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Barbara Dane: Still singing, still resisting

Courtesy of the Dane family / Cropped and resized

This story aired most recently in the 11/30/22 Crosscurrents episode.

It’s not surprising to find female singers today who “do it all.”  They write and sing their own music, play an instrument, and maybe even dance. And in a growing number of cases they also run businesses. But this wasn’t the norm back in 1957, when singer Barbara Dane released her first album.

“First” is a word that comes up a lot with Dane.

Dane traveled behind the Iron Curtain to Communist-controlled Prague, where she sang at the first World Festival of Youth in 1947.  By the Fifties, her jazz singing was praised in Playboy and Time magazines. She was the first white woman featured in Ebony, the national general-interest magazine for African-Americans. And she performed that same year at the first – there’s that word again! – Newport Folk Festival. 

Barbara Dane was perhaps the first woman to start a nightclub. And the San Francisco club itself was among the first to introduce white audiences to a decidedly ethnic form of music called “the Blues.”

All this at a time when Madonna was still in diapers – and long before Beyonce was even born. Now, at 89 years old, she has influenced a generation of singer-songwriters, some of whom may not even know her name.

Like a singing female Tom Joad, the symbol of moral justice and resistance in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Barbara Dane has resisted injustice wherever she found it, using the power of music.

“I try to be something of an explainer in my songs, or sometimes a teacher,” she says.

She sang for peace in Washington, DC; she was the first performer to break the U.S. embargo against Americans going to post-revolution Cuba; and she was a pioneer of the daring – and dangerous – idea of having a mixed-race band. This caused one booking agent to cancel a major show in Las Vegas, in spite of Dane’s popularity at the time, and the fact that one of the musicians in question was respected bassist Wellman Braud, a veteran of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

In those early days Dane, who was described as “startlingly blonde,” says “eyes would turn” when she entered black clubs. But she made it clear that she was there “for serious things,” adding that she “never had any problem.”

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

“These days, we think of being that eclectic as a great asset. In those days, I think, it might have worked against her commercially. But I don’t think that mattered to her too much,” Unterberger says. “And in that way, she was a role model for all sorts of musicians to do your own thing, to do what you want, without trying to cater to the interest of people who might want to push you in one direction.”

At first, Dane says, she didn’t realize that she was a champion of the emerging cause of women’s rights. But she did recognize her power to inspire. Singer-songwriter and activist Bonnie Raitt was one young woman she inspired.

“I just got little gleanings of the things she was involved with – traveling to Cuba, turning down contracts. So she’s always been a role model and a hero of mine, musically and politically. I’m such a huge fan,” says Raitt.

It wasn’t difficult for Dane to be true to her core beliefs. Or, as she puts it, “You have a feeling in the pit of your stomach when you do things wrong. And you have another feeling when you do things right. And I like that other feeling. I like that feeling that comes over one when you know you’ve done something that will mean something valuable to somebody else.”

KALW’s Steven Short met the pioneering Oakland resident, and brings us her story. 

This piece first aired on May 9, 2012.

Barbara Dane will be celebrating the release of her new album, “Throw it away…”, at Yoshi’s in Oakland, on August 24th. She’ll be joined by pianist Tammy Hall.

Crosscurrents women's rightsMusic