Box set hammers out justice through music of civil rights movement
by Greg Cahill
Pacific Sun Staff
January 29, 2009
The election of President Barack Obama has proved both how far the
nation has traveled on the rocky road of race relations and how far
we still have to go. In their coverage of the presidential campaign,
TV pundits spewed a steady stream of awkward and often imbecilic
comments about race relations. And even civil-rights activist, and
former presidential candidate, the Rev. Jesse Jackson was forced to
apologize for making racially insensitive comments during the campaign.
Clearly, we the people have a lot to learn.
For those who prefer to sing along with their history lessons, the
story of the civil-rights movement is chronicled through song on the
newly released three-CD anthology Let Freedom Ring: The Music of the
Civil Rights Movement (Time/Life), a collection of anthems and
rarities, including the previously unreleased Nat King Cole track "We
Are Americans, Too," arriving with the inauguration of the first
"There's a reason why listening to the past 100 years of black music
can bring a sense of voice, sound, meaning, joy and pain...as well as
historical timeline," rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy opines in the
introduction to the anthology's thoughtful 40-page booklet. "In the
segregated apartheid communities of America, music cut through the
slaving and silencing from and since the middle passage."
In the ensuing horror of the slave trade, he adds, the music pulsing
from around the auction block in Congo Square in New Orleans captured
"the rhythms of protection and doubt" to form a musical code. "A code
of look-out-and-love music," he says. "Look out for one another for
the replacement of what you couldn't say or scream for that matter,
sometimes using the church as a weapon of mass diversion from
The beats, he adds, were "yelling for R-E-S-P-E-C-T way before
Detroit's Aretha Franklin sped her Otis Redding-Macon Georgia written
blues up for Atlantic Records in 1967."
Four decades later, Aretha stood before the Capitol steps to sing "My
Country 'Tis of Thee" at Obama's inaugural, but all the world wanted
to talk about was where did she get that amazing hat?
As Chuck D points out, her raspy delivery on that cold, proud morning
was steeped in the "sanctified fiery set-us-free screaming of the
Blind Boys [of Alabama, Mahalia Jackson [who on another famous day
had urged Dr. Marin Luther King to tell the America about his dream,
and Solomon Burke."
The Time/Life anthology is rife with iconic songs, including the
Weavers' "If I had a Hammer," "Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind,"
"Otis Redding's version of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," and
James Brown's "Say It Loud-I'm Black and I'm Proud."
Ultimately, these songs tell the story of the struggle. You hear it
in the haunting lyrics of Billie Holiday's 1939 song "Strange Fruit,"
an indictment of Southern lynching that was based on a poem by Lewis
Allan (a.k.a. Communist activist and Bronx English teacher Abel
Meeropol). You hear it in the determination of "Nobody Can Turn Me
Around," by gospel greats the Mighty Clouds of Joy. And in the
groundbreaking "Message from a Black Man," a 1969 recording by the
Temptations and the first "cause song" permitted by Motown Records
chief Barry Gordy, thus paving the way for Marvin Gaye's 1971
social-justice epic What's Goin' On? You hear it in the proto-rap of
Gil Scott-Heron's incendiary 1971 poem-rant "The Revolution Will Not
Be Televised." And you hear it in a newly recorded version of "Free
at Last," by the Blind Boys of Alabama.
"You don't get a black president overnight," Chuck D notes. "Songs
like [Chicago R&B great Syl Johnson's 'Is it Because I'm Black' and
the others in this box set make you understand the collective voices
that makes it happen."