Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

We Shall Overcome (Again)

This piece is adapted from an column that appeared in Paste in late 2011.

Alongside organizers, activists and orators, music people of all orientations have long brought the soul, sound, and heart to social and political movements. During 2011’s income disparity protests, the lionhearts of contemporary music  turned out for the Occupation: Ever-ready artist/activist Michael Franti showed up to “Yell Fire.” Talib Kweli, longtime resident in the trenches of conscious hip hop, dropped some rhymes, weighing in with a powerful piece called “Distraction”: “Skip the religion and the politics and head straight for the compassion, everything else is a distraction,” he rapped. Tom Morello, who as The Nightwatchman, shows up with his ax wherever injustice is served, came out to lead a chorus of “This Land is Your Land,” the old Woody Guthrie song that’s easy enough to sing along to, even if you don’t know the words. And the generally apolitical Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel delivered a rare, impromptu set of songs to the delight of Occupiers. In particular, the line “we know who are enemies are” from the fan favorite, “Oh Comely,” drew cheers from the crowd. Mangum’s appearance, if not his topically unspecific songs, provided the people with entertainment and support, the kind of unique companionship that only a song can provide in the cold, cold night.

“Our idea was to go down and raise their spirits,” said David Crosby, who with Graham Nash sang for the Zuccotti Park crowd. “What music is doing is unifying the people, bringing them together,” Nash told Rolling Stone.

“Everybody has a point, everybody has an idea everybody has a perspective on the world,” said rapper Lupe Fiasco when asked about musician participation in OWS. Stressing that celebrities are just like the rest of the occupiers, except in a higher tax bracket, he noted, “The leader is Occupy; it is the movement.”

Hip hop organizer and mogul Russell Simmons was among those on the street with the 99 percent; part of his role there was shepherding visitors like the Rev. Al Sharpton and Kanye West through the New York encampment.

The historic Occupy moment for social and economic equality was called by scholar Cornel West a “democratic awakening,” while throughout history, every freedom movement has had its own soundtrack or anthem for the long march home. And yet, there was not one dominant or lead song to emerge from the throng, an echo perhaps of the mass chorus of a movement without one soloist. Back in the high days of student organizations, protest and topical songs—the ’60s civil rights, free speech, anti-war and black power movements—marchers relied on folk tradition (reviving the old songs with the intention of forging something new). Rewriting spirituals for the secular world—or at least a world in which all faiths and traditions get equal respect—was an area mined by Pete Seeger, who along with Joan Baez, helped to turn “We Shall Overcome,” into an unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement (most memorably, Baez sang it at the 1963 historic March on Washington; Seeger sang it at OWS).

Originally based on the gospel song, “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” composed by the Rev. Charles Albert Tinley and dating back to the African American Methodist Episcopal Church of the early 1900s, “We Shall Overcome” has changed shape through the years; also contributing to the version as we know it were elements of the spiritual “We’ll Overcome (I’ll Be All Right)”, another hymn from the immediate post-slavery period. But it wasn’t long after its arrival in church hymnals that “I’ll Overcome Some Day” was picked up by striking miners and laborers who went on to use it throughout their organizing fights in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. Sung by miners in the North as well as tobacco workers in the South, “We Shall Overcome” became a staple at the Highlander Folk School, the training ground for civil rights workers. Highlander teacher Guy Carawan helped to popularize the song among the forming Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960 and the song was spread far and wide by Seeger who changed up the verses a bit. By and by, the melody to “We Shall Overcome” came closer to echoing another slave time spiritual, “No More Auction Block” (once sung by Paul Robeson and Odetta and used by Bob Dylan as the tune for “Blowin’ in the Wind”) than Tinley’s “I Shall Overcome” did. In essence, two folk standards emerged from one spiritual.

But more than its fairly tame melody, the strength of “We Shall Overcome” lies in its extraordinarily bold lyrical affirmations: We are not afraid/the truth shall make us free/we shall live in peace. These sentiments are as ripe for the current moment, as they were when the United Farm Workers used it in their fight for their rights, as when South Africans sang it in their struggle against Apartheid, and when Czechs sang it during the Velvet Revolution that overthrew communism. “We Shall Overcome” has been deployed in struggles in India and Ireland. It’s been sung by Bruce Springsteen and was recorded for his Seeger Sessions; Seeger, now in his ’90s, is still singing it. Though I’d say it’s time for someone from the youngest generation of American singers, songwriters and activists to adopt and adapt it, and lead the singalong. “We Shall Overcome” needn’t be consigned to folk’s moldy or buttoned-up past; rather, it’s protest gold, a song that hasn’t lost its value for over 50 years and counting. If it seems strange, update it. If it seems square, give it a beat. But traditional songs need to get sung and sung loud, as if your life depended on them because in fact there are people whose do: Overseas wars cost not only money but lives; poverty is killing people here at home. Workplace and housing discrimination, poor schools, environmental degradation, job disintegration—these are just some of the grievances that will end up in songs as the movement keeps moving on.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew what music could bring to a non-violent protest effort: he asked gospel great Mahalia Jackson to accompany him and Harry Belafonte to help organize his efforts. Belafonte’s life is a demonstration of just how important a role a singer can play in effecting change as well as how education in the arts can save young lives Nina Simone; Curtis Mayfield; Bob Marley; Peter, Paul and Mary; Sam Cooke; and many, many more singers and musicians contributed to positive social change and quite possibly political change with their music. You may laugh at this notion of change, but people from all walks of life, all genders, all religious backgrounds, colors and sexual orientation, here and elsewhere in the world, are standing up to the indignities served up to their communities.

