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  • Ross Altman, PhD

Barbara Dane: A Profile in Courage

Concert Review: CAP-UCLA, Royce Hall October 21, 2017

Celebrating a Lifetime of Jazz, Blues and Songs for Peace and Justice

The Big D is back—Barbara Dane—her music publishing company named for her big “D” 28—Dreadnaught Music—her tribute to the guitar that carried her through the silent fifties and tumultuous sixties—and she is still singing Malvina Reynolds’ paean to civil disobedience.

"It isn't nice to block the doorways. It isn't nice to go to jail. There are nicer ways to do it. But the nice ways always fail"

Barbara Dane was the first artist to challenge the travel ban to Cuba after the revolution and all the racial restrictions that separated black and white performers and reach out to Louis Armstrong and Earl “Father” Hines and the Chambers Brothers—who were there last night backing her up with their magnificent vocal harmonies—including Joe Chambers, their sonorous show-stopping bass singer—“Bessie Smith in stereo,” as L.A. Times music critic Leonard Feather once wrote.

Barbara Dane is accompanied by the Tammy Hall Trio, a first-rate San Francisco-based jazz combo led by Tammy Hall on piano, with Daniel Fabricant on standup bass, and Daria Johnson on drums. They were up there from first note to last and made the show jump, swing and holler behind Barbara’s amazing vocals. About halfway through the concert they were joined by Barbara’s Cuban-based son Pablo Menendez, an inventive electric guitarist and brilliant blues harmonica player who fronts his own band Mezcla and tours all over the world, and later by his son Osamu Menendez, Barbara’s grandson she describes as a “guitar hero,” who highlighted his incredible electric blues guitar-playing on an up-tempo arrangement of Lead Belly’s classic 12-string guitar version of Good Morning Blues.

Saturday night’s concert was interspersed with a documentary-in-the-making about Barbara’s life called Barbara Dane: On My Way, which takes you back to her role in the 1950s civil rights movement, when she would insist on performing with black artists like Lightning Hopkins and Louis Armstrong, who famously said of her “Did you look at that chick? She’s a gasser!”

Musicians helped break the color barrier and Dane was out in front of the most progressive artists—which was how she met the Chambers Brothers. She was on her way from the Ash Grove in West Hollywood, where both she and the Chambers Brothers were booked at Ed Pearl’s great “West Coast University of Folk Music.” She invited the Chambers Brothers to accompany her on an east coast tour starting in New York. She paid their way, including their hotel bills, and that is what propelled them to international stardom. They were so charming Saturday night and graciously thanked her on-stage for launching their career from small folk clubs to major venues in Europe and recording together as well. In recognition of their musical connection Smithsonian Folkways re-released their joint album on vinyl just in time for their Royce Hall reunion concert. I am proud to add that I have their original LP—The Chambers Brothers: Live at The Ash Grove—and that Ed Pearl was at the concert too—who has featured the Chambers Brothers in a number of recent shows to keep them in the public eye. Ed was there at the beginning—putting out the best in folk music until the public caught up with him. Barbara Dane played at the Ash Grove on opening night.

Today’s major blues artists all pay tribute to Barbara Dane—Bonnie Raitt, Maria Muldaur and Linda Ronstadt were all inspired by her: “Barbara Dane, Sister Rosetta Tharp and Memphis Minnie were incredible role models for all of us. They were great women blues players, singers and songwriters that ran their own careers and played guitar.” —Bonnie Raitt

Pete Seeger was interviewed for the film before he passed away and you could see his admiration for Dane in his eyes as he spoke. They had a spiritual affinity that led them to many of the same destinations where their music spoke to ordinary people in extraordinary ways—from the Soviet Union to Cuba—where you see her photographed with Fidel Castro—breaking all the taboos of travel on the part of the US government long before it had even occurred to anyone that blockades, barricades and embargos could be challenged. Barbara Dane did not just speak truth to power, she lived her own life and followed her own muse where it led. That’s how she wound up with a Cuban-American son who is both a great musician and father of a great musician.

It was truly an international world music concert on stage at Royce Hall; except for one thing—all these great musicians were both family and friends of the lady they were honoring. She created this union of sound—what Daniel Pearl called “Harmony for Humanity.” It transcends musical, racial and national boundaries to create something new under the sun—a living example of music the universal language—not just an abstraction, but a fully realized body of work that made human connections of beautiful heart-stopping songs in languages that rose above walls and borders to create a human family.

What better city than Los Angeles and university than UCLA to celebrate such a groundbreaking artist who was decades ahead of her time. After the concert—that ranged over jazz, folk and blues and back again—Dane was honored out on the terrace with testimonials and beautifully printed scrolls from Mayor Eric Garcetti and County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl—both wishing her a Happy 90th Birthday. And that’s how it became even more apparent what a special artist she is. Walt Whitman once observed that it takes a great audience to make a great poet. But Barbara Dane proves that the opposite is also true: it takes a great artist to create a great audience.

