From the ‘Sidedoor’ Podcast: How a Woman-Led Record Label Spread Songs of Protest and Revolution

This episode from the sixth season of the Smithsonian’s “Sidedoor” podcast delves into the history of Barbara Dane’s revolutionary Paredon Records

illustration of woman strumming guitar and singing, as well as a record with soldiers silhouetted in the center
Paredon Records produced music that was literally revolutionary. Dave Leonard

This is a transcript of "Sing a Song of Protest," an episode of "Sidedoor," the Smithsonian's podcast.

Lizzie Peabody/Sidedoor: This is “Sidedoor,” a podcast from the Smithsonian with support from PRX. I’m Lizzie Peabody.

Sidedoor: In 1959, blues was in a funk. “The Empress of Blues,” Bessie Smith, had died a generation earlier. Here she is singing the blues standard, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”

Theo Gonzalves: And so one of the main questions was, “Well, who are going to be Bessie’s successors?”

Sidedoor: This is Theo Gonzalves.

Theo Gonzalves: And I'm a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Sidedoor: And Theo says that in the blues world, a name on the tip of many tongues was Barbara Dane, a promising new blues talent. [Clip of Dane singing] In 1959, she was the subject of an 8 page feature in Ebony Magazine. At this time, Ebony was the culture magazine for African Americans. Here’s how that article began:

“As the rich white spotlight sweeps over the face with the fresh scrubbed look, the girl seems startlingly blonde, especially when that powerful, dusky alto voice begins to moan of trouble, two-timing men and freedom. She is singing the blues— just as Bessie Smith sung them, and Mama Yancey and Lizzie Miles and Ma Rainey. But, she is white.”

You heard that right: Barbara Dane, with her dusky alto voice, is white.

Theo Gonzalves: Yeah. She was an attractive young white woman, but she was belting. She had a voice that was favorably compared to Bessie Smith, to Odetta. And for a lot of folks, she really held her own, and making her claim to the music.

Sidedoor: For Barbara Dane to receive that vote of confidence from Ebony was a big deal—she was the first white woman ever profiled in the magazine. The article underscores how blues was a genre born of the African American experience—but adds, quote: “Through this pale faced young lady, a lot of dark-skinned people hope to keep the blues alive and the royalties flowing.” She toured the country with blues icons like Muddy Waters, Mama Yancey and Lightnin’ Hopkins. She was even booked to tour with Louis Armstrong. But the reality of racism in the United States made things tricky.

Theo Gonzalves: A startlingly blonde woman was probably something that a promoter wanted to put on stage in Vegas, but to have black musicians accompany her probably was too much for that promoter. Or to have them stay with her in the hotel, in adjoining rooms.

Sidedoor: Though, if anyone objected to the company she kept—Dane wasn’t hearing it.

Barbara Dane: Writers would call me a brassy blonde, I thought they meant that I was bleaching my hair, which I was, but they meant personality-wise, that it was brassy because I was opinionated in their way of looking at it.

Sidedoor: This is Barbara Dane, in a Smithsonian Folkways oral history interview done in 2007.

Barbara Dane: To express an opinion for a woman in the 50s and 60s, 70s even, was considered brassy, nervy, pushy!

Theo Gonzalves: There were avenues for women musicians to be presented. And that often involved stepping in front of a manager and, and having a manager look at you, as you turned around, so that way, he could see what you look like in a tight dress. And she thought, “Well, that's one way to do a career.” And she oftentimes said “no.”

Sidedoor: At the time, promoters had a way of dealing with aspiring musicians who lived by their own rules. They stopped booking her.

Theo Gonzalves: So she’s had to pay the price. And when we think about the term integrity, we're thinking about it in abstract terms. But integrity also means making specific choices about how you want to be in the world. And that had a very material effect on her career.

Sidedoor: Barbara Dane never became the next Bessie Smith. As promoters stopped returning her calls, her chance at fame and wealth began to slip away. So Barbara Dane pivoted. She built a totally different kind of career: one where she made music not for fame—but for change. Because…a few years after clubs stopped booking Barbara Dane to tour the country, Fidel Castro booked her to tour his.

So this time on “Sidedoor,” we tell the story of how Barbara Dane’s brassy resolve led her away from American stagelights, down a very different road—the road to revolution. All that, after the break.

[Break]

Theo Gonzalves: She knew who she was from a very early age

Sidedoor: Barbara Dane’s appetite for protest began in her late teens in Detroit, where she grew up, picketing and singing at union strikes in the late 1940s. Then in ‘47, she flew to Europe to attend a gathering called “The Prague World Youth Festival.”

