Barbara Dane’s Wild Ride

At 88, the iconic songstress, Oakland resident, and antiwar protestor who palled around with Lenny Bruce, Louis Armstrong, Pete Seeger, and Jane Fond, still sounds like “Bessie Smith in stereo.”


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Barbara Dane has shared the stage with Louis Armstrong, Lenny Bruce, and Bob Dylan. She can also count Fidel Castro as an acquaintance. With a new CD releasing this month, she is far from done.

Photo by Stephen Loewinsohn

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If you happened to see her in a local coffee shop or pass her on the street, you probably would not recognize her. But in the world of jazz, folk, and blues, singer Barbara Dane is an international icon. At 88 her voice is still rich and powerful and full of purpose.

Earlier this year she performed to a packed house at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, sharing top billing with Maria Muldaur. But for the most part it was Dane’s show backed up by Johnny Harper and company. Time once described her voice as “pure, rich, and rare as a 20 carat diamond.” In those days she was recording for Capitol Records. Louis Armstrong, with whom she performed on the Timex All-Star Jazz Show hosted by Jackie Gleason, referred to her as “a gasser,” musician

talk for a bombshell. Some have simply called her a wild woman. The word retirement is not in her vocabulary. She just finished recording a new CD, Throw It Away, to be released in October.

An Oakland resident for the past 35 years, Dane has performed all over the world, enthralling audiences wherever she goes. Her career as a singer and entrepreneur has, without question, taken her on a wild ride over the past seven decades. In 1961 she opened her own club called Sugar Hill: Home of the Blues in the heart of San Francisco’s North Beach. There she not only performed but also brought in such great artists as Mose Allison, Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Big Mama Thornton.

By the early 1970s, Dane had founded Paredon Records, producing about 50 albums over the next 11 years. The music features international artists, many of whom she met during her own singing work, performing songs of revolution, liberation, and protest, including three by Dane herself. The label is now a subdivision of Smithsonian/Folkways in Washington, D.C.

“Throughout her career, Barbara has been an unwavering strong voice for working people, unafraid of the tough stuff,” folk singer Holly Near said. “When I first heard her in the early ’70s, she was singing to soldiers who were resisting war and racism in the military.”

But there was a price to be paid.

It all began in Detroit, where Dane was born and raised and where, at the age of 16, she began singing around town. A young veteran not long out of the army named Pete Seeger came to Detroit looking for someone to help start a chapter of People’s Songs, an organization of singers in support of the rights of the American worker, racial equality, and world peace. She began to use her voice as a powerful instrument, singing at worker’s rallies, picket lines in protest of racial segregation, and more. When she was 20, she sang at the World Youth Festival in Prague. Back in Detroit, Dane was offered an opportunity to travel with Alvino Rey’s swing band, a move into the big time. But she turned it down, preferring to be part of the growing post-war movement for social change.

About this time in 1948, the FBI began dogging young Barbara Jean Spillman, her birth name. After a brief period in Los Angeles, she moved to San Francisco where she became a sales clerk at the famous City of Paris department store. At night she would visit the San Francisco waterfront, places like the old Tin Angel and Pier 23 Cafe, where she could learn more about traditional jazz and the blues. Her first real singing job was at Jack’s Waterfront Hangout, a place she called a dump, but her gig lasted two years.

A watershed event for her career at the time was the Miss US Television of 1951 contest sponsored by KGO/ABC TV. “It was run like Miss America,” Dane said. “I had a chance to display my singing abilities, but I also had to wear a bathing suit as part of the judging.” She won. The prize was a tiny silver compact. But far more important, she was given her own 26-week series, a half-hour television show that paid all of $16 a week. KGO Publicity wanted to know how to present her and gave her a deadline. “At this point I decided it was time to choose a name that was my own, not my dad’s, nor my former husbands, Rolf Cahn or Byron Menendez. I was walking down Dana Street in Berkeley when I made a snap decision to call myself Barbara Dane. It felt right.

Her act was simple. “I sat in front of a fake fireplace with my guitar and a cat by my side and sang folk songs, bringing in a guest now and then for flavor. The TV was in black and white then, with tiny screens, but the show gave me exposure.

By the late 1950s Dane was clearly a rising star. Los Angeles Times music critic Leonard Feather dubbed her “Bessie Smith in stereo.” In November 1959, for the first time, Ebony ran a feature on a white woman, devoting a full seven-page spread to Dane. That year, she performed on the television show Playboy After Dark and received a special award from Hugh Hefner as one of the outstanding jazz artists of the year. At Chicago’s Gate of Horn, a famous folk club, she shared a bill with Lenny Bruce, whose standup act was already challenging the establishment to determine which was more obscene—using certain banned words or destroying cities with atomic weapons. For years, his audacious act caused him to be arrested during performances.

Near the end of 1958, a year ahead of the Ebony article, Louis Armstrong himself invited Dane to tour Europe with his band. To build up her credentials for the tour, Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser, booked her to sing in a few high-end clubs, topped by a spot with Armstrong’s band on the Timex All-Star Jazz Show’s episode “The Golden Age of Jazz.” (The clip, which aired on Jan. 7, 1959, can be found on YouTube.)

But after all her plans to leave for Europe, the telephone from Glaser’s office fell silent, and no further contact came directly from there. Only years later did Dane conclude that Armstrong’s manager, probably at the insistence of the State Department, had been trying to damp down their favorite “Ambassador Satch,” when it came to convincing the world there is no race problem in the United States. Armstrong had recently spoken out in the press, challenging President Eisenhower about the heated situation in Little Rock at the time, and they were worried about what he would say during his interviews in Europe. Surely they didn’t need a blue-eyed blonde, already known to the FBI and State Department as an agitator and activist on the subject of race, giving out her opinions alongside Armstrong.

“I was disappointed, but what the hell,” Dane recalled. “You’ve got to move on.”

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