Tag Archives: folk music

Black History Month 2015: The Staple Singers

13 Feb

TheSlowDrag-TheStapleSingersToday we honor and celebrate a talented family whose distinctive approach to “Message Music” helped form the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s America. The Staple Singers comprised father, singer, and guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples and his daughters, lead vocalist Mavis Staples and vocalist Cleotha Staples, with siblings Pervis and Yvonne joining as vocalists off and on through the years. Blending southern blues, traditional gospel, early rock era R&B, and protest folk, their powerful harmonies drove a message of tolerance, diversity, strength, and progress.

Roebuck Staples was born the youngest son of sharecroppers in Mississippi. He learned to play guitar listening to the blues greats in the region and played in a few joints in his youth. In the early 30s he moved to Chicago to seek out a better life for his family, gradually moving them all north. His interest in music continued moving into gospel singing. Soon the whole family was joining in. Their unique, instinctive harmonies, supported by Pops’ eerie, tremolo-drenched guitar work, gave them a sound that stood out even in Chicago’s talented gospel community.

The original core quartet (all but Yvonne) began playing gigs at a number of local churches and eventually landed a recording contract. For a while Pops continued to work a regular job, but as the Staple Singers began to tour he eventually committed to music full time. The group found themselves in an interesting musical position. Pops wanted to avoid pop love songs and dark blues themes, focusing on joy, hope, and inspiration. Unlike other Gospel acts, they incorporated some original material and a variety of songs that  fit their message. Unlike acts like local friend Sam Cooke, who fully embraced pop and soul and made successful career transitions, their adherence to their own vision kept their audience somewhat small.

Touring mostly the south in the 1950s was a tricky business for an African-American family. They had difficulty finding food and lodging in many places, relying heavily on an unofficial network of homes and boardinghouses that supported the Gospel community. Driving a large Cadillac through the rural south brought them plenty of grief from local law enforcement including a brief stint in jail because of the significant amount of money — their legitimate wages — found in the trunk of their car. These experiences honed their desire to empower the black community and to provide messages of hope and strength.

They became enmeshed in the growing civil rights movement, often performing in locations where black activists were speaking. Their Message Music merged perfectly with the push for equality and their personal experiences informed performances that were as passionate as the preachers’ and activists’ speeches. Pops became close friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Staples often adjusted their touring schedule to accompany his appearances.

While becoming a critical part of the movement, they began breaking down musical barriers as well. Already deeply connected to the soul and R&B communities — they were friends with singers Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, Aretha Franklin and many others as well as their families — their sound began expanding. They performed at the Newport Folk Festival, launching a long career of participating in folk events. They befriended Bob Dylan and the Band and their music informed the Rolling Stones’ early hit The Last Time. Pops’ guitar work was so famous that producer Jerry Wexler insisted that Joe South emulate it for his great guitar intro to Aretha Franklin’s smash Chain of Fools.

The Staples were famous and successful but limited in audience. Labels weren’t sure how to promote them — not just gospel but not fully folk, pop, or soul. They finally found their breakthrough, signing with Stax and recording at the famous Muscle Shoals studio. The blend of their Message Music with the earthy sound of the Shoals musicians — a bunch of young white men inspired by the rich musical culture around them — and caught fire. They began a string of hits that included the classic Respect Yourself and their signature song, the #1 pop and R&B hit I’ll Take You There. For awhile the Staple Singers were musical royalty, staying true to their Message Music and pushing for continued progress in civil rights.

By the late 70s, changing musical tastes and a long career of  performing resulted in a gradual reduction in Staples’ material. Pops was in his 60s and Mavis became interested in a solo career. They re-emerged in the 90s, with musicians like Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt championing their pivotal roles in music and activism. Pops recorded two acclaimed solo albums, winning a Grammy award in his 80s. He died in 2000 at the age of 85.

Mavis continues to record and perform today. She has grown comfortable with her role as a musical elder with an important message. Given the horrible racism that has surfaced in recent years, she wonders what happened to all the work the Staples and their contemporaries did. Activism is as important now as then, she observes.