Theo Gonzalves: So she had seen the world at a very young age, and, and started committing herself to a kind of vision of the world that was bigger than just her.

Sidedoor: What exactly was the Prague World Youth Festival in 1947? And how did it influence her?

Theo Gonzalves: So it originally was a gathering that brought together about 20,000 students, young people from several dozen countries. And the idea was to gather mostly students in a leftist orientation around music, folk song, sports, entertainment.

Sidedoor: Being in Europe, surrounded by the aftermath of World War II, was really influential to the way the 20-year-old Barbara Dane saw the world.

Theo Gonzalves: What does it mean to be a young person in their early 20s, to be with thousands of others, dreaming about what the world could look like after all of this destruction? And maybe there's a kind of judgment that our parents, our uncles, and aunties didn't quite get it right. We’ve suffered through so much, it falls to us to ask the question, “What are we going to do with this world when we get a hold of it?”

[Musical clip]

Sidedoor: As Dane’s relationship with club promoters soured in the early ‘60s, the 35-year-old began to blend her singing and her politics. She became a star on the folk and protest song circuit, playing alongside big names like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan.

Theo Gonzalves: By 1964, she was down in Mississippi working as a Freedom Singer. Here are a lot of civil rights workers that are agreeing to go to jail, and they'll have jail ins. And so the purpose of that is to overwhelm the jail system.

Sidedoor: In Mississippi, there were volunteers flocking from all over the country—black and white, all trying to do their part for civil rights.

Theo Gonzalves: But while you're in there, you've got a lot of young kids who've never been in jail. These are our kids that are walking out of schools, they've gotten some training. But one of the things that you do as a Freedom Singer in that situation, is to sing some songs… to keep people’s spirits up in the middle of the movement.

Sidedoor: Here Dane really saw the power of music to bring people together. A few years later, Barbara was living in New York City, with her small family, when a friend of hers who was living in Cuba—a broadcaster named Estela Bravo—invited her to come down on a government sponsored junket.

Barbara Dane: Estela had kind of gotten herself a mandate from someone in Cuba to bring some singer from the states to represent the concept that when the Cubans were saying “Cuba sí, Yanqui no!”, what they meant was “Cuba sí, Yanqui government no. Not Yankee people

Sidedoor: “Cuba Sí, Yanqui No” was a motto of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, declaring its opposition to the U.S.: its government and its wealthy companies. But Castro wanted to host an American singer on a goodwill tour, to show that his revolution—as well as the Cuban people—had no hard feelings toward individual Americans.

Barbara Dane: There was a great affinity, a long history, and a lot of love between the two peoples.

Sidedoor: But 1966 was complicated: It was the height of the Cold War.

Barbara Dane: It was a very intense moment when the world was within a hair of getting blown up by all this nuclear confrontation.

Sidedoor: The Cuban Missile Crisis was just four years behind them. Relations between the countries were tense. But when Barbara landed in Havana, she was bowled over by her reception from the Cuban public.

Barbara Dane: There was newsreel cameras and the whole—everything. We were instant celebrities. And I sang all over the country and they gave me a whole night on television…It was just a phenomenal time for me. And at the end of it, I had a chance to meet with Fidel and he wanted to know a lot about the peace movement and civil rights movement as it was unfolding at the time

Sidedoor: Yep. Barbara Dane met face-to-face with Cuba’s revolutionary-in-chief Fidel Castro. The three-week tour created such an impression on her that she was eager to return the following year, in ‘67—when Castro and his crew invited her back. But this time, she had company from all over the world.

Barbara Dane: They decided they're going to have a major international music festival and they didn't want to call it a festival. Because it was at the time of Woodstock and they thought the connotations would be not right. So they call it an Encuentro. Encuentro means “a meeting.”

Sidedoor: Officially, it was the “Encuentro Internacional de la Canción Protesta.” In English, that becomes the “International Gathering of Protest Music.” The idea was to have a friendly get-together, where singers, poets and left wing revolutionaries of all kinds could share ideas about how to push forward political movements through music. Kind of a “Here’s what works in my country, how would you approach it?” There were a few other Americans, but also Australians, Brits, Italians, Angolans, Vietnamese, as well as performers from all over Latin America.

Barbara Dane: These people were going to jail for singing, you know, and the Vietnamese came from the frontlines. One of the ones who went back to Uruguay went to jail, for going to Cuba. So this was not Woodstock, go lay in the mud and drink wine. You know, it's a different tone all together.

Sidedoor: Before the gathering kicked off in earnest, the singers played a bunch of shows around Cuba. Then, they all got together at the famous Varadero Beach. Here’s what Barbara later wrote about that gathering. One note—there’s mention of the NLF—you probably know them as the Viet Cong.

“When we came, at last, to the world-famous beach resort of Varadero… we made a head-long dash into the soft blue waves. Small laughing heroines of the NLF splashed water on the big serious Argentine, the Australian girl was dunked by a Uruguayan boy, and for the moment, Europeans and Americans, Asians and Africans with such serious work at hand were indistinguishable from any group of rowdy tourists—with the difference that we were all conscious of the tremendous struggles waged to secure our right as peoples of all races and from the lower economic classes…”

Sidedoor: And I heard Barbara say that the Encuentro was important enough to Cuba's goals that even Fidel Castro made an appearance.

Theo Gonzalves: That's right, there's a story in which Castro shows up and ends up playing basketball with a couple of Encuentro participants.

Sidedoor: When they weren’t playing music or playing ball with Castro, the group had long conversations about how to bring this revolutionary fervor—and music—back home.

Barbara Dane: One of the things we talked about at these meetings was—we're all doing the same thing in different ways, in different countries. And we're all trying our best to, to unite our various peoples, with music with ideas. Well, how do we help each other do this? And how do we create a worldwide movement out of this?

Sidedoor: So Barbara got the idea of starting a record label on behalf of her new revolutionary friends—to publish their music, on their terms.

Barbara Dane: I thought, “Okay, it's time for somebody to just put this stuff on records and make it available. And if it goes only so far and doesn't go to this ocean of people, that's okay, too, because a little bit is a seed and a seed can grow.”

[Clip of man singing in Spanish]

Sidedoor: Barbara called it “Paredon Records.” She published the first album in 1970.

Barbara Dane: Going to the records themselves, the very first one is called Cancion Protesta.

Sidedoor: The full title was: Cancion Protesta: Protest Song of Latin America. All of the songs on the album were recorded during the Encuentro in 1967. And with the very first track, Paredon Records went big. Just 19 seconds long—but it featured Fidel Castro talking about the power of art to win people over to your cause.

[Clip of Fidel Castro speaking]

Sidedoor: The next track is a song called “Varadero,” after the beach where they gathered, by a Cuban singer named Carlos Puebla.

Sidedoor: The song tells the story of how Castro’s revolution liberated the beach from American millionaires and returned it to everyday Cubans. The album was accompanied by liner notes—more of a booklet, really—that teaches listeners about the cultures and social movements that the music represented. Since the songs were all in Spanish, Dane included translations as well. The booklet for Cancion Protesta also included an essay about the 1967 gathering at Varadero—the label’s creation story.

And with that, Paredon Records was born. But the revolutionary dance party was just getting started. Coming up after a quick break: Barbara Dane uses spycraft to produce subversive—and idealistic—world music. Stick around.

[Music plays, break]

Sidedoor: Ok, so: At this point in the story, Barbara Dane had toured Cuba twice, met Fidel Castro and spent weeks collaborating with left-wing musicians from all over the world. All of these experiences compelled her to start a record label; she called it Paredon Records. Here’s American History curator Theo Gonzalves again.

Sidedoor: What were the goals of Paredon records? Just simply put—

Theo Gonzalves: The goal of Paredon Records was to document the world's music, and politics on record.

Sidedoor: Beyond Vietnam, Paredon also focused on decolonization and equal rights struggles around the world. In 1970, its first year publishing, Paredon released four albums: Cancion Protesta, one about Angola’s war of independence from Portugal, a collection of speeches from Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton, and lastly, one called FTA! Songs of the GI Resistance. Barbara herself sang on that one. Just for a taste, here’s what it sounds like:

[Dane singing: The generals ride fine horses, while we walk in the mud / Their banner is the dollar sign, while ours is striped in blood.]

Sidedoor: The records did not sell well. But Dane says that wasn’t really the point.

Barbara Dane: Now our objective was not money. Our objective was culture, moving culture from one to another to another.

To produce the albums, and their information-dense liner booklets, Barbara had to find people who could translate the song lyrics. Luckily, she lived in New York City; Barbara sometimes sent friends to the United Nations to look for someone who could translate songs from Arabic, Greek or Haitian Creole.

Barbara Dane: So that's how all this gets done is just spit and chewing gum, you just got to figure out, how am I going to connect with somebody who can handle this aspect?

Sidedoor: Occasionally Barbara published songs—or even entire albums—that she didn’t really have permission to use.

Barbara Dane: My motto really has always been if it has to be done, you just find a way to do it.

