An Indictment of America, Set to Song
Like Baez, Len Chandler had walked with Dr. King in Alabama and Mississippi; he had taken the Freedom Rides for interstate bus desegregation and sung for voting rights. Chandler, Baez, and Dylan came together at the historic March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. Chandler led Baez and Dylan in a sing-along version of “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” customizing the lyrics to the song also known as “Gospel Plough,” for the historic occasion. The march coincided with the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation and will be forever remembered for Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Belafonte organized the singers that day, pulling in Odetta, Marian Anderson, the Freedom Singers, and Peter, Paul and Mary. Olatunji was in attendance, as was Dizzy Gillespie. Gospel queen Mahalia Jackson of New Orleans was also there that day; she often sang on the most important occasions at which Dr. King spoke, the pair working in tandem, her voice a kind of hallelujah chorus, of a piece with his testimonies. The singing at the mass gatherings not only provided entertainment, it served as a way for audiences to participate in the event. Music’s ability to reach the place in the heart that words alone simply cannot access made it essential to the spoken presentations and to keeping the human spirit awake. If the justice and morality at the basis of Dr. King’s message couldn’t reach its intended audience, perhaps some familiar words from a gospel song could get the job done. “Jesus died to set me free, nailed to that cross on Calvary,” sang Jackson that day, from “’Buked and Scorned,” Dr. King’s last-minute special request. The gospel classic circulated in the sixties in a secular folk arrangement; it was performed by Odetta and was rearranged as a blues song by Lightnin’ Hopkins, who cautioned, “You’re going to need somebody on your bond.” As sung by Jackson, “’Buked and Scorned” was offered not only as a balm and a prayer, but as an indictment of America.
America Is Singing
Though as a bluesman Hopkins and others like him had sung songs of black strength and white scorn, the blues weren’t represented at the March, even though in his satirical campaign for president, Dizzy Gillespie said if elected he’d rename the White House the Blues House. The blues were the original cries of freedom, yet there were other forms of freedom song and singers conspicuous by their absence on that day. Where were the fathers of rock and soul, the free jazz players and the young gospel voices who called freedom’s name with their horns and impassioned pleas of Good Golly! Good God! And Have Mercy! They too had sung for liberation, pioneering breaks in the color barrier, traveling through towns where their presence was less than welcome, entering through the back door when it meant the difference between violence and keeping the peace. They had all been testifying through songs in their own ways.
The jazzmen had used their technical mastery and were taking jazz to the next level—sonically and spiritually improvising, though some like Thelonious Monk were skeptical about joining up; he once told Freedom Singer Bernice Johnson, “You are gonna get yourselves killed walkin’ out here in these streets in front of these crazy white people, your local crazy white people who’ve got guns.” But even he’d thrown his trademark hat into the freedom effort, lending his financial and artistic support. A week before the March on Washington he played a fundraiser for the Negro American Labor Council, which escorted busloads of workers to the March.
Like Monk, gospel turned pop great Sam Cooke watched the event at home on TV that day, where the March and its music made an indelible impact on him and the direction political song would take.
The story goes that Cooke was so inspired by Bob Dylan’s performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he decided he should write his own protest song.
I was born by the river in a little tent
And just like the river, I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long time coming but I know a change is gonna come
Opening with the sweetness—birth in a little tent, perhaps referring to the singer’s own beginnings in Clarksdale, Mississippi—the song recounts with a bitter tone the imagery of a runaway slave, running ever since, before it turns toward the one thing that can’t be taken away from a person, the sanctuary of the spirit or the soul: Deep in my heart, I do believe, I know a change is gonna come.
“A Change Is Gonna Come” rose to become one of the movement’s most important anthems; Cooke’s song served as a new template for the message songs that would be sung by black artists. At the time of its immediate release it wasn’t embraced as a hit, but Cooke and his management pushed for a second release of it and when they got it, the song made the Top 10 on the R&B charts and by early 1965 had cracked the Top 40 charts, transforming the shape of R&B to come. Though Cooke would not live to see the success of his song, he hit a vein for his contemporaries—Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Solomon Burke among them—to go on and mine further. The new strain of secular music from the soul conveyed plainly the gut feelings about getting left back and left behind. It was messier and more complicated than the reverential tones of “We Shall Overcome,” but the new direct musical communication had an emotional component and power to it. Not only did it evoke empathy and tears from listeners, but it also summoned them to dance while its singers tore it up to the breaking point. Telling the stories of struggle and performing and participating on community action lines was one thing, but transferring the energy of the struggle and delivering it personally, taking the racial crisis in progress and turning it into a human problem rather than a political one, was the new sound’s genius. Many of the new music’s messengers had come from gospel tradition; they knew of handclapping, exhortations, and exclamations and audience participation. And yet, this was very clearly nighttime music, its concerns often earthly and bodily, but with an unbreakable spirit. This was soul music and it was about to explode.
Though not all were in agreement on how the movement should move forward, the musical followers of the Black Muslims and Malcolm X, SNCC, and the SCLC and Dr. King were united in a mass chorus to move. Student leader Julian Bond built on Langston Hughes’s response to Walt Whitman, hearing pride and the power in the all the degrees, shades, and sounds of blackness. Bond wrote:
I too, hear America singing
But from where I stand
I can only hear Little Richard
And Fats Domino.
I hear Ray Charles
Drowning in his own tears
Relaxing at Camarillo
Or Horace Silver doodling,
Then I don’t mind standing
a little longer.
Neither jazz, nor folk, nor poetry, nor rock ’n’ roll could single-handedly render a people free, but they all helped set the course on the path to pride and contributed to the necessary development of an almighty body politic. America was singing, and her people were calling her out.