Excerpted from Chapter 1: Freedom Now (footnotes omitted), from Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hip-Hop by Denise Sullivan, published July 2011 by Chicago Review Press. Copyright © 2011 by Denise Sullivan. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Who ever heard of angry revolutionists all harmonizing ‘We Shall Overcome… Suum Day’... Who ever heard of angry revolutionists swinging their bare feet together with their oppressor in lily pad park pools, with gospels and guitars and ‘I Have a Dream’ speeches? And the black masses in America were—and still are—having a nightmare,” was Malcolm X’s take on music and freedom movement: what’s singing got to do with it?
Keep On Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hip-hop
(Chicago Review Press; US: Jul 2011)
Ever since 1961, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) took their voting rights and desegregation campaign to Albany, Georgia, singing had been an important tool in the nonviolent fight. At turns disarming and disturbing, verses and choruses coexisted with the slogans and prayers that drove the marches. The freedom movement—as in Freedom Summer, the freedom rides, and the slogan “Freedom Now”—were inextricably linked to song.
Young freedom mover Len Chandler had time for both Dr. King and Malcolm X, who history has shown were more in agreement than poles apart. Like his heroes, Chandler had a gift for words, and he used it to write songs on the spot—on a march, in jail, or while recovering from wounds inflicted on him on the bloody roads of Selma and Montgomery. A contemporary of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Richie Havens, Chandler’s story serves as a guide to the songwriter’s experience during the unique era when songs contributed to propelling a mass movement. Chandler started out by borrowing high-flying gospel melodies and setting them to lyrical themes that stung, writing music specifically for movement; eventually he came to write originals. And though he didn’t set out to be a freedom singer, or to find trouble, whether as a boy growing up in Akron, Ohio, or a young man in the Birmingham jail, both singing and trouble had a way of finding him. “My mother was someone who said, ‘Just don’t take any shit,’ ” Chandler says. And so he learned to fight back with songs, joining the men and women from the North and South—the singers and the unsung who reached out and brought others along with a song—walking the line for freedom and singing their way to consciousness in a new era of politicization.
“More than any other person, Malcolm X was responsible for the growing consciousness and the new militancy of black people,” writes activist, musician, photographer, and author Julius Lester, and there was no doubt that from Memphis to Detroit, from Harlem to Watts, a new Afrocentric consciousness was rising. The words of blues and jazz poets were mixing it up with the sermons of preachers, the melodies of Calypso singers, and voices from Africa. The ballads of the British Isles that had melded into gospel and slave songs were getting written over with R&B emotion and jazz courage. From this mix, a powerful new strain of popular music emerged. The bold sounds spoke to rebellion—there was an anger, an urgency, and a stridency in the notes, with a little bebop and Little Richard thrown into the mix. The beautiful chaos of horn charts collided with the comfort of church music; these new combinations were the early rumblings that helped to rearrange the polite “moon in June” status quo. The sheer force of the notes coming from the new breed of singer and player got folks listening. They began to recognize themselves and their own strength wrapped within each song’s intensity. Like Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching statement “Strange Fruit” from a previous era, the new songs were fearless at unmasking the ugly and shameful truths about society in the land of the free—truths that people could no longer let go unspoken and unheard, not with the scenes they faced in Mississippi and Alabama and the nightmare unfolding in Vietnam. And yet as the year turned from 1959 to 1960, the naming of this powerful new movement was still a few years away: Amiri Baraka was still known as LeRoi Jones, and Stokely Carmichael, a new arrival at Howard University, was just becoming acquainted with student organizing committees. No plans had been laid for a Black Arts Movement or the Mississippi Freedom Summer. Certainly there was not an organized movement to claim Black Power. But there were songs—and they were starting to be sung.
Old Folks, New Folks
Around the same time, the major musical currents shaping contemporary jazz, folk, and rock were beginning to converge in a powerful new strain of freedom music. The songs and stories of some of its groundbreaking players—some known and some less so—serve as beacons to illuminate the era.
