Barbara Dane’s 2022 autobiography, “This Bell Still Rings: My Life of Defiance and Song,” is a tour through the music and politics of both the last century and the current one. I first met Barbara in the late 1970s, at a meeting to discuss a recording of African music for her record label, Paredon, which is now part of Smithsonian Folkways. We did not produce the recording, but Barbara and I became friends. I saw her perform live with Dick Oxtot’s band and at venues such as Yoshi’s in Oakland and the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley. I once ran into Barbara at Down Home Music in El Cerrito. They had a huge Encyclopedia of Jazz, and we looked at Barbara’s entry, which was a page and a half and showed her performances with many legends in that genre. The same is true of blues. Barbara was the first American singer to perform in Cuba after the 1959 revolution, and her son and grandson are both major Cuban musicians now.
Barbara’s parents moved from Arkansas to Detroit in 1925. Barbara was born there in 1927. This book follows her from there around the world, through three marriages, and many amazing performances and encounters. Barbara and her third husband, Irwin Silber, were a strong link between leftwing politics and vernacular music. The book is illustrated with many photographs of musical performances as well as Barbara with people as diverse as Fidel Castro and Lennie Bruce. Barbara brought the Chambers Brothers to the Newport Folk Festival and launched their career in music. Bob Dylan published a poem about the blacklisting of Pete Seeger from the Hootenanny television show and mentioned Barbara, along with Tom Paxton and John Herald, as heroes for refusing to appear even though it hurt them financially. Yet Barbara had an acting career and appeared on Alfred Hitchcock’s show.
Barbara traveled extensively, but her bases were mainly in New York, Los Angeles, and finally in Oakland, where she still resides. Pete Seeger suggested that she be invited to Cuba where she had a three-hour discussion with Fidel during her tour there. Barbara was very active in the antiwar movement; when I went to the 1965 SDS demonstration against the war in Washington, DC, Barbara was one of the performers. Barbara connected with the GI movement against the war and performed in coffee houses and other venues where soldiers gathered. There is a photo of her at the Oleo Strut, a GI coffeehouse in Killeen, Texas that I visited in 1969 while returning from an SDS meeting in Austin.
The book ends with some lessons about life that Barbara has learned along the way plus an extensive discography. Maureen Gosling is making a documentary about Barbara, and a clip is below.
This Bell Still Rings: My Life of Defiance and Song
By Barbara Dane