by Chad Campbell, senior producer
We’re revisiting Anthony DeCurtis’s review of a 3-CD boxed set released last January called Let Freedom Sing!: Music of the Civil Rights Movement. The timing of the release was perfect, a week after the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as the country’s first black president and just before the start of February’s Black History Month. The set features an intro written by Chuck D. of Public Enemy fame and includes liner notes about each of the 58 songs recorded between 1939 and 2008 - as well as a chronology of the civil rights movement itself.
We were only able to cover these seven songs in the time available.
“Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday
“The Death of Emmett Till,” The Ramparts
“Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” James Brown
“Yes We Can,” Lee Dorsey
“Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” Marvin Gaye
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Gil Scott Heron
“None of Us Are Free,” Solomon Burke
(The rest of this entry was written by Anthony DeCurtis, contributing editor for Rolling Stone and music reviewer emeritus for The Bob Edwards Show)
All political movements are accompanied by music meant to inspire the faithful, to spread the message and to keep people’s spirits high. The narrative arc of gospel music – we can survive the trials of this world and we will reach the heavenly promised land – mapped itself perfectly onto the struggles of the civil rights movement. With a few deft changes in the lyrics, songs like “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” easily made the transition from the sacred to the political.
During that same period, gospel music was also moving from the sacred to the secular, redefining popular music in the process of becoming soul music. A message of pride was being conveyed to the country at large as songs like “A Change Is Gonna Come” and “Respect” became massive hits.
But none of this happened by magic. “Strange Fruit” was released by Billie Holiday in 1939 and addressed the issue of lynching in harrowing terms.
The lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman became a national cause celebre. His killers were acquitted by an all-white jury in a little over an hour. One juror boasted that it would have taken less than an hour if they’d not paused to have a soda pop. Actor Scatman Crothers tells the story in this song, though it was billed as “The Ramparts.”
As time went on, messages of pride replaced songs of victimization. James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” which was released in 1968, is a blunt example of that.
Lee Dorsey recorded the original version of “Yes We Can,” which was written by the great Allen Toussaint, later became a hit for the Pointer Sisters, and provided a winning slogan for our current president.
Songs like Marvin Gaye’s gripping “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” marked the transition of Motown from mere entertainment to social protest.
Gil Scott Heron’s incendiary “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” helped set the template for hip-hop.
Finally, veteran soul man Solomon Burke’s “None of Us Are Free” is almost as much of an existentialist statement as a political one. The message also echoes Amesty International’s human rights slogan, “if one of us are in chains, none of us are free.” It is a powerful protest, but it also links the races together – in the 21st century, freedom is a cause for everyone.