Barbara Dane was present at the creation.
No, the 95-year-old singer, record label founder, and indefatigable champion of progressive causes wasn’t on hand to witness the dawn of humanity, but she was in the thick of the action when Berkeley became, well, Berkeley. Through most of the 1950s, as the seeds of the counterculture took root, her house on Dwight Way just below Telegraph served as an unofficial headquarters for the incipient folk and blues revival and evolving struggles for social justice.
She’d already started collecting a trove of traditional songs during her formative years in Detroit, but Dane credits Berkeley with introducing her to the New Orleans trad jazz scene, a creative development that profoundly shaped a stylistically peripatetic “career” (to borrow the air quotes she often uses in describing her singular musical journey). Published last month by Berkeley’s Heyday Books, Dane’s new memoir This Bell Still Rings: My Life of Defiance and Song offers a fascinating look at a time when Berkeley nurtured a bohemian culture that would come to shape the nation in the following decade.
KPFA Radio, where Dane appeared during the station’s inaugural year in 1949 and went on to host the groundbreaking folk music show “People On the Move,” presents a book release party Monday at Freight & Salvage. Hosted by KPFA’s Kris Welch, the event includes special guests such as Dane’s son, Cuban guitarist and bandleader Pablo Menedez, Holly Near, Avotcja, Mark Hummel, Tammy Hall, and Maureen Gosling, the Oakland filmmaker who’s close to completing The Nine Lives of Barbara Dane, a feature-length documentary executive produced by Danny Glover.
In a recent interview, Dane recalled her Berkeley life, which started not long after the Communist Party unceremoniously expelled her and then-husband Rolf Cahn (who went on to play his own significant role in Berkeley culture with a series of folk venues on San Pablo Avenue, including Blind Lemon and the Cabale, a storefront now home to Good Vibrations). By the time she moved to Berkeley in the early 1950s Dane had remarried Byron Menendez, a silversmith she’d met at the San Francisco Folk Music Club. He set up shop in the living room “and we had to try to make a living from Byron’s jewelry,” Dane recalled.
“He had a little showcase on the street level and beckoned people to come in. That was our livelihood. The dining room became our living room, with a rickety upright piano. People came and went all the time, and there were lots of gatherings there and in the kitchen, which could accommodate quite a few people. I always liked to have something on the stove to serve. People were always hungry. The house became a focal point, in the sense of being in the middle of Berkeley as it was becoming Berkeley. We felt like innovators, and like we were trying to help.”
Menendez had survived three of the most bloody battles in World War II’s European theater and in hindsight Dane realizes he was dealing with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition he salved via metal work’s intense concentration. With two or three small children underfoot and lots of interesting people circling through, the house was lively. Before he started his ramblin’ ways, a young troubadour name Jack Elliot crashed on the dining room floor one night with his girlfriend and he and Dane ended up trading versus of the epic blues ballad “Railroad Bill” into the wee hours.
The great blues musician Jesse Fuller was a regular. He’d wander over from his shoeshine spot and delight the kids with his stomping one-man band act, playing percussion with his foot-powered fotdella. “Imagine that a guy as brilliant and charming and sweet having to shine shoes on Telegraph,” Dane said. “He’d come by the house all the time. He enjoyed watching the children dance around while he played tunes. He thought he’d make me a better guitar player. I took hiring him as my intermission act to play on my shows.”
With money tight, work was often close at hand. She performed occasionally at the Bear’s Lair (“They had a good space on campus and charged the students like 50 cents, so there were nice crowds,” she recalled). But the gig that changed the course of her life was at the Lark’s Club on the Sacramento Street block where the William B. Rumford Senior Plaza now stands. Owned by Bill Nelson, who was said to have played trombone with the great swing era bandleader Jimmie Lunceford, it was an inviting spot that served an integrated crowd drawn from African American residents of South Berkeley and young white fans of early jazz.
Dane was singing at Blind Lemon one night when Dick Oxtot, a skilled banjo player and cornetist, dropped by and was impressed by the power of her voice. He was working regularly at the Lark’s Club several nights a week with trombonist Bob Mielke’s Bearcats, a group that was honing its own approach to the multi-line polyphony of traditional New Orleans jazz. Oxtot invited her to come by the come sit in with the band, “and foolhardy me said I think I’ll try it,” Dane said.
“I didn’t have any songs, any keys, and didn’t know many songs. Dick said he thought I could do these gospel blues. I picked stuff they knew, those blues and spirituals. The minute I hit that stage with that collection of fine musicians behind me, I realized that’s what I had been looking for. Being in a group where you all support each other you can try all sorts of things. Bob Mielke’s band was astounding and I began to go quite regularly and sit in with them.”
She was on her way. By the end of the decade Dane had forged close ties with the musicians who’d shaped jazz in the early decades, like trombonists Kid Ory and Jack Teagarden, and who’d ushered in the swing era, like Count Basie, who offered essential advice at a key moment in her life.
In the late ‘50s Louis Armstrong wanted to take her on a State Department-sponsored tour (one of many opportunities that evaporated due to her association with the Communist Party). She coaxed Duke Ellington bassist Wellman Braud out of retirement for her band, and ended up turning down plum gigs when promoters didn’t want to deal with a mixed-race band (particularly one fronted by a white woman).
She sang a vast array of material, but what put her on the map was her command of blues associated with golden age matriarchs such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Victoria Spivey, Ida Cox and Sippie Wallace. While some women adopted a red-hot-mama persona and leaned into the music’s raw double entendres, she eased over to the sacred side of the continuum while focusing on the lyrics that spoke to the struggles of working people.
“I was head-over-heels with the women’s blues, the classic blues, really powerful stuff,” she said. “I couldn’t get enough. I would go into San Francisco many a night and up and down there were joints like the Tin Angel and Pier 23 where I sat in with George Lewis’s band. I got to know Kid Ory. I was learning an awful lot that way and kept growing musically. It couldn’t have happened anywhere else. It seemed like the duty of Berkeleyites, to always choose the road untaken. That’s the spirit that was alive. What’s new? What else is there? What kind of exciting things are out there?”