It makes me think of my father’s song Why Am I Treated So Bad? I’m sixtey-seven years old and I was here the first time around and now I’m still here and it’s still not fixed. I’m here to let you all know that I’m still not pleased. … It’s the 21st Century. We should be ashamed of ourselves. We don’t teach enough black history in the schools. But I’m the history — I’ll be the history. The kids need to know.

Fifty years into an impressive career, the Staples family still has something to say. And it certainly still matters.

Farewell Pete Seeger, Social Justice Activist

28 Jan

Pete Seeger at his home in Beacon NY 9.14.2005Yesterday the world lost one of its longest-lasting voices for social justice. Pete Seeger — singer, songwriter, environmentalist, peace activist, and social justice pioneer — died at the age of 94. His long musical career was inextricably interwoven with his passion for equity and basic human rights.

Seeger was born in Manhattan in 1919. His father, Charles Seeger, founded the first collegiate musicology program in California in 1912 but was forced to resign for his outspoken pacifism during the first World War. His stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger was a noted composer and one of the most important resources for folk music in the early 20th Century. Pete blended what he learned in his youth into a long, beautiful career.

He learned banjo and began singing, passions that derailed his attempt to pursue a journalism degree. While he considered his future, he began working with the legendary Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress, cataloging early folk and protest music. He joined the integrated cast of the radio broadcast Back Where I Come From, joining Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Leadbelly, and other luminaries. Although the ensemble was well received — including an invitation by Eleanor Roosevelt to perform at the White House — the racially integrated cast kept the show from national syndication.

An avowed socialist, Seeger had first met Guthrie at Will Geer’s Grapes of Wrath concert for migrant workers’ rights. His politics became an ever-stronger part of his music. He sang with the Almanac Singers, a group designed to function as a singing newspaper promoting the industrial unionization movement, racial and religious inclusion, and other progressive causes. That group evolved into the Weavers, which had a huge hit with Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene in 1950. Throughout the music, he attended and organized many protest and activist events.

Although he decried Stalin’s perversion of socialist values, he remained committed to equity and workers’ rights, causes that brought him before the House Unamerican Activities Committee in 1955. Refusing to bow to pressure, he summed up basic American values in his famous response to the Committee’s questions:

I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.

As a result he was indicted and tracked by Congressional officers for the better part of a decade, losing many performing opportunities. This did not stop him from performing and speaking out, including early work in the growing civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Seeger sang and spoke out for decades, providing wonderful music and powerful messages. He and Joan Baez helped popularize the use of We Shall Overcome as a civil rights anthem. He co-wrote famous protest and equality songs like Where Have All the Flowers Gone, If I Had A Hammer, Turn! Turn! Turn!, and The Bells of Rhymney. He championed disarmament, opposed American intervention in Vietnam (and all subsequent wars and military actions), fought for environmental justice, and demanded quality education (including the teaching of music) for all children.

Seeger never slowed down. In his 94th year he appeared at concerts and events for Farm Aid, activist Leonard Peltier, and a protest commemorating the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. quietly passionate, firm in his beliefs, and actively engaged over a more than 80-year career, Seeger was a model of social justice and civic engagement. His legacy is indelible and his witty, bright presence will be sorely missed.

Women’s History Month 2013: Miriam Makeba

4 Mar

MakebaToday we honor and celebrate the powerful singer and international social justice activist known to the world as Mama Africa. Zenzile Miriam Makeba was born in Johannesburg, South Africa on this date in 1932. She began singing in a primary school choir. She married young and had her only child, Bongi Makeba, at the age of 18. Shortly after this, Miriam was diagnosed with breast cancer and her husband left her.

After her recovery, she began pursuing music professionally, working with the local jazz group the Manhattan Brothers. She left the band to form her own all-female group, the Skylarks, who merged native music with jazz stylings. It was with the Skylarks that she recorded the first version of her best known hit, Pata Pata. She composed it herself (with rock writer Jerry Ragovoy), mostly in the Xhosa language.

