In a perfect world I wouldn’t need to explain who Barbara Dane is.
In a perfect world women musicians would receive the same respect and credit for their accomplishments as their male counterparts do.
In a perfect world musicians who use their art for advancing the cause of social justice wouldn’t be marginalized to the fringes of the scene.
But this is not a perfect world, and viewing Barbara Dane’s achievements in the light of this fact makes them all the more important and impressive.
Barbara Dane possesses an extraordinary voice. Over the years Dane has used that voice as an instrument of protest against war, racism, and injustice. Dane rose to national prominence in the 1950s as an impassioned interpreter of traditional jazz, blues, and folk music. But after reaching the cusp of popular success, Dane chose to trade fortune and fame for substance.
Smithsonian Folkways Records has honored Dane’s contributions to American music with a 2-CD retrospective titled Hot Jazz, Cool Blues & Hard-Hitting Songs, and a vinyl reissue of Dane’s classic 1966 Folkways LP Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers. I recently caught up with Dane to discuss these reissues, and her lifelong commitment to activism and music. Check out out our conversation below, and head to BarbaraDane.net for more information on her work.
Kyle Long: The collision between music and activism started early in your life. I understand you were singing on the picket lines in Detroit as a young person. Is that right?
Barbara Dane: Yes it is. Detroit was one of the most racist cities in the north, or anywhere in the country. When I was growing up it was impossible, and I mean impossible to sit down with a Black friend and have a cup of coffee. Unless you went to the Black neighborhoods. You had to go to what they called Paradise Valley, which was a horrible slum buried in the center of Detroit. It was there in that area and climate that I realized I wanted to stand up for certain things, and against certain things. I found out I could do that by singing.
I started out singing on picket lines and during demonstrations. Those were the first mass audiences I had. [laughs] That’s it, Detroit did it.
Kyle Long: How did those early experiences singing on the picket lines shape your concept of the role music can have in our lives?
Barbara Dane: I studied singing with a wonderful teacher who was a bel canto trainer, that is grand opera. The only kind of singing teacher you could find in those days was someone teaching classical forms of singing. When I was a young teenager I had some lessons with Mr. Coats and he taught me to throw my voice out there as if I was singing at Carnegie Hall.
When I thought about the songs I was singing, they didn’t really say anything for me. They were nice, and the poetry was great, but they didn’t change anything or do anything. When I began to sing in these other situations, I saw people came from a place way down deep with problems. Everyone comes to a demonstration with a heart full of problems, and puzzles about the world. As the music took over they would brighten up and start to sing with me, and march. It was very exciting to see that music could move people, and that I could actually affect something.
Music will not change the world, but you can’t imagine a world without music.
I graduated from high school in 1945, and something happened that year that changed the whole world, and me too. That was the dropping of the atomic bomb and the quick instant death of hundreds of thousands of people in Japan. Everybody knew that this would change the world. It changed the future radically. We would always have to refer anything in our minds to the possibility of this thing being used again somewhere, or somehow. That still hangs over us.
Beyond that, Michigan had this Equal Accommodations Act that was not being practiced. So me and a few friends from an organization called American Youth for Democracy decided to do a test case at a big hotel in Detroit called the Barlum Hotel across from Cadillac Square. Cadillac Square was a traditional gathering place for all the union rallies. So we decided to test the place and they threw us out. We started a big picket line every Saturday, and that was were I really started singing.
I was singing songs like, [sings] “We’re gonna roll, we’re gonna roll the union on.” There was a great song about this Southern senator Bilbo who was one of the most notorious racist senators. [sings] “So listen Mr. Bilbo, listen to me. I’ll give you a lesson in history. Listen and I’ll show you that the foreigners you hate are the very same folks that made America great. You don’t like Negroes, and you don’t like Jews. If there’s anybody you do like it sure is news.”
That song was something out of the People’s Songs Bulletin, which was a creation of Pete Seeger. Pete had just gotten out of the service, and right away he started thinking about how to get people singing, and how to get people thinking about issues. So Pete came to Detroit to try to find someone to organize a Detroit chapter of what he called People’s Songs. I was around eighteen or nineteen then, Pete recruited me and I started a little chapter. It wasn’t very big, but people encouraged me to keep going and I went on from there playing the guitar and singing for all these different organizations that would book me for their PTA meetings, or church socials. Whatever it was, I always sang songs with content and meaning.
