The story of the struggle for black rights in America is intimately linked to the story of popular music. And from Ferguson to Charleston, every recent conflict, confrontation and tragedy has brought to mind a particular song. So, here is a collection of 12 songs that have acted as the soundtrack to the black struggle in America over the past century. It is largely chronological and reflects the shifts both in the struggle and in the music (as well as my own personal preferences). Trying to compress a century of music into 12 tracks is, of course, both a difficult and a dubious project, but it gives, I think, a sense of what has changed over the century – and what has not.
The images are from Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration series. I have discussed Lawrence’s work, and published all 60 panels, in a series of posts earlier this year: Panels 1-10, 11-20, 21-30, 31-40, 41-50, 51-60. All 60 panels have been brought together for a special exhibition at New York’s MoMA to mark the centenary of the start of the Great Migration.
Paul Robeson, Go Down Moses
Communist, anti-imperialist, civil rights activist. A brilliant academic, a stellar athlete, a wonderful actor. And possessed of a most sublime voice that lent itself as powerfully to opera as to the blues. Paul Robeson is one of the great figures of the twentieth century. But the McCarthyite witchhunt of the 1950s shattered his career, and tarnished his reputation. He died almost in obscurity, an obscurity from which he has never escaped (Steve McQueen’s forthcoming film about Robeson hopefully may change that). Robeson was one of the great interpreters of gospel and spirituals, slave songs that expressed both endurance and resistance. And this is perhaps his most celebrated.
Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit
Perhaps the greatest of all protest songs, sung by possibly the greatest of jazz singers. Strange Fruit was written for Billie Holiday, and few songs were better matched with a voice. Her vocal range may have been limited, but, boy, could you feel Holiday’s pain and sorrow. It took great courage for Holiday to sing Strange Fruit in the 1940s, an era in which racism was savage and visceral, and in which those who protested about lynching were themselves likely to be lynched. Seventy years on, it remains a brutal, harrowing work.
JB Lenoir, Alabama Blues
I never will go back to Alabama, that is not the place for me
I never will go back to Alabama, that is not the place for me
You know they killed my sister and my brother
And the whole world let them peoples go down there free.
One of the most politically engaged of blues singers, JB Lenoir was born in the South but followed many blues singers to Chicago in the Great Migration, and became an important part of the city’s blues scene in the 1950s.
Marlena Shaw, Woman of the Ghetto
The sixties transformed both music and the black struggle. Straddling jazz, soul, blues, gospel and pop, Marlena Shaw embodied that sense of transformation. ‘Woman of the Ghetto’ captured the new challenge of the civil rights movement.
Nina Simone, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free
Nina Simone was to song as James Baldwin was to prose. Her more famous works such as Mississippi Goddamn and Backlash Blues are more trenchant, angry, in many ways more Nina Simone. And yet there is something in the yearning, the sorrow and fury she expresses in ‘I wish I knew how it would feel to be free’, especially in this live version from Montreux 1967, that is deeply moving.
Marvin Gaye, Inner City Blues (Wanna Make Me Holler)
The climactic track of Gaye’s landmark 1969 album What’s Going On?, this stands almost as a tone poem to 60s ferment.
Jimi Hendrix, Star Spangled Banner
Hendrix’s deconstruction of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, 1969, has been analysed to death. What mattered was that he could go on stage, and claim the anthem as his, strip it of its reverence, and infuse with pride, anger and fury. It was a defining moment in the story both of rock and of black expression.
Bob Dylan, Blind Willie McTell
There were a dozen Dylan songs I could have chosen. After all, he wrote the soundtrack to sixties protest. From The Lonesome death of Hattie Carroll to Only a Pawn in Their Game, Dylan’s songs trenchantly told the story of racism, Jim Crow and the struggle for freedom. In the end I’ve picked one of his lesser-known, and barely-recognized, masterpieces, written not in the 60s but the 80s. Blind Willie McTell was actually an outtake from the 1983 album Infidels. It was eventually released in 1991 in the Bootleg series. But, even if Dylan himself did not at first recognize its worth, it is a masterpiece. From the opening lines – ‘Seen the arrow on the doorpost/saying ’This land is condemned’/all the way from New Orleans/to Jerusalem’ – this is a chilling, brooding composition, with a haunting melody line, a song that both acknowledges Dylan’s debt to the black musical traditions and provides a savage allegorical take on America’s racial history.
Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not be Televised
Both the work and the influence of Gil Scott-Heron is difficult to convey. A poet, musician, author and activist, he infused himself into the music and politics of the 1970s and 1980s. He is all too often and lazily dubbed the ‘godfather of rap’, a label he himself fiercely rejected. ‘I don’t know if I can take the blame for it’, he once acidly told an interviewer. He is equally lazily called ‘the voice of black culture’. He was no more just the voice of black culture than Bob Dylan was the voice of white culture. He was, like Dylan himself, one of the most important voices of contemporary culture. Full stop.
Boogie Down Productions, My Philosophy
Boogie Down Productions’ 1988 album By All Means Necessary is perhaps the most inventive of hip hop albums. Produced after the murder of founder member Scott LaRock, it marries a pared down minimalist production with a political challenge to both racism and attitudes within black communities, inducing hip hop. ‘My Philosophy’ is the opening track.
Public Enemy, Fight the Power
Hiphop expressed the unravelling both of musical and political traditions, in black communities and in wider society. Public Enemy’s Fight the Power was first written as part of the soundtrack for Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing. Lee wanted ‘an anthem’. And that’s exactly what he got. Like the film, the song became expressive of moment and a mood in black America. ‘We wanted to just make something that was going to say, “I’m mad as hell, I’m not gonna take it any more – I’m going to fight the system”’, observed Public Enemy’s Shocklee. Performing the song, said Chuck D, felt ‘like Pete Seeger singing “We Shall Overcome.”’
Lauryn Hill, Black Rage
There is something quite brilliant in Lauryn Hill’s appropriation of Julie Andrew’s ‘My Favourite Things’ for a sardonic description of black rage. She had been performing the song live for a few years but had never released a version. Then, after Ferguson, Hill released on Twitter this lo-fi demo version, recorded in her living room with acoustic guitar and the sound of children talking in the background. It just adds to the immediacy of the work.