BWW Reviews: Singing Classic Songs of Freedom and Equality, Natalie Douglas Takes Flight at Birdland
Since April is not a month during which America recognizes the history of African-Americans (February) or Women (March) or Gay Pride (June, in commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall riots), Natalie Douglas’ recent show (April 16, 2012) at Birdland (her 22nd at the venue), “Freedom Songs,” had little to do with celebrating the anniversaries of these groups and everything to do with Douglas’ passion for the songs and their struggle-for-equality messages. Considering, however, that America in April 2012 is still dealing with issues of discrimination, civil rights, economic fairness and irrational wars, the timing of “Freedom Songs”—whether the singer intended it or not—couldn’t have been more serendipitous.
Douglas’ set included songs that span almost 150 years, from the post-Civil War hymn “Oh Freedom” to “Amendment One,” Laurelyn Dossett’s recently-written political folk song urging North Carolinians to vote this May against an amendment that would deem same-sex marriage in their state an illegal union. Douglas’ vocals were rich and reverential covering the classic movement anthems such as the 1949 paean to progressives “If I Had a Hammer” (Pete Seeger/Lee Hays), and Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” which after its release in 1971 became the theme song of the feminist movement. And, of course, there were the message songs of the 1960s like Bob Dylan’s civil rights commentary, “The Death of Emmett Till,” Stephen Stills’ anti-war “For What It’s Worth” (“Stop, children, what’s that sound . . . “), Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” (which featured a wonderful guitar break by Sean Harkness), Paul McCartney’s, “Blackbird,” which was inspired by the 1968 death of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Tanya Holt and Kimberly Marable provided solid background vocals on Natalie’s sweet rendition), and Bobby Darin’s 1969 anti-Vietnam War hit “A Simple Song of Freedom.”
Such politically passionate songs were a perfect fit for the seven-time MAC Award-winner, not only because one senses Douglas’ commitment to the lyrics and the causes, but because her vocals reveal the blues, jazz, folk, and gospel influences necessary to put them over (displayed immediately on her opening number “Freedom Day”). She was absolutely rousing on the traditional civil rights tune “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around," and as a connoisseur of the Nina Simone songbook (she’s performed two tribute shows and produced a CD on the songs of the great jazz singer and civil rights activist), Douglas absolutely nailed the upbeat sounding, but deadly serious “Mississippi Goddam,” Simone’s 1964 response to the murder of Black civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi and church bombings in Birmingham, Alabama.
Speaking of the juxtaposition of the upbeat with the serious, if there was one obvious blemish in Douglas’ otherwise entertaining show it was that her perpetually bubbly on-stage personality didn’t always jive with the solemn, earnest, and thoughtful messages of the songs. Perhaps the lightheartedness was an intentional counterbalance against the heaviness of the lyrics, but Natalie’s between songs conversational patter could be rushed, breathless, somewhat inappropriate (was this really the show to mention Bobby Darin “smoking, drinking, and banging Sandra Dee?”), and often quite long. And spending what seemed like more than five minutes on a commercial for her CDs, urging folks to join her mailing list, and whether she should have recorded the show, diminished the poignant, political, and powerful nature of the set list. (Click on Page 2 for more)
That correctable flaw aside, “Freedom Songs” was a compelling production offered at an important time in the current political landscape. With right-wing state legislatures throughout the country promoting and passing laws that trample on women’s reproductive freedom, deny marriage equality for gays and lesbians, encourage voter suppression, strip rights of union workers, and allow people to act out their racial prejudices while hiding behind “stand your ground” laws, Natalie Douglas’ meaningful show provided a stirring reminder—even to a predominantly liberal New York cabaret audience—that the fight for political equality, personal rights, and economic fairness in America is never over.