Thursday, January 13, 2011

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: His Favorite Music

In My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. , Dr. King's wife, Coretta Scott King, a classical singer, gives a personal account of the Civil Rights Movement and as the title says, her life with Dr. King.  Perhaps because she was a singer, she seems to have made a point of naming some of Dr. King's favorite songs, and songs sung at important events.  Her own role in the Civil Rights Movement included singing at special concerts, and her book describes the program in some detail.


Mrs. King earned an undergraduate degree in music from Antioch College, in Ohio.  While there one of her jobs was working in the music library.  She went on to graduate study in Boston, and that's where she met Martin Luther King Jr., who was working toward his doctorate in theology.  Although motherhood and the civil rights movement steered Mrs. King away from music, she used her talent in Dr. King's Ebenezer Baptist Church, a 1956 concert on the anniversary of the Montgomery boycott, and the "Freedom Concerts" of 1965.

Dr. King was especially fond of spirituals.  In the 19th Century, spirituals linked stories from the Bible to experiences of slaves.  In the 20th Century, these same songs resonated in the Civil Rights Movement.  "Balm in Gilead" was one of Dr. King's favorites, though he knew and sang many.  Mrs. King quoted his favorite verses from this song (p. 10):

Sometimes I feel discouraged
And think my work's in vain
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.

There is a Balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole,
There is a Balm in Gilead
To heal the sinsick soul.
Mrs. King sang at a concert commemorating the first anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott.  She alternated stories from the struggle for equal rights with songs drawn mainly from the repertoire of spirituals. Later, the Freedom Concerts of 1965 were a series of fund-raising events, narrated and sung by Mrs. King along the same lines.  Many of the songs were sprituals, including "Hold On," "Honor, Honor," "Witness," and "Seeking for a City."  She also sang songs composed by a family friend.

Just seconds before his assassination, Dr. King was making a musical request for the evening's entertainment:  "Be sure to sing 'Precious Lord, Take My Hand' for me tonight," he called down to Ben Branch, the evening's performer.

His funeral was held at Morehouse College, his alma mater.   Mahalia Jackson sang Precious Lord, the song that had been his last wish.  Also sung that day were the Hymn "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," the spirituals "Balm in Gilead" and "Ain't Got Time to Die," and the Morehouse College Hymn.  The organist opened the service with improvisations on spirituals and "We Shall Overcome," followed by Cortege by Dupre.  The Recessional was "Largo" from Dvorak's New World Symphony.

For scores and recordings of spirituals in the Music Collection, select "Subject" in Cardcat and type: "Spirituals (Songs) and African Americans."  You can also see early sheet music editions on the Library of Congress's American Memory site.

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