Irish American Punk Musician Mat Callahan Takes Deep Dive into Black American Music and Song 

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

I’m a white guy and so is my friend and comrade, Mat Callahan, both of us reinventing ourselves in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement, like other white guys who have wanted to stay relevant. Callahan and I both grew up in lefty families listening to Paul Robeson, Odetta and Leadbelly and learning about labor, anti-slavery and abolitionist history. The Callahans were Irish Catholics and didn’t attend a church. The Raskins were Russian Jews and didn’t attend a synagogue. I was born in New York in ’42, Mat in San Francisco in ’51.

The nine year separation, along with the continental divide made a big difference especially when the Sixties shook up the US. I went to college and became a prof. Callihan bought a guitar and played in a rock ‘n’ roll band. In the punk era one of his bands was called “The Looters.” The name, “The Looters,” came from Bob Marley and the Wailers’ song “Burnin’ and Lootin’.” The Looters boosted two white members and two Black members. “Not everyone in the Looters was a revolutionary,” Callahan explains. “But the idea behind it was liberation.”  Liberation was behind much of what I wrote about in books such as The Mythology of Imperialism and Out of the Whale, an autobiography. In the aftermath of the Sixties and more recently in  the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement we’ve both foregrounded race, racism and anti-racist protests in our own work.

I caught up with Callahan who lives in Geneva, Switzerland on a recent visit he made to San Francisco, his hometown where he talked about his new book, Songs of Slavery and Emancipation, his two CDs that feature some of those songs and the movie he made that celebrates the long and sometimes buried history of African American resistance to bondage and the centuries long struggles for liberty. Callahan could not have written that book and made the movie if it were not for the help he received from Black institutions, Black scholars and Black activists. For them it was no problem that he was a white guy; I have had much the same experience. No Black person has ever told me “go away,” “get outta here” or “stay in your place, whitey,” not in the Sixties in New York or today in San Francisco. If you’re an anti-racist you’re welcome no matter what the color of your skin or your ethnicity.

Callahan’s book, which is published by the University of Mississippi Press in the Margaret Walker Anderson Series in African American Studies, belongs on the same shelf with Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom, Robin D. G. Kelley’s Race Rebels and Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause. The cover illustration features a 1961 charcoal and carbon pencil drawing titled “Move On Up a Little Higher” by the esteemed African American artist Charles White, well known to Callahan, his parents and their San Francisco friends and comrades.

Publication of Songs of Slavery and Emancipation, along with the release of Callahan’s two CDs and the screening of his film come at an opportune moment when racists in state houses, state capitals, and in the streets of Washington, D.C. and Charleston, South Carolina, for example , along with the authors of noxious text books, are reviving hoary lies and falsehoods about the enslavement of African Americans.

Also, when African Americans and their friends and allies around the world are battling those lies and falsehoods and offering counter narratives in The 1619 Project from The New York Times Magazine and in novels such as Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Percival Everett’s James, which reimagines and recreates Mark Twain’s story about Jim, an enslaved runaway who goes down the Mississippi with a white boy named Huck. Indeed, now perhaps more than any time since the Sixties is the moment to reimagine, recreate, and to foreground the roles of African Americans in American history and their place in American literature.

Callahan grew up listening to Paul Robeson singing “Go Down Moses,” and other spirituals—and heard his parents praise the achievements of Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad, Frederick Douglass, the abolitionists’ cause and W. E. B. Du Bois, the author of The Souls of Black Folk and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)— but he didn’t know much in detail about the efforts of African Americans to break the chains that defined them as chattel and property. Nor did he know much about the vital role that music and song played in the anti-slavery cause. Few Americans did. But he suspected that, like his own Irish ancestors, Blacks had to have had rebel songs, even though they had not been publicized by historians in part because they were part of an oral tradition and not written down.

The name of Callahan’s punk band, the Looters, came from Bob Marley and the Wailers’ song “Burnin’ and Lootin’.” The integrated Looters boosted two white members and two Black members. “Not everyone in the Looters was a revolutionary,” Callahan explains. “But the idea behind it was liberation.”

