Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Len Chandler: He, too, sang at the March on Washington


photo of Len Chandler at Newport Folk Festival, 1964, by John Rudoff

Today marks the 55th anniversary of 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 was Len Chandler (often overlooked in the history of civil rights work), one of the voices in a trio that day which included Bob Dylan and Joan Baez (he appears at about 17 minutes into the following clip, though the whole 25 minutes is worth your time).


Chandler would march with Dr. King and travel throughout the South in the name of voter registration, informing rural Southerners of their polling rights, often at great risk to his own life. His poems were recognized by Langston Hughes, he wrote the folk standard “Green, Green Rocky Road” with poet Bob Kaufman, and recorded two albums for Colombia Records, but little is known about him or his life.  I sought him out when I wrote Keep on Pushing, my text that tracks the origins and evolution of freedom music, and its roots in African American resistance and liberation movement: a fraction of what we discussed was included in the book. I remain curious why seven years after publication, few scholars have pursued the lead and why so little is known about him…

Originally from Akron, Ohio, and studying on scholarship at Columbia in the ’50s, Chandler made his way to Greenwich Village folk music 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 he returned to New York, the folk thing was 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.  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 (today, as it happens, is the anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till).

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:

It was an extreme privilege (and I have since found out a rare opportunity) 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 have him tell his story to me. Though largely retired from performing, he remains well- informed on human rights, politics, and the arts and will step up and step out for civil rights. You can read a portion of our talks in Keep on Pushing, and someday I will post the complete unedited transcripts, though for now, enjoy the voice of Chandler from back in the day, when singing was a huge part of moving the movement forward.




Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Folk, Keep On Pushing, , , , , ,

The ’70s Jesus-Rock Boom and the Resurrection of a Superstar

In light of this year’s revival of Jesus Christ Superstar (to be broadcast on live TV Easter Sunday, starring John Legend in the title role) I’m re-posting this piece which I wrote about 10 years ago on the ’70s Jesus-rock boom the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice concept album had a hand in creating.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Punk Rock: US, UK, and San Francisco-style

The following is an extract from, Keep on Pushing, Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop, a perhaps unlikely source for a chapter featuring a mini, concise history of punk rock, with a San Francisco-bias.  It’s a subject I’ve been interested in since Patti Smith’s Horses reached me in the Summer of 1976. On September 24, I will be among the panelists at SF Punk Renaissance for Punk:  What Went Wrong…or Right? a discussion on the music and movement that inspired my generation.

All over the world, youth were collectively inspired to take back rock and put it into the hands of their generation, and they did it themselves, without corporations or websites or even a whole lot of love behind them. They did it with spit, muscle, sweat, and even Sid Vicious’s blood, and a couple of copies of Raw Power between them.

220px-Spiralscratch“It seemed like it had to go back to the three-minute song, something immediate and direct,” says Buzzcocks’ Steve Diggle.  “And from that people came alive again.”

Among punk rock’s targets was the comfortable numbness of quotidian life, partially provided by expensively produced (Pink Floyd, the Eagles, Steely, Dan, and Fleetwood Mac) and lightweight (James Taylor and Carly Simon) rock.  The back-to-basics music style combined with the anti-authority philosophy meant punk was largely a scene without leaders, organization or infrastructure.  It can’t be said enough that in the United States there was virtually no commercial airplay for the music and there was very little in the way of favorable aboveground rock press for it either.  But self-starting had its own rewards.

“People gained confidence in who they were, even ourselves, even with all our insecurities,” says Diggle.  “It wasn’t like we were the big show business act to come to entertain people, it was more like…These guys are the same as us,” he says.  “It was real people singing about real things and when we go up on stage we just put on guitars and there’s no big act.”

