Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

The Rock ‘n’ Soul of Jesus

This repost is an annual tradition. Happy Easter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Women’s History: Memphis Minnie

Memphis-Minnie-book-1.jpgIn what is perhaps the best-known story of a blues woman as legend, Big Bill Broonzy tells of the “cutting” contest he lost to Memphis Minnie following her 20-minute performance of “Me and My Chauffeur Blues.” So carried away was she with the jam, Minnie was carted offstage by the judges who were said to be bluesmen Tampa Red, Muddy Waters and most unlikely, Mississippi John Hurt. Meanwhile, as Minnie was catching her breath, Big Bill was making off with the two bottles of hooch earmarked to be taken home by the grand prize winner.

“…She can make a guitar speak words, she can make a guitar cry, moan, talk, and whistle the blues,” Broonzy wrote in his memoir. Man enough to admit he’d been whupped by a gal, the story behind their supposed tussle in 1930s Chicago has, over time, been revealed to be a conflation of repeated guitar stand-offs between Broonzy, other bluesmen, and Minnie who was known to routinely trounce all-comers throughout the South and Midwest with the antics on her ax. While Broonzy would go on to be remembered as the musician who brought the blues to England and influenced an entire generation of rock’n’roll guitarists, Minnie’s legacy is less tangible and entrenched. For reasons not entirely clear and despite repeat testimonials from Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams, Minnie’s only had a few, cheapo boxed sets and a recent tribute compiled; there have been no lovely vinyl reissues, collector’s editions, or special treatments given to her recorded legacy.

As for what we know of her history, most all of it comes down to Paul and Beth Garon’s 1992 volume, Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie’s Blues, available once again in an updated and revised edition with a forward by Jim O’Neal (City Lights, 2014). Twenty-two years after its initial publication, the most profound details of Minnie’s story still reveal a hard travelin’ blues woman—singing and performing her ribald, daring, and well-honed songs in the early part of the 20th Century—as a player who has yet to be honored and enshrined in equal measure to her accomplishments.

A certain amount of projection, imagination, and accounting for what the Garons call “the listener’s own obsessions” aid in an understanding of Minnie’s blues, alternately concerned with cooking, hoodoo, love, sex, and the natural environment. A least that’s what I hear when she sings “I’m Gonna Bake My Biscuits,” “Black Cat Blues,” and “When the Levee Breaks.” When Minnie sings, most of her lines go at least two or three ways, which in itself is not the revolutionary part; that she was a woman, saying and doing the things that she was in her time, contributes to the possibility she was also the greatest songster of them all, and yet, she remains the proverbial secret hiding in plain sight. Broonzy said as much in his 1955 book, and since then, the songs have supported the fact she’s a giant—just ask the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Chuck Berry who used them as springboards for their own. Is it possible that Minnie was so good—the world’s deepest blues player, conjurer, show person and poet—her story is believable only if it’s portrayed as myth?

Minnie’s way with words is largely the focus of the Garons’ study, a combination of interpretation and inquiry into Minnie’s blues and the deep subconscious well from which she drew inspiration. Crafting lines with far more layers of meaning than the kind of poetry which generally receives laurels, the authors emphasize Minnie’s contributions to blues form have barely begun to be unpacked. The Garons’ surrealist portrait of Minnie is a unique work of scholarship and an essential text toward understanding not only Minnie’s world and work, but the blues itself. Quoting her lyrics and others in blues tradition, the authors consistently and convincingly deliver the idea that a blues narrative is often less critical to interpretation than its lines and metaphors. Pieces of the dream are absorbed in a flash, by design, assimilated “on the fly, while dancing and drinking. Thus, there may be an analogy of how we listen to the blues and how surrealist poets listen to the unconscious.”

