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New film shines light on famous national park ranger's musical past

It turns out Betty Reid Soskin, the East Bay woman who famously became a national park ranger at the age of 85, also has a musical past — a little known fact soon to become common knowledge through a new documentary film and a musical play. 

The film called “Sign My Name to Freedom” — the name of Soskin’s memoir — is currently under production. Filmmakers Bryan Gibel and AK Sandhu explored Soskin’s early life as a singer-songwriter from the 1950s through the 1970s, crafting autobiographical songs on a Martin nylon string guitar, in tandem with the Civil Rights movement.

Gibel learned about Soskin through ubiquitous media coverage and decided to meet up with her. She invited him to come to her home to hear some of her music. 

“When she put on the first song I was stunned because her music is spectacular,” said Gibel, sitting in the San Pablo apartment of Soskin’s daughter, Di’Ara Reid. “I knew immediately I wanted to make a feature length documentary about her music and the stories behind it.” 

The majority of Soskin’s music lived on old reel-to-reel spools of tape stashed in a plastic container in back of a closet. Gibel got his hands on a reel-to-reel player and brought it to Soskin’s house where he filmed her listening to some of her music for the first time in 50 years. 

Over the last eight years, Gibel met up with Soskin to film interviews and moments — cameras rolling as she eventually returned to a stage in Oakland backed by a symphony orchestra and a 200-member choir. 

“She was determined to breathe new life into the music,” Gibel said. “Because the songs are about social issues and the personal experiences, which are just as relevant today as when she wrote them half a century ago.” 

Through extensive media coverage, the public knew Soskin as the elderly park ranger who guided tours through the Richmond Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historic Park — imparting wisdom gleaned from her own experiences as a woman of color experiencing first-hand discrimination. Up until her retirement in 2020, she was the nation’s oldest national park ranger.

Before her days as a ranger, Soskin and her husband Mel Reid opened Reid’s Records in Berkeley in 1945, which would become the longest-running Black-owned music store in the nation. 

But Soskin’s life ran right through the racial turbulence of the 50s and 60s. She, along with her husband and four children, moved to Walnut Creek, becoming the first African American family to move to the East Bay town.

But the family faced discrimination and even death threats in their newly adopted community. The bouts of depression she suffered derailed her marriage and pushed her to an emotional meltdown, according to daughter Reid. 

“Music was really therapeutic for her after her nervous breakdown,” said Reid, sitting in her apartment surrounded by pictures of her mother in uniform. “It was her way of dealing with the trauma she was going through.” 

During those dark times, Soskin wrote songs imbued with the atmosphere of the times and her struggles. Gibel describes her voice as a cross between Billie Holiday and Joan Baez. In a trailer from the film, Soskin relates the importance her music had amid such personal turbulence.

“The music saved me,” Soskin says in the clip. “It really did.” 

Betty Reid Soskin was a singer-songwriter
Long before she became the nation’s oldest national park ranger, Betty Reid Soskin was a singer-songwriter, writing songs about her life and the Civil Rights Movement. Her music is the subject of a new documentary film called “Sign My Name to Freedom.”

Although Gibel completed filming, the filmmakers launched a crowdfunding campaign to attempt to raise $150,000 to pay for editing of the film. Gibel estimates it will take nine months to edit the complete film.

Soskin is now 102 years old and mostly homebound after suffering a stroke several years ago. Gibel and Reid said they hope to finish the film quickly so Soskin can watch it. 

“She feels like she’s accomplished what she needed to accomplish while she was here with us,” said Reid. “But there’s one last thing she wants done.” 

The film isn’t the only production telling the story of Soskin’s musical life. A new play, also titled “Sign My Name to Freedom; The Unheard Songs of Betty Reid Soskin,” will premier later in March at SFBATCO in San Francisco. 

Reid understands all the interest in her mother’s life. 

“It’s a hopeful story, it’s a tragic story,” Reid said. “I think it has all the elements of what life is about.” 

Source: NBC Bay Area

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