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Music Review: Various Artists – Let Freedom Sing: The Music of the Civil Rights Movement

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Culling through 60 years of recorded music with roots that go even deeper, Time Life has created an emotionally powerful anthology that demonstrates no art form has done a better job of chronicling and conveying the African American experience than music.

The three-CD set opens with “Go Down Moses,” a spiritual that was first recorded in 1914 by the Tuskegee Institute Singers. The version here is performed a capella by the gospel group known as The Southern Sons in 1941. The obvious parallels between the plight of the Israelites in Egypt and the unequal status of African Americans demonstrates why the Christian faith has resonated so strongly in their community. The song opens and closes with very somber vocals, contrasted against the middle section sung in an upbeat doo-wop style that reflects the jubilation faith can bring. There’s no change of moods or tempo when Billie Holiday delivers the gut-wrenching “Strange Fruit” from 1939, the oldest recording in the set. This haunting piece about lynching is just as powerful as when poet Lewis Allan wrote it.

Segregation and Jim Crow laws are dealt with in Josh White’s “Uncle Sam Says,” where inexplicably men who risked their lives for this country were treated as second-class citizens by the military, and Brownie McGhee’s cover of Big Bill Broonzy’s “Black, Brown, and White” with the refrain “if your white, you’re all right/ if you’re brown, stick around/ if you’re black, oh brother, get back, get back, get back.” The latter was taken from one of the few remaining copies available, but the audible scratch and hiss is acceptable knowing the song’s inclusion ensures it will be preserved. When an artist of Nat “King” Cole’s stature and acceptance in the White mainstream still had to point out “We Are Americans Too” in 1956, the issues were far being resolved.

It wasn’t just those who suffered from injustice that were aware of it and wanted it stopped. Ervin Drake wrote how there were “No Restricted Signs” in Heaven, performed by The Golden Gate Quartet. Although originally written in support of eleven Communist Party leaders convicted under the 1940 Smith Act, The Weavers’ “The Hammer Song (If I Had A Hammer)” the context of the song changed when Peter, Paul & Mary and Trini Lopez covered it. The children and young adults of the ‘60s decided “love between all of my brothers” included all races.

As people learned of the tragically unfortunate stories about the murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, which were immortalized in many songs, such as Phil Ochs’ “Too Many Martyrs,” the frustrated questions by artists like Broonzy’s “When Do I Get To Be Called A Man?” and The Staple Singers’ “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?” understandably turned to anger as churches were bombed and children denied entrance to schools. Nowhere was it more palpable than Nina Simone raging against the machine in “Mississippi Goddam” and she makes clear at the beginning that she means “every word of it.” Bob Dylan sensed what was “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and that song, combined with events like not being allowed to register at a whites-only Holiday Inn in Shreveport, LA, influenced Sam Cooke to write “A Change is Gonna Come,” sung here by Otis Redding.

Disc Two opens with Oscar Brown, Jr. demanding his “A Forty Acres and a Mule”. In a precursor to rap, his verbal riffs over a cool jazz rhythm section of bass and drums bring to mind the Beat poets.

The Impressions’ “People Get Ready” is a call to get involved and challenge the status quo, but being placed within a beatific hymn blunts its message. The gospel group The Mighty Clouds of Joy follows a similar tactic with their defiant “Nobody Can Turn Me Around.”

Aretha Franklin and all involved created one of the finest songs of all time with her cover of Redding’s “Respect.” This relationship song took on greater meaning in 1967 for those seeking equality and justice. The battles that had started in the south moved north and John Lee Hooker, joined by Buddy Guy on guitar, sings about a July ‘67 Detroit riot that lasted for five days in “The Motor City Is Burning.”

The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a major loss in the civil rights movement and was understandably met with “Cryin’ in the Streets” as George Perkins & the Silver Stars sing. Smokey Robinson & The Miracles honored those who in the service of bettering the country lost their lives to an assassin’s bullet in “Abraham, Martin, And John.”

The mood of CD is lifted with moment of absurd humor, albeit derived from rage and anger, as Ray Scott delivers “The Prayer” written by Redd Foxx to segregationist Governor George Wallace. It wishes continuing and greater misfortune starting with the hope that he gets into “a 17-car accident/ with a gasoline truck/…Over the Grand Canyon,” has troubles with the ambulance, at the hospital, and with his corpse, and concludes with the worst condition of all: being black.

The call for self-respect comes from James Brown who wants his people to “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” The Temptations reference the title in “Message From A Black Man.” The song suffers from way too much repetition of the lyric “No matter how hard you try you can't stop me now,” which is repeated for three minutes straight at the song’s conclusion. Nickie Lee echoes Brown’s sentiment with “And Black is Beautiful.” Bill Moss holds up examples of those who have done well in “Sock It To ‘Em, Soul Brother” like MLK, Willie Mays, and O.J. Simpson. The Juice will likely be cut from future covers of the song, but there’s no denying his importance in 1969.

Things were slowly improving but still far from where they should be so B.B. King explained “Why I Sing The Blues.” James Brown didn’t want welfare but opportunity, which is why he sang the funky “I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door, I’ll Get it Myself). Syl Johnson achingly wonders “Is It Because I’m Black” that he is being held back in life.

President Obama’s rallying cry and his desire to “make this land a better land” may well have had its origins with Lee Dorsey’s “Yes, We Can,” which was written by Allen Toussaint.

Disc Three covers a lot of ground opening in 1971 and ending in 2008, coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb. While the cultural allusions of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” are a product of its time, the power and emotion are ageless. The liner notes suggest it may be the first rap record, a claim I wouldn’t disagree with, and Chuck D calls him a genre forbearer.

Thinking money spent going to the moon could better be spent on Earth, Marvin Gaye sang about the struggles on the streets in “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler). Bob Marley and the Wailers took the message of civil rights global with “Get Up, Stand Up.” The Isley Brothers turned that idea up a notch in 1975 with the suggestion to “Fight the Power.”

The ‘80s are represented by two songs, Jungle Brothers’ “Black Is Black” and The Neville Brothers’ “Sister Rosa,” and the ‘90s only by Chuck D’s “The Pride.” There should have been an explanation why the lack of representation from these decades. Was it licensing issues or limited choices in music due in part to improvements in civil rights? The liner notes make sure to mention Rodney King, the South Central riots, and the murder of James Byrd, Jr, and the country’s ills certainly deserve to be held up and never forgotten, but the gains and improvements should be equally presented and glorified.

The songs from the 2000s, while enjoyable, don’t have the same resonance and impact because they are commemorations of the past rather than declarations about the present. Gospel group Sounds of Blackness uses text from MLK’s “I Had A Dream” speech, and The Sojourners cover “Eyes On The Prize.” Their version was used for the 20th anniversary edition of the civil-rights documentary of the same name.

Solomon Burke, backed by The Blind Boys of Alabama, sings “None Of Us Are Free.” It’s a fantastic performance, but in comparison to his “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel To Be Free” from ’68, which is also contained in this set, this possible sequel doesn’t ring as true in 2002. Plus, The Blind Boys soon contradict him with their set-closing take on the traditional “Free At Last.”

Let Freedom Sing is not just a collection of great music; it’s an audio history book. It not only deserves a place in stereos, but in classrooms like other important documents of the United States. Every citizen should know the songs contained within.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS