Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

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

images

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, , , ,

We’re On The Freedom Side

There’s a new version of the labor standard, “Which Side Are You On?” going around: Sung at the Black Lives Matter and Blackout Coalition actions, it’s also been used as the intro and outro marching song at some of the Black Brunch protests.

Malcolm X was a freedom fighter
And he taught us how to fight
We go’n’ fight all day and night
Until we get it right
Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on?

In the early ’30s when the United Mine Workers of America began to organize around Eastern Kentucky (in an effort to end practices like payment in scrip and pay docking toward rent in substandard housing) it was Florence Reece, a Kentucky miner’s daughter and wife who wrote the original lyrics to “Which Side Are You On?”.  It remains a labor movement standard.

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

Blair was the sheriff who rousted Reece’s family during the strike among Harlan County mine workers, just one of the struggles which contributed toward the region earning its nickname “Bloody Harlan County.”   In the ‘70s, workers struck again and Reece reprised the song for striking miners (preserved in this clip from Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award-winning documentary, Harlan County U.S.A.).

The song’s melody is said to be based on a hymn, “Lay the Lily Low.” Some researchers believe it is the same song that forms the basis for the traditional “Jack-a-Roe,” (also known as “Jack Munro”), its best-known version performed by the Grateful Dead. But I think that somewhere in the Kentucky mountains, singers have been intoning this strange melody for hundreds of years, its deep minor tones more reminiscent of the mystic drone of a Gregorian chant than anything known to folk or gospel. Whatever its melody’s true origins, “Which Side Are You On?” was first repurposed during the Civil Rights Movement by topical singer-songwriter Len Chandler (you can hear his recorded version on the album, WNEW’S Story of Selma).

Come all you Northern liberals,
Take a Klansman out to lunch
But when you dine instead of whine
You should serve nonviolent punch
Which side are you on? Which side are you on?

Chandler told me his story, of how he came to be a topical singer in Greenwich Village, then moved on to marching with Dr. King from, Selma to Montgomery (he appears in archival footage in the new film, Selma). “I’d write a song like that and then I’d be singing it in a mass meeting that night. People would be playing and singing for forty five minutes, until you were just worn out,” he said. Fifty years later, he remains in pursuit of social justice through action and song (Chandler’s full story appears in Keep on Pushing). I learned from listening to Chandler’s songs and to his songtalk, and by studying the work of freedom singers like Odetta, Bernice Johnson and voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, that group singing among activists gives people who may start the night as strangers a chance to bond. Communing over songs, we become more bound to purpose. Singing together is energizing, nourishing, and feeds the spirit; it provides strength to move forward, together as one. But group singing for justice serves a further purpose beyond what some mock as a moment to join hands and sing “Kumbaya”:  In the fight for non-violence, singing has the ability to disarm.

Hamer practiced the power of song when she sang alongside Chandler and other SNCC volunteers at the mass meetings and marches, through her representation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic Convention and on to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Women at the forefront of workers organizing, who’ve pushed for voting and employment rights, and led the fights to end war, poverty, and racism across the planet all know well the power of song: Whether Hamer, Reece, or Ani DiFranco (who updated the song in 2012 then titled her collection of socially conscious songs, ¿Which Side Are You On?) or the Black Lives Matter and Blackout Coalition organizers, women are allied in a long and storied legacy of traditional and gospel song.  With songs we have contributed to toppling apartheid in South Africa, had voting rights granted in the US, fought warlords in Liberia and begun to make corrections to the broken justice system in the USA. With songs that have traveled the road from blues to hip hop, we will continue toward freedom for all people. It’s good to hear the timeless soundtrack to justice making a comeback. Now, which side are you on?

