Wednesday’s 50th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom included several inspirational musical moments from the likes of gospel singer Shirley Caesar, who reprised the gospel standard “How I Got Over” that Mahalia Jackson sang at the march half a century ago.
But it was hard not to notice there was no one on the 2013 lineup approaching the stature of Bob Dylan, who, then just 22, not only sang a couple of songs 50 years earlier but also wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the anthem sung that day by Peter, Paul and Mary.
The event on Wednesday was largely about honoring what happened on Aug. 28, 1963, including but not limited to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech. But that day also crucially included some hard questions and unflinching observations from King and the participating musicians about where the nation’s lofty ideals had come up short.
“Artists are the gatekeepers of truth,” singer-actor-activist Harry Belafonte told me when we spoke about the role played by the musicians whom he invited to the first March on Washington.
With that in mind, Pop & Hiss offers half a dozen recent songs that could have served the function occupied 50 years ago by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays’ “If I Had a Hammer” and Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (which laid out the complexities behind the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers) and “When the Ship Comes In.”
1. “Wavin’ Flag,” K’naan. The Somalian rapper created a youthful anthem of liberation that takes note of hardship but looks forward to a better day.
We struggling, fighting to eat
And we wondering, when we'll be free
So we patiently wait for that faithful day
It's not far away but for now we say
When I get older I will be stronger
2. “Welcome to the Future,” Brad Paisley. The savvy country singer and songwriter starts on a light note, observing technological changes that have made life easier and more entertaining, but smartly works his way toward honest commentary on race relations, a subject that doesn’t come up enough in country music. And he invokes King and his dream near the end.
I had a friend in school
Running back on a football team
They burned a cross in his front yard
For asking out the homecoming queen
I thought about him today
And everybody who's seen what he's seen
From a woman on a bus
To a man with a dream
3. “Change,” Taylor Swift. The pop-country queen closed her 2008 album, “Fearless,” with this ode to persistence in the face of adversity. Not bad for an 18-year-old.
These walls that they put up to hold us back will fall down
This revolution, the time will come
For us to finally win
And we’ll sing hallelujah, we’ll sing hallelujah
4. “We Take Care of Our Own,” Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen’s presence on Wednesday would have connected the line of protest music that runs from Woody Guthrie to Dylan to today’s troubadours. This song from his 2012 “Wrecking Ball” album can easily be mistaken for a one-note slogan, but Springsteen cannily demonstrates how empowering self-reliance can inhabit the same space as destructive self-centeredness.
From the shotgun shack to the Superdome
We yelled "help" but the cavalry stayed home
There ain't no one hearing the bugle blown
We take care of our own
5. “Early Roman Kings,” Bob Dylan. Who better than Dylan himself to bring the spirit of the 1963 march forward? This metaphorical blues number from his latest album, “Tempest,” has no quick, single meaning. But who could miss the allusions to the distance between the denizens of the halls of power and those powerless subjects of the whims of their choices?
All the early Roman kings
In their sharkskin suits
Bow ties and buttons
High top boots
Drivin' the spikes in
Blazin' the rails
Nailed in their coffins
In top hats and tails
Fly away, little bird
Fly away, flap your wings
6. “New Day,” Alicia Keys. Why not end on a note of unqualified celebration for the changes that have taken place on a day that saw the first black president of the United States standing in the same spot where King voiced his idealistic dream half a century earlier?
There's a feeling that I got that I can't give up
Feeling in my heart that I can't get over
I know that it's coming let the sun come up
Tell me do you feel the same, everybody say
What are some of your choices? Leave your ideas in the comments below.
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