[5 August 2011]
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?
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.”
Right round the time Odetta threw down the hot comb and picked up the guitar, alto saxman Ornette Coleman was saying with his horn what words could not describe. Fusing blues and jazz to African forms, he began the work that would prepare the way for his albums Something Else!!!! The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century, expressions of the new sound in jazz. His experiments were dubbed free jazz, and its angular horn squonks and unorthodox rhythms easily fit with the stirrings of pride and power bubbling beneath the surface of the fight for civil rights. Coleman’s music wasn’t easy; his transposed notes and unorthodox harmonies voiced frustration, despair, elation, beauty, and tears, as well as sheer rage. He avoided ideology, but his music unleashed an energy that could be heard by those tuned into its message. And like liberation itself, his experiments in avant-garde and free jazz were met with resistance by the establishment. Recalling the poverty and racism of his Forth Worth, Texas, upbringing, Coleman was inspired to join the fight in which his jazz forebears Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk had landed their own blows to racism. They had also been victimized by it. On a break from his set at Birdland in 1959, Miles Davis escorted a white woman to her taxicab. While enjoying a cigarette before his next set, he was asked to “move along” by the beat cop. After refusing the officer’s request, he was beaten, arrested, and hospitalized, and his cabaret license was revoked.
Surviving harassment, crossing color lines, resisting authority, forging new areas of sound with the invention of bebop, and moving jazz from nightclub entertainment into realms of high art was the work of these past masters and key players in jazz’s liberation. As with Coleman, the jazz forerunners had left their impression on musician and playwright Archie Shepp, who from an early age was inspired by the possibilities jazz offered a young black man. “As a younger man, being exposed to modern music—black music—was really quite important to me, in the forming of my identity, in the forming of my goals,” he says. Shepp’s music-loving family—his father was a blues fan and his grandfather a banjo player—moved from Florida to Philadelphia in the early 1940s. Shepp also played the banjo, but the sound of Jimmy McGriff’s alto sax floating through the neighborhood inspired him to switch instruments. “Even giving the blues all its due, people like Parker and Gillespie, Monk, actually provided younger black people with another image of themselves. They were really role models for me; they gave me somewhere to go.”
The Freedom Suites
Two albums credited for fusing the politics of black liberation with the new sound are Sonny Rollins’s Freedom Suite—the first experiment—and Max Roach’s Freedom Now—the fulfillment of the form. Freedom Suite, the 1958 album on which saxophonist Rollins was accompanied by bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Max Roach, was the first to take a giant step toward political-musical fusion. Its first track, “The Freedom Suite,” was an original piece by Rollins, partially composed of standards and characterized by changing tempos and variations on improvised themes. The nearly twenty-minute song was the first jazz instrumental to claim social issues as its inspiration. “America is deeply rooted in Negro culture, its colloquialisms, its humor, its music. How ironic that the Negro who more than any other people can claim America’s culture as his own is being persecuted and repressed. That the Negro who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence is being rewarded with inhumanity,” proclaimed Rollins in the album’s original sleeve notes.
Roach’s album, which followed in 1960, its complete title We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite was larger in scope. The work was conceived as a performance piece to coincide with the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, and freedom was its through line, right down to the cover art featuring three African American men at a lunch counter with a white waiter on standby. The intense project, with lyrics by Oscar Brown Jr. and vocals by Abbey Lincoln, captured the sound of exploitation, degradation, and, ultimately, freedom. The album made a radical statement—politically as well as sonically—and is a cornerstone recording in the history of contemporary black liberation music. Making a link between the oppression of blacks throughout the world, Roach and other politically motivated American artists like Harry Belafonte and Nina Simone were seeking to parallel the civil rights movement in the United States with the unfolding liberation of Kenya, Ghana, Congo, and Algeria. The year 1960 was dubbed the Year of Africa, and independence from France, Britain, and Belgium signaled hope that human rights, dignity, and economic health would be restored throughout the continent.
In South Africa, apartheid was still many years away from resolution, and music played a significant role in the struggle. Merging regional music and church music, South African musicians had established a tradition of freedom singing in the forties; the movement gained momentum as singers took their music and their cause to world stages.
Inspired by the political works of singer-activist Paul Robeson, Belafonte reached out to foster a cross-cultural alliance with South African artists like singer Miriam Makeba and trumpeter and composer Hugh Masekela. On the Greenwich Village music scene, Belafonte had familiarized himself with traditional folk songs. In 1956 he had released Calypso, which later sold millions. By no means an easy-listening experience, calypso is a potent form of anti-imperialist expression, a fact that is often concealed by its breezy steel drum sounds. The actor and singer who popularized “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” would, like fellow calypso artists Maya Angelou and Louis Farrakhan, successfully cross to another stage. Belafonte’s entertainment career was ultimately eclipsed by his humanitarian efforts. He financed civil rights movement activities, helped organize the March on Washington, and was a confidant of Dr. King. Belafonte supported the work of world-class players like Masekela and Makeba, introducing the South African musicians to his American audiences. The musicians in turn introduced him to the breadth and depth of Africa’s music. As a member of the Jazz Epistles featuring Dollar Brand (also known as Abdullah Ibrahaim), Masekela traveled the globe, leaving South Africa shortly after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960.
Mama Africa, as Makeba was known, also toured the world. In 1960, as she attempted to return to Africa for her mother’s funeral, she found her passport had been revoked. It was during this period of exile that Makeba and Nina Simone struck up a friendship that would last their lifetimes.
