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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Thursday, May 27, 2010


Folk veteran Len Chandler is 75 today. Here's his entry in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Chandler, Len [1935 - ]
Leonard Hunt Chandler Jr. was born on May 27, 1935 in Akron, Ohio, and became one of the best-known black guitarists and folk singer-songwriters active in the early 1960s folk scene. He was trained in classical piano and oboe, joined the Akron Symphony Orchestra but was introduced to pre-war blues records by a professor and began performing converted folk songs with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra before moving to New York City at the age of 15. Playing regularly at the Café Wha at the beginning of the 1960s, he told the then New York Times folk critic ROBERT SHELTON that ‘he had thrown over his classical background to rediscover his people’s music.’ His best-known song is ‘Keep Your Eyes On the Prize (Hold On)’, a civil rights anthem which he performed, with Bob Dylan and JOAN BAEZ as back-up participants, at the momentous March on Washington performance at the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. on August 28, 1963, film of which can be seen in the MARTIN SCORSESE film No Direction Home (2005).

This marked the high point of Chandler’s career, though Robert Shelton says he was still regarded as ‘a rising figure’ at the time of the 1964 NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL. On the evidence of the March on Washington footage he seems to have resembled an earnest schoolteacher (which is what he had wanted to be), far from charismatic as a performer. Yet Dylan says the opposite - ‘His personality overrode his repertoire’ - and found him a compelling, audacious companion of some personal power, as he attests in Chronicles Volume One, where he writes of him warmly and recalls him as one of those who ‘would play poker continuously through the night’, stresses that he was ‘one of the few’ who wrote his own songs (‘topical songs’ that were ‘pretty much accepted…because they used old melodies with new words’), who ‘Besides being a songwriter…was also a daredevil’, and who became a friend of Dylan’s after sharing bills at the Gaslight:

‘Len was educated and serious about life, was even working with his wife downtown to start a school for underprivileged children [St. Barnabas House]…. One of his most colorful songs had been about a negligent school bus driver in Colorado who accidentally drove a bus full of kids down a cliff. It had an original melody and because I liked the melody so much, I wrote my own set of lyrics to it. Len didn’t seem to mind.’

This breathtaking ingenuousness tiptoes around the ethics of how Dylan stole the chords and tune of ‘The Bus Driver’, a song Chandler often performed but never recorded, about an incident in Greeley, Colorado plucked from the newpapers, and turned it into the superior ‘The Death of Emmett Till’. He was more straightforward when playing it for CYNTHIA GOODING in early 1962, saying then: ‘I stole the melody from Len Chandler… He uses a lot of funny chords, you know, when he plays, and he’s always getting to, want me, to use some of these chords…trying to teach me new chords all the time. Well, he played me this one; said “Don’t those chords sound nice?” An’ I said they sure do, an so I stole it, stole the whole thing.’ Playing the song on the Billy Faeir radio show on WBAI-FM that October he added informatively: ‘Before I met him, I never sang one song in minor key.’

Eventually, Chandler retaliated. Broadside no.51 publishes his song ‘Ain’t No Use To Sit and Wonder Why, Chuck’, which has the final line ‘Don’t think twice, we might fight.’ This is not a knowing parody but a dreadful, ingenuous protest song of Chandler’s own. Or rather, not.

Chandler was strongly involved with civil rights activity - and with Broadside, which he greatly helped. (The issue for November 5, 1963 got round to focussing on him, publishing several of his songs - ‘Secret Songs’, ‘To Be A Man’ and ‘Keep On Keeping On’, plus two pages of biography, mainly about his anti-war efforts and civil rights activism.) He was married to JUDY COLLINS’ sister in the mid-1960s and appeared at the NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL as late as 1969, still singing topical songs (this time notably ‘Moon Men’, about the moon landing by US astronauts). In 1971-72 he was one of the troupe that took the anti-Vietnam War show F.T.A. (officially ‘Free the Army’ but often understood to mean ‘Fuck the Army’) around the US west coast and across the Pacific, playing as near as possible to US military bases; the show was a mix of satirical sketches and song, and the actors involved were principally Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and Peter Boyle; Len Chandler was its main folk star. The show was filmed and the result, F.T.A. (1972), contemporary re-release of which Fonda has allegedly squashed, provoked predictably mixed reactions.

The show’s audiences were mainly servicemen and women, and at the time (and more so now) the film’s power lies in the interviews with individual serving troops ‘who openly question the purpose and planning of the American involvement in Vietnam. Most memorable here are the members of the U.S.S. Coral Sea, who presented a petition to their superiors demanding a halt to the bombing in Vietnam; African-American soldiers and marines who angrily decried racist attitudes among the white commanding officers at the U.S. military installations, usually with an upraised fist of the Black Power movement; women serving in the U.S. Air Force who talk unhappily about sexual harassment from their male counterparts; and soldiers who pointedly refer to the dictatorial government in South Vietnam which was being presented as the democracy which they were supposedly defending. The extraordinary air of dissent that rises out of F.T.A. provides a rare glimpse into a unhappy and demoralized fighting force stuck in a war which they did not believe in…. As for the F.T.A. show itself, it was actually a rather benign event full of soggy antiwar folks songs and silly military skits.’ So reports Phil Hall for the independent film review website Film Threat (recirculated on that other independent film review website Rotten Tomatoes).

In the early 1970s too, Len Chandler formed the Alternative Chorus-Songwriters Showcase to promote new talent, as a direct result of which over 300 writers have been signed to recording and publishing contracts.

Eventually, despite two 1967 Columbia Records solo albums of his own (To Be A Man, produced by JOHN HAMMOND, and The Lovin’ People, on which he plays not only guitars but organ and ‘English horn’), and despite his fine track record, he moved to the West Coast and worked in the field of education. At the same time, he became a co-founder and director of the Los Angeles Songwriters Showcase and a Senior Editor of something hideously called the Songwriter Musepaper.

[Len Chandler: ‘The Bus Driver’, unreleased; ‘Ain’t No Use To Sit and Wonder Why, Chuck’, unreleased but published Broadside no.51, NY, 20 Oct, 1964. To Be A Man, Columbia CL 2459 / CS 9259, US (CBS BPG 62931, UK, 1967; The Lovin’ People, Columbia CL 2753 / CS 9553, US, 1967. Broadside Chandler profile in no. 34, NY, 5 Nov 1963. F.T.A., dir. Francine Parker; Duque Films / Free Theater Associates, US, 1972; Phil Hall, review for Robert Shelton, No Direction Home, London: Penguin edn, 1987, pp. 93 & 257. Bob Dylan, Chronicles Volume One, 2004, pp. 260, 47, 91, 81-82. Dylan to Cynthia Gooding, NY, 13 Jan 1962, broadcast ‘Folksinger’s Choice’, WBAI, 11 Mar 1962.]


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