Tag Archives: music

Black History Month 2016: Nina Simone

21 Feb

nina-simone2Today I would like to honor and pay tribute to one of my personal heroes, Nina Simone. Simone would have been 83 years old today.  I remember crying my eyes out on April 21, 2003 when I heard that Nina Simone died. I fell in love with her smoky jazz voice so many years ago.  Emeli Sandé credits Simone as one of her major influences

Eunice Kathleen Waymon was born in Tryon, NC, and aspired to be a classical pianist. Despite her prodigious talent, she was denied scholarships and admissions and pursued a career in clubs instead. Eventually signed to Colpix, she was boxed into a pop-jazz mode for a few years. She took the standards she was given and began subverting them with her unique style — she was described as being a piano player, singer, and performer, “separately and simultaneously.” Over the years her stage set became famous for her powerful interpretations and righteous original songs.

Simone’s response to the assassination of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the church in Birmingham that killed four children, was Mississippi GoddamIn Mississippi Goddam, we see Simone taking her place in the civil rights movement. Unlike Dr. King, Simone advocated violence if necessary in order to establish a separate state for African-Americans – who could blame her. You can only feel beaten down so much without building up a great amount of rage. I have such a great admiration for Dr. King for sublimating his rage into non-violent means. The song Backlash Blues was written by her friend Langston Hughes. Simone was also friends with Lorraine Hansberry and turned one of her plays, To Be Young, Gifted and Black into a civil rights song.  In 1972, Aretha Franklin did a cover of that song. The song Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood was written specifically for Simone. Her version works simultaneously as a love song and a protest song, showing her emotional depth and complexity.

Sadly, it is painfully clear how much we still need Nina Simone’s voice and activism. I suspect she still inspires many of us. Happy Birthday to the national treasure that is Nina Simone.

Advertisements

Happy Birthday, Bonnie Raitt

8 Nov

Bonnie RaittToday Bonnie Raitt turns a very youthful 66 years old. I would like to honor and pay tribute to Bonnie Raitt and thank her for all of her energy in making the world a better place.

Bonnie Raitt is a lifelong activist. Born in California in 1949, Raitt’s parents were both musicians and performers and provided a home full of diverse musical influences. She also developed a strong social conscience early, enrolling in Radcliffe College’s African Studies program.

My plan was to travel to Tanzania, where President Julius Nyerere was creating a government based on democracy and socialism. I wanted to help undo the damage that Western colonialism had done to native cultures around the world. Cambridge was a hotbed of this kind of thinking, and I was thrilled.

I love that she talks about her own privilege and about colonization. While in school, she met and befriended legendary blues promoter Dick Waterman. This sparked her childhood fondness for performing and she quickly found herself enmeshed in the local blues and folk scene. Although she had planned to finish her college education, she had a chance to move to Philadelphia to work with a number of her musical heroes and took it.

While most people are familiar with her Grammy-winning work since 1989’s brilliant Nick Of Time, she had a celebrated muscial career and began releasing critically acclaimed albums in 1971. Her bluesy sound and musical excellence dazzled critics and her core of fans but found little in the way of commercial success. She was eventually dropped by her label, Warner Bros., in a purge that also cost Van Morrison and Arlo Guthrie their contracts. She took the time to regroup and work with her idols, eventually working on a project produced by Don Was. That connection led to the resurgence of her career. Eight albums, nine Grammy’s and a 2000 induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame later, she’s still going strong.

Throughout it all, she has been a dedicated activist. Her second album featured a dedication “To the people of North Vietnam…” recognizing the human cost of war. She helped found Musicians United for Safe Energy and has campaigned for numerous causes. It’s quite telling that her website features a prominent ACTIVISM button with numerous links and opportunities for her fans to help make the world a better place.

She also pushes for fairness and equality in her profession. Recognizing that most of the original blues performers were victims of exploitative contracts, she works tirelessly to establish funds for the generation that inspired her. She also recognizes the gender inequities in the music business and has been a vocal part of the Women Who Rock movement. An engaging speaker with a genuine heart, a passionate advocate for social justice, and an amazing musician, I wish you a very happy Birthday! Raitt is another woman I think I could cross the road for; her talent and sense of social justice  make me fall in love with her.

Happy Birthday, Olivia Newton John

26 Sep
5923_31

5923_31

Today is Olivia Newton John’s 67th birthday!  I want to say Happy Birthday and I would like to celebrate a woman whose music has brought me endless joy and whose dedication to social justice inspires me. Olivia Newton-John was born in Cambridge, England in 1948. Her father was a Welsh-born professor and her mother a German Jew whose family fled Germany as the Nazis came to power. (Her mother’s father was Nobel-winning physicist Max Born.) The family moved to Melbourne, Australia when Olivia was six, and it is that country that she considers her home.

A talented singer, she began performing in her teens and took part in a number of Australian TV programs. She met future collaborator and producer John Farrar, who encouraged her to take part in a contest on Sing Sing Sing. She won a trip to England, initially planning to stay for a year to explore the country and her career. She built up slow, steady momentum and released her first album in 1971.

That launched real international success, including an invitation to perform the U.K. entry in the 1974 Eurovision contest. (She came in 4th; the winner that year was Sweden, with ABBA’s Waterloo.) She was still struggling to get a foothold in the U.S., but won a Grammy for best Country Female Performance. That award raised anger in Country purist circles, in part because she was still based in England. (The ever-wonderful Dolly Parton, however, supported her.) Taking advice from fellow Aussie Helen Reddy, Olivia moved to the U.S. In short order she launched a massively successful career.

