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RPM: Revolutions Per Movement

Barbara Dane performing at the Washington Square Methodist Church, New York City, April 1969.
Barbara Dane performing at the Washington Square Methodist Church, New York City, April 1969.
Photo by Diana Davies. Courtesy of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution.

The founders of Paredon Records envisioned a catalog that had a global scope. The label’s output spanned five continents and more than 30 countries. It featured obscure singers, songwriters, and groups as well as some of the world’s most consequential artists who melded politics with art, including Pete Seeger, Silvio Rodriguez, Pablo Milanes, Chris Iijima, Nobuko Miyamoto, Leon Rosselson, Suni Paz, Mikis Theodorakis, and Malvina Reynolds. In a letter to the Smithsonian, label co-founder Irwin Silber explained that Paredon was attempting what no other record company could do at the time, to document “indigenous expressions of protest growing out of the culture of mass revolutionary movements.” i Over the course of 15 years and a catalog of 50 LPs, Silber and co-founder Barbara Dane produced one of most profound collections of music, speeches, and poetry that sang revolutionary truth to power.

Whereas the first album appeared in 1970, the context for the label can be traced decades back to the massive political movements of the middle of the 20th century. To make some sense of this, we’ll have to imagine what it was like to be fly on the wall in the Parisian apartment of the expatriate African American writer Richard Wright. It’s 1955, and he’s reading in the evening paper about a major conference that would take place on the other side of the world. Wright was amazed: Twenty-nine free and independent nations of Asia and Africa are meeting in Bandung, Indonesia, to discuss racialism and colonialism. He added up the populations of the invited nations. By his calculations, it topped the billion mark. Actually, the gathering represented the world’s majority, and, without having met anyone at the conference yet, he immediately identified with them:

“The despised, the insulted, the hurt, the dispossessed—in short, the underdogs of the human race were meeting. Here were class and racial and religious consciousness on a global scale.... This meeting of the rejected was in itself a kind of judgment upon that Western world!” ii

With an historian’s eye, Geoffrey Barraclough referred to this era as “the revolt against the West”:

“Between 1945 and 1960 no less than forty countries with a population of eight hundred million—more than a quarter of the world’s inhabitants—revolted against colonialism and won their independence. Never before in the whole of human history had so revolutionary a reversal occurred with such rapidity.” iii

Wright had no idea what the agenda for the Bandung meeting would include, but he suspected that the “subject matter had been written for centuries in the blood and bones of the participants.” In talking it over with his spouse, Wright realized that “people are tired of hearing of these hot, muddy faraway places filled with people yelling for freedom. But this is the human race speaking.” iv

Imagine millions of young people hearing of independence movements sweeping through those faraway places. The physical distances between Africa, African America, Asia, and Asian America were wide, but the social, cultural, and political gaps were being filled in with songs of solidarity. Activists like Ermena Vinluan and Helen Toribio in the United States similarly found correspondence between the Filipino America they knew and the Philippines of their ancestors. Paredon Records’ albums called a global community together: This was the human race singing.

While the label’s coverage was global, it was also curiously selective. Take Africa, for example. Independence movements on the continent produced 17 new nations just in one year alone (1960), overturning centuries of European colonial rule. In the final year of Paredon’s initial operation, an additional five nations struck for freedom. Only one of those five, Angola, is represented in Paredon’s collection, with two albums. Fitting, to be sure, but hardly comprehensive of the political earthquakes shaking the entire continent.

G.I.’s protesting the Vietnam War.
G.I.’s protesting the Vietnam War.
Courtesy of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution.

In an era of global revolt against colonialism, it may be surprising to see five of the label’s LPs focused on Europe—two from Ireland, the others from the United Kingdom, Italy, and Greece. And yet in each of those albums you’ll hear the winds of change blowing across the “old world”—Irish ballads challenging British martial occupation, Italian laments by rural and urban workers, Greek mythology recast to honor student protest against a military junta, and British folk revivalists harkening to 17th century Diggers for inspiration as gentrification paved the countryside.

