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Kansas City Folk Musician Danny Cox Turns 75, Stands By 'If I Had A Hammer'

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Musician Danny Cox performs around Kansas City, including Knuckleheads Saloon where he celebrated his 75th birthday.

Folk singer and songwriter Danny Cox has been a fixture of the Kansas City music scene since he moved here from Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1967. Cox played at classic venues like the Vanguard Coffee House in the 1960s, and the Cowtown Ballroom in the '70s. 

And he's still performing. When Cox recently turned 75, KCUR's Fish Fry host Chuck Haddix spoke with Cox about his life and career, starting with his song "Kansas City":

CHUCK HADDIX: Kansas City has long been a destination in song. And we've featured those songs, oh, here (on the Fish Fry) on Friday and Saturday nights for the last 32 years. But, Danny, I have to say, you really nailed it on that one.  

DANNY COX: (laughs) Oh, thank you, man.  

Related: Danny Cox On Civil Rights, Music and An Unexpected Kansas City Homecoming 

HADDIX: You've also been active in social justice, and you were active as a child in the Civil Rights movement in your home in Cincinnati. 

COX: So I started going to the jail in the 8th grade (laughs). And, of course, they didn't know what to do with me. Here's a little kid, you know? They knew how to put the dogs and the hoses on the adults, but they didn't quite know what do (with a kid). I've been doing it ever since, I've been trying. 

HADDIX: And also in the anti-war movement.

COX: Oh, absolutely, oh, absolutely. You know, the way I was brought up was you have an obligation only to what you know. And when you know something is wrong, you're obligated to do something about it. You're obligated to act on what you know.   

HADDIX: One of the things that distinguished folk music back in the 1960s was the anti-war songs, specifically about Vietnam. And you kind of universalized that with your song, "A Good War." Do you want to tell us a little bit about how this one happened? 

COX: I was looking around at what was happening in this country. And I realized that for all these years, we've been sending young men off to die in masses, you know, going all the way back to the Civil War, where we killed what 600,000 of them? 

You know, I'm a pacifist. I meant not that we want a "good war," but that the real "good war," as you see, is against poverty and ignorance. That's the real "good war," yes. 

HADDIX: Danny, lately you've been working with Vine Street Rumble (a 14-piece Kansas City big band that plays 1930s and '40s jazz). 

COX: Having the greatest time in my life! I grew up on this music. Most people think of me as a folk singer. My brother had a horn band, my cousin across the street was a saxophone player. I used to lay on the floor and play the old Bethlehem labels, you remember those things, man? And that was my music. So when they asked me to play with them, I was in hog heaven. 

HADDIX: Few vocalists and musicians are quite as versatile as you are. You can play the blues, you can do the folk music, you can do jazz. What is it about your instrument that allows you to kind of bend these musical genres and blend right in? 

COX: It's not pretending to be any of them. I was so blessed to be around so much real, honest music. My uncle had a famous gospel quartet; of course, it was seven people in the quartet (laughs) called the Silvertone Gospel Singers. And I sat at their feet and heard them sing. I was in Cincinnati, which is surrounded by Appalachia. So I heard that real mountain music, not country-western music, that's blues, you know. Then, I lived right next door, three feet from the church. And my brother sang opera (laughs) ... 

So I was just blessed in being able to move to this music. And not pretend that I'm singing it. In music, man, you know, you've got 13 tones of passion. We all got to sing 13 tones. If you can feel the passion, you'll be accepted. 

HADDIX: You do a wonderful version of an evergreen written by Pete Seeger (and Lee Hays), and it's called "If I Had A Hammer." How did you come to this one? 

COX: Woah, this goes back to my old, political days. I got into folk music in the right way. A guy I went to high school with, John Sweet — who was honored recently for his work in Civil Rights — and at his home would be strange guys like Pete Seeger, in his home, you know, visiting. So I came through folk music not with, you know, (sings) "Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley..." (laughs). I came down with the song, "If I Had A Hammer." And it's my theme song. I sing it every performance wherever I am because I believe it. I believe every word of it.  

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter  at @lauraspencer

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.