Just as the groundbreakers before them had, Coleman and Shepp encountered obstacles and extreme reactions as their work hovered in the outer reaches of so-called acceptable musical society. But the music was finding an audience with the tuned-in, hip, intellectual crowd, and people who could hear and appreciate free jazz as the new art form that it was—the musical equivalent to abstract expressionism and the Beat movement. As a horn player, Shepp grew up searching for John Coltrane in Philadelphia, though instead he found Cecil Taylor in New York City. After studying theater at Goddard College, he arrived on the scene at the end of 1959 when a chance meeting on the street with avant-garde pianist Taylor landed him his first professional recording date and a stint with Taylor’s band.
“Cecil opened up a number of doors for me intellectually—made me understand that music is an intelligent pursuit, not one that’s dominated by people that couldn’t do anything else,” Shepp says. “He dropped that on me quite clearly since he was so much more brilliant academically than people I knew who thought they were pretty smart!”
Inspired by “the new thing,” John Coltrane explored the new languages and landscapes being forged by Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra, and others experimenting with breaking free of old codes, though the new thing wasn’t entirely popular with his existing audience.
“The established jazz people called John Coltrane anti-jazz and hated the fact that the musicians were experimental and trying to change forms,” explains John Sinclair, a writer, poet, and music fanatic who soaked in the new jazz sounds. As a freelance contributor to the jazz journal Downbeat and music editor and columnist at the Fifth Estate, Detroit’s underground paper, “I was among about four people in America who had a good opinion of it and started to write about it. There was another white guy and the black guys A. B. Spellman and LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka].
“The jazz cats were all here first, at great risk to themselves and their career and with no possible benefit that you could have as jazz artists,” says Sinclair.
“This recent music is significant of more ‘radical’ changes and reevaluations of social and emotional attitudes toward the general environment,” wrote Amiri Baraka of Coleman, Taylor, Coltrane, and the explosion in jazz. “But I cannot think that the music itself is a more radical, or any more illogical extension of the kinetic philosophy that has informed Negro music since its inception in America. Negro music is always radical in the context of formal American culture,” Baraka said in Blues People, his classic book on black sounds. Making more overtly political music and linking up the music directly with politics seemed to be the path toward achieving greater liberty. From the sustenance hymns of slaves, to bop, and now in avant-garde, African American musical output kicked against the pricks, and the effort yielded varying degrees of freedom as well as suffering.
Starting in the mid-fifties, jazz players served as cultural ambassadors and public relations tools as part of a US government program to export American culture overseas at the height of the Cold War. Confronting the inevitable questions on US race relations and desegregation, the presence of bandleaders Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Dizzy Gillespie outside of the United States essentially backfired when everyone was forced to admit that the jazz musicians, some of America’s greatest cultural exports, weren’t exactly handled like national treasures at home, a point reinforced by the early 1960s reports of racial hatred on southern soil. The bandleaders were forthright about their experiences, and the music did the rest of the talking, whether traditional, bebop, or avant-garde. The very invention of jazz was liberation, and playing it was a statement, a creative expression of something entirely new. Not only did jazz serve as a device to throw off the European classical tradition on which it was partially based, it became a showcase for African melodic roots and its contributing influence on the music of the American south. It was beboppers who noted the connection first, finding kinship between their highly disciplined form and that of the ancients. While performing with a traditional dancer, a cast of Afro-Cuban drummers, and Max Roach at an African cultural event, “Charlie Parker and I found the connections between Afro-Cuban and African music and discovered the identity of our music with theirs,” writes Gillespie. “The music proclaimed our identity. It made every statement we wanted to make.”
Post-bop modern jazz was associated with other modes of expression, such as painting and poetry, and other regional music, specifically that of India and the Far East. The study of religion and philosophy became a part of jazz discovery. Distancing themselves from Western religious practice and seeking sanctuary from racism, jazz artists found the road to enlightenment by developing an interest in Islam or converting to one of its branches.
For some seekers, the Black Muslims and the charismatic Minister Malcolm X served as an introduction to the Islamic faith independent of the religion’s central teachings. On the surface, Malcolm X was like jazz to Dr. King’s traditional gospel: his sound reached the day shift, the night shift, the overnight shift, and the shiftless in its urgency. Malcolm X’s truths and rhythms struck chords closer to the sounds of everyday people and of the streets and prison from which he came. It was closer to the sound of revolution, and it did not intend to wait politely like the words and music of the righteous Dr. King and his gospel and folk queens, Mahalia Jackson and Joan Baez. You did not have to be a black separatist or a Black Muslim to appreciate the commitment Malcolm X made to the cause of human rights.
Originally founded in 1930, the Nation of Islam (NOI) gained ground in the 1950s under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. The NOI preached that blacks were the original human beings and that whites were “devils.” Islam was “the black man’s religion,” and Christianity was “the white man’s faith that had been taught to blacks in order to keep them subservient and exploitable.” Under the name the Charmer, NOI’s modern-day representative Louis Farrakhan recorded a calypso single, “A White Man’s Heaven Is a Black Man’s Hell.”
Malcolm X would later make the observation that jazz was an area where black artists were given true liberation. “It’s the only area on the American scene where the black man has been free to create,” he said. Archie Shepp explains it this way: “It is antiwar; it is opposed to Vietnam; it is for Cuba, it is for the liberation of all people. That is the nature of jazz. Why is it so? Because jazz is a music itself born out of oppression, born out of the enslavement of my people.”
“They were the first ones really to say that,” says John Sinclair, “that white people were doing what they were doing because they meant to—it wasn’t a mistake. They understood that their salvation was only going to come from themselves.” As a resident of Detroit in tune with the racial tension in the North and in the South, Sinclair says he observed the climate change from integrationist to separatist thinking. Judged on the basis of his skin, the Black Muslims would’ve recognized Sinclair as a white devil, but he was drawn toward their side of black equality, by any means necessary.
Among