Many of Paredon’s LPs hail from the United States. Each reflects commitments to civil and human rights campaigns that re-shaped the post-World War II generation. Barbara Dane’s work with anti–Vietnam War activism by active duty military personnel is reflected in two albums. Others represent a wide range of political organizing and political consciousness-raising: working-class white youth from Brooklyn to Berkeley, the first Asian American political protest album, and speeches by Huey Newton as recorded by his attorney. Dane envisioned a series within the label devoted to music by and about women. While that never fully materialized, Paredon spotlights the work of the all-woman New Harmony Sisterhood Band, Suni Paz’ Broteando del Silencio, and powerful musical statements by the Mexican singer Judith Reyes and Bernice Reagon Johnson.

The label’s strongest pulse comes from Latin America, including the Spanish and French Caribbean. The genre known as nueva canción rang throughout Latin America and Spain. It sang of a generation’s commitments by often paying homage to folk heroes from past centuries to openly challenging repressive state practices that banned languages or disappeared students and workers.

Three of those major political commitments find sharp relief in Paredon’s catalog: support of the Vietnamese people against U.S. imperialism, solidarity with Puerto Rican activists, and a variety of work inspired by the 1959 Cuban revolution.

In 1966, Barbara Dane and Irwin Silber traveled to Cuba, where Dane became the first U.S. performer to sing publicly since the 1959 revolution. Bringing equipment with them, the two recorded conversations and songs. They left with 30 hours of music and interviews, and more than 400 slides from their travels.

Video - 2007 Barbara Dane Interview, Part Two

The following year, Dane and Silber returned for a major encuentro focused on the topic of protest music and sponsored by Casa de las Américas. About 30 singers and performers gathered from Argentina, Australia, Chile, the Congo, Cuba, Germany, Haiti, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, Uruguay, the United States, and Vietnam. From late July to early August of 1967, the participants discussed the promise and limitations of the term “protest music.” They relayed news from their home countries about protests against the Vietnam War, struggles against racial discrimination, techniques of censorship, and the commercialization of folk music. They performed their own work for local audiences on radio and television, and in concert halls and outdoor venues. The 1967 conference served as a preview for what the work of Paredon Records would become—attuned to struggles from the “old world” to revolutionary states, to the Third World—but that summer in Cuba could also have reminded Dane of her trip to Prague just 20 years before. Barely into her 20s, Dane attended a youth festival where 30,000 participants, huddled into intense discussion groups, improvised plays, and danced to folk songs in front of bonfires.

At the heart of the Paredon Records catalog are not only political commitments but personal ones. Barbara’s son, Paul, born in Oakland, California, moved to Havana in 1966 as a teenager to study music. Pablo Menendez, as he is better known, came of age in the wake of the Cuban revolution’s first decade. From a young person experimenting with his host country’s musical culture, Pablo founded his own world-touring group, Mezcla, and would grow up to play and work with many of the globe’s top players passed through Havana.

It’s appropriate for Barbara Dane to have the last word here. She released three albums under her own name for the label. In the liner notes for When We Make It Through, she drew hope from her many travels:

“People in these places which are made to seem so inaccessible and mysterious to [Americans] have set a whole new series of conditions, have created entirely different ground rules than those we’re forced to play by when they got rid of the czars and emperors, dictators, and landlords, and the system which perpetuated them. Has this been without set-backs and difficulties? Of course not, nor would one seriously expect that to be the case.... Given the state the world—and this county—is in, I felt we could all use a dose of optimism. Not the kind that you put on for show after the funeral, but the kind that can help you keep on pulling when the end of the run is the other side of the horizon.” v
  • References
  • i Letter from Irwin Silber to James Early, December 4, 1990. Paredon Records, Rinzler Archives, folder 2.
  • ii Richard Wright, The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1956), pp. 11, 12.
  • iii Geoffrey Barraclough, An Introduction to Contemporary History (New York: Basic Books, 1964), pp. 152.
  • iv Wright, 15.
  • v Barbara Dane, When We Make it Through (liner notes), Paredon Records PAR01046 (1982), pp. 2-3.