Her first major break also caused her major problems. She eagerly participated in the anti-apartheid documentary Come Back, Africa. Audiences responded so well to her presence in the film that the director had her travel to festivals to help promote it. It was during this time that she met fellow South African performer and future husband Hugh Masakela. When she tried to return home for her mother’s funeral, she discovered that the South African government had cancelled her passport in retaliation for her anti-apartheid work. Guinea, Belgium, and Ghana issued her international passports in recognition of her situation.

Harry Belafonte helped introduce Makeba to U.S. audiences as part of the proto-World Beat movement of the mid-60s. She was very well received and began a promising career, including the U.S. release of Pata Pata which went to #12. After her marriage to Masakela ended, she met and married Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael. His status as a Black Panther concerned the more conservative power brokers in the American music industry, and she suddenly found herself without a record deal or a tour. She took advantage of her Guinean passport and moved there, where she lived happily for the next 15 years.

While in Guinea, Makeba served as a delegate to the United Nations, speaking on race relations in Africa. In addition to performing, she continued her activism, working on hunger in Africa and political unrest. She finally returned to South Africa in 1990 to celebrate the release of Nelson Mandela. She spent the 90s recording with other luminaries (like the great Nina Simone, a true kindred spirit). She was also appointed Goodwill Ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Ever irrepressible, she also collaborated with South African first lady Graça Machel-Mandela on combatting juvenile HIV and the use of children as soldiers.

Mama Africa was known for her passion and her infectious smile. She loved performing and never slowed down. During a fundraising concert in Italy in 2008, she suffered a heart attack. It is somehow fitting that she left this world doing the two things she loved best, singing and making it a better place. Happy Birthday, Miriam Makeba! You departed too young at 76, but your legacy is still felt by the millions whose lives you touched.

Happy Birthday, Joan Baez

9 Jan

Today is folk music and social justice pioneer Joan Baez’ 72nd birthday. Born on Staten Island to a Mexican Catholic and a Scots Anglican, Baez was heavily influenced by the pacifist messages delivered when the family converted to Quakerism. She demonstrated her musical talent early on, and began performing in the late 50s. Fluent in English and Spanish, she has recorded in both (as well as six other languages).

After moving to New York City in 1960, she began performing more protest-based music along with her other folk repertoire. She soon met a young Bob Dylan and recorded a number of his songs. The two regularly performed together and developed a strong shared commitment to social justice. They both performed at the 1963 March on Washington. Baez also performed at Woodstock, viewing the festival as a statement against government oppression.

Throughout her career, Baez has been an outspoken proponent of social justice. A strong feminist, she is also a staunch defender of LGBT rights. She regularly performs benefits to relieve poverty and homelessness–sounds like a great social worker to me!. The overview of her involvement looks like a directory of social causes, and she is energetic for each one. She isn’t slowing down, either. Despite her distate for political partisanship, she recognized the true dangers of the GOP platform and endoresed her first major candidate with Barack Obama. She also participated actively in the Occupy protests, singing to raise money to support the cause.

In March of last year, Amnesty International created the Joan Baez Award for Outstanding Inspirational Service in the Global Fight for Human Rights. At the launching celebration, she was presented with the first award in recognition of her human rights work with Amnesty International and beyond, and the inspiration she has given activists around the world. In future years, the award is to be presented to an artist – music, film, sculpture, paint or other medium – who has similarly helped advance human rights. What a powerful and fitting legacy for this tireless worker for rights for all.

One of the Voices of Social Justice: Singer, Peace Activist, Holly Near

21 Aug

Those of you that follow TSM already know what a huge fan I am of Holly Near, and what an inspiration she is to so many who work to make the world a better place for all.  I was fortunate enough to visit with Holly about her life and about the debut of her new album, Peace Becomes You, which is available today.

Your new album, Peace Becomes You, debuts on August 21, did you approach this album differently?  

I did inasmuch that I just took a two-year sabbatical. When I came back from that there was so much stored up in that, things I needed to write but also songs I wanted to use from other people. I set up four public rehearsals to hear the new material, so that I could feel their feedback, and what they were leaning into. Of course the band was a bit startled.  I wanted to allow people to feel the music.  Then I went straight into the studio.  While my voice is still so strong, I needed to do a double CD as one album.  It felt that this maybe the last time I do a project this big.