So here’s to you, activists and musicians: To Michael Franti, Pete Seeger, Tom Morello, Talib Kweli, Boots Riley, Ozomatli and Ben Harper:  Every movement, from abolition to women’s suffrage to labor and civil rights has its songs, and this moment in time has its songs too. Thank you—to the singers and your songs—songs that one night might be the only thing between the darkness, cold, tear gas and rubber bullets raining on someone’s soul. Thank you for singing, so that we shall all overcome, someday.

Origin of Song columnist Denise Sullivan is the author of Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip-Hop.

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Filed under: anti-war, Hip Hop, income disparity, Occupy Wall Street, Origin of Song, Protest Songs, Songs for the Occupation

Nina Simone Would’ve Been 80 Today…

“I want to shake people up. I want to shake people up more.” These words were once spoken by international super-artist Nina Simone. It’s safe to say she succeeded with her mission: More than 50 years after her debut, few can match Simone’s supreme gifts as a vocalist, pianist, and arranger, the diversity of her repertoire, and the way those songs rattled consciences. Her music’s agelessness, as well as her delivery, has kept the melodies, as well as her message, fresh. And though her contribution to rock ‘n’ roll isn’t the first thing you may think of when it comes to her virtues, Simone was what we call a rocker: Her fierce attitude and the way she adapted some of rock’s best-known songs contributed toward getting across her message of true liberation.

“What we were looking for then was to shake people out of their complacency,” says Al Schackman, Simone’s musical soulmate and foremost collaborator. Schackman served as the genre-defying artist’s musical director, as well as a multi-instrumentalist, guitarist, and musical companion for just about the entirety of her career; the pair shared what both have described as a rare, telepathic communication that served them onstage as well as off. Much of their work together was compiled in 2008 on the four-disc set To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story, which includes a hefty slice of Simone’s “rock” repertoire alongside the jazz, folk, standards, and originals for which she is otherwise famous.

“If you wanted to classify her, she said she was a folk artist,” says Schackman, a Greenwich Village folk scene regular himself, though that isn’t necessarily the kind of folk Simone was talking about. She sang the songs indigenous to a country’s and people’s origins, from New Orleans and the “House of the Rising Sun” to Nigeria and Olatunji’s “Zungo”; she also interpreted Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” and the European ballad “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”, among other folk tunes.

For the album To Love Somebody, she took on “Turn! Turn! Turn!” from the folk-rock canon and turned it into a laidback jam. What Pete Seeger had borrowed from the Bible and what the Byrds turned into a reverent folk-rock cover, Simone deconstructed, finding the song’s soul. Another one of her great performances is the self-celebratory “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life” from Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. She turned in versions of singer-songwriter classics like Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, and Randy Newman’s “Baltimore.” And while George Harrison and Richie Havens were songwriters she relied on more than once, their guitar strums and worldviews apparently music to her ears, she could also sing the blues. Simone was a full-service song interpreter.

“Oh yeah, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins,” says Schackman. “‘I Put a Spell on You.’ He wrote that song like a comedy, like he was the big magician, having fun with it. When she did it, it was dead serious… ‘I put a spell on you, the things you do, don’t you lie’… it was a warning. She’s tellin’ her man, ‘You’d better be cool.’ We did the Guinness Blues Festival in Dublin and Screamin’ Jay was there too, and he came back into the dressing room and he kneeled down in front of her and said, ‘The song was never done ’til you did it.’

“When she did a piece of music, she would claim it as her own. Because it would change totally,” he says, pointing to a version of “Revolution” by the Beatles, as customized by Simone for her own purposes in 1969, one of the most famously intense years in 20th century history.

“The people were directly involved and affected by what was going on… she wanted to make sure that they were really shaken out of what she felt was their sleep. One of the ways that we did that was like really blasting off on the tune, ‘Revolution’, where at the end we try to set off an atomic bomb, that kind of thing. People weren’t expecting that out of her at that time. To all intents and purposes, that one particular piece was a real departure from what her music was known for. It bordered on—I can’t say rock—but it kind of had that feeling.

“In the interludes, in the little breaks, she wanted me to get as far out as possible on the guitar. I used a slide to just really be able to make like explosive sounds… I would be playing notes using the slide,” as when Schackman plays the familiar Elmore James lick the Beatles borrowed for “For You Blue.” “But in the end, I took that slide and just went nuts on it, totally explosive.”

Simone had a rare musical gift, and her commitment as a fierce freedom fighter elevated her stature as an internationally understood and sometimes misunderstood vocalist. Her uncompromising attitude at crossing music with politics put her in a class with musical rebels, from Marvin Gaye and Chuck D to Bob Dylan and John Lennon. Not only did she use her originals like “Mississippi Goddam” and “Four Women” to convey her feelings on race matters, she worked in established pieces like Brecht-Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” to rouse audiences. “‘Pirate Jenny’ will scare the hell out of you the way she did it,” says Schackman. “There were people that came to concerts, like a family with a young kid… and during that song they’d leave. They’d get up and leave the concert ’cause of her language. She was ‘Pirate Jenny.’”

