Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Tuneful Tuesday: Songs for Dr. King

Although the official holiday isn't until next Monday, today is the 78th birthday anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I well remember watching on television as he gave his "I have a dream" speech at the March on Washington, and Onkel Hankie Pants won a high school oratory contest by repeating that speech. I also remember the sadness, the outrage, and the fear that gripped my campus when Dr. King was assassinated. It's a time for remembering him and his work, but also a time to assess how far we have come on the road he led us on. There are certainly many changes that still need to happen, but one little vignette from my experiences last year gives me hope that change will continue. On the way back from the beach to Atlanta, The Decorator, The Accountant and I stopped at a chain chicken restaurant (I can't remember the name but I think they are known for their chicken salad). As we were eating our lunch, a pickup truck bearing the name of some small business pulled up outside and two men got out. One was black, one was white; they were co-workers and they came in to eat lunch together. Not only could they do that legally in a state where, throughout my childhood, eating places were segregated; but they ate together with every appearance of cordiality and as if it were something they did every workday. It may be a small kind of progress, but progress it is.

Some of the songs I've selected are ones you might sing in church next Sunday or at a special service or commemoration; others are associated with the Civil Rights Movement. They are in a rough chronological order, too.
1. Go Down Moses -- Marian Anderson -- Spirituals.
I'm sure everyone knows the story of Marian Anderson being refused permission to sing at the DAR's Constitution Hall, and how Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR and Harold Ickes intervened to reschedule her concert for the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This was not one of the songs she sang at that concert (she did sing four spirituals including "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen") but this spiritual recounting the events of the Exodus has long been identified with the African-American struggle for freedom. If you can't get hold of the Marian Anderson version, try Paul Robeson:


2. Lift Every Voice and Sing -- Boys Choir of Harlem -- We Shall Overcome.
Long known as "The Negro National Anthem," this beautiful song, with lyrics by the poet James Weldon Johnson and music by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, is the official anthem of the NAACP. The version I have is by the Boys Choir of Harlem. You can listen to a story about the writing of the song, with links to several different arrangements, here. I hope we can sing it in church this Sunday. My 5th great-grandfather, Black Ben Darling, was African-American and, even living in Maine, his descendants faced discrimination for several generations, so I have some small right to join in. But in a larger sense, as with Dr. King's vision, the victory the song speaks of is for all of us.

3. We Shall Overcome -- Boys Choir of Harlem -- We Shall Overcome. In my Pilgrim Fellowship group, in then lily-white Fairfield, Connecticut*, we frequently, at the end of the Sunday night meetings, joined hands and sang this (we also sang Kumbaya, and I don't think either exercise was pointless). We were interested in the Civil Rights Movement, not yet, at 14 or 15 years old, sure what we could or would do about it. But we could sing the songs, and I think that in singing the songs, the ideas they represented became part of our worldview. The origins of this song are cloudy; the most reasonable description I've found is here (you will have to scroll down a bit to find We Shall Overcome, but it's worth it, and do click on the link to the Smithsonian recording). Note the identification of the tune with O Sanctissima -- mentioned in a previous post and here it is again!
*In our school of about 1000 kids, there were 2 black girls, I think. The boast of those who wanted to believe we were a liberal community was that Meadowlark Lemon lived in Fairfield. This turns out to be true, although he has since moved to Arizona.

4. Freedom Trilogy (Oh Freedom/Come and Go with Me/I'm on My Way) -- Odetta -- Gonna Let It Shine.
I was looking for a recording of Oh Freedom, another song I associate with the movement, and the one I liked best was in this medley by Odetta. In looking for some information on the song (it's probably a post-Civil War freedom song, adapted for the Civil Rights Movement), I came upon this hour-long report with music on Freedom Summer, 1964. It's well worth listening to, particularly if you can't remember 1964 because you are too young.

5. Hold On (Keep Your Eyes on the Prize) -- Pete Seeger -- WNEW's Story of Selma.
One more freedom song -- with a long introduction by Pete Seeger about how all these freedom songs came to be. There is more information as well as music and words here, giving some credit to Guy and Candie Carawan of the Highlander Folk School. And you should know, the Highlander Folk School was much influenced by the Danish folk school movement begun by N. F. S. Grundtvig! It's fitting that this song should appear on an album called "Story of Selma." The events in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday made it hard, but even more necessary, for the civil rights workers to hold on and keep their eyes on the prize.

6. Deep River -- Paul Robeson -- Spirituals.
I said these songs would be chronological, and at this point I am thinking about Dr. King's life. Many forget that in the last years of his ministry he was not only a civil rights activist, but a peace activist, speaking out against the war in Viet Nam. I imagine that he may often have thought of the words of this old spiritual,
Oh, don't you want to go
To that gospel feast
That Promised Land
Where all is peace?
Paul Robeson had one of the most beautiful voices of all time. I found this on YouTube:


7. Precious Lord -- The Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama -- The Sermon.
Written by gospel pioneer Thomas A. Dorsey, this was Dr. King's favorite song and one he often asked Mahalia Jackson to sing at events. She sang it at his funeral. I had picked out the Original Five Blind Boys version since I don't have the Jackson one, but then I found this:

There's a little "blip" at the beginning but otherwise it's a good recording.

8. Siyahamba (We Are Marching in the Light of God) -- Tapiola Choir -- Joy!
When Dr. King died, apartheid still held sway in South Africa and Nelson Mandela was still in prison. But people in South Africa were already singing this song, which has become a favorite of children's choirs and is included in many American hymnals. There is some information about it here. I include it because the desire for freedom and the will to attain it are worldwide. The Finnish children's choir does a lovely job, but I also found this on YouTube, a slightly older mixed choir from Croatia:


Wow! That's a lot of clicking for you to do, but I think you will enjoy and learn from it. Let's all try to make next Monday more than a day off or an occasion for store-wide sales.

2 comments:

Auntie Knickers said...

Sorry about the double YouTubes. I was editing and thought the first ones had disappeared.

Sisterknits said...

I don't know if you remember the version of Siahamba that the youth choirs at Lynnhurst did. That was my favorite. I still sing it sometimes to myself, and it makes me cry! It is a fun version that combines Oh, Freedom and Siyahamba into a three part canon/round depending on how you perform it (the third part is the We are marching). If you can find it, this is a great piece for choirs of all sizes because there are lots of ways to mix it up!