Iconoclastic singer Barbara Dane always knew that music could help to change the world for the better. Now 91, she’s spent a lifetime proving it.
Raised in Detroit, Michigan, as a teenager Dane took to the blues and jazz as a natural expression of her discontent with the problems of racial and economic inequality that she saw around her. She was singing out professionally by the mid-1940s, but turned down career-building touring opportunities in favor of singing in protest outside of factories and in union halls. “I saw that the songs inspired people and made them understand their similarities and their closeness, their reason for uniting,” she said backstage after the June 21 release concert for her latest recording, Hot Jazz, Cool Blues and Hard-Hitting Songs (Smithsonian Folkways) at Joe’s Pub.
By the 1950s Dane had moved to San Francisco, where her reputation as jazz singer especially continued to grow. In 1956 she made her professional jazz debut as a singer with trombonist/bandleader Turk Murphy’s traditional big band, and by the end of the decade she was appearing on television with jazz legend Louis Armstrong and performing with some of the most prominent bandleaders around—Jack Teagarden, Memphis Slim, and Wilbur de Paris, along with leading blues musicians like Little Brother Montgomery, Otis Spann, and Willie Dixon.
For Dane, big bands like those that launched her jazz career provide a good example for social equality. “Everybody in the group…they start together in some fashion and state the case. Then everybody gets a turn, gets a say-so. The rest back them up, they come back together for the out chorus, and boom. You have society the way it should be,” she said.
Even as mainstream stardom crept ever closer, however, Dane continued to play consciousness-raising folk and blues tunes as a solo voice-guitar act in small venues. Her work as a protesting folk musician during the 1960s gave her a wider platform on which to promote social activism; in this role she toured the world, in 1966 becoming the first U.S. musician to visit post-revolutionary Cuba. Her work there made a difference: “Music for some reason crosses all bridges, all barriers,” she asserts.
As political unrest spread globally in the 1960s, Dane became something of an international musical phenomenon—and in a position to spread her impassioned plea for social justice even farther. She decided to use her music and associations with musicians from around the globe to facilitate cross-border understanding, forming her own record label, Paredon Records, with influential folk music writer/editor Irwin Silber (who later became her husband), in 1969.
Through this label, Dane and Silber introduced a truly astonishing collection of liberation music to U.S. listeners—and to the historical record. Besides Dane’s own I Hate the Capitalist System, a solo folk album of 14 protest songs from 1973, the label released aggregations of similarly themed music from Angola, Haiti, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Palestine, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Thailand, and Uruguay, to name only a few of the regional political struggles they documented through song. With Dane as producer, the label also issued important recordings of spoken word, including Che Guavera Speaks, with the voices of Guavera himself presenting before the U.N. during the Cuban Missile crisis and of Fidel Castro reading Guavera’s farewell letter to Cuba, and The Legacy of Ho Chi Mihn: Nothing Is More Precious than Independence and Freedom, an auditory collection of the Vietnamese leader’s speeches, writings, and poems.
In 1991, Dane and Silber donated the Paredon cannon to Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, a non-profit label under the auspices of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and the sponsor for the release of Dane’s new album. Hot Jazz, Cool Blues and Hard-Hitting Songs chronicles more than six decades of Dane’s performing, recording, and activism, including the output of collaborations with a multitude of ground-breaking folk, jazz, and blues artists and 14 never-released tracks.
Social message aside, the album reveals a clear evolution in Dane’s artistry. On some of her early tracks (“Basin Street Blues”) Dane seems to be following in the blues tradition of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. But she goes on to sing folk tunes with The Chambers Brothers (“Study War No More”), duets with blues singers Lightnin’ Hopkins (“Sometimes I Believe She Loves Me”) and Doc Watson (“Salty Dog Blues”), an anti-war anthem with active GIs (“Join the GI Movement”), and one jazz standard (“Boulevard of Broken Dreams”). The musical through line for all of these songs is Dane’s commanding, certain voice. In her music she never asks questions—she provides answers.
At the album’s hour-long release concert Dane was able to sing a few of her favorites—“How Long Blues,” Throw It Away” (from her 2016 album by the same name), and the 1943 Fats Waller tune, “This Is So Nice, It Must Be Illegal,” among them. But she didn’t get to do the most powerful song she knows, “Solidarity Forever,” which appears on the new album as a live duet with singer/songwriter Pete Seeger and contains the lyrics, “We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old/when together we are strong.”
Dane has been singing the song her whole life, she says, adding, “I believe it and I’ve seen it work out. That’s the way that life works.”
(Reprinted from the July 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)