Help provide a gravestone for Indianapolis blues singer Ophelia Hoy

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Jim Lingenfelter Collection – The Indiana Album – 1955

Cultural Cannibals is sponsoring a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to purchase a gravestone for Ophelia Hoy, click here to contribute.

“Even though she laughed and smiled when she sung those songs, behind the smile you could see a lot of sadness.” – Howard Pipes on Ophelia Hoy, as quoted in David Williams’ Indianapolis Jazz.

For four decades the vocalist Ophelia Hoy (11/05/1916 – 08/15/1968) was a fixture of the Indianapolis music scene. Ophelia rose to prominence as a blues singer on Indiana Avenue during the late 1930s, but she’d go on to hold down residencies at nightclubs across the city – from the Mayfair Tavern on the Eastside, to the Town & County lounge up north.

Ophelia remained a popular nightclub act in Naptown until her untimely death in 1968. But life as an artist can be rough, and according to accounts from Ophelia’s friends, the singer was living in poverty during the final years of her life. It’s been 50 years since Ophelia passed, and to this day her grave at Floral Park Cemetery remains unmarked.

I started this Go Fund Me campaign to raise money to purchase a headstone for Ophelia Hoy’s grave with the hope of bringing dignity and greater recognition to the legacy of this important figure in Indianapolis music.

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Indianapolis Recorder – 1952

Unfortunately, Ophelia Hoy never made any commercial recordings. My understanding of Ophelia’s unique artistry is limited to historical accounts of her life. According to reports in the Indianapolis Recorder and Indianapolis Star, Ophelia performed with a wide range of music luminaries – including  Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, and Wes Montgomery. Ophelia’s name also pops up in the early history of guitar icon Jimi Hendrix. In 1962 Hendrix traveled to Indianapolis on an offer to back Ophelia at a Downtown Indy club called the Brass Rail. Bassist Billy Cox was a member of Hendrix’s band at the time, he later recalled the experience during an interview:

“Jimi and I had been playing together for up to that point, maybe a year and a half together and-ah, we were out of the army. At that particular time we had a place in Clarksville and we came to-ah, Indianapolis because a fellow had told us that he worked-ah, here at the Brass Rail and any time we were in town – he said that he thought we were a good band – he’d like for us to come and he’d hire us. We were to play in the house band backing Ophelia Hoy, a bawdy blues singer.” But after arriving in Indy, Hendrix and crew were denied the job.

Perhaps the most important collaboration of Ophelia’s career was her partnership with the legendary blues pianist “Champion” Jack Dupree. Ophelia and Dupree performed together around 1940 at Naptown’s legendary Cotton Club. Ophelia was an incredibly popular blues vocalist in Indianapolis throughout the ’30s and ‘40s, frequently earning top votes in the Indianapolis Recorder’s annual music poll.

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Ophelia Hoy’s obituary in the Indianapolis Recorder – 1968

Outside of her work as an entertainer there is little biographical documentation of Ophelia’s life. Writer David Williams collected the following information in his essential 2014 book Indianapolis Jazz:

“Ophelia Hoy was born on November 5, 1916 in Macon, Georgia. As a child she worked as a domestic for a wealthy white family who treated her badly. From this traumatic experience she developed an intense hatred of whites. In the early 1930s, she moved to Indianapolis and obtained a job at the Indiana State Fair singing popular blues songs. As longtime Indianapolis resident Howard Pipes remembered, ‘I saw Ophelia in the 1930s at the fair sitting on a bandwagon wearing a soiled white dress singing these lively, comical songs. Even though she laughed and smiled when she sung those songs, behind the smile you could see a lot of sadness.’ ”

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1962 advertisement 

Williams’ also comments on the often demeaning treatment Ophelia received from white club owners during the 1950s and 1960s:

“At the Playhouse Bar, Town and Country Lounge, and the Brass Rail, which were white establishments, she would dress like a Mammy type, with a polka-dotted bandana on her head, and sing risqué songs to the delight of the raucous audiences… According to performer Flo Garvin, the club’s owners insisted that Hoy don the costume and assume the obedient maid persona while she sang the bawdy songs. However, Hoy was an extremely proud woman who loved and respected Indiana Avenue, and her people, but she needed to earn a living. Sadly in her last days on earth, Hoy was a recipient of welfare and died on August 15, 1968 at Marion County General Hospital.”

Ophelia Hoy’s legacy in Indianapolis music is in dire need of restoration. Your contribution to this fundraising campaign is an important part of this process. Thanks for your time and consideration.

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Indianapolis Recorder – 1949

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Brazil… By Way of Israel: The Music of Anat Cohen

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Anat Cohen & Trio Brasileiro will play Indy Jazz Fest on September 16 

 

Clarinetist-saxophonist Anat Cohen fell in love with jazz as a child growing up in Tel Aviv, Israel. Cohen’s passion for jazz brought her to the United States during the late ‘90s to study music at Boston’s Berklee College. But Cohen’s attention shifted at Berklee, as she befriended a group of Brazilian students that introduced her to the musical traditions of their homeland.

Today Cohen’s artistic identity is tied closely to Brazilian music. Cohen has recorded in a variety Brazilian genres, but lately her focus has been on choro – an improvised form that developed in Rio de Janeiro during the late 1800s.

And it’s choro music that brings Cohen to Indy Jazz Fest. She’ll be performing with Trio Brasileiro at The Cabaret on Sunday, September 16. Cohen has recorded two albums with Trio Brasileiro, including the Grammy-nominated Rosa Dos Ventos in 2017.

Read on to learn more about Cohen’s passion for Brazilian music, and head to IndyJazzFest.net to grab a ticket.

 

Kyle Long: You’ve worked extensively in the choro style. In addition to the two albums you’ve released with Trio Brasileiro, you also recorded a pair of albums with The Choro Ensemble. 

What was it about choro music that grabbed you?

Anat Cohen: First of all, I love the sound of it. I love the combination of happy and uplifting sounds with the lamenting elements, which is a lot like jazz.

When I first encountered choro, I was playing saxophone. When I was playing jazz I couldn’t quite find myself on the clarinet. But then I found this genre of music called choro where the clarinet fit so perfectly. It was very exciting for me to go back to playing the clarinet, and to be playing Brazilian music. I fell in love with Brazilian music before I started playing choro.

So I was happy to be able to combine my love for clarinet, my love for Brazilian music, and my love for jazz. For me, choro is a perfect amalgamation of jazz and classical music with Brazilian rhythms. 

 

Kyle Long: Choro is often described in shorthand as a Brazilian version of early North American jazz forms. I’m curious if you approach playing choro music in the same way you approach playing straight-ahead jazz?

Anat Cohen: No, not at all. We use that description to give people a sense of what the music is like. Bot for me, that’s not really what it is. 

Choro is polyphonic music, and it has multiple melodic lines. There’s a connection there with some of the music from New Orleans. If you listen to the Louis Armstrong All-Stars there are various melodies happening at the same time, and they are all almost equally important. I love the fact that you can accompany with a melodic line, for me as a horn player it’s a blessing. Obviously I cannot play chords on the clarinet.

Kyle Long: You alluded to this earlier – your work in choro music is just one facet of a deeper appreciation for Brazilian Music. In the past you’ve recorded music from great Brazilian MPB songwriters like Chico Buarque and Milton Nascimento. You also spent time performing and recording with the great Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista.

How did Brazilian music first enter your life?

Anat Cohen: I found out much later that Brazilian music entered my life while I was growing up in Israel. There was a lot of Brazilian music brought into Israel and performed with Hebrew lyrics. In my ignorance I grew up thinking it was Israeli music. [laughs]

I met Brazilian music students while I was attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. The music for me was always inseparable from the people, the culture, the love of life, the celebration of life, and the language, which I now speak. It’s been an ongoing affair since I encountered Brazilian students who were studying alongside me at Berklee College of Music.

I was fascinated by how similar Brazilian people are to Israelis, in their expression, and in the physicality and warmth shared when people are together. I felt very much at home with Brazilian people right from the start. It was a natural connection to explore the music during my visits to Brazil. I keep discovering more. Brazil is a big country, and there’s so much music to explore.

Kyle Long: Anything you want to share about your upcoming appearance at Indy Jazz Fest with Trio Brasileiro?

Anat Cohen: We all come from the tradition of jazz, but there’s a lot of influences in this group. It’s amazing that we can get such a big sound with just a guitar, mandolin, pandeiro, and a clarinet. Dudu Maia, Douglas Lora, and Alexandre Lora are incredible musicians.

