The best seat in the house at The Ash Grove in 1958 was at the very edge of the stage, up close to the performers. It was where the young kids would sit, hoping to learn the tricks of the trade, so that they, too, would someday sit on that famous stage. And it was the place in Los Angeles that Barbara Dane called home. Today, Ed Pearl, the Ash Grove’s founder, will be there as she takes the stage at UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance at Royce Hall this October 21.
Originally from Detroit, Dane quickly became known for a voice that defied classification. At times associated with folk, other times blues, still others jazz, her rich voice resonated with a sense of purpose that was a holdover from the singing she would provide at protests and union events. Artists from Bob Dylan to Bonnie Raitt rank among those that have cited her as an inspiration at one time or another, Raitt once telling radio station KALW in San Francisco, “She’s always been a role model and a hero of mine — musically and politically.” Raitt currently sits on the board for The Barbara Dane Legacy Project, charged with preserving the legacy of the 90-year-old Dane through recordings and archival materials.
For someone so advanced in age, Dane is especially lively and full of purpose. She’s lived through enough evolutions in music and revolutions in this world to firmly hold her ground when she says, “It's not about some final utopia, some magical place that you wind up where everything's perfect. It'll never be that way. The only place that is always healthy and always perfect is in concert with other people doing something.”
She harnesses the energy of someone half her age, emboldened with a message to make it count. It could be the bright peace symbol glowing through her front window, or maybe it’s the “Black Lives Matter” and “All Are Welcome Here” banners that accompany it. To listen to the strength and drive that still emit from her voice today is a wonder. The idea that this particular musician in the higher echelon of age is still fighting the fight seems entirely natural. In fact, it’s crucial.
Dane is often associated with her decades-long home in San Francisco, but what fewer people talk about is her time in Los Angeles. A new bride, she and her husband left Detroit in 1948 to relocate here, following a several-week stint at the World Festival of Youth and Students in Prague. It bore the motto, “Youth Unite, Forward for Lasting Peace!”, and was designed to gather peaceful activists the world over. Getting to the festival itself was no easy task, but returning to Detroit proved insurmountable due to the housing crisis that followed the end of World War II, leaving Dane and her husband without a roof over their heads. Baby Boomers were attracted to Detroit’s automobile manufacturing job prospects, which promised a new chance in life.
“I was married to a guy whose parents had gone to California. They said, ‘C’mon out to L.A. because we know you can find an apartment here.’ Well, we did. There were apartments but no jobs. Nothing. I mean nothing,” says Dane as we spoke in her backyard patio in Oakland. Her time in Los Angeles proved to be short-lived, but it ended up being a time of great learning. “The little bit of time that I was there — it was only three or four months — I met Malvina Reynolds, who was just starting to write her songs and I cherished that meeting.”
Dane, by then in her early 20s, had already been appointed by legendary folk musician Pete Seeger to head the Detroit chapter of the revolutionary-minded People’s Songs Organization. She sought out the local chapter of the group and quickly met Reynolds, who would soon turn out keenly observational songs that would be rendered by Seeger, Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte and countless others, including by Dane herself at a later date.
“Mal didn't realize she was teaching me so much,” says Dane, “By the time I saw Malvina, [I thought] ‘Oh, she's lifting her fingers up, she's moving her hand up the fret board! She's doing this finger-picking kind of thing, not just going wang wang wang wang on the string. Oh, a revelation!’”
Lacking in work and a steady income, Dane packed up her small family and took her newfound knowledge to San Francisco. She became a staple in the Bay Area, regularly performing within the burgeoning coffee house culture most frequently associated with the Beatnik movement.
“There was this new concept called a coffee house. Well, it wasn't new to Europe, because it was an old tradition,” explains Dane. “A person with a guitar and the ability to hold a few people in rapture for a few minutes was a good idea. For some reason, the people opening Beat coffee houses thought that it wasn't really gonna be seen as a real Beat coffee house unless I came and sang in the opening weeks of the place.”
Never quite associating herself with the movement, but rather being co-opted into it, Dane soon ventured on to new territories of the revived traditional jazz scene and the ongoing blues scene in the Bay. It was exposure to Bessie Smith 78s that made Dane think, “Darn, I'd like to sing those songs.” To her, those songs represented a statement of women, and a chance for her to shadow her true feelings under the cover of the blues.
This approach still resonates in her live performances today. “What I try to do is give them something that they can absorb and carry out of the place and sing it on the way home, and keep singing it, and let it hold them up when they can use it,” explains Dane, referencing Mama Yancey, someone she considers a mentor. Yancey’s song “How Long Blues” is a prime example. “In those days, you see, the blues could only talk about certain things. ‘Cause we would talk about days that the racism was so thick everywhere that to talk about your troubles in any realistic way in so many words was just not possible. You had to cover it up with other things.”
Following her coffee house days, Dane became a seasoned performer while holding a regular spot at Jack’s Waterfront Hangout in San Francisco. There, she met banjo and cornet player Dick Oxtot and pianist Bill Erickson, and the trio took part in a nightly variety show that would push her to the next phase. “That was my first introduction to show business, ‘cause it was two years of your Master’s Degree,” she recalls, following it up with, “I call the Ash Grove my Ph.D.”
A decade since she’d first passed through Los Angeles in 1958, she ended up returning to the Ash Grove on Melrose Avenue for a three-year homecoming. It wouldn’t be long before she would render one of Reynolds’ most well-known compositions, “It Isn’t Nice.” Not only would it become an important civil rights anthem, with references to murders in Alabama and cries for freedom, it would also be recorded with the then-relatively unknown gospel group the Chambers Brothers.
It was Ed Pearl, now 80, that first introduced Dane to the Chambers Brothers after blues musician Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins pushed for him to listen to their audition. Pearl recalls the conversation with Hopkins, “Lightnin’ said, ‘Well if they pass the audition, can they appear with me on the New Year's program and Barbara Dane too?’” Needless to say, they passed the audition.
“Back in the '60s I was doing a lot of singing of the freedom songs that were used to animate the whole movement that was engrossing the whole nation,” recalls Dane. “As soon as I heard the wonderful harmonies that they could do, I said, ‘I need to get them to help me out with these freedom songs.’”
The relationship with Dane bore fruit, and not only did the Chambers Brothers record an entire record with her — “Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers” released in 1966 — but they would soon join her on tour. At her performance at UCLA’s Royce Hall October 21, the brothers will join her once again.
To mark the occasion, the revered preservationist label Smithsonian Folkways will offer a vinyl edition of that 1966 recording that has become an underground favorite. Back in 1991, Dane and her activist husband, Irwin Silber, donated their Paredon record label catalog to Smithsonian Folkways to keep it in circulation.
Certain to be on the set list is “Tell Me How Long Blues,” Dane’s updated answer to the classic blues anthem, included on her new album, “Throw It Away.” After all she’s done and all she’s seen, she remains active and optimistic. Though it’s not as easy as it once was to stay at the center of the action, she makes every effort to stay involved. “I tell you from life experience, that is the one thing I draw strength from… It's ongoing. It's ever-flowing. Human beings are just full of goodness, if you let it loose. If you don't get in the way.”
Whether it’s a reunion of those who used to sit at the edge of the stage for her sets at the Ash Grove, or the generations that have come up since, all eyes and ears will be ready to take in the message that can only come from years of engagement and the love of song that never grows old.
Top Image: Ash Grove exterior at night | © Philip Melnick