Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Songs for the Occupation

Tuesday May 15 saw the release of Occupy This Album, a 4-disc collection of 99 topical songs, with all proceeds going toward supporting the Occupy movement. I have not yet read a review of the album that makes any sense to me, which is reason for me to get busy listening and to write one of my own (though if you have read anything thoughtful and well-rendered, please bring it to my attention). Until I’ve prepared my piece, I thought I’d repost a column I wrote last fall titled Songs for the Occupation—a kind of call for topical songs and a roll call of musicians who declared themselves 99 percent friendly from the start. No doubt the good people at Paste won’t mind if I post the previously published article here, since it pertains to a good cause and all.

NOVEMBER 2011—Early last month, when the Occupy Wall Street movement was still building, an East Bay punk rocker asked me what I thought people had hoped to achieve by occupying city centers and marching in the streets. Since the movement is without spokespeople, it wasn’t my place to say, but personally, I was taking it as a good sign that people are finally coming together in the name of social and economic justice. “I think it’s time to bring compassion back into style” I said. “Good luck with that,” he replied, and no, he wasn’t being sincere, which took me aback for about a minute until I remembered that punk rock is supposed to be snotty, cynical and nihilistic and he was just doing his part to keep the franchise alive.

Michael Franti at OWS

It must be said that plenty of punk-rock people are as interested in building things anew as they are in tearing down the old down, and that music people of all orientations have always brought soul, sounds and heart to social and political movements. So far, only the true lionhearts of contemporary music have turned out for the Occupation, though each week brings more surprises: Ever-ready artist/activist Michael Franti showed up in the first week of October to “Yell Fire.” Talib Kweli, longtime resident in the trenches of conscious hip hop, dropped by to drop some rhymes and weigh in with a powerful new piece he called “Distractions”: “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 park dwellers. 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. Sure the protesters have each other for company—for now—but as rousts and arrests increase, winter sets in and the drum circle decibels rise, the park may see fewer folks willing to stand strong, and that means fewer professional musicians out there, leading the singalongs.

“Our idea was to go down and raise their spirits,” said David Crosby, who with Graham Nash sang for the Zuccotti Park crowd in early November. “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.”

Simmons and West, OWS

Hip hop organizer and mogul Russell Simmons is among those on the street with the 99 percent; part of his role there has been shepherding visitors like the Rev. Al Sharpton and Kanye West through the Zuccotti Park encampment. During the week of West’s and Jay-Z’s Madison Square Garden concerts in November, Simmons was pictured with Jay-Z wearing an “Occupy All Streets” t-shirt, manufactured by his line, Rocawear (it’s unclear where the proceeds are going, though one can only hope the merch is made in America).

The Occupy movement for social and economic equality has been called by scholar Cornel West a “democratic awakening,” while those less enamored with the movement call it a disorganized mess. Call it what you like but whether the occupiers maintain their ground at the park or are forced to leave it, songs—the kind with roots, that are built to last—will provide some sustenance through the winter. Truth is, the people can always use a few more good tunes (or at least some remixes of old ones) to sing on the long march home.

Back in the salad days of protest—the ’60s civil rights, free speech, anti-war and black power movements—rewriting the old songs with the intention of forging something new was common practice—it’s called folk tradition. Rewriting and reviving 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 recently 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.

Crosby and Nash, OWS

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 92, is still singing it. Though I’d say it’s time for someone from the youngest generation of American singer/songwriter/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 (djembe will work just fine). 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 (Belafonte tells his own story in the new film, Sing Your Song, and new book, My Song: A Memoir). 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, like the East Bay punker I talked to last month did, but it’s not so funny when you think about Oakland: People from all walks of life, all genders, all religious backgrounds, colors and sexual orientations, there and elsewhere, are standing up to the indignities served up to their communities: It’s one nation time—under a groove.

So here’s to you, Occupiers and musicians: To Michael Franti, Jeff Mangum, Pete Seeger, Tom Morello, Joan Baez, Crosby and Nash, Joseph Arthur and Talib Kweli in NYC, Boots Riley in Oakland and Ozomatli in L.A. The hearts of Joe Strummer, Nina Simone, Phil Ochs and Paul Robeson are on your sleeves now. 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 occupying—so that we shall all overcome, someday.