How did you decide on the title of the album?

I looked at all of the titles of the songs and Crazy just did not seem appropriate.  I have the song to John Fromer who is struggling with cancer right now and he wrote the melody for Peace Becomes You.  We made a bumper sticker reading “Peace Becomes You,” which you can only get at concerts.

How did you pick songs that might be considered canonical to go along with new, original songs?  

Over the last five years I did a lot of camping and listened to a lot of music. For example I listened to Johnny Mathis performing 99 Miles from LA, so it was that type of process, the music kind of found me.  In hindsight, one of the things I would have done differently, there was a song I worked so hard on but it did not make it to the CD and I am very sad about that.  I also wish I had spent more time writing to social activists and asking them to send me their material.  In the future I would like to highlight songs of social activism that are not getting the airplay they should be getting.

You work with another one of my absolute “sheroes” Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon.  How did you select a song from her catalogue? 

I have sung quite a few of her songs and I’ve known Dr. Reagon since 1979; we have been friends over thirty, forty years.  I always feel so grateful.  I listen to her writing a lot.  There are a lot of songs that I don’t feel have any right coming out of my mouth, which narrows it down quite a bit’ it is really personal what one sings.  My friend Bonnie Raitt  has to sing what is true to herself, which I love and appreciate.  We all have to understand our own history and cultural backgrounds. Nothing is just a song or just a dance, which I’m learning more and more as I take on the role of teacher.

I love how you are dedicated to issues of social justice and civil rights. Are there some areas in which you would encourage us all to focus our energies specifically? 

At one of the festivals I was just performing at, I saw this big burly man wearing a shirt that said no planet no party — I wanted that shirt.  I think one of the main focuses should be sustaining the planet, which is hard to do, but just because it is hard, does not mean we can’t do it.  We need some planet consciousness which is being modeled by poorer communities who are being dumped upon.

I know your upcoming tour will be your first tour in quite some time with a full band; how did you make that decision? 

Every moment we are alive, we are making choices, and as humans we hold the potential to be either amazing or horrific.  I can’t get into a conversation of what issue is worst and needs the most attention. We need to be vigilant and look at our choices.  Some people will just scoop up what others have made for them and others will be brick layers making things possible and building the road on which we will walk.  I walk on roads that people have paved all the time — there is an invisibility of “women’s music,” of women that do not get heard. There is always an invisible corridor that creates necessary bridges.  A company like Lady Slipper is cellurlarly embedded in the next generation of music, even if they are just living it.

I know you are wrapping up a tour of Folk Festivals.  What has the energy been like this year as opposed to years past?

It has been awhile since I have done festivals. I was invited to many of these festivals because it was on the heels of the Occupy Movement and so there was some intent to raise awareness of activism.  I did overhear that people were surprised and saddened that there was so little political music performed.  Now I think people really do want to hear music about what is going on.  I think there is a real desire to connect while simultaneously trying to escape.  It is always hard to write about torture, gay teen suicide, women being tortured, but I work very hard at it and I reflect back and think I’ve gotten better at it.  There is room for music about smash the state and for songs for striking nurses and for anti-war songs.

You have become an Elder-States woman and steward of music of social protest.  How does it feel to wear that mantle? 

I used to joke that I was an elder in training and now I think that time is up.  I have moved into that generation of elders.  Odetta is gone and Belafonte is not doing concerts anymore.  When I travel I am being treated as an elder and it is very nice.  I learned as I was an elder in training that I can be at peace at not being the center of attention and just happy to be of use.   My generation took everything out of the box and named it; it did not all get solved, but it can be talked about.   The line in the song We’re Still Here — we are here and present and here to be of use.

What or how do you see the future of protest music?  What advice might you have for artists that look at life through a social justice lens as you do?

I think people need to get better. I think people need to practice activism, whether they are artists, teachers, religious people — the more we practice the better we get.  I encourage people to become good writers.  What do people need locally to help support them to do the hard work?  It is not just about picking up a guitar and playing three chords and now who will book me?  There is no shortage of ideas. What I see is that there is a shortage of skills to bring those ideas together. There is a lot of great hard work involved.  Invite us to make us become our better selves.  Bring a friend to a concert—expose people to music about social justice—open the circle.

