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Working-Class Woman - Barbara Dane - 1973

My first encounter with the soul-stirring music of Barbara Dane occurred 4 or 5 years ago when searching for a "danceable" version of "This Little Light of Mine," hoping to lift spirits during increasingly challenging times. That record REALLY struck a chord with my dance party guests and it became a staple of my sets for a couple of years.

Barbara Dane, Muddy Waters 1959
Muddy Waters with Barbara Dane from Ebony Magazine 1959

Sadly, I had never heard of Barbara Dane prior to finding that record. Throughout my nine years doing soul and blues radio shows on KAOS in Olympia, I had never come across her music or her name. Such is the difference between current times, (when information is so readily available) and the era of my early radio days (when a music fanatic had to dig HARD for music and information). A lot of artists were "lost" to the world in those days, and I'm grateful that technology has allowed for the "rediscovery" of so many treasures.

I can only assume the reason she never came into my consciousness was due to the American penchant to racially define musical genres, something that became all too apparent during my years managing a record store.

What does it say about this culture that we feel the need segregate our music? That system was largely established by the music industry at the dawn of the "record business" when they coined the term "race music" for marketing purposes. However, the practice of racially segregating music still persists today, and we see evidence of its toxic impact societally within the social media uproar surrounding Beyoncé performing at the Country Music Awards, the backlash over Jennifer Lopez performing in a Motown tribute, and Lil Naz X getting banned on some country radio stations and removed from Billboard's country chart.

In reality, American roots-music (music that was developed prior to the 1960s) generally all comes from the same origins. To boil it down to basics - the different genres generally contain the same ingredients and influences, but the amount of each differs from genre to genre.

Barbara Dane
Excerpt from 1959 Ebony Magazine article

Ironic that the music of Barbara Dane, a women who dedicated so much energy to working for desegregation, would become a casualty to the American system of segregated musical genres. My guess is that Ms. Dane was likely categorized as "folk" music because she is a white woman. In reality, Barbara's professional singing career was not grown out of the bohemian coffee house folk scene of the late 1950s, but rather, her earliest acclaim was earned in the blues circuit of the Midwest.

Barbara Dane 1959
Photo from a 1959 Ebony Magazine article

Not only was she a well-respected blues vocalist, she also used music as a tool of activism, it that is where her career crossed paths with folk musicians of the time.

From the beginning of her career, music and activism were inseparable: in the late 1950s in support of workers rights, into the height of the Civil Rights Movement, continuing into the peace movement of the late 1960s, and the Women's Equal Rights Movement of the 1970s.

And that brings us to my featured track. As I began choosing tracks for my show for this Thursday before Labor Day, Barbara Dane was the first musician who came to mind. She regularly used her music to address the concerns and conditions of the "working class", so there were many options within her body of work. I chose to go with her country-soul anthem "Working-Class Woman" from 1973 because as I listened to it, I was struck by how closely it aligned with the issues we're hearing about during this campaign season.

Additionally, I noticed that it seems to almost be an answer or a sequel to Glen Campbell's 1968 hit country-pop song "Wichita Lineman" which experienced an explosion of cover versions throughout the late 1960s & early 1970s. The melody of Barbara's song seems to be an adaptation of Wichita Lineman, or at the very least, it was written to intentionally sound similar.

"Working-Class Woman" takes its time in detailing the plight of working women of the 1970s. Most of the grievances are similar to ones we hear today:

It's a race for the strong Cause it will grind up the meek When your money runs short Bout the end of the weak An increasing number of women, and Americans in general, live paycheck to paycheck.

This system buys hands But you must not use your head They will shake you and break you Till all your senses are dead The often dehumanizing experience of working for large companies or corporations is still prevalent

Don't you know the boss calls me "girl"? In fact, even the line above, which sort of sounds dated, is still something that happens. I was in a business recently and overheard a male manager (he looked to be in his 30s) tell someone over the phone that he would have "his gal" check into something for him (in reference to the customer service worker). Admittedly, I haven't heard that one for a LONG time, but it brought back a lot of memories about my younger days in the work force. What I like most about this song however, is that it ends on a bright note with hope for the future. And we all need a lot more of that right now: I can't make enough money I can't find enough time But I'm a hard working woman And the future is mine

Clara Ward, Barbara Dane 1959
Photo from a 1959 Ebony Magazine article

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