A captivating performer—agile, fast, and showy—Minnie was not only an accomplished guitarist but a songwriting original with verses double and triple-loaded with richness. She covered it all, though an area that Minnie mined singularly and deeply was the kitchen: Like the bluesmen’s perpetual and enduring references to liquor as poison, potion and magic elixir, Minnie used food as a way to sing of longing, desire and consummation but also of autonomy, liberation and ultimately transformation. (In addition to her ability to wipe the floor with her guitar competitors, Minnie was also known for her home cooking, especially her biscuits).

Automobiles and trains, allusions to the great outdoors, and the open road also serve as symbols of freedom in her songs, an ideal that still largely lived in the abstract for a rural black woman—and most all women—of Minnie’s generation. And though she might have done sung on the drudgery of domestic work, more often she chose not to: All these sides of Minnie, and what may also be perceived as her contradictions are explored throughout Woman With Guitar.

And you can’t tell me nothing, baby, that I never seen (2x)

And if you don’t believe me, follow me back to New Orleans

Among the new discoveries in this fresh edition of Woman With Guitar: Minnie, born Lizzie Douglas, was not from Algiers, Louisiana as was previously believed; rather, she is a Mississippian, like so many other legends of the blues, likely born in Tunica County around 1897. The eldest of 13, Lizzie or “Kid” as she was known, began to play guitar and banjo from age 10 or 11. She ran away from home to begin her career as a teenage guitarist on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, and joined the Ringling Brothers Circus for a few years. Returning to Beale Street, she fell in with friends in the Memphis Jug Band and was eventually discovered and signed to a Columbia recording contract in 1929. Her first sides, cut with “Kansas” Joe McCoy, were released that year and in 1930: Among the early songs, which remain her best-known were “Bumble Bee” and “When the Levee Breaks,” concerning the great Mississippi flood of 1927 (famously covered by Led Zeppelin).

Wild associations, side roads, and back doors are the Garons’ stock-in-trade, infusing their studies with an edge that the work by other scholars of classic American music forms often lacks; and yet, Woman With Guitar is no easy ride for casual readers who may need to delve deeper into America’s blues past to perceive the big picture.

When LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) described the makers of indigenous African American music as Blues People, he explored the idea that as musical innovators jazz and blues players could look misery in the face while never allowing despair or suffering the last word; music was their soul expression, a place where joy, pain, and liberation occupied the same truly free space, no matter one’s circumstances. Scholar Cornel West has furthered this idea in his ongoing dialogues suggesting, “These people are neither sentimental [nor] cynical; they’re blues people.” Blues people are willing to fight for what’s right and to be of service, “even when it did not look as if it would produce major consequences and effects.”

It’s unlikely Memphis Minnie was conscious of what she had to give or the ground she was breaking or taking—she was merely trying to survive America, the South, and escape her oppressors. Using her poetic and musical gifts, her expressions were samples of the life sustaining properties of song and the unconscious messages emitted when a poet puts pen to paper and gives voice to her soul. Given her circumstances, it’s miraculous that Minnie could read and write at all (any number of her contemporaries could not).

Paul Garon’s City Lights title, Blues and the Poetic Spirit, further defends the blues as a complex form, piled with as much meaning as so-called standard poetry has, if not more. Making the case that the blues is a “sustained poetic attack on the superstructure of an exploitative society,” he asserts the blues has made its own “psychopoetic” contribution to American music and social history. The same must be said for Minnie. Whether or not she is acknowledged by the masses, or the blueskeepers and tastemakers who reissue records is irrelevant.

“We have everything to gain if we interrogate our own level of consciousness about what we hear and how we hear it, in an effort to plumb the depths of responsibility toward the determination of the nature of the revolutionary poetic voice,” write the Garons. An offering to anyone interested in better understanding the blues and aiding in its survival, the Garons’ work has certainly made a difference in my own explorations, listenings and writings on blues. While there are no pat stories or explanations and few solutions to age old dilemmas on offer, Minnie’s story as a consummate artist against the odds will resonate with anyone who finds him or herself up against it in the here and now. Let Minnie’s life and work be a reminder that it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it that’s important.  May she continue to inspire and inform listeners for another 100 years or more.