You can purchase Holly’s new album through CDBaby or at Amazon.com; it should be available through iTunes shortly.

To my loyal TSM readers, I will confess that I truly did try to be objective during this interview, but it is exceedingly impossible not to just fall in love with Holly!  The new album is tremendous (as this review will attest), and she is such an inspiration.  Holly, thank you for taking the time to visit with me.

Celebrating LGBTQ History Month: June 19, Patty Larkin

19 Jun

Today we honor and celebrate one of the great talents in American folk music. Patty Larkin was born in Iowa in 1951 and grew up in Wisconsin. She moved to the west coast after high school, attending the University of Oregon and singing in coffeehouses in Oregon and California. After getting her English degree at U of O, she moved to Boston and began pursuing a music career.

Larkin became part of the burgeoning Boston folk scene and landed a contract with Philo records in 1985. She has recorded a dozen albums over the past 25 years for a number of different labels. A riveting performer, she is an amazing guitarist and singer and has a wonderful rapport with the audience. (Two of her albums are live, capturing the spirit of her stage persona nicely.)

Belieing the dour feminist folky image, Larkin has a wonderful sense of humor and records songs on a broad variety of topics. She addresses relationships and love, of course, but also covers politics, social issues, the arts, and whatever captures her fancy. She has written odes to coffee (Caffeine) and a car song (Dodge Dart) as well as a scathing indictment of industrial pollution (Metal Drums). Her love songs range from the grand (If I Were Made of Metal) to the whimsical (Inside Your Painting) to the direct (Pucker Up) to the intimate (Closest Thing).

Patty Larkin lives in Massachusetts with her partner, Bette Warner, a former dancer who is now her business manager. She talks freely about the joys and challenges of mixing business and professional relationships. It’s clear that she would not have her life organized any other way. The couple have adopted two daughters.

Larkin does more than just sing about social issues; she is also active in changing the world. One issue of particular importance to her is the marginalization of women in the music industry. One of her earliest songs is Not Bad For A Broad, a delightful dissection of a misogynist attendee at one of her concerts. Tired of being asked why there aren’t any great women guitarists (a deep insult considering her amazing talents), she mounted the La Guitara project to celebrate the contribution of women to the history of the modern guitar. Not content to look at the usual suspects, she looks at a broad spectrum of women with great ethnic and cultural diversity. Women are notoriously underrepresented in official accolades. Rolling Stone‘s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists includes just two women (Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt; the first iteration of the list had Joan Jett instead of Raitt but apparently there wasn’t room to add a third woman to the revision), and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame routinely bypasses great women in music.

Patty Larkin is also one of my very favorite musicians. (Big thanks to my husband, Michael, for letting me grab Patty’s birthday to celebrate her here on TSM!) Her album Tango is one of the finest of all time. A brilliant student of human nature with a knack for character study as song, she’s a fine musician, a great singer, and a delightful entertainer.

Moment in Women’s History: Joan Baez

9 Jan

Today is folk music and social justice pioneer Joan Baez’ 71st birthday. Born on Staten Island to a Mexican Catholic and a Scots Anglican, Baez was heavily influenced by the pacifist messages delivered when the family converted to Quakerism. She demonstrated her musical talent early on, and began performing in the late 50s. Fluent in English and Spanish, she has recorded in both (as well as six other languages).

After moving to New York City in 1960, she began performing more protest-based music along with her other folk repertoire. She soon met a young Bob Dylan and recorded a number of his songs. The two regularly performed together and developed a strong shared commitment to social justice. They both performed at the 1963 March on Washington. Baez also performed at Woodstock, viewing the festival as a statement against government oppression.

Throughout her career, Baez has been an outspoken proponent of social justice. A strong feminist, she is also a staunch defender of LGBT rights. She regularly performs benefits to relieve poverty and homelessness. Happy birthday to a real champion of human rights!

Today is also the date that Carrie Chapman Catt was born in 1859. Happy birthday to this suffragist pioneer.

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