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Anat Cohen & Trio Brasileiro

 

Kyle Long: Thanks for taking time to speak with me today. I’m a huge fan of Brazilian music. We don’t get to hear a lot of it in Indiana, so I’m excited for your upcoming show.

Anat Cohen: Well, I’m very happy that you like Brazilian music, and I can’t wait to come play in Indianapolis with these guys. 

 

Anat Cohen interpreting a Flying Lotus composition:

 

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Harold López-Nussa brings Havana to Indianapolis

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Harold López-Nussa plays Indy Jazz Fest on September 14

 

If you can only attend one show at this year’s Indy Jazz Fest, I’d highly recommend hitting Harold López-Nussa’s September 14th date at The Jazz Kitchen. López-Nussa is a regular at many of the top international jazz festivals, so catching the Cuban keyboard wizard in the intimate confines of The Jazz Kitchen will offer a rare, and likely unforgettable experience.

López-Nussa’s music is rooted deeply in Cuban tradition, but his voice on the piano overflows with fresh ideas. I recently caught up with the pianist to discuss the past, and future sound of Cuban music.

 

 

Kyle Long: I understand you were born into a prolific musical family in Cuba. Your uncle Ernán López-Nussa is an accomplished pianist who played with Silvio Rodríguez and many other important artists in Cuba. Tell me about the role of music in your family’s life.

Harold López-Nussa: I really feel lucky to be born in this family. I was surrounded by music all my life. My mother was a piano teacher. My father is a drummer. As you said, my uncle is kind of a famous piano player in Havana. Even my grandmother was a very good piano player. She was not a professional, but she used to play Chopin a lot in her house. Music is really important in my family.

Kyle Long: You began formal piano studies at age eight. You were initially studying European classical music. At what point did you take an interest in jazz?

Harold López-Nussa: I was always interested in jazz. My father and uncle played jazz. But it took me awhile to decide to try myself. I was learning classical music, so for me the change was scary in the beginning. It’s scary to play something you don’t know. It took me until I was eighteen, that was the point when I decided to try to play jazz.

Kyle Long: There are so many important jazz pianists in Cuban music. What were you listening to that inspired you to try playing jazz? 

Harold López-Nussa: Obviously my father and uncle were a huge influence. But also Chucho Valdés. I remember once he came to my school when I was a kid and he was playing for us. I was crazy about his playing. I said to myself, “I want to play this music someday.” 

Chucho Valdés’ father Bebo Valdés was also an important pianist for me. Frank Emilio Flynn is another one of my favorite Cuban pianists.

 My father and uncle introduced me to the music of Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, and Bill Evans. My father used to listen to a lot of Bill Evans and Miles Davis. So all those big names inspired me.

 

 

Kyle Long: I want to hear your thoughts on the evolution of Cuban music. There are a lot of interesting things happening in Cuban music right now with artists mixing traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms with electronic music sounds. In 2009 your music was featured on the British DJ Gilles Peterson’s compilation album Gilles Peterson Presents Havana Cultura: New Cuba Sound.

Do you see yourself as part of this movement to push Cuban music forward?

Harold López-Nussa: Definitely, that’s what we are trying to do. There are so many artists in Cuba right now doing interesting things with jazz, pop, and hip-hop. It’s not just the traditional things people know about Cuba like the son, and bolero. There’s a lot of other things going on in Cuba. I like this a lot when artists mix the traditional music with the future. It’s something very interesting. 

In Cuba the most popular music right now is not exactly the best, but there are a lot of great artists doing incredible things. They’re trying to export their art to the rest of the world, but it is hard.

Kyle Long: The United States and Cuba have a beautiful relationship musically, and our individual cultures have enriched one another greatly over the years. Unfortunately our politicians can’t ever get on the same page.

How have the political changes in America under the current presidential administration impacted your ability to share your music with listeners in the United States?

Harold López-Nussa: Definitely, with the Obama administration’s approach to Cuba we had a lot more exposure in the United States. That’s why I was able to make a deal with the label Mack Avenue Records in the United States. I was also able for the first time to do a big tour in the States.

Right now it’s a different situation. It’s getting more and more difficult for us to be here. But we’re still trying. We’re here and we have a 27 city tour, so we feel very lucky.

I feel a huge connection with audiences in the United States. You can feel it. They really appreciate the Cuban music, and they want to know more about it. So for us this is very special to share that. 

Kyle Long: Tell me about the group you’ll be bringing to Indianapolis for Jazz Fest.

Harold López-Nussa: This is the same group who played on my last CD Un Día Cualquiera. It’s very special for me because those guys have been playing with me for awhile. My brother Ruy Adrián López-Nussa is on drums, and then Gastón Joya is on bass. We’ve been playing together for more than ten years, but this is the first time we are touring together as a trio. I’m very lucky to have those guys playing with me, because they know my music very well. They almost know my compositions better than I do myself.

Kyle Long: Thanks so much for taking time to speak with me. I’m a big of fan your music and it was a pleasure to speak with you.

Harold López-Nussa: Oh no, it’s my pleasure. Thank you.

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Barbara Dane Reflects on a Life of Music and Activism

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 “The world needs more people like Barbara, someone who is willing to follow her conscience. She is, if the term must be used, a hero.” – Bob Dylan

 

In a perfect world I wouldn’t need to explain who Barbara Dane is.

In a perfect world women musicians would receive the same respect and credit for their accomplishments as their male counterparts do.

In a perfect world musicians who use their art for advancing the cause of social justice wouldn’t be marginalized to the fringes of the scene.

But this is not a perfect world, and viewing Barbara Dane’s achievements in the light of this fact makes them all the more important and impressive.

Barbara Dane possesses an extraordinary voice. Over the years Dane has used that voice as an instrument of protest against war, racism, and injustice. Dane rose to national prominence in the 1950s as an impassioned interpreter of traditional jazz, blues, and folk music. But after reaching the cusp of popular success, Dane chose to trade fortune and fame for substance.

Smithsonian Folkways Records has honored Dane’s contributions to American music with a 2-CD retrospective titled Hot Jazz, Cool Blues & Hard-Hitting Songs, and a vinyl reissue of Dane’s classic 1966 Folkways LP Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers. I recently caught up with Dane to discuss these reissues, and her lifelong commitment to activism and music. Check out out our conversation below, and head to BarbaraDane.net for more information on her work.

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Kyle Long: The collision between music and activism started early in your life. I understand you were singing on the picket lines in Detroit as a young person. Is that right?

Barbara Dane: Yes it is. Detroit was one of the most racist cities in the north, or anywhere in the country. When I was growing up it was impossible, and I mean impossible to sit down with a Black friend and have a cup of coffee. Unless you went to the Black neighborhoods. You had to go to what they called Paradise Valley, which was a horrible slum buried in the center of Detroit. It was there in that area and climate that I realized I wanted to stand up for certain things, and against certain things. I found out I could do that by singing.

I started out singing on picket lines and during demonstrations. Those were the first mass audiences I had. [laughs] That’s it, Detroit did it. 

 

Kyle Long: How did those early experiences singing on the picket lines shape your concept of the role music can have in our lives?

Barbara Dane: I studied singing with a wonderful teacher who was a bel canto trainer, that is grand opera. The only kind of singing teacher you could find in those days was someone teaching classical forms of singing. When I was a young teenager I had some lessons with Mr. Coats and he taught me to throw my voice out there as if I was singing at Carnegie Hall. 

When I thought about the songs I was singing, they didn’t really say anything for me. They were nice, and the poetry was great, but they didn’t change anything or do anything. When I began to sing in these other situations, I saw people came from a place way down deep with problems. Everyone comes to a demonstration with a heart full of problems, and puzzles about the world. As the music took over they would brighten up and start to sing with me, and march. It was very exciting to see that music could move people, and that I could actually affect something. 

Music will not change the world, but you can’t imagine a world without music.

I graduated from high school in 1945, and something happened that year that changed the whole world, and me too. That was the dropping of the atomic bomb and the quick instant death of hundreds of thousands of people in Japan. Everybody knew that this would change the world. It changed the future radically. We would always have to refer anything in our minds to the possibility of this thing being used again somewhere, or somehow. That still hangs over us. 

Beyond that, Michigan had this Equal Accommodations Act that was not being practiced. So me and a few friends from an organization called American Youth for Democracy decided to do a test case at a big hotel in Detroit called the Barlum Hotel across from Cadillac Square. Cadillac Square was a traditional gathering place for all the union rallies. So we decided to test the place and they threw us out. We started a big picket line every Saturday, and that was were I really started singing. 

