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Harvey Milk Music

The Script

Danny Elfman - Harvey's Theme (from "Milk" Soundtrack) (2008)

I'm JD Doyle and this is Queer Music Heritage, and I think this is the first time I've ever started a show with an instrumental. That was "Harvey's Theme" by Danny Elfman, from the soundtrack for the 2008 movie "Milk." And in a way this entire show will be Harvey's theme, as I'm calling the show "Harvey Milk Music." This is my Gay Pride show and for it my mission was to gather together music about and related to the Harvey Milk story, and when I began researching I wondered if I would have enough material. Well, it's turned into a two-parter.

And the music you're hearing in the background is also right on topic. It's from the 1984 film "The Times of Harvey Milk," with music by Mark Isham. If you are listening to this show, well, you probably do not need to be told his story, that he was the first openly gay man elected to public office in California, to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and that he served only eleven months before he and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White, on November 27, 1978. Milk quickly became an icon and a martyr for gay rights, and it seems his legend is only continuing to grow. In August of 2009 President Obama posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and California Governor Schwarzenegger designated his birthday, May 22nd, as Harvey Milk Day. As I write this, in mid-May, I read about events planned for it not only in California but beyond.

But this show is not a history lesson; there are ample resources for that. But to my knowledge no one has gathered together the musical impact of his life. He affected and continues to affect people on a personal level, so it's natural that a number of musicians and songwriters have been driven to create their own tributes. This is represented in many genres, including a musical, and an opera, and I'm delighted to premiere during this hour, a new song especially written for this show, about Harvey Milk. This is definitely the first time a song has been written and recorded for Queer Music Heritage, so I'm very honored to share it with you. Stay tuned for that, but I'm starting off with a song from 1998 by Zoe Lewis. It's from her album called "Sheep" and the song is called "Harvey."

Zoe Lewis - Harvey (1998)
Harvey Milk - last words (1977)

Over the end of the Zoe Lewis song I faded in the last words of Harvey Milk, which he recorded in the event of his assassination, and I took that recording from the film "The Times of Harvey Milk." That film is stunning and I much encourage you to watch it. I did so again while preparing this show and even though I had seen it before I am not ashamed to admit I was moved to tears during the scenes showing the candlelight march to City Hall the evening of the deaths. The city was stunned to an incredible silence. I think it was appropriate that the observance marked the first performance by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, which had just formed and had only had their first rehearsal less than a month earlier. For their own 25th anniversary concert they sang one of the songs they did that night in 1978, "Thou, Lord, Our Refuge," and I'll go from that to another singer on hand that night, Joan Baez, who contributed "Amazing Grace."

San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus - Thou, Lord, Our Refuge (2003)
Joan Baez - Amazing Grace (2006)
San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus - Amazing Grace (2008)

After "Amazing Grace" by Joan Baez you heard a little of a much noisier version. What that clip lacks in sound quality it makes up in history, as that again was the San Francisco Gay Mens Chorus, this time from the 30th anniversary observance at City Hall, in November of 2008.

Two of my musical heroes are Romanovsky & Phillips. During the 80s and early 90s Ron Romanovsky and Paul Phillips recorded eight albums and over 100 songs that chronicled gay culture. They were kind of the soundtrack of our lives. And their political passion was often evident in their songs. Harvey Milk was mentioned in the second verse of the song "Homophobia."

CD single

Romanovsky & Phillips - Homophobia (1986)
Ron Romanovsky & Paul Phillips Comments (2003)

RR: I think I had just heard the word homophobia for the first time. You know, it hasn't always been around. Somebody finally coined it and people were using it a lot, and I thought there was something kind of musical about it. I just liked the sound of it, and that's where I came up with the {sings} ho ho homophobia. And that was the first song that Paul and I wrote together.

PP: That's a song that went through many changes. We wrote new material for it all the time. When you're writing topical songs, the topics change quite frequently, so in order to keep current you have to re-write them, and it's fun to do that actually.

And that was Ron and then Paul commenting briefly on their song "Homophobia." The song appeared on their 1986 album, "Trouble in Paradise," and during the time period in which they were recording that album Dan White committed suicide, which again brought home the lyrics for them.

I mentioned that Harvey Milk is continuing to influence songwriters. An example is a young artist living in San Francisco, Neil Aaron. He was an extra in the movie "Milk" and that helped inspire him.

Neil Aaron Comments (2010)

Why did you write the song "Harvey"?

