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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Celebrated African-American storyteller Betty Reid Soskin releases debut album at 97

Betty Reid Soskin recounts introducing President Obama at the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony as the conclusion of "The American Narrative."

At 97, Betty Reid Soskin is a lot of things, starting with a celebrated African-American storyteller, whose family’s experience goes back to the Dred Scott Decision and progresses through the Civil War and Reconstruction, and on through the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives matter.

She’s also the oldest working Park Ranger in America, and tomorrow she becomes a recording artist with the release, via the Little Village Foundation, of A Lifetime of Being Betty. Simply put, the disc documents, through her stories, an extraordinary life that remarkably remains active three years shy of her centennial.

The great-granddaughter of a slave, Soskin was born into a Cajun/Creole African-American family in Detroit in 1921, and spent her early years in New Orleans during the time of segregation and lynchings. She has been an author (her acclaimed memoir Sign My Name to Freedom was published last year), composer and singer, social and political activist, entrepreneur, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, historian, blogger, and in-demand public speaker—and was instrumental in the establishment of the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, Calif., where she continues to give presentations several times a week.

Having herself fully experienced racism, she lived to attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama “in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial,” an event recounted in A Lifetime of Being Betty’s opening track “Lincoln to Obama.” In 2015, she was chosen to introduce Barack Obama at the nationally-televised Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony, and last year she was honored by Glamour Magazine as one of their “Women of the Year 2018.” Other honors have included being named one of the country’s “Ten Outstanding Women” by the National Women’s History Project (2005) and “Woman of the Year” by the California State Legislature (1995).

A Lifetime of Being Betty was recorded live at The Moth, Bridge Storage and Arts Space, Litquake and Porchlight Storytelling, and Luna Voices.

“All the talks featured on the album speak to my greatest truths,” says Soskin. “Many think life ends in your ’70s, but in my ’70s is when I had my first job. My life signals that there can be much to live for in these final decades. I’m still productive at 97, and that fact alone indicates that maybe we retire too early. I’m offering an alternative. I’m still creative, and I’m still having first experiences at 97.”

Indeed, none other than Gloria Steinem has saluted Soskin and her album on Facebook: “My friend Betty Reid Soskin has released an album of her ‘greatest truths.’ At age 97, she has even more than I do. As one of our nation’s great storytellers, it is worth the listen.”

The album was produced by Rosebud Agency founder and Blues Hall of Fame inductee Mike Kappus, a four-time Grammy-winning producer who has closely collaborated with the likes of John Lee Hooker, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, Ry Cooder and Ben Harper.

“My wife Saori heard about Betty and suggested we check her out, which we did on Dec 26, 2017,” recalls Kappus. “We were both moved to tears by her story and I only said ‘phenomenal’ to her afterward as I knew I couldn’t get out more than one word without losing it. Saori said ‘Thank You’ and then lost it.”

Kappus made a contribution to the funding for a documentary on Soskin, and was contacted by the filmmakers.

“After a discussion with them--and getting to know Betty a bit--I thought of doing a CD using portions of her speeches, and [Grammy-winning keyboardist and Little Village Foundation executive director] Jim Pugh agreed that we should record some of Betty’s stories for current and future generations to be able to experience: She has such a calm and objective manner when describing the arc of civil rights in America, from her great-grandmother’s time as a slave, through her own activism and up to Black Lives Matter and many other aspects of our current political and social circumstances. As straightforwardly as Betty tells her stories of America’s and her own family and personal histories, they still strike with a power that frequently leaves us in tears. But she also has a great sense of humor as heard in her winning Moth speech ‘Tested And Prevailed’—which is on the CD. Her perspective on life in America as a person of color with such an extensive personal history deserves to be heard by everyone.”

The feature-length documentary about Soskin that Kappus refers to is still in production and is named for her memoir, Sign My Name to Freedom. It will explore her largely unknown stint as a singer/songwriter during the 1960s and ’70s and her effort to revive her lost music now.

Meanwhile, the Rosie The Riveter Trust next month begins screening another Soskin documentary, No Time To Waste, which relates her impact on education regarding both black American history and the National Park Service. Also in September, Soskin returns to The Moth via a storytelling performance at The Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.

Additionally, Soskin has created three virtual reality pieces for the Wisdom Teachers VR Project, which employs virtual-reality cameras to record culturally significant people as they share personal stories and teachings in their home environments, in fully immersive 3D format. And tomorrow, on her debut album’s release date, she appears as part of a Little Village Foundation benefit at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage venue.

As for The Little Village Foundation, it is a non-profit cultural producer and record label that searches out, discovers, records and produces spoken-word programs and music by artists from non-traditional backgrounds that otherwise would not be heard beyond the artist’s family and community.

Being released along with Soskin’s A Lifetime of Being Betty are We Ain’t Never Going Back, from Skip the Needle (featuring veteran The Tonight Show percussionist/vocalist Vicki Randle and other leading Bay Area women bandleaders); The Walking Stereotype, from Muslim Somali refugee/spoken-word poet Saida Dahir; Livin’ with the Blues Again, by acclaimed Pacific Northwest finger-style guitarist Mary Flower; and Espérame En El Cielo, by California Latina vocalist Anaí Adina.




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