‘The Nine Lives of Barbara Dane’ and ‘I Hate the Capitalist System’

Singer Barbara Dane has never been loath to share her well-crafted political opinions. The now 95-year-old vocalist has shared them around the world with millions of fans in countless concerts, protests, and recordings. Her popular album I Hate the Capitalist System serves as a compendium of her thoughts.

Film director Maureen Gosling brings Dane’s songs of life to the screen for a wider audience in The Nine Lives of Barbara Dane. No longer is it correct to call Dane an unsung hero, as did the Boston Globe’s music critic James Reed some years back. A well-sung celebrity is certainly now more accurate!

Gosling’s film traces Dane’s life of musical activism as a chronology of the last century of the U.S. protest movement. We follow Dane through her three marriages to Rolf Cahn, Brian Menendez, and Irwin Silber, to her three active offspring—Jesse, Pablo, and Nina.

The self-described itinerant jazz vocalist always wanted to sing. She grew up around Detroit, pained by the racism inflicted on the burgeoning Black population that she was in contact with. As Dane saw it, everyone who was doing something to fight discrimination was a member of the Communist Party. So at 18 years of age, she joined the Party to fight injustice and help push integration.

The great resource she had to bring to the struggle was her voice. As the San Francisco Chronicle would later write, she was “a big blonde who makes big music.” “She keeps the blues alive,” praised multiple Grammy winner Bonnie Raitt. Or, as the legendary New Orleans trumpeter Louis Armstrong summarized it, “That chick, she’s a gasser.” Armstrong wasted no time in inviting her to tour Europe with him. He was especially impressed with her commitment to integration and social justice. So was J. Edgar Hoover of the F.B.I., who would supervise surveillance of her for the next 50 years!

Dane sang classic blues segueing into jazz. She drew on the backwaters of the American South reinterpreting and singing with Mama Yancey, Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters, Lightning Hopkins, and Big Mama Thornton. She was praised by jazz greats Earl Hines, Count Basie, Mose Allison, and Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. She became the first white woman to be featured in the African-American magazine Ebony.

To promote her musical message, Dane opened the Sugar Hill Club on Broadway in San Francisco. She traveled with the caravan of folk singers, including Judy Collins and Phil Ochs, through the South during the Civil Rights Movement, registering voters. She was the first performer at Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, jumping up on a police car to serenade the demonstrators. She sang out with Joan Baez at the first large anti-Vietnam War march. With Jane Fonda, she spearheaded the G.I. Coffee House antiwar organizing.

Dane expanded her musical campaign of political education with her third husband, Sing Out magazine publisher and political organizer Irwin Silber. Through their Paredon recording label’s I Hate the Capitalist System, they helped give shape and form to questions being raised by new generations of rebels, and asked the question “What can we do about it?”

At 95, still of strong voice and social conscience, Barbara Dane continues asking that question. The Nine Lives of Barbara Dane is not just the story of a life well lived. It is the chronicle of one woman’s answer.


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Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.