The do-it-yourself directive also lead to the resurgence and proliferation of the self-released seven-inch single, a format that had virtually become extinct with the popularization of seventies album rock.  Buzzcocks was one of the first bands of the punk surge in England to release its own record, debuting with their Spiral Scratch EP in January of 1977.  That spring the Ramones, with the Nerves and Pere Ubu, took the first murmurings of punk all across the USA.  Though at the surface the punk pop of the Buzzcocks wasn’t political, “It was about personal politics,” explains Diggle.  “It questioned things on many levels.”  A song like “Autonomy” was about “self-rule.”  And ‘Fast Cars’ was about the business of having a fast car,” he says.

Whether it was the words they sang—at once passionate and dispassionate—the way they sang them, or the fact that they sang them at all, songs like “Fast Cars” telegraphed something that went beyond the general speed limit:  It confronted individuality and choice in a market-driven culture.  “I hate fast cars!” was a radical statement, a rejection of values prized by a capitalist society.

The Ramones and the Sex Pistols have both been called the Johnny Appleseeds of punk, crisscrossing their respective countries and crossing the Atlantic while punk bands were breaking out like a spotty rash in places likely (London) and unlikely (Akron, Ohio).  The Ramones brought their show to San Francisco’s Savoy Tivoli in 1976 and inspired a few artists and musicians to form bands of their own.  The Sex Pistols did the same, bringing their show to the United States in early 1978, though the resulting media circus marked the end of the Pistols and the death of the early phase of punk.  penelope-houston-the-avengersPenelope Houston’s band the Avengers opened the last-ever Sex Pistols show at Winterland in San Francisco.  Less influenced by the entertainment of the Sex Pistols and the fun of the Ramones, Houston was a punk rocker of the battling kind. “I definitely recognized that Dylan was fighting against the things he saw as wrong but I would say my biggest singing influence would be Patti Smith,” she says.

The blank generation, a term coined by poet Richard Hell, found its muse, its voice, and its generation’s answer to Bob Dylan in Smith who released her first punk single in 1974. Having escaped a New Jersey childhood for the Chelsea Hotel, the young poet was also the girlfriend of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and together they made art before she ever had the idea of making a record.  Through the course of her bookstore clerk days and Max’s Kansas City nights, Smith emerged an androgynous, rock ‘n’ roll type, a person with more in common with Dylan and Keith Richards than any woman in rock.

Smith went to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1974—high Watergate season—to perform at Rather Ripped Records on the North Side of Berkeley campus.  At the time, it was one of the few places you could buy an independent seven-inch record, what you might call the broadside of the late seventies.  Smith’s new single was “Hey Joe,” the song with which Jimi Hendrix had ended his fateful set at Woodstock in 1969.  The A-side began with a poem titled Sixty Days:

“Patty, you know what your daddy said, Patty, he said, he said, Well, sixty days ago she was such a lovely child , and how here she is with a gun in her hand.”

The Patty to whom she referred was Patricia Campbell Hearst, the newspaper heiress who’d taken the name Tania following her abduction by the Symbionese Liberation Army, an armed band of radicals, one group among a host of urban predators and terrorists raising hell in the Bay Area during the protracted aftermath of the Summer of Love.  Tania had seemingly joined her captors in the class war struggle; “Hey Joe,” marked the official arrival of the new generation.

“I’m nobody’s million dollar baby, I’m nobody’s Patsy anymore, and I feel so free.”

From the decaying urbanscapes epitomized by the rotting Big Apple and the Rust Belt cities, and especially in hippie haven San Francisco, the post-sixties air of revolution hung heavy; Smith was the something new that blew in, wild, from the streets.  San Francisco would remain the scene of more high times and inexplicable crimes throughout the decade.  Home to the historic free speech and antiwar movement gatherings in the sixties, the Bay Area continued to be a place where minds behind movement and invention—whether high tech or slow food—converged.  Its consecration as a gay mecca at that time is well known, while the role disco music played in gay liberation movement, and the role San Francisco played in the development of the punk rock movement, remain less documented. Perhaps these stories go some way toward providing necessary connections, as might the next section on punk’s relationship to reggae and hip hop.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Books, California, , , , , , , , , ,

