Barbara Dane was born in Detroit in 1927, and she was reborn musically in Berkeley about 25 years later. Possessing a big, bold, beautifully expressive voice, she had already earned a reputation as a gifted folk singer and musical activist who had campaigned against racial discrimination with Pete Seeger when she and first husband, folk singer Rolf Cahn, relocated to the Bay Area in the late 1940s.
After serving as the host of a pioneering folk television show broadcast on KGO TV, she was recruited as the founding member of a group conceived as a West Coast version of the hugely popular Weavers. But when Dane bailed on the project at the last minute due to creative and other differences, she was left in something of a quandary, in need of income and seeking a new creative direction.
Living in a brown-shingle house at Dwight and Telegraph (rent $35 a month), she often sat in at the Blind Lemon, the pioneering storefront folk club Cahn launched on San Pablo Avenue (a building most recently inhabited by California Office Machines). It was there that she encountered banjo player Dick Oxtot, a leading figure in the East Bay’s thriving traditional jazz scene, who was impressed by her soulful renditions of country blues and spirituals.
“He said you should come down the street and sit in with this jazz band I play with,” Dane recalled during a recent interview in her Oakland Hills house. “I went over and there was Bob Mielke’s band, the Bearcats. They were wonderful musicians and very welcoming. The first time I got up to sing something with that kind of backing, wow! Oh man, this is it!”
It’s not that Dane became a jazz singer, though she fit snugly in “trad” ensembles inspired by the raucous sound of early New Orleans jazz, which was inextricably entwined with blues, spirituals and latter day ragtime. Rather, she emerged as a singular figure in American music who performed, recorded and befriended a vast constellation of foundational artists in jazz and blues, including New Orleans masters Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, George Lewis and Pops Foster, blues patriarchs Tampa Red, Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and some artists who like her defied category, such as the great guitarist Lonnie Johnson and Count Basie vocalist Jimmy Rushing.
Dane celebrates her 85th birthday Sunday at Freight & Salvage with a concert that encompasses a huge swath of her musical legacy. I spent an evening with Dane recently and we barely scratched the surface of her storied “career” (the disdainful quotes are hers, as she always prefaces the “c” word with “so-called”). “The idea of sitting down and mapping out a career seemed totally boring and inhibiting, like trying to plan the way a river’s going to go,” Dane said.
One reason that she didn’t always thrive in the business the way she could have is that Dane never backed off her passionate leftist politics. Her outspoken ways, which were still evident during an interview we coincidentally scheduled on May Day, probably cost her a State Department sponsored European tour to which Louis Armstrong had invited her.
She may not have maximized her commercial potential, but Dane has achieved something far more precious, connecting deeply with audiences and artists around the world. At her 75th birthday concert at the old Freight she tried to shoehorn just about everything into the evening and ended up with an exhausting four-hour event. She cut back for her 80th and for this milestone she figures she’s tailored the evening just right. The first set she’s singing with a trad jazz quintet including multi-instrumentalist Clint Baker on trumpet, the illustrious jazz historian and DJ Richard Hadlock on reeds, pianist Ray Skjelbred, and bassist Marty Eggers. They’ll be joined by for several pieces by the Stovall Sisters, a venerable gospel combo.
The second half is devoted to Dane’s international musical empire. She’ll perform with her son, Pablo Menendez, a long-time Havana resident who leads a popular Cuban jazz-fusion band Mezcla. Her oldest son, Oklahoma-based singer/songwriter Jesse Cahn, will accompany her on a Woody Guthrie number. And her daughter, Bay Area Flamenco Society founder Nina Menendez, will also take a turn in the spotlight. “She’s going to do some flamenco, which is blues in its way,” Dane said.
Window into Bay Area music scene
Dane’s creative pursuits and travels are far too varied to detail, but her early years offer a fascinating window into the Bay Area music scene before it started exploding in the mid-60s. After getting a feel for New Orleans jazz sitting in regularly with Bob Mielke’s Bearcats at the Lark’s Club at Sacramento and Prince, she landed her first paying jazz gig at the Tin Angel in San Francisco, a high-profile date with trombonist Turk Murphy during the 1956 Republican Convention. But she credits a two-year run at a seedy joint on San Francisco Embarcadero, Jack’s Waterfront Hangout, as her real proving ground. From what she could tell, the club was allowed to operate in the shadows by paying off the police, and she was headlining artist in a regular cycle of acts that sound lifted right out of “Broadway Danny Rose.”
“There was this woman who had a record act,” Dean said. “She would put on a record and mouth the words and do the dance. And there was a guy who played the piano with oranges, and fit that wasn’t funny enough he put on gloves.”
She moved down to Los Angeles in 1958 to take a year-long gig at Cosmo Alley in Hollywood, and when it fell through after a few months she landed on her feet when she started working at a new club called the Ash Grove, which became a Mecca for Delta blues legends, folkies, singer/songwriters and country musicians. In other words, a perfect fit for Dane.
Signed to Capitol, she toured on a double bill with a rising comic named Bob Newhart, packing clubs across the country. Eager to move back to the Bay Area, she opened her own joint in North Beach, Sugar Hill, the first blues club intended to attract a mixed race audience. She opened with Jimmy Rushing, the inimitable blues crooner anchored the Count Basie Orchestra during its glory years in the 1930s and 40s. When she wasn’t performing with pianist/cornetist Kenny Whitson and bassist Wellman Braud, she booked a steady parade of blues greats. Big Mama Thornton would drop by to sit in with the veteran jazz artist would wander down after gigs at the Jazz Workshop to hang out with Braud, a pioneering bassist and early member of Duke Ellington’s band.
“People were ready for it,” Dane says. “We never had a night where we didn’t make the nut, and that’s not very common, I can tell you.”
San Francisco is for suckers
Never interested in living in San Francisco (“That’s for suckers,” she says), Dane settled back in Berkeley when she moved up from LA. She spent several decades in New York City (Brooklyn, not Manhattan) and moved back to the East Bay in the mid-1990s with her husband Irwin Silber, the co-founder and longtime editor of Sing Out!, the magazine devoted to the folk music movement. Silber died in the summer of 2010.
From breaking the embargo to perform in Cuba in 1966 to founding the indie label Paredon with Silber to document the progressive social movements of 1970s and 80s (some 50 albums they donated to Smithsonian Folkways), Dane saw music as the vanguard cultural expression in an era of far flung struggles. But her primary agenda as a performer has always been to make sure her audiences has a great time, not matter what kind of music she’s singing.
“People say what style do you work in?” Dane said. “I say, whatever communicates.”
Barbara Dane plays Freight & Salvage on Sunday May 13 at 8:00 pm. For information, visit Freight & Salvage.
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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