Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Freedom Singer Len Chandler and the March on Washington


Today marks the 57th 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 Columbia Records, but little is known about him or his life.  I sought out Chandler 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 nearly 10 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 with 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, Folk, Freedom Now, , , ,

The Ballad of Trayvon Martin

The story of 15-year-old Emmett Till of Chicago, murdered while on summer vacation in Money, Mississippi, was among the events in the mid-‘50s that mobilized the Civil Rights Movement; the tragedy was chronicled by Bob Dylan in one of his earliest songs. This clip contains a bit of background as well as the audio of the song which tells the story.

Oddly, I had long been holding tickets to attend a staged reading this week of Ifa Bayeza’s play, The Ballad of Emmett Till, in which the scene above with Mose Wright is recreated, as is mother Mamie Till’s testimony. The script was beautifully written and the acting superb, especially by Lorenz Arnell who played Till.  But I had a difficult time sitting through the show, in light of the recent events in the Sunshine State, and the information that continues to surface following the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Today, as people gather in Union Square in New York City to protest the racially motivated killing of the young man in Sanford, Florida on February 26, his assailant has not yet been arrested or charged.  The rally is intended not only to shine a light on injustice—Martin’s murder was clearly a hate crime and needs to be treated with the kind of seriousness that an offense like that demands—but a plea to end the practice of racial profiling.

It’s been fifty years since Dylan sang his song about Emmett Till and it is unthinkable that it should have to be reprised as a mourning song anymore, except to be used as a history lesson. I encourage people unfamiliar with the Trayvon Martin case to read up on it and to listen to Dylan’s song. I hope that all of us will think of Martin and his family, and think of Emmett Till and his kin, and of all the Trayvon Martins and would-be Emmett Tills out there. And if there’s a freedom singer in the town square, maybe he or she will sing these verses loud, so everyone can hear them, all over this land, once and for all.

If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust

Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust…

…But if all us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give

We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.

Read more on “The Death of Emmett Till” in Keep on Pushing 


Filed under: Bob Dylan, Folk, Hip Hop, , , , , ,

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