I was singing songs like, [sings] “We’re gonna roll, we’re gonna roll the union on.” There was a great song about this Southern senator Bilbo who was one of the most notorious racist senators. [sings] “So listen Mr. Bilbo, listen to me. I’ll give you a lesson in history. Listen and I’ll show you that the foreigners you hate are the very same folks that made America great. You don’t like Negroes, and you don’t like Jews. If there’s anybody you do like it sure is news.”

That song was something out of the People’s Songs Bulletin, which was a creation of Pete Seeger. Pete had just gotten out of the service, and right away he started thinking about how to get people singing, and how to get people thinking about issues.

So Pete came to Detroit to try to find someone to organize a Detroit chapter of what he called People’s Songs. I was around eighteen or nineteen then, Pete recruited me and I started a little chapter. It wasn’t very big, but people encouraged me to keep going and I went on from there playing the guitar and singing for all these different organizations that would book me for their PTA meetings, or church socials. Whatever it was, I always sang songs with content and meaning. 

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Kyle Long: You mentioned the racism and segregation in Detroit during your formative years. How did you as a young White woman immerse yourself in Black music idioms in opposition to this racist system that was tearing people apart?

Barbara Dane: Well, I first listened to records of course. I found old blues records in a dusty second hand record store. I started listening to blues records alongside the opera records I was listening to. I found the music very moving.

But growing up a White girl in Detroit at that time I wasn’t able to go into the Black clubs in Paradise Valley. I was too young to go into the clubs at all at that time. But I did get a false ID and I did sneak into a place where Dinah Washington was making her first attempts at singing up north. She was very country. She looked very country, and her whole demeanor was different from what you’d know of Dinah Washington later. But it was great to slip in and see her.

But this thing about being a White girl trying to soak up Black culture, wherever I was it was the same story. I always had to be very careful to indicate I was there for the music, not to pick up a guy, or be bought and sold. I had to make it known that I was a musician and I was there to listen to the music, and that’s it. So I had to be very cool. I had to walk cool, you know?

 

Kyle Long: You ended up collaborating with an unbelievable list of musicians, from jazz greats like Earl Hines and Louis Armstrong, to blues players like Lightnin’ Hopkins. From your position as a cultural outsider, how did you earn the trust and respect of these musicians to the point that they were willing to collaborate with you? 

Barbara Dane: That’s a good question. I really don’t know. I guess it was just by doing what I was doing. When I sang a whole evening of classic blues, I always started off by crediting who wrote the song and where it came from, and I always interpreted the music from my own point of view.

The great bass player Pops Foster once took me aside when I was wondering if what I was doing was the right thing. Pops said, “Listen, keep it up. You’re doing very well, and you’re obviously sincere. There’s nobody else doing this stuff, and it needs to be kept alive. So keep on, keep on, keep on.” I felt empowered by that.

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Barbara Dane and The Chambers Brothers

 

Kyle Long: I mentioned that you have a couple reissue projects currently happening with Folkways Records. The first is a reissue of your 1966 album Barbara Dane and the Chambers BrothersAt that point in your career you’d been recording and releasing music for about ten years. But this was really your first collection of protest music, right?

Barbara Dane: I don’t know. I can’t remember. But I’d been trying for a long time to get the Brothers to record with me. When I started singing those freedom songs, especially at the Ash Grove in L.A., I always wanted harmonies. One day Ed Pearl booked this young gospel quartet known as The Chambers Brothers. I heard them singing, and I invited them to come onstage with me and jam on some harmonies. We did it, and it came off so well that I started booking them to come and sing with me. So I said, “Let’s record this.”

Before the record with The Chambers Brothers, I had previously been recording with Capitol Records. A producer at Capitol named Curly Walter suggested that I make an album with Jimmy Witherspoon. Well, the suits upstairs wouldn’t let us do it. They said no, because they couldn’t put a picture on the cover of a Black man and a White woman. If you look back at the album covers of the ’50s and early ’60s, you don’t see that combination at all. So suddenly I come out with four Black guys standing behind me and singing with me. In a way I thought was the most innovative part of the album.

By the way, I think Capitol dumped my contract because of State Department interference. I strongly believe that, though I can’t prove it. It was right when I was invited by Louis Armstrong to tour with him in Europe. It also coincided with the time that he was coming out as an ardent advocate of civil rights. Louis was supposed to go on tour in Europe with the State Department.

Why was the State Department sending American jazz artists to tour Europe? They wanted everybody to think that everything new and modern happened in the U.S.A. and we were where it was at.

But if all of the sudden Louis showed up with a blue-eyed blonde as his latest discovery, who actually had a big mouth about racism, it wouldn’t have worked for their purposes. So they pulled me off the tour. But like I say, there’s no way to prove that. 

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Barbara Dane w/ Louis Armstrong circa 1959

 

Kyle Long: So some of the commercial labels you recorded with like Capitol and Dot would have been resistant to you singing protest songs?

Barbara Dane: Oh, I don’t know. I wouldn’t even have tried it with them. I never asked anybody for permission, I just do what I do. I never really got censored by any of them. I think it was known by the time they got me in the studio that I had my own thoughts about what I was gonna do. 

The only censorship I can recall was at Dot Records. The owner was somebody with strict rules about alcohol and sex and whatever. Pat Boone was their favorite person. I was singing “Why Don’t You Do Right?” and there’s a line in there, “I fell for your jive and took you in, and all you got to offer me is a drink of gin.” They said, “You can’t say that! You’ve got to say something else.” So I quickly changed it to, “All you’ve got to offer me is a silly grin.” Well, I knew that all of my listeners would understand that I would never say something as stupid as that. [laughs] 

Anyhow, you might’ve noticed that every record I made was on a different label. That’s because I didn’t play by the rules. 

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Barbara Dane performs at the Newport Folk Festival in July, 1964

 

Kyle Long: So there’s nothing specific you can point to that explains why you were able to record this album of protest music with the Chambers Brothers at this time in your career?

Barbara Dane: Yeah, what I can point to is Moses Asch and Folkways. Moe was very democratic about what he’d put out. In fact, he’d put out doggone near anything if he could roll it along his assembly line. But he was certainly proud to do that album, and in fact, he engineered it.

 

Kyle Long: One of my favorite tracks on your album with The Chambers Brothers is “It Isn’t Nice”. Did you cowrite that song with Malvina Reynolds?

Barbara Dane: Malvina Reynolds wrote “It Isn’t Nice” after she took part in the sit-ins at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. There was a sleep-in. They all brought sleeping bags and laid down in the lobby of this fancy hotel. So Mal wrote it, and the tune she had was kind of a folky tune. It kind of reeked of Whiteness. [laughs]

I was going to Mississippi and I wanted the words of the tune to get over, so I changed the tune. I tried to make it something you could dance to, and it worked. Everybody was jumping on that song when I was in Mississippi. So Mal said, “That’s alright, you do it your way and I’ll do it my way. It’s all good.”

Kyle Long: I’ll love your version. It sounds like you were were influenced by doo-wop music, or some of the early Motown stuff.

Barbara Dane: Oh definitely, and Sam Cooke. I was trying to copy off Sam Cooke, but I could never imitate that glorious voice. But that was the idea. 

Kyle Long: The second project you have with Folkways is a compilation titled Hot Jazz, Cool Blues & Hard-Hitting Songs, which showcases the wide range of music you’ve performed throughout your life. Did you have a role in the track selection for that album?

Barbara Dane: I did, and so did my daughter Nina Menendez. Nina was asked to co-produce the album with Jeff Place from Smithsonian Folkways. Jeff is one of the main curators and archivists there. So I had a chance to put thumbs up, or thumbs down on things. It was hard. I don’t do things that I don’t feel close to, or like a lot. So it was kind of like Sophie’s Choice in a way. [laughs] If you choose one it means the other can’t go on. It was hard choosing, and there was a lot to choose from.

I don’t know how much you’ve explored it, but the first CD is all from the labels that Smithsonian Folkways controls. But the second CD is all stuff that was sitting in my cellar gathering dust for forty years. My daughter Nina took these tapes to an incredible expert technician by the name of Jessica Johnson. She made all these dusty tapes sound really good. So we decided to put them out.

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Huey Newton Speaks, a 1970 release on Dane’s Paredon Records label

 

Kyle Long: You mentioned that first disc of Hot Jazz, Cool Blues & Hard-Hitting Songs is drawn from labels that Smithsonian Folkways has rights to. One those labels happens to be one of my favorite record labels. I’m talking about Paredon Records, which you cofounded with Irwin Silber.