I asked Schackman how he tackled Simone’s notoriously fiery nature. “At times it was very difficult. A couple of times it was dangerous,” he says, though he maintains that Simone’s unpredictable disposition contributed positively to her creative process, especially to her unparalleled intensity onstage. “It helped her to be able to take on different characters. On one night, a song might have one type of character, and on another night, it would have a totally different character. It was wonderful—amazing.” He seeks to clarify that drugs never fueled her: “I can tell you she wasn’t a junkie. She didn’t do dope.”

As Simone famously shifted gears from Duke Ellington to Jimmy Webb, there were certain songwriters she favored: She wrapped her voice around Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, “Just Like a Woman”, and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” as well as the perhaps unlikely Bee Gees, who she ended up covering four times. She gave a psychedelic soul shot to “To Love Somebody”, turned in a breezy “In the Morning”, and also laid down two lesser-known numbers, “Please Read Me” and “I Can’t See Nobody.” According to the liner notes of To Be Free, Simone was turned on to the British-Australian trio by Animals singer, Eric Burdon.

Schackman tells a story of the night in 1964, backstage at the Village Gate, when Simone and Burdon first met. “One time, Art D’Lugoff, the owner of the Village Gate, brought an artist back to see Nina, and he said he was like, her biggest fan. He told her what a fan he was and that she had inspired him… and she attacked him for stealing her song… this white guy had stolen ‘her song.’  I’ll never forget that. He was scared half out of his mind.”

It was Schackman’s understanding that the Animals scoring a hit with “House of the Rising Sun”, a song sung famously by Simone, Bob Dylan, Odetta, and countless others, was what sparked her ire for him. In Burdon’s take on the meeting, the meeting occurred at least a year later, at which time the origin of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, the 1964 Simone track which the Animals hit with in ’65, was up for debate.

“So you’re the honky motherfucker who stole my song and got a hit out of it,” says Simone, according to Burdon in the book not-coincidentally titled Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. Burdon laid on Simone an accusation of her own song-thievery; she responded by warming up to him, and the pair would go on to become friends.

“If she did a piece of music, she would change it completely, not even thinking about it. She wouldn’t be concerned necessarily of where it came from or whom it came from. It’s only what it meant to her,” says Schackman. Some of her most evocative versions emerge when she does Dylan. “Like ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’.’ She was very aware of the meaning and the spirit inside of that song,” says Schackman. She delivers Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” in a more somber, less sharp mood than the writer’s own. She also recorded “Ballad of Hollis Brown”, Dylan’s story of a starving farmer who kills himself and his family out of desperation. “It’s one of my favorite pieces I ever did with her, just the two of us,” says Schackman. “It’s an amazing piece of work.

“We were one. We had a telepathy,” he says, and it’s an idea Simone echoes in her autobiography. “… Al was right there with me from the first moment, as if we had been playing together all our lives. It was more than that even: It was as if we were one instrument split in two, I, the piano, Al, the guitar. I had never felt so much freedom in playing; knowing that someone knew where I was going and I knew where he was going. It was like telepathy—we couldn’t lose each other. And Al had perfect pitch, too, so I never had to tell him what key to play.”

“There was never any telling how she would craft a piece of music,” says Schackman. “I honestly have to say, I never really heard her sing or perform a piece of music the same way twice. That’s what I loved about it and that’s what made it difficult for other musicians to play with us. There would be times when we would be playing “The Other Woman” in E flat, and she would take it down to D, three tones, because she was in a certain mood and her voice didn’t want to be that low. Sometimes her voice didn’t want to be that high. She wouldn’t tell you and so as soon as she played her first note, I’d have to whisper over to the bass player the key.

“We were exposed to all kinds of things, and I would bring things to her and she would bring things to me,” explains Schackman. “She listened more to recordings. We’d sometimes hear stuff driving around in the car. She didn’t go in anybody’s direction. She was beyond anyone’s direction,” he says. “A lot of times she was difficult… there were times in her career that she wouldn’t work with anybody and it was just the two of us. I played guitar, bass, conga drums, sitar, vibraphone, running around the stage, depending on the piece of music. To me, that was some of the highest stuff. There was nothing in our way.”

The “Jazz” Age

Nina Simone entered this world on February 21, 1933 as Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina. Her mother was a Methodist minister and her father was an odd jobber; their child’s musical life started officially at four, singing and playing piano as a member of her mother’s AME church choir. Encouraged and supported by teachers and townspeople, she made it to the Juilliard School, though when she wasn’t accepted for further study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, she took the blow personally; perceiving her exclusion as an act of racism, she carried the wound with her for the rest of her days.

Out of school, she sought work as an accompanist and developed a following at an Atlantic City piano bar, though fearing her mother would not approve of a daughter in the cabaret business, she went undercover and changed her name to Nina Simone. Her first album, Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club (also known as Little Girl Blue) was released in 1958. It was a huge success—one of those late ’50s records that every American household seemed to have—riding largely on the strength of Simone’s Billie Holiday-inspired take on “I Loves You, Porgy” from the popular musical Porgy and Bess.

