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  • Jonathan Shifflet

Activist and folksinger Barbara Dane taught the Chambers Brothers how to ‘do your thing’


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In the early 1960s when Los Angeles had a thriving folk music scene, musicians came from all over to play at the Ash Grove. It’s the club where folk singer Barbara Dane discovered the gospel quartet, the Chambers Brothers. In 1965 they recorded "Barbara Dane and The Chambers Brothers” — a collection of gospel and political songs. But almost as soon as the album came out, their careers went in different directions. Dane continued as a political activist while the brothers became a commercially successful rock band.

Now, Dane is reuniting with the Chambers Brothers in celebration of her 90th birthday.

Dane grew up in Detroit where she was exposed to blues music, often sneaking out at night to see artists like Dinah Washington. “I’d steal my mama’s hats," Dane recalls. "I got a long cigarette holder, gloves, high heels, fake ID and I went to hear some jazz by myself.”

Dane eventually made her name in the folk scene of the early '60s. And when she met a gospel group called the Chambers Brothers she had the idea to record a collaborative album.

DANE: They’ve told me about how they learned to sing as they would be in the cotton rows. They would do a little singing to relax. Their mama taught them to harmonize when they were really small. The minute I heard them I knew they’d be perfect to do these freedom songs that people were wanting so much to hear and sing in the ‘60s.

Because of the increase in racial tension and violence, The Chambers Brothers had moved from Mississippi to Los Angeles. At first, they were singing in churches. But eventually they started singing at folk clubs and cafes — in particular, the Ash Grove.

WILLIE CHAMBERS: We got booked in the Ash Grove and Barbara Dane was on the same bill. So was Lightnin’ Hopkins. And Barbara Dane says, "I think if the world could see you guys, you could maybe make it!"

So Dane recruited the Chambers Brothers for the album that she envisioned as a soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement.

GEORGE CHAMBERS: Folk music changed the attitude of a lot of people. You could say just about whatever you wanted to in the form of the song.

But the Chambers Brothers weren’t interested in staying in the folk music scene forever.

JOE CHAMBERS: Barbara Dane brought us out of L.A. to the Newport Folk Festival. We weren’t [supposed] to be gone maybe three days days. And we didn’t get back for how long? Maybe a year!

Making that album with Dane helped launch The Chambers Brothers’ career as a rock 'n' roll band. But they were skeptical about making the album at the outset.

WILLIE CHAMBERS: I was a little bit hesitant because we didn’t want to get involved with anything that was political, and we still don’t to this day. You can’t do both. You can’t do music and politics. It’s like gasoline and water. It doesn’t mix.

Filmmaker Maureen Gosling is currently making a documentary about Dane’s life. For her, Dane’s mixing of politics and music is what makes her such an interesting subject.

GOSLING: She didn’t become the famous celebrity. It may have cost her in some people’s eyes, because she was also very political in that she was a member of the Communist party. She stood by her principles and she ended up having an amazing life.

Dane has gone all over the world singing at rallies. She even started her own record label, Paredon Records, to promote musical activists. And, perhaps most importantly, she’s inspired groups like The Chambers Brothers to challenge music industry norms.

JOE CHAMBERS: The bureaucracy in the rock ‘n’ roll industry called us misfits. It said, You guys are playing the wrong music. We were supposed to be doing blues … and dancing with suits on and with a backup band. We said, No, that’s not what we do. We do our own thing. Because Barbara Dane taught us the phrase, Do your thing.

DANE: I’ve always wanted the country to live up to its promises. So what I started right out doing is trying to put my songs at the service of justice and peace. And for that reason, I arrive at 90 years old and I have no regrets.

Barbara Dane performs with the Tammy Hall Trio, Osamu and Pablo Menéndez and special guests The Chambers Brothers on Oct. 21 at UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance at Royce Hall.

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