Barbara Dane’s Life of Defiance and Song

The 93-year-old musician and co-founder of the political label Paredon Records Barbara Dane looks back on a history of resistance.

Barbara Dane keeps a copy of her four-inch-thick F.B.I. file in a binder in the living room of her Oakland home. One night in late December, the 93-year-old singer and activist’s daughter, Nina Menendez, was leafing through it and noticed a page she hadn’t spotted before: a Los Angeles Times clipping from a 1972 concert at the Ash Grove. Dane was the headliner that evening, where she first encountered the soulful folk band Yellow Pearl, whose music she would go on to release through her then-nascent record label, Paredon Records.

The file doubles as a testament to Dane’s work as an opposition artist for the better part of a century. The earliest entries are from when she was 18, spearheading a chapter of Pete Seeger’s labor-music organization People’s Songs in her native Detroit, and singing on picket lines to protest racial inequality and to support unions.

“I knew I was a singer for life, but where I would aim it didn’t come forward until then,” Dane said. “I saw, ‘Oh, you can use your voice to move people.’”

Speaking with the eloquent conviction and blunt resolve of a woman who never compromised, Dane called the F.B.I. file a waste of tax dollars. Bundled in a winter coat and beret during a recent video interview, she was more eager to show off the wood-carved Cubadisco statuette (the Cuban equivalent of a Grammy) she was awarded in 2017 to honor her early efforts disseminating the political music known as nueva trova in the United States through her label.

A supercut of Dane’s audacious career as a musician — which, since the late 1950s and 1960s has encompassed jazz, folk and the blues — would include the mother of three appearing on a televised bandstand alongside Louis Armstrong and singing “Solidarity Forever,” her favorite song, onstage with Seeger supporting striking coal miners. Her ethos was anticapitalist and adaptable: She wove progressive politics into her sole album for Capitol, “On My Way” from 1961, and later brought raw rock ’n’ roll verve to the protest doo-wop of her 1966 Folkways album with the Chambers Brothers. She performed in Mississippi church basements during Freedom Summer and with antiwar G. I.s in coffee houses.

With leftist politics at their core and deep roots in activism, Dane and Silber built trust among like-minded artists. “Anything I was going to issue was from somebody who had been on the front lines somewhere,” Dane said. Each Paredon release included an extensive booklet with contextualizing essays, photographs, translations of lyrics, and information about how to connect with or help the movement.

The catalog included musicians steeped in social movements at home, like Bernice Johnson Reagon — a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Singers, and later of the a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock — whose solo album, “Give Your Hands to Struggle” from 1975, was filled with rhapsodic self-harmonizing. It also included the Covered Wagon Musicians, a group of subversive active-duty Air Force men who sang out from their Idaho base, “We say no to your war!”

“I was nervous — I had no experience recording,” said the Argentine musician and educator Suni Paz, who had been living in the U.S. for about eight years when Dane asked her to record for Paredon. “Brotando del Silencio — Breaking Out of the Silence,” in 1973, became Paz’s first album, before which, “I was not heard at all. Barbara Dane gave me complete and total freedom. She said, sing whatever you want. I was going to sing anything political that I had in my brain, in my heart, in my soul

( image above by Erik Weber)

The 93-year-old musician and co-founder of the political label Paredon Records Barbara Dane looks back on a history of resistance.

By Jenn Pelly for the New York Times

Barbara Dane keeps a copy of her four-inch-thick F.B.I. file in a binder in the living room of her Oakland home. One night in late December, the 93-year-old singer and activist’s daughter, Nina Menendez, was leafing through it and noticed a page she hadn’t spotted before: a Los Angeles Times clipping from a 1972 concert at the Ash Grove. Dane was the headliner that evening, where she first encountered the soulful folk band Yellow Pearl, whose music she would go on to release through her then-nascent record label, Paredon Records.

The file doubles as a testament to Dane’s work as an opposition artist for the better part of a century. The earliest entries are from when she was 18, spearheading a chapter of Pete Seeger’s labor-music organization People’s Songs in her native Detroit, and singing on picket lines to protest racial inequality and to support unions.

“I knew I was a singer for life, but where I would aim it didn’t come forward until then,” Dane said. “I saw, ‘Oh, you can use your voice to move people.’”

Speaking with the eloquent conviction and blunt resolve of a woman who never compromised, Dane called the F.B.I. file a waste of tax dollars. Bundled in a winter coat and beret during a recent video interview, she was more eager to show off the wood-carved Cubadisco statuette (the Cuban equivalent of a Grammy) she was awarded in 2017 to honor her early efforts disseminating the political music known as nueva trova in the United States through her label.

A supercut of Dane’s audacious career as a musician — which, since the late 1950s and 1960s has encompassed jazz, folk and the blues — would include the mother of three appearing on a televised bandstand alongside Louis Armstrong and singing “Solidarity Forever,” her favorite song, onstage with Seeger supporting striking coal miners. Her ethos was anticapitalist and adaptable: She wove progressive politics into her sole album for Capitol, “On My Way” from 1961, and later brought raw rock ’n’ roll verve to the protest doo-wop of her 1966 Folkways album with the Chambers Brothers. She performed in Mississippi church basements during Freedom Summer and with antiwar G. I.s in coffee houses.

Nobuko Miyamoto of Yellow Pearl, the group of Asian-American activists Dane discovered when they shared a bill in 1972, said her band was unlikely to have recorded for another label. “Barbara had just done an album called ‘I Hate the Capitalist System,’ and that convinced us this was the right record company,” Miyamoto said, referring to Dane’s 1973 collection with bold cover art.

The album Yellow Pearl released on Paredon was the poetic and groundbreaking “A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America,” which included anthems like “We Are the Children” and “Free the Land,” featuring backing vocals from Mutulu Shakur (his stepson, Tupac Shakur, sang along to “A Grain of Sand” as a child, according to Smithsonian Folkways Magazine). It was recorded in two and a half days at a small New York studio and that no-frills spontaneity brings the music alive still.

“Barbara was a pretty brave soul to offer to do this,” Miyamoto said. “And because of that, our music was preserved. So I was very grateful. If it weren’t for her, that music really would have been lost.”

Image of Barabra Dane with the Chamber's brothers at Newport Folk Festival 1965 by Mark Roth 1965

Colour images of Barbara Dane for New York Times Aubrey Trinnaman

Share this Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.