Originally appeared in Blurt

Filed under: Blues, Books, Poetry, Women in Rock, ,

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,

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

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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.”  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

RIP: Mose Allison, 1927-2016

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Jazz-blues singer-songwriter and pianist Mose Allison is yet another extraordinary example of the ways in which the best (and by that I mean, the only good) American popular music made by white people borrows, steals, and is inspired by music that is tied to a root of African or African-American origin. American music is, as the narrative goes, where “the races meet;” the space where we walk right in, set right down and let it all hang out. While that is often the case, Black, Latino, other non-white, female, LGBTQ, and disabled musicians will tell you a different story; the contradictions are a part of the story too and must be aired out consistently to get the full picture. This is perhaps related or not to how Allison, a Mississippi-born white man came to sing cotton-picking songs on the piano and inspired a generation of rock musicians to look back and discover Bukka White, Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Dixon. When Allison opened his mouth to accompany his piano songs in 1963, he reached The Who, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, the Clash and the Pixies… and that’s only a fraction of the artists he touched.

 

Read the entire article at Down With Tyranny!

Filed under: anti-war, Blues, cross cultural musical experimentation, Jazz, ,

RIP: Leonard Cohen, 1934-2016

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As if Tuesday’s election result wasn’t enough to knock out poets, artists, activists, and other sentient beings, Thursday’s announcement that singer-songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen, 82, had died earlier in the week was simply too much bad news in an already unprecedented year of loss. Not only will Cohen obviously be missed by fans and fellow artists who relied on his wisdom, but women have rarely known an artist of Cohen’s generation who loved, admired, honored, respected, and employed them in the studio and on the road as consistently as he did.

The women in Cohen’s life were not simply ornaments, adjuncts, or names in song titles: Marianne, and Suzanne were famously real people as was Joan of Arc. But Cohen who notoriously loved the company of women, was also an advocate for working women artists and paid them (we hope equally as their male counterparts) to write with him, produce and engineer his records, and sing on the road. Even in the so-called liberal, open-minded and progressive music business, there are relatively few working female producers and engineers and too few top name recording artists who employ them. But Cohen consistently placed female collaborators in the highest levels of operation. That he should be such a hit with us is no surprise. Elevating women in song and verse is one thing but having the knowledge and humility to take our value into the workplace added a layer and depth to his own art. His actions are pretty much unprecedented in the male-dominated music business, unless I’m missing something: Jennifer Warnes, Sharon Robinson, Leanne Ungar, Perla Battala, Anjani Thomas, Julie Christensen and Rebecca De Mornay were among his most frequent collaborators; I’ve missed some, but you get the idea. Cohen’s biographer was Sylvie Simmons and Lian Lunson directed the 2005 concert film, I’m Your Man.

Read entire article at Down With Tyranny!

Filed under: Arts and Culture, new article, , ,

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,

Lit Up Inside: Van Morrison at 71

During San Francisco’s notoriously punishing, foggy summers, there are those who find itVan-Morrison extremely necessary to leave city limits and seek sun. On most days, it can be found shining a few short miles from the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, known the world over for its rich hippie homes of ’60s and ’70s rock stars. Though several decades have come and gone since Marin’s hot tub, water bed and peacock-feathered days, no matter how many times I drive north, down the long stretch of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and through San Anselmo toward the beaches, my wandering mind inevitably lands on one question: How could Van Morrison stand it here?