Filed under: Occupy Wall Street, Songs for the Occupation, , , , , , , ,

When Record Store Day Meets Earth Day, it’s time for The Esso Trinidad Steel Band

In honor of this weekend’s most auspicious collision of Record Store Day and Earth Day,  Saturday and Sunday respectively, I decided to reprise a story about where environmentalism meets record collecting, which as it happens is also the most-read article here at denisesullivan.com.  The Day Van Dyke Parks Went Calypso, originally appeared in the pages of Crawdaddy! in 2009, 40 years after the Santa Barbara oil spill and the birth of the environmental movement, and upon the occasion of the  re-reissue of Parks’ long out-of-print productions for calypso artists, the Esso Trinidad Steel Band, and the Mighty Sparrow. Parks had a goal and an idea ahead of its time: To forge environmental healing through music made by instruments made of cast-off oil drums. The story further explains one man’s adventures in art and activism and begins after the clip below: Taken from a documentary on the Esso Trinidad Steel Band,you won’t find the rest of the film on youtube, though you will find it with the reissued Esso, available at your local record store.

When 80,000 barrels of oil spilled into the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel in January of 1969, the crude-splattered water, beaches, and birds along the California coast in its aftermath became the symbols of modern eco-disaster. While the ensuing public outcry helped hasten the formalization of the environmental movement as we now know it, for musician Van Dyke Parks, the spill and “the revelation of ecology,” as he calls it, was a very personal, life-altering occasion. “It changed my M.O. and changed my very reason for being,” he says. The Union Oil rig rupture in Santa Barbara made Parks go calypso.

“When I saw the Esso Trinidad Steel band, I saw myself in a Trojan Horse,” he says. “We were going to expose the oil industry. That’s what my agenda was. I felt it was absolutely essential.” From 1970 to 1975, Parks waged awareness of environmental and race matters through the music and culture of the West Indies, though in the end, “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That’s what makes Van Gogh go,” he says, “That’s what great art does.” Though Parks is referring directly to Esso Trinidad’s happy/sad steel drum sounds, he could just as easily be talking about his own experience during his Calypso Years.

Over a five-year period, Parks produced albums by the Esso Trinidad Steel band (1971) and Bob Dylan favorite, the Mighty Sparrow (Hot and Sweet, 1974); he also recorded his own calypso-inspired works, Discover America (1972) and Clang of the Yankee Reaper (1976). Born from his passion for popular song and launched at a time when grassroots protest was at an all-time high, Parks had every reason to believe calypso consciousness would prevail. But he hadn’t factored in the complications of taking on big oil, nor of touring the US with a 28-man steel drum corps from the Caribbean. He was unable to predict that the sessions with Mighty Sparrow would be fraught with rage, and that his efforts would earn him the enmity of Bob Marley, whose production requests he ignored in favor of calypso. And yet, you get the feeling he’d agree in one hot minute to do it all over again the exact same way if given a chance to revisit this section of his checkered recording history.  Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Calypso, cross cultural musical experimentation, Harry Belafonte, Interview, , ,

Now Playing: Come Back, Africa

Come Back, Africa is a rare piece of cinema:  Not only will fans of cinéma vérité, Italian neorealist, and French new wave film find much to love about its style, historians will find it to be a valuable film document of an otherwise largely unrecorded period in Africa’s history.  At once a brilliant documentary and strong anti-apartheid statement, Come Back, Africa is also jammed with music: From the streets and townships of South Africa to its speakeasies or shebeensCome Back, Africa introduced singer Miriam Makeba to the world. Among those impressed by the Lionel Rogosin film was Harry Belafonte; the actor/singer/activist would become a mentor, friend and benefactor to Makeba, would help her secure gigs, and would set her in the direction of performing the sounds of South Africa around the globe, while spreading the word against apartheid. 

With South African writers, Bloke Modisane and Lewis Nkosi, Rogosin developed a filmic narrative  driven by the dilemma of people being forceable removed from their land. Come Back, Africa “laid bare apartheid’s ruthless cruelties,” wrote Belafonte, as it tells the story of Zacharia, a man who leaves his country life, his wife Vinah, and their children, to seek work in Johannesburg. What he finds there are unfamiliar laws rooted in racism and a series of dead-end jobs. He confronts inadequate housing and street violence, though a handful of souls provide sanctuary; he is introduced  to political ideas and dialogue by the artists and writers of the Sophiatown Renaissance.

Putting non-actors to work amidst the unrest, Come Back, Africa depicted dignity and tragedy; it exposed tremendous human failing, and it revealed glimpses of humanity and compassion.  A prize-winning documentarian for his first film On the Bowery (concerning the men on New York’s Skid Row in the late ‘50s), Rogosin made Come Back, Africa largely in secrecy, under the pretense that he was making a travelogue of South African music. He was eventually granted permission to make the film; Time Magazine called it one of the best films of 1960 (alongside The Apartment and Elmer Gantry).  “I took a vow at the end of World War II to fight fascism and racism wherever I saw it,” he said.

