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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Listen Whitey!: Music Historian Pat Thomas Explores the Sounds of Black Power

Posted By on Tue, Feb 28, 2012 at 8:20 AM



Most people know that songs like "We Shall Overcome," "Blowin' in the Wind," and "We Shall Not Be Moved" were important parts of the soundtrack of the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements of the '60s. The Black Power movement also used music to inspire and motivate people. Longtime Bay Area resident Pat Thomas explores the history of those sounds in Listen, Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 (Fantagraphics Books), which is out today, Feb. 28. Thomas has been investigating obscure music for most of his life. He was the A&R director of the reissue labels Water Records and 4 Men With Beards, headed the avant-folk logo Heyday, and currently works for Seattle's Light in the Attic, another company that specializes in unearthing forgotten folk, rock, country, and jazz albums. Light in the Attic will be releasing a 16-track soundtrack to accompany the book. We recently spoke with Thomas about the inspiration behind the book and the process of writing it.

What got a white guy interested in the Black Power movement? How did that interest evolve into the Listen Whitey! book and CD?

I read Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book in the 1970s. It led me to the Chicago 8 Trial, then to Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver. After moving to Oakland in 1999, I started seeking out the members of the Black Panther Party still living in Oakland. I wanted to know more about the history of the place I was now calling home. Then, I got involved in reissuing Black Panther member Elaine Brown's 1969 album Seize The Time, the early recordings of the Watts Prophets (a poetry and jazz collective from Los Angeles), and similar works. My interest in the project grew out of music, more than the social-political side, but eventually the importance of the social-political side took over. I knew that I needed, more than wanted, to write a book. Having a soundtrack CD seemed like a logical connection to the book and vice versa.

I never formally interviewed anyone or turned on a tape recorder, or stuck a microphone in anyone's face. It was more about hanging out with people like Elaine Brown, Bobby Seale, and David Hilliard and getting to know them. At first, I wasn't planning a book, I was just curious to know them as people, as human beings, more than legendary icons.

The way music complimented the mainstream Civil Rights movement is well known. How important was music to the Black Power movement?

As you can see from the scope of the book, there were hundreds of recordings connected to the Black Power movement. At Fred Hampton's funeral, they blasted The Supremes' "Someday We'll Be Together" from loudspeakers. Huey Newton loved Bob Dylan's line, "Something's happening and you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?" The movement was inspired by music and the movement inspired many people, especially jazz musicians, to refocus their sound and energy. Since they were political recordings, most of them got no airplay or distribution and remained regional "hits." Motown had a division called Black Forum and, as I mention in the book, it's an amazing chunk of Motown history. Dozens of books that focus on the history of Motown have overlooked it. Even most record geeks aren't aware of it, not just because it was a political label, but also because much of it was spoken-word material. Nobody researching Motown wants to know about political statements, they just want to know about the classic soul pop stuff. Despite being one of the biggest labels in the country and having a lot of power, their own distribution network wouldn't carry those albums. [Black Forum released eight albums of music, poetry, and political speeches between 1970 and 1973.]

Was it hard to track down the rights to the songs on the Whitey! CD?

It took months to find the owner of the Shahid Quintet's "Invitation to Black Power." [The piece is an uplifting blend of poetry, spoken word, and jazz.] It was probably pressed in a limited run of 500 copies and never distributed outside of the Kansas City and, perhaps, the Chicago area. It was only decades later that crate-diggers found it and brought it to the attention of guys like me. There was a great Stanley Crouch spoken word piece, but the owner of the track -- not Stanley, but a lawyer -- wouldn't let the piece out of the bag for too many reasons to go into. A lot of people still have strong feelings about their work, and it took years to get clearance on some of the songs. On the plus side, the Bob Dylan track (an acoustic version of "George Jackson") had never been on a CD before. I contacted Dylan's people. Normally it takes weeks or months to get an answer, but such was the conviction of Dylan's feelings towards that struggle that he approved it within two days.

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