In her 1989 autobiography And a Voice to Sing With, Joan Baez recalled once asking Bob Dylan what was the difference between them. It was simple, he replied: she thought she could change things, and he knew that no one could. But one could argue that music did indeed, change things. Youth were politically engaged as never before, and awareness was raised of many crucial issues still debated today. Author Pat Thomas recalls “those turbulent years (approximately 1967 to 1974) when revolutionaries were considered pop culture icons and musicians were seen as revolutionaries.” Thomas is the author of Listen, Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power, a weighty 200-page tome just released by Fantagraphics Books revisiting the movement that empowered an entire people. In his definitive book, Thomas addresses the fact that many of that movement’s prominent members shared quite different views on how to go about bringing change.
A soundtrack to the written chronicle seemed essential: “My book is not really about white rock stars mingling with Black Power icons; it is a primer on the birth of the Black Power movement and a near-definitive catalog of related recordings; albums and singles; stray cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes that have been suppressed for decades.” And so the just-released Listen, Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power from Light in the Attic emphasizes diversity in its selection of artists but also the rarity of its material. At least seven of the album’s sixteen incendiary tracks have never been issued domestically on CD before, including one track by Bob Dylan himself. Other artists represented include John Lennon and Yoko Ono, comedian and activist Dick Gregory, jazz/soul chanteuse Marlena Shaw, poet, musician and spoken-word innovator Gil Scott-Heron, soul man Gene McDaniels and even British folk legend Roy Harper.
Hit the jump to read more about this exciting new release, plus a full track listing with discographical info, and an order link!
Listen Whitey! is striking not only in its title but in its remarkable cover photo of Huey P. Newton, Black Panther founder, clutching a copy of Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited LP. It might be appropriate, then, that the most high-profile track on this collection is the singer/songwriter’s acoustic recording of “George Jackson.” The song’s eponymous figure was arrested at age 18 for stealing $70 and received a one year-to-life sentence for the crime. By the time of his August 1971 death, Jackson had served 11 years of his sentence. While in prison, he wrote Soledad Brother, a treatise on prison life, socialism and society that inspired African-Americans both inside and outside of jail. (Soledad Prison was the California facility in which Jackson was held, and the title refers to a racially-charged incident behind prison walls. A guard killed three black prisoners, an action later ruled as “justifiable homicide” by a grand jury. Shortly thereafter, another Soledad guard was killed in retaliation. Jackson was one of three inmates cited for their protest of the acquittal as they called for an overhaul of the prison system. They became known as the Soledad Brothers. One event led to another, and Jackson died in an altercation with prison guards at his new facility of San Quentin in 1971. Three guards and two prisoners died that August 1971 day. Bob Dylan eulogized Jackson with a double-sided single just months later on November 4; one side was a band version of the song and one side a solo version. The “big band” version with piano, drums, bass, steel guitar and backing vocals, was issued on an album in 1978 in Australia only, while the acoustic version has never been reissued on an album proper until now. As Dylan has famously distanced himself from the label of social commentator, “George Jackson” is a worthy reminder of Dylan at his political, powerful best.
Many more songs of triumph and tragedy, and the stories that inspired them, can be found on this illuminating collection. Perhaps the biggest name other than Dylan to appear is that of John Lennon, who joins Yoko Ono on “Angela” from their controversial 1972 Sometime in New York City album. Dismissed by its critics as agitprop, the album was filled with of-the-minute compositions referencing John Sinclair, Jerry Rubin and Angela Davis, the subject of the song selected here. Davis, an associate of George Jackson’s, was one of the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted in 1970 for her involvement in the Marin County Courthouse shooting involving Jackson’s brother Jonathan. She was acquitted in 1972 but not before being immortalized in song by the former Beatle.
The Sound of Young America had changed considerably by 1970, and so Motown changed with it. The Detroit powerhouse label launched Black Forum Records that year, eventually releasing eight LPs between 1970 and 1973. Motown described the label as “a permanent record of the sound of struggle and the sound of a new era.” Stokey Carmichael’s Free Huey! LP (referring, of course, to Huey P. Newton) was one of those releases, from which “Free Huey” (recorded at a 1968 rally) is included here. Elaine Brown, a member of the Black Panther Party and a member of Newton’s inner circle, recorded the final Black Forum album and the only artist on the label to have been selected for a single. “No Time” b/w “Until We’re Free” was the inaugural (and only) Black Forum 45, and the latter is included on Listen, Whitey! The single was (perhaps surprisingly) produced by Freddie Perren and Fonce Mizell of Berry Gordy’s Corporation, responsible for hits including the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” Perren provided a brassy Motown arrangement for the song, described by Huey Newton himself as “the statement of a revolutionary in words and song – words erupting out of the manifold experiences of struggle; song flowing out of the pain and suffering of Black life in America.” The same could be said of the great poet Amiri Baraka's "Who Will Survive America?" from the 1972 Black Forum LP It's Nation Time.
Each track on Listen, Whitey! is tantamount to a time capsule opened, and Pat Thomas provides in-depth track-by-track notes in the beautifully illustrated 32 page booklet (which, in and of itself, is an appetizer for the main course of Thomas’ complete opus). This anthology isn’t easy listening in any respect, but vividly captures an indelible era in which music viscerally commented on society, its strengths and failings. It also makes a compelling case for politics and art as inextricably intertwined. Listen, Whitey! is in stores now from Light in the Attic on both CD and vinyl. You’ll find an order link just below.
Listen, Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power (1967-1974) (Light in the Attic LITA 081, 2012)
- Invitation To Black Power (Parts 1 & 2) – Shahid Quintet
- Free Huey – Stokely Carmichael
- Silent Majority (Live At Newport) – Eddie Harris & Gene McDaniels
- Until We’re Free – Elaine Brown
- George Jackson (Acoustic Version) – Bob Dylan
- Dem Niggers Ain’t Playing – The Watts Prophets
- Woman Of The Ghetto (Live at Montreux) – Marlena Shaw
- Black Power – Dick Gregory
- I Ain’t Black – Kain
- I Hate The White Man – Roy Harper
- Winter In America (Solo Version) – Gil Scott-Heron
- Tim Leary – Eldridge Cleaver
- Angela – John Lennon and Yoko Ono
- Free Bobby Now – The Lumpen
- Die Nigga!!! – The Original Last Poets
- Who Will Survive America – Amiri Baraka
Track 1 from S&M Records single, c. 1968/1969
Track 2 from Free Huey!, Black Forum LP B452, 1970
Track 3 from Eddie Harris Live at Newport, Atlantic LP SD-1595, 1971
Track 4 from Elaine Brown, Black Forum LP BF 458L, 1973
Track 5 from Columbia single 4-45516-B, 1971
Track 6 from Rappin Black in a White World, Ala LP, 1971
Track 7 from Live at Montreux, Blue Note LP BN-LA 251, 1974
Track 8 from Dick Gregory’s Frankenstein, Poppy LP PYS-60 004, 1970
Track 9 from The Blue Guerrilla, Juggernaut LP ST 8805, 1970
Track 10 from Flat, Baroque and Berserk, Harvest LP SHVL-766, 1970
Track 11 recorded 1978
Track 12 recorded on a radio broadcast on January 12, 1971
Track 13 from Sometime in New York City, Apple LP SVBB 3392, 1972
Track 14 from Black Panther Party Productions/Seize the Time single BPP-4501, 1970
Track 15 from Right On, Juggernaut LP 8802, 1971
Track 16 from It’s Nation Time – African Visionary Music, Black Forum B457L, 1972