Callahan’s life changed radically on the day he walked into a San Francisco bookstore, bought and immediately read “a dog-eared pamphlet,” as he calls it, titled “Negro Slave Revolts in the United States, 1526-1860” written by the white Marxist and communist historian Herbert Aptheker and published in 1939. Aptheker would go on to write and publish American Negro Slave Revolts (1943), a classic in the field, and to compile the seven volume Documentary History of the Negro People (1951–1994) The 1939 pamphlet persuaded Callahan to think deeply about the origins and the evolution of African American rebellions and insurrections which preceded and followed 1619, the year usually heralded as the beginning of the African American experience in the “New World.” The history of the anti-slavery cause went back further in time than credited in conventional narratives he concluded.

Aptheker’s pamphlet sent Callahan on a long and winding road that took him from Geneva, Switzerland to the Deep South in the US, to Berea College in Kentucky, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., to scholars such as Foner, Kelley, Eileen Southern and Josephine Wright as well as to activists and organizers, including Kali Akuno, the executive director of Cooperation Jackson, based in Mississippi.

By the end of his nine-year journey, Callahan published his book, Songs of Slavery and Emancipation, the companion CDs and a movie that features on-camera interviews with notables such as Akuno, and with the jubilant faces of students at Berea College in Kentucky singing in harmony and with their hearts. Found in 1855, Berea is a minor miracle in the academic world. The first college in the American South to be coeducational, ethnically diverse and integrated, it now offers work study grants and a diverse curriculum to young working class men and women from Appalachia and around the world.

Berea provided Callahan with real financial support, essential cooperation for his project and a solid endorsement. From his home in Mississippi, Kali Akuno contributed an impassioned essay about the “contemporary relevance of songs of slavery and emancipations.” That essay is published as the afterword to Callahan’s book. “Songs like ‘Nat Turner,’ and ‘Hymn of Freedom,’ bring inspiration and revolutionary clarity to contemporary struggles,” Akuno writes.

UCLA Professor Robin D. G. Kelley,  in his comprehensive, scholarly introduction to the book, explains that “America’s modern freedom songs can be traced directly to enslaved Africans and the men and women dedicated to destroying human bondage.” Kelley adds that our folk music “was forged in the crucible of slavery.” Whether you call it folk music or people’s music it led to the blues, to jazz, to rock ‘n’ roll, to musicals and opera. Indeed, Black culture lies at the heart of much of American culture from Charles “Buddy” Bolden to Bessie Smith, and from Duke Ellington to Motown and to rap and hip hop.

Songs of Bondage and Emancipation reprints Aptheker’s 1939 pamphlet that sent Callahan on the road to the past. It offers the lyrics to 14 abolitionist songs, such as “Flight of the Bondman” from 1848, and 15 “slave songs,” including “The Dirge of St. Malo,” from 1784, which includes lines that anticipate “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday’s blues masterpiece. The harrowing words to the 1784 song read, “They hauled him from the cypress swamp,” “on the Levee he was hung,” and “they left his body swinging there.” It was originally published in 1886 in the Century Magazine.

In Chapter One, “Finding the Songs” Callahan describes his own detective work that led him to uncover lost, forgotten and little- known historical documents that told him that “slaves gathering in insurrections or caught planning one were also observed singing,” and that “at certain times and places, drumming was forbidden.” He concluded, as others before him have done, that the myth of happy slaves laughing and dancing was created by white plantation owners and their apologists to conceal the real stories of oppression, along with narratives of resistance and rebellion by the likes of Nat Turner and others, that were fueled by words and music.

In Songs of Bondage and Emancipation Callahan provides an eye-opening list of dozens of slave revolts beginning in 1526 in South Carolina, and ending with one in 1826 in Mississippi. He adds, “There were also scores of revolts in slave ships, both domestic and foreign.”

In San Francisco, after he and his partner, Yvonne Moore, sang freedom songs on stage and before a live audience, Callahan said, “In times of crisis, reactionaries emerge to justify injustices. That, too, is a part of American history that I have known about since my boyhood. Knowing that history was and still is both a burden and a responsibility.” Callahan’s own story tells me in part that we need more, not fewer white men and women to lend their voices to the latest iteration of the centuries-long struggles against racism and capitalism, imperialism and white supremacy. One might say, “Let all our people go from bondage.” Callahan and his work are an inspiration to me. They tell me what Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown of the Black Panthers would say to me: “Keep on keeping on.”

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.