Out in California Odetta had been bashing out Lead Belly songs. Following a brief period in which she was being groomed to be the next Marian Anderson—“Because I was a big, black young lady”—Odetta decided she had no desire to be “another somebody.” She joined the cast of Finian’s Rainbow, a popular musical that takes a satirical look at southern bigotry. She discovered the bohemian life in San Francisco while on tour with the company show. “We’d finish our play, we’d go to the joint, and people were sitting around playing guitars and singing songs and it felt like home.”
When Odetta was six years old, her mother moved them from Alabama to California. “The first wound that I received was on a train going to Los Angeles. A conductor comes back and tells the train we colored people had to get out of the car and go somewhere else. That one was the first wound. That’s when I got the message that what I was and what I was from was not worth anything. The wound caused the fear, the hate… and the music has healed me.” She also credits the music for shaping her identity. “We were not taught about ourselves. When I started in the years of folk music it was a discovery. What is called a natural today used to be called an Odetta.”
Though the classical music she’d been raised on had been “a nice exercise… it had nothing to do with my life.” Tired of singing the songs of white people for white people, she embarked on a personal discovery of folk music. She uncovered Lead Belly’s Library of Congress recordings compiled by musicologists John and Alan Lomax. “It helped me see myself, instead of waiting for someone to look at me and say I’m OK. The folk songs, the anger, the venom, the hatred of myself and everybody and everything else… I could get my rocks off within those work songs and things without having to say I hate you and I hate me… As a matter of fact it was that area of the work songs and prison songs that helped heal me a great deal.” She sang Lead Belly’s “Cotton Fields” and “Rock Island Line” among other traditional folk and blues songs at the Tin Angel in San Francisco with guitarist Larry Mohr. Following the release of Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues in 1956, her versions of these songs created a foundation for the folk and gospel sound at the dawn of the civil rights movement.
It is hard to imagine potent political material with an emphasis on black pride developing without Odetta’s influence, just as it is difficult to imagine civil rights music without the contributions of Bob Dylan, on whom she was a key influence.
“The first thing that turned me on to folk music was Odetta,” Dylan once said. “I heard a record of hers in a record store, back when you could listen to records right there in the store. That was in ’58 or something like that. Right then and there I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top Gibson.” He learned Odetta’s versions of “Mule Skinner Blues,” “Jack o’ Diamonds,” “ ’Buked and Scorned,” and “Water Boy,” along with her arrangements of Lead Belly’s “Take This Hammer” and “Alabama Bound.” Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott were also in Dylan’s orbit of influence as he began to expand the boundaries of folk music with his original contributions.
Against a backdrop of racial division and community organizing, a great revival in American folk and traditional music—played by black and white, young and old—was now underway, despite the US government’s intention to shut it down. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had spent the 1950s investigating the political lives of suspected Communists, especially artists and others of influence in society. Many key artists were blacklisted and were kept from performing. In 1955, the committee caught up with folk music scion Pete Seeger; he didn’t appear on network television again until the mid-sixties. Seeger had been under surveillance since at least the mid-forties by the FBI and the CIA, as had actor, orator, singer, and black rights and anti-imperialist advocate Paul Robeson. Robeson’s passport was revoked so that he should not influence his growing international audience on matters race- and labor-related.
Lead Belly had his own unfortunate brushes with authority. Having served his time and hoping to relaunch his life, Huddie Ledbetter—as he’d been born—moved north, though his associations with blacklisted folksingers Seeger and Guthrie aligned him with left-wing causes, leaving him out in the cold. He tried heading west, hoping to make it in Hollywood, but again the doors he knocked on were largely closed. “The artist in Lead Belly was a hungry man,” says Seeger. “Hungry to see himself in the best of clothes, on the best street, in the best car, the best world. He knew he could help his folks everywhere to keep up their fight and their faith.” Despite his apolitical stature, Lead Belly’s voice sang out like a musical bellwether in the years leading up to the civil rights era. “There is some quality in Lead Belly that just goes to the soul of me. I can’t really say what it is,” said Odetta. “I suppose if we could put words to those areas of response, those areas that hold for us such significant feeling, we would say the words, then dissect them, and then we’d mess that up, too. So I can appreciate the fact that there is no way for me to really describe everything that I feel when I listen to Lead Belly.”