.

“As a people, we tend to feel very proud of ourselves because of democracy,” writes Dylan in his essay on the song, “War,” one of the book’s central pieces. “We walk into that booth and cast our votes and wear that that adhesive “I Voted” sticker as if it is a badge of honor. But the truth is more complex. We have as much responsibility coming out of the booth as going in.”

Dylan is writing here about voters electing officials who will wage peace instead of war. Much of the content of the passage regarding personal responsibility for war echoes the old song “Universal Soldier,” written by Buffy Sainte-Marie. There is no mistaking Dylan’s point of view: He’s taking a clear stance on a divisive issue as old as time. My sadness, on this election day in the US, is that he didn’t make a similarly clear, simple and strong statement toward a collective responsibility to women and our never ending war with an unjust system.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Books, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Civil Rights, Editorial, Women's issues, Women's rights, , ,

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, , , , , , , , , , ,

San Francisco Names Eighth Poet Laureate: Tongo Eisen-Martin

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

Read my profile of Tongo Eisen-Martin here:

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

Freedom Singer Len Chandler and the March on Washington

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Today marks the 57th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Among those assembled to help Dr. King push forward his dream of racial harmony and economic justice was Len Chandler (often overlooked in the history of civil rights work), one of the voices in a trio that day which included Bob Dylan and Joan Baez (he appears at about 17 minutes into the following clip, though the whole 25 minutes is worth your time).

 

Chandler would march with Dr. King and travel throughout the South in the name of voter registration, informing rural Southerners of their polling rights, often at great risk to his own life. His poems were recognized by Langston Hughes, he wrote the folk standard “Green, Green Rocky Road” with poet Bob Kaufman, and recorded two albums for Columbia Records, but little is known about him or his life.  I sought out Chandler when I wrote Keep on Pushing, my text that tracks the origins and evolution of freedom music, and its roots in African American resistance and liberation movement: a fraction of what we discussed was included in the book. I remain curious why nearly 10 years after publication, few scholars have pursued the lead and why so little is known about him…

Originally from Akron, Ohio, and studying on scholarship at Columbia in the ’50s, Chandler made his way to Greenwich Village folk music by accident: Lured to the sounds of Washington Square Park by the downtown youths he was mentoring, he easily fell into the scene with his natural ear for songwriting and his familiarity with the songs of Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, and Woody Guthrie.  Following a performance at the popular Village coffeehouse, the Gaslight Cafe,  Chandler landed a contract to go to Detroit, writing and performing topical songs for local television. A few months later, when he returned to New York, the folk thing was in full swing:  Bob Dylan was the latest arrival to town and the pair started to trade ideas and songs.

“I hadn’t yet begun writing streams of songs like I would, but Len was, and everything around us looked absurd—there was a certain consciousness of madness at work,” wrote Dylan in his book Chronicles.  Chandler remembers it like this in Keep on Pushing:  “The first song I ever heard of Dylan’s was ‘Hey ho, Lead Belly, I just want to sing your name,’ stuff like that.”  Dylan used Chandler’s melody for his song, “The Death of Emmett Till.” “Len didn’t seem to mind,” Dylan wrote (today, as it happens, is the anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till).

Chandler went on to record two albums for Columbia:  To Be a Man and The Loving People. He continued to work as a topical songwriter, a peace and civil rights advocate, and as a songwriting teacher; his tour of Pacific Rim bases with Donald Sutherland, Jane Fonda, Holly Near and Paul Mooney was documented in the Francine Parker film, FTA, a must-see for anyone interested in US history and anti-war efforts within military ranks. Catch a glimpse of Chandler at the end of this trailer for the film:

It was an extreme privilege (and I have since found out a rare opportunity) to meet one of the true unsung heroes of singing activism (as well as his wife Olga James, a pioneering performer in her own right), and have him tell his story to me. Though largely retired from performing, he remains well- informed on human rights, politics, and the arts and will step up and step out for civil rights. You can read a portion of our talks in Keep on Pushing, and someday I will post the complete unedited transcripts, though for now, enjoy the voice of Chandler from back in the day, when singing was a huge part of moving the movement forward.

