Barbara Dane still singing progressive music
EAST BAY MONTHLY – OCT 2016
Oakland’s Barbara Dane Gets Around | Plus Bay Area bassist and composer Jeff Denson promotes a new CD.
By Reese Erlich
Barbara Dane is Oakland’s musical icon. Her career as a folk, blues, and jazz vocalist goes back more than 65 years. And she has just issued a new CD.
Throw It Away features the mixture of fine music and progressive politics that have given Dane a national reputation. Her song “Blues over Bodega,” for example, sounds like a Mississippi Delta blues tune, but the lyrics recount the 1960s struggle to prevent PG&E from building a nuclear power plant in Bodega Bay.
Dane told me that a popular movement stopped PG&E. “We often don’t win victories,” she noted. “So it’s important to represent a real victory.”
Dane will turn 90 next year and plans are afoot for a documentary film on her life and a special commemoration at UCLA next spring. I had a chance to interview her recently from her home in Oakland’s Dimond district.
Many artists came to progressive politics through their music. For Dane, it was the other way around. As an 18-year-old in her hometown of Detroit, Dane led protests in 1945 to desegregate a local hotel.
She started singing union songs on the picket line. “In the act of doing that,” Dane said, “I could use my ability to sing to move people. I wasn’t interested in a professional career. I just wanted to get up and sing.”
But her activism quickly combined with musical talent, and she became a professional singer. In the late ’40s, the United States was going through a folk music revival. The Weavers, a folk group that included Ronnie Gilbert and Pete Seeger, had big hits on the pop charts. Dane moved to California in 1949 to sing folk songs. “I was a folk purist and wouldn’t touch anything that wasn’t folk,” she said.
In those days, San Francisco had local talent shows, the black-and-white era equivalent of American Idol. Dane won Miss U.S. Television of 1951, and her prize was an appearance on KGO-TV to sing folk music and play guitar.
Dane could also belt out a mean jazz tune, and she later appeared on Hugh Hefner’s TV show Playboy After Dark. Dane was quite a beautiful young woman. I asked if the infamous playboy made any improper advances.
“I was determined not to fall into his trap,” she said with a chuckle. “Hefner didn’t put the moves on me. He could tell fish from fowl.”
She later became active in the anti-Vietnam War movement. In 1965, when most of the country still supported the war, Dane helped organize a Sing-In for Peace at Carnegie Hall in New York. At the end of the performance, which also featured Joan Baez, concertgoers walked silently to Greenwich Village in one of the country’s early anti-war protests.
Throw It Away is Dane’s first CD in 14 years containing new music. She produced it independently with the help of her son Pablo Menendez, a musician living in Havana, and her daughter Nina Menendez, an accomplished flamenco dancer and concert promoter.
The CD includes original blues songs composed by Dane, jazz standards, and even a very funny novelty tune called “The Kugelsburg Bank.”
In her song “Tell Me How Long,” Dane uses the traditional blues format to show her support for low-wage workers suffering from the country’s never-ending economic crisis. She often improvises lyrics during performances, she said, relating this story: One day she invited a local postal worker to her concert. When he expressed doubt that this old lady waiting for stamps was really a professional singer, Dane created a new song on the spot.
“I sang and put his name in the song,” she said, quoting the line: “Here I stand with a post office man; how long, how long?”
“Soon I had this new blues.”
The CD Throw It Away can be ordered directly from BarbaraDane.net.
Speaking of new CDs, Bay Area bassist and composer Jeff Denson just issued one featuring exciting, straight ahead jazz. Concentric Circles is bebop with a classical music sensibility.
Denson bows his way into melodic tunes on the upright bass while Paul Hanson demonstrates how a bassoon can become a jazz instrument. The combination is sophisticated, melodic, and innovative.
Denson, who turns 40 this year, expresses the angst of his generation. The economy constantly fluctuates and technology is unpredictable, he wrote in the liner notes for Concentric Circles.
“With the advent of smartphones and social media,” he wrote, “people are able to ‘stay engaged,’ constantly connected to other people and their work, while simultaneously becoming further removed from traditional social interaction and sense of community.”
The tune “City Life on Trains” perfectly illustrates this contradiction. A driving-drum rhythm and bassoon melody re-create the sense of being on a New York subway train. I can see passengers, hands hanging on straps, studying their smartphones while carefully ignoring each other.
In an interview, Denson said he has been playing gigs all over the world for the past 15 years. He formed a group with veteran saxophonist Lee Konitz. Denson admits that the jazz audience is aging. But he wants to change all that.
Younger musicians are incorporating jazz with elements of rock, classical, African, and Latin musical styles. “There are many new directions,” he said. “We want to get art to the people.”
Those new directions include innovative ways of recording and distributing music. Denson formed Ridgeway, a nonprofit that produces recordings, promotes concerts, and holds educational events. Ridgeway helps artists record, design CD covers, and distribute their music internationally. But the artists own their own master recordings, a reversal of the traditional role played by corporate record companies. Let’s hope nontraditional groups like Ridgeway can help provide a decent living to musicians while getting the music out to new audiences.
The Jeff Denson Quartet plays music from Concentric Circles on Oct. 2 at Jazz Church West, 3201 Camino Tassajara, Danville, PeaceJourney.org. On Oct. 21, the quartet performs at the California Jazz Conservatory, 2087 Addison St., Berkeley, CJC.edu.
Oakland journalist Reese Erlich writes this arts and culture column every month. Follow him on Twitter @ReeseErlich, on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/reese.erlich) or contact him by email, ReeseErlich2@hotmail.com