Kyle Long: You mentioned the racism and segregation in Detroit during your formative years. How did you as a young White woman immerse yourself in Black music idioms in opposition to this racist system that was tearing people apart?
Barbara Dane: Well, I first listened to records of course. I found old blues records in a dusty second hand record store. I started listening to blues records alongside the opera records I was listening to. I found the music very moving.
But growing up a White girl in Detroit at that time I wasn’t able to go into the Black clubs in Paradise Valley. I was too young to go into the clubs at all at that time. But I did get a false ID and I sneaked into a place where Dinah Washington was making her first attempts at singing up north. She was very country. She looked very country, and her whole demeanor was different from what you’d know of Dinah Washington later. But it was great to slip in and see her.
But this thing about being a White girl trying to soak up Black culture, wherever I was it was the same story. I always had to be very careful to indicate I was there for the music, not to pick up a guy, or be bought and sold. I had to make it known that I was a musician and I was there to listen to the music, and that’s it. So I had to be very cool. I had to walk cool, you know?
Kyle Long: You ended up collaborating with an unbelievable list of musicians, from jazz greats like Earl Hines and Louis Armstrong, to blues players like Lightnin’ Hopkins. From your position as a cultural outsider, how did you earn the trust and respect of these musicians to the point that they were willing to collaborate with you?
Barbara Dane: That’s a good question. I really don’t know. I guess it was just by doing what I was doing. When I sang a whole evening of classic blues, I always started off by crediting who write the song and where it came from, and I always interpreted the music from my own point of view.
The great bass player Pops Foster once took me aside when I was wondering if what I was doing was the right thing. Pops said, “Listen, keep it up. You’re doing very well, and you’re obviously sincere. There’s nobody else doing this stuff, and it needs to be kept alive. So keep on, keep on, keep on.” I felt empowered by that.
Kyle Long: I mentioned that you have a couple reissue projects currently happening with Folkways Records. The first is a reissue of your 1966 albumBarbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers. At that point in your career you’d been recording and releasing music for about ten years. But this was really your first collection of protest music, right?
Barbara Dane: I don’t know. I can’t remember. But I’d been trying for a long time to get the Brothers to record with me. When I started singing those freedom songs, especially at the Ash Grove in L.A., I always wanted harmonies. One day Ed Pearl booked this young gospel quartet known as The Chambers Brothers. I heard them singing, and I invited to come onstage with me and jam on some harmonies. We did it, and it came off so well that I started booking them to come and sing with me. So I said, “Let’s record this.”
Before the record with The Chambers Brothers, I had previously been recording with Capitol Records. The producer at Capitol named Curly Walter suggested that I make an album with Jimmy Witherspoon. Well, the suits upstairs wouldn’t let us do it. They said no, because they couldn’t put a picture on the cover of a Black man and a White woman. If you look back at the album covers of the ’50s and early ’60s, you don’t see that combination at all. So suddenly I come out with four Black guys standing behind me and singing with me. In a way I thought was the most innovative part of the album.
By the way, I think Capitol dumped my contract because of State Department interference. I strongly believe that, though I can’t prove it. It was right when I was invited by Louis Armstrong to tour with him in Europe. It also coincided with the time that he was coming out as an ardent advocate of civil rights. Louis was supposed to go on tour in Europe with the State Department. Why was the State Department sending American jazz artists to tour Europe? They wanted everybody to think that everything new and modern happened in the U.S.A. and we were where it was at. But if all of the sudden Louis showed up with a blue-eyed blonde as his latest discovery, who actually had a big mouth about racism, it wouldn’t have worked for their purposes. So they pulled me off the tour. But like I say, there’s no way to prove that.
Kyle Long: So some of the commercial labels you recorded with like Capitol and Dot would have been resistant to you singing protest songs?
Barbara Dane: Oh, I don’t know. I wouldn’t even have tried it with them. I never asked anybody for permission, I just do what I do. I never really got censored by any of them. I think it was known by the time they got me in the studio that I had my own thoughts about what I was gonna do.
The only censorship I can recall was at Dot Records. The owner was somebody with strict rules about alcohol and sex and whatever. Pat Boone was their favorite person. I was singing “Why Don’t You Do Right?” and there’s a line in there, “I fell for your jive and took you in, and all you got to offer me is a drink of gin.” They said, “You can’t say that! You’ve got to say something else.” So I quickly changed it to, “All you’ve got to offer me is a silly grin.” Well, I knew that all of my listeners would understand that I would never say something as stupid as that. [laughs]
Anyhow, you might’ve noticed that every record I made was on a different label. That’s because I didn’t play by the rules.
