Thursday, January 30, 2020

Playlist Project: Civil Rights Movement

On January 15, we acknowledge the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and on the Facebook page that day I posted this playlist of songs and other resources that paid homage to his work and legacy. In the midst of a week that also celebrates the founding dates of three Black Greek Lettered Organizations for women (sororities), it presented me with the opportunity to acknowledge his widow, Coretta Scott King as well. She was a member of one of those illustrious organizations, and in my opinion, she is one of the many unsung sheroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Without her tireless work to commemorate her husband's birthday, MLK day would not be a federal holiday.

More significantly, the efforts of so many unsung veterans of the Movement would go unrecognized if it had not been for her push for a federal holiday. Although February is formally designated as African American History Month, there is only so much history that can be taught and illuminated in 28 days... And while the MLK Holiday does center our attention on his life and work, the Civil Rights Movement was never about one man.

Thus, this playlist offers a glimpse into the many ways that music served to sustain the energy and spirit of the protests. I have expanded on what was originally posted on the Facebook page by offering more versions of the selected songs, additional songs, and other resource material. Like every Black History program you recall from school, we start with the  Black (Negro) National Anthem:

Lift Every Voice (1900) - The national anthem that only Black people know (all three verses). The words were written by James Weldon Johnson, the music by his brother J. Rosamund for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln's birthday in 1900. The traditional arrangement is how most of us learned it, including this memorable collaboration that used to air on public television in the 90s, as well as this inspirational video that was produced for Barack Obama's 2009 Inauguration. In the past ten years, I have heard this stirring anthem version more often, arranged by the great Roland Carter. Here is a performance at the Kennedy Center with the 105 Voice HBCU Choir (which will give you chills).

Celebrating MLK

Happy Birthday (1981) - I'm not sure why we even bother to sing the traditional arrangement of this song since inevitably, Black people will sing the chorus to this Stevie Wonder version by default. I just read this article about how most people were unfamiliar with the origins of the song, so along with a deep sigh and an #OKMillennial eye roll, if you didn't know the back story, now you do.

Pride in the Name of Love (1984) - I sometimes forget about this song because I was raised on urban radio, which doesn't play much U2 (and I admit to not knowing about this other MLK song), but this is kind of why we think of Bono as the Irish Stevie Wonder.

King Holiday (1986) - The mid-80s were big for artist collaborations and what I noticed for the first time in all these years of watching this video (which I do every year) is that almost all of the featured artists were young, up-and-coming talents. From the rappers to the boy groups (Menudo y'all) to Whitney Houston getting the coveted feature solo--folks that have most recently been featured on Lifetime biopics and Unsung...and I also just learned that the song is not called Sing Celebrate.

A Dream (2006) - I did not remember this song at all, but it features and Common, two artists who would collaborate again on Yes We Can (2008) to support the candidacy of Barack Obama for President. And while this list is supposed to highlight songs about MLK, in these troubling years since Obama left office, we need to be reminded that yes we did and yes we can do it again!

Glory (2015) - From the Selma soundtrack, this song written by John Legend, also featuring Common, will prove that both of these brothers are the Marvin Gaye and Gil Scott Heron of our times.

Movement/Protest Songs

We Shall Overcome - Folk singer Joan Baez sang this at the March on Washington in 1963, and though it was popularized by Pete Seeger, another folk artist, his version is an adaptation of a work song that was based on a hymn written by Rev. Charles Albert Tindley. What is so unique about this song is how it can be a gospel song (as sung by Mahalia Jackson), a folk song (as performed by Bruce Springsteen), but also always a communal protest song. In recent years, the song was at the center of a dispute over its copyright (now resolved), so it is now in the public domain.

We Shall Not Be Moved - This is a 2007 release recorded by Mavis Staples, but it was a well-known protest song. It was performed at the March on Washington in 1963 by the Freedom Singers, a choral group from Albany State University (GA) that included Bernice Johnson Reagon (who later went on to found Sweet Honey in the Rock). It was also recorded by Pete Seeger, as well as an Australian folk group called The Seekers in the late 1960s.

Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round - This version was recorded by the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. I found mostly contemporary recordings of this song, such as this clip from the film Selma, Lord, Selma, featuring a young Journee Smollet and this jazzy version recorded by The Roots for the documentary Soundtrack for a Revolution. Finally, here is a gospel version performed by the Mass Choir of the National Civil Rights Museum.

Oh Freedom - People sometimes forget that Harry Belafonte was a singer and an activist who was heavily involved in the Movement, so finding this 1960 recording was a pleasant surprise. I found this 1997 a cappella recording by The Golden Gospel Singers, and several of the comments referenced American Horror Story, so while I try to process that scene...I saw a passing nod to Black folk singer Odetta. Opera singer Shirley Verrett also released a version in 1966.