Writer, producer and director Rogosin was characterized by John Cassevettes as “probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time.” He founded the Bleeker Street Cinema and would continue to make films, though later in life, he would have trouble finding the funding for his projects.

Come Back, Africa, starring Zacharia Mgabi, Vinah Bendile, and featuring Miriam Makeba, has been beautifully restored and is currently in re-release. It screens at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater from February 3-8.

Read more about Miriam Makeba, Harry Belafonte and the music of anti-apartheid in

Keep on Pushing.

Filed under: Harry Belafonte, Keep On Pushing, Now Playing, , , ,

Reviews of Keep on Pushing

A pleasing survey of soul music, from Lead Belly to Johnny Otis to Michael Franti to Louis Farrakhan.

Say what? It’s not every history of African-American song that takes time to recall that Farrakhan, later famed as a Black Muslim leader and political activist, recorded several calypso albums in the 1950s. (Who knew, too, that actor Louis Gossett Jr. was once a Greenwich Village folkie?) Music journalist and Crawdaddy columnist Sullivan (The White Stripes: Sweethearts of the Blues, 2004, etc.) has a good eye for the little-explored detail, and she puts it to use in this digressive but generally impressive look at the role of music in the tumult and toil that was the era of the civil-rights movement. The author charts the much-related story of how the blues and its urban cousin jazz united to form rock, and then began “to converge in a powerful new strain of freedom music” delivered by the likes of Odetta, Richie Havens and Harry Belafonte and thence by thousands of artists of every ethnicity and description. Here, Sullivan’s subtitle does not serve her well, for more than survey the role of music in the civil-rights movement—itself a more adequate term than “black power,” even lowercase—Sullivan capably shows how black music fed into white music and white music fed back into the black source. For instance, she notes that soul pioneer Sam Cooke was so taken with Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” that “he decided he should write his own protest song”—whence the classic “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Dylan, of course, was strongly influenced by Odetta, who in turn was shaped by Lead Belly and Marian Anderson, and so on, a great river of music that continues to feed us today.

There’s not much hard news for scholars of roots music, but for the rest of us, Sullivan offers a welcome exploration of how African-American popular music became America’s vernacular.


