Louis Armstrong Back in the Day

Louis Armstrong Back in the Day
With His Signature White Handkerchief and Smile

The significance of the blues aesthetic for those who are not professionally conversant in musical notation or the academic discipline of music or jazz history.

Saturday, December 11

Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired the Civil Rights Movement Revisited

Still working on this but thought we might like to have something with some of the names etcetera on it, just in case you don't know anything about these people or this music or the events being described because it would help if you did.  I can see now that this is very much the perspective (or at least very useful in putting this section together with the history) of the Vernacular Section in the Norton Anthology of AFrican American Literature.  And of course the Norton Anthology of African American Literature (2nd Edition) is the only one that remains out there in print because it has the bucks (editors Henry Louis Gates,Jr. and Nellie McKay) to cover most especially the rights for the speeches and the music to go with the literature.  This book comes with two audio cds of both spoken word and music together with a large section on "vernacular culture" edited by Robert O'Meally.  It's not perfect but it is very very good for what is required here. 

I am using this massive book both in my Advanced Survey of African American Literature next semester at the City College of New York (mwallace@ccny.cuny.edu 212-60-6367), Department of English both in my Advance Survey of African American Literature and in my intro level course Blues People and Afro-American Culture Tuesdays and Thursdays, 3:30 to 4:15 and 5 to 6:15 respectively. Both courses will now begin with the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence and make stops in the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow Era, Civil Rights and Black Cultural Nationalism/Black Powerbecause these days you can't afford to leave anything to the imagination. 

Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement
Time Life 2009 
With all its deficits this doc is currently essential viewing in my analysis.

The Staples Singers, Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield, Five Blind Boys, James Brown, Billie Holiday, Marvin Gaye, Hugh Masekela, Aretha Franklin, Public Enemy, Chuck D

First Music: Mahalia Jackson--"I'm On My Way"  

Jackson was an extremely important person in the Civil Rights Movement and To Martin Luther King Jr.   Her "Soon I Will Be Done" (which she delivers in the penultimate moment in the 1959 version of Imitation of Life) is included in the Norton anthology and on the cd.  She had always wanted to be a minister herself and comes completely out of the tradition in which a solo gospel singer especially is actually also preaching a sermon and pursuing a ministry.  Jackson on her own functioned much like a travelling minister (she liked to get paid in cash, put the money and her bra and drive herself to and from gigs in her Cadillac)  Her heir apparent who doesn't rate inclusion in such a film as this is her heir apparent and contemporary who wasn't nearly as famous but who won the MacArthur Marion Williams and died in relative poverty and obscurity. So the diva-dom that she inaugurated lasted precisely one generation, and yet she stirs up so much resentment for her many unwise recording and business decisions.  Water both under and over the bridge I think..

 It is my view that the true importance of such women to the Civil Rights Movement has been buried and this film, which primarily celebrates the Movement from the perspective of the men--doesn't do much to change that. 

The thing you have to remember is that nothing at all can be done with the music without copyright permissions and money.  Also, since many of the people are still alive and/or their estates are still active, only very precise kinds of observations are welcome about their participation and their lives.   

In this film, you are not going to find out what happened to Sam Cooke, or what happened to the Impressions, or what happened to Otis Redding, or what happened to Marvin Gaye.  

The one thing it does do is that it finally sets us right about the importance of the women who sang at the March on Washington in 1963 (even though no woman got to speak it seems a lotta women sang!) and the importance of that March in general to what would follow, although there were perhaps "three minutes" of it included on the floor at "For All The World To See"  at the ICP and I am not sure how much total footage of it there is here, it is always being used for different things.  

Also increasingly clear to me that it was important whether you regarded events from the North or the South.  Another thing about the March in 1963: heavily supported by the Unions, in particular the United Auto Worker's Union (my stepfather's union as it happens.  Mom has a funny story about her and Dad driving a friend to the bus station to go to the march, somebody from his job, and everybody laughing at him all the way there because they were Malcolm X afficionados and considered King's message misguided). 

What I remember was that we watched it all day long.  I know there's a lot of film and more importantly that it survives.  Apparently somebody rigorously controls the rights to see most of it--and sells it to the highest bidder: not sure whether it is CBS or the King hierarchy or some combination.  Feels like the auction block all over again to me.  That's my history. 

I'd like to see that March again.  All of it. Just a thought but I know it is not commercially available in any form.  But I just want to say that this would be comparable to a situation in which you couldn't get dvds or video of Shoah or the Nuremberg Trials or the trial of  Adolph Eichmann in Israel in the early 60s.  This March was absolutely a crucial turning point.  I was nine years old at the time. 

Narrators discussants:
Lou Gossett--Jerry Butler, Quincy Jones, Gladys Knight, Andrew Young (former United States Ambassador and central figure in MLK's immediate circle.

Billie Holiday Strange Fruit, Writer Abel Meerepol NY Teacher 1939

Hezekiah Washington Freedom Rider
Ruby Dee seems quite crucial in the making of this and in the telling of this story, one of the dozen or so people who seems to be speaking in their own contemporary voices.  Footage shot maybe 2007 or thereabout.  
Onze Horne

Big Bill Broonzy substituted at the last minute for Robert Johnson who had just died at the historic Spiritual to Swing concert atCarnegie hall in 1946, part of the story of the specific alchemy of gospel, r&b, jazz and the blues, which produced the blues cultures that shaped the 60s.

Louis Saton phd tells the story about black gospel radio in Memphis in the 40s:First there was this gospel show in MemphisWDAI (nothing black on the radio then) and Memphis was 40% black and there was a lot of music but the music on the radio was Rosemary Clooney and Pat Boone and such, total white bread. The show became an entirely black station. 
Rodney King
Isaac Hayes

Rufus Thomas 50,000 watts due south going right into the heart of the Mississippi Delta.
Radio was more crucial than television because there wasn't much television yet, especially down there. 

Reaching ten percent of the black population of the United States, all desperate for black music on the airwaves.

Stations spread  to Birmingham, Atlanta and across the country.  I grew up listening to such stations.  As a matter of fact, aren't they still there?

Golden Gate Quartet Gospel music messages of a thinly veiled political nature
Paul Robeson
Paul Breines Civil rights activist
Freedom rides 1960s
The Blind Boys of Alabama

Catherine Brooks, Freedom Rider

The Harmonizing Four  "I shall not be moved"
In a demonstration at a theatre in 1960 in Nashville a man threatened to put a cigarette out in her face.  She was a girl but he saw no fear.  In her heart was the song "I shall not be moved."

JAmes farmer, President of CORE
initiated freedom rides of the 1960s, extremely violent.  

The Impressions--People Get Ready

Booker T. and the MG's 
Berneice Johnson Reagon and Pete Seeger part of the translation of gospel to protest.  Stax Records made r&b with movement messages: Otis Redding did A Change Is Gonna Come, written by Sam Cooke who never had a chance to hear it in release.  Isaac Hayes.

Harry Belafonte--one of the first performers to get heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement (don't know why there is a hierarchy and would like to see the timeline--surely he did more but he wasn't the only one.  How about Odetta and he just couldn't be earlier than Nina Simone.)  Belafonte recorded Civil Rights Protest songs. Whatever he was doing Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela were right there. Where else was Makeba going to be?  After she did that first tour with Belafonte (1960?), she couldn't even go home to South Africa.  Her passport was cancelled.  Suspicious of the first and the most and all of that.

 Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan--The Times They Are A Changing. 

The Staple Singers were in the early group of the Civi Rights Movement (early or later than Belafonte?) Not sure.

Really my impression was that once things got rolling everybody who could get there was there (so far as the music if not on the actual marches.  The marches were dangerous!)  

Some people got black listed because of it as the Civil Rights Movement began to focus on the Anti-Vietnam War under King's leadership and the insistance of many others.  I don't understand why black folk don't get the credit they deserve for participating in the Anti-War Movement.  All of the violent demonstrations I attended in the 60s were against the Vietnam War but Cointelpro and J Edgar Hoover still seem in effect somehow, which I guess they can't much talk about if they want to get the rights to use anything.  Time Life and all that. 

Andrew Young says the reason Communism didn't catch on in the South was because they didn't sing.  Although that isn't what Ralph Ellison says in Invisible Man.  It is a fictional rendering but I had the impression that he was complaining of the Communist appropriation of the folk and the spiritual singing.  Strange statement actually after the Scottsboro Boys and Angelo Herndon, and a whole other bunch of stuff having to do with the activity around the blues in the 60s.  Actually, I guess this documentary doesn't deal at all with the circulation of blues and gospel singers via the Newport Jazz Festival and the Wein's involvement in that but there is a large box set, which may include all of that as well. 
ChucK D--had hip parents and grew up in the South.
James Meridith attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge
 Montgomery, Allabama
Dr Bernard Lafayette--Civil Rights Activist

Berneice Johnson Reagon--Civil Rights Singer, Composer, Mother of Sweet Honey and The Rock

Nina Simone--Mississippi Goddamn in 1964 commemorating the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963 and the bombing of the Church in Birmingham when 4 little girls were killed. Always loved this song, never knew the specifics.  By 1963 Simone was as hot as fire.  Indeed I can recall my mother's adoration of her from 1959 with the hit I Loves You Porgy, and then standing outside of the theatre in Provincetown waiting for her to arrive. 

Aretha Franklin's "Respect" was a Protest Song in the light of events.

Martin Luther King killed at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis in 1968, which destroyed the peaceful inclinations of the Civil Rights Movement.  It became Black Power Movement and a movement full of angry and sad people (I guess you can check out Night Watches Us for more info on that).

Wonderful story about a night of riots in Boston after King's death when James Brown did a concert on television for the city and suggested that everybody go home.  I think the shorter list would be which black entertainers were not involved in the Civil Rights Movement. 

Anyway I guess the point of the documentary is to help illustrate some of the songs and the relationship of the songs to historical events.  It's helpful for that.  

There's more from Bob Marley to Hugh Maskela in South Africa, etc. and so forth. There's Aaron Neville. There seems to be no present website (which I just don't understand.  What the heck happened here?  How does this info circulate.  This is the hook up!).  

At the very end, it becomes a celebration of Obama's election so we're not celebrating that anymore apparently.  It seems the push to get Obama in was part of the genesis of this project, with his election seen as the culmination of this struggle for "civil rights," which continues somehow.  Except that we don't have even names for all the phases we've been through.  The movie does substantially deal with Black Power and what came after Civil Rights but it grows weaker as it proceeds, and it becomes more and more a series of Concert excepts--with the impression that the Civil Rights Movement  (or the music coming out of it) goes global (or corporate).  The issue of what became of the anger that exploded upon King's death really gets sidestepped--not that I blame them.  It would not help record sales of any kind but at some point we are going to have to find some way to talk about it, if so that we can tell the stories to the children. It reminds me very much of what happened with Reconstruction, which we generally know very little about also. 

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