Listen Whitey!: Music Historian Pat Thomas Explores the Sounds of Black Power


Most people know that songs like “We Shall Overcome,” “Blowin' in the Wind,” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” were important parts of the soundtrack of the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements of the '60s. The Black Power movement also used music to inspire and motivate people. Longtime Bay Area resident Pat Thomas explores the history of those sounds in Listen, Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 (Fantagraphics Books), which is out today, Feb. 28. Thomas has been investigating obscure music for most of his life. He was the A&R director of the reissue labels Water Records and 4 Men With Beards, headed the avant-folk logo Heyday, and currently works for Seattle's Light in the Attic, another company that specializes in unearthing forgotten folk, rock, country, and jazz albums. Light in the Attic will be releasing a 16-track soundtrack to accompany the book. We recently spoke with Thomas about the inspiration behind the book and the process of writing it.

What got a white guy interested in the Black Power movement? How did that interest evolve into the Listen Whitey! book and CD?

I read Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book in the 1970s. It led me to the Chicago 8 Trial, then to Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver. After moving to Oakland in 1999, I started seeking out the members of the Black Panther Party still living in Oakland. I wanted to know more about the history of the place I was now calling home. Then, I got involved in reissuing Black Panther member Elaine Brown's 1969 album Seize The Time, the early recordings of the Watts Prophets (a poetry and jazz collective from Los Angeles), and similar works. My interest in the project grew out of music, more than the social-political side, but eventually the importance of the social-political side took over. I knew that I needed, more than wanted, to write a book. Having a soundtrack CD seemed like a logical connection to the book and vice versa.

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