Barbara Dane: still singing, still resisting

Photo courtesy of Barbara Dane

It’s not surprising to find female singers today who “do it all.”  Women who write and sing their own music, play an instrument, and maybe even dance. And in a growing number of cases they also run businesses.  

But this wasn’t the norm back in 1957, when singer Barbara Dane released her first album.

“First” is a word that comes up a lot with Dane.

She traveled behind the Iron Curtain in 1947. In the ‘50s her jazz vocals were praised in Playboy and Time magazines, and she became the first white woman featured in Ebony magazine.

Barbara Dane performed at the first – there’s that word again! – Newport Folk Festival in 1959. And she started a San Francisco nightclub that introduced white audiences to the blues.

All this, at a time when Madonna was still in diapers, and long before Beyonce was even born. Dane, now 83, has influenced a generation of singer-songwriters, some who may not even know her name, and others who happily acknowledge her lead.

KALW’s Steven Short brings us the story of this pioneering Oakland resident.

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STEVEN SHORT: Singer Barbara Dane is leading a workshop called “The Songs of Peace and War” in a middle school auditorium. She sits, rather than stand, because at age 83, her physical stamina isn’t what it once was. But you wouldn’t know that by the sound of her voice. She credits that to her childhood opera training.

BARBARA DANE: …which gave me all the body mechanics to do whatever I wanted. And when I realized how I really wanted to sound, and what I wanted to do, I could just drop all the externals of it, and just go right straight ahead into, you know, just do it. It just carried me.

And it still carries her. Today Dane sounds much as she did in the 1950s, when her first blues album was released. Her shoulder-length hair is now gray, but not that different from when Ebony magazine described it as “startlingly blonde,” over half a century ago.

The eyes are the windows to the soul, they say. Look into Barbara Dane’s eyes and they’re still clear, unclouded from her years of working for social justice through her music.

DANE: (singing, with audience) “Seize the time! Organize! Unity! There’s strength in love! /Seize the time! Organize! Unity! There’s strength in love!”

Although she has many firsts to her credit, this is not the first time Barbara Dane has led a sing-along.

SPEAKER (at demonstration): It’s our great pleasure now to introduce to you: Barbara Dane, Reverend Kirkpatrick and Pete Seeger. (Applause)

There was that time on the Mall in Washington, DC, for instance, in 1971, during the Vietnam War, with tens of thousands singing along on live television.

DANE (at demonstration): Now you’ve got to repeat this part here:

"I don’t want nobody over me! (repeated)

I don’t want nobody under me! (repeated)

And I’m goin’ tell it like it’s got to be! (repeated)

And you better have a little respect for me! (repeated)”

TV ANNOUNCER: The singer entertaining the crowd in Washington right now is Barbara Dane.

DANE: My name is Barbara Dane. I think, first of all, I’m a singer, and I’ve always been a singer. I’m a mom. I’m a producer – well, overall, I’m a resister, I guess. I try to be – in my songs – something of an explainer, or sometimes a teacher. But resistance to just what people throw at you and expect you to swallow. I – I don’t do that!

Dane not only sang for peace in Washington, DC in the Sixties – she was also the first performer to break the U.S. travel ban to Cuba, where she was welcomed by Fidel Castro. In Italy, she was called “the voice of the other America.”

In the U.S., it’s not surprising that the popular singer was soon blacklisted from major folk festivals. What is surprising is, this didn’t happen because of her political activism. It was because she publicly criticized how festival management treated musicians.

Additionally, Dane cancelled major shows at the height of her popularity – if her mixed-race band wasn’t welcomed. She vividly remembers L.A. booking agent Charlie Barnett who wanted her to drop bassist Wellman Braud, even though Braud had played for decades with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

DANE: So when he said, “You can’t bring Wellman” – what are you talking about? “Well, you know, those places get a lot of Texans, and they wouldn’t go for having a white woman fronting a mixed band.” And you know what I did? I just flat out said, “Fuck you, Charlie Barnett!” And I turned around and walked right out. 