 

 

 

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Civil Rights, Folk, Freedom Now, , , ,

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, ,

Stew and Heidi return with two new albums: Notes Of A Native Song and The Total Bent

The year’s end brought not one but two new albums of material by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, known professionally as The Negro Problem. Stew’s the wordman and Rodewald is the melodicist, arranger and additional voice in the mix. Both The Total Bent and Notes Of A Native Song are thematic works and the material is as wonderful as I remember: the songs were presented as work in progress at a San Francisco performance at the Curran two years ago. Here’s the audio for “Jimmy” from Notes Of A Native Song, followed by an interview I did with the pair in on the occasion of the release of their album Making It (2012), a pop chronicle of love lost.

Heidi Rodewald and Stew, also known as the self-described Afro-pop, “Blackarach” band, the Negro Problem had it all:  Love, creative partnership and attention from a prestigious arts foundation for a stage musical that was eventually bound for glory – Broadway, Obie and Tony awards – and even a Joint by Spike Lee. Somewhere in that order of things, Stew and Heidi’s love hit the rocks, but the show must go on and the resulting musical, Passing Strange ran for 165 performances on Broadway before closing in July of 2008.

And then it got a stranger:  “The end of the play was when I could really hear the door slam,” says Stew, his voice reduced to a hush.  “The art had to end before I realized it was
over.”

For Stew, the nights on Broadway with bassist, vocalist and creative collaborator Heidi were rehearsals for the retirement of their romance. “It’s a fact that we broke up during Passing Strange and we had to be in a play for two years together which is pretty intense,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Making It is largely about that experience…Not every song, but most of it.”

“Yea, it was a little bit of a drag,” is Heidi’s response to opening up the door on her and Stew’s life together.  “I mean, we didn’t decide to do the show, Stew decided to do the show, but I love that about Stew, that he can put into words the way I feel,” she says, though in the case of Making It (released on Stew and Heidi’s TNP label), he took that process one step further.

Explains Stew, “I showed her my part to ‘Leave Believe’ and asked her, ‘Do you think you could maybe write lyrics that are your version of that?’  And Heidi’s response was, ‘That’s exactly how I felt.’ Consequently they both sing the song’s sole lines – “It took a little while for me to see, you stopped believing in me/I wasn’t left
with much to do, so I stopped believing in you” – to stunning effect.

“Stew had starting saying that writing a show about us breaking up was like his therapy and I told him that therapy only works if you tell the truth,” says Heidi, who remains unsettled by airing the confines of her heart for art’s sake. And yet, when Stew turned Heidi’s jabs and other phrases into songs, he sweetened the deal a bit by arranging to open up some space in his word-jammed verses for her to sing the truth from her own lips.  Somehow, Heidi bought the idea and wound up on board with the project, and it’s her add that allows Making It to claim space on the continuum of great break-up albums, from Marvin Gaye’s Here My Dear and Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights to Beck’s Sea Change.  Spitting her embittered lines (like “I’m tired of waiting around, for nothing to change” from the sweetly melodious “Love is a Cult”), there’s a power in the jarring rawness and fly-on-the-wall intimacy. Stew’s frankness is just as unnerving, even for someone whose stock-in-trade is walking the razor’s edge between life and art. But lest you think Making It is his diary of a mad artist, or exegesis on fame a la Kanye or Gaga, it’s not: Rodewald’s crystal voice simply doesn’t allow for Stew to wallow in too many teardrops.

Opening with a song about “Pretend,” and “stupid little songs that’ll make you break down and cry,” Stew sets the stage: “Plays are real if you pretend/you are too, until the end/trapped in a homegrown masquerade, costume’s wrong but so well made, curtain fell but who got played…”

“I had my fun,” admits Stew, about the immediate post-break-up freedom phase, “but the bottom line was, when the play closed, we didn’t know if we were going to continue together.”

