Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

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

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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.

 

 

 

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

Poet Bob Kaufman and the Here and Now

bobKaufmanIt’s been 30 years since Beat poet Bob Kaufman passed on, a few months shy of his 61st birthday. The often underlooked surrealist was a contemporary of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs; he lived in the North Beach and the Mission Districts of San Francisco for much of his life. In the spirit of National Poetry Month and in commemoration of what would’ve been his 91st birthday today, his work was celebrated here last week, a demonstration that it is never too late or too early to appreciate a visionary artist.

Speaking to Kaufman’s influence on the wider world of poetry and his deep imprint on them, poets Anne Waldman and Will Alexander, though only briefly acquainted with him personally, read Kaufman’s work aloud, accompanied by saxophonist David Boyce and percussionist Kevin Carnes. Sponsored by the Before Columbus Foundation and the San Francisco Public Library, members of Kaufman’s family traveled from Mississippi and Louisiana to be present and to honor his memory.

Listening to Waldman and Alexander, you could hear why Kaufman’s poems are best experienced aloud and accompanied by the jazz he loved. Kaufman’s epic “The Ancient Rain,” written after his famous vow of silence (following the Kennedy assassination and until the end of the Vietnam war) was read by Waldman, as she sounded out the blows empire wages against humankind, and on bodies Black and Brown. Readings were also selected and extracted from “I, Too, Know What I Am Not,” “Rue Miro,” and “Afterwards, They Shall Dance,” among others (I did not hear my favorite, “Hollywood,” though that doesn’t mean it wasn’t read).

Kaufman gave up writing down his poetry in 1978, but his words survived thanks to friends, fellow poets and his wife Eileen who taped and cobbled together the pieces collected in the works published after his death. Though
Kaufman’s poems foretold the persistent dilemmas of our age—the surveillance state, police violence (he was arrested over 30 times), media irresponsibility, a collapsing democracy and unnecessary poverty in a nation of great wealth—with his vision came the cost of direct engagement with such disturbing truth.

In his introduction to the posthumous Kaufman collection, Cranial Guitar, writer David Henderson noted that Kaufman’s life was unusual for a man of letters in that he left very little in the way of written materials or correspondence; just three published volumes, the broadsides Abomunist Manifesto, Second April and Does The Secret Mind Whisper? and some songs. One of those songs, “Green Rocky Road”  has enjoyed a long tenure as a folk music standard; most recently it was revived in the Coen Brothers film, Inside Lleweyn Davis. Co-written with Len Chandler, and popularized by Dave Van Ronk, the song bears the dreamlike, compelling qualities that are the hallmark of Kaufman’s poems; Chandler adapted the melody from a slave-era song quite possibly from the Georgia Sea Islands.

Kaufman’s most easily accessed works in libraries and bookstores are generally Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness, The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956–1978 and Cranial Guitar: Selected Poems by Bob Kaufman as well as Mel Clay’s Jazz Jail and God: Impressionistic Biography of Bob Kaufman. A new film, debuting at the San Francisco International Film Festival, And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead (Billy Woodberry, 2015), burrows into some of Kaufman’s secret history, from his beginnings as a union organizer, to the shock therapy at Bellevue that contributed to his silent years; there was substance and alcohol abuse and he was an absent father, though his magnitude as a poet is not open to debate. Artist and translator Mary Beach says, “I think he was one of the greatest of the 20th Century, frankly.”

I think of Kaufman’s poem,  “Afterwards, They Shall Dance,”  just about everyday. It begins like this:

In the City of St. Francis they have taken down the statue of

      St. Francis,

And the hummingbirds all fly forward to protest, humming

     feather poems.

The following is a rare, brief clip of Kaufman at work (likely at San Francisco Art Institute).

 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Jazz, North Beach, Poetry, , , ,

Promenade in Green

(UPDATE, December 19: I have since seen the film in its entirety and the “Green Green Rocky Road” scene is the best part. Though Len Chandler and the histories of some of the other folksingers of color on the scene—Odetta, Richie Havens, Buffy Sainte-Marie—have been well-documented, the filmmakers chose to render invisible their counterparts or composites in their deeply cynical look at Greenwich Village folk).

Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen Brothers film concerning a fictional folksinger from the early ‘60s Greenwich Village scene (based loosely in post-modern style on some incidents from the life of actual folksinger Dave Van Ronk and other figures of the Village scene) opened in select theaters this weekend.

I have not yet seen the film, but gathered from the soundtrack the title character played by Oscar Isaac, performs “Green, Green Rocky Road,” which Van Ronk himself went as far as to call his “theme song.”  With melodic and rhythm roots in the Georgia Sea Islands and before that, West Africa, readers of Keep on Pushing will remember the songwriting credit for “Green, Green Rocky Road” belongs to Len Chandler and Robert Kaufman (yes, as in Beat poet, Bob Kaufman).

I had the great and rare honor to interview songwriter and activist Chandler in 2007; large portions of our interview appeared throughout Keep on Pushing and on this site.  Chandler spoke highly of Kaufman, Van Ronk, and of course Bob Dylan, who detailed their shared history and collaborations in his book, Chronicles. And yet, it is “Green, Green Rocky Road,” a song Chandler never recorded, that may be one of his most enduring achievements, despite the fact he was a singing hero of the Civil Rights Movement (his contributions to African American/US political and social history remain obscured and inexplicably, largely unsung).

Here’s a clip of Van Ronk performing the song, followed by a clip of Chandler performing his own “Keep on Keepin’ On,” from his rare Columbia album, To Be A Man.

Filed under: Bob Dylan, film, Folk, Greenwich Village, Poetry, video, , , , , , , ,

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