Barbara Dane: A Versatile Voice With A Political Purpose

Barbara Dane performs at the Newport Folk Festival in the mid-1960s. i i

Barbara Dane performs at the Newport Folk Festival in the mid-1960s. Courtesy of the Dane family hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the Dane family
Barbara Dane performs at the Newport Folk Festival in the mid-1960s.

Barbara Dane performs at the Newport Folk Festival in the mid-1960s.

Courtesy of the Dane family

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Read about the musical life of Barbara Dane's son, Pablo Menéndez.

At Presidio Middle School in San Francisco, singer Barbara Dane is leading a workshop called "The Songs of Peace and War." Her physical stamina isn't what it once was — she sits rather than stand — but you wouldn't know it by the sound of her voice. Singing with a group of students, Dane sounds much as she did in the 1950s, when she recorded her first album, Trouble In Mind.

"My name is Barbara Dane," she says, addressing the group. "I'm a singer, and I've always been a singer. I'm a mom. I'm a producer. Overall, I'm a resister, I guess."

Of Dane's different identities, "Resister" is the one that made the biggest impression on Bonnie Raitt, another singer noted for using her music to speak for the underdog. Raitt clearly remembers when she was a teenager in Los Angeles and first heard Dane.

"Even in this business the way it is now, there really isn't anyone that accomplished as much as she did, in terms of breaking barriers and standing up for what she believed in," says Raitt. "She's always been a role model and a hero of mine, musically and politically."

Dane's activism — political and social — caused her to lose work at the height of her popularity. She also voluntarily dropped some performances. She vividly recalls one booking agent telling her she could not perform in Las Vegas with Creole American bassist Wellman Braud, even though he'd been a mainstay with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

"They wouldn't go for having a white woman fronting a mixed band," Dane recalls. Her response to the agent's objections was frank, to say the least. "I just flat out said, 'F- - - you, Charlie Barnett!' And I turned around and walked right out."

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Barbara Dane performs with Louis Armstrong on the Timex All Star Jazz Show.

Dane's progressive reputation led to invitations to perform at rallies. In Europe, she was called "the voice of the Other America." And while her beliefs were important to her, it was her musical talents that allowed her to reach a diverse audience.

Bay Area author and music historian Richie Unterberger notes that Dane was successful singing in a handful of different genres, including blues, folk and jazz.

"She never stuck with just one style," says Unterberger. "In that way, she was a role model not just for a woman, but for all sorts of musicians: to do your own thing, to do what you want, without trying to cater to the interest of people who might want to push you in one direction."

Dane has remained a symbol of resistance, someone who isn't afraid to break the rules. There is one rule, however, that she has honored: the Golden Rule.

"You have a feeling in the pit of your stomach when you do things wrong. And you have another feeling when you do things right," says Dane. "And I like that other feeling. I like that feeling that comes over one when you know you've done something that will mean something valuable to somebody else."

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