Library Journal–July 2011
Sullivan, Denise. Keep On Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hip-Hop. Lawrence Hill: Chicago Review, dist. by IPG. Aug. 2011. c.256p. photogs. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781556528170. pap. $16.95. MUSIC
Sullivan (The White Stripes: Sweethearts of the Blues) combines impressive research and wide-ranging interviews in a multilayered narrative about the power of music within black liberation, civil rights, antiwar, and gender-related movements. Folk, blues, rock, hip-hop, punk, and other styles helped to define sweeping social issues while stirring listeners from the age of Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Panthers, and Woodstock to that of women’s issues and gay rights. Sullivan incorporates the personal stories and challenges of the artists who shared their hopeful and sometimes defiant messages of freedom, pride, and equality, including Nina Simone, Odetta, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Richie Havens, Curtis Mayfield, and Phranc. She is candid about the cultural complexities of each era and discusses how the music was powerful enough to draw strong reactions from political, social, and corporate sectors. VERDICT This is for anyone interested in a thorough analysis of music as a commanding force in change as well as a continually evolving artistic presence. The book is packed with informative details and commentary, and those who are willing to give it the thoughtful reading it deserves (perhaps along with listening to a sampling of recordings) will be rewarded.—Carol J. Binkowski, Bloomfield, NJ
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Under the Radar–July 2011
Reaching as well into the areas of punk rock, reggae, and finally hip-hop, Keep On Pushing admirably points out numerous key developments and connections throughout a vital, revolutionary element of popular music.
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Pop Matters–August 2011
Roiling R&B and Rebellious Rock ‘n’ Roll in Keep on Pushing
by David Ensminger
In an era when the conscience of pop, hip-hop, and rock ’n’ roll music is often off-shored to fundraising events and galas where million of dollars are shared in the limelight, this close scrutiny and survey of a more radicalized music period—especially the ‘60s and ‘70s—reveals how songs themselves used to be the vehicle for concerns. Narratives of empowerment, and refrains of social critiques, no longer invade FM radio in the same style or manner.
Sure, Green Day’s screed against American idiocy was provocative, barbed, and pointed, but will future kids spin those iTunes with the same gusto that still reverberate with “Fortunate Son” and “War (What is it Good For!)”? Will Green Day go gentle into the not-so-good digital night?
Tellingly, Sullivan paints with condensed strokes, documenting in succinct sections how the music segued with powerful protest movements to smash disfranchisement and rouse sometimes fleeting victories, daring “to question the new freedoms and the quality of life ‘freedom’ brought in the face of liberty’s inconsistencies and … costs.”  Sure, some of the music was tranquil, but beneath the surface was a piercing passion knotted to the concerns of the women’s movement, Black Power struggles, the American Indian Movement, Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committees, and the National Farm Workers Association.
On the other side, and there is always another side, rested the concerns of hegemony; the military-industrial apparatus, the forces of American apartheid, FBI plots and local policing, and repressive schools, shifting under foot in the times, much to the dismay of old-timey teachers and administrators.
She focuses on the whole diaspora of black music en masse, from Calypso’s insurgent narratives to the ‘courage’ of jazz, from gospel and slave songs to roiling R&B and rebellious rock ’n’ roll, which loosened the shackles of youth culture. The women of the broader civil rights and black nationalist movements, like Odetta and Nina Simone, hold sway and never surrender; even Billie Holiday, often associated with a bygone generation, provides her “Strange Fruit” as a kind of template, a way to ignore simple plaintive sentiment and jazz-spiel in favor of concerns for justice and a probe of history, with all the pain intact. Sure, Richie Havens fused the bright light of folk music with percussive, dynamic playing, but the women, to me, carried the burdens even deeper.
Simone sung in French, borrowed songs from the hills of Appalachia, delved into Duke Ellington, and yelled god damn at the state of Mississippi; meanwhile, her children still wrestle with a world where black men are more likely to head to prison than college classrooms, women still make substantially less than male counterparts on the same job sites, and war is rampant from the drug-prone American borderlands to the insurgent-swept Middle East. One step forward, two steps back, I suppose. Still, Simone’s succor and vision, her sentiment and slyness, do not retreat, even today. The songs endure.
Sullivan makes readers aware of Simone’s context, the tumult that became the daily bread of her songs, the strains and passions that netted up inside her and Buffy Sainte-Marie, Phranc, and Penelope Houston from the Avengers as well. High priestess of soul, Cree Indian song crafter, buzz-haired lesbian counterculture icon, and punk poet provocateur all merge into the story of how the trauma of the times rippled and shaped works of critical and creative depth, urgency and unction.
Sullivan certainly does not shortchange men, either. Though she may bypass long looks at Public Enemy and Bad Brains in favor of sketching the breadth of Spearhead/Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, the point is not to offer an all-inclusive, push-button reference book, but to examine the oft-overlooked underdogs whose work is powerful and challenging. On the way, she relays the affairs of Solomon Burke, the soul man who challenged the powers-that-be to consider different business strategies, like bolstering a sense of community rather than simply staking profits.
Furthermore, she aptly documents the concerns of Little Richard and James Brown to make popular music with bite, and use profits to steer hope and change; the efforts of Archie Schepp, Albert Ayler, and John Coltrane to explore outside the box of comfy commercial jazz, to place inchoate art in the center of the revolution; the woozy many-colored hybrid otherness of Funkadelic; and the sincere visions of Stevie Wonder, who retained a sense of the wondrous. Even blaxploitation soundtracks and the blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins find a meeting ground with John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Phil Och’s sonorous lefty sentiments.
Sullivan’s book, fortunately, is wily, not winded.  She does extend her reach and utilize an umbrella approach, but she never forces juxtapositions. She melds the time of assassinations and Weatherman anarchy with the time of Motown and Otis Redding with aplomb.
This was a time rife with ricocheting revolt, unmatched even in the days of punk, when CBGB’s hardcore matinees commingled with beatbox rap and funk-punk Clash ran headlong into Sandinista agitprop, the revolution in Iran, and the blistering years of President Reagan. I may not be nostalgic for hippies, whom I was trained never to trust in the folklore of punk, but I do admire, and sentimentalize, a time when music existed not as mere commodity but an authentic and popular soundtrack to the streets.
Rating: 8 out of 10
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New Times Phoenix —–September 27, 2001

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Van Dyke Parks on Mighty Sparrow and The Esso Trinidad Steel Band

When 80,000 barrels of oil spilled into the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel in January of 1969, the crude-splattered water, beaches, and birds along the California coast in its aftermath became the symbols of modern eco-disaster. While the ensuing public outcry helped hasten the formalization of the environmental movement as we now know it, for musician Van Dyke Parks, the spill and “the revelation of ecology,” as he calls it, was a very personal, life-altering occasion. “It changed my M.O. and changed my very reason for being,” he says. The Union Oil rig rupture in Santa Barbara made Parks go calypso.