Both parties were pained, as evidenced by the album’s set-piece, “Curse,” which sways as heavy as a funeral dirge as it proclaims, “You don’t need a new girlfriend, what you need is a nurse”.  But there’s more to Making It than the depth and drama of coming undone:  The double sword of trying to get over finds Stew rocking a litany of contentious real life subjects: “Pretend” feeds back into “Black Men Ski,” Stew’s impressionistic musings on the New Black and the so-called post-racial thing: “I have poems about sunsets, flowers, and the rain, I’ve read them to policemen, but it was all in vain…” Other matters on Stew’s desktop are death and injustice, empire and war, subjects that get a good going over in “Suzy Wong” (featuring California-bred rhymes like “BART rider” with “brush fire”) and the exploding “Pastry Shop,” concerning “rage against coffee machines” among other crimes, all enveloped in strains of pain and desire (which when you think of it, isn’t so unlike breaking-up after all).

Of course, all the songs are threaded with the kind of wordplay that’s contributed to Stew becoming admired abroad, laurelled and wreathed on the Great White Way, and assigned by The New York Times to report from his trip to Kenya lastsummer.  And yet, he’s still one Negro who can’t get arrested in LA…

As the narrator of Passing Strange, Stew told the story of his character The Youth, who lives like a refugee in South Los Angeles until he gets wind of the idea that a black artist can live more free in Europe  (though when he gets there, he’s hipped to other realities).

As a theater piece Passing Strange is iconoclastic; an unlikely hit that contributed to rock’s new run on Broadway; the play is a timeless, coming of age drama with a killer score, largely informed by Stew and Heidi’s close to the ground relationship with LA rock ‘n’ roll.  Both were fixtures on the rock scene there, first as teens (Stew was conversant in Bowie and the Beatles and says he caught hell in his old neighborhood for it, while Heidi was a bassist from the ‘burbs who made her initial mark with the Paisley Underground-styled Wednesday Week).  As Mark Stewart (Stew changed his name officially when confusion reigned between him and the other Mark Stewart, of The Pop Group/On U Sound-fame), he motored around the city, taking in all
forms of live rock ‘n’ soul and connecting up with like-minded musicians who
understood the Technicolor nature of rock.  He formed the Negro Problem in the early ‘90s and debuted with Post Minstrel Syndrome in ’97.  When Heidi joined the group, he found the perfect collaborator for his whimsy as a songwriter.

Difficulties with their handle notwithstanding, TNP, as they are sometimes called, continued to release albums and gig, finding an audience among industry insiders, fellow musicians and the clubby KCRW set though they remained only a moderate draw at the black box rock clubs.  And so it was at mid-life, the pair set out for New York and something better – a second act, perhaps – where they might find a home for their sophisticated sounds and a space to work on their musical. The rare opportunity to workshop twice what became Passing Strange, once in 2004 and again in 2005 at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, is what brought them into the orbit that landed them in theaters – Berkeley Rep, New York’s Public and eventually Broadway’s Belasco, where Spike Lee filmed the final night of Passing Strange and cut it into a film. By then the circumstances that provoked the themes of Making It were heating up like charcoal on a broiler.  An initial performance of the songs as a stage piece at St. Anne’s Warehouse became the springboard toward completing Making It as an album.

And while it’s a little frustrating for Stew and Heidi to have to explain to their newly converted theater fans that it isn’t really “going back” to rock since they never really left it, fans of Passing Strange as well as the Negro Problem may be interested to know that following the release of Making It, Stew and Heidi are scheduled to return to the theater. Their new musical, The Total Bent, begins a three-week preview run at New York’s Public Lab next month.  Concerning the journey of a gospel turned rock singer occupying “the complicated space from the sacred to the profane,” it’s set in a period of historic political and social unrest, “just south of the Twilight Zone.”

 It remains to be seen what awaits around the bend for Stew,Heidi and the Negro Problem, though from rock ‘n’ roll to theater, their collaboration is secure; they’re making it work.

“I don’t consider myself a confessional songwriter by any means, but Heidi’s the person I thought I was going to grow old with,” says Stew. “In some ways she still is because we’re in this band. I’m hoping we are going to grow old together – onstage.”

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Harlem, James Baldwin, Now Playing, , , , , ,

Remembering 4 Little Girls + 2 Songs

It was 55 years years ago that the four Birmingham, Alabama girls, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, lost their lives during the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.  In 2011, a marker was finally dedicated in their names at the site of the vicious, racially motivated attack.

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

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

0:04 / 4:08

 

Filed under: Civil Rights, Obituary, video, , , , , , , ,

Len Chandler: He, too, sang at the March on Washington

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photo of Len Chandler at Newport Folk Festival, 1964, by John Rudoff

Today marks the 55th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Among those assembled to help Dr. King push forward his dream of racial harmony and economic justice was Len Chandler (often overlooked in the history of civil rights work), one of the voices in a trio that day which included Bob Dylan and Joan Baez (he appears at about 17 minutes into the following clip, though the whole 25 minutes is worth your time).

 

Chandler would march with Dr. King and travel throughout the South in the name of voter registration, informing rural Southerners of their polling rights, often at great risk to his own life. His poems were recognized by Langston Hughes, he wrote the folk standard “Green, Green Rocky Road” with poet Bob Kaufman, and recorded two albums for Colombia Records, but little is known about him or his life.  I sought him out when I wrote Keep on Pushing, my text that tracks the origins and evolution of freedom music, and its roots in African American resistance and liberation movement: a fraction of what we discussed was included in the book. I remain curious why seven years after publication, few scholars have pursued the lead and why so little is known about him…

Originally from Akron, Ohio, and studying on scholarship at Columbia in the ’50s, Chandler made his way to Greenwich Village folk music by accident: Lured to the sounds of Washington Square Park by the downtown youths he was mentoring, he easily fell into the scene based on his natural ear for songwriting and his familiarity with the songs of Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, and Woody Guthrie.  Following a performance at the popular Village coffeehouse, the Gaslight Cafe,  Chandler landed a contract to go to Detroit, writing and performing topical songs for local television. A few months later, when he returned to New York, the folk thing was in full swing:  Bob Dylan was the latest arrival to town and the pair started to trade ideas and songs.

“I hadn’t yet begun writing streams of songs like I would, but Len was, and everything around us looked absurd—there was a certain consciousness of madness at work,” wrote Dylan in his book Chronicles.  Chandler remembers it like this in Keep on Pushing:  “The first song I ever heard of Dylan’s was ‘Hey ho, Lead Belly, I just want to sing your name,’ stuff like that.”  Dylan used Chandler’s melody for his song, “The Death of Emmett Till.” “Len didn’t seem to mind,” Dylan wrote (today, as it happens, is the anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till).

Chandler went on to record two albums for Columbia:  To Be a Man and The Loving People. He continued to work as a topical songwriter, a peace and civil rights advocate, and as a songwriting teacher; his tour of Pacific Rim bases with Donald Sutherland, Jane Fonda, Holly Near and Paul Mooney was documented in the Francine Parker film, FTA, a must-see for anyone interested in US history and anti-war efforts within military ranks. Catch a glimpse of Chandler at the end of this trailer for the film:

It was an extreme privilege (and I have since found out a rare opportunity) to meet one of the true unsung heroes of singing activism (as well as his wife Olga James, a pioneering performer in her own right), and have him tell his story to me. Though largely retired from performing, he remains well- informed on human rights, politics, and the arts and will step up and step out for civil rights. You can read a portion of our talks in Keep on Pushing, and someday I will post the complete unedited transcripts, though for now, enjoy the voice of Chandler from back in the day, when singing was a huge part of moving the movement forward.

 

 

 

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Folk, Keep On Pushing, , , , , ,

The Last Holiday: On Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott-Heron and the MLK Observance They Turned From Dream to Reality

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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.”  This year marks the 50th remembrance of Dr. King’s assassination on April 4. 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-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Georgia, income disparity, racism, , , , ,

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