Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

We’re On The Freedom Side

There’s a new version of the labor standard, “Which Side Are You On?” going around: Sung at the Black Lives Matter and Blackout Coalition actions, it’s also been used as the intro and outro marching song at some of the Black Brunch protests.

Malcolm X was a freedom fighter
And he taught us how to fight
We go’n’ fight all day and night
Until we get it right
Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on?

In the early ’30s when the United Mine Workers of America began to organize around Eastern Kentucky (in an effort to end practices like payment in scrip and pay docking toward rent in substandard housing) it was Florence Reece, a Kentucky miner’s daughter and wife who wrote the original lyrics to “Which Side Are You On?”.  It remains a labor movement standard.

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

Blair was the sheriff who rousted Reece’s family during the strike among Harlan County mine workers, just one of the struggles which contributed toward the region earning its nickname “Bloody Harlan County.”   In the ‘70s, workers struck again and Reece reprised the song for striking miners (preserved in this clip from Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award-winning documentary, Harlan County U.S.A.).

The song’s melody is said to be based on a hymn, “Lay the Lily Low.” Some researchers believe it is the same song that forms the basis for the traditional “Jack-a-Roe,” (also known as “Jack Munro”), its best-known version performed by the Grateful Dead. But I think that somewhere in the Kentucky mountains, singers have been intoning this strange melody for hundreds of years, its deep minor tones more reminiscent of the mystic drone of a Gregorian chant than anything known to folk or gospel. Whatever its melody’s true origins, “Which Side Are You On?” was first repurposed during the Civil Rights Movement by topical singer-songwriter Len Chandler (you can hear his recorded version on the album, WNEW’S Story of Selma).

Come all you Northern liberals,
Take a Klansman out to lunch
But when you dine instead of whine
You should serve nonviolent punch
Which side are you on? Which side are you on?

Chandler told me his story, of how he came to be a topical singer in Greenwich Village, then moved on to marching with Dr. King from, Selma to Montgomery (he appears in archival footage in the new film, Selma). “I’d write a song like that and then I’d be singing it in a mass meeting that night. People would be playing and singing for forty five minutes, until you were just worn out,” he said. Fifty years later, he remains in pursuit of social justice through action and song (Chandler’s full story appears in Keep on Pushing). I learned from listening to Chandler’s songs and to his songtalk, and by studying the work of freedom singers like Odetta, Bernice Johnson and voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, that group singing among activists gives people who may start the night as strangers a chance to bond. Communing over songs, we become more bound to purpose. Singing together is energizing, nourishing, and feeds the spirit; it provides strength to move forward, together as one. But group singing for justice serves a further purpose beyond what some mock as a moment to join hands and sing “Kumbaya”:  In the fight for non-violence, singing has the ability to disarm.

Hamer practiced the power of song when she sang alongside Chandler and other SNCC volunteers at the mass meetings and marches, through her representation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic Convention and on to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Women at the forefront of workers organizing, who’ve pushed for voting and employment rights, and led the fights to end war, poverty, and racism across the planet all know well the power of song: Whether Hamer, Reece, or Ani DiFranco (who updated the song in 2012 then titled her collection of socially conscious songs, ¿Which Side Are You On?) or the Black Lives Matter and Blackout Coalition organizers, women are allied in a long and storied legacy of traditional and gospel song.  With songs we have contributed to toppling apartheid in South Africa, had voting rights granted in the US, fought warlords in Liberia and begun to make corrections to the broken justice system in the USA. With songs that have traveled the road from blues to hip hop, we will continue toward freedom for all people. It’s good to hear the timeless soundtrack to justice making a comeback. Now, which side are you on?

Filed under: anti-war, Civil Rights, Coal Mining Songs, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Origin of Song, , , , , ,

The King of Love

“Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right,” said Dr. King in his final speech, delivered on April 3 to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. The following day, April 4, the civil rights leader, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and beloved hero to millions around the world, was shot to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Forty-eight years later, the work of non-violent protest in the name of desegregation, voting rights, racial harmony, jobs, freedom, opportunity, and an end to wars, is carried on by an international community of civil rights advocates and human rights and anti-war activists. Among the musical tributes in response to the tragedy were Dion’s popular “Abraham, Martin and John,” Otis Spann’s less-known “Blues for Martin Luther King, ” and Nina Simone’s enduring and emotional “Why (The King of Love is Dead),” first performed in his memory on April 7, 1968, the national day of mourning following the assassination. For further reflection on Dr. King’s message of love, please start with the The King Center archives, dedicated to the non-violent eradication of poverty, racism and violence.

