OAKLAND MAGAZINE – IN THE MIX
Barbara Dane can still belt out a tune, even on her 80th birthday. The longtime Oaklander made a name for herself singing jazz and blues with Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters and others and is married to Irwin Silber, the left-wing author and one-time editor of Sing Out! magazine. In addition to several concerts this year (including a milestone 80th birthday gig at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in July), her popular 1966 folk album with the Chambers Brothers was recently reissued on CD and others are available on her Web site, www.barbaradane.net.
Is it true that your singing career started at a protest?
I was part of a demonstration against a hotel, and I was tasked with leading the singing because everybody knew I could sing. Without even much time to think about it, I was shaping the sound that I felt would tell my story.
What story was that?
I grew up in Detroit in the throes of the Depression. My dad had a little neighborhood drugstore and a WPA gang was working across the street. A black man came in, and in a very soft voice, asked for a Coca Cola. I poured it and put it on the counter and invited him to sit down. My dad came running out of the back room and said to the man, “You know you can’t drink that in here,” and [he] shooed the man out.” It was not racial hatred; it was [Dad’s] fear for his own survival. I realized later that, what I did, mentally, was step into the black man’s shoes. I was not on my dad’s side—and that actually became a theme throughout my whole life.
It became a theme in your sister’s life, too.
She’s 78 and lives in assisted-living down in Glendale, and when the war started, she started a vigil by herself on the main corner in Glendale, holding up a little sign that read “Honk if you want peace.” That vigil has never stopped. Every Friday at 6 o’clock, downtown, you’ll see them there.
Hasn’t it been kind of a downer singing songs of protest and social struggle all your adult life?
Actually, engaging in anything is where the joy is. If you don’t engage, you can be beaten down by it, whatever the problem is. It’s where the sense of self-ownership comes about—where the joy in life comes from—that sense that I’m free. No one is telling me what to do.
So I guess no one has told you it’s time to retire at 80. But how do you keep your voice in shape? Morning exercises?
I don’t get up in the morning, first of all, and secondly, I never exercise. In fact, I hardly ever sing until it’s time to sing. When it’s time for a performance, I start singing in the car or sing as I go through daily tasks. Singing is communication for me, so it’s got to be communication, not practice.
It’s got to be a blast knowing you can still draw a crowd at 80.
I wasn’t planning to do an 80th birthday concert. I’d already done a 75th—a four-hour concert at Freight & Salvage, and I kept people way too long. It was too self-indulging, but there are so many kinds of music I love to do.