“When I saw the Esso Trinidad Steel band, I saw myself in a Trojan Horse,” he says. “We were going to expose the oil industry. That’s what my agenda was. I felt it was absolutely essential.” From 1970 to 1975, Parks waged awareness of environmental and race matters through the music and culture of the West Indies, though in the end, “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That’s what makes Van Gogh go,” he says, “That’s what great art does.” Though Parks is referring directly to Esso Trinidad’s happy/sad steel drum sounds, he could just as easily be talking about his own experience during what we’ll dub the Calypso Years.

Over a five-year period, Parks produced albums by the Esso Trinidad Steel band (1971) and Bob Dylan favorite, the Mighty Sparrow (Hot and Sweet, 1974); he also recorded his own calypso-inspired works, Discover America (1972) and Clang of the Yankee Reaper (1976). Born from his passion for popular song and launched at a time when grassroots protest was at an all-time high, Parks had every reason to believe calypso consciousness would prevail. But he hadn’t factored in the complications of taking on big oil, nor of touring the US with a 28-man steel drum corps from the Caribbean. He was unable to predict that the sessions with Mighty Sparrow would be fraught with rage, and that his efforts would earn him the enmity of Bob Marley, whose production requests he ignored in favor of calypso. And yet, you get the feeling he’d agree in one hot minute to do it all over again the exact same way if given a chance to revisit this section of his checkered recording history.

Parks is generally a well-mannered and affable Southern-born gent with a mildly mischievous streak. A one-time child prodigy on clarinet, he’s often mentioned in tandem with his Southern California work with Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who was reportedly too tripped-out to continue theirSmile-era collaborations. A formidable freethinker and raconteur of psychedelic dimensions himself, you can hear the Parks imprint, curly-cuing through “Heroes and Villains” and “Sail On, Sailor”; songs that made a lasting impression on the Beach Boys sound. Rarely at a loss for bookings as a composer, arranger, musician, and producer (Parks would go on to work with artists from Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr to Joanna Newsom and Rufus Wainwright), his song “High Coin” traded freely on the hippie covers market while he juggled sessions by psychedelic bands as well as singer-songwriters Randy Newman and Phil Ochs. It was following the critical success of his first solo work, Song Cycle, in 1968 and the oil spill in ’69, that Parks began in earnest his pursuit of the music of the West Indies—specifically calypso and steel drum (also known as steel pan). Initially played on instruments made from clankity household odds and ends, by the ’40s, steel drums were made from a surplus of oil barrels, washed ashore the islands of Trinidad and Tobago from the coast of Venezuela. “America pollutes its environment with oil: Little Trinidad makes beautiful music from the drums that you throwaway,” says pan player Godfrey Clarke in the Esso liner notes.

Serving as the accompaniment to Carnival (for which Trinidad is world-famous), calypso is also often accompanied by lyrically potent verses that alternately use breezy and nasty humor to signify its weighty concerns: Imperial oppression and the extreme poverty of the islands. Ideally, the counterculture audience could’ve dug this political/party music with its motives to create equality and earthly harmony. Surely younger folks could identify with the calypsonian struggle, more than say, Liberace’s audience in Las Vegas, which is where Parks found the Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steel band working in the late ’60s. “I saw them as enslaved in their relationship to Liberace; I thought it was a vulgarity. I wanted to save them from their trivialization.” What had begun as Parks’ desire to popularize calypso at that point became his crusade.

The Land of the Hummingbird

“I just love that performance of ‘Aquarium,’” Parks says of Esso’s album finale. “You see, it represents that eco-consciousness that the album should project. I’m just telling you why I did it: I devoted the album to Prince Bernhard, who was the head of the World Wildlife association. Everything was directed to making it a proper, political, green album.” Nearly 40 years later, the Bananastan label has issued newly-minted versions of the Parks-produced  Esso and Sparrow’s Hot and Sweet. Not only are the calypsos strangely contemporary, I find I’m deeply moved by Esso’s environmentally-tuned music from the island officially nicknamed the Land of the Hummingbird. When Parks suggests we meet beside the Santa Monica Bay, I agree:  There is no better place than under the sun for a talk about his rarely-discussed calypso intermezzo. “This has been a well-kept secret,” he begins with a whisper. “The promotion men were successful at that.”