“She was put in a jazz category, but she very strongly said she was not a jazz artist,” says Schackman. He and Nina bonded when the two were holding down respective “jazz” gigs in 1957 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. “I was playing with my group at a club in New Hope. She was playing solo at a bistro that was part of the Bucks County Playhouse Inn, a very nationally known summer theater. Some people heard me playing and thought it would be great if the two of us would play together, so they asked her, and she said okay, and they brought me down one evening. She looked at me for a second and didn’t say anything, didn’t even tell me what she was going to play and just started her introduction to ‘Little Girl Blue.’ Her introduction was a Bach piece called ‘Good King Wenceslas’—they play it at Christmas. I knew what key she was in and I felt where she was going. So she started on a fugue, a counterpoint, and she got to the first section of it and I came in with a third part. She looked up at me and that was it. She went into her song and we had a three-part invention going and she suddenly comes in with this beautiful little love ballad that was amazing—it blew me away. I’ve never heard anybody be able to isolate music and then sing something totally different on top of it. That was our meeting and we just blew each other away. Afterward she said, ‘I would like you to come for tea… 2 o’clock on Sunday afternoon,’ and gave me the directions to her house. She turned to leave, then turned around and said, ‘And bring your guitar.’”

He explains that they shared bonds that went beyond music. “She was raised in a rural setting, as was I. We both related to that and talked about being footloose and fancy free. She had the church and she came into music through the church and I came in listening to all kinds of music from Hebraic to Indian music. She just totally dug that I went to all those places because those were places she’d go by herself and I’d be able to go with her, playing in the tradition of where she was.”

Schackman says he knew something extremely important happened that day in Bucks County, but where it would lead, he had no idea. Due to a prior studio engagement with Burt Bacharach, he missed the recording session for Little Girl Blue, the album that would begin Simone’s journey away from the piano bars and onto the international stage. In addition to “I Loves You, Porgy”, the album also contained one of her most beloved numbers, “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”

Considering the keys and time changes, the mastery of her instruments and the improvisatory nature of her performances, it’s easy to understand why Simone would find herself classified under the catch-all of jazz. A set list that included “Mood Indigo”, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”, and “Wild Is the Wind” would perhaps underscore that classification. But as Simone told author LaShonda Katrice Barnett in the book, I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters and Their Craft, “There are those who think jazz is scatting and nonsense. Jazz is associated with drugs, alcohol, and degradation. I have always resented the label because jazz is not what I play or how I live… I play black classical music, which I feel includes all of the forms I experiment with—the classical tradition, gospel, rhythm and blues, popular music.”

Jazz, or any category, simply could not hold a massive force like Simone. Inspired by the Civil Rights struggle and her socially conscious, artistic friends like Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin, Simone embarked on her political path. She came out strong with “Mississippi Goddam”, her self-penned anthem that transcends genre description
and is perhaps her most recognized composition.

“When I heard about the bombing of the church in which the four little black girls were killed in Alabama, I shut myself up in a room and that song happened. Medgar Evers had been recently slain in Mississippi. At first I tried to make myself a gun… then Andy, my husband at the time, said to me—he said to me, ‘Nina, you can’t kill anyone. You are a musician. Do what you do,’” Simone told author Barnett.

Schackman suggests that, artistically and politically, things had already begun to break open for Simone following their visit to Africa in 1960. “A big influence was when Baba Olatunji took us to Africa for a big international festival, to Nigeria. That was really the beginning of her African traditions.”

Simone brought to the stage African rhythms as well as style—hairdos, jewelry, fabrics—alongside the politics of liberation. She became emphatic against “the injustices of black people, of third world people.” Her song “Four Women” grew from conversations she’d had with black women about personally political issues like hair, skin tone, and body image. And yet, she isn’t among the voices more associated with the Civil Rights Movement in America. I ask Schackman to clarify this somewhat misinterpreted side of Simone’s life.

“She didn’t want to do benefits. She was not non-violent,” says Schackman, a practitioner of Sufism who was also deeply involved in the movement, as a player for singer and activist Harry Belafonte.

“A lot of people in the movement for a long time thought she wasn’t interested in the movement. She was so much bigger than just that. I remember a time at some kind of a civil rights function, cocktail party thing, I was standing with her and somebody came up to her and said, ‘Nina, how come you’re not interested in civil rights?’ She looked at them and she was screaming, ‘Civil rights? I don’t have to be interested in civil rights. I am civil rights.’”

As time went on, Simone became more and more disenfranchised from America, its politics, and its audiences. In 1970, she moved to Barbados; the singer/activist and her friend, Miriam Makeba, suggested she move to Liberia, where Simone would go on to claim she lived some of her happiest days (she wrote “Liberian Calypso” in tribute). She also lived in Europe, and eventually France became her home until her death from breast cancer in 2003.

“I don’t like this country,” Simone told author Barnett. “I never did. America will sell her soul for money. You see this everywhere. People selling themselves, their mothers, brothers, and sisters for money. Black people don’t get their due here… I couldn’t live here if I wanted to because I have to stand up for my rights and those rights of black people everywhere. I’m sure they would find a way to silence me.

“Now that I am older, I realize I can’t change the world, but I still believe that if anyone can, it is the artist. It is always through art that society changes—not politics or even education. Art and music especially speaks to people more than government and education. Why do you think great nations have patronage for their artists?”

And yet, there is one form of art that Simone did not embrace and that was rap music. “It is another way that America has learned to sell us. Slavery has never been abolished from this country’s way of thinking.” Uninspired by music and America, author Barnett asked Nina Simone, inspiration to so many singers, writers, and activists, where she receives her inspiration.

“Nothing made in America inspires me now. I wish that a young black American leader would come along and lead his people out of darkness. That would inspire me.”

—originally published on June 5, 2009 in Crawdaddy!


Filed under: Nina Simone, , ,

“Sister Rosa”

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 and an active member of her local chapter of the NAACP in Montgomery, but 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 will be honored this year), to the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded to her by President Bill Clinton) and the Congressional Gold Medal.  But 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 liable to slap you with a legal action or a boycott. “Sister Rosa,” a tribute to her by New Orleanians, the Neville Brothers, appears to have passed the test (though atypically for the Nevilles, it’s a rap track, taken from their 1989 album, Yellow Moon).

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 100 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., Harry Belafonte, , , , , , , ,

We Insist! Freedom Now

Two albums credited for fusing the politics of black liberation with the sound of freedom are Sonny Rollins’s Freedom Suite—the first experiment in 1958—and We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite— the fulfillment of the form. Born for the record in rural North Carolina on January 10 (by his family’s recollection it was the 8th) 1924, and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Roach was not only an innovative drummer who revolutionized jazz rhythms, he was actively engaged as a civil rights advocate and performed frequently for the cause.  His Freedom Now Suite was initially conceived as a performance piece to coincide with the fast-approaching centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963:  Fifty years later, as the historic document that freed all slaves celebrates its 150th anniversary, Roach’s piece with vocals by his then-wife Abbey Lincoln, (with Coleman Hawkins on sax, Olatunji on congas and lyrics by Oscar Brown Jr.) sounds as radical as the ’60s revolution in words and sound it helped to launch.freedomnow

The cover art, in bold black and white, was groundbreaking graphic and image-wise in its depiction of three African American men at a lunch counter, a white waiter standing by, a reference of course to the sit-in on February 1, 1960 at a Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s store that became a pivotal action in the non-violent fight for civil rights. But inside the cardboard sleeve, the vinyl grooves were an assault on the senses, capturing as they did the sound of exploitation, degradation, and ultimately, freedom. A sonically and politically strong statement, the Freedom Now Suite is a cornerstone recording in the history of contemporary black liberation music and remains a challenging, invigorating, and inspiring listen for anyone interested in such things. Making a link between the oppression of blacks throughout the world, Roach and other politically motivated American artists like Harry Belafonte and Nina Simone sought to parallel the civil rights movement in the US with the unfolding liberation of Kenya, Ghana, Congo, and Algeria. Dubbed the Year of Africa, 1960 held hope for the continent for independence from France, Britain, and Belgium and the promise that human rights, dignity, and economic health would be restored throughout the land.  Fifty-three years later, the people here and there continue the fight for human rights, and the chance to be emancipated from the conditions of poverty, ill-health, environmental crisis, and violence that defines both our lands, while Freedom Now Suite still pounds out the sound of impending liberation.

The following clip depicts civil rights power couple Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln with their band performing the suite’s “Triptych (Prayer/Protest/Peace)” on Belgian television in 1964. Roach passed in 2007, though in his lifetime he he’d been a recipient of the USA’s MacArthur genius award, a commandeur in France’s Ordre des Artes et les Lettres, and a RIAA (Grammy) honoree. Read more on both Rollins, Roach, and their respective Freedom Suites in Keep on Pushing.

Filed under: Civil Rights, France, Freedom Now, Harry Belafonte, Jazz, Keep On Pushing, Nina Simone, video, , , ,

“All I Want is the Truth”

Remembering John Lennon (October 9, 1940—December 8, 1980) today, I offer an excerpt from Keep on Pushing and a clip from The Dick Cavett Show.john

“Upon the release of Some Time in New York City in June of 1972, critics and consumers decreed that a heavy does of politics with their music was not what the people ordered. The album became the couple’s worst-received recording in their catalog.  “We thought it was really good,” says Yoko Ono.  Though Dylan had a hit with “George Jackson” and the Rolling Stones wrote “Sweet Black Angel” for Angela Davis, Lennon and Ono took the most heat of all for supporting radical ideals in song, and Ono got her fair share of abuse. “I wasn’t heardthen.  Ok, I was heard, and then they trashed me for it,” she says.  And yet the prescience of the concerns that the Lennons reaised in the high-era of public protest and their position at the vanguard of musical revolution —-raising ideas like making art and music for peace, standing together, and suggesting we engage in small acts of human kindness as a way to change the vibration of the world—were deemed threatening to national security and rejected by fans. With his commercial potency at a low ebb and his position on nonviolence officially committed to government documents [translation: he was for peace], one might think there was no case for the US government against the Englishman and his Japanese wife.  But their problems with the immigration service and the Nixon White House had only just begun…”

Filed under: Angela Davis, anti-war, Interview, Keep On Pushing, , , , , , , , ,

Goodnight, Lead Belly

leadbellyLead Belly died on Dec. 6 1949.  This is part of his story, adapted from my old Crawdaddy! column, The Origin of Song.