Kyle Long: So there’s nothing specific thing you can point to that explains why you were able to record this album of protest music at this time in your career?
Barbara Dane: Yeah, what I can point to is Moses Asch and Folkways. Moe was very democratic about what he’d put out. In fact, he’d put out doggone near anything if he could roll it along his assembly line. But he was certainly proud to do that album, and in fact, he engineered it.
Kyle Long: One of my favorite tracks on your album with The Chambers Brothers is “It Isn’t Nice”. Did you cowrite that song with Malvina Reynolds?
Barbara Dane: Malvina Reynolds wrote “It Isn’t Nice” after she took part in the sit-ins at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. There was a sleep-in. They all brought sleeping bags and laid down in the lobby of this fancy hotel. So Mal wrote it, and the tune she had was kind of a folky tune. It kind of reeked of Whiteness. [laughs]
I was going to Mississippi and I wanted the words of the tune to get over, so I changed the tune. I tried to make it something you could dance to, and it worked. Everybody was jumping on that song when I was in Mississippi. So Mal said, “That’s alright, you do it your way and I’ll do it my way. It’s all good.”
Kyle Long: I’ll love your version. It sounds like you were were influenced by doo-wop music, or some of the early Motown stuff.
Barbara Dane: Oh definitely, and Sam Cooke. I was trying to copy off Sam Cooke, but I could never imitate that glorious voice. But that was the idea.
Kyle Long: The second project you have with Folkways is a compilation titled Hot Jazz, Cool Blues & Hard-Hitting Songs, which demonstrates the wide range of music you’ve performed throughout your life. Did you have a role in the track selection for that album?
Barbara Dane: I did, and so did my daughter Nina Menendez. Nina was asked to co-produce the album with Jeff Place from Smithsonian Folkways. Jeff is one of the main curators and archivists there. So I had a chance to put thumbs up, or thumbs down on things. It was hard. I don’t do things that I don’t feel close to, or like a lot. So it was kind of like Sophie’s Choice in a way. [laughs] If you choose one it means the other can’t go on. It was hard choosing, and there was a lot to choose from.
I don’t know how much you’ve explored it, but the first CD is all from the labels that Smithsonian Folkways controls. But the second CD is all stuff that was sitting in my cellar gathering dust for forty years. My daughter Nina took these tapes to an incredible expert technician by the name of Jessica Johnson. She made all these dusty tapes sound really good. So we decided to put them out.
Kyle Long: You mentioned that first disc of Hot Jazz, Cool Blues & Hard-Hitting Songs is drawn from labels that Smithsonian Folkways has rights to. One those labels happens to be one of my favorite record labels. I’m talking about Paredon Records, which you cofounded with Irwin Silber.
Paredon Records released revolutionary music from the Dominican Republic, Thailand, Angola, Cuba, Vietnam, Mexico and may other places. Paredon also released spoken word recordings from important historical figures like Huey Newton and Che Guevara. Can you tell me what inspired you to start Paredon Records in 1969?
Barbara Dane: Oh, I’m happy to tell you about that. I was one of the first to break the cultural blockade with Cuba. I went down there and did a tour all over the country in 1966. I got to be friends with a lot of the cultural people in Cuba. In 1967 they decided to put on what they called on Encuentro and they invited people from all over the world. It was my opportunity to meet and appreciate people from all over Latin America, and as far away as Australia, South Africa, and Vietnam. People came from the trenches of Vietnam.
After that, I went home and started thinking about how xenophobic America was then. It was terrible. If I sang a song in another language people would come up to me and say, “Why did you do that?”
I wanted to capture the passion and purpose of all these singers I’d heard, and to figure out how it could be understood by the people here. At first I tried to learn their songs in their languages. But that didn’t work. Then I tried writing English lyrics, and I did write some good ones that worked OK. But I began to realize that the best thing would be if people could hear the singers themselves. Because that’s the essence.