Parks’ devotion to calypso puts him in the unique position of serving as the music’s chief 21st century stateside ambassador; as it is, his relationship to calypso predates his own childhood and runs in the family. According to Parks, his mother’s uncle was the founder of the University of Miami and a calypso devotee. “Of course, they were touched by calypso down there. He had been to Trinidad at the same time as FDR,” explains Parks. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 trip to Trinidad, documented in the song “FDR in Trinidad”, is among the first calypso standards. By the 1940s, “Rum and Coca-Cola”, as sung by the Andrews Sisters, had brought calypso music to the American masses. “Of course, everyone was aware of ‘Rum and Coca-Cola’, which was incidentally my mother’s favorite drink,” says Parks. Though, everyone was not necessarily aware that the jolly little song was also a critique of American military presence in Trinidad (nor would it be a truly great calypso without the double edge). But the Andrews Sisters’ vocal stylings would soon be outdone by authentic calypsonian Harry Belafonte’s ’50s success with the Jamaican folk song “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”, calypso’s most enduring hit. In the early ’60s, Parks recalls he and his brother were “left in the dirt” on a bill they shared with calypso’s Andrew “Pan” de la Bastide. But it is in the music’s details rather than its broad overview where Parks gleans inspiration: The origins of the intensity of the music, the unparalleled musicianship of the pan players, the wordplay of the singers and their emotional extremes—from treachery to triumph—are the elements of interest to Parks.

“I was serious about serious music from an early age. Hardwired to a lot of music of dead white guys—very serious discipline—I had three brothers who played. We had this musical oleo in the house, from Bill Haley and the Comets to Les Paul and Mary Ford, Fats Waller, George Shearing, Paul Whiteman, the usual popular American diet, from 78s on. To me, calypso music was everything that the Memphis blues was, everything that Schubert and his sort were of the 19th century Romantic songwriters. Melody: Fantastic, like studying a novel with many subplots, seeing all of them resolved by the conclusion of the work. Lyrics: The scansion, the absolute art of phrasing, it had absorbed everything proper from the British Empire, so you find this incredible intelligence of mind. These are the scions of African nobility, the protectors of the musical and oral tradition. That’s what I think of calypso—the greatest pop music.”

The music of the West Indies was begotten from a 19th century slave history. “Barbados, adjacent to Trinidad, is direct in line of the slave trade that unfortunately plagues us all,” says Parks. But while European settlers imposed customs and traditions on the islands’ people, the indigenous population and those whose origins were African engaged in their own forms of expression. It’s that combination of sound, from two hemispheres and at least three continents, that make up the basics of calypso. Working with the large ensemble steel band, “I took it as an incredible opportunity… from a standpoint of my very American identity,” says Parks. “This group presented such a great opportunity in testing my ethics.” Though were the ethical challenge not combined with the band’s esthetic of extreme musicianship, individually and as a collective, Parks probably wouldn’t have traveled the distance he did with Esso.

“It was really a profound experience to me, to hear the small fish that run by quickly in the ear during Saint-Saëns’ ‘Aquarium’ from The Carnival of the Animals. Those fast notes that shimmer through the piece, they are 32nd/10th notes, there are 10 in a figure, and these guys memorized this thing in a matter of two days and they did an incredible job.” The band was led, as it were, by Hugh Borde. “He was their captain, there was no leader,” explains Parks, though for those two days in the studio he passed his captain’s hat to Parks and pan man Kenrick Headley, who led the group through versions of songs like “Apeman” by the Kinks, “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five, and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia.” The Rev. Fr. John Sewell, an Episcopalian missionary who served transcribing the ultimately jaw-dropping versions of the playful classical and orchestral pieces in Esso’s repertoire, also assisted the group. “They were the first to do it,” says Parks of Esso’s classical works on pan, “and it became a requirement for all steel bands to have a classical test piece. So they might do ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ by Tchaikovsky or ‘Unto Us a Child Is Born’ from Handel’s Messiah.” For the recording, they chose the aforementioned Saint-Saëns and the frantic “Sabre Dance.” The steel band also cut a Parks favorite, “Erasmus B. Black”, a wordplay tune penned by the Mighty Sparrow in which an innocently christened baby ends up with an unfortunate double entendre of a name. “I thought there was a great deal of theater and comedy in the group. I’ve never enjoyed myself so much, almost understanding what was going on!”