“George Jackson” by Bob Dylan

bob+dylan+george+jacksonBob Dylan’s relationship to the political world and the matters he chooses to champion or protest have been the subject of much debate, discussion, and inspiration for over 50 years now. His arrival in Greenwich Village in 1961, to a scene informed as equally by poetry and politics as it was jazz and folk, marked the beginning of his relationship with topical song, followed by a famous retreat from it, as well as his resistance to the tag, “voice of a generation.” And yet, as the ‘70s began, Dylan was once again plucking his subject matter from the news, returning to his roots as a social justice singer with “George Jackson”, a memorial for the radicalized convict and Black Panther who died in a San Quentin prison shoot-out on August 21, 1971.
Against a backdrop of escalating war in Vietnam and social and political mayhem to accompany it at home, by the late ’60s and early ’70s, the climate made necessary topical rock and soul songs which documented the times. John Lennon put forth “Imagine”, the follow-up to his and Yoko Ono’s initial bursts of song devoted to giving peace a chance. Marvin Gaye voiced his concerns in “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)”, “What’s Going On?”, and “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)”, while Cat Stevens boarded the “Peace Train” that would ultimately take him to study the Qur’an and inspire a conversion to Islam. It was also more or less expected that in these times of trouble, serious artists would weigh in on the events with a song. From the chart-busting Motown artists who began to draw from a repertoire that was blacker and stronger, to the rush-released recording by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young of “Ohio” concerning the shooting tragedy at Kent State, the appetite for topical songs in the US was fuelled by chart successes. Bob Dylan’s early ‘60s pro-civil rights and anti-war songs were largely the catalyst for the strain of rock music with a message that thrived throughout the decade. And while it’s true that from 1966 through much of 1971 Dylan remained in self-imposed exile from touring, leaning more towards poetical and philosophical lyric forms, rather than those polemical or topical, “George Jackson” was his wildly unexpected return form.Performing in public for the first time since his Isle of Wight concert in 1969, Dylan appeared at Madison Square Garden on August 1st at the Concert for Bangladesh, the model for today’s all-star rock charity events. Organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, the rally for Bangladesh raised awareness and funds for the residents of East Pakistan and Bengal India, regions beset by complications of war plus a cyclone and the flooding and famine that followed. An already troubled region was now devastated, and as Shankar outlined the situation for concert-goers, Dylan helped to draw them, performing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, as well as a handful of more apolitical songs.

Later that month at San Quentin in the summer of 1971, George Jackson was shot to death during an alleged escape attempt following a prison riot in which five inmates and a guard were killed. Less than a month after the Jackson incident in California, a historic event at Attica Correctional Facility wherein prisoners took control of the prison to protest its poor conditions resulted in more fatalities—an unmistakable call for prison reform. Perhaps it was the call to which Dylan was responding when in November, he cut and released “George Jackson”, a 45-rpm record that reached the Top 40 in January of 1972. Opening with the blues trope, “I woke up this morning,” Dylan’s “George Jackson” is not a typical blues song, though it surely addresses the larger topic of racial and socio-economic oppression from which a certain style of blues was born. It also tells the story of Jackson.

Having made it to California from the streets of Chicago, a 70-dollar robbery landed Jackson in prison, his sentence indeterminate. He found trouble on the inside when guards took an immediate dislike to him; his sentences were extended—chiefly behind events occurring at Soledad State Prison in which three black inmates and a white guard were killed.  Using his time in solitary to educate himself, he studied psychologist Franz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), Marx, and Mao, and came to understand the incarceration of poor Blacks for petty crimes in a political context. A leader in moving prisoners to radicalize, Jackson joined the Black Panthers and became one of the group’s most celebrated members. However by 1969, J. Edgar Hoover—declaring the Black Panthers to be public enemy number one—had set out to decimate them, and other groups like them. Nevertheless, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson was published in 1971 and was greeted by a positive reception by intellectuals and political progressives. That Jackson had been framed for conspiring to kill a guard in the Soledad incident was a widely held belief; his defenders were vocal and his case was a cause celebre. But a few days before his trial was to begin, a riot broke out in San Quentin in which inmates and guards were again slain; this time it was Jackson who was shot while running across the yard in an alleged escape attempt.

