INTERVIEW: PAT THOMAS & LISTEN, WHITEY!
An interview with Pat Thomas, author of Listen, Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of the Black Power 1965-1975
Available from Fantagraphics Books.
The Latin origin of the word “radical” is radix — meaning the from, or of the root. By this measure, Pat Thomas’ Listen Whitey! The Sights of Sounds of Black Power is a deeply radical work. As a coffee table size book full of graphics and sharp observations, the book captures the very tempo behind the rhetoric and controversies of the 1960s. The tempo behind the rhetoric and demands of the moment had its own root — the project of reclaiming stolen human dignity. There’s few things more radical than that and few better vehicles for it than the music this book celebrates.
As a work of history, Listen Whitey! will likely do much to familiarize a new generation to the histories of the Black Panther Movement, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and other pillars of the movement. Thomas, as a Music Historian, is uniquely positioned to communicate the politics here in a fresh, non-dogmatic language. Don’t be surprised if after reading his book, you feel a burning desire to pump your fist in the air, fight the power, start a breakfast program for kids, or burn it all down. This is powerful stuff, respectfully written. It’s a revolution you can dance to, literally. Listen Whitey also comes with its own soundtrack, sold separately.
- James Tracy
> JAMES TRACY | Listen Whitey is such a grand project, both from an archival perspective and a political one. What was it that inspired you to immerse yourself in the sounds of Black Power for such a long time?
> PAT THOMAS | Well, after decades of checking out English Folk, Krautrock, 60’s Psychedelica, and tons of other genres - I got inspired by meeting several key Panthers and that led me to check out the music, speeches and other recordings connected to the Black Power Movement, it became something that I didn’t ‘want’ to do - as much as I felt like I ‘needed’ to. I was inspired more than just curious.
You spent a lot of time with various Black Power icons such as Panthers David Hilliard and Elaine Brown. What questions did they have for you as a white guy who was a kid when this history was being made? Did you go through a process of building trust?
They didn’t really have questions for me, as much as they quickly realized that I was sincere and I had no hidden agenda - no axe to grind with their legacy. Trust came over time, as they realized I wasn’t trying to ‘put words in their mouth’ (which a fellow journalist tried to do around the time that I was hanging out with them). I wasn’t trying to fit them into a ‘mold’ that I’d already created in my mind. I was just trying to get to know them as people, rather than pin them down looking for facts and figures about what occurred in the past. It was more about making friends with them, and less about being an academic shake-down of the where, what, why of events.
You observe in your introduction that out of so many books written about Motown, few mention their Black Power subsidiary label, Black Forum. Why do you think that the cultural work of the of the Black Power Movement has been neglected in this way?
Those records didn’t sell, coupled with other journalists writing the Motown story who wanted to hear a good Marvin Gaye or Diana Ross story - they could care less about a collection of social-political records, mainly of speeches. I was the first person who came along and really cared. A few other people did mention it, for maybe a page at the most. I wrote like 30 pages on it. My passion was different than other authors.
Panther Huey Newton had a take on Bob Dylan’s song Ballad of a Thin Man, as an allegory of a upper-class white man’s fetishization of ghetto life. Is there always going to be this danger when white people take an interest in Black culture? If so, can it be transcended?
I don’t know if it’s a danger, unless it’s KKK member or some twisted “White Power” kook… otherwise, there will always be a reason (good or bad or misguided) for Whites to explore Black culture. Frankly, America needs to have more dialogue between races, embracing their differences as well as what they have in common. I didn’t try to pretend to be Black - and that was something that Elaine Brown liked about me. I didn’t put on a ‘mask’ and start to talk Black or pull that kind of shit.
As someone who received most of his political tutoring from ex-Panthers, even I didn’t know about their band the Lumpen! Are these musicians still around? Any chance of their music being reisssued?
I did reissue their music - at least the A-side of their single on the Listen Whitey CD compilation. Of course there’s still the B-side - and some very lo-fi live recordings. A friend of mine is writing a book specifically about the Lumpen (all the members are still alive) and he might oversee a limited pressing of their other recordings. We shall see. The Lumpen single was not distributed to record stores as such, but sold at Party events and maybe even street corners. It’s a hard record to find.
Artists like Gil Scott-Heron, Nina Simone and the Last Poets are remembered today as the musical expressions of Black Power Movement. Yet, the upsurge of the time also influenced mainstream performers to add explicitly political songs to their reperatoires. In general, did this fusion of pop sensibilities and revolutionary consciousness work on both fronts?
It worked nicely for Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” - that certainly turned some heads around. Most of the music I focus on in my book didn’t have 1/1000th of that popular response. Someone like Sly Stone, was able to speak both the ‘underground’ and the popular masses for awhile. It was a time when music and politics merged nicely at times. Even Rolling Stone magazine was a social-political magazine as much as it was a music magazine.
Along with the music, you explore the use of Spoken Word LPs, recordings of speeches extensively. Did these albums reach a wide audience and have much of an impact?
No, spoken word recordings have always sold in small numbers and reached small audiences, and rarely get listened to more than 1 or 2 times at most. That said, some of them did strike a nerve with people who were eager to listen and be inspired.
The very title of your book reminded me of a observation from James Baldwin. He recalled how a white juror in the Huey Newton trial said that she knew that racism existed, but couldn’t believe that a police officer would ever lie. What message was the Black Power Movement trying to get Whitey to listen to?
Respect, freedom, equal rights - everything that people all over the world are still demanding and fighting for to this very day. It never really stops does it? And in terms of the police, there’s always some good cops out there and a lot of bad ones.
Are there any acts around today who you would consider to be the musical grandchildren of the acts you chronicled in Listen Whitey?
There’s probably several, but I think of two: The Coup from Oakland and Michael Franti in San Francisco.
Listen Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 is available now from
Fantagraphics Books. The accompanying soundtrack is available from Light In The Attic Records
and features audio by Elaine Brown, Shahid Quintet, The Lumpen, Bob Dylan, Dick Gregory,
The Watts Prophets and more.
Pat Thomas will tour bookstores this April with an in-depth, hour-long presentation. Thomas &
Listen, Whitey! will be in Los Angeles at Book Soup, Wednesday April 4th at 7:00pm. You can order
a signed copy from the signing online here.
James Tracy is the co-author of Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black
Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times (Melville House Publishing).