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  • Jason Kattenhorn

SASSIFY - Barbara Dane:The story behind the sound of protest

You may know Barbara as the trailblazing singer of blues, folk and jazz who reshaped the sound of the 50s and 60s with her politically charged and ultimately groundbreaking sound. A new film in the making chronicles her life and music, and at 91 this multi faceted woman is still making shock waves with her hard-hitting sound. (cont.)

You have a diverse back catalogue, is there a record that stands out the most to you? Most of my work was recorded on the fly, without the benefit of rehearsal and usually the first take (I think making more takes is a good way to rob the heart of a performance!) Many of the recordings were not completed in proper studios, only the Capitol Recordsand Dot Records sounds were professionally recorded. The Folkways stuff was mostly engineered by Moses Asch, who was old-school and unschooled in the craft. These days I am especially proud of my latest studio album 'Throw it Away' with Tammy Hall and Ruth Davies on my Dreadnaught Music label. There is a 2 CD set called 'Hot Jazz, Cool Blues & Hard-Hitting Songs' just issued by Smithsonian/Folkways with highlights from their catalog plus a lot of recently discovered gems from tapes that had been in my basement forever. I never thought of myself as a songwriter, however I always did any alterations that made the material speak for me. When I did write, like King Salmon Blues, Mama Yancey’s Advice and New How Long Blues, the songs practically wrote themselves.

I was first introduced to you through a version of the single 'I’m On My Way' as it is a hit on the UK Northern Soul scene. Have you heard of Northern Soul, and how does it feel to have such an impact 40 or so years after the track was recorded? I was shocked to learn that this was a hit in UK Northern Soul circles. I can see why, probably because of jazz bassist Red Mitchell's great beat and because it has a pattern they liked for dancing. I have sung that same song in a hundred different ways because in live performances I never try to do what I did "last night."

Which version do you prefer? I have one or two live recordings of performances when I was deep into the meaning, with the audience adding their voices, and these are my favourites. The album titled 'I’m On My Way' also boasts another favourite of mine, 'Wild Women Don’t Have The Blues'. The message of this song is still so relevant in the current climate for woman. How intentional was this when you recorded it? Well, when I discovered the song on old 78s of Ida Cox, I knew I could use it to express modern ideas about women's activities or attitudes. I changed verses from her point of view (shady lady) to mine (independent but love my man). Many have taken it up since I brought it out of the past, but I still like my version.

What positive and negative changes have you seen in the recording industry over the years? I was never a fan or a prisoner of the old industry, I just tried to record when and where I could without making any compromises. Of course, this meant I did not make any money either, but then that was never my main goal. I was raising 3 children and certainly needed the money, but my independence was too important to sacrifice. You might be interested to know that I believe Capitol Records dropped me because the State Department began to concern themselves with my career. It happened right around the time I was scheduled to tour with Louis Armstrong. When they started to find out more about me, it seems someone was determined that it would not be good for Ambassador Satch's new discovery to be ranting about race issues in every interview all over Europe. Louis had just criticized President Eisenhower in the press and they were desperate to cover it up, so I am guessing someone got a nice bonus for pre-empting my tour. I cannot prove this, but Armstrong biographer Gary Giddins agrees that it is probably what happened.

How pertinent is the fight for civil rights now under the Trump administration? This #45 guy is so dangerous because he seems like a buffoon but is actually more like the devil. He is only the front man for a system headed for eventual disaster but as it dies, we must fight to keep it from destroying our planet and some of the hard-gained social supports we have had. We also need to begin planning for the days when a new system begins to emerge. Civil rights must be won and protected as we plan for a brighter day.

You co-founded Paredon Records with your husband Irwin, specializing in international protest music, why were the 70s the right time to do this, and could the world benefit from such music in 2018? The 70s was the decade when all around the globe movements for democracy, justice and revolution were breaking out, and every genuine live and growing movement creates its poetry and music, so it was just exactly the right time to make the effort to capture as much of it as possible. I hope more and more young people discover Paredon in the Folkways catalog now, because there is much there to inform and inspire them. We donated the label to the Smithsonian/Folkways group so that it would be available in perpetuity for just that reason. You can find the whole Paredon catalog on their website and also download the extremely informative booklets if you want to, free of charge.

What has been the biggest ambition you have achieved, and are there still things you would like to accomplish? Well, of course my biggest dream was that we could actually move closer to a time when the transition to the next stage of history would begin to unfold in my lifetime. Clearly, that is much more complex and difficult than any of us could have dreamed.

My most cherished achievement was raising three amazing children who learned very early to manage for themselves and become positive contributors to society each in their own special way. My love for them is what makes my heart swell and my days’ worth living. And my last important achievement will be the autobiography on which I have labored with such enthusiasm as to make it already twice as long as any publisher can handle. Not so much about my one life but about the world I was living in and still inhabit without much personal regret and a great deal of pride in the accomplishments of today's rising movements. I'm not sure how much of it will be new or relevant to younger generations, but I'd like to leave these footprints in the hope that they will help guide someone else out of the jungle toward the light.

Any sassy anecdotes over your long career that you would like to share? Lenny Bruce was a dear friend and co-worker. We often shared a bill, and I saw him deliver one of his greatest performances very late one night when he had invited every friend then working in town to an unscheduled private show at the Gate of Horn. With them, he felt free and surrounded with love, safe from the vigilante cops who trailed his every gig those days, and he could go for broke with his outrageous improvisations. That night was the top of the mountain for him, filling it with his impeccable mimicry, expanding on his favorite stories, riffing on every contemporary hot button, flowing, flowing, flowing... all those professional entertainers sitting in wonderment, slack jawed and barely able to keep up. On our opening night at the Gate of Horn’s new location after it moved, as I was doing my makeup in the classy but tiny unfamiliar dressing room, Lenny asked if it was OK to invite a few friends in. Suddenly the entire Harlem Globe Trotters team was in the room, which had a low ceiling that barely grazed their heads. This packed the room in just the way sardines would be in a can, with not an inch to spare! Nobody knew what to do, so we just hugged. I loved Lenny dearly as a brother, and I'm still haunted by the fact that he died alone on his bathroom floor with me still owing him $30. I know that sounds strange, but it still feels like such an incomplete and unfair ending for this dear genius who only wanted to make people more honest, relations more genuine, the world more just.

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