Filed under: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Keep On Pushing, Nina Simone, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, “Why (The King of Love is Dead)”, April 4 1968, Memphis TN, Striking Sanitation Workers

Filed under: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, income disparity, Keep On Pushing, Never Forget, Nina Simone, Protest Songs, , , , ,

History: Rosa Parks Born Today

February 4 is the birthday of Rosa Parks, the civil rights activist remembered for refusing to move to the back of the bus: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, in the name of the desegregating public transit, was organized immediately following her arrest on December 1, 1955.

Born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1913, Parks was a student of non-violent protest, an active member of her local chapter of the NAACP in Montgomery and a great admirer of both Dr. King and Malcolm X; her refusal to move on the bus that day was not part of any kind of group action or occupation—she held her seat on her own steam. And yet far from receiving any heroine’s awards, Parks paid the price for asserting her right to ride: In the immediate aftermath of the desegregation effort, she could no longer find work in Montgomery.  She and her husband Raymond moved north, eventually settling in Detroit where she worked the better part of her life as a secretary for US Representative John Conyers.

Parks would one day receive the highest honors in the land– from the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal (Harry Belafonte was honored in 2013), to the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded to her by President Bill Clinton) and the Congressional Gold Medal.  And if you dared to mess with the Mother of the Modern Day Civil Rights Movement and her legacy in a movie or a song, look out:  Parks was known for slapping down artists with legal actions and launching her own boycotts against them. But there was one song that met Ms. Parks’ high standards: “Sister Rosa,” a tribute to her by New Orleanians the Neville Brothers, appeared on their 1989 album, Yellow Moon.  Produced by Daniel Lanois, and accompanied by The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Brian Eno for the sessions, Yellow Moon is an exceptional record, even by the Nevilles’ own high standard: Produced by Daniel Lanois, the band transforms two Bob Dylan songs (“With God On Our Side,” “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”), the Carter Family classic “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem, “A Change is Gonna Come,” and Link Wray’s “Fire and Brimstone” (title self-explanatory, taken from the guitarist’s obscure and brilliant 1971 album). Standing alongside the Neville Brothers’ bayou-fired originals, “Sister Rosa” is their attempt at rap.

Parks passed in 2005, though matters of her personal estate have not been resolved and her detailed personal archive has not yet found a permanent home.  She would’ve been 101 this year.  For more information on Rosa Parks, visit the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute.

Filed under: Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, Hip Hop, Malcolm X, Never Forget, Uncategorized, video, , , ,

RIP Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

The folksinger, activist, songcatcher, banjo-picker, environmentalist, family man and non-violent resistor Pete Seeger was inspiration and forbear to any man or woman who uses their songs for economic and social justice—and doesn’t ever stop. Persecuted for his beliefs by federal law enforcement, the House Un-American Activities Committee and the public, he pressed on to become the greatest singing activist of our time.  “These days my purpose is in trying to get people to realize that there may be no human race by the end of the century unless we find ways to talk to people we deeply disagree with,” Seeger told his biographer Alec Wilkinson, author of The Protest Singer. “Whether we cooperate from love or tolerance, it doesn’t much matter, but we must treat each other nonviolently.” Seeger will be an irreplaceable force on the protest scene, not only for his songs and actions, but for his pure belief in the promise that we shall overcome someday.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Environmental Justice, Folk, Freedom Now, Immigration Reform, Latino culture, Never Forget, Obituary, Occupy Wall Street, Protest Songs, Songs for the Occupation,

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, , , , , , ,

Anybody Here?

“Abraham, Martin and John” was written by Dick Holler and first released by Dion (DiMucci) in 1968. Neither Holler nor DiMucci were known for being particularly political in their music, but the assassination of Robert Kennedy inspired the question, delivered in a song.

Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye also recorded “Abraham, Martin and John.” Here’s a clip of Robinson singing it at the White House, followed by Gaye’s version, featuring full text of the lyrics.

Countless artists have performed or recorded variations on the song and it has more than once reached the charts; comedian Moms Mabley took it to number two. For those seeking further illumination on the relationship between the Kennedy brothers and Black America, read this.

Though the assassinations are no mystery, and 50 years later the grief lingers on,  liberty and justice await, and hope is still awake in the song.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., video, , , , , , ,

50 Years Ago: Four Little Girls and Two Songs

It was 50 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 years on, both songs remain painful reminders of the brutalities waged here and yonder, year in and year out, by so-called humanity.