As most Morrison fans know, the redwood chapter of the Irish singer-songwriter’s story was relatively brief, compared to his life in music, now in its sixth decade. And yet the period beginning when he emigrated to America (coinciding with family life and a big burst of creativity) and ending with his three-year hiatus from performing and recording (following the release of Veedon Fleece) is notable: Morrison’s Bay Area tenure produced such an abundance of songs there was a surplus; moreover, they were consistently played on the radio and still are, forever ensuring his place in local music history. Van’s persistent presence, in and on-the-air here, has not only soundtracked our lives: it’s in our DNA, the songs passed on by Irish immigrant and hippie parents, down to their tattooed love children (and their children), even when concerning faraway characters like the “Brown-Eyed Girl” or “Madame George.” Chances are whether you live in Nor Cal, North Carolina, or Northern Ireland you feel this connection too, yet the combination of deep personal content and universal humanity tucked inside Morrison’s songs was largely lost on me until reading the verses as a whole in Lit Up Inside (City Lights, 2014), the first published collection of his lyrics, handpicked by the songwriter.

Van-Morrison-bookIt is within these songs—written in Morrison’s own Irish, romantic, soul code, with their carefully planned lines and studied notes and phrases, learned from jazz and classic blues and early rock ‘n’ roll—the story of Morrison’s life unfolds. Whether in the concise rock ‘n’ roll tale, “The Story of Them,” the timeless “Gloria,” “Lonely Sad Eyes,” and “Mystic Eyes,” or epics like “T.B. Sheets” and “Tore Down à la Rimbaud,” we get a glimpse into the people and places of Morrison’s heart, while every sha la la la la la la la la lala dee dah, every your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye rolls off his tongue with the same ease it does our own.

Rarely a day passes in which I don’t silently quote from Morrison’s common poems and prayers. In fact, it is from one song, “Domino,” from which I draw most phrases, using them as mantras (though not necessarily in the order they were written). Popping forth, just when I need them most, the words have saved me needless worry, disgrace, despair, disgust, and other things worse. Dig it: There’s no need for argument. Don’t want to discuss it. Think it’s time for a change. Get some heavy rest. There you go. Lord have mercy (not that Morrison holds a copyright on that bit).

While “Domino” isn’t included in Lit Up Inside (it doesn’t need to be), others that work similar magic are included: “Blue Money” (take five, honey—when this is all over, you’ll be in clover, etc.), “Saint Dominic’s Preview” (as we gaze out on, as we gaze out on), “The Great Deception,” (you don’t need it): All are timeless, rich, and just that much sweeter for capturing a place, a time, a San Francisco (or other locale) that no longer exists.

And then there are the hymns, so many of them, providing the book’s heft, conjuring the Almighty, and the music itself, and the ability to heal, whether for the skeptic in “Dweller on the Threshold” or the believer in “See Me Through Part II (Just a Closer Walk with Thee).” Literature serves as savior in “Summertime in England,” the book’s centerpiece, as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake and Eliot join the gospel of Mahalia Jackson in one hella hallelujah chorus. In his celebration of the oneness (“Rave on John Donne”) and explorations of the dark (“Tore Down à la Rimbaud”) there is an unremitting acceptance of the what is.

Even in what some might call the middle of the road songs, “Days Like This” and “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” Morrison provides simple truths served up by a full service songwriter, and the kind of warmth, companionship, healing, and love too often in short supply in real life (in spite of a reputation that has painted him as a bit gruff). Reading these works on the page I was not only mesmerized, but delivered to a place where recordings cannot always take me. I’m astonished by the depth of the songs, unaccompanied, and their illumination of the Vanness—of a life lived intentionally yet with imagination.

In keeping with the new tradition of assigning the task of writing about musicians to those who generally write on other subjects, Irish professor Eamonn Hughes, American poet David Meltzer and Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin provide the book’s largely personal front material. Both forwards include testimony of the ways in which music in general and Morrison specifically aid transition and provide a vision toward destinations unknown. All the contributions refer to Morrison’s Belfast past and soul while Meltzer makes a case for the Irish songman belonging to the City Lights family of outsider poets and dissidents. Though I had not previously given much thought to the idea of Morrison—maker of hit singles, taker of world tours and recognizable throughout the West and way beyond it—as an outsider, the songs compiled are certainly a validation that fitting in is for squares, being on trend is for the birds, and speaking one’s mind may not win you any popularity contests, but in the end, truth wins. Lit Up Inside is further evidence, as if more was needed, that Morrison’s burr takes us toward our own truths and serves as a guide for the weary and restless on their way home. An artist for the ages, his songs are timeless contributions to poetry, written and spoken word, and shall remain in the air, long after we’re gone and the very last foghorn blows.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Books, California, ,

“George Jackson” and Bob Dylan

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Against a backdrop of escalating war in Vietnam and social and political mayhem to accompany it at home, by the late ’60s and early ’70s, the conditions were perfect for hard-hitting topical rock and soul songs to step in and document the times. John Lennon put forth “Imagine,” the follow-up to his and Yoko Ono’s initial bursts of song devoted to giving peace a chance. Marvin Gaye voiced his concerns in “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler),” “What’s Going On?” and “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology),” while Cat Stevens boarded the “Peace Train” that would ultimately take him to study the Qur’an and inspire a conversion to Islam. At the height of the era of music for change, it was more or less expected serious artists would weigh in during times of trouble with a song. From the chart-busting Motown artists who began to draw from a repertoire that was Blacker and stronger, to the rush-released recording by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young of “Ohio” concerning the shooting tragedy at Kent State, the appetite for topical songs in the US was spurred on by their chart successes. Of course it was Bob Dylan’s early ‘60s pro-civil rights and anti-war songs that were the catalysts for the decade’s new strain of rock and soul music with a message.

Dylan’s arrival in Greenwich Village in 1961, to a scene informed equally by poetry and politics as it was jazz and folk, found him mastering pointed and topical song form early on, from “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” to “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Only A Pawn In Their Game,” “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”  He followed his first act with his famous retreat from political songs and folk music. Resisting the tag, “voice of a generation,” he leaned more toward poetical and philosophical lyric forms, rather than those polemical or topical and developed his own world of song perhaps best exemplified by the rambles, “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Desolation Row,” and other epics on the trilogy of albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde.  From 1966 through much of 1971 Dylan remained in self-imposed exile, off the road and away from the spotlight.

Making his way back to performing in public for the first time since his Isle of Wight concert in 1969, Dylan appeared at Madison Square Garden on August 1st, 1971 at the Concert for Bangladesh, the model for all of today’s all-star charity events. Organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, the rally for Bangladesh raised awareness and funds for the residents of East Pakistan and Bengal India, regions beset by complications of war plus a cyclone and the flooding and famine that followed. An already troubled region was now devastated, and as Shankar outlined the situation for concert-goers, Dylan helped to draw them, performing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” as well as a handful of more apolitical songs. Not long after the concert, on August 21, 1971, George Jackson was shot to death during an alleged prison escape and Dylan would once again  pluck his subject matter from the headlines, returning to his roots as a social and racial justice singer. One could suggest it was Harrison’s and Shankar’s example of engaging with the world outside their door that inspired Dylan’s subject, though perhaps it was more a matter of his coming to terms with his own gift for topical songs.
Dylan’s relationship to the political world and the matters he chooses to champion or protest have been the subject of much debate, discussion, and inspiration for over 50 years; his life and songs have been over-analyzed and well-examined, but the 1971 single, “George Jackson,” a remembrance for the radicalized convict and Black Panther who died in a San Quentin prison shoot-out remains one of his most intriguing cuts.  Not only does “George Jackson” mark the songwriter’s return to topical song form and to touring, its subject remains almost mysterious and misunderstood to the general audience as the singer himself.
Landing in California following a life on the streets of Chicago, a 70-dollar robbery is what landed Jackson in state prison, his sentence indeterminate. Jackson immediately found trouble on the inside too when guards took an instant dislike to him 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. However by 1969, J. Edgar Hoover had declared the Black Panthers to be public enemy number one and set out to decimate them. Nevertheless, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson was published in 1971 and was greeted by 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.
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 the 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

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

Filed under: Black Power,, Bob Dylan, California, Civil Rights, video, , , ,

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