Filed under: anti-war, Civil Rights, Coal Mining Songs, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Origin of Song, , , , , ,

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, , , , , , , ,

Len Chandler: Fifty Years of Marching and Singing the Songs of Freedom

As most readers know, today is the 50th anniversary of the the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  What you may not know, even as an astute observer of civil rights and music history and where they meet, is the name Len Chandler:  He was among those assembled to help Dr. King push forward his dream of racial harmony and economic justice on that day, as well as on the marches in the Southern States.  At the March on Washington, Chandler was one of the voices in a trio that included Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. He marched with Dr. King and traveled through the South in the name of voter registration, informing rural Southerners of their polling rights, at risk to his own life. It was a now-you-see-it-now-you- don’t YouTube clip of Chandler’s inspirational performance of “Eyes on the Prize” that contributed to inspiring me to track him down and move forward with the writing of Keep on Pushing, my text that unpacks the origins of freedom music, and its roots in African American struggle and triumph.images

Originally from Akron, Ohio, and studying on scholarship at Columbia in the ’50s, Chandler made his way to Greenwich Village folk music a bit by accident. Lured to the sounds of Washington Square Park by the downtown youths he was mentoring, he easily fell into the scene based on his natural ear for songwriting and his familiarity with the songs of Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, and Woody Guthrie.  Following a performance at the popular Village coffeehouse, the Gaslight Cafe,  Chandler landed a contract to go to Detroit, writing and performing topical songs for local television. A few months later when the gig was through, he returned to New York to find the folk thing in full swing:  Bob Dylan was the latest arrival to town and the pair started to trade ideas and songs. “I hadn’t yet begun writing streams of songs like I would, but Len was, and everything around us looked absurd—there was a certain consciousness of madness at work,” wrote Dylan in his book Chronicles, remembering when.  Chandler remembers it like this in Keep on Pushing:  ”The first song I ever heard of Dylan’s was ‘Hey ho, Lead Belly, I just want to sing your name,’ stuff like that.”  Dylan used Chandler’s melody for his song, “The Death of Emmett Till.” “Len didn’t seem to mind,” wrote Dylan.

Chandler went on to record two albums for Columbia:  To Be a Man and The Loving People.  He continued to work as a topical songwriter, a peace and civil rights advocate, and as a songwriting teacher; his tour of Pacific Rim bases with Donald Sutherland, Jane Fonda, Holly Near and Paul Mooney was documented in the Francine Parker film, FTA, a must-see for anyone interested in US history and anti-war efforts within military ranks. Catch a glimpse of Chandler at the end of this trailer for the film:

Today, Chandler is largely retired from performing, but he remains well- informed on human rights, politics, and the arts, and can write and perform songs that still pack a punch.  I must say it was a privilege to meet one of the true unsung singing activists of my lifetime (as well as his wife Olga James, a pioneering performer in her own right), and have him tell his story in Keep on Pushing (which is where you will find more straight talk from Chandler, as well as my own perspectives on his contribution to civil rights history). I had hoped to see him on television today,  in the crowd in Washington, or better yet, onstage with Peter and Paul, reviving a freedom song for our times. Perhaps I missed him, but Len Chandler belongs on the guest list of esteemed names assembled for any kind of 50th anniversary commemoration of the March, the Civil Rights Era, and anywhere Freedom Songs are still sung.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Folk, Freedom Now, Greenwich Village, Keep On Pushing, , , , ,

Len Chandler and the March on Washington

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

August 28 marks the 49th anniversary of the the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Among those assembled to help Dr. King push forward his dream of racial harmony and economic justice on that day was Len Chandler, one of the voices in a trio that included Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Chandler would march with Dr. King and travel through out the South in the name of voter registration, informing rural Southerners of their polling rights, at risk to his own life. It was a now-vanished YouTube clip of Chandler’s inspirational performance of “Eyes on the Prize” that contributed to inspiring me to track him down and move forward with the writing of Keep on Pushing, my text that tracks the origins of freedom music, and its roots in African American struggle and triumph.

