Barbara Dane: A Versatile Voice With A Political Purpose The singer crossed genre lines, performing blues, jazz and folk, and spoke out for racial equality and economic justice.
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Barbara Dane: A Versatile Voice With A Political Purpose

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Barbara Dane: A Versatile Voice With A Political Purpose

Barbara Dane: A Versatile Voice With A Political Purpose

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Singer Barbara Dane has passed a number of significant signposts in a career that spans more than half a century. She sang at the first Newport Folk Festival. She was the first white woman profiled by Ebony magazine. And she was the first U.S. performer to break the U.S. travel ban to Cuba.

Dane is still performing at the age of 83 and inspiring a younger generation of women musicians. Steven Short of member station KALW has this profile.

STEVEN SHORT: Singer Barbara Dane is leading a workshop called "The Songs of Peace and War" in a classroom at Presidio Middle School in San Francisco.

Ms. BARBARA DANE (Singer): Okay, so here's how (unintelligible)...

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DANE: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

SHORT: She sits rather than stand because her physical stamina isn't what it once was, but you wouldn't know that by the sound of her voice.

Ms. DANE: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

SHORT: Dane sounds much as she did when she recorded her first album in 1957.

(Soundbite of song, "Trouble in Mind")

Ms. DANE: (Singing) Trouble in mind. I'm blue. I won't be blue always. Oh, the sun gonna shine in my door someday.

Ms. DANE: I think, first of all, I'm a singer, and I've always been a singer. But I'm a mom. I'm a producer. I try to be a, in my songs, something of an explainer sometimes or a teacher. But overall, I'm a resister, I guess, to just what people throw at you and expect you to swallow. I don't do that.

Ms. BONNIE RAITT (Singer): Maybe I'm missing something, but I really feel that she was really among the first of - even the business the way it is now, there isn't really anyone that accomplished as much as she did in terms of breaking barriers and standing up for what she believed in.

SHORT: Bonnie Raitt is another singer known for using her music to speak for the underdog. She clearly remembers when she was a teenager in Los Angeles and first heard Barbara Dane.

Ms. RAITT: I was an avid fan of folk music. I think the whole country was swept up with the Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio and the Weavers and Pete Seeger, all that late '50s, early '60s kind of folk revival.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Announcer: Westinghouse Broadcasting Company presents "Folk Songs and More Folk Songs" with the Brothers Four, Bob Dylan, Barbara Dane...

Ms. RAITT: I just got little gleanings of the things that she was involved with until I became a professional singer and an activist. And she's always been a role model and a hero of mine, musically and politically.

The arc of her life so informed mine, and I really, I can't think of anyone I admire the way that she's lived her life. I'm just such a huge fan.

Ms. DANE: I'm actually very moved by that because I think Bonnie has really taken it to where I would love to have been able to go.

SHORT: 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 bassist Wellman Braud, even though he'd been a mainstay with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Ms. DANE: When he said you can't bring Wellman, I went: What are you talking about? Well, you know, it - those places get a lot of Texans, and they wouldn't go for having a white woman fronting a mixed band. And you know what I did? I just flat out said: (Bleep) you, and I turned around and walked right out.

SHORT: Dane's reputation led to invitations to perform at rallies.

Unidentified Announcer: It's our great pleasure now to introduce to you Barbara Dane, Reverend Kirkpatrick(ph) and Pete Seeger.

SHORT: Including this rally on the mall in Washington, D.C., in 1971.

Ms. DANE: Now you've got to repeat this part here: (Singing) I don't want nobody over me...

Unidentified Group: (Singing) I don't want nobody over me.

SHORT: In Europe at the time, 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.

Mr. RICHIE UNTERBERGER (Music Historian; Author): I think musically, Barbara Dane is very interesting because she never stuck with just one style.

(Soundbite of music)

SHORT: Bay Area author and music historian Richie Unterberger notes that Dane was successful singing blues, folk and jazz.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. 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 or fans who might only want you to do folk music or only political songs or only non-political songs.

SHORT: Still, Barbara Dane remained a symbol of resistance, someone who wasn't afraid to break the rules. There is one rule, however, that she did honor.

Ms. DANE: 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. And I like that other feeling. I like that feeling that comes over when you know you've done something that will mean something valuable to somebody else.

SHORT: For NPR News, I'm Steven Short in San Francisco.

(Soundbite of music)


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