Barbara Dane - vocals, guitar, percussion
Raised in Detroit during the deepest depression years, amidst the worst race riots in American history, Barbara Dane became an iconic singer, who, through her music and unbridled determination, played a major role in the civil rights movement and beyond.
Relocating to San Francisco in 1949, Dane became a popular fixture on the club circuit, singing classic blues and jazz. When she eventually burst upon the blues and jazz scene in the 1950s, many were startled to discover that this pure, rich, and powerfully dusky alto voice belonged to a white woman. A 1959 feature article in Ebony Magazine (their first ever feature on a white woman) displayed photos of Dane working with the likes of Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters, and Willie Dixon. That same year, Louis Armstrong had sung her praises to Time magazine and invited her to appear with him on national television, raising her profile considerably.
At the dawn of the 1960s, Dane opened Sugar Hill: Home of the Blues, a San Francisco nightclub specializing in jazz and blues, where she performed regularly with her guest artists, including Lightnin' Hopkins (who she later collaborated with), Mose Allison, Jimmy Rushing, Big Mama Thornton, and T-Bone Walker. She also sat in with the many jazz musicians who frequented the venue. When asked why she was so enamored with these forms of music, Dane once replied, "Because they speak from the heart to the heart. The blues were born out of the worst conditions one people can force upon another, out of slavery and exploitation—and were given to the world in the spirit of turning madness into sanity, pain into joy, bondage into freedom, and enmity into unity. This is music for survivors, and this spirit is something to be learned from, shared and spread as far as it will go! No matter what the words say, no matter who I'm singing to, this is always what I'm singing about."
It was this clarity of thought and her stubborn determination that led her into the civil rights struggle and to openly protest the escalation of the Vietnam War at a time when it was far from safe to do so. She sang at every major peace demonstration in the nation's capital and took her songs to the Freedom Schools of rural Mississippi and even to the gates of military bases in America, Europe, and Japan. Dane also became the first US musician to tour post-revolutionary Cuba.
As the 1960s wore on, she became one of the most penetrating voices on the folk and blues circuit and became an iconic figure within the counterculture, embracing radical left wing politics and subversive new groups like the Fugs. She also recorded with the Chambers Brothers, where she featured their superb gospel harmonies backing her songs of protest. During the mid-1960s, she could often be heard performing solo acoustic sets and was a frequent performer at Los Angeles' Ash Grove, one of the West Coast epicenters of the bourgeoning counterculture movement, where radical political thought was not only accepted, but welcomed and appreciated.
This recording, taped at the Ash Grove in June of 1967, captures Dane performing live at this turbulent moment in time and is a perfect example of her daring commitment. The recording begins with a fine example of Dane performing a deep Texas-style blues, "Love Her With Feeling", a song she had recorded with Lightnin' Hopkins the previous year.
The rest of the recording clearly takes aim at the US administration and it's escalation of the Vietnam War. All of this material is daring, disturbing, and thought provoking in equal measure. First up is Dane covering Tom Paxton's "Lyndon Johnson Told The Nation", a sarcastic commentary on the escalating war with it's repeating line "Help save Vietnam from the Vietnamese."
She then continues by reciting a deeply disturbing poem she had discovered in The New York Times. Titled "1966", this was written by Montreal poet C. J. Newman and is as scathing a commentary on America and its political leadership as anyone could possibly imagine. Even decades later, this poem loses none of its intensity or resonance.
The recording ends with Dane's reinterpretation of the Fugs classic, "Nothing", which originally was an intentionally monotonous (and funny!) chant celebrating boredom and nothingness that went "Monday nothing, Tuesday nothing, Wednesday and Thursday nothing. / Friday for a change, a little more nothing..." and so on. Accompanying herself with percussion only, Dane sings the chant much like the Fugs' Tuli Kupferberg, but substitutes the word "nothing" with "napalm", turning it into something altogether more haunting and serious.
Written by Alan Bershaw