Originally from Akron, Ohio, and studying on scholarship at Columbia in the ’50s, Chandler made his way to Greenwich Village folk music a bit by accident. Lured to the sounds of Washington Square Park by the downtown youths he was mentoring, he easily fell into the scene based on his natural ear for songwriting and his familiarity with the songs of Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, and Woody Guthrie.  Following a performance at the popular Village coffeehouse, the Gaslight Cafe,  Chandler landed a contract to go to Detroit, writing and performing topical songs for local television. A few months later when the gig was through, he returned to New York to find the folk thing in full swing:  Bob Dylan was the latest arrival to town and the pair started to trade ideas and songs. “I hadn’t yet begun writing streams of songs like I would, but Len was, and everything around us looked absurd—there was a certain consciousness of madness at work,” wrote Dylan in his book Chronicles, remembering when.  Chandler remembers it like this in Keep on Pushing:  “The first song I ever heard of Dylan’s was ‘Hey ho, Lead Belly, I just want to sing your name,’ stuff like that.”  Dylan used Chandler’s melody for his song, “The Death of Emmett Till.” “Len didn’t seem to mind,” Dylan wrote.

Chandler went on to record two albums for Columbia:  To Be a Man and The Loving People.  He continued to work as a topical songwriter, a peace and civil rights advocate, and as a songwriting teacher; his tour of Pacific Rim bases with Donald Sutherland, Jane Fonda, Holly Near and Paul Mooney was documented in the Francine Parker film, FTA, a must-see for anyone interested in US history and anti-war efforts within military ranks. Catch a glimpse of Chandler at the end of this trailer for the film:

 Today, Chandler is largely retired from performing, but he remains well- informed on human rights, politics, and the arts.  I must say it was a privilege to meet one of the true unsung heroes of singing activism (as well as his wife Olga James, a pioneering performer in her own right), and to tell his story in Keep on Pushing which is where you will find more straight talk from Chandler, as well as my own perspectives on his contribution to civil rights history. If there is any chance that Harry Belafonte intends to organize the musical presentation for next year’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I hope he will consider issuing an invitation to Chandler for another chorus of “Eyes on the Prize”  (hold on).

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

Julia Ward Howe: Another Mother For Peace

About once a year you hear the name Julia Ward Howe: She gave us Mother’s Day, declaring it first in 1870. Howe was primarily a writer and an activist; her work included poetry and lyrics, and she rallied for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and peace. Born in 1819 in New York City, most famously she adapted the lyrics to “America” to fit the women’s suffrage cause. In the Civil War era, in folk tradition, she rewrote the words to the existing songs “Canaan’s Happy Shore” and “Say Brothers, Will You Meet Us” as “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (which also provides the melody of abolitionist anthem, “John Brown’s Body,” circulating at the same time). In her memoir, Howe wrote of the poem coming to her in her sleep, and rising to transcribe the words: “I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper,” she wrote.

A century later, the song was repurposed by Len Chandler for the Civil Rights Movement as “Move On Over.”

You promise us the vote then sing us We Shall Overcome

Hey but John Brown knew what freedom was he died to win us some

And the Movement’s moving on

One of the singer-songwriters on the early ’60s Greenwich Village folk scene (one of his original melodies was borrowed by Bob Dylan), Chandler stuck with topical songs and movement building, and went on to put “Move On Over” to work in the anti-Vietnam War effort, updating it again and performing it for troops throughout Southeast Asia. What a striking example of how a song can travel the miles, from one movement to another, to another, without losing authority or missing a beat of its heart—or its intention to preserve humanity, and the life of some mother’s daughter or her son.  Glory Hallelujah, Len Chandler and Julia Ward Howe: Your mothers would be proud. And to all the mothers—including my own–along with the stepmothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, and others it takes to get the job done: Happy Mother’s Day. Love and thanks for birthing and raising your children and helping them through.

I thought you mothers (and others) would like this image–it’s a lithograph by Charles White (1918-1979). The Chicago-born artist made his name mid-career and later, largely on the work created and shown in Los Angeles during the ’60s. This work from 1976 is titled “I Have A Dream,” and was included alongside White’s politically-charged and socially conscious-works in the Hammer Museum exhibit, Now Dig This! (I’ve heard it will begin traveling soon). I think moms will also dig this well-known song but lesser-seen clip of  “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye, performing at the Save the Children concert event in 1973.

More on Len Chandler, Julia Ward Howe and Marvin Gaye in Keep on Pushing

Filed under: Keep On Pushing, , , , , , , , , ,

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