Neil Aaron: Well, you know, I was very inspired by just living in San Francisco and I'm on Castro Street every day…I probably walk by his old camera shop every day, and I've heard a lot about Harvey, and I read "The Life & Times of Harvey Milk," the book, but it was when filming started that I really became very interested. The more I was starting to learn about him and the history of the gay civil rights movement, and just him as a person, talking to his friends, and I just started really getting a feel for him, so it really started my singer-songwriter wheels turning.

Tell me about the song itself.

NA: I like to write in a lot of metaphor and a lot of visual stuff, and with knowing the history I just kept researching and researching and re-enacting the scenes…you know, I was an extra in the film…watching it all go down, and being dressed in the clothes really it made me feel like I was there. And so the song really comes from feeling like I re-lived it but I didn't…here I am 30 years later, and kind of reflective of what's changed, what's not changed, that I still feel his presence with me.

There's one line in the song that I want to reference that I'm not sure people who don't know history would get: "the shot that burst through the closet door, white knights were waging war."

NA: Well, the "burst through the closet door," he once had said in a speech, if a bullet should pass through his brain let it pass through every closet door that's out there. And actually in his old camera shop there's a mural of him and the gun and it has that quote coming out of the gun going towards his head. I felt like it was very, very vivid wording, that he had used and I really liked it.

The white knights were the White Night Riots, and I kind of play on the word nights, cause it goes "knights dressed up in armor, white knights, waging war, at the same time as the White Night Riots…that was when the verdict came in that it was manslaughter, and there was a big riot downtown. And I got to re-enact the riots too, and it was having Cleve Jones there and Danny Nicoletta, and having them tell their firsthand accounts of what that night was like. It really puts you in that moment and you have all these burning things, and you're just like so angry and it was just such a part of the story.

Neil Aaron - Harvey (2008)

The song "Harvey," by Neil Aaron. I told you earlier that there is a musical. It's called "The Harvey Milk Show," written by Dan Pruitt and Patrick Hutchison, and since its creation in 1991 it has been performed in many cities across the country. From the cast album, from 1996, is the song "We the People."

The Harvey Milk Show - We the People (1996)

I'm going to come back to the musical "The Harvey Milk Show" later, but I also want to share with you a bit of the opera called "Harvey Milk." This was a very ambitious and well-received work and its world premiere was by the Houston Grand Opera, in January of 1995. With music by Stewart Wallace and libretto by Michael Korie, it's also been performed all over the world, and the recording we have was by the San Francisco Opera, in 1996. It is such a dynamic work, that continually flows through the story, that it was a bit hard for me to pick what to play for you, and what would make sense out of context. But I went for the piece telling of his first campaign for office, where the character Anne Kronenberg tells of meeting Harvey and becoming his campaign manager.

Harvey Milk Opera: A Street Campaign (1996)

Wow, that must be a thrilling piece to see live. In that section, called "A Street Campaign," the main voices of Anne Kronenberg and Harvey Milk were by Jill Grove and Robert Orth.

I've got a very political act for you now, as evidenced by their name, Queer Conscience. The gay agenda message that drove their music was their whole reason for forming. Their song about Harvey was from their 1993 CD "Back to the Other World." I interviewed the founding members for my March show and asked Rick Cresswell about the song "Harvey (The Ballad of Harvey Milk)"

Rick Cresswell of Queer Conscience Comments (2010)

Rick Cresswell: Well it's the story a lot of us know about, him being one of the first out people in politics, in San Francisco, and it's just kind of a tribute to him, and I was happy to hear…this was maybe ten years ago, that someone had been visiting San Francisco, they went into the public library and they were having some kind of remembrance of Harvey Milk, and right on display was the lyrics to my song, which I thought was very cool.

Queer Conscience - Harvey (The Ballad of Harvey Milk) (1993)
Queer Conscience QMH ID

And this is a good time to invite you to check out my website. If you visit it while you're listening you can see the playlist and follow along, while looking at photos of the artists and recordings. I've always considered our music history as a visual as well as an audio experience. And this month there's a Part 2 to the show, which includes a number of songs about Dan White. Again, that's at, Also, for more very queer programming, please listen to After Hours with Jimmy Carper, every Friday night/Saturday morning from 1 to 4 am, on KPFT; it's Queer Radio, with attitude.

In my research for Harvey Milk themed songs I came upon several that incorporated Harvey's speeches into a song, or simply just put music behind them, as is the case of this one by a group called Causecast.