“The power of George Jackson’s personal story remains painfully relevant to our nation today, with its persistent racism, its hellish prisons, its unjust judicial system, and the poles of wealth and poverty that are at the root of all that,” wrote historian Howard Zinn in an updated version of Jackson’s Soledad Brother. Wresting larger truths from the events of 1971, Dylan delivered his summation in these often quoted lines from “George Jackson”:

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

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

Filed under: Bob Dylan, California, , , , , ,

Richie Havens

“For some odd reason, I know everybody,” says Richie Havens. Whether it was destiny or a cosmic hiccup, the musical climax of the ’60s was an auspicious day for Havens when an unplanned three-hour set opening the Woodstock Festival opened his doorway to worldwide recognition. “We landed, they chased me, I went on,” he explains. And yet, even if things hadn’t gone down that way, Havens would still have made his mark on rock history as a graduate of the original Greenwich Village folk scene, as a writer and interpreter of substantive songs, and as the third point in the magic triangle that connects Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix.

“I gave him the words to that,” says Havens, speaking of Hendrix and “All Along the Watchtower”, the song Havens still uses to open all his shows. The first song Havens ever covered by Dylan was “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”; he’s since reworked “If Not For You”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, “Lay Lady Lay”, “Maggie’s Farm”, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, and, most recently, “Tombstone Blues” for the surreal biopic I’m Not There in which he also appeared. As for Hendrix, Havens first witnessed him in action in an uptown club and was so impressed, he hipped him to the Village scene. “I did share that with him—that he didn’t need to be a studio musician, at the whim of everyone else—that he could be in his own band… that’s how we started out knowing each other.”

The last time Havens saw Hendrix was at the second Isle of Wight Festival; the pair had planned to meet in London soon after but Hendrix never made it. “He was a very shy person, quiet person, until he got on stage; then he grew two feet tall,” Havens continues. “He created himself and this showed when he walked up on that stage, how powerful it was and how necessary it was… he loved Bob Dylan’s songs too.”

Beatnik Beginnings

With his ears that catch the rhythm of words and a heart that stays constantly tuned to the station of brotherly love, Havens is a fellow traveler for freethinking ’60s grads and a father figure to those who wish they could’ve been there. As someone who falls in the gap, I can be easily mesmerized by stories of Allen Ginsberg, Hendrix, Dylan, and Woodstock among other things, and so I was willing to take the leap into Havens’ world. Like a new age beatnik who broadcasts the subterranean news through his songs, poems, artwork, and stories that reach across generations (his latest album is No One Left to Crown), Havens fits Jack Kerouac’s description of Beats as “characters of a special spirituality.” A self-proclaimed “song singer” and “all-around expressionist,” he was not only present, but he participated in the cultural shift that began with the Beats and carried over into a mass movement in the ’60s. And yet for Havens, the decade was just the staging ground for the bigger change that’s going to come, the one he says is taking place right now: He calls this phenomenon humanity’s becoming. “I’m blessed to see that we’re really just beginning on what it was we were supposed to be working at, in order to bring about the connection of all of us to each other,” he says.

Back in 1958, when Richie Havens was a teenage doo-wop singer in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, the kids there called him a beatnik. Not knowing for sure what that meant, he took a train with a friend to Greenwich Village to see what he could find out.

“We found out these guys in the neighborhood were talking about poets, and what they might’ve thought was derogatory became a very positive thing to us,” says Havens. It wasn’t long before he was reading his own poems in Village coffeehouses. “We’d sit at a table with our little books and Ginsberg would say, ‘What’s in those books? Get up there and read them!’ That’s how it began for me.

“A lot of people say, ‘What did we do? We didn’t do much.’ Oh yes we did,” he says, in answer to the cynics. “That which was a part of us was connecting up with what we were becoming at that point. And so it was wonderful to see changes. We made an atmosphere. That’s what we’re doing now. Backgrounds and atmosphere. Oh, that’s a good title! Backgrounds and atmosphere.”