I remember getting beaten up in the bathroom when I was a little kid at summer camp.  I was singing You’re the One That I Want from Grease, when a couple of bullies came in and beat the tar out of me.  How I hated those kids and how I loved Olivia and how did I not know I was gay back in the 7th grade?  Of course, even today I sing to Xanadu and all of the classic Olivia songs.  There is another song that holds a very special place in my heart, Tutta La Vita.  This song came out when my friend Kent was sick in the hospital and I loved this song for both the lyrics and for the music.  Sadly, my friend Kent passed away from HIV, but I think about him when I hear this song.  How wonderful that our Olivia stands in solidarity with the LGBT community.

Besides her beautiful music, Olivia has been a tireless advocate for many causes. She is an outspoken environmentalist and animal rights advocate. (She has cancelled Japanese tours over the slaughter of dolphins in tuna nets.) A breast cancer survivor, she also devotes a great deal of energy to cancer education, diagnosis, research, and treatment. She has also worked closely with UNICEF and been an advocate for LGBT rights.

A great singer, actress, activist, and all-around decent human being, I love our Olivia! (And who can forget her amazing performance in Sordid Lives?) Thank you for bringing your joy and passion into so many lives.

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.

Women’s History Month 2014: Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon

14 Mar

Today I would like to honor and pay tribute to one of my personal heroes, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon.  In 1973, Reagon founded the  a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Johnson Reagon started her music/social work career before Sweet Honey in the Rock.  She was a type of community organizer and performed with The Freedom Singers in her hometown of Albany, Georgia. The Freedom Singers was, in part, formed by Johnson Reagon’s husband, Cordell Reagon. How amazing and lovely that Cordell and Bernice were friends with Pete Seeger, who helped to support the founding of The Freedom Singers.

I was first introduced to Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1991 at the Black Arts Festival at Piedmont Park, in Atlanta, Georgia. After hearing them perform Ella’s SongI went out and bought all of their albums and went to every concert when they came to Atlanta. Reagon earned her doctorate at Howard University and became a strong voice in the Civil Rights movement. Reagon has dedicated her life to issues of social justice and the intersections of oppression. Reagon, through her music, addresses issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, and the intersections of oppression.  She reached many of us dedicated to civil rights through song:

I learned that if you bring black people together, you bring them together with a song. To this day, I don’t understand how people think they can bring anybody together without a song…I came out of the Civil Rights Movement, and I had a different kind of focus than most people who have just the academic background as their primary training experience.

I am fortunate enough to stand on the shoulders of greatness, including Dr. Johnson Reagon.  Her work and the music of Sweet Honey in the Rock inform how I live my life and how I teach.

For me, Dr. Johnson Reagon is a musical social worker: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

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.

Farewell Lou Reed, Pioneer and Activist

28 Oct
Lou Reed, 1942 - 2013

Lou Reed, 1942 – 2013

The music world was stunned yesterday when a rock pioneer breathed his last. Lou Reed, the outspoken chameleon whose contributions helped launch virtually every left-of-center rock genre, died of complications from a recent liver transplant. He was 71.

Lewis Allan Reed was born in Brooklyn on March 2, 1942. He learned to play guitar at an early age and performed in a number of doo-wop and R&B groups. He went to Syracuse University, studying journalism and film. After graduation, he did a brief stint as a house composer for Pickwick records before branching out into more avant garde and subversive sounds.

Reed is perhaps most famous as the co-founder and principle songwriter of the Velvet Underground. Noted for their work with Andy Warhol, the quartet’s four albums ran the gamut from raw noise to delicate folk pop, with Reed’s deadpan vocals featured on most tracks. Despite minimal sales, the band’s output was massively influential. Reed went solo in 1970 and continued to produce challenging music on a wide variety of themes.

Openly bisexual, Reed was given electro-shock therapy as a teen in an attempt to “cure” him. (He famously wrote about the experience on the harrowing song Kill Your Sons.) His songs were frank explorations of very real themes largely avoided by popular music to that point. He explored sex thoroughly, often championing the gay and transgender people he had met while working with Warhol in his songs. His finest album, Transformer, flirted with glam rock and explored gender and sexual identity in ways that were frank and playful both. (The album also produced his only real hit, Walk On the Wild Side, the first Top 20 song to refer to oral sex.)

He also explored addiction and its complications and wrote many frank songs about domestic abuse and broken relationships. While the content was often dark, it was anchored by his unremitting sense of humanity and deep-rooted optimism. Reed was an outspoken critic of the forces of greed and corruption and never hesitated to criticize politicians, other musicians, or the press for their shortcomings in working for a better world.

Reed was a tireless philanthropist, contributing to many causes. He focused on AIDS and LGBT issues (including work with Cyndi Lauper‘s True Colors projects) as well as support programs for children. He participated in the first Farm Aid concert and contributed to animal rights campaigns. After recording an all-star version of his finest song, the lovely Perfect Day, to help support the BBC, he agreed to release it as a single, with all the proceeds going to Children In Need.; the single raised £2,125,000.

Years of alcohol and drug abuse had taken their toll, and Reed was increasingly frail in recent years. After receiving a liver transplant in April, he seemed to be doing much better and spoke of his increased energy. Sadly, the transplant had some complications, and Reed succumbed after a brief illness. He leaves behind a legacy of frank speaking, activism, and musical originality that will never be matched.

%d bloggers like this: