Thursday, January 24, 2013

Musicians of the Civil Rights Era

The 1950s-1960s are the years known for the Civil Rights movement as exemplified in the actions of Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., tragic events such as the murder of civil rights workers in Mississippi, and landmark legal cases such as Brown vs. the Board of Education.

Many musicians contributed to the effort, even before the movement gained ground:

Marian Anderson (1897-1993).  A gifted contralto singer, Marian Anderson was denied the right to perform at the Daughters of the American Revolution Hall in Washington, D.C.   First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt stepped in and arranged for her to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial instead.  75,000 people heard her sing classical arias, African-American spirituals, and patriotic songs.  The event and the reason for its relocation would inspire countless others, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Later, she became Ambassador for Human Rights to the United Nations.

Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976) was an activist as well as a world-renowned singer and actor.  Russia was the only place where he felt welcomed without regard to his race, and this experience inspired him to embrace Communism and its egalitarian principles.  He fought colonialism in Africa and Australia, but did not participate in the American civil rights struggle.

Billie Holiday (1915 - 1959) was a very popular blues and jazz singer who called attention to racism as exemplified by the practice of lynching with her song, "Strange Fruit."  The lyrics were inspired by a New York teacher who was appalled by the 1930 photograph of two men who had been lynched in Marion, Indiana.

Hazel Scott (1920 - 1981) was a pianist and singer who was comfortable in both classical and jazz styles.   In 1950 she briefly hosted her own television show but McCarthyism and racism threatened her career. She moved to France to pursue her career during the 1950s and early 1960s, though she was always a vocal advocate of civil rights.

Coretta Scott King (1927 - 2006) met Martin Luther King, Jr. while they were both graduate students in Boston.  He was working toward a Ph.D. in theology; she was perfecting her singing at the New England Conservatory of Music.  Though she took on the roles of wife, mother and civil rights activist, she used her talent to further the movement by giving a series of "Freedom Concerts."

Harry Belafonte (b. 1927) achieved fame in the 1950s with his Caribbean calypso hits, such as "Day-O."  He provided financial and moral support to the civil rights movement and was close to the King family.   Later he was a co-organizer of "We Are The World," a fund-raising concert for Africa.

Motown Records, the label that promoted popular African American musical artists began releasing songs that expressed views on civil rights in the 1970s.  The most famous of these was Marvin Gaye's "What's going on?"

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Civil Rights Movement in Song

Dr. Martin Luther King, foremost leader of the civil rights movement, learned piano as a child and was a music lover throughout his life. His favorite songs were spirituals, composed and sung by slaves to keep up their spirits. He found inspiration in the lyrics and quoted them often. The most famous quotation was from the spiritual, "Free at Last."

Coretta Scott King, wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., trained as a classical singer and used her talent to help raise funds for the civil rights movement in a series of "Freedom Concerts."  She was as committed to peace and equality as her husband, and continued to be an activist after his death.  In her authobiography she talks about her husband's fondness for spirituals.
Brothers James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamund Johnson  published the Books of American Negro Spirituals, songs collected from former slaves.  It is due to their efforts that many spirituals  continued to be sung throughout the Twentieth Century.  They also composed the words and music for "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," a hymn that became known as the "Negro National Anthem."   Although the words originally commemmorated the memory of Abraham Lincoln, they took on new meaning as African-Americans marched for their freedom in the 1950s and 1960s:

Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won

Themes from the civil rights movement permeated the popular song culture of the 1960s. One famous song was "A Change is Gonna Come," an anthem of hope composed and sung by Sam Cooke.  The song ends with the words, "It's been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come."  Several singers have covered the song in the years since the original 1964 release.

In addition to the books and scores (songbooks) above, check out CDs of Civil Rights music from the Music Collection.