“I’m obsessed with him. He’s my favorite performer,” said Kurt Cobain. “No Lead Belly, no Beatles,” claimed George Harrison, and the same may as well be said for Led Zeppelin, whose Jimmy Page was rocking “Cotton Fields” back in 1957. According to Van Morrison, “If it wasn’t for Lead Belly, I may never have been here.” And yet, Lead Belly—born Huddie Ledbetter near Mooringsport, Louisiana in 1888—is rarely the first traditional American musician historians credit with the creation of rock ‘n’ roll or the bands of the British Invasion. His contribution to rock is as fundamental and profound as those of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, so why is it we don’t hear that much anymore about his legend? Perhaps it can be blamed on the boll weevil he sung about—and it indeed may have something to do with cotton—though the diminishment of Lead Belly’s influence on rock is likely just another case of the forgotten origins of song.

The Louisianan’s sound first came to impact the young lads who would go on to form the classic rock bands of the ’60s via the British Isle’s mid-’50s skiffle craze. Rooted in the jug band style of the 1920s, skiffle’s homemade and improvised style relied on the wacky sounds of household items like washboard, comb, and homemade instruments—the stuff that makes for its irresistible, ecstatic sound. Glaswegian Lonnie Donegan’s frantic version of “Rock Island Line”, first popularized by Lead Belly, swept across the land like skiffle-mania, boosting guitar sales and launching a thousand bands, like young Jim Page’s combo as well as the Quarrymen (who we all know by now birthed the Beatles).

For Morrison—who’d already developed a taste for the blues voices of the American South—skiffle provided confirmation of the potential for what an Irishman could do with a black American folk sound. The Lead Belly repertoire meeting English skiffle marked the beginning of his long association with rock ‘n’ roll; though stateside he was more of a singular phenomenon, as well as a folker.

Coming up through traditional, mythological American folkways, it is said that folklorist John Lomax discovered Lead Belly during the singer’s stay at Angola, the Louisiana state penitentiary (it was his third incarceration). It was there that Lomax and his son Alan recorded songs by him for the Library of Congress, some of them passed on to Lead Belly through his association with Blind Lemon Jefferson; among them was the standard “Goodnight Irene”, which eventually became Lead Belly’s calling card. As one version of the story goes, Lomax pressed a record of Lead Belly and presented it to the state’s governor, who was so taken with it that the prison doors unlocked for his release. So off went Lomax and Lead Belly, at this point close to 50 years old, to New York and toward a career in show business.

As a late-comer to the game, Lead Belly was not in on the earliest rush of race records in the 1920s and 1930s, and so it was his less-than-polished Lomax recordings that would come to define him; that may be one contributing factor toward explaining a present-day resistance to a full embrace of Lead Belly as pre-rock ‘n’ roller. Additionally, Lomax’s song-catcher practices are a source of controversy and a sore subject among blues researchers. Objections to the way Lead Belly was discovered, promoted, and recorded are cited; indeed, shortly after his initial agreement with him, it appears Lead Belly found the arrangement with Lomax unacceptable too. Though not long after severing ties with Lomax (he would eventually resume relations with the Lomax family) Lead Belly accepted a press opportunity to be photographed, costumed in black and white prisoner’s attire, performing his role of ex-convict made good. By the end of the ’30s, he’d gone on to find success writing topical songs (“The Bourgeois Blues”) and fell in with the left-leaning protest singing community—though he didn’t necessarily abide its progressive politics. His association with fellow travelers, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, found the FBI hunting him as well. What Lead Belly, the folksinger, really desired was to launch a career in Hollywood, but that wasn’t meant to be.

None of these political or personal, salient or picayune points debated by historians or surveyed here concerned the queen of civil rights music, Odetta. She cut straight to the emotional delivery and content of Lead Belly’s songs and made his work her guidepost throughout her long career; she was the bridge to folk rock. “When I started in the years of folk music, it was a discovery,” she said to an audience at UCLA in 2008. As part of a self-directed exploration of her cultural heritage, she came upon the Lomax recordings in the 1950s and recognized in Lead Belly’s songs the sound of slavery, “my people,” she said. Her earliest recordings include Ledbetter arrangements of “Alabama Bound” and “Take This Hammer”, released in 1956 and 1957 respectively; she is famously credited for inspiring Dylan to pick up the acoustic guitar. Dylan’s recording debut (prior to his own solo album, on which he name-checked Lead Belly) came as a harmonica player, for calypso and Lead Belly fan Harry Belafonte, who cut the traditional “Midnight Special” for his 1962 album of the same title. Belafonte had previously recorded Lead Belly’s composition “Cotton Fields” in 1959, one of the songs that gets covered and covered by artists diverse as Buck Owens to Buckwheat Zydeco (young Jimmy Page played it with his skiffle band). By 1969, when Creedence Clearwater Revival covered both “Cotton Fields” and “Midnight Special” for their Willy and the Poor Boys album, doing Lead Belly had become a rock ‘n’ roll requirement or at the very least a very trendy thing to do—even the Beach Boys had a hit with “Cotton Fields.”

