Barbara Dane

Antiwar songs by Barbara Dane
MusicBrainzMusicBrainz DiscogsDiscogs United States of America United States of America

Biography 1998

"Bessie Smith in Stereo" said jazz critic Leonard Feather in Playboy when
Barbara Dane burst onto the scene in the late '50s. Time said of her: "The
voice is pure, rich...rare as a 20 karat diamond." To Ebony, she seemed
"startlingly blonde, especially when that powerful dusky alto voice begins
to moan of trouble, two-timing men and freedom...with stubborn
determination, enthusiasm and a basic love for the underdog (she is) making
a name for herself...aided and abetted by some of the oldest names in jazz
who helped give birth to the blues..." The seven-page Ebony article--their
first feature story about a white woman (Nov., l959)-- was filled with
photos of Dane working with Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Clara
Ward, Mama Yancey, Little Brother Montgomery and others.

But where had she come from? Barbara's young parents arrived in Detroit,
Michigan from Arkansas in the mid '20s, raising their family amid the
deepest depression--as well as some of the worst race riots--the country had
ever seen. Right out of high school, Barbara began to raise her strong
voice regularly at demonstrations for racial equality and economic justice.
While still in her teens, she began to sit in with bands around town and won
the interest of local music promoters. She even got an offer to tour with
Alvino Rey's band, but she turned it down in favor of singing at factory
gates and in union halls.

Moving to San Francisco in 1949, Barbara began raising her own family and
singing her folk and topical songs around town as well as on radio and early
TV. The traditional jazz revival was then shaking the town, and by the mid
'50s she became a familiar figure at clubs along the city's Embarcadero with
her own versions of the classic women's blues and hot jazz tunes. Visiting
old-time New Orleans jazz greats like George Lewis and Kid Ory and locals
like Turk Murphy, Burt Bales, Bob Mielke and others were inviting her onto
the bandstand regularly. Her first professional jazz job was with Turk
Murphy at the old Tin Angel in l956.

By 1959, Louis Armstrong had told Time magazine readers: "Did you get that
chick? She's a gasser!" and invited her to appear with him on national
television. She toured the East Coast with Jack Teagarden, played Chicago
with Art Hodes, Roosevelt Sykes, Little Brother Montgomery, Memphis Slim,
Otis Spann, Willie Dixon and others, played New York with Wilbur De Paris
and his band, and appeared on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show as a solo guest
artist. Other national TV work included The Steve Allen Show, Bobby Troop's
Stars of Jazz, Playboy Penthouse, PM East/West and Alfred Hitchcock

In l96l Barbara opened her own club, Sugar Hill: Home of the Blues, on San
Francisco's Broadway, with the idea of creating a respectful venue for the
music right on the tourist rialto where a wider audience could come in
contact with it. There Dane performed regularly with her two most constant
musical companions: Kenny "Good News" Whitson on piano and cornet, and
Wellman Braud, former Ellington bassist. Among her guest artists were Jimmy
Rushing, Mose Allison, Mama Yancey, Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson, Big Mama
Thornton, Lightnin' Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry,
as well as the many jazz musicians who came regularly to sit in.

"Why the blues?" says Barbara. "Because they speak from the heart to the
heart. The blues were born out of the worst conditions one people can force
upon another, out of slavery and exploitation--and were given to the world
in the spirit of turning madness into sanity, pain into joy, bondage into
freedom, and enmity into unity. This is music for survivors, and this
spirit is something to be learned from, shared and spread as far as it will
go! No matter what the words say, no matter who I'm singing to, this is
always what I'm singing about."

During all her years singing blues and jazz, Barbara continued to weave in
appearances as a solo performer on the coffeehouse circuit with her
folk-style guitar. She also stepped up her work in the movements for peace
and justice as the struggle for civil rights spread and the war in Vietnam
escalated. She sang at every big peace demonstration in Washington and many
of those in small towns and byways all over America, taking her songs to the
Freedom Schools of rural Mississippi and right up to the gates of military
bases from Japan to Europe as well as all over the USA.

In l966, Barbara Dane became the first U.S. musician to tour
post-revolutionary Cuba. The impact on the Cuban public was indelible, and
she soon returned to take part in an international festival where she met
other like-minded singers from all over the world. Through some of these
singers, she was invited to tour in both Western and Eastern Europe, Mexico,
Nicaragua, and the Far East, even to North Vietnam and the liberated areas
of the South as the war still raged. To all these audiences she brought a
range of American genres in order to communicate some of the complexities of
American life, and with each encounter she incorporated new songs sung in
their original languages or employing English lyrics she had begun to
create. This latter work brought her into association with the great Greek
composer Mikis Theodorakis, with whom she performed sections of his
"Romiossini" with her English lyrics based on the poetry of Iannis Ritsos in
Florence, Italy and in New York.

In 1970 Dane founded Paredon Records, with a deep commitment to making the
music of the musicians and singers identified with the liberation movements
then rocking the globe, many of whom she met during her travels, available
to the U.S. listener. She produced 45 albums, including three of her own,
over a 12 year period. The label was recently incorporated into
Smithsonian-Folkways, a label of the Smithsonian Institution, and is
available through their catalog.

Barbara's own recorded output has not been very readily available in recent
years, but in 1996 Arhoolie Records issued a cd from some tapes recorded 30
years earlier singing solo and improvising blues with Lightnin' Hopkins. As
a result of the critical buzz this created, Tradition Records reissued her
only purely "folk" lp "When I Was a Young Girl" with Tom Paley on guitar and
banjo in 1997 under the title "Anthology of American Folk Music." Barbara
has also begun issuing some of her earlier blues and jazz recordings as
cassettes on Dreadnaught Music in order to make them available to her new

After rambling through the music of the world, Barbara has returned at last
to the blues. In December of 1997 she gave a solo concert at the Casa de
las Americas in Havana, Cuba as the wrap-up of a year-long celebration of
the 30th Anniversary of the Encuentro de Cancion Protesta, a series which
included Angel and Isabel Parra of Chile and other international guest
artists. For the first time in her performances there over the years, she
featured a number of the blues which have been her main vehicle of
expression, accompanied by two of Cuba's favorite guitar players: her son
Pablo Menendez and her grandson Osamu. (She also had as special guests 80
year old Cuban piano maestro Ruben Gonzalez, renowned bassist Cachaito and
Irakere drummer Enrique Pla.)

Not long ago Philip Elwood, jazz critic of the San Francisco Examiner, said
of her: "Dane is back and beautiful...she has an immense voice, remarkably
well-tuned...capable of exquisite presentations regardless of the material.
As a gut-level blues singer she is without compare." Blues writer Lee
Hildebrand calls her "...perhaps the finest living interpreter of the
classic blues of the 20's." Born in 1927, Dane fully intends to welcome the
21st Century with a song that won't let anybody stand still.

Barbara Dane's Official Website: