Barbara Dane – This Bell Still Rings: My Life of Defiance and Song
Singer Barbara Dane’s autobiography This Bell Still Rings: My Life of Defiance and Song, is the long awaited story of the jazz, blues, folk, world music and gospel pioneer, who at 96 years old, writes vividly, with clarity, focus and honesty. Dane can add her truly talented writing skills to her varied artistic arsenal of gifts.
Dane hails from Detroit, where her Arkansas parents opened a pharmacy and soda fountain to further their chances for their growing family.
Dane discovered her teenage voice as she took Bel Canto singing lessons to further her marvelous instrument. Her singing started in public as a teen by leading protesters on picket lines for both union and civil rights protests in Detroit thru folk singer Pete Seeger. Once she was old enough Dane joined the communist party, as she married Rolf Cahn and moved to California.
Once in Berkeley they struggled to raise a family though loving their new environment. Dane tells her story from the perspective of growing up in the 1940s and 50s as a woman of conscience that could think for herself and find her own path. Barbara also re-evaluates many decisions in her life, how her father ended up standing by her in times of turmoil , how she approached the many obstacles in her path( and not holding resentments but walking on). She also paints a vivid picture of what women in that age were up against, with repeated misogyny, sexual harassment and closed doors. Dane’s confidence leaves much of an impression on the reader. Barbara never went for what was easy but for what felt right.
By the 1950’s a career in singing opened up as a result of needing to feed her family with her second husband Byron Menendez and two new children, Paul and Nina. San Francisco had a burgeoning traditional jazz scene and Dane was drawn to it as result of discovering jazz records as a teen. Soon she was singing with Turk Murphy’s band plus old timers like George Lewis and the demand for her music culminated in Trouble In Mind, her first LP( and greatest in classic blues singing) with old timers like Pops Foster on bass and cornetist Darnell Howard. Now Barbara was truly “On Her Way”, as her hit song says.
Before long she was being courted by Albert Grossman( Dylan and Peter Paul and Mary’s manager ),playing Grossman’s Gate Of Horn in Chicago. Hugh Hefner put her on his TV show Playboy After Dark. The Ash Grove in Hollywood moved her down to LA to take up a residency there. Dot and Capital Records recorded her. Dane was soon working with Memphis Slim, Little Brother Montgomery and Willie Dixon as her backup, recording with Earl Fatha Hines, Benny Carter and Earl Palmer. Dane was offered a Euro tour with Louis Armstrong as well as playing on his Timex Allstars of Jazz on national TV. Dane toured the East Coast with Jack Teagarden. The West Coast with Bob Newhart. She became close friends with Lenny Bruce, whom she shared several residences with in Chicago and SF. At the same time her left wing viewpoints kept the FBI on her tail constantly. She lost two State Dept tours, one with Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry to India and the Louis tour to Europe as a result of her politics.
Barbara was responsible for Brownie and Sonny getting signed to Fantasy Records in 1958, their first recording as a duo. By 1960 Dane decided a nightclub in SF was a way she could keep herself and her group, pianist Kenny Whitsell and former Ellington bassist Wellman Braud working. Barbara found a financial backer and opened Sugar Hill-Home Of The Blues in North Beach. They would play host to a who’s who of blues talent- Brownie and Sonny, Blind Gary Davis, Fred McDowell, T-Bone Waker, Big Mama Thornton, Jimmy Rushing, Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red, Big Joe Williams, Lightnin Hopkins, Mose Allison and Dane’s favorite blues singer Mama Yancey.
For Yancey’s gig Barbara brought a brass band to greet Mama at the airport and a dozen red roses. Barbara’s mission was to give the old timers recognition for their long and difficult careers. As a result Ebony magazine did their first ever feature on a white woman singer in 1959, showing her with friends Muddy Waters, Little Brother Montgomery, Mama Yancey, Big Joe Williams, Memphis and Dixon and more. The fact that this woman was so beloved by African American music icons speaks to her passion for the music. How else do you explain Count Basie buying her plane ticket to an LA gig from NYC or Ella Fitzgerald writing her a week after meeting her in Chicago to tell Dane she has a bright future in music? Barbara brought the unknown Chambers Brothers to Newport Folk Fest to sing with her in 1964.
Barbara soon was in Mississippi during the voting rights drives by SNCC along with Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Phil Ochs and others. By 1968 Dane became the first American singer to tour Castro’s Cuba, where her son ended up going to school as a teen but eventually living there full time as Paul became Pablo Menendez , now leader of the famed Mezcla band. Dane became friends with Castro. The amazing portrait this book gives of both Dane’s commitment to peace and justice during Vietnam and Civil Rights shows both her passion to righting wrongs as well as what the era felt like from fifties through the sixties, with the tumultuous changes coming hard and fast. Barbara was in the forefront of all of it!
This is a fascinating must read about a social justice seeker who also happens to be one of the greatest vocalists from the forties till her retirement at age ninety three in 2019. Look for her documentary out in 2023, The Nine Lives Of Barbara Dane, directed by Maureen Gosling.