Filed under: Angela Davis, Arts and Culture, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, Keep On Pushing, Nina Simone, Protest Songs, , ,

Len Chandler: Fifty Years of Marching and Singing the Songs of Freedom

As most readers know, today is the 50th anniversary of the the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  What you may not know, even as an astute observer of civil rights and music history and where they meet, is the name Len Chandler:  He was among those assembled to help Dr. King push forward his dream of racial harmony and economic justice on that day, as well as on the marches in the Southern States.  At the March on Washington, Chandler was one of the voices in a trio that included Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. He marched with Dr. King and traveled through the South in the name of voter registration, informing rural Southerners of their polling rights, at risk to his own life. It was a now-you-see-it-now-you- don’t YouTube clip of Chandler’s inspirational performance of “Eyes on the Prize” that contributed to inspiring me to track him down and move forward with the writing of Keep on Pushing, my text that unpacks the origins of freedom music, and its roots in African American struggle and triumph.images

Originally from Akron, Ohio, and studying on scholarship at Columbia in the ’50s, Chandler made his way to Greenwich Village folk music a bit 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 the gig was through, he returned to New York to find the folk thing 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, remembering when.  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,” wrote Dylan.

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:

Today, Chandler is largely retired from performing, but he remains well- informed on human rights, politics, and the arts, and can write and perform songs that still pack a punch.  I must say it was a privilege to meet one of the true unsung singing activists of my lifetime (as well as his wife Olga James, a pioneering performer in her own right), and have him tell his story in Keep on Pushing (which is where you will find more straight talk from Chandler, as well as my own perspectives on his contribution to civil rights history). I had hoped to see him on television today,  in the crowd in Washington, or better yet, onstage with Peter and Paul, reviving a freedom song for our times. Perhaps I missed him, but Len Chandler belongs on the guest list of esteemed names assembled for any kind of 50th anniversary commemoration of the March, the Civil Rights Era, and anywhere Freedom Songs are still sung.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Folk, Freedom Now, Greenwich Village, Keep On Pushing, , , , ,

Never Forget: Emmett Till, born July 25, 1941

The story of Chicago’s 15-year-old Emmett Till (born today in 1941), murdered while on summer vacation in Money, Mississippi, was among the events in the mid-‘50s that mobilized the Civil Rights Movement; the tragedy was chronicled by Bob Dylan in one of his earliest songs. This clip contains a bit of background as well as the audio of the song which tells the story.

Following the recent events in Florida, where George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, the names Emmett Till, as well as slain NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers have been invoked by civil rights leaders.  It is unthinkable, though entirely possible, that a generation of young folk are unfamiliar with these names, icons of the civil rights movement that marched on, throughout the South and toward Washington in the Summer of ’63. But there remains similarities in the cases: Like the families of  Till and Evers, in the face of extreme tragedy, Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, and his father Tracy, are working with the civil rights communities for justice. And like Till and Evers, the death of Trayvon Martin has moved artists to tell his story, in an effort to increase knowledge and inspire action. Here are but two, “Trayvon” by Jasiri X, and “Justice (If You’re 17)” by Wyclef Jean.

In this 50th anniversary year of Freedom Summer and the March on Washington, while we at once celebrate a victory for same sex couples across the country, we must mourn the return to states rights and the constricting of voting and women’s rights down South, as well as the injustice of the trial in Florida and ridiculous Stand Your Ground laws. Young men of color remain especially at risk of racial profiling, targeted and incarcerated in vastly disproportionate numbers. As the California prison hunger strike (protesting torturous conditions of solitary confinement) now in its third week continues, while overseas US drones hunt and kill innocent people mercilessly, “the conversation on race” is having its moment in the media spotlight. We must insist it continue and on Freedom Now, as the generations of our parents and grandparents did. Deep in my heart, I do believe, there is a song waiting to be written and sung at this year’s March on Washington.

If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust

Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust…

…But if all us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give

We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.

–Bob Dylan

Filed under: Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, Immigration Reform, Never Forget, Occupy Wall Street, Songs for the Occupation, Women's rights, , , , ,

The King Of Love

“Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right,” said Dr. King in his final speech, delivered on April 3 to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. The following day, April 4, the civil rights leader, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and beloved hero to millions around the world, was shot to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Forty-five years later, the work of non-violent protest in the name of desegregation, voting rights, racial harmony, jobs, freedom, opportunity, and an end to wars, is carried on by an international community of civil rights advocates and human rights and anti-war activists. Among the musical tributes in response to the tragedy were Dion’s popular “Abraham, Martin and John,” Otis Spann’s less-known “Blues for Martin Luther King, ” and Nina Simone’s enduring and emotional “Why (The King of Love is Dead),” first performed in his memory on April 7, 1968, the national day of mourning following the assassination. For further reflection on Dr. King’s message of love, please start with the The King Center archives, dedicated to the non-violent eradication of poverty, racism and violence.

Filed under: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Keep On Pushing, Nina Simone, , , , ,

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