The happiest part of the concert for me was that I ran into my cousin from long ago—Juan Gomez-Quinones, Professor of History and Chicano Studies at UCLA for more than 40 years—who has his own personal memories of spending time with Barbara Dane in Havana in the 1960s, when he travelled there on his own—as a curious scholar—long before even the Venceremos Brigades were formed by Carl Oglesby, president of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) to travel to Cuba and help local peasants pick sugar cane. To Juan, Barbara was both a great rebel artist and a profile in courage who refused to be thwarted by her country and insisted on coming to terms with other world views and cultures on her own. Juan, like Pete Seeger but for different reasons, likewise felt a kindred spirit in Barbara that has endured the test of time for more than fifty years. There he was—completely unknown to me until I discovered him and gave him a big hug since I hadn’t seen him in several years myself. And Juan, more than just coming there for himself, also brought his young daughter, Tamara, to introduce her too to an elder-stateswoman of American folk, jazz and blues music. This wonderful history professor wanted her to know who Barbara Dane was and why she matters. We wound up spending a good part of the evening together.

But not all of it—because I also ran into Robert Scheer—my old professor from Berkeley—former columnist for the Los Angeles Times, former “Left” voice on KCRW’s “Left, Right and Center”—and currently Professor of History at USC and editor of Truthdig—the award-winning website for in-depth reportage on current affairs. It was a real treat to have a few moments to reminisce about how much I enjoyed his Berkeley course—at the time he wrote the pioneering book How The United States Got Involved in Vietnam—which broke the monolithic silence on the war and began to raise questions that finally inspired the antiwar movement to oppose it in massive numbers. Scheer is a public intellectual of the first order, and to see him at Barbara Dane’s concert, with his wife Narda, who works for the LA Times, was another revelation that attested to the range and depth of her audience.

And the third aspect of Dane’s extraordinary audience was its widespread racial and ethnic diversity. To put it as simply as possible—both the performers on-stage and the listening audience looked like America—and more to the point, it looked like Los Angeles. As I looked around at black folks, white folks, Latinos, Chinese and the usual Jewish folkies I recognize immediately, I couldn’t help but think, as Randy Newman put it so perfectly, I love L.A.! This doesn’t happen very often, even with a well-known left-wing folk singer like the late great Pete Seeger. It’s not just a shared political viewpoint that brings an audience like this together as one. I went to a great many Pete Seeger concerts and always felt disappointed that there were not more people of color there—when he devoted so many songs to a multi-cultural worldview. Nobody did that better than Pete, and yet he often seemed to be preaching to the choir. Not so with Barbara Dane: her audience transcends politics. Her life is so integrated, so mixed up, that her audience simply reflects her life.

Not many artists so fully live the life they sing about. Barbara Dane has lived it for 90 years, and continues to sing out for social justice, peace and just plain beautiful songs in many genres—songs that bring people together and reach deep into their souls and make them recognize how much we are part of—as Pete put it so eloquently in the song My Rainbow Race,—not just this race or that race, but the human race. If Barbara Dane’s music has a message, that is it; we are all one family. That’s not a message, frankly, everyone wants to hear these days, which is why she ends her show with a rousing song reworked from the civil rights movement,

Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round,

Turn me ‘round, Turn me round

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round

I’m gonna keep on a walking

Keep on a’talking

Marching up to Freedom Land.

She composed a few hard-hitting contemporary verses, with the current occupant of the White House replacing the “Sheriff Pritchett” and Jim Crow verses from Alabama and Mississippi—underscoring the recent controversy from the white supremacist murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Her breathtakingly simple honesty was evident throughout the show; she was at her best singing the simplest spiritual—from the title of James Baldwin’s first novel: Go Tell It On the Mountain (Let My People Go)—which Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party member Fannie Lou Hamer sang in a Ruleville, Mississippi jail—as she was being beaten black and blue by a white deputy sheriff. But Baldwin wrote a later book called Going to Meet the Man. And Dane—at 90 years old—is still taking it to the man.

One of my friends from a hoot ran into me after the show and summed it up better than I could; “What a fabulous woman—that was amazing!!” Indeed she was—from the early jazz standards she sang with the subtlest phrasing and understated vocal caressing—like her tender Duke Ellington adaptation and tribute to her late husband Irwin Silber who died in 2010—“All Too Soon”—to her broken-hearted lament Salmon Blues, for the disappearing endangered salmon up north in Washington and Oregon that Woody Guthrie once celebrated in his Columbia River songs—to a definitive rendition of Paul Simon’s American Tune, enough to make the Statue of Liberty come alive, “Looking back at me”—and finally to the late-show still angry after all these years protest and freedom songs that embody still unfulfilled hopes for black people who once again are being prevented from voting—fifty-two years after LBJ passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, with his famous closing line to the speech he gave on the eve of its passage, reaffirming the greatest freedom song of all, We Shall Overcome. And if civil disobedience is what is required to secure these basic rights, then so be it:

…It isn’t nice/It isn’t nice

You told us once

You told us twice

But if that is freedom’s price

We don’t mind

No, no, no!

We don’t mind.

—Malvina Reynolds

Barbara Dane has lived these songs, and believes in them. True folk singers are so rare—and we are so lucky that she is still out there singing. Pete’s gone, Theo Bikel is gone, Fred Hellerman—the last of the Weavers—is gone; and Mary Travers is gone. So Happy 90th Birthday, Barbara Dane! Thank you for a great evening, and for keeping the living flame of folk music still burning brightly after all these years.

~October 21, the 50th anniversary of the March on the Pentagon, Oct. 21, 1967.

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