Sidedoor: Dane recalls one album that was sent to her from Northern Ireland during that country’s violent civil war.

Barbara Dane: I never met those people! Any of them! I contacted them through clandestine methods, and I didn't have a name for the group, I made up a name, because one of the phrases that kept coming up was ‘Men of No Property.’ So I said, okay, they're the “Men of No Property”!

Sidedoor: Or the music from Chile, which was then under the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Barbara Dane: Someone got in touch and said, “We have this album, we want to put it out.” And so I had to meet someone in a coffee shop with my scarf on that they would recognize. They gave me the material. I never knew the name of the person who brought it to me. And as I recall, he was missing a joint on his finger. Somebody that had been tortured. And so that there is that element in running through the label.

Sidedoor: These musicians were taking great personal risk to have their music put out in a way that told the world what was really going on in their countries.

Barbara Dane: In it, you'll find the voices, the thoughts, the fears, the hopes, the dreams—all of that is in one little album

[Music plays]

Sidedoor: Paredon Records also focused on oppressed groups inside the United States. In 1973, they published an album called A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America. Here’s lead singer, Nobuko Miyamoto.

Nobuko Miyamoto: I'm a third generation Japanese American born in Los Angeles.

Sidedoor: Nobuko’s life growing up in the United States was marked by a lot of traumas.

Nobuko Miyamoto: I was a child of Japanese relocation. So I experienced going to a concentration camp with my people: 120,000 others. And that experience was a marker in our lives.

Sidedoor: Consider the time in which Nobuko was growing up in the U.S.: She lived through World War II. Then the Korean War. And then Vietnam…

Nobuko Miyamoto: Which was the third war that I'd seen in my lifetime that was against people who look like me… And it was the first time that Asian Americans—Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Korean Americans—realized that we need to come together, to take a stand against this war.

Sidedoor: To band together in the face of another bloody American war in Asia, Nobuko and her friends worked to create community—and build pride around their identity, as people of Asian descent living in America.

Nobuko Miyamoto: We're a small community. But at that period in 1969 and ’70, we realized, well, we can’t just fight as Japanese Americans or Chinese Americans. That's when Asian America happened.

Sidedoor: During these community gatherings, Nobuko played music for morale and solidarity. She ended up playing in a band with two other activist musicians—they called themselves “Yellow Pearl.” One of the songs they sang gave voice to what it was like growing up in the U.S. This song is “We are the Children” from the album, A Grain of Sand.

[Clip from “We are the Children”: “Cowboys and Indians, ride red man ride / Watching war movies with the next door neighbor, secretly rooting for the other side.”]

Sidedoor: But unlike some other albums released on Paredon Records, Nobuko doesn’t think of “A Grain of Sand” as protest music.

Nobuko Miyamoto: It's really an album of coming to voice for Asian Americans. If we were speaking to the white world, it would be more of a protest album. But we were speaking to our own communities who had not had a political voice.

[Music sample]

Theo Gonzalves: So that idea of what Asian American meant had to be invented, it had to be talked into existence, and it had to be sung into existence. And this album was really the first album to describe what it would mean for an Asian American consciousness to develop. And it still is important for a lot of people today.

Sidedoor: Despite this album’s importance, Nobuko says that the process of recording it wasn’t exactly luxurious.

Nobuko Miyamoto: Yeah, it was very working class…and we did everything in three days. We never did any more than two to three takes. And plus, she didn't have money for us to spread it out. Even though we’d say “Oh, wait, can we do that one more time?” She’d say, “Oh, no, no, no, that sounds fine.” Like, we're the children, you know, Chris's voice cracked on something.

Sidedoor: That’s her bandmate Chris Ijima.

Nobuko Miyamoto: And he wanted to do it again. And she said, “No, no, no, no, that's, that's fine.” And then later, he actually said, “Oh, that was my favorite part, when my voice cracked.”

Another singer recording with Paredon was Argentinian Suni Paz. She says it was the first time she’d recorded anything—like Nobuko, she was an activist and teacher, not a professional musician. Paz recorded her album Brotando del Silencio with Paredon in 1973. And she remembers recording with Barbara Dane as a bit intimidating.

Suni Paz: First of all, I got to tell you that she never liked my voice. She said, “You have to open your mouth more or breathe better.” She was very blunt in her criticisms.

Sidedoor: While Dane knew what she wanted out of Suni’s voice, she gave her the freedom to curate the album’s message.

Suni Paz: She gave me full and total complete freedom. Do whatever you want, in any way you want. I asked her, I said, “Look, I have this crazy poem. And but I want to do it as a poem, it doesn't have music. This is not a song.” And she said, “Yes, no problem.”