Causecast - Give 'Em Hope Speech (2008)

You might call that Harvey Milk's "Give 'Em Hope" speech, and he used that message again and again in many speeches. This brings us to the world premiere I told you about of a song written especially for this show. One of my artist friends who I much respect is Tim Cain. He's an award winning artist, and he was the founder of Chicago's first queer boy rock band, called Boys' Entrance. When I started working on this show in March it occurred to me that, well, he's written so many political songs, he might have one about Harvey Milk, so I wrote and asked him that. He said he didn't but he would write me one, and it happened, and I'm thrilled. He wrote it with Brett Alan Basil of the band Pink Sheep, and I got Tim to talk about the new song.

Tim Cain Comments (2010)

Tim Cain: It's my sincere wish that Harvey's smiling today, and that he continue to do so when the recording is unveiled on your show. He was actually the best man at my gay union in City Hall of San Francisco last year. I truly felt his presence that day. It felt fated that my beloved Santos and I were brought to stand I front of him, our martyr. It was his bust at City Hall, during our union ceremony, and that was one of the most profound days of my queer activist life. I hope I contributed in some small way to his legend, and remembering that legends continue because stories are told and retold. What's your feeling about the song?

I am honored. I'm very pleased. It's everything I wanted.

TC: I was delighted that you invested me with that responsibility, and he was someone I wanted to honor, and for whatever reason Boys Entrance has done a number of tributes to people, from Freddy Mercury to Princess Diana and John-Henri Danski and Harry Hay, of course. So in one respect I had been thinking about doing something for Harvey but I kind of thought, well, I've done too many of these death-mask tributes. So I was really happy when you asked me to do it, and I was pleased with the lyrics and the way it came out.

Boys' Entrance - Give 'Em Hope (2010)

Again, I am very honored for this song to be written for this show. Tim Cain and Boys' Entrance and "Give 'Em Hope."

I said I would get back to the musical "The Harvey Milk Show." Well, I've got something pretty rare from the show, something not released commercially. In fact these next two recordings were done about four years before the cast recording was made. That show premiered in Atlanta so it was only natural for that city's choruses to embrace it. GALA is the organization supporting the gay and lesbian choral movement, and they have festivals every few years. When the Atlanta choruses went to the GALA Festival in 1992, in Denver, they presented two songs from the musical. First here's the Atlanta Gay Men's Chorus with a live version of the song you heard earlier, "We the People," and then you'll hear the Atlanta Feminist Women's Chorus perform the show's closing song, "Young Man."

Atlanta Gay Men's Chorus - We the People (1992)
Atlanta Feminist Women's Chorus - Young Man (1992)

I've got an internet friend who's a gay chorus expert, and I want to thank Greg Allen for providing me with those two tracks by the Atlanta choruses. We're getting down to the end of Part 1 of the show. On Part 2 I'm going to play for you many of the songs about Dan White in my collection. An observation is that for songs about Harvey Milk, they really did not start showing up for a number of years after his death. But for ones about Dan White, they were immediate, especially after the trial. I've got about a half a dozen just from 1979. My comment is that as in the genre of protest songs, anger was a powerful motivator to songwriters. Of course Part 2 of the show can be found at my website, at

This is JD Doyle and again I thank you for joining me for this show. I've got a wonderful closing song, one that's become an anthem. And while it was not written lyrically about Harvey Milk, his death inspired it. You'll hear Holly Near talk about it, and then she and Ronnie Gilbert sing it.

Holly Near Comments (2009)

HN: I wrote "Singing for Our Lives" after Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone were assassinated in San Francisco, and I can remember it being sung at many events but the thing that always moved me so was that people would put up their lighters, their candles, and there were people in the streets singing this song, the first verse is that "we are gay and lesbian people"…were saying those names about themselves for the first time. They were being very brave in coming forward and trying to take the rage and the hurt of the city as a result of Harvey being killed, trying to take that anger and direct it toward the social change movement so that something can be built rather than something destroyed, so it's become kind of a peace anthem, a gay and lesbian anthem, and an anthem that allies and gay people can sing together. In fact oftentimes in the concerts when I start to sing that song people stand, and take hands, and sing it together as a real glue in their community, which is very moving to me.