So I realized I had to have a record label that could do that. So I started telling everybody I met that I was going to start a record label. People said, “How are you going to that?” I said, “Well, I’m looking for anybody who could help sponsor it.” A friend of mine called up and said, “I think I’ve got somebody.” A guy came over, and his fortune came from a place where he had a bad conscience about it. He gave me $17,000 and that was the whole seed money for the whole thing.
In those days record companies would spend $17,000 to do a couple songs in the studio. But we never had any other capitalization for the whole thing. We did it by doing all the work ourselves and recruiting our friends. If somebody came over for dinner, after dinner they had to do some proofreading. Or I’d get on them to write an article for the booklets. Those are very thorough booklets. I always had knowledgable people writing about the movement and the artists. And I always had side-by-side translations of the songs so you could actually follow them in your own language. It would help you learn another language if you did. That’s how I learned a lot of Spanish.
When it was all said and done, I think it took about eleven years to do those fifty Paredon albums. I was it doing Paredon during the time I was also doing G.I. organizing wth my songs, and traveling all around America and going to the Far East and Europe trying to support the anti-Vietnam war resistance. When I would come home dead tired from all that, I’d still have to work on my latest issues for Paredon.
Irwin had worked with Folkways, and knew something about marketing, and he got that kickstarted by very economical means. So anyway, we did it. I look back on the Paredon thing and think that something that seemed like I was trying to squeeze into my schedule for ten years was actually one of the main things I was doing. I’m so proud of it, and I’m so happy with it. I want people to go to the website and look at it, and soak it up. It was human blood, sweat, and tears on record.
Kyle Long: One of my favorite records on the Paredon label is your own 1973 release I Hate the Capitalist System.
Barbara Dane: Alright! [laughs]
Kyle Long: That’s such a powerful statement. The album cover is just that phrase in bold letters. Tell me about making that statement and how it was received at the time.
Barbara Dane: Well, I was very take by Sarah Ogan Gunning’s song “I hate the capitalist system, and what it has done to me.” It’s so stark and so unadorned by fake anything. It’s so real, and the first line is, “I hate the capitalist system.” So I said, “Let’s call the album that.”
People would say, “What do you mean hate? Why do you have to use a word like that?” Well, because I do! I do hate it. I won’t use that word about a lot things, but when it comes to the capitalist system and the depredations that it still enforces on the planet, I will use that phrase happily to try to wake you up and make you open your eyes to see where you stand. That to me is what all my songs are doing, challenging your assumptions and ask where you stand in all this.
Kyle Long: We’ve been talking about the music in the Smithsonian Folkways collection and I want to move outside of that collection for a moment. We’ve also been talking about a lot of serious themes in your music, but early in your career you made a fantastic dance record titled “I’m On My Way”. You recorded that song twice. First as a Lee Halewood produced single for Trey Records in 1960, and later as the title track of your 1962 LP for Capitol Records.
Barbara Dane: As I’m sure you know it’s a traditional song. I have no idea who wrote it. I got my tune for it from Mahalia Jackson, and took it in my own direction. I always made it up my lines. Some are traditional, and you grab those out of the air as you need them. Then you make up the rest as you look in the audience and see who’s there.
That song has taken me everywhere. [laughs] What can I say? It’s been an important song in my life and it still is.
Kyle Long: Are you aware of the cult following the record has among DJs, particularly in the British Northern Soul scene?
Barbara Dane: Yes I am. They once invited me to come to L.A. to be at a convention. They were all gonna come from England to L.A. to meet what they considered to be the big stars of the 45 RPM single scene. [laughs] I didn’t go. I figured I didn’t need the vanity trip.
Kyle Long: What do you make of the fact that your recording of this song is still so meaningful to music fans?
Barbara Dane: It’s amazing. But it isn’t really my song, it’s only me doing it. I know the song will be around forever, long after me.
Kyle Long: Earlier in our conversation you mentioned that you had a suspicion that Capitol Records dropped you due to State Department interference. You were very active in the movement for social justice during the ’60s and ’70s. That was a time when there was a lot of government surveillance of people who were considered dissidents. Was there a drawer in the FBI file cabinet with your name on it?
Barbara Dane: Oh my god. [laughs] They started my file when I was eighteen. I have stuff dating back that far. I’ve been getting my Freedom of Information papers gradually, but they’ve been sitting on the last big bunch. I’ve got stacks of papers here. I’ve got huge notebooks of stuff they’ve sent me. A lot of it is repetitious, “She want to that meeting. She went to that other meeting.” It’s very boring. But then they’ll go into elaborate discussion about how a particular demo was put together.