Paredon Records released revolutionary music from the Dominican Republic, Thailand, Angola, Cuba, Vietnam, Mexico and many other places. Paredon also released spoken word recordings from important historical figures like Huey Newton and Che Guevara.

Can you tell me what inspired you to start Paredon Records in 1969?

Barbara Dane: Oh, I’m happy to tell you about that. I was one of the first to break the cultural blockade with Cuba. I went down there and did a tour all over the country in 1966. I got to be friends with a lot of the cultural people in Cuba. In 1967 they decided to put on what they called on Encuentro and they invited people from all over the world to perform. It was my opportunity to meet and appreciate people from all over Latin America, and as far away as Australia, South Africa, and Vietnam. People came from the trenches of Vietnam. 

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Barbara Dane in Cuba w/ Fidel Castro

 

After that, I went home and started thinking about how xenophobic America was then. It was terrible. If I sang a song in another language people would come up to me and say, “Why did you do that?”

I wanted to capture the passion and purpose of all these singers I’d heard, and I wanted to figure out how it could be understood by the people here. At first I tried to learn their songs in their languages. But that didn’t work. Then I tried writing English lyrics, and I did write some good ones that worked OK. But I began to realize that the best thing would be if people could hear the singers themselves, because that’s the essence. 

So I realized I had to have a record label that could do that. So I started telling everybody I met that I was going to start a record label. People said, “How are you going to that?” I said, “Well, I’m looking for anybody who could help sponsor it.” A friend of mine called up and said, “I think I’ve got somebody.” A guy came over, and his fortune came from a place where he had a bad conscience about it. He gave me $17,000 and that was the whole seed money for the whole thing. 

In those days record companies would spend $17,000 to do a couple songs in the studio. But we never had any other capitalization for the whole thing. We did it by doing all the work ourselves and recruiting our friends. If somebody came over for dinner, after dinner they had to do some proofreading. Or I’d get on them to write an article for the booklets. Those are very thorough booklets. I always had knowledgable people writing about the movement and the artists. And I always had side-by-side translations of the songs so you could actually follow them in your own language. It would help you learn another language if you did. That’s how I learned a lot of Spanish.

When it was all said and done, I think it took about eleven years to do those fifty Paredon albums. I was it doing Paredon during the time I was also doing G.I. organizing wth my songs, and traveling all around America and going to the Far East and Europe trying to support the anti-Vietnam war resistance. When I would come home dead tired from all that, I’d still have to work on my latest issues for Paredon.

Irwin had worked with Folkways, and knew something about marketing, and he got that kickstarted by very economical means. So anyway, we did it. I look back on the Paredon thing and think that something that seemed like I was trying to squeeze into my schedule for ten years was actually one of the main things I was doing. I’m so proud of it, and I’m so happy with it. I want people to go to the Smithsonian Folkways website and look at it, and soak it up. It was human blood, sweat, and tears on record. 

 

Kyle Long: One of my favorite records on the Paredon label is your own 1973 release I Hate the Capitalist System.

Barbara Dane: Alright! [laughs]

Kyle Long: That’s such a powerful statement, and the album cover is just that phrase in bold letters. Tell me about making that statement and how it was received at the time.

Barbara Dane: Well, I was very taken by Sarah Ogan Gunning’s song “I hate the capitalist system, and what it has done to me.” It’s so stark and so unadorned by fake anything. It’s so real, and the first line is, “I hate the capitalist system.” So I said, “Let’s call the album that.”

People would say, “What do you mean hate? Why do you have to use a word like that?” Well, because I do! I do hate it. I won’t use that word about a lot things, but when it comes to the capitalist system and the depredations that it still enforces on the planet, I will use that phrase happily to try to wake you up and make you open your eyes to see where you stand. That to me is what all my songs are doing, challenging your assumptions and asking where you stand in all this.

 

Kyle Long: We’ve been talking about the music in the Smithsonian Folkways collection and I want to move outside of that collection for a moment. We’ve also been talking about a lot of serious themes in your music, but early in your career you made a fantastic dance record titled “I’m On My Way”.

You recorded “I’m On My Way” twice. First as a Lee Halewood produced single for Trey Records in 1960, and later as the title track of your 1962 LP for Capitol Records.

Barbara Dane: As I’m sure you know it’s a traditional song. I have no idea who wrote it. I got my tune for it from Mahalia Jackson, and took it in my own direction. I always made up my lines. Some are traditional, and some you grab out of the air as you need them, you make up the rest as you look in the audience and see who’s there.

That song has taken me everywhere. [laughs] What can I say? It’s been an important song in my life and it still is. 

Kyle Long: Are you aware of the cult following the record has among DJs, particularly in the British Northern Soul scene?

Barbara Dane: Yes I am. They once invited me to come to L.A. to be at a convention. They were all gonna come from England to L.A. to meet what they considered to be the big stars of the 45 RPM single scene. [laughs] I didn’t go. I figured I didn’t need the vanity trip.

Kyle Long: What do you make of the fact that your recording of this song is still so meaningful to music fans?

Barbara Dane: It’s amazing. But it isn’t really my song, it’s only me doing it. I know the song will be around forever, long after me.

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Kyle Long: Earlier in our conversation you mentioned that you had a suspicion that Capitol Records dropped you due to State Department interference. You were very active in the movement for social justice during the ’60s and ’70s. That was a time when there was a lot of government surveillance of people who were considered dissidents. Was there a drawer in the FBI file cabinet with your name on it?

Barbara Dane: Oh my god. [laughs] They started my file when I was eighteen. I have stuff dating back that far. I’ve been getting my Freedom of Information papers gradually, but they’ve been sitting on the last big bunch. I’ve got stacks of papers here. I’ve got huge notebooks of stuff they’ve sent me. A lot of it is repetitious, “She want to that meeting. She went to that other meeting.” It’s very boring. But then they’ll go into elaborate discussion about how a particular demo was put together.

When I look though it all, I think, “What a waste of tax payer dollars.” All I was ever doing was singing songs and trying to get people to think about peace, and justice, and good times, and love. But they spent all that money that could’ve built schools and libraries. 

Kyle Long: Did you have any sense at the time that someone was tracking your movements?

Barbara Dane: Sure, I could see them. I’d check in at the airport and I’d see some guy in FBI drag go over to the counter and look at whatever the clerk had copied. You could smell it. But who cares? They know what everybody does anyway. 

Unless you have some serious business to hide, don’t worry about it. [laughs] In general, I’d never worry about the fact that they know everything about you. Just make sure that what they know is good. [laughs] 

Kyle Long: You were never imitated by it?

Barbara Dane: Not at all. Not in the least.

Kyle Long: That’s great.

Barbara Dane: Why? [laughs] Why worry? The object of a lot of it is to intimidate you. It’s supposed to make you nervous and to look over your shoulder. It’s supposed to make you distrust the person you’re working with. That’s the object of what they’re doing. I’m not going to fall into that.

 

Kyle Long: There’s a famous quote from a letter Bob Dylan wrote to Broadside magazine in 1964. Dylan said,  “The world needs more people like Barbara, someone who is willing to follow her conscience. She is, if the term must be used, a hero.”

I certainly regard you as a hero. I’m curious how you feel about that Dylan quote, and being called a hero?

Barbara Dane: It’s intimidating in a way, and embarrassing. I don’t know. But people need symbols. Symbolizing certain things is okay with me. You have to realize that it’s a function of society. And if you’re going to be a symbol, try to be something you want to symbolize. [laughs] It’s that easy.

Kyle Long: Any current projects you’re working on that you want to share?

Barbara Dane: Yes, I was wanting to tell you about some of the things the Barbara Dane Legacy Project is doing. It was initially engendered by my daughter Nina Menendez, but a lot of other people have gotten involved. We have a lengthy list of people on our advisory board, like David Amram and Judy Collins. 

Nina is the founder and curator of the Bay Area Flamenco Festival and she is a busy woman. But she sees me getting older and older, and figures that a lot of things would be better handled while I’m still alive. She’s gonna half to follow up after I’m gone, so she might as well build the archives now.

So the Legacy Project has helped to pull together quite a few things that are happening. The double CD on Smithsonian Folkways was one of the first projects. Part of what got that started is when Nina went into archives and started digitizing material there. The archives contain all sorts of notes, and programs. She’s found some incredibly interesting things. She found some telegrams from Langston Hughes. He would often send me a telegram wishing me well on my opening night. He had sent me some blues that he wrote. I guess he was hoping I’d do something with them, but I didn’t. She found a Christmas card from Ella Fitzgerald, another one Lizzie Miles, the great New Orleans singer that I idolized. That’s all being put together in an archival setting, and will eventually be offered to some university. 

One of the biggest things happening is the film project. A film is being made about me, and they’ve been following me around for two or three years. They’ve been recording concerts, and interviews in different situations. Maureen Gosling is the director. She worked for years with Les Blank. Are you familiar with his work?

Kyle Long: Yeah, he’s one of my favorite filmmakers.

Barbara Dane: Well, Maureen was his right-hand person for years. Maureen is a treasure, and she’s working with some excellent camera people including Ashley James. In Cuba we used Roberto Chile who is also a great photographer.

So the film project is happening, and I’m also writing my memoir. What else? That’s a lot isn’t it? [laughs]

Kyle Long: That is a lot. 

Barbara Dane: It’s very satisfying, because I’m ninety-one and I know won’t be here forever. Somewhere in the middle of my nineties I’ll fade away. That’s fine with me. I can say that because all this stuff is going on, and I know that I won’t be forgotten by everybody. I’ll be forgotten by most people, but I’ll still have some little pile of dust where somebody can look me up.

 

Kyle Long: Thank you so much for taking time to speak with me Ms. Dane. You mentioned the importance of having a symbol, someone to look to as a guide. You’ve been that symbol for me in my work in learning how to use music to do right by other people. It’s been a profound influence on me. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to speak with you, and it was a pleasure to speak with you.

Barbara Dane: Well Kyle, I can’t begin to tell you how gratifying it is to know that there’s a guy in Indianapolis  that’s doing good stuff who thinks like that.

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Swamp Dogg on the making of Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune

I recently had the great pleasure of writing album notes for Swamp Dogg’s Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune, out now through Joyful Noise Recordings. Swamp Dogg is a giant figure in American music. In addition to his impressive catalog of left field soul recordings, Swamp has had a substantial career behind the scenes, from releasing ’90s hip-hop classics like MC Breed’s “Ain’t No Future in Yo Frontin” on his S.D.E.G. Records label, to penning hit country songs like Johnny Paycheck’s “She’s All I Got”.

Check out my album notes for Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune below, and scroll down further for my full talk with Swamp Dogg.

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“Swamp Dogg is a national treasure.” – Swamp Dogg

In 1970 the Southern soul music maverick Jerry Williams, Jr. made the most radical move of his career. Frustrated with music business politics Williams reinvented himself as Swamp Dogg, an irreverent anti-hero smashing the conventions of commercial R&B music. Swamp Dogg’s debut release Total Destruction to Your Mind featured a post-apocalyptic take on the Muscle Shoals’ sound, with lyrics inspired by the revolutionary politics and psychedelic drugs of the late ‘60s. The music on Total Destruction to Your Mind stood worlds apart from the formulaic pop tunes Williams started cutting in 1954 under the name Little Jerry, and Swamp Dogg hasn’t looked back since.

But the music business wasn’t ready for Swamp Dogg, nor was the rest of America. His bizarre album titles and wild cover art turned the average consumer off, while his subversive lyrics earned him a spot on Richard Nixon’s infamous enemies list. Swamp Dogg was not deterred. He seemed to relish operating from the margins of the music business, consequently becoming one of the quintessential outsider figures in American music.

Now, nearly fifty years after his debut release, Swamp Dogg stands on the precipice of another radical reinvention. His latest creation is titled Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune a nine song collection featuring production by Poliça’s Ryan Olson with contributions from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune finds Swamp Dogg’s bluesy southern soul colliding head-on with 21st Century electronic music production techniques.

The reference to Auto-Tune in the title is not incidental, the album’s sound is built around Swamp Dogg’s experimentation with the ubiquitous vocal processor. While Auto-Tune has become a fixture of the modern pop music landscape, this is Swamp Dogg’s first major exploration of the device. “Every time I listen to some new music that everybody thinks is the greatest thing since hot biscuits, it’s full of Auto-Tune,” Swamp Dogg says. His use of Auto-Tune technology is not gratuitous. Like Kanye West on 808s & Heartbreak, Swamp Dogg utilizes the cold digital tone of Auto-Tune to convey a sense of emotional detachment during the album’s most anguished moments.

According to Ryan Olson, Swamp Dogg’s initial attempts at using Auto-Tune were a bit rough around the edges. So Olson called up Auto-Tune auteur Justin Vernon to rework the digital effects on Swamp Dogg’s vocal tracks. That process reflects Olson’s own role as producer on Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune. “I went into the studio and laid down the vocals and the rhythms, then I sent those tracks off to Ryan to let him do whatever he wanted,” Swamp Dogg says of the remote collaboration.

Giving up creative control isn’t the norm for Swamp Dogg. A fiercely independent artist, Swamp Dogg is frequently the producer, writer, arranger, and label owner for most of the projects he touches. But Olson’s approach impressed him. “The first thing I thought was this white boy must be crazier than a motherfucker. But I listened to how deep he’d go experimenting with the music and I liked what he was doing,” Swamp Dogg says. Olson adds a range of inventive synth sounds and drum machines to Swamp Dogg’s sonic palette, as well as an impressively artful approach to arranging Swamp’s compositions. The result is a wildly fresh take on the classic Swamp Dogg sound. Swamp Dogg agrees, “I was knocked out by what I heard. I couldn’t believe it was me. It’s some of the greatest and outrageous music I’ve ever heard come out of the Swamp Dogg.”

Swamp Dogg has frequently trafficked in the outrageous to attract audience attention, but it’s the quality of his songwriting that has kept fans returning to his work. Swamp Dogg has a gift for writing about heartache. Many fans consider the 1970 collection of breakup songs he wrote and produced for Doris Duke under the title I’m A Loser one of his finest moments as a writer. The songs on Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune rival the tunes presented on Duke’s classic disc.

“The songs are about being lonely,” Swamp Dogg says of Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune. The feeling of loneliness is particularly palpable on the hauntingly beautiful “I’ll Pretend”, which features vocals from Justin Vernon. Swamp Dogg describes the song as a character study about “a guy sitting in a restaurant by himself losing his fucking mind because he’s hoping his woman is gonna walk by, but she’s at a Ramada Inn somewhere fucking somebody else to death.”

Despite the record’s overriding theme of loss, Swamp Dogg’s warped sense of humor is still intact. Let’s remember that we’re talking about an artist who released a “greatest hits” album in 1976 filled entirely with new songs! Swamp’s comic side is evident on “$$$ Hunting’”, which rolls out with a funky Zapp-like bounce. There’s also “Sex With Your Ex”, where Swamp Dogg extolls the benefits of the song’s title theme over random bursts of feedback and noise.

Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune is a gem, a unique and unpredictable moment in the life of a unique and unpredictable artist that some consider a national treasure. “I might be the only one,” Swamp Dogg says. “But I think Swamp Dogg is a national treasure.”

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My interview with Swamp Dogg happened on April 27, 2018. Many final details surrounding the release of Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune were still being figured out, so keep that in mind if Swamp and I seem to wander off course. 

Kyle Long: Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune presents a very different sound for Swamp Dogg. I’m curious how you felt about the electronic elements utilized on this record?

Swamp Dogg: Well, I produce a lot of electronic stuff on other people. I had to grow to it. I wasn’t crazy about it at first. But all of a sudden it became a must. It was something you had to do, or your records weren’t considered up to par. So I kind of got into the swing of things, and I like it. There are so many things you can do with it. 

Kyle Long: This isn’t the first time you’ve taken a sharp turn with your music. In 1970 you created the Swamp Dogg identity and released Total Destruction to Your Mind on Canyon Records. Do you feel like this new album is a similar turn in your career toward a new style and sound?

Swamp Dogg: Yeah, as I told you yesterday I’m reinventing the wheel. Although I know deep down I can’t do it, I’m gonna try to do it, just in case there’s a one-percent chance I’m wrong. I want to try new stuff. I’ve been in this business a long time, and I love the business. But there’s not a lot of new things to do. 

Rappers are putting out messages and love songs, lots of love songs. Which rappers weren’t doing at one time, they were doing gangsta rap and all that kind of stuff. I hung right in there with them. I had a group called Bottom Posse and I had Silky Slim. They were all out of Louisiana. We were doing what they were calling bounce music. Again, I was looking for a new way to improve upon the wheel.

Kyle Long: So you’ve been working with electronic music for years in your productions for other artists, but this is the first time you’ve fully exploited these sounds in your work as Swamp Dogg?

Swamp Dogg: Right, I tried to make electronic music in the past. I’ve got an album by an artist named Wolfmoon. If you ever run across it, take a listen to “People Get Ready”. We were trying to come up with new sounds and new ideas. But I was limited. I didn’t have enough to work with, and I just couldn’t get out what was in my head. I’d like for you to hear that. 

Kyle Long: I know the track. I have the original 1973 Wolfmoon LP on Fungus Records. I have a big collection of all the different records you’ve produced and recorded from artists like Raw Spitt and Wolfmoon.

Swamp Dogg: Well, that entire Wolfmoon album was basically R&B gospel. The people in the church weren’t ready for that. I was trying to get them ready for it, but they weren’t ready. But all of sudden Walter Hawkins and his group came along and they were able to lay it down. I was just a little bit too far ahead of what was being done. That’s another example of me trying to jump to the front. I wasn’t really trying to get in front, I was just trying to get in line.

Kyle Long: A major stylistic element on this new album is the use of auto-tune. Had you experimented with auto-tune prior to recording Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune?

Swamp Dogg: We were playing around with it in the studio. Every time I hear some music that everybody thinks is the greatest thing since hot biscuits, it’s full of auto-tune. For awhile I was thinking, “Why is it that all these singers sound alike? There’s got to be something going on.” I got schooled by Norman Whitfield, Jr. who is an A-1 engineer and mixer. He came to my studio and showed me what was happening. 

To me auto-tune was bastardizing the song. But then I got to thinking, “No, the artist is not putting a gun up to the consumer’s head to make them purchase this shit. They’re buying it on their own.” So I started liking it. There were so many things I could do electronically, and the people started demanding it.

Kyle Long: Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune features a collaboration with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and production form Poliça’s Ryan Olson. How did those partnerships come about?

Swamp Dogg: How did it come about? I have answers for all the questions, but I don’t have an answer for that.

Kyle Long: Were they fans of your music?

Swamp Dogg: Yes, they were fans. There’s a lot of people familiar with Swamp Dogg that the Swamp Dogg is not even aware of. Just like you said you had X amount of product by Swamp Dogg. I’m knocked out of my seat when somebody tells me that, and starts naming my shit. Sometimes I think I’m the only one who even wants to hear it.

But Justin wanted me to sing on his show with Paul Simon, Chance the Rapper, and everything. I might have this chronologically wrong, but I think he heard this new album, and quote “went crazy”. He wanted to do some things to it. When people want to do things with my product, I usually grab my little product and run like a thief in the night. 

Kyle Long: What was your first impression after hearing the tracks Ryan and Justin worked on?

Swamp Dogg: I was knocked out by what I heard. I couldn’t believe it was me. I loved it.

Kyle Long: Can you give me a sense of how you and Ryan worked together to create this music?

Swamp Dogg: Ryan called me one day and he said, “Hey, I just listened to the record and I think it’s a smash.” I said, “Damn, I haven’t heard that in a long time.” Let me tell you, over the years I’ve turned down people who wanted to work with me, and turned down the people that record companies wanted me to work with. I wouldn’t do it. 

There was Gamble and Huff, Thom Bell, and Bobby Martin. There’s been a bunch of people that wanted to sign Swamp Dogg to major labels, in those days you had to be with a major label. I walked away from it. I didn’t feel they knew where I was coming from. That was based on the fact that I didn’t totally know where I was coming from. 

I’ve passed up a lot of things by not giving people a chance. Swamp Dogg is my wife, and you don’t want nobody else fucking your wife. Whether you are the greatest in the world when it comes to laying down sex, or if you’re so bad you can’t even be rated, you don’t want nobody fucking your wife. You want to satisfy her yourself. That’s the way I feel about Swamp Dogg.

Kyle Long: You mentioned your skepticism in the past about potential collaborators and their understanding of your work. Did you have a sense that Ryan understood the Swamp Dogg identity and sound?

Swamp Dogg: Yeah, the first thing I thought was this white boy is crazier than a motherfucker. [laughs] But I said, “If you want to give it a shot, I’m in the mood to give it a shot.” It’s like being at a party and somebody says, “Have a drink!” You think, “I don’t drink.” But you say, “Ok, fuck it,” and you end up getting drunk.

I listened to how deep he went, and how deep he’d go experimenting with the music. I liked it. I liked what he was doing. 

So I produced all the original tracks, then Ryan took them over and did anything he wanted to do with them. He had my permission. I said, “Man, do what you feel.” I wanted to find out what someone else felt about my music. To me it is some of the greatest, most outrageous music I’ve ever heard come out of the Swamp Dogg. To me, and maybe only me, Swamp Dogg is a national treasure.

Kyle Long: I would agree with that. [laughs]

Swamp Dogg: I’m hoping that the album sells enough that everybody will be happy and we can do another. When I cut this thing, I cut about twenty tracks. I went to the studio and laid down all the rhythm and vocals, and I sent it off to Ryan.

Kyle Long: The album title references loss, and there’s a general mood of heartbreak throughout the album. Do these themes reflect things that are going on in your life? If that’s too personal just tell me to move on.

Swamp Dogg: Hmm. [pauses] The main thing was the word auto-tune. I’ve yet to see anybody from Jay-Z on down admit to auto-tune. But they’re using the shit out of it. That’s the reason for putting auto-tune in the title.

But the songs are about being lonely. It’s about a guy sitting in a restaurant by himself losing his fucking mind because he’s hoping his woman is gonna walk by. But she’s at a Ramada Inn somewhere fucking somebody to death. But nevertheless he hopes. 

What’s the album called? Love, Lust, and Auto-Tune?

Kyle Long: It’s Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune.

Swamp Dogg: They wanted to call it Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune. I had originally called it Love, Lust, and Auto-Tune. That’s the only change they came to me for. I figured as hard as they worked, and I can hear the work, if they wanted to change one word in the title, it didn’t hurt anything. But I like it.

They would’ve gone with my title though. That’s one of the things I liked about working with them. 

Kyle Long: If it was important to you they would’ve stuck with it?

Swamp Dogg: Right. Exactly. But I would’ve felt like an asshole trying to stand up for some shit like that. 

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Swamp Dogg’s 1971 Elektra Records release Rat On!

 

Kyle Long: A lot of the Swamp Dogg identity is built around outrageous songs, expressions, and images. But you have a gift for writing powerful songs about heartbreak and loss. The songs on Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune certainly reflect that. There’s some haunting music on this album. 

I know you get tired of talking about this, but in 1969 you wrote and recorded a very popular album for Doris Duke called I’m A Loser which dealt with similar themes of loss. 

Swamp Dogg: I’ve said that the next time somebody asked me about Doris Duke I was gonna hit them in the head, and with a brick! [laughs] 

But I’m really very happy inside that people want to make reference to something I did and remember it. So it really doesn’t bother me. I wish I could cut another record like that!

Kyle Long: This is it! Don’t you think there’s a similarity between the music on I’m A Loser and Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune?

Swamp Dogg: I never thought of it that way. I don’t know.

Kyle Long: That’s how Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune struck me on first listen. But you haven’t thought about that?

Swamp Dogg: No, I very seldom think of Doris Duke. [laughs] I had more problems with that girl than any artist I ever had in my life. But she has stuck around longer than any other artist that has been in my life. So she’s great. She’s fucking great. She’s a crazy motherfucker, but she’s great.

 

Kyle Long: You mentioned that Ryan Olson told you he thought this record was a smash. You’ve been cutting records since you were twelve-years-old. You’ve written smash hits for artists all over the musical map, from Johnny Paycheck to Gene Pitney. How are you feeling about putting this new record out? Do you think Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune could be a smash? 

Swamp Dogg: I can’t wait. I think Ryan is right. I hope he’s right. I feel that he knows what he’s doing. He’s a full-fledged musician. I love his ideas and the freedom he gives himself. That’s something I didn’t do on a couple albums. I didn’t give myself the freedom that I knew I should’ve. But I did them anyway.

I liked working with him. I liked what he did, even though I didn’t understand a goddamn thing he was doing. When he asked me to go in the studio and do some shit, I did it without reservation. Nevertheless, I didn’t hear it. It’s like somebody trying to entice you to eat something. They say, “Try this cake.” “I don’t want no motherfucking cake.” They keep fucking with you until after awhile you try the cake, and you say, “Goddamn! Is all this motherfucking cake gone?” Because now you love it. That’s my cake story for the day. [laughs]

Kyle Long: One of the things that first attracted me to your music was your irreverent social commentary. I was surprised that there were no political songs on Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune. We’re now living in the era of Donald Trump, what are your thoughts on the current political climate and how is it influencing your art?

Swamp Dogg: When I go back to Swamp Dogg and Raw Spitt, I was very political. I was on top of everything Nixon was doing. I was calling him names and saying all kinds of shit. I thought I was right, and I still feel I was right. 

But when it comes to Trump, I have to say I’m scared shitless of that son of a bitch. I wasn’t afraid of Nixon, but I am deathly afraid of Trump. There’s no telling what he’ll do. This motherfucker might blow my house up. He is crazy. This son of a bitch is certifiable. He is really, totally fucked up.

I don’t mind talking about him now, and I would if I was doing another album at this time. I did a thing on Nixon called “They Crowned an Idiot King”. Did you ever hear that?

Kyle Long: Yeah, it’s one of my favorite Swamp Dogg songs. 

Swamp Dogg: [laughs] That fits Trump to a T. That son of a bitch, once he gets angry at you, he’ll lie on you, he’ll have you killed, he’ll do all kinds of shit. Please don’t work for Trump, because he just hires you so he can buy you. That’s why I didn’t fuck with Trump.

Kyle Long: Finally, I wanted to ask you about the closing song on Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune. You end the album with Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust”. I’m from Indiana, and Hoagy is one of our greatest musical exports. Tell me why you decided to record  “Stardust”.

Swamp Dogg: I thought I wrote it! [laughs] I thought it came to me in a dream. I gave Hoagy credit for “Ole Buttermilk Sky”.

To me, Hoagy Carmichael is one of the greatest songwriters to ever come along. I always wanted to record one of his songs. But you know how my Swamp Dogg albums are, that shit ain’t gonna fit. All I would do is fuck it up with a lot of horns and shit.

So I’d been wanting to do it. There’s a lot of songs I’d like to sing where I’m not screaming and hollering like Swamp Dogg usually does. I’ll get around to them. On just about every album I’ve recorded I have a song that I’ve always wanted to record and sing.

I have a Hoagy Carmichael songbook that goes way back to my childhood. I think that’s where the idea to record “Stardust” kicked in. I said, “Motherfuckers are gonna think I’m crazier than hell!” But when I listen to Hoagy, he couldn’t sing worth a fuck. But he wrote some of the prettiest fucking songs you’ve ever heard in your life. He had an ugly voice, but it didn’t hinder what he was doing.

I want people to know that I can carry a note. I can’t carry it far, but I can at least lift the motherfucker.

Kyle Long: I think you proved that. [laughs] Thank you so much for taking time to speak with me Mr. Williams.

Swamp Dogg: Call me Swamp!

Kyle Long: Alright Swamp, thank you for taking time to speak with me.

Swamp Dogg: Anytime. 

 

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The Folk Roots of Hall and Oates: John Oates on Mississippi John Hurt

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John Oates and Daryl Hall

 

2018 marks the 90th anniversary of Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 recording session for Okeh Records. Considered a commercial flop at the time, Hurt’s Okeh recordings would go on to find a devoted audience among a future generation of music fans.

That fanbase includes Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee John Oates, who first encountered Hurt’s music as a teenager in Philadelphia.

Oates’ latest album Arkansas pays tribute to Hurt, while also painting a broader portrait of American popular music styles of the 1920s. John Oates will bring his Arkansas tour to Indianapolis’ Schrott Center for the Arts on Monday, September 17. Head to ButlerArtsCenter.org to purchase tickets, and check out my conversation with Oates below.

 

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Mississippi John Hurt playing his 1963 Guild F-30 guitar

 

Kyle Long: If you were looking for a figure in American music that’s worthy of greater recognition and celebration, I can’t think of a better individual than the late blues musician Mississippi John Hurt. Your new album Arkansas was inspired by John Hurt, and is in many ways a tribute to his life and work. What does Mississippi John Hurt’s music mean to you?

John Oates: I’ve got a personal and psychic connection to him, and a physical connection to him in a way too. Of course he was recording in the 1920s, but in the ’30s he drifted off into relative obscurity until the early ’60s. He was working on a farm in Mississippi. He was rediscovered during the folk revival of the early ’60s and brought out to a lot of folk festivals, college campuses, coffee houses and things like that. That’s where I first saw him. I saw him at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and The 2nd Fret in Philadelphia, where he played quite frequently. When I was in high school I saw him play. I sat right in the front and watched him closely. 

A few years later I met a guy named Jerry Ricks who became my guitar teacher. Jerry would host Mississippi John at his house and drive him around to his shows when he played in Philadelphia. You know, these rediscovered bluesmen didn’t have any money and didn’t know a lot about northern cities.

When Mississippi John passed away his guitar was given to Jerry Ricks. It was the guitar he played in 1964 at Newport when he was first rediscovered. Subsequently, I played that exact same guitar on the first two Hall and Oates albums. Jerry brought the guitar to New York so I could play it on the records.

Last year I managed to buy that guitar. It had been sitting in a collection in Denver, Colorado since the 1970s. So I now own that exact guitar that Mississippi John played at Newport in ’64, and that I played on the first two Hall and Oates albums.

So I’ve got this real connection to him and I always wanted to do some sort of tribute to him celebrating his music and his style of fingerpicking.

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Philadelphia Folk Festival 1964

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Vintage ad for Mississippi John Hurt’s 1965 residency at Philadelphia’s The 2nd Fret

 

Kyle Long: What was the make and model of that Mississippi John guitar?

John Oates: It was a 1963 Guild F-30.

Kyle Long: Looking back to the sound of Southern blues in the 1920s, it was often very harsh and raw. I’m thinking of artists like Charley Patton who had a raw, almost mean sound. Then you have Mississippi John Hurt who made soft, sweet, and gentle music with his intricate fingerpicking. What about his sound spoke to you as a young person when you saw him perform in Philadelphia?

John Oates: Well, it was kind of what you just said. He’s often lumped into the Delta blues category, but he’s not a Delta bluesman. To be specific he’s a hill country Piedmont blues player. To me his playing related a lot more to ragtime and stride piano styles than it does with the things people associate with the Delta blues.

So you’re 100% right in saying he was more gentle, and in a way maybe a little bit more musical than a lot of the howling blues shouters. That always appealed to me. I thought his guitar playing was unique. I wanted to play like him. I learned to fingerpick like him. I now play his entire repertoire, and I always wanted to do something with that. I thought the songs deserved to be heard, but maybe in a different context. I wondered what they would sound like if I played them with a band. So I assembled this amazing band and we approached the songs in a completely fresh way. 

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Mississippi John Hurt featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer, circa September 3, 1964

 

Kyle Long: Beyond Mississippi John Hurt as an influence, and a central figure on this record, you dive really deep into the history of American music on Arkansas. I was very surprised that you open the album with a song by Emmett Miller. I’ve been fascinated by Emmett Miller for years. He was an important influence on the development of country music in America, but his name is usually buried at the bottom of that history. What caused you to gravitate towards Emmett Miller’s music and record his song “Anytime”?

John Oates: First of all, I’m really glad I’m talking to you. You obviously know your stuff. 

So when we began recording it was all John Hurt’s stuff. But I wanted to expand the concept of the album. I started thinking about the idea that John Hurt was recording from 1926 to 1929. That coincided with the early days of radio and the early days of the phonograph. I though to myself, “I wonder what songs Mississippi John would listen to on the radio, or at a juke joint? What songs might have influenced him?” 

I started doing research on Mississippi John’s early life, and to my surprise I found out he was a big fan of Jimmie Rodgers. So I decided to cut a Jimmie Rodgers song. So the record started taking on a more expansive concept. I was making a snapshot of the music that was contemporary to John Hurt’s recording career on Okeh Records.

I started thinking about pop music. I was thinking about pop music in terms of my own small part in the history of pop music. I asked myself, “What makes a pop record?” It’s gotta be played on the radio, and it’s gotta sell records. Then I started asking, “What was the first hit record?” I started doing research and established that one of Emmett Miller’s songs actually sold a million copies in the early 1920s. I thought, “That qualifies. I’m gonna record an Emmett Miller song.” I figured there was a good chance that John Hurt might have heard that song, and maybe even liked it.

That’s how the record began to take on a wider scope. I think what I ended up creating is a snapshot of an era where American pop music was getting heard for the first time.

Kyle Long: You just mentioned Jimmie Rodgers, and you recorded a version of his ballad “Miss the Mississippi and You” on Arkansas. Obviously you’ve been a fan of Mississippi John Hurt for a long time, but I’m curious if you were listening to artists like Jimmie Rodgers and Mississippi John Hurt before taking on this project?

John Oates: I’ve been familiar with Jimmie Rodgers for years. None of this music is new to me. But the idea of compiling it together and performing it with a modern sensibility was the new concept. I’ve been playing this music since I was a kid. I started out as a folk musician and a blues musician. That’s what I brought to the table when I first met Daryl Hall. That’s the musician that I was.

In a way, returning to this music was returning to my earliest influences as a musician.

Kyle Long: What kind of feedback are you getting about this project? We’re living in a world right now that’s angry and cynical. When I’m lost in all the madness of this world, the sweetness and beauty of John Hurt’s music is meditative and calming for me. So I’m appreciative of you for bringing John Hurt back into the spotlight for a moment. Are you hearing similar sentiments from people?

John Oates: I don’t think as many people are as knowledgable about this music as you are, and it’s really a joy for me to actually talk to someone like you. But what I’m getting is a mixed response. One of the first responses I always get due to my history is, “Hey, this doesn’t sound like Hall and Oates. Where did you learn how to do this?” I have to explain that this goes back fifty years into my past and it’s very much a part of my musical DNA. This is the music I’ve been playing for years and years. I don’t think you could pull off a project like this with authenticity unless you have lived it.

I agree with you that this music harkens to another time. It’s a time when American music hadn’t taken over the world yet. But this music was the seed that led to rock and roll, which did spread the American roots music brand around the world. 

Kyle Long: You mentioned that you were a folkie and blues fan when you were growing up in Philadelphia during the 1960s. How did that element of your musical background influence the sound of Hall and Oates? Hall and Oates first release was a 1972 single on Atlantic Records titled “Goodnight and Good Morning”, that record always struck me as having a strong folk vibe to it. Do you look back and hear those folk elements in your music with Hall and Oates?

John Oates: Yeah, I think there’s stronger individual influences in the early Hall and Oates music. Daryl and I hadn’t really figured out what we were gonna do, or how we were gonna do it. We were still two individual musicians. Daryl brought his influences and I brought my influences. We were just trying things. So you hear the differentiation between what Daryl does, and what I do. As time went on we went on the road and spent more time together, and we created a sound where the purer elements were absorbed into this thing we did together. Of course we went into a very pop direction. It’s only on the earliest recordings that you can hear the two people as separate people. After that we became one thing.

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John Oates’ first recording with The Masters circa 1966.

 

Kyle Long: I’m a huge, huge fan of ’60s soul music. Before we go I have to ask you about the first record you ever made. In 1966 you cut a single for Crimson Records with The Masters, “I Need Your Love” backed with “Not My Baby”. Were you still in high school when you cut that record?

John Oates: It was the summer after I graduated from high school.

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John Oates high school photo

 

Kyle Long: Were those tracks among the first songs you ever wrote?

John Oates: No, I’d written songs before that. If you go back to that time you’ll hear songs like “Mickey’s Monkey”, The Five Stairsteps’ “World of Fantasy”, and The Miracles’ “Ooo Baby Baby”. If you listen to those songs you’ll hear where I was coming from as a teenager. As most teenagers do, I was listening to what was on the radio and I was trying to emulate it. That record was my weak attempt to create music that sounded like what I was hearing on the radio at that moment.

Before that I was playing Ray Charles’ stuff,  a lot Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. I’d written some protest songs and folk songs in the style of Bob Dylan, because that was also happening in the early ’60s. So I was all over the place. I had a very open mind to musical influences.

Kyle Long: Did you ever write down or record any of those protest songs?

John Oates: [laughs] No, but I do remember the first one I wrote in seventh grade. There was an English assignment where we had to write a poem. I wrote this poem about the Cuban Missile Crisis. After I wrote it, I got an A on the poem. The teacher knew that I played guitar and said, “Wow, that could be a song.” After he said that I thought, “Yeah, Bob Dylan does stuff like that.” So I actually wrote it into a song. I don’t remember what the song sounded like, but I remember this line: “A pillow of death 90 miles from our shore, lurking in darkness awaiting the war.” That was my big line. [laughs] Not bad for the seventh grade. 

It’s important when you get encouragement like that from a teacher as a kid. In a way it jump started my songwriting career. Who knows if I’d ever have written a song if I hadn’t gotten that encouragement. 

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John Oates playing Mississippi John Hurt’s 1963 Guild F-30 guitar

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Spiritual Ascension – Miguel in Indianapolis

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“Unified meditation” is the phrase Miguel used to describe his August 28th gig at Old National Centre. Whether he was singing about sex or drugs, Miguel made it clear that he finds an element of the spiritual in all aspects of life.

Ascension is the name of Miguel’s current tour, and a recurring theme throughout his show. A tall white staircase dominates the spare set, as psychedelic imagery dances across the enormous monitor which serves as a stage backdrop. Over the course of the night Miguel repeatedly nudged fans to let go of the conventions of the material world, and reach toward a higher spiritual plane.

Miguel is in the midst of a very public spiritual and political awakening. He’s credited Bernie Sanders’ failed presidential campaign as a starting point for this transformation. But he was careful to avoid partisan sloganeering onstage, and issued no direct political statements during his nearly two hour performance.

Instead Miguel focused on the themes of love and romance that propelled him to fame in 2012. Miguel wears his biggest influence on his sleeve, and echoes of Marvin Gaye’s raw sensuality reverberate through his live performances and recorded work. Within the framework of the Ascension show, Miguel subtly positions his celebration of love as an act of resistance within the increasingly corrosive social environment of the United States.

In reality, Miguel doesn’t need to act overtly to express his political position. His existence itself has been politicized by the dangerous racist rhetoric of America’s rogue president. Miguel’s ethnic identity represents two of Trump’s most frequent targets: Blacks and Mexicans. Miguel commented on his background during an introduction to his 2015 song “Waves”.

“My father is Mexican. He is from Zamora, Michoacán in Mexico. My mother is a beautiful Black woman from Inglewood, California. In the ’90s when I was growing up in Los Angeles, California there was a lot of racial tension between Blacks and Latinos.”

As Miguel continued he tied his personal struggle with identity into the anthemic singalong chorus of “Waves”.

“You probably wouldn’t expect this, but one thing I had to do was fight my way through the streets of my city. Can you imagine little Miguel trying to fight some motherfuckers? In this lifetime, in this dimension, in whatever it is that we’re experiencing right now, the most important thing we can do is ride our own fucking wave. I mean regardless of whatever people say, you gotta be who you are unapologetically. Love what you love, and do that shit hard. Fulfill your purpose.”

Miguel has spoken frequently about the skills he adopted in navigating both the Black and Latino spaces of his childhood. That cross-cultural fluidity is evident in his music. Miguel favors heavier musical textures in the live setting, pairing his classic R&B crooning with abrasive metal guitar riffs. It’s an odd combination, but Miguel pulls it off. That’s no doubt due to his appreciation for a wide span of music. If you dig deep enough online, you’ll find videos of Miguel performing a surprising range of music, from Trio Los Panchos to Pussy Riot.

While the majority of Miguel’s Naptown performance leaned toward more bombastic sounds, the concert climaxed with a whisper, not a bang. Near the end of his set Miguel performed an impassioned barebones version of “Now”, the closing song off his 2017 LP War & Leisure. Miguel introduced the song to his Indianapolis fans with the following statement.

“As this reality is playing out, the truth is, I think there’s nothing more important than empathy. We need to really put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, and show each other love. We’re at such a critical time in our history. We can elevate the human race, and elevate our consciousness. Or we can completely wipe ourselves from the face of the Earth. There’s no better time than right now to shed light on the issues that are important.”

“Now” represents the culmination of Miguel’s spiritual and political transformation. The song’s lyrics reference a variety of issues, from the contaminated water supply in Flint, Michigan, to Trump’s proposed border wall. During the chorus Miguel asks listeners to act on these issues now, “Not later, no, no, no, not later. Right now.” It’s not a rallying cry, but an anguished plea.

In November of 2017 Miguel released a video for “Now” that addresses both the criminal persecution of undocumented immigrants in the United States, and the urgent need for prison reform. Miguel has slowly stepped forward as an important voice on these issues.

But the dream of political and spiritual ascension Miguel advocated for in Indianapolis won’t happen without serious effort from us all. And there are lots of battles to be fought here on the home-front. If you haven’t committed to voting in this year’s upcoming midterm election, that would be a good first step in moving forward. Head to indianavoters.in.gov to register online.

 

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