Holly Near & Ronnie Gilbert - Singing For Our Lives (1983)

Part 2

Frustrated Housewives - Believe (Christopher Street Radio Edit) (1999)

This is JD Doyle and welcome to Queer Music Heritage. This is Part 2 of a show I'm calling "Harvey Milk Music," and I've gathered together music about and related to his life. We started this segment off with a dance record from 1999 called "Believe," which was done by the Frustrated Housewives. That band is really an artist calling himself Adam Baum, who recorded with various musicians along with way.

Up next is a couple folk songs, one new and one fairly old. The new one, from last year, happens to be the only song on this show by a foreign act. Out of England is an band calling themselves the Stars of Sunday League, and they recently released their first recording, an EP named "The Boy's Got Prospects." From it is their song called "Harvey Milk," and it will be followed by one from the early 80s called "The Ballad of Harvey Milk."

Stars of Sunday League - Harvey Milk (2009)
Bob A Feldman - Ballad of Harvey Milk (early 80s)

That was Bob A Feldman, out of Boston, who's been writing protest songs since the 60s. He told me he makes all his songs public domain, because, well, he just feels folk songs are for the people and their use should not be limited.

Okay, I promised in Part 1 that I would play for you a series of songs about Dan White, which were motivated by the anger and injustice he set into place. In fact I have nine songs and I'm starting off with Art Peterson from 1979 and "Twinkie Insanity."

Art Peterson - Twinkie Insanity (1979)

Before we get any further I have to comment on what became the myth of the so-called Twinkie Defense. In Dan White's trial his defense lawyers argued that his mental capacity had been diminished by his consumption of junk food. They said that was one of many symptoms, not the cause, of White's depression. But a reporter covering the case played up the angle of the Twinkie, and it quickly caught on in the media and the minds of the public, including songwriters, and that myth continues to this day.

On the original 45 rpm record of the Art Peterson song, the flip side contained another, by Lenny Anderson called "The Ballad of Dan White." I'm going to play that one for you, but I have a live version of it from a few years later, which I'll get to in a few moments. Not only did twinkies inspire writers but also the riots that transpired the night of the verdict. They became known as the White Night Riots, and from that same year The MonDellos recorded their take on it, named "White Riot Night."

MonDellos - White Riot Night (1979)

Here's some trivia. I've played that song on my show before, years ago, and at that time I announced the title as "White Night Riot." I see now my confusion. The picture sleeve for the 45 rpm record says "White Riot Night," which is what they sing, but on the 45 itself it reads "White Night Riot." And for even more trivia, they capitalized the D in MonDellos.

On to one not as original musically, as it borrows very heavily from the Kenny Rogers song "Lucille." In 1980 Ken Clarke & the Clarke Tones released "The Epic of Dan White." Mayor Moscone was succeeded in office by Dianne Feinstein, and you won't miss Ken Clarke singing "you picked a Feinstein to leave me, you heel."

Ken Clarke & the Clarke Tones - The Epic of Dan White (1980)

Yes, to me it almost sounds like Clarke was focusing more on being clever with the Feinstein line. As a result it comes across that he was more upset with her being mayor than what else had happened.

Another band whose song had a different focus was the punk band Brain Damage. While their song was called "Kill Dan White," it oddly, I think, barely focused on Harvey Milk, and when it did, it was quite derogatory. They wanted Dan White dead for killing Mayor Moscone.

Brain Damage - Kill Dan White (1979)

I had to brush up on my Sid Vicious history for this one. He was the bass player for the influential UK punk band the Sex Pistols. So part of the Brain Damage song was about Sid Vicious being charged for killing his girlfriend Nancy Spungeon, while both were under the influence of drugs. A few months later Sid Vicious killed himself, by a deliberate overdose of heroin. That track was probably recorded in 1979, though it not released until a few years later.

And we're up to 1983 now, and I want to thank John Raines, who rescued the next two songs. He's working on restoring tapes belonging to the San Francisco GLBT Historical Society, these in particular from the Randy Alfred Collection. Randy produced "The Gay Life," a public affairs series on KSAN San Francisco, from 1979 to 1984. The occasion for the songs was an observance of Harvey's birthday, in May of 1983. At a City Hall ceremony was Lenny Anderson, doing a live version of the song I already mentioned, "The Ballad of Dan White."