Eyes on the Prize - I thought this had been a song that was written for the 1987 documentary of the same name, but in fact it was recorded by Pete Seeger during the Movement, and later by Sweet Honey in the Rock, Mavis Staples, Joss Stone, and John Mellencamp.

Woke Up This Morning - That is the voice of activist Fannie Lou Hamer, from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)who is not usually remembered as a singer because she is most commonly known as the woman who declared that she was sick and tired of being sick and tired at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. The Freedom Singers also sang this song, and you can hear Bernice Johnson Reagon's booming voice on this recording with Sweet Honey in the Rock for the film Freedom Song. John Legend offers this soulful version for Soundtrack for the Revolution.

This Land is Your Land - Having mentioned his name in connection to several of the aforementioned protest songs (because he performed and recorded them all), it is only fitting to mention another song that Pete Seeger didn't write, but that he gets credited for popularizing. Woodie Guthrie wrote this anthem in 1940 as a response to Irving Berlin's God Bless America. In some ways, this is an odd choice for inclusion on this playlist, since it is rarely included on most programs that feature Movement music. Yet, whenever it is included, we sometimes get treated to something special, like this upbeat take offered by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.

March On Washington (1963)

In my research, I noticed that several of the performances featured white folk I did some probing and learned that might have been intentional to send the message of interracial unity. The words to some traditional hymns and spirituals were changed to become more ecumenical. Typically, the music provided at most protest marches would have been led by locals or a group like the Freedom Singers, but this March was a huge production. High profile entertainers were brought in such as Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson, Bob Dylan and folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. This next section will highlight their performances as well as other protest/movement music they recorded.

Marian Anderson (1897-1993), Camilla Williams (1919-2012) and Eva Jessye (1895-1992)
Two classically trained singers lent their voices to serenade the marchers. Marian Anderson sang He's Got the Whole World in His Hands because she arrived too late to sing The National Anthem. Instead Camilla Williams sang the Anthem. The Eva Jessye Choir (chosen by MLK) performed We Shall Overcome and Freedom Is The Thing We're Talking About.

Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972)
Mahalia Jackson has been hailed as the greatest gospel singer of all time (so she definitely will be featured in her own #playlistproject). She also receives the great honor and distinction of being the only woman onstage during MLK's Dream speech. In fact, she catches the spirit and shouts at him halfway through to tell the crowd about his dream...and the rest is history. During the March, she sang How I Got Over and I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned. Growing up, I was taught that MLK often asked her to sing If I Can Help Somebody, although at his funeral she sang Precious Lord (and as my Daddy would say, I bet there wasn't a dry eye in the church).

Joan Baez (1941 - ) and Bob Dylan (1941 - )
These two singers are synonymous with 60s era protest music, so it is no surprise that they performed at the MOW. As mentioned earlier, Baez sang We Shall Overcome, but she also sang Oh Freedom. She and Dylan sang When the Ship Comes In but I wasn't able to find any audio or video of that, so here is a duet of them singing Dylan's anthem Blowing in the Wind in 1984. Dylan performed Only A Pawn in Their Game, his song about the murder of Medgar Evers.

Peter, Paul and Mary (1961-2009)
The folk trio of Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers (1936-2009) performed Blowing in the Wind and If I Had A Hammer at the MOW, a song that was written by Pete Seeger.

Odetta Holmes Gordon (1930-2008)
The Black folk singer known by only her first name, Odetta, sang the spiritual I'm On My Way.

Other Popular Songs 

When I pulled together the original playlist for Facebook, I chose a sampling of songs that also included popular releases that were not specifically connected to MLK, but definitely acknowledge the turbulence of the times:

Let There Be Peace on Earth (1955) - I learned this song as a child, so I wanted to start by sharing this beautiful version sung by the Harlem Boys Choir. I was taught that it was an MLK favorite, so of course that means there is a Mahalia Jackson cover too. Many great artists have interpreted this song, but some stand-outs were Gladys Knight and Wintley Phipps.

Fables of Faubus (1959) - There are two versions of this Charles Mingus protest piece against the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, who was in office at the time of the integration of Central High School in Little Rock. The version with lyrics is, ahem colorful...

Alabama (1963) - This haunting piece was released by jazz saxophonist John Coltrane in response to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, three weeks after the March on Washington. If it reminds you of another Coltrane piece, it is probably A Love Supreme, released the following year.

Birmingham Sunday (1964) - Here is another song that was written in response to the horrific church bombing of September 15, 1963, performed by Joan Baez (written by her brother-in-law Richard FariƱa). Rhiannon Giddens also sings a beautiful version.

