Monday, February 23, 2009

*Songs of The Black Freedom Struggle Circa 1960

Click on title to link to YouTube's film clip of Mavis Staple (of the renowned Staple Singers) performing "Keep Your Eyes On The Prize". (And it aint being President Of The United States-Markin)


February Is Black History Month

Sing For Freedom: The Story Of The Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs, various artists and speakers, Smithsonian/Folkway Records, 1990

Every social movement, and the Southern black civil rights movement of the 1950’s and early 1960’s was no exception, not only has to have its slogans, its placards and its orators but also its anthems. For those unfamiliar with its history this little CD will, in song and speech, give the highlights of the movement as it pressed on from Montgomery, Alabama in the mid-1950’s to Albany, Georgia, Greenwood, Mississippi, Birmingham, Alabama and many, many other smaller but no less important ports of call in the struggle for first- class citizenship for blacks in the Jim Crow South. For those familiar with the story of the struggle down South you will get a full storehouse of memories of the songs that became part of the greater culture and still sent a chill of excitement and expectation through this reviewer’ s body when he listened to them. As we are painfully aware of today, that civil rights movement fell far short of creating that racial equality we were after but certainly not for lack of inspiring music.

As mentioned above, an added attraction here is some of the oration of the time by the black leadership. Obviously that meant Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference but also Bob Moses from the voter-registration drives led by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). And the NAACP’s Medgar Evers before his assassination. And the star of the piece- the heroic leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party Fannie Lou Hamer who calmly set about turning the tables on the establishment. Two things should be remembered from that time. One is Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” (not included here) for that says in song what the struggle was all about and what civil rights workers were up against. The other, for all those who want to praise the Democratic Party’s role in civil rights history just remember that when there was choice between Ms. Hamer’s Freedom Democrats and the Jim Crow Democrats in the 1964 Democratic Convention they seated the Jim Crow delegation.

That said , musically the selections here reflect the central importance, for good or ill, of the black church in this democratic fight with some “fighting” songs, some of ‘redemption’ and some as fuel to keep the struggle going, especially when the Southern white establishment and their assorted henchmen counter-attacked. The songs that most reflect these themes are “ We Are Soldiers In The Army”, “This Little Light”, “Which Side Are You On?”, “Keep Your Eyes On The Prize” and the movement anthem “We Shall Overcome”.

Follow The Drinking Gourd, Please

Steal Away: Songs Of The Underground Railroad, Kim and Reggie Harris, Appleseed Records, 1998

My purposes in this space have been primarily to review political books that reflect on various aspects of history and politics. Along the edges of this work I have filled in the borders with commentary on musical and cultural phenomena that reflect those concerns. Thus, one is as likely to find a review of some old forgotten folkie or blues singer as a more well-known historical figure like Leon Trotsky or John Brown. However, sometimes music is not just an adjunct to historical narrative but forms a central cog in understanding the phenomena. That is just the situation here with Kim and Reggie Harris’ contribution to an understanding of slavery, freedom from slavery and how to get out from under slavery that was the primary fight for blacks, especially in the lead up to the America Civil War in the mid-19th century.

From a perusal of the liner notes this “concept” album is a labor of love by this singing/songwriting couple. The project developed in the 1980’s out a need to present the fight against slavery as epitomized by the organization of the Underground Railroad to the next generations so that it is firmly etched in their minds. Their musical abilities, especially when they harmonize (listen to “Oh, Freedom” and “Wade In The Water”), make this a very fruitful enterprise. As always with Appleseed recordings the liner notes give a detailed story of how this effort was produced and what each song represents in the anthology.

I will not repeat that information here. I will, however, mention that various figures highlighted here like “General” Harriet Tubman get their full due, as does Sojourner Truth on the nicely done “Aren’t I A Woman”. The various coded hymns and other songs that were used on the Underground Railroad to either symbolize the freedom struggle or for security like “Follow The Drinking Gourd” are also explained. “Heaven Is Less Than Fair”, a Harris tribute product, does a nice job on explaining the uses and need for the codes. Needless to say there are religiously-tinged songs like “Go Down Moses” that reflect that deep feeling that helped get through the hard days of slavery in one piece. Listen to the music and learn history at the same time. That’s a great combination, right?

Here is an addition- a Civil Rights song made famous by Joan Baez and written by Richard Farina (her brother-in-law, married to her sister Mimi although I am not sure he was at the time of the song). It concerns the tragic and obscenely racist bombing of a black church killing four young innocent black girls. Yes, one can still weep over that one today.

Birmingham Sunday

Come round by my side and I'll sing you a song.
I'll sing it so softly, it'll do no one wrong.
On Birmingham Sunday the blood ran like wine,
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.

That cold autumn morning no eyes saw the sun,
And Addie Mae Collins, her number was one.
At an old Baptist church there was no need to run.
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom,

The clouds they were grey and the autumn winds blew,
And Denise McNair brought the number to two.
The falcon of death was a creature they knew,
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom,

The church it was crowded, but no one could see
That Cynthia Wesley's dark number was three.
Her prayers and her feelings would shame you and me.
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.

Young Carol Robertson entered the door
And the number her killers had given was four.
She asked for a blessing but asked for no more,
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.

On Birmingham Sunday a noise shook the ground.
And people all over the earth turned around.
For no one recalled a more cowardly sound.
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.

The men in the forest they once asked of me,
How many black berries grew in the Blue Sea.
And I asked them right with a tear in my eye.
How many dark ships in the forest?

The Sunday has come and the Sunday has gone.
And I can't do much more than to sing you a song.
I'll sing it so softly, it'll do no one wrong.
And the choirs keep singing of Freedom.

1 comment:

  1. In Honor Of "General" Tubman

    Harriet Tubman

    A Cappella Arrangement for Women's Voices

    One night I dreamed I was in slavery,
    'Bout eighteen fifty was the time,
    Sorrow was the only sign,
    Nothing around to ease my mind.
    Out of the night appeared a lady,
    Leading a distant pilgrim band.
    "First mate," she yelled, pointing her hand,
    "Make room on board for this young woman."

    Singing: Come on up, mm mm mm, I got a lifeline
    Come on up to this train of mine
    Come on up, mm mm mm, I got a lifeline
    Come on up to this train of mine.
    She said her name was Harriet Tubman
    And she drove for the underground railroad.

    Hundreds of miles we travelled onward,
    Gathering slaves from town to town,
    Seeking every lost and found,
    Setting those free who once were bound.
    Somehow my heart was growing weaker,
    I fell by the wayside's sinking sand.
    Firmly did this lady stand,
    Lifted me up and took my hand.

    Singing: ....

    Who are those children dressed in red?
    They must be the ones that Moses led.

    Singing: ....

    Harriet Tubman

    A Cappella Arrangement for Women's Voices