Finding work in the Village as a portrait artist, he also discovered folk music in the coffeehouses and began to spend more and more nights in them, arriving later and later to the painting gig, while moving further away from his Bed-Stuy roots. He might crash in the city with singing pals like Little Anthony and the Imperials, but doo wop was no longer compelling to him, nor was the Brooklyn he knew as he watched his neighborhood and old pals take directions he wasn’t going. And so he left doo wop and a potential life in “show biz,” and became a part of what he calls the “communication business,” joining up with the folk scene. “I gave up show biz when I found a different song to sing, like Freddie Neil’s song to ‘Tear Down the Walls.’ In 1959? I’m going, ‘wow.’”

“The music’s in the air, where every man is free,” sang Fred Neil on “Tear Down the Walls”, one of his early-period folk songs. “When I think about it, that’s a heck of a time, when almost nobody was asking those kinds of things or projecting them,” says Havens.

“And Dino Valenti, ‘Love is but a song we sing, and fear’s the way we die,’” he sings, quoting “Get Together.” “He wrote it in 1958! We were awakening by these songs… I couldn’t wait for them to write another song so I could sing it from the audience with them.” Havens took to singing-along, especially while Fred Neil performed, “in harmony no less,” while Neil, who had a reputation as friend-to-the-new-folkie, advised him to get a guitar and learn his own. Three days later, Havens returned to the Village and began to perform six nights a week for the next six years.

“I thought it was time for my friends to hear something more than what we were relegated to do,” he says, referring to the diminishing options for his street corner pals. Havens’ parents were working people; his paternal grandfather was a Blackfoot Indian who traveled east with Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show. His maternal grandmother was a Caribbean Islander from Great Britain, “born on Christmas Day,” who helped raise him while his parents worked. He recalls one day, as she hung laundry on the line in the backyard, she asked him what he wanted to do with his life. “I said, ‘I want to meet everyone in the whole world.’ I was about five. I’d sit outside and look at the moon in daylight all the time… I’d make a circle with my hands, like a big open eye, and just cut out everything but the clouds going by… I was always fascinated to be a part of this becoming. I don’t think there was any negative feeling I could have.”

A Mixed Bag

He cut some songs in the early to mid-’60s, but it was his 1967 and 1968 albums, Mixed Bag and Something Else Again, that revealed his own growing consciousness, as well as the imprint of Fred Neil, whose strong strumming style and suspended notes echo through Havens’ own work. Tangling with war and the civil rights issues on “Handsome Johnny” (the lyrics were written by his friend, actor Lou Gossett, Jr., himself a onetime Village folkie), he also took on “The Klan.” He laid down his famous version of Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman”, the song which he says personally illuminated the multi-dimensionality of womankind for him. Simone would go on to perform the Havens song “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed;” it was her commitment to dynamic, emotional song interpretation that also freed Havens to sing the songs of others in whatever mode moved him. And though Simone’s music defied boundaries, by virtue of his acoustic guitar strumming, Havens is most often put into the folk or folk-rock bag.

“All music is folk music,” says Havens. “There is a folk-music quality to my generation’s rock ‘n’ roll. We were singing about things without thinking of them as social commentary.” Then, as now, if Havens has an overriding message, it concerns freedom, something that he says “we are supposed to have already.”

“Freedom” is the name of Haven’s best-known song, the one that famously evolved out of an improvisation at the end of his accidental three-hour opening set at Woodstock. He and his two-man group were meant to be fourth on the bill, but they were thrown on stage as the first because, unlike some of the other acts, Havens and company were present and accounted for, easy to set up, and all importantly, had not ingested the infamous brown acid.

“I went and did my 40 minutes, I walked off and they said, ‘Richie, can you do about four more songs?’ No one was there to go on. I went back and sang the four songs. I walked off. ‘Richie… four more?’ They did that six times until I realized, I don’t have another song. I’m done. I’ve sung every song I know. It’s two hours and forty-five minutes later… and that’s when I start that long intro, that’s me trying to figure out what I’m going to play, and I yell out the thing about the guitar microphone… please, let me stall a little bit more!”

