Category Archives: Activism

– diversity, equity, inclusion, access
– racial justice
– anti-racism

INSIST! – Black Activist Voices in Music, pt.3

Eugene McDaniels' ‘Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse’ album cover

Picking up from Bill’s last post concerning the titular album for this series, we proceed ahead to the year 1971 and this stone classic of Black Consciousness from Eugene McDaniels.

McDaniels, already a singer and songwriter of much renown, shifted from using Gene back to his given Eugene in the late 60s, along with establishing a much more political and revolutionary bent to his music (and with moving back to the US after residing in Scandinavia for a spell). This update to his sounds first came most prominently in the form of ‘Compared to What’ in 1969 (though written in 1966).

By then, a standard of sorts, the tune became a hit for Les McCann (who McDaniels had been affiliated with since the beginning of the decade) and Eddie Harris on their smash live album ‘Swiss Movement’. The version remains the quintessential one:

‘Outlaw’, from 1970, was the first album-length foray for McDaniels into this new style, but it was the following year’s ‘Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse’ that set a standard for funk/jazz/rock protest music. And even though it sat un-reissued until the early 00s, the album (originally released on Atlantic) somehow allegedly caught the attention of silly Spiro Agnew on its release, which helped curtail promotion and distribution. The entire album is a stunning commentary, with unassailable musical chops, but one track in particular stands out on listening in 2020 and that is ‘Supermarket Blues’:

The narrator simply tries to exchange his mislabeled can of pineapple and very quickly the full blunt reality of life in America bears down and all hell breaks loose, demonstrating the tightrope on which he constantly walks.

Totally as a side-mention, Eugene McDaniels remains the phraser par-excellence of ‘Goddamn’ in song, with apologies to Miss Simone. Any potential blasphemy aside and forgiven, his emphatic usage of the term/phrase in both ‘Compared to What’ and ‘Supermarket Blues’ serves to set both songs a bit more on edge and drills the seriousness of their situations more into being. For a further example of the use of the phrase, and a sound/style also similar to McDaniels, check out this Chicago underground track from 1973 from a group called Boscoe:

One cut from ‘Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse’ is on the box set ‘What It Is: Funky Soul and Rare Grooves’ CD is available from Duke University Libraries’ Music Library, here, with all other tracks currently active on Spotify and YouTube.  Also, the album is partly well-known and regarded for the bounty of samples it supplied to hip hop tracks. Which, on that note and speaking of sampling, expect near-future posts to head in that direction…

INSIST! – Black Activist Voices in Music, pt.2

As promised in our last post, today’s post highlights an album that features, among other stellar musicians, the vocalist Abbey Lincoln, in a performance that at times can sound haunting and plaintive and at others embodies the rage and frustration felt by Black Americans during the (first) height of the Civil Rights Struggle.

We Insist! – Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite is one of the seminal recordings of activist jazz (and is the album from which our humble blog series takes its name). The album emerged from a joint project between Max Roach, one of the most significant drummers in jazz history and a lifelong civil rights activist, and Oscar Brown, a singer and lyricist also deeply involved in Black rights issues. The original intent of the project was to commemorate the 1963 centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, but after the 1960 Greensboro Sit-Ins, Max Roach felt a sense of urgency about contributing his voice and vision (both comparatively more radical than those of Oscar Brown) to the Civil Rights movement. As seen in the above picture, the cover of the album featured a picture of three of the Greensboro Four seated at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, making explicit the connection between the event and the art it inspired.

And wow – the art! The musicians on this record represented what at the time were both straight-ahead hard bop royalty (Max Roach and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, most significantly) and members of an emerging progressive sound (notably the always amazing Booker Little on trumpet and Julian Priester on trombone). This album would be an early step in the ongoing intertwining of the jazz Avant Garde and Black Activism, future examples of which we’ll no doubt get to. (Eh, Stephen?)