In 1970, Led Zeppelin got the Lead out when they turned “Gallis Pole” into “Gallows Pole” on their adventures in acoustic folk album, III. First recorded by Lead Belly in 1939 as “Gallis Pole”, the song is based on “The Maid Freed from the Gallows”, likely of Scandinavian origin and run through the British ballad tradition. Page first heard the song as arranged by Fred Gerlach. “He’d been influenced originally by Lead Belly,” Page is quoted as saying in Led Zeppelin: The Definitive Biography, though Zeppelin was certainly not unaware of Lead Belly. “He was one of the main movers when I was a kid,” says Robert Plant (quoted in Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures, also the source for the endorsements by Harrison, Cobain, and Morrison above). Plant and his collaborator, Alison Krauss, first bonded musically at a Lead Belly tribute concert. Perhaps there is more to the story of how they got the Led in their name than goes the legend of John Entwistle’s joke about the potential for a supergroup to fall flat, “like a lead zeppelin.”

But like cotton, the King of the 12-String could not remain king forever. Them old cotton fields back home were beginning to recede from popular consciousness as songs of urban discontent began to take their place. In addition, the Rolling Stones, who had previously brought their audience to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, were now touting Robert Johnson. Their 1969 version of his song “Love in Vain” preceded to the market place the 1970 release of King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 2, with its new cache of Johnson songs. The Johnson and Delta influence remains a big deal to this day, its legends and iconography completely enmeshed with blues culture as we know it. Lead Belly’s prison songs, children’s songs, and field and work songs didn’t fit so neatly into bluesology, and rock became a Lead-free zone, with a few notable exceptions.

In 1977, Ram Jam put some Southern rock funk into Lead Belly’s “Black Betty,”  though the Top 20 single wasn’t a hit with critics or (according to lore) with racial equality groups. The track played Lead Belly’s rock potential to maximum effect (though it is regrettable if anyone got hurt by it). As the ’80s arrived, punk rock and new wave took Lead Belly underground with it, as Bongwater, Michelle Shocked, and X became keepers of the flame. Proudly in synch with the pulse of the people and the hard times that echoed his original era, X turned “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” into an elegy for a loved one and revived “Rock Island Line” with their folky side project, the Knitters.” A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly joined Little Richard and Fishbone on “Rock Island Line” and Beach Boy Brian Wilson came back for another pass at Lead Belly on “Goodnight Irene”, though the project did more for boosting the rock cred of Guthrie (who got the Springsteen and Mellencamp treatment) than it did for Lead Belly.

From there, it was on to the Pacific Northwest and under the bridge where Kurt Cobain lived. The Nirvana man brought his tape of Lead Belly songs to his band’s earliest rehearsals; he and fellow founding grunge scenester Mark Lanegan shared an enthusiasm for him, as heard on their duet of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” (found on Lanegan’s The Winding Sheet album). Nirvana’s definitive performance of the song on Unplugged was an immediate highlight of that show, when Cobain’s guttural wrenching was assumed to be tied to his personal life and precarious emotional states. It’s hard to top that one, though when Alvin Youngblood Hart rejuvenated “Gallows Pole” in Lead Belly-style on his 1996 album, Big Mama’s Door, he brought back Lead Belly’s quickness and dexterity on his instrument full circle: Just man and guitar.

Lead Belly lived out his final days in New York, eventually succumbing to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 1949. Had he lived another year, he would’ve seen his signature song, “Goodnight Irene”, turned into a million-seller, a #1 hit as interpreted lightly by the Weavers. The overlooked genius of Lead Belly is that his songs and mighty rearrangements continue to transgress genres and generations, from folk to rock, from Pete Seeger to Jack White. Just think what we would’ve missed had Jimmy Page pursued a career in research science as he’d intended rather than picking his way to the top of the “Gallows Pole.” By the 21st century, the White Stripes played “Red Bird” and “Take a Whiff on Me”, and if the show went well, they’d close it with “Boll Weevil”, yet another folk tune popularized by Lead Belly. I’ve heard of Two Gallants playing “Mother’s Blues” aka “Little Children’s Blues” live, though only time can tell who’ll be the next in line to shine an ever-lovin’ light on the songs of Lead Belly.

Filed under: Blues, , , , , , , ,

Hello Mumia, Goodbye Columbus

There is only one voice like Mumia Abu-Jamal’s, its tone perfect for professional broadcasting, and its message carrying necessary information for our times.  But Abu-Jamal as most people know, is not an announcer by trade; better known as Mumia to the worldwide community of human rights activists who support his case, the former radio journalist has been serving time in prison for 30 years now. He has spent much of that time writing and appealing his case.

In a new film, Long Distance Revolutionarywhich made its worldwide premiere over Columbus Day Weekend at the Mill Valley Film Festival, filmmaker Stephen Vittoria and co-producer/Prison Radio sound recordist Noelle Hanrahan, make a compelling case that Mumia’s situation as a prisoner for life is more than a miscarriage of justice:  Rather than rehash the circumstances that lead to the incarceration of the journalist/activist forced to moonlight as a cabbie, they shine a light on how he’s used the misfortune as prophetic opportunity, to become a voice for the voiceless.