Racism can cut both ways of course. The “startlingly blonde” Dane says “eyes would turn” when she entered black clubs to perform. But she says as long as she acted professionally, there were never any problems. She also had an endorsement. Pops Foster, a highly respected jazz bassist, came up to her once after hearing her sing…

DANE: And he says, “I’m just going to tell you, you’re doing it very well. You’re doing it with, you know, just from the heart, and you should just keep doing it. You got a right to do it as much as anybody else. And I really took that to heart, ‘cause, uh – and it was kind of like a license.

Dane’s activism led her to start a record label in 1970 – a novel thing for a woman to do, then or now.

DANE: It was to give voice to millions of people around the world who were in struggle and had no way of – not many ways of communicating with each other, and the rest of the world.

BONNIE RAITT: Absolutely unheard of – even in this business the way it is now, there really isn’t anyone who accomplished as much as she did, in terms of breaking barriers and standing up for what she believed in.

Grammy-winner Bonnie Raitt is another singer noted for using her musical talents to speak for the underdog. She clearly remembers when she first heard Barbara Dane.

RAITT: Well, I was an avid fan of folk music. I think the whole country and a lot of England, um, was swept up with all of that late Fifties/early Sixties kind of folk revival.

TV PROGRAM: Westinghouse Broadcasting Company presents “Folk Songs, and More Folk Songs,” with: the Brothers Four, Bob Dylan, Barbara Dane…”.

RAITT: …and I heard Barbara’s name mentioned. And she was also singing jazz and a kind of music I heard in my house. You know, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong...

LOUIS ARMSTONG: We have a couple of guests there, you know. Barbara Dane gonna chirp one…

RICHIE UNTERBERGER: I think musically Barbara Dane is very interesting because she never stuck with just one style.

Bay Area author and music historian Richie Unterberger notes that Dane was successful singing blues, folk and jazz.

UNTERBERGER: And in that way, she was a role model, not just for a woman, but for all sorts of musicians.

At first, Dane says, she didn’t realize that she was a champion of the emerging cause of women’s rights in the music world. But she did recognize her power to inspire. 

DANE: I think it was important for a lot of young women to see another woman play an instrument.

Bonnie Raitt was one of those young women….  

RAITT: I just got little gleanings of the things she was involved with. And so, I became a professional singer and  activist, and so she’s always been a role model and a hero of mine – musically and politically. I mean, the arc of her life so informs mine that – she’s – I really can’t think of anyone I admire [more], the way that she’s lived her life.

DANE: Well, I’m actually very moved by that. Because I think Bonnie has really taken it to where, you know, I would have loved to have been able to go.

But Dane doesn’t spend a lot of time regretting what might have been. As she puts it….

DANE: You have a feeling in the pit of your stomach when you do things wrong. And you have another feeling when you do things right. And I like that other feeling. I like that feeling that comes over one when you know you’ve done something that will mean something valuable to somebody else.

These days you can still catch Barbara Dane performing, but only on special occasions. And who knows? Perhaps it’s time for a Barbara Dane revival. Would she like to be rediscovered?

DANE: Well, if they’re gonna rediscover me, it better be pretty soon! You know, I’m not gonna lie: 83 is – you start to get pretty creaky.

Success in music is possible for a wider spectrum of performers today than it was half a century ago – in part, because Barbara Dane showed the way. Now, as then, she encourages young singers to try a variety of styles…

DANE: …because it’s not the style that’s important. It’s what you’re singin’ about! What you want to convey. What do I want you to know from my heart to your heart?

In other words, sing the music, not simply the notes.

It’s been said, “Music is what feelings sound like.” Shakespeare wrote, “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

And to that, Barbara Dane could add...

BARBARA DANE (singing): Follow my instructions, everything’s gonna turn out just fine! Just as simple as that.

In Oakland, I’m Steven Short for Crosscurrents.

Bay Area residents have a rare opportunity to hear Barbara Dane at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Coffee House on Saturday, February 5. She’s performing as part of a Dixieland jazz program benefiting the Arhoolie Foundation, an organization dedicated to the documentation, preservation and dissemination of authentic traditional and regional vernacular music.