Abbey Lincoln’s impassioned delivery of Oscar Brown’s lyrics enhances many of the pieces, but most stirring is her wordless vocals, delivered alternately in tones of sadness, anger, and hope, in the piece “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace”:

Streaming versions of this record are unfortunately scarce. None of DUL’s online music services offer the recording (as far as Stephen and I can tell), and it’s not available through any of the standard commercial streaming services such as Spotify or Googleplay or, like, FaceTunze or whatever.

Maddeningly, the physical disc seems currently to be out of print, though thanks to Laura and Stephen, our fine Music Library does hold a copy (linked above in the main text of the post).

You can stream the whole album on YouTube, though. It’s a tough, gut-punch of a listen, but inspiring and motivating nonetheless.

We should also point out that many, many articles have been written on this important recording, not a few of which are available in full text versions online via the DUL catalog. We looked at many of these, including this piece. (Also, yes we looked at Wikipedia. We’re lazy.)

Stephen, what do we have up next? I’m excited to see what you’ve picked out for us…

INSIST! – Black Activist Voices in Music, pt.1

During the recent 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge to DUL staff made by the Racial Justice Task Force, my fellow MonoACQ-er, Stephen Conrad, and I had a number of conversations about Black activist voices in music. This was partly inspired by Stephen’s work with Laura Williams to expand diversity within DUL’s music holdings, and partly due to the fact that the two of us turn to music as a way both to make sense of, and push back against, what we see in our country right now.

We thought it might be nice to replicate and continue that conversation here in Signal Boost. We’re going to do an open-ended run of (very) short posts highlighting tracks of interest. These will be in no particular order and likely will bounce around various genres.

As our first post below will demonstrate, we’ll be delving into the history of Black activism in music, but we’ll be careful not to limit ourselves to sounds of the past. Activism is a thriving part of contemporary music, and we’ll want to highlight that. When we can point to DUL holdings we will, and for emerging voices we’ll do our best to link to sources that benefit artists directly.

We’d love it if anyone else who is interested would join the conversation, either by guest-writing a post or simply by sending us suggestions!

Before jumping in, we’ll note a couple of facts that are glaringly obvious. First and foremost, as two white men we should acknowledge that, while we align ourselves with the voices we’ll be representing, our innate privilege allows us to experience these works of art basically from a position of fandom. To pretend otherwise would be an affront to those who have experienced the struggles from which these voices emerge.

And speaking of being fans, we’ll also point out that neither of us is an historian, a musicologist, or any kind of expert in the music we’ll discuss. We’re just two dudes talking about records. (Because, you know, the world doesn’t have enough of that already.)

So, Stephen, how about if I go first?

For both of us (and, I’ll note, for our fearless leader Dracine who immediately yelled the title of this song when told of our plans for this series), the first piece that comes to mind when thinking of Black activism in music is of course Strange Fruit, as sung hauntingly by Billie Holiday:

This blunt confrontation against the practice of lynching is, to my mind at least, one of the keystones of protest music. It sounds just as raw and sadly relevant today as it did when it was originally recorded in 1939. Its horrific imagery and anti-racist boldness almost ensured that it was never recorded. Columbia Records refused to record the song for Billie Holiday, as did her producer at the time, John Hammond. Only smaller label Commodore had the courage to do so.

Cover Image Billie Holiday cafe society and an early cry for civil rightsThe story of Strange Fruit’s being adapted from a poem and of Billie Holiday’s early performances of it, as well as the impact it had at the time and throughout subsequent decades, are detailed in two resources held by DUL:

  • The book Strange Fruit : Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an early cry for civil rights (online; print)
  • The documentary “Strange Fruit.”, directed by Joel Katz, streaming via Alexander Street Press here.   The DVD is available from Duke University Libraries Lilly Library, here.

(Stephen, you may notice that one of the artists featured in the documentary is Abbey Lincoln, who will figure prominently in our next post…)