In the film, Angela Davis, Amy Goodman, Alice Walker, Cornel West, Tariq Ali, Ruby Dee and James Cone are among the scholars, theologians, journalists, actors, activists, writers, colleagues, and family members who speak to the important role Mumia, the writer as political prisoner, plays on the world stage, as he reflects the revolutionary’s role in contemporary American society. Through interviews, news reel footage, photographs and most of all, interviews and sound recordings of Abu-Jamal, Long Distance Revolutionary tells the story of an intuitive and self-described “nerd” of a child, Wesley Cook, who journeyed into the Black Panthers, then followed his call to report on his city as he saw it, much to the distaste of its notoriously racist law enforcement. Of course, that’s business as usual in the land of the free; the mystery that unfolds onscreen is more to the point: Just how does a death row inmate as sharp as Mumia keep his mind in shape and his spirit alive while the state does its job squeezing the life out of him? Of particular note are the words of his literary agent Frances Goldin who I’m unable to quote here, but who was sufficiently moved by Mumia’s prose to take a chance on him.  Of course the most resounding voice of all is Mumia’s own which can be read in his multiple books in print all over the world; it can also be heard on Prison Radio, still recorded by Noelle Hanrahan.  For the Mill Valley premiere, Mumia delivered an address, especially recorded for the Bay Area which he remembered from visiting once as having a “luscious sun,” where he, “a tall, skinny, dark sunflower,” could be among some of the “best, boldest, blackest, sweetest” brothers and sisters he claims to have known.

Curiously, the film’s only musical voice was M-1 of Dead Prez; traditionally, it is musicians who sing out for injustice, in the way that Bob Dylan once did for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (who also appears in the film), indirectly leading to his exoneration. Eddie Vedder’s recording of  “Society” (previously associated with the feature film, Into the Wild,  concerning environmentalist/adventurer, Christopher McCandless), serves as a closing theme. So where are the other contemporary Musicians for Mumia? According to director Vittoria, the usual suspects were approached, but only Vedder responded to the urgency of the call.

Abu-Jamal was taken off death row late last year; he remains sentenced for life without possibility of parole and lives among the general prison population at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy. But the system has not vanquished his spirit or his message. Mumia is on move: Long Distance Revolutionary is on its way to festivals in Denver, Copenhagen and New York City.  It opens in wider release in February of 2013.  Here’s the trailer.

Filed under: Angela Davis, film, France, Keep On Pushing, Reviews, , ,

Len Chandler and the March on Washington

photo of Len Chadler at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival by John Rudoff.

August 28 marks the 49th anniversary of the the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Among those assembled to help Dr. King push forward his dream of racial harmony and economic justice on that day was Len Chandler, one of the voices in a trio that included Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Chandler would march with Dr. King and travel through out 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-vanished 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 tracks the origins of freedom music, and its roots in African American struggle and triumph.

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,” Dylan wrote.

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.  I must say it was a privilege to meet one of the true unsung heroes of singing activism (as well as his wife Olga James, a pioneering performer in her own right), and to 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. If there is any chance that Harry Belafonte intends to organize the musical presentation for next year’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I hope he will consider issuing an invitation to Chandler for another chorus of “Eyes on the Prize”  (hold on).

Filed under: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Folk, Freedom Now, , , , , , ,

In Memory of RFK, 6/6/68

From the text of Keep on Pushing, page 76.

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was preparing his bid for the presidency, looking as if he would surely be the one chosen to lead his country through the deep water. Like Dr. King, he had grown in favor of withdrawing troops from Vietnam. From his seat on Capitol Hill, he had become a fierce advocate of civil rights and economic justice and the social programs to accompany those ends, supported by a progressive belief within his faith. Following his victory in the California primary election, on June 5, 1968, he too was shot down, two months after the loss of Dr. King.

Has anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?

So went the Dick Holler song, “Abraham, Martin and John,” it’s final verse devoted to “Bobby.” Written in response to the 1968 assassinations, it was first recorded by Dion DiMucci; Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and Harry Belafonte were also moved to record the song, as were others as time and the years wore on.

In this clip, Smokey Robinson sings and talks a bit about what the song has meant to him, during a 2010 performance at the  White House.

Filed under: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harry Belafonte, Keep On Pushing, , , , , ,

The Nightwatchman’s Songs of the Free

Last month, Harry Belafonte passed the torch of singing activism to Tom Morello and presented him with the Officer’s Award from the Sidney Hillman Foundation, honoring excellence in journalism in service of the common good. From Libertyville, Illinois and Los Angeles, California to Madison, Wisconsin and Occupy Wall Street, this weekend Morello, also known as the Nightwatchman, brought his songs to Chicago, where he stood with the National Nurses United and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Against the War and is scheduled to play a Woody Guthrie Centennial celebration.  Earlier this week, Bill Moyers took the time to speak to Morello, a discussion that will surely solder his status as a link in the chain of the tradition of singing for justice—though his actions have already spoken loud and clear.

Filed under: Harry Belafonte, Interview, Occupy Wall Street, ,

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