'Ballad for My Father': Dick and Ayanna Gregory Ayanna Gregory is the daughter of longtime civil rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory; she's also an accomplished singer. The father and daughter talk about how activism influenced their relationship. Also, Ayanna Gregory shares a song she wrote in tribute to her father.
NPR logo

'Ballad for My Father': Dick and Ayanna Gregory

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/11104848/11104849" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Ballad for My Father': Dick and Ayanna Gregory

'Ballad for My Father': Dick and Ayanna Gregory

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/11104848/11104849" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


And as we look to Father's Day, you may be wondering what you can get for your dad. He probably has enough ties and aftershave. Our next guest has come up with a unique gift for her father this year. She's giving him the gift of song. Ayanna Gregory is the daughter of long-time civil rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory. She is also an accomplished singer. Her first CD, "Beautiful Flower," debuted in 2003. Her latest single is "A Ballad For My Father." Ayanna Gregory and Dick Gregory stopped by our studios yesterday, and if you know Dick Gregory, you know he's not one to mince words. So take caution of some of the language he's using. We started off listening to Ayanna's take on a Donny Hathaway classic, "A Song For You."


AYANNA GREGORY: (Singing) I love you in the place where there's no space or time. I love you for my life. You're a friend of mine. And when my life is over, remember when we were together. We were alone, and I was singing this song to you.

MARTIN: Ayanna, what influence you to create this song for you father?

GREGORY: Well, it was really long overdue. For years, I had thought about writing a song for my father, as well as a song for my mother, but I shied away from it for years because I was afraid to take it on. There was so much that I wanted to say in, you know, song. So the occasion came where I felt like it was just a time to write it.

MARTIN: what he meant to me, and then secondly, what he has meant to all of us. And then - so I did it in April of last year.

MARTIN: Ayanna, and let's hear a little bit of the song now. It's "A Ballad for My Father."


GREGORY: (Singing) As a little girl, I didn't know what you meant to this world. If I had a dime for every time somebody told me it's to save their lives and changed their minds. You planted seeds so long ago deep in me so I would grow.

MARTIN: Ayanna, tell me about some of the lyrics.

GREGORY: Everybody who knows my dad knows how cool - the original cool. That was very important to put, you know, because we have a concept of cool, and it changes generation to generation, but we can always look at classic cool. And that's him.

Yeah, in terms of the lyrics, well, I wanted to put some information, you know, and that's why the song starts with the year he was born, 1932. And the line that says, 1932, momma knew, God had a plan for you with a light around your head. When I read his book "Nigger," when I was in junior high school, it really struck me that, you know, I'm sure his mother loved all of her children, but there was something about my father, Richard, that was different. And I just remember reading something about this light around his head, and as I child, it just struck me and it stayed with me. And so I wanted to put that in there first.

So - then there's the family piece, you know, "10 Kids and A Wife," which human rights became his life. I mean, he makes it very clear that he belongs to the world. You know, and so while he was there in spirit, I mean, he was taking care of us - of course, my mother was the one there holding it down day to day. But - so he had these, you know, two lives - the home life, 10 kids - 10 kids, you know, seven girls and three boys and a wife - and then the world that he entered, you know, the majority of the time.

MARTIN: Dick Gregory, how did you feel when you first heard this song?

DICK GREGORY: Well, it caught me by surprise for one. I flew in town to do a show the two of us was on, and she didn't know if I had to run back out. She said, are you going to be around? I said, yes. Nobody never told me. So I'm sitting in the audience, and a couple of my children was there, and a couple of grandchildren. Three generations was sitting there with tears in our eyes.

It meant double to me, because I never cared about in this system that we're in already - insane system, corrupt - who cares what they think about you? You know, you can trick them, but you can't trick your peers especially your children. They know you. And to hear it just was just - it's incredible.


MARTIN: You know, it's a bittersweet song in some ways. I mean, it's a lovely song. It's a lovely tribute, but I'm thinking about Ayanna's lyric, you know, 10 kids and a wife, and human rights is your life.

GREGORY: Well, they knew that.

MARTIN: Yeah. But they also knew that you weren't around sometimes when maybe they would have liked for you to have been around. And I wonder how it felt?

GREGORY: That's was for them, they weren't for me. So I had an agent told me one time. He said, you're crazy, but you got some children you love. And I said to him, if you ever get one of my children, you do one or two things. You either kill them or get you a book that teach how to raise niggers. Because if you ever get one of my children, you can have them. This movement's bigger than me. It's bigger than my wife, and it's bigger than my children.

MARTIN: Was that hard on you and your siblings?

GREGORY: It wasn't, because he was bringing us with him in terms of, you know, because he wanted us to be a part of the movement. But it was sort of like when we got old enough. I remember being a little girl, and I want to go to jail, too. You know, but I was too young to go. Do you know what I mean? So - but yeah, so, but what I was going to say is that it would - certainly it wasn't hard for me, because it wasn't an adjustment. It was what I knew. You know what I mean? It was like he was home all the time and then all of a sudden dad's gone, you know. So...

MARTIN: Did you ever want - forgive me - a normal dad who, you know, took the train in the morning...

GREGORY: Yeah. You do. Definitely.

MARTIN: ...and came home at night. And worked on your spelling.

GREGORY: Yeah. Because that's what you're seeing represented in other households. But for me, if I had to go back and choose - I really wouldn't have it any other way because if I had the dad that, the regular dad, I wouldn't have this. You know what I mean? And I wouldn't - my life would be very different because so much of what he was doing out there, even when he was gone, was still shaping us.

MARTIN: Is it important to you to be a father?

GREGORY: Not really.

MARTIN: Really?

GREGORY: I mean, I almost resent Father's Day. I think it's a fraud.

MARTIN: Really?

GREGORY: Yeah. It's the mother. I think - let me tell you. If I could do one thing on this planet and leave tonight and would never come back, I will see to it that Mother's Day would be a holiday that don't come on Sunday. I think mothers are so important, you deserve to disturb the commerce of America.

MARTIN: You don't think fathers are important?

GREGORY: Not really. No. But I think it gets reflected. I mean, we talk all that little talk, but you look at the gifts that fathers get compared to what mothers get. The whole purple socks - you know, I tell them, I said on Mother's Day, they give her like 12 dozen roses. They give her like a $12,000 gift certificate for - what do you call that little boat ride, you know, where you take your momma on?

GREGORY: A cruise.

GREGORY: A cruise. What her sister like, I mean, do I exist? And let me tell you what they tell me. I mean, you never heard of me around the house? Well, dad, here is the problem. You can't swim - which I can't.

MARTIN: Well, I do want to say happy Father's Day.

GREGORY: Thank you. That's good. I'll accept that, because I am a father.

MARTIN: Yes. And you have a beautiful present, at least one beautiful present that we know about.


MARTIN: So, Ayanna, what's next for you?

GREGORY: I'm working on a children's album. You know, I teach. Right now, I'm teaching creative arts to kindergarten, first, second and third grade. But my - really, my expertise is with the teenage - the teenagers, and, you know, their reality. And so I want to do a couple of albums that sort of - that can be tied into school curriculums that can be used to teach life.

MARTIN: All right. Well, thank you. Ayanna Gregory is a singer and songwriter. Her latest single is "Ballad for My Father." And her father is the legendary activist and comedian Dick Gregory. They both joined us here in the studio. And thank you so much for being with us.

GREGORY: Thank you much.

GREGORY: Thank you.

MARTIN: And we're going to hear a little bit more from "Ballad for My Father" as we end our segment. Let's hear it.


GREGORY: (Singing) Because they seen the rising of our new day begun. Let us march on till victory, till victory is won.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.