Keep Your Eye on the Mighty Sparrow

Steel band players gain entry into the prestigious ensembles through a highly competitive audition process. The spirit of musical competition and excellence is rooted in poverty, though it’s a celebratory event, staged each year at Carnival, the annual pre-Lenten festival that finds pan players and wordsmithing calypsonians performing for cash and crowns. The annual Carnival Road March is a calypso competition at its fiercest and reigning supreme eight times was the Mighty Sparrow—his wins rivaled only by contemporary calypso’s Super Blue and Sparrow’s friend and competitor, Lord Kitchener. While Sparrow had traveled to the US seeking help from Belafonte at the height of calypso’s popularity, Kitchener was making a name for himself in England. Upon their respective returns to the islands, Kitchener and Sparrow spent the rest of the decade and into the early ’70s duking out the Road March and Calypso Monarch crowns.

“I wanted very much to do Lord Kitchener,” admits Parks. “Lord Kitchener, to me, is the greatest of all the calypso singers, but Sparrow was absolutely rhapsodic.” In his liner notes to Biograph,Bob Dylan wrote of the Sparrow: “… as far as concept and intelligence and warring with words, Mighty Sparrow was and probably still is the king.” “I thought he would be more difficult to sell than Kitchener,” says Parks. “Sparrow would show up with a cape; Kitchener would’ve shown up in a fedora.” Perhaps Sparrow could sense Parks’ preference for Kitchener upon his arrival at Miami’s famed Criteria Studios. Or maybe it was a hurricane, just about to make its way to land, that turned the session into a perfect storm. “We got to Miami. Phil Ochs appears,” begins Parks, referring to his friend and fellow traditional music enthusiast, famous for folk-singing and a notorious unraveling that had already begun. “Phil is somewhat deranged. The rain starts to whip against the wall absolutely horizontally. We are near the eye of the hurricane. It’s a big one. The studio owner Mack Emerman wondered if we should airboat the whole thing to Barbados.” In a world without Pro Tools, the crew obtained remote power from their own generator and hunkered down as the hurricane passed.  “What you hear, we did in two days. Sparrow would step up to the piano and go pht pht—pht pht. You notice that’s irregular,” explains Parks, pounding on the picnic table before us for emphasis. “It’s not pht, pht, pht, pht. You know, it’s said that irregular beat is something that started in Curaçao as the natives imitated the Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant… he had a lame leg and so he would pht pht—pht pht. That’s what I heard… it’s the rhythm that Sparrow played for two bars before the piece begins. And then the band came in. This didn’t take a producer. This didn’t take an efficiency expert. This was incredible.”

Rather than arriving at the studio with a finished set of lyrics, Sparrow came with phrases. “Sparrow knows exactly where he’s going… he knows how to get the cat out of the tree, get the cat down; he’s got the chorus solved. He’s very able. There is nothing false about his incredible musical skill. That he can ideate phraseology with such powers of deception is a very good quality of his work. It’s the very same power of deception that I see in Schubert, that also likes to take you out somewhere, then puts you somewhere subtly that is surprising and refreshing.” Of the songs he compiled for Hot and Sweet, Parks cites two standouts: “More Cock” (“I asked for it. I know, it’s my fault.”) and “Maria.” “My favorite. As Ted Turner said… ‘it only looks easy.’ To me, it’s as good as anything I’ve heard out of Allen Toussaint. It’s tight.”

Co-produced with Andy Wickham, the session with Sparrow was not without incident. Parks describes British Wickham as “right wing” and in thrall to “Country and western and super-America, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.” Parks says, “I remember he was ecstatic with ‘Okie from Muskogee,’” Haggard’s toast to redneckism. And yet, like Parks, Wickham loved calypso. “He came to realize how much the butt [of the jokes] the British were.”  Wickham could also appreciate the melodies (“He loved Wagner, secretly,” says Parks) and the lyrics (“Very good turn of phrase,” he’d say). But it was sport that bound Wickham to the calypsonians. “He knew all the West Indian super heroes of cricket,” says Parks; however, that did not make him the boss of Mighty Sparrow.

Sparrow was not one to take studio direction. “Which is a big mistake. Every bullet counts on a record,” says Parks. “It was hard. It was a bumpy ride. It was occasionally filled with rage and great hostility. And blackberry brandy; I think the record was a four quarts of blackberry brandy record.” The necessary lubricant relieved some of the tension courtesy of the elephant in the room: The British Empire. “Well, the British were leading the decolonized African freeman, and I was right in the middle of all that. The Sparrow is filled with bravado and severe opinions that aren’t always convenient… There were moments that you hoped the guy in the cape wasn’t going to show up at dinnertime to protest his individuality to everyone.”