Lenny Anderson - The Ballad of Dan White (live, 1983)

Also appearing that day was one of my favorite choral groups. They were very popular in San Francisco in the early 80s. At that time Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority was perhaps at its loudest and a choral group was formed in protest. They called themselves the Choral Majority and their goals were to celebrate the gay community while at the same time challenging audiences and informing them of issues, all to the tune of a church choir. They released one cassette tape of their work, but as this next song was not on it, I'm very pleased to share it with you. As much of their material was parodies of Christmas songs, it's not surprising they sang this one, "I'm Dreaming of Dan White's Christmas."

The Choral Majority - I'm Dreaming of Dan White's Christmas (live, 1983)

I just love the Choral Majority, and I've got another by them, from the year before, from a 1982 live observance. It's called "Were You There When They Murdered Harvey Milk," and I also thank John Raines for this track.

The Choral Majority - Were You There When They Murdered Harvey Milk (live, 1982)

1984 saw the release of a couple more songs on the subject. A lesbian artist, now a film producer, named Jai Jai Noire came up with her version of "White Night Riot." She seems to be cautioning what might happen if Dan White is released from prison.

Inverted Triangle - White Night Riot (1984)

"White Night Riot" by Jai Jai Noire. She had a later band (1989) called the Lesbian Snake Charmers, and for this release the band was called Inverted Triangle. You can find the song on the Killed By Death compilation #13.

Below, two 1986 gig flyers for Inverted Triangle, from San Francisco

Jai Jai contacted me in April 2013 and added the song "White Night Riot" was written in 1981 and she began playing it live then, but it was not recorded until December of 1984, motivated by the news that Dan White might possibly be released from prison early. The song got some airplay on several local radio stations in early 1985.

And the Dead Kennedys are perhaps the most well-known of any of these acts. In 1984 they changed the lyrics of the song "I Fought the Law," in this live performance.

Dead Kennedys - I Fought the Law (1984)

The Dead Kennedys, doing a version of the song I know best by the Bobby Fuller Four, a hit for that band in 1965. And the only song in this extended set that was recorded after Dan White's death was by a band definitely not marketing for the masses. They called themselves Christ on a Crutch and the album this track is from was called "Shit Edge and Other Songs for the Young and Sentimental." Released in 1991, they went a step further by using for its cover a Bobby Vinton album cover from 1962, for his "Roses Are Red" album, very smaltzy. Not sure how they figured they would get away with that, but maybe they thought they were too far under the radar for it to be noticed by anyone who would care, which is perhaps true. I don't know why but the song is called "Song for a Slab of Pork," and like Tina Turner doing "Proud Mary," they start out nice and easy and end up nice and rough.

Christ on a Crutch - Song for a Slab of Pork (1991)

And that was Christ on a Crutch. For the record, there were a couple more Dan White songs I accumulated. Both have twinkie in the title and are by the punk bands Nothing People and the Cosmetics. I can understand the yelling on neither one of them, so left those out, but at least if you care you now know they exist. Two more called "Harvey Milk" that I could not understand were by the Gift Eaters and Intox, and there are ones with Harvey Milk in their titles by bands named Somewhere In Between, Supersonic Festival and Farside. I could understand those, but could find nothing at all relevant in the lyrics. See what I've spared you? Oh, if you try searching for Harvey Milk songs, be aware that there is kind of an experimental rock band from Athens, Georgia, unfortunately, in my opinion, called Harvey Milk, who have released a number of albums since 1994…they sure muck up the googling on this subject.

I've got two tracks left and one of them is by Blue Gene Tyranny. This is really avant garde composer Robert Sheff, and the result is a Harvey Milk speech placed over soft electronic music. It's the speech Milk gave at the "No on Proposition 6 Rally" on November 4th, 1978. This was released on a 45 by Sheff in 1980.

Blue Gene Tyranny - Harvey Milk (Portrait) (1980)

Again this is JD Doyle and I thank you for joining me on Part 2, the more esoteric part of my tribute to music concerning Harvey Milk. I started this segment with a dance track and am ending it the same way. This one, however, was not commercially released. It was a special mix done by Buddy Johnston. Buddy lives in San Francisco now, but prior to 1997 he lived in Houston and produced one of the two gay radio shows on KPFT. It's still going strong and is called After Hours, produced by my friend Jimmy Carper. Anyway, Buddy Johnston took the 1983 Pamala Stanley hit "Coming Out of Hiding" and added to it clips from speeches not only by Harvey Milk, but by others, including Robin Tyler at the 1979 March on Washington. Here's "Coming Out of Hiding," the remix.

Pamala Stanley - Coming Out of Hiding (Buddy Johnston Mix)