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Music that declared an era

March on Washington defined protest music era

Greg Kot

12:38 PM EDT, August 23, 2013

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It was 50 years ago when gospel, folk music and the civil rights movement cemented their bond on the biggest stage in America.

The March on Washington that punctuated the civil rights movement and brought hundreds of thousands to the Lincoln Memorial to hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech began not with pronouncements and demonstrations, but with music.

At 10 a.m. on Aug. 28, 1963, Joan Baez began serenading the early arrivals at the starting line, the Washington Monument, with "Oh, Freedom," and she was followed by Odetta, Peter, Paul & Mary, Bob Dylan, the Freedom Singers and other performers. Marian Anderson performed the spiritual "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" and Mahalia Jackson delivered the gospel anthems "I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned" and "How I Got Over." Later, Jackson exhorted King from the audience to go off script and rhapsodize: "Tell them about the dream, Martin."

It capped a day of eloquence magnified and intensified by music. An estimated 250,000 people attended the gathering, designed to advocate for minority jobs and voting rights, and massive media coverage brought it to millions more nationwide. It was a symbolic turning point in the struggle, presaging passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and Voting Rights Act in 1965.

It was a revolution with a soundtrack, a protest movement in which music and message were inextricably mixed. At rallies, meetings and marches, songs inspired the unarmed soldiers of the movement as they waded into streets lined with baton-wielding police, snarling dogs and water cannons.

For more than a century, the church had been the center of African-American life, the sanctuary where blacks could be themselves and speak their minds. The words of ministers were amplified by choirs and underlined by songs that sought redemption, if not in this world then possibly in the next. The civil rights movement brought the voice of the oppressed into music that reached far beyond the black community. King called the music "vital" to the peaceful revolution he led, as did Newsweek: "History has never known a protest movement so rich in song as the Civil Rights Movement."

Here are 10 musical signposts, arranged chronologically, from this tumultuous era:

Max Roach, "We Insist! Freedom Now Suite" album (1960): Within the musical rebellion that was bebop and later free jazz, a political consciousness arose. In 1960, Charles Mingus' "Fables of Faubus" railed against Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, who had called out the National Guard to prevent black students from integrating a Little Rock high school. John Coltrane's 1963 tone poem "Alabama" mourned four black girls killed in the bombing of an Alabama church. And the great drummer Max Roach collaborated with lyricist Oscar Brown Jr. on "We Insist! Freedom Now Suite," a masterpiece that combined activism and improvisation. The concept album takes black history from the slave and sharecropping days through the onset of the civil rights moment and joins it with the struggle in apartheid-racked South Africa. Singer Abbey Lincoln, who was then Roach's wife, animates the poetic imagery with a vocal performance that veers between tender and volcanic.

Mahalia Jackson, "How I Got Over" (1963): The greatest voice in gospel music had recorded a version of the hymn "How I Got Over" in 1961. By then it was already deeply entrenched in the African-American consciousness, a standard in churches around the country. It was written in 1951 by Clara Ward, in response to a racially charged incident while she and her family were traveling through the South. Jackson returned to the song during the March on Washington, accompanied by Hammond organ and rhythmic handclaps from the audience, her voice rising to a fever pitch as if anticipating Martin Luther King Jr.'s famed "I Have a Dream" speech. "I'm gonna join the Heavenly choir/And I'm a-sing and never get tired," Jackson testifies.

Freedom Singers, "In the Mississippi River" (1964): The Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee played a huge role in the civil rights movement, particularly in the South. In 1962, it set up the Freedom Singers to spread the message of nonviolence nationwide. The group, which included Bernice Johnson, Rutha Harris, Charles Neblitt and Cordell Hull Reagon, among others, traveled 100,000 miles in 1962-63, including performances at the Newport Folk Festival and the March on Washington. The group often adapted traditional spirituals and hymns such as "This Little Light," "Down by the Riverside" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," inserting topical lyrics into familiar songs that had been part of the black church vernacular for a century or more. But they also introduced original songs, never more powerfully than with "In the Mississippi River," written by Marshall Jones. It documents the search for three Civil Rights workers in Mississippi during the summer of 1964. While searching for their bodies, dozens more slain African-Americans were pulled from the river. The toll becomes a chilling incantation: "You can count them one by one, two by two … five by five."

Nina Simone, "Mississippi Goddamn" (1964): The fiery singer was incensed by the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the Alabama church bombing that left four children dead. At a series of Carnegie Hall concerts, she described "Mississippi Goddamn" as "a show tune, but the show hasn't been written yet." The jaunty melody contrasts with the rising indignation and frustration in the lyrics. "Me and my people," she sings, "just about through."

The Impressions, "Keep on Pushing" (1964): Curtis Mayfield, who grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing projects, made his early reputation as an evocative lyricist in the vocal group the Impressions with pop-soul numbers such as "Gypsy Woman" and "It's All Right," but "Keep on Pushing" took him into a new area: a song of resilience and empowerment for the embattled African-American community. Other classics in the same vein followed — "People Get Ready," "We're a Winner," "Choice of Colors" — but "Keep on Pushing" was the first to crack the top 10 pop singles chart.

Sam Cooke, "A Change is Gonna Come" (1964): The star vocalist, who grew up on Chicago's South Side, had a reputation for singing it suave and smooth after transitioning to pop from gospel in the late '50s. But he was deeply moved by Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" when he first heard the protest anthem in 1963. In response, Cooke wrote his greatest song, an emotionally transparent depiction of the frustration that many blacks felt as they were denied entry into the so-called "brotherhood" of man. Even though it was eventually released as a B-side in the weeks after Cooke's death in 1964, it became a top 40 hit.

Staple Singers, "Freedom Highway" (1965): In the wake of the bloody Selma to Montgomery march in 1965 protesting a civil rights worker's murder in Alabama, Roebuck "Pops" Staples wrote this classic. The song debuted with his family — daughters Mavis and Cleotha and son Pervis — in a scintillating live performance at New Nazareth Church on Chicago's South Side. "I made up my mind and I won't turn around," roars Mavis, her voice bristling with angry resolve.

James Brown, "Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud" (1968): After the assassination of King in April 1968, the black power movement gained traction, and the music got tougher and funkier in response. Brown wanted to uplift with "Say It Loud" and enlisted a group of children to shout the refrain, an explicit message of African-American pride. He later said the song cost him the crossover audience he had always nurtured, but that it was a necessary tonic for a community that was in shock and despair after the loss of its spiritual leader.

Temptations, "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World is Today)" (1970): Motown came late to the protest era. Label founder Berry Gordy had always sought to make music that would appeal across lines of race, generation and gender and not stir up any political dust. But producer Norman Whitfield, along with his songwriting partner Barrett Strong, brought a harder psychedelic edge to the tracks they cut with artists such as the Temptations, a reflection of how civil-rights-era protests had turned violent. "Cities in flame in the summertime," the Temptations sing, "and the beat goes on."

Kim Weston, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" (1972): The Wattstax concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum, a benefit for the Watts community ravaged by rioting in the '60s, drew more than 100,000 people. It was described by many as the largest public gathering of African-Americans since the March on Washington. The concert featured the artists on the Memphis-based Stax label, including Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, Rufus Thomas and the Staple Singers. And it kicked off with a resounding version of what had become known as "the black national anthem," a Turn-of-the-Century poem by James Weldon Johnson that was set to music and became a testament to African-American struggle and perseverance. Kim Weston's powerhouse interpretation of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" launched a day of peaceful protest in the guise of a soul-music concert.

greg@gregkot.com

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