By the time Parks was finishing with Sparrow, calypso’s rhythmic energy was in the process of being subsumed by disco, while the war on poverty was being fought by reggae, the Caribbean’s other music. “Calypso was feeling very disco-ed, which is funny because they wanted to feel disco-ed, and yet, they were bothered by the fact that disco was calypso. It was a dead ringer,” Parks says, once again sounding out beats at the picnic table. “They were mad as hell about that. And then reggae hit the fan—in a big way—and I was delighted.” This is when Parks received his call from Bob Marley.

Clang of the Yankee Reaper

“‘Let’s face it, Mr. Parks, the white man is finished in the Caribbean,’” said Marley to Parks. “I thought that was a rather harsh thing to say. He was so pissed at me, because I didn’t have time to work for him because I was so trying to get 28 toothbrushes… I was just too busy and he took it as a slight.” Though, what may’ve been a missed opportunity with Marley, Parks made up for it by recording with his contemporary, Jimmy Cliff. “Jimmy Cliff was a big deal to me,” he says. Believing Cliff’s melodies often prevailed over Marley’s “rhythm machine,” Parks helped the singer secure his publishing and played keyboards on Cliff’s 1976 album, Follow My Mind. “I honestly think that the Jamaicans showed a greater power of adaptability against ‘guns, germs, and steel’ than calypso. Trinidad is more removed—it’s a different world…”

Following the Sparrow production gig and Parks’ own Clang of the Yankee Reaper (a good half of its material bearing the earmarks of calypso), by the end of the ’70s, Parks was back in the bosom of the California singer-songwriter scene, working with Lowell George, Nicolette Larson, and again with Harry Nilsson. So what then of calypso, his first Caribbean love?

“Calypsonians were an uncapturable lot, really, and I’ll tell you why… They never had any regard in an engagement in copyright. Maybe it’s an uncommon modesty of sorts.” Matters of contractual arrangement were a formality that, according to Parks, was of no interest to calypsonians. “It finally dawned on me there is an undeniably vulgar aspect to contract agreements because they’re built to check coercion and that’s a sad way to approach any mutual trust. These songs are for a moment’s discovery, born of such a highly extemporaneous, unanticipated purpose. A solution to a problem is what it’s all about.”

Artistically, he was satisfied by the calypso interlude. “Those two recordings were made at the apex of analog. Such a phenomenon of sound and so nuanced… small notes that all make up the way it feels in the bones.” Environmentally, the idea to link calypso or any music to the earth’s wellness was visionary on Parks’ behalf; the frontiers of such thought combined with activism are yet to be fully explored. Although at one time he’d hoped to deliver his message directly to consumers at the pump—as a “premium gift” with fill-up: A sound sheet of the Esso Trinidad Steel Band singing “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby—his dream of harmony, enlightenment, and environmental healing through steel band music was too far-reaching. Idealistically, Park could not fulfill his full vision with Esso.

“I was in the crosshairs of the racial divide with these gentlemen who had no idea about such things. A guy shot at us—a farmer up on a hill with a shotgun—when the bus broke down on the road in the South. The culture collision was probably among the top five benchmark psychological events of my life, for so many reasons.” Esso’s US tour ground to a halt for good when their aforementioned bus crashed. Several men were hospitalized and one was laid up at the Parks household for four months. “I came up as quickly as I could with another record about calypso to keep the focus on the medium. I put a Greyhound bus and a Continental Trailways bus on the front cover, just to get these men out of bed.” The Parks album Discover America contains interpretations of “FDR in Trinidad”, “The Four Mills Brothers”, and “Bing Crosby”, among others from the calypso canon. Parks’ time with the steelband was drawing to a close, though not before one last act in which he finessed a potentially sticky situation with Standard Oil of New Jersey that ultimately okayed the Trinidad Steel Band to retain the use of Esso in its name, without an injunction.

He still stands by a statement he made of Esso, those years ago: “The greatest group I’ve ever had the privilege to produce.” Like his calypso brethren, Parks may’ve been bloodied, but his confidence in the art of calypso is unyielding. “All of the bravado of such poverty—poor people speaking plainly, representing the disenfranchised—is what calypso is all about,” he states. “It’s not only topical songs that are optimally crafted, both lyrically and melody—it’s that they do things: They move mountains. It’s a life force.”—published on November 19, 2009 in Crawdaddy!


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