Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

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).

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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, , , , , , , , , , ,

Four Little Girls and Two Songs

On September 15, 1963, 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, murderous 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-plus years on, both songs remain painful reminders of the brutalities waged by so-called humanity, here and yonder, year in and year out, against women, girls and Black lives.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Origin of Song, Protest Songs, racism, , , , , , , , , ,

Willie Says Vote ‘Em Out

 

With racist violence and murder escalating and the nation well-past its crisis point, the looming midterm election is an eleventh hour opportunity to turn this mess around. Willie Nelson got involved during election season to cut a song with a clear message:  “Vote ‘Em Out.”  The legendary outlaw country star knows where he stands on national issues like immigration policy and gun safety: At home in Texas, he’s supporting Beto O’Rourke for Senate in the statewide race against Ted Cruz. We can’t all write songs and reach hearts and minds like Nelson can at a rally or with a tune, but we can all be effective in our homes and workplaces. We can take time in the next week to canvass or phone bank for the candidates and issues we support. We can speak out when the people we know, including friends and family, try to defend or ignore the racist/sexist sickness that has infected the highest elected and appointed officials in the land.  And on November 6, we will cast our votes: It remains a tool to counteract the hate with nonviolence, or as Willie sings it, “The biggest gun we’ve got is called the ballot box.”

Read this month’s column. And thanks for voting.

 

 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Protest Songs, Texas, , , ,

“Lord, they cut George Jackson down”

GeorgeJacksonGerFrontBob GeorgeJacksonSpainFrontBob Dylan’s 1971 single, “George Jackson,” a remembrance for the radicalized convict and Black Panther who died in a San Quentin prison shoot-out on August 21, 1971, remains one of his most mysterious recordings.  Not only does “George Jackson” mark the songwriter’s return to topical song form and to touring after a long hiatus, his subject remains as misunderstood to a general audience as does the singer and his songs.
Less than a month after the prison shooting in California, a historic event at Attica Correctional Facility wherein prisoners took control of the prison to protest its poor conditions resulted in more fatalities—an unmistakable call for prison reform. Perhaps it was that call to which Dylan was responding when in November, he cut and released “George Jackson,” a 45-rpm record that reached the Top 40 in January of 1972.
Opening with the blues trope, “I woke up this morning,” Dylan’s “George Jackson” is not a typical blues song, though it surely addresses the larger topic of racial and socio-economic oppression from which a certain style of blues was born. It also leaves a record of Jackson and his story.
“The power of George Jackson’s personal story remains painfully relevant to our nation today, with its persistent racism, its hellish prisons, its unjust judicial system, and the poles of wealth and poverty that are at the root of all that,” wrote historian Howard Zinn in an updated version of Jackson’s Soledad Brother. Wresting larger truths from the events of 1971, Dylan delivered his summation in these often quoted lines from “George Jackson”

Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards

Dylan cut two versions of “George Jackson” for a double sided seven-inch: A “big band” version featuring Kenny Buttrey (drums), Ben Keith (steel guitar), and Leon Russell (bass), and a solo acoustic version. Among the various issues of the single—and there are many—is a picture sleeve with an image of Dylan performing at the Concert for Bangladesh (pictured above, it remains sought-after by record collectors). Here’s a version of Dylan’s song recorded by reggae band, Steel Pulse:

The details of the Jackson case are still debated today by scholars, historians, and those who remember the events. As the story goes, it was a 70-dollar robbery that landed Jackson in state prison, his sentence indeterminate. Guards took an instant dislike to Jackson on the inside and his sentences were extended following events occurring at Soledad State Prison in which three Black inmates and a white guard were killed.  Using his time in solitary to educate himself, Jackson studied psychologist Franz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), Marx, and Mao, and came to understand the incarceration of poor Blacks for petty crime in a political context. A leader in moving prisoners to radicalize, Jackson joined the Black Panthers and became one of the group’s most celebrated members, despite  J. Edgar Hoover’s declaration in 1969 that the Black Panthers were public enemy number one.

Published in 1971, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, was greeted with a positive reception by intellectuals and political progressives. That Jackson had been framed for conspiring to kill a guard in the Soledad incident was a widely held belief; his defenders were vocal and his case was a cause célèbre. But a few days before the Jackson trial was to begin, a riot broke out in San Quentin in which inmates and guards were again slain and Jackson was among those killed as he ran across the yard in an alleged escape attempt. In 2015, Hugo Pinell, the last incarcerated member of the San Quentin Six, was killed while serving his life sentence, much of it in solitary confinement.

The following is a live recording of Joan Baez singing “George Jackson.”

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Filed under: Angela Davis, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Bob Dylan, Protest Songs, , , , ,

Remembering Tony Kinman

Tony and Chip Kinman, photo by Marcus Leatherdale

There was an anti-authoritarian pulse that coursed through Tony Kinman’s work until the end: When Kinman lost his life to pancreatic cancer in May, rock ’n’ roll lost one of its greatest champions.

Working side by side for decades with his brother Chip Kinman, whether it was in their first wave political punk band The Dils, or producing his brother’s new rock ’n’ blues band, Ford Madox Ford, Kinman left his own unique imprint on rock ‘n’ roll: Working upstream and against trends, he carried a torch for all that was holy and good about the music, always questing for the possibility that it would manifest its original intention to upset and forever change things like it did in its formational 1950s. When that promise didn’t deliver, he dug deeper toward the source, searching for rock’s proverbial lost chord.

READ THE ENTIRE APPRECIATION AT TOURWORTHY.