When I look though it all, I think, “What a waste of tax payer dollars.” All I was ever doing was singing songs and trying to get people to think about peace, and justice, and good times, and love. But they spent all that money that could’ve built schools and libraries.
Kyle Long: Did you have any sense at the time that someone was tracking your movements?
Barbara Dane: Sure, I could see them. I’d check in at the airport and I’d see some guy in FBI drag go over to the counter and look at whatever the clerk had copied. You could smell it. But who cares? They know what everybody does anyway.
Unless you have some serious business to hide, don’t worry about it. [laughs] In general, I’d never worry about the fact that they know everything about you. Just make sure that what they know is good. [laughs]
Kyle Long: You were never imitated by it?
Barbara Dane: Not at all. Not in the least.
Kyle Long: That’s great.
Barbara Dane: Why? [laughs] Why worry? The object of a lot of it is to intimidate you. It’s supposed to make you nervous and to look over your shoulder. It’s supposed to make you distrust the person you’re working with. That’s the object of what they’re doing. I’m not going to fall into that.
Kyle Long: There’s a famous quote from a letter Bob Dylan wrote to Broadside magazine in 1964. Dylan said, “The world needs more people like Barbara, someone who is willing to follow her conscience. She is, if the term must be used, a hero.”
I certainly regard you as a hero. I’m curious how you feel about that Dylan quote, and being called a hero?
Barbara Dane: It’s intimidating in a way, and embarrassing. I don’t know. But people need symbols. Symbolizing certain things is okay with me. You have to realize that it’s a function of society. And if you’re going to be a symbol, try to be something you want to symbolize. [laughs] It’s that easy.
Kyle Long: Any current projects you’re working on that you want to share?
Barbara Dane: Yes, I was wanting to tell you about some of the things the Barbara Dane Legacy Project is doing. It was initially engendered by my daughter Nina Menendez, but a lot of other people have gotten involved. We have a lengthy list of people on our advisory board, like David Amram and Judy Collins.
Nina is the founder and curator of the Bay Area Flamenco Festival and she is a bust woman. But she sees my getting older and older, and figures that a lot of things would be better handled while I’m still alive. She’s gonna half to follow up after I’m gone. so she might as well build the archives now.
So the Legacy Project has helped to pull together quite a few things that are happening. The double CD on Smithsonian Folkways was one of the first projects. Part of what got that started is when Nina went into archives and started digitizing material there. The archives contain all sorts of notes, and programs. She’s found some incredibly interesting things. She found some telegrams from Langston Hughes. He would often send me a telegram wishing me well on my opening night. He had sent me some blues that he wrote. I guess he was hoping I’d do something with them, but I didn’t. She found a Christmas card from Ella Fitzgerald, another one Lizzie Miles, the great New Orleans singer that I idolized. That’s all being put together in an archival setting, and will eventually be offered to some university.
One of the biggest things happening is the film project. A film is being made about me, and they’ve been following me around for two or three years. They’ve been recording concerts, and interviews in different situations. Maureen Gosling is the director. She worked for years with Les Blank. Are you familiar with his work?
Kyle Long: Yeah, he’s one of my favorite filmmakers.
Barbara Dane: Well, Maureen was his right-hand person for years. Maureen is a treasure, and she’s working with some excellent camera people including Ashley James. In Cuba we used Roberto Chile who is also a great photographer.
So the film project is happening, and I’m also writing my memoir. What else? That’s a lot isn’t it? [laughs]
Kyle Long: That is a lot.
Barbara Dane: It’s very satisfying, because I’m ninety-one and I know won’t be here forever. Somewhere in the middle of my nineties I’ll fade away. That’s fine with me. I can say that because all this stuff is going on, and I know that I won’t be forgotten by everybody. I’ll be forgotten by most people, but I’ll still have some little pile of dust where somebody can look me up.
Kyle Long: Thank you so much for taking time to speak with me Ms. Dane. You mentioned the importance of having a symbol, someone to look to as a guide. You’ve been that symbol for me in my work in learning how to use music to do right by other people. It’s been a profound influence on me. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to speak with you, and it was a pleasure to speak with you.
Barbara Dane: Well Kyle, I can’t begin to tell you how gratifying it is to know that there’s a guy in Indianapolis that’s doing good stuff who thinks like that.