Sidedoor: This is Suni’s poem “Indio y Negro,” about the parallel plight of Native Americans and formerly enslaved black people in the Americas.

Suni Paz: So it came out really beautiful. I personally love it.

Sidedoor: Following her debut on Paredon Records, Suni Paz went on to record 32 more albums.

[Musical transition]

Sidedoor: And really, it’s this community-minded approach that defined Paredon Records. But after a decade of grinding—in 1981—Barbara wanted to move back to California to dust off her career as a singer. And Paredon took a lot of time. So Barbara recruited a team of people to keep Paredon running.

Barbara Dean: So we did turn it over to a collective, the collective worked very hard and kept, kept it going for three or four years, I guess. But it became clear that without the travels, and the connections that I was making through the travels, it was impossible to find the material, to build the trust.

Sidedoor: And so by 1985, after releasing 50 albums, showcasing protest and anti-colonial movements on six continents, Paredon was over. But the ideas that Paredon showcased were still out there. Here’s founding director of Smithsonian Folkways Records, Tony Seeger. And he says: Sure, they were out there. But you couldn’t walk into most suburban record stores and find them on the new release rack.

Tony Seeger: The influence of Paredon records, I think was probably somewhat restricted to people who could find them… Today, you can find almost everything on the internet if you search for it, you may have to go to some strange corners. But at the time, if you lived in most of the country, there was no strange corner in your town that you could go where you could find Paredon Records.

Sidedoor: But Seeger says Paredon was popular with groups of musicians who would buy the music, learn a few songs, and then pass the albums on to their friends. It was a way to circulate ideas, while keeping costs down.

Tony Seeger: And I think that's an important part of what was happening in the pre internet era was that you had a lot of fairly radical songwriting being done and a lot of wonderful performances from around the world of protest and struggle and singing against injustice, whose impact was partly through the musicians who heard it and then carried the songs along to other people.

Sidedoor: This was Paredon’s real power. It wasn’t only about the songs that Paredon published—it was also about the songs that it inspired. And Seeger says that Paredon was also a witness to history. All of this pushed Seeger to acquire Paredon Records in 1991, for preservation under the Smithsonian’s roof.

Tony Seeger: Barbara Dane was passionate about the music of the struggles for decolonization and justice in the world. And I thought that was a really important part of the history of the 20th century.

Sidedoor: And that’s why, with Paredon, Barbara Dane created a critical testament to the political movements—and music—of the post-colonial era.

As for her career after Paredon: Barbara Dane returned to one of her earliest loves: blues music. Since then, she has released four albums—some new jazz and blues recordings, as well as a few featuring songs that had never been published from her heyday as one of the heirs apparent to the Empress of Blues.

You’ve been listening to “Sidedoor,” a podcast from the Smithsonian with support from PRX.

And right now Smithsonian Folkways Records is celebrating 50 years of Paredon! They’ve built a Paredon portal on the website: If you want to hear more music or read more about the label’s history, there’s a link to it in our episode notes, as well as on our website at si.edu/sidedoor.

Folkways is also releasing a new album by Nobuko Miyamoto, called 120,000 Stories. We’ll include a link to that in our newsletter. There, we’ll also list all of the Barbara Dane and Paredon songs we used in this episode. You can subscribe to our newsletter at si.edu/sidedoor.

For more stories of important American women, be sure to look into the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative. To learn more, go to womenshistory.si.edu. Or join the conversation using #becauseofherstory on social media.

We interviewed a lot of people for this episode. We want to extend a special thanks to everyone who helped make it happen: Theo Gonzalves, Nobuko Miyamoto, Suni Paz, Nina Menendez, Tony Seeger, Bev Grant, Javier Leon and Alison Leithner.

Thanks also to everyone at Smithsonian Folkways for their guidance and support, including: Meredith Holmgren, Jonathan Williger, Jeff Place, Kim Sojin, Logan Clark, David Walker, Cecilia Peterson, Greg Adams, Dan Sheehy, Charlie Weber and Will Griffin.

Our podcast team is Justin O’Neill, Nathalie Boyd, Sharon Bryant, Ann Conanan, Caitlin Shaffer, Jess Sadeq, Tami O’Neill, and Lara Koch. Extra support comes from Jason and Genevieve at PRX. Our show is mixed by Tarek Fouda. Episode art is by Dave Leonard. Our theme song and other episode music are by Breakmaster Cylinder.

If you want to sponsor our show, please email [email protected]

I’m your host, Lizzie Peabody. Thanks for listening.