After about a minute of freelancing a percussive riff in his distinctive open-D tuning, accompanied by an Afro-Cuban conga beat, he cried the word “freedom,” and then repeated it eight more times. “I just went with that… all of a sudden, ‘Motherless Child’ came out. I hadn’t sung that song in 14 or 15 years. I used to sing it early on in the Village.” He also slipped in a couple of secularized verses from a song he calls “I Got a Telephone in My Bosom” (a variation on the song that became known as “Jesus is on the Mainline”), which he learned during a brief gospel education. And though he was in a state of improvisational ecstasy, Havens could still sense that by participating in Woodstock, he was taking part in history.

“They can’t hide us anymore” was the thought that went through his head upon seeing the masses at Max Yasgur’s Farm that day. At first observing the scene through the floorboards of the helicopter that was delivering him to the gig, and later from his vantage point on the stage, “I thought, ‘when the pictures come out in the newspaper, they’ll see we are now above ground. We’re no longer relegated to the underground.’”

The Here and Now

Part of Havens’ method for delivering his message remains through singing the work of others. OnNobody Left to Crown, he finally got around to recording Jackson Browne’s “Lives in the Balance”, an urgent missive on the human cost of war that he’s been performing for some time now. He also pulls out a show-stopping version of the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

“I wanted to do it right after it came out, I loved it so much, but I thought, ‘it doesn’t need to be said twice—the Who’s done it.’ I held that in a box—my hold it box. It took this long to come back around and it fit.”

He wrote and recorded the title song live years ago, but saved the studio recording of it until now. “What if they gave an election and nobody came? What would we be doing? There’s nobody left to crown but us, for all of the things we’ve been through because of politics… for example, we learned this year that every law that was passed was passed in the middle of the night and no one knew it.”

For all of his political awareness, Havens has never been one to exercise his right to vote—until now. He went to the polls for the first time for the 2008 presidential primaries. “I found that it was now necessary to do that.”

Soon after the Woodstock experience, people all over the world started to request he play his own creation, “Freedom.” “And I’d say, ‘Freedom? Which freedom?’ And they’d say, ‘You know, “Motherless Child.”’ Holy smokes! Then it turns out to be in the movie and this is a big time change for me.” Havens had never seen himself perform until the Woodstock film came out months later. “It scared me to death, it was just so large. It wasn’t me, you know. It was a song. I became a mechanism to get that song out.”

The Woodstock Festival and the Isle of Wight shortly thereafter introduced Richie Havens to audiences on a massive scale as a dynamic acoustic performer and ambassador of socially conscious song and thought. He never tires of his responsibility as a ’60s generational spokesperson, though he’s an even bigger supporter of youth and the environment; in 1990, he helped to found the Natural Guard in New Haven, Connecticut, an organization where kids began to “guard the natural” in their own surroundings. From a community garden that fed the homeless to a lead poisoning awareness campaign, kids spotted the problems and created solutions that had a lasting impact on their community as well as their own lives. “It really was based on children using their own community as the endangered environment. The most put-upon group is children.” Children from three different chapters were recognized by then-Senator Al Gore for their environmental justice efforts.

If Havens has learned anything through his years of becoming, it’s that his work here isn’t yet done. “Don’t expect everything that happens to finish itself at once. It’s still happening, and it’ll reveal itself to you.” As he travels (he works three nights a week, down from his Village-era six), he finds that the local talent who open his shows seek his counsel on how to proceed with their careers. Advocating the digital DIY approach, he tells them, “Make your record, get someone to help you put it out, and go to the world directly. Get your feedback from the whole planet. That’s where you connect.”

Of course, that’s easy to say if you’re Richie Havens, the boy who told his grandmother he intended to meet everyone in the world some day and a man who believes music can change the world. But can it, really? “Absolutely,” he says. “And it will soon.” —published on September 10, 2008 in Crawdaddy!

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