The Times They Are A-Changin (1964) - Bob Dylan wrote this anthem for the 60s, and it makes sense that it has been recorded by nearly all of his contemporaries--Joan Baez, The Byrds, Nina Simone, Simon & Garfunkel, Keb' Mo', and of course Bruce Springsteen. But even I was not ready for a Burl Ives cover...

A Change Gonna Come (1964) - Let me say at the outset that I always get emotional when I hear this song because Sam Cooke can sing anything. ANYTHING. So when other singers record or perform this song, I need them to bring it, like Otis Redding did and Aretha did and Al Green did. I will accept covers by Anthony Hamilton, Leela James and Seal because those are all solid. But if you can't bring a tear to Denzel's eye like J. Hud did in this mic drop version, then you need to get back in your lane.

Mississippi Goddamn (1964) - The fact that Nina Simone makes only one other appearance on this playlist is a curiosity, until I learned that this was her first political song (and we'll need to do a deeper dive on her #playlistproject). Meanwhile, I'm still trying to decide how I feel about this tribute by Andra Day.

Film Resources

These are both dramatized works and documentary films that offer background and context to frame the events, as well as to introduce some of the ordinary people who participated in the movement:

King (1978) - This miniseries airs every year (all day) and offers the most comprehensive dramatization of MLK's work in the Movement from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Memphis Labor Strike.

Roots: The Next Generation (1979) - A couple of years ago, I had a chance to watch this ground-breaking miniseries again for the first time in decades. The story in the second series starts after Emancipation and works its way through to the modern era when author Alex Haley begins tracing his family history. Of course, Roots isn't autobiographical as we once were led to believe, but it does offer an engaging dramatized historical narrative that tracks with actual events.

Eyes on the Prize (1987) - This documentary offers the most comprehensive collection of personal accounts offered by various Civil Rights Movement veterans chronicled twenty years after the assassination of MLK. I haven't seen it in quite a few years and now that many of the participants have passed away, it is an invaluable historical resource.

4 Little Girls (1997) - This Spike Lee documentary is unflinching and haunting. On YouTube, you will find several other videos that have a similar title and while they each cover the same event, the common thread among them is how catalyzing this tragedy was in changing the mood of the country. However, with respect to the other works, I am particularly intrigued by this trailer for a dance interpretation of the bombing.

Selma, Lord, Selma (1999) - I've only seen this movie one time, years ago...but it is one of several made-for-TV films that were released in the late 90s and early 00s that offered dramatizations of specific events from the Movement. From what I recall, it was told from the point of view of the young people who participated in the Selma to Montgomery voting rights protests, so it might be a good starting point for introducing these events to children.

Freedom Song (2000) - I have never seen this movie, but as I was doing the research for the playlist, I kept coming across its soundtrack, which features Sweet Honey In the Rock (the song you hear in the trailer is Song of Freedom, written by the phenomenal Carole King).

The Rosa Parks Story (2002) - This is another made-for-TV movie that doesn't air often enough; however, it stars Angela Basset and was directed by Julie Dash, so those are two good reasons to hope that it gets shown again soon. Another reason is that while it dramatizes Rosa Parks' life, it offers more context to dispel the myths that we were taught about her role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Soundtrack for a Revolution (2009) - Somehow I missed seeing this documentary about the music of the movement when it was released, even when it aired on PBS in 2011. Most of the artists featured here are the usual suspects like John Legend, Wyclef John, Angie Stone, Anthony Hamilton, and The Roots, and if you've clicked on a few of the links above, you know they brought their A game.

Selma (2014) - This film is Ava DuVernay's powerful dramatization of the story of the pivotal Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches of 1965. The uniqueness of this film is the moment it captures, which is after the celebrated March on Washington and King's receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize. Thus, we find King at the crossroads of his career--an international figure whose involvement in local issues carries greater risks and challenges. Is he an asset or a liability, and how does this portrayal square with King the martyr and icon?


This project is another example of how the adjunct history professor in me still seeks every opportunity to impart knowledge. I wanted to bring this effort back to where it began with a nod to Coretta Scott King. She was a classically-trained singer when she met MLK, and a crucial yet lesser-known role she played in support of his work was to give concerts to help fund the efforts of the Movement. I found this single clip of Mrs. King performing, but more importantly, I wanted to acknowledge the admonishment their daughter, Rev. Bernice King, issued not to overlook her mother when honoring her father.

Finally, these last clips are sentimental nods to MLK's alma mater, Morehouse College, from where he graduated in 1948. It is tradition that Morehouse men lock arm in arm to sing the words to Dear Old Morehouse at the end of a gathering, so for a project on one of her most prominent sons, I could not omit that hymn. However, my choice to end this playlist is another spiritual (performed with the Cornell University Glee Club) that symbolizes MLK's life and dedication to social justice--Got A Mind To Do Right.

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