Editorial: It’s All About Attitude in the End

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday July 24, 2007

“After all I’ve seen, I still have joy.” Those words are from a gospel song, or perhaps a spiritual, that I heard once sung by the choir in an African-American church, and I’ve typed them out and posted them over my desk, just in case. They remind me that life has lots of unpleasant stuff in it, but joy is always an option. And on Sunday night Barbara Dane gave a packed house at Freight and Salvage a beautiful demonstration of how to live with joy all your life. 

It was her 80th birthday celebration, though she’s actually been 80 since May. Since she’s lived so long, she’s been able to live many lives, and the two sets she did over more than three hours captured several of them. For the first part of the evening she recalled her political history, with a stunning backup band plus legendary harmonica blues player Charlie Musselwhite and India Cook, a remarkable fiddler, as well as local favorite Ellen Hoffman and guitarist Johnny Harper. The set included songs from her early folkie days, civil rights songs, bluesy numbers...but for Barbara every moment’s a teaching moment. She’s still got an immensely powerful vocal instrument—she’d be called a mezzo in the classical tradition where she got her early singing training—and she’s always used it to tell the audience what she thinks they need to know to be saved.  

This audience was more than ready to shout hallelujah.  

For many of us at the Freight on Sunday night it was particularly inspiring to see that one of the icons of our youth is still thriving. There were some wheelchairs, walkers and canes in evidence, people considerably older even than me (along with a surprising number of younger folks.) Barbara proudly describes herself as an “old lady,” and some wear-and-tear is evident, but she’s still a great beauty and a vigorous on-stage presence. 

Her stamina is amazing. She brought a whole new set of musicians onto the stage for the second half of the program, a hot jazz ensemble with several well-known veterans in her own age range. These included Dick Hadlock, my daughter’s kindergarten teacher at John Muir School, who still blows a mean clarinet. For most of the last 50 years, fine musicians like him have had to look for day jobs to support their musical habit, as listeners have gradually become addicted to the canned music owned and controlled by big corporations.  

It’s been just about fifty years since I first heard Barbara Dane singing folk songs at the Ash Grove in Hollywood, and while she’s always had a devoted group of fans and outstanding reviews she’s never quite hit the big time. In retrospect it’s clear that her outspoken leftist politics had a lot to do with this—the music industry frowns on performers who can’t resist biting the hand that feeds them. One of her self-distributed CDs is called “I Hate the Capitalist System”—not a title you’d see on a major label. 

The most moving number of the evening was probably the oldest one: a deeply felt rendition of the folk classic “Careless Love” accompanied only by pianist Ray Skelbred. She managed to turn it into a powerful emotional lesson on women’s history without changing a word of the traditional text. But every song she sang carried extra meaning along with its melody, because that’s how she’s always looked at the world.  

Barbara’s show was a dramatic contrast to my encounter earlier in the day with another icon of my youth, KPFA. Here I must confess that I haven’t been able to listen to the station very regularly in the last 20 years, partly because of the tales of bickering that always emanate from it and partly because my own busy schedule doesn’t include auto commute time. But the bush telegraph was active on the weekend—I must have gotten 10 calls and e-mails telling me to listen to the talk show at 10 on Sunday when the mayor of Berkeley would be interviewed, so I turned it on while I sorted socks.  

Big mistake. I knew that Larry Bensky, a reliable if sometimes stodgy known commodity, had retired, but I hadn’t ever heard his replacement, one Peter Laufer. Laufer’s Googled credentials and the summaries of his previous shows seemed fine, up-to-code on national and international topics, no problem. But his interview with Mayor Bates was an embarrassing series of softball pitches, leading off with the host’s riff on how he’d loved Telegraph Avenue when he’d been in school here for two years in the sixties, but now it seemed excessively—ahem—seedy to him. Perhaps that’s what living in Marin does to you.... 

He provided Bates with ample opportunity to express his well-known distaste with individuals to be found on our Berkeley streets. I won’t belabor my own opinion of Bates’ attitude toward the poor one more time, because a couple of our readers got right on him with letters which will appear in this issue.  

But the attitude of the KPFA host definitely needs adjustment. He was lucky enough to get calls from several authentic residents of South and West Berkeley, the most neglected part of the city, who tried valiantly to pose their own hard questions to the mayor, but they were cut off in the most peremptory manner. One poor woman started to ask why nothing much was being done about crime in her neighborhood, but was able to get out no more than half a sentence before being squelched—it might as well have been Rush Limbaugh at the controls.  

Bates, on the other hand, was allowed, at not just one but at least three junctures, to get away with claiming that he has no power to control what callers regarded as excessive development in their neighborhoods in Berkeley’s Flatlands because it’s just “The Free Market” at work. That’s the same lame excuse George Bush uses to deny climate change and the Democratic Leadership Council uses to explain why we can’t have single payer health care.  

Two different people in the audience at the Freight on Sunday night approached me to gripe about the show which they’d heard that morning. I had to agree with them. 

Since when have KPFA talk show hosts sat passively by while guests pitched the inevitability of unbridled capitalism? I have absolutely no idea who’s on top these days in the local board faction wars, but does any of the factions want the host of the prime time Sunday talk show to diss listeners who call in, while rolling over for neo-liberal politicians? I doubt it. My guess is that most KPFA listeners and activists are still the kind of people who appreciate Barbara Dane’s continued efforts to point out what’s wrong with just leaving “The Free Market” to operate as it pleases, regardless of who’s injured in the process. And I imagine they expect the same kind of critical thinking from broadcasters.