The Past and the Future Meet in the Present

Artist Barbara Dane is a believer in the power of change through music. Her singing began right after high school, and according to Dane’s site “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. Her other national TV work included The Steve Allen Show, Bobby Troop's Stars of Jazz, Playboy Penthouse, PM East/West and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

InterviewBarbara Dane1
While Dane has decades of singing blues and jazz, it was her appearances as a solo performer on the coffeehouse circuit with her folk-style guitar that also left an impression. Dane 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.

And in 1970, Dane formed Paredon Records, which had a strong commitment to making the music of the musicians and singers she identified with the liberation movements then rocking the globe, many of whom Dane met during her travels. She produced 45 albums, including three of her own, over a 12-year period. The label has since been incorporated into Smithsonian-Folkways, a label of the Smithsonian Institution.

But while MOJO Magazine dubbed her "Our Mother of Americana," Dane’s music has always been about stepping out with the voice of freedom to illustrate that music is powerful. Currently, Dane is working with filmmakers Maureen Gosling (THIS AIN’T NO MOUSE MUSIC, BURDEN OF DREAMS) and Jed Riffe (ISHI, THE LAST YAHI, THE LONG SHADOW) to begin production on a feature-length documentary, BARBARA DANE: ON MY WAY.

G.M. Burns: With more than seven decades as a musician and activist, you have said music makes a big difference when you hear it. In what way is music powerful for you?
Barbara Dane: Hearing music is a bit different from making music. Actively listening to music, as in a live performance, always awakens in me the sense of commonality, that we as humans are all capable of the same emotions and understandings, and I love the feeling that "here we are, together, listening together, and through these sounds being brought together. When the music rises from a group activity, like a demonstration or a march, it makes my heart swell with the possibilities, the power that is more than the strength of any one of us alone."

Talk about if you feel music helps to heal or reveal?
Music, of course, is the great healer. Without it, we would have perished as a species long ago from plain old discouragement and loneliness! And sometimes what makes music operate that way is its power to reveal. We can express things in our music that go beyond words, things that were too painful, or perhaps too joyful, to express in words.

As a musician, what would you say is the most difficult thing that you are confronted with now?
I have so many ideas for making more music, new music, but at the same time I watch my powers diminish through age and loss of energy. I've been recording right up to my 90th year, but while I can sing with a different voice, one more appropriate to my current possibilities, the energy it takes to do it must be hoarded and I'm not confident that it will be there when the time comes. I marveled at Pete Seeger in his final performances, how he found infinite ways to put his message out there even as a man in his ninth decade. Perhaps I should take his example and just say, "Yes!" as I have always done. The listeners may have to work harder, but then that reciprocity is what it's all about anyway, right?

In one of your songs, you sing: "It isn't nice to block the doorways. It isn't nice to go to jail. There are nicer ways to do it. But the nice ways always fail" What made you write that and do you still feel that works today?
Let me remind you that it was Malvina Reynolds who wrote the words to that song.. and she wrote them after having participated in blocking doorways in San Francisco at the Palace Hotel and elsewhere. I was heading off to Mississippi where Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney had been abducted and murdered because of their work helping folks register to vote. I put a tune to them that might be danceable and singable for the young black people working on the registration drive, taking off on a popular Sam Cook "whoaa-oh-oh" thing they might find familiar. It worked! The same criticism is still being made by the old folks who want to move more cautiously, but younger leadership is emerging, full of the confidence and hope that youth brings with it, and we can see that moving fast and hard to claim what is ours is not only effective but winning! And musically, we as a movement need to use whatever tools are available and fit the needs in front of us. There is nothing new under the sun, but how we use what is provided by history is ever changing, vital and fresh. Go for it!

Talk about the advice you give the younger you in music?
The younger "me"? Are there some of those? If you mean singers and songwriters who are not afraid to defy the "system," both musically and politically, I believe there are thousands. You may have to find them and connect through unconventional means, but they are there! That's one of the great things about modern ways of reproducing your music and distributing it. Lots more democracy, no king-makers needed, but that's the same way society should work. The key thing is to set aside any fears or self-doubts you may have, and to connect by whatever means possible with the people you love and learn from in your community, the activist communities and independent outlets all around you. Skip the hype of the so-called "bigtime" just like Odysseus avoided the Sirens and learned to distinguish Scylla (wealth) and Charybdis (poverty) as choices. I can testify that in looking back from your old age you will be far more content with having steered your own ship instead of becoming one more flotsam on the jet-stream. I'm not a religious person, but I will quote scripture when it rings true:
Mark 8:36-38 "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

What are your plans for 2019? (Will you tour or release more music?)
This year I will complete my autobiography, and participate as much as requested in the making of a biographical film that Maureen Gosling, Jed Riffe and the BD Legacy Project are working on. They are ready to do the rough cut, but need to raise the necessary funds. Once they have the rough cut, folks at PBS American Masters have offered to look at it, so that is their next goal. If anyone reading this would like to help with funding the film, you can contact

Tell us your hope for music?
The music of the spheres will play on long after the man-made destruction of life on this planet has played out. My hope for music is that there will still be sentient creatures to hear it, to create it, to welcome the rise of whatever forms of life blossom forth, wherever and whenever it happens. Laissez les bon temps rouler!

by G.M. Burns