Q&A with Barbara Dane: Forever Moving Forward

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Barbara Dane (left) appears with Louis Armstrong (far right) for the nationally televised Timex All-Star Jazz Show in 1959.

(Photo: Courtesy of barbaradane.net)

Barbara Dane was 22 years old when she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1949, but she’d already developed her big, expressive voice singing on picket lines in Detroit.

“In high school, I’d gone into the Barlum Hotel Coffee Shop, with a racially mixed group of friends to see if they’d serve us,” Dane says. “When they didn’t, we started picketing and singing, and I found out why I had my voice.”

In San Francisco, Dane hosted the first televised folk music show—Folksville USA—on KGO TV, initiated the first world music radio program on KPFA and opened a nightclub called Sugar Hill: Home of the Blues. She also knocked out audiences in local clubs with her soulful repertoire of jazz and blues tunes.

She was one of the first white female artists profiled in Ebony, the pioneering African American magazine. The article called her “the blue-eyed blonde that was going to save the blues.” Dane signed with Capitol Records, but when her outspoken support of the Civil Rights Movement became a barrier to mainstream success, she started her own label and found a home on indies like Folkways, Tradition and World Pacific.

She was part of the traditional jazz revival, performing with New Orleans giants George Lewis and Kid Ory, as well as Turk Murphy, Jack Teagarden and Louis Armstrong, who quipped, “Did you get that chick? She’s a gasser!”

On her latest album, Throw it Away, the 89-year-old vocalist collaborates with San Francisco jazz luminaries Tammy Hall (piano), Ruth Davies (bass) and drummer Bill Maginnis. Her singing is still nuanced and her jazz and blues instincts are intact on this winning collection of covers and originals.

Why did you choose Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away” as the title track?

I believe in looking back to examine your life, but I don’t believe in getting stuck on every shortcoming and revisiting every problem. That’s counterproductive. You have to analyze, then let go, so I went to Abbey’s song. She expressed what I thought. You possess your experiences, so there’s no way you can lose them, even if you throw it all away. At my age, there’s a lot of looking back you do, but if you want to go forward, you can’t dwell on the past. There’s always more coming.

This is the first recording you’ve made in 14 years, isn’t it?

That I know of. People put a lot of stuff up on YouTube that I don’t know anything about. This [album] happened because Oscar Autie, who has a studio in El Cerrito, said I could have free recording time if I wanted to make a record. How could I refuse? I always have songs I feel like singing bubbling around in my head.

What was the process like? Had you ever worked with Tammy Hall and the other musicians?

Just like every other record I’ve made, nothing was planned in advance. We barely even had a set list. I just make arbitrary choices, like a honeybee in the garden. There’s a red flower and yellow one, or purple one. Let’s put ’em together. We had no rehearsals. Every song was a first take. We just said, ‘Let’s try this now,’ or ‘How about this gem?’ Then boom, we’re done. ‘Let’s get to the next song.’

I’d heard Tammy playing with Upsurge, a poetry and jazz band fronted by Raymond Nat Turner and Zigi Lowenberg, and knew I had to record with this woman. I asked her to do a live performance and it seemed she was eager to work with me. We fit together effortlessly, so when this opportunity came up I went straight to Tammy.

She’s creative and intuitive and never misses what’s going on in a song. You have to give yourself over to the song; it doesn’t matter how well you sing, or how cute you are. Songs contain so much living emotion. You have to let the song be in charge. Tammy knows how to let the song lead the way. She can do Fats Waller licks, stride, blues, anything. She doesn’t care about style; she cares about communication.

People ask me why I refuse categories. I use the musical language that’s suggested by the song. Once Tammy agreed, I went to Ruth on bass and Bill on drums. He’s played in all my band performances since the ’50s.

You give the band a lot of room on the album.

I cherish the creativity of musicians. They take an unbelievable amount of time to learn their craft and develop the emotional freedom to let the music flow, and that’s what I want. In every performance and on every record, I always wish I had more time, so everyone can have at least one solo spot.

What’s next? Do you have any plans to celebrate the album with live performances?

I’m already planning my next record, Be Reasonable (And Demand The Impossible Now). It’s a line from a song by Robb Johnson, a British singer and songwriter. I’m also planning a 90th birthday concert at UCLA in the fall of 2017 where I will be performing with Tammy, Ruth and Bill, Mavis Staples, The Chambers Brothers and other people I’ve worked with over the years.

We’re playing Havana this December, on the 28th, at the Casa de Las Americas, to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of my first tour of Cuba. I was the first American to go down and sing in Cuba after the revolution.

It’s my first long trip in a while and 90 isn’t going to be a joke. I’m doing my exercises and going to keep on doing the things I think are important to do, because quitting now is unthinkable.