Singing for justice

Winter 2016

Marc Black ’71

Musician Marc Black '71 protesting hydraulic fracturing.

Marc Black ’71 (left)

In a scene straight out of the ’60s, a red, white, and blue school bus filled with musicians, their friends, and protesters rolled into tiny Montrose, Pa., this past July. A banner across the top of the bus read “Ban Fracking Now,” announcing its travelers’ declaration against hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Musician Marc Black ’71 was one of several folk-rock performers who participated in the one-day tour, which was part of a longer campaign that he created called “Sing for the Silenced.” The tour included stops to talk with homeowners affected by fracking, a bus-top concert, and speeches. A CD of the same title featuring Black and musicians John Sebastian, Happy Traum, and Peter Schikele has been released, and a documentary video of the tour is in the works.

“When people’s homes and health get damaged by fracking, they’ve had to sign non-disparagement clauses with large oil and gas companies before receiving any remedy,” explained Black. “It’s bad enough that their water is ruined and their property values are destroyed, but to add to the injury, they can never talk about what’s been done without the threat of being dragged into court.” Black said that as soon as he learned about this “abuse of power,” I got the idea to write the song “Sing for the Silenced.” The issue isn’t a new cause for him; several years ago, he wrote a song called “No Fracking Way,” which he has sung at rallies across the country and at events like Pete Seeger’s 92nd birthday party.

Although Black doesn’t consider himself purely a political singer-songwriter, he’s penned quite a few tunes in this genre. A few years ago he successfully fought Martha Stewart’s attempts to trademark the name of his town, Katonah, N.Y. And a YouTube video of his song, “I Love You Rachel Maddow,” has been viewed more than 50,000 times.

His music career stretches back decades: Inspired by Elvis Presley as a kid, Black formed his first music group at age 9. In high school, his band (hailing from Maplewood and South Orange, N.J.), The Blades of Grass, had a record deal and a top-100 hit in 1967 called “Happy.” The summer before Black arrived at Colgate, the group toured the East Coast with the biggest acts of the day, including the Doors, Van Morrison, and Neil Diamond.

When he arrived at Colgate, Black majored in philosophy and religion — “a really good match with songwriting,” he said. He was a prolific songwriter and performed frequently on campus. By the end of his junior year, Black was offered another record deal with RCA, but his parents talked him into finishing college instead.

Black graduated, moved to Woodstock, N.Y., and took a yearlong break from music before starting the Marc Black Band, which he describes as “a psychedelic folk-rock band with a tinge of jazz.” After the birth of his second son, Black turned his energies toward something more lucrative: writing music for commercials and occasionally scoring short films. His award-winning campaign for AT&T was featured during the 1990 Super Bowl, and he also won the London International Award for original music.

Along the way, Black has played and recorded with folk and rock legends such as Art Garfunkel and Rick Danko. His blues and jazz explorations have paired him up with the likes of Richie Havens, Taj Mahal, and Jack DeJohnette. In June 2014, Black was inducted into the New York chapter of the Blues Hall of Fame.

These days, with his sons grown (one is a drummer), Black’s career has come full circle. He frequently performs in and around Woodstock, at small venues along the East Coast, and at house concerts throughout the country and internationally.

“I’m trying to do well by doing good,” Black said. “You want to feel that there’s more to your work than money. I’m trying to influence people to be aware of environmental and social issues.”

He also makes music for a simpler reason: joy. “When I play and people get ecstatic, it’s never a one-way thing.”

— Anne Stein