Filed under: Protest Songs, Punk, , ,

Country Music On The Move

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

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

Back On The Chain Gang

Dear Readers,

It’s an unusual post where I want to send you away from my site and toward another, but that’s the case this evening…As it happens, I’m back on the rock ‘n’ roll beat and want to point you to a couple of publications where my work is now playing:

Last week, a group of former colleagues launched No Recess! a music and culture site that aims to bring you some good reading on rock ‘n’ roll, resistance, and whatever else they feel like.

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Check my contributions, a column titled What Are We Gonna Do Now? and subtitled Rock and Resist or Rollover.  I also contribute a book review of the new autobiography by the Band’s Robbie Robertson.   And here’s a film review of I Called Him Morgan), and a news brief (an item on John Hurt Jr.)

I’m also filing a monthly column over at Tourworthy.  My first piece is on the Latino psychedelic soulsters with a message, Chicano Batman.   I hope you’ll look deeper into these new publications and lend them your eyes (and ears) as they keep you up-to-date on the sounds that matter, on the music that’s making a difference. As ever, thanks for reading!

Filed under: Protest Songs, rock 'n' roll, video, You Read It Here First

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Bob Dylan: Nobel Laureate

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The Thursday morning announcement that Bob Dylan has won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, seems to have struck a raw nerve among (mostly) male novelists and some crabby millennials on social media who were intent on disputing the 75-year-old American songwriter’s worthiness of the honor. We pay no attention to them other than to say, they are entirely wrong: Dylan is a writer the likes of which we will never again see in our lifetimes. That we lived in his time and were able to see him perform his written work just happens to have been our good luck and privilege, an idea suggested by the writer Paul Williams and one I believe should be kept close at hand when the inevitable bashing and clashing continues.

The Nobel committee called Dylan’s work “poetry for the ear,” celebrating him for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition;” authors Joyce Carole Oates and Mary Karr weighed in with a series of favorable tweets as did the great Salman Rushdie who offered comparisons to Orpheus and Faiz.

Meanwhile author Gary Shteyngart (Absurdistan) used his twisted sarcasm to tweet, “books are kinda gross.” Irvine Welch (Trainspotting) was a little more coarse, and Hari Kunzru (My Revolutions) wins for angriest. That Dylan is a songwriter, and an innately American one, touring during his country’s likeliest darkest hours yet was not enough to stop the novelists’ outbursts: All three were born outside of the USA and are well read here, though none among them have written anything that can remotely compare to the beauty of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Visions of Johanna” nor anything as compelling as “Masters of War,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” or “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Their lyricism has not been likened to that of Keats, Blake, and Shakespeare, like Dylan’s work has been. Of course this is barely scratching the surface of a long list of Dylan-writings, including songs, poems, memoirs and screenplays, and possible reasons for other writers’ grievances. One is tempted to simply list the titles and produce evidence of the full bodied depth and freshness to the work that stretches out following the ’60s and into the ’70s, ’80s and beyond, whether it be the collaborative Desire or high watermarks Infidels and Oh Mercy, or late work like “Not Dark Yet” from Time Out of Mind and “Mississippi” and “Sugar Baby” from the 21st Century magnum opus, Love and Theft, released on September 11, 2001.

Read the entire article at Down With Tyranny!

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Poetry, Protest Songs, racism,

Postmodern Times Requiem

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Poet Janice Mirikitani, GLIDE co-founder and housing activist, at State of the City Forum on Gentrification Issues, curated and moderated throughout 2014-15 by Denise Sullivan at Modern Times Bookstore Collective

How does a revolutionary bookstore and its personnel survive in the new Gilded Age?  A rhetorical question perhaps, but often asked, discussed, debated, and ultimately decided at 2919 24th Street in San Francisco, Modern Times Bookstore Collective. After 45 years of selling incendiary books to the loving people, the bookstore will close its doors next month.

You say you’re sad? We are too. You hope another independent radical bookstore will take its place. How can it?

Modern Times is where the brave, the broken, the bleeding hearts go to be repaired and refreshed, to be fed by literature and conversation, made (mostly) by Marxists,  Radical Queers, revolutionary sweetheart poets, and organized minds, the kind who protect Black Lives and Sacred Waters; your housing advocates, labor unionists, People’s politicians, Green partiers, anti-ablist, anti-ageist, anti-capitalist, anarchist cooks, militant vegans, and hopeful activists. And then there were the passersby who knew–there was a bathroom inside.

It was dirty in there: Waged that  war once or twice and lost it. I heard the staff of another neighborhood bookstore, never mind its name, speak ill of our sacred, safe, Spanish-speaking (ok, poor-Spanish-speaking), space. It hurt, but why reply and dignify ignorance: We were too busy anyway, blasting the surveillance state, police terror, environmental crisis, and the racist, sexist, bully nation.

We’ve been beat up, we’ve been thrown out, but we’re not down. We’re coming up, coming out, over the wall, across the bridge, under the freeway, on the block, in the chamber, in the jail cell, special housing unit, death row, and we’re gonna be alright. Because we don’t stop, you don’t stop, and there is no. sleep. ’til recall. Just know, even when the power gets cut, and the nights grow long and cold, Modern Times still sees you, and the little light that shines from your heart.

Written on October 11, 2016, barely revised, and read live that night at the Mission Bookstores/ Litquake Benefit, accompanied by Victor Krummenacher on guitar. Long live Modern Times Bookstore Collective.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Book news, California, Never Forget, Now Playing, Protest Songs, racism, San Francisco News,

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