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  • Joel Selvin

Still political -- and singing -- after all these years

Folksinger Barbara Dane regarded her husband of 38 years as he walked into their sun-dappled Oakland kitchen. Fresh from the Montclair public tennis courts, white-bearded Irwin Silber, author of "Socialism: What Went Wrong," wore a floppy canvas hat, shorts and carried a murder mystery. He was disappointed that there was no basketball game on TV.

"Look at the famous Stalinist archfiend," she said.

On their refrigerator door is a typical, neatly arrayed collection of family photos and memorabilia, including a shot of Silber sitting on a park bench with his great-grandson next to a statue of John Lennon -- it could be any family vacation, only the photo was taken in Havana -- and a handwritten note from Jane Fonda, a close friend from their days as anti-war protesters together.

Dane and Silber were once proud to be enemies of the state -- Silber refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Dane was thrown off a European tour with Louis Armstrong at the suggestion of the State Department. "I was blacklisted," said Dane, "for not playing ball, for not hanging out, for not being a butt-kisser."

But now she and Silber are simply subversive senior citizens, enjoying their grandchildren and leisurely creative pursuits; Silber's latest book concerns knee and hip replacements, and Dane is celebrating her 75th birthday with her first new record "in decades," she said, half of which she recorded 14 years ago (the recent stuff was cut only two years ago). She is also planning a gala career retrospective concert Saturday at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage.

Calling Barbara Dane a "folksinger" is a heinous act of categorization for someone whose career has been dedicated to breaking down exactly those kind of boundaries. Jazz critic Leonard Feather called her "Bessie Smith in stereo" when she first burst on the scene in the late '50s, while Ebony magazine, in its first article ever about a white woman, called her "startlingly blond" and wondered aloud about her mysterious penchant for the black art form, illustrating the article with pictures of Dane with Muddy Waters, Mama Yancey, Clara Ward, Little Brother Montgomery and others. She sang jazz with Satchmo and Earl "Fatha" Hines. She hooked up blues greats Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry with their first duo recordings and cut an album of duets herself with Texas bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins. She wrote anti-junta lyrics to songs by Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis of "Zorba the Greek" fame. She still owed comedian Lenny Bruce $30 when he died. Perhaps most significantly, she was the first U.S. entertainer to break the blockade and perform in Cuba, way back in the dark ages of the embargo in 1966.

"I'm far more well-known in Cuba than I am here," she said.

Her biggest problem last week was trying to figure out how to whittle down the list of songs for her Freight & Salvage show from the 40 or so she wants to sing. "I have to have a plan," she said.

For the birthday gig, she's bringing in a gospel group featured on her 1961 Capitol Records album "On My Way." She invited a bouzouki player to accompany her on the Theodorakis material. She will play some songs with her old pals from the Dixieland jazz scene. She is even going to do a few songs in what she called "a rock format." She also wants to make sure to include some Spanish nuevo canciones.

"I have to give the audience a sense of the musical ambience," she said, "that could turn out a musician like me, a sense of what times we've come through."

Politicized as a Detroit teen on an auto factory picket line, Dane, who first moved to the Bay Area in 1946, has been through some times and has the stories to tell. Along the way, she hosted her own TV program ("Folksville, U. S.A.") in the medium's infancy, broadcast daily just before exercise guru Jack LaLanne. She worked as a DJ and owned her own nightclub -- all before women were allowed out of the kitchen. She played the first Newport Folk Festival with blues immortals Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon backing her up. From the Mississippi Freedom Summer to the Vietnam Teach-In, from the March on Washington to the Free the Army tour, Dane devoted most of her '60s career to political activism. And she managed to raise three children.

All her children have lives in music. Her elder son, Jesse "Nick" Cahn, is a country and blues singer who will be joining her at the Freight & Salvage. Her other son, Pablo Menendez, is the Carlos Santana of Cuba, guitarist with the acclaimed Cuban rock band Mezcla. He has lived in Cuba since 1966, when he was 14. Her daughter, Nina Menendez, is a flamenco vocalist.

She and Silber, a folklorist who served for many crucial years as the editor of the influential folk music periodical Sing Out!, ran their own record label, Paredon Records, which released 50 albums in the '70s, ranging from the speeches of Black Panther leader Huey Newton to sizzling political music from Haitian exiles. They gave the recordings to the Smithsonian in 1991.

(Silber, something of a controversial figure in folk music history, is said to be the target of the Bob Dylan's "Positively Fourth Street" after Silber was critical of Dylan for going electric.)

But old Reds never say die. One of the three albums Dane made for Paredon was called "I Hate the Capitalist System."

"I still do," she said, cheerfully. "I've grown to learn to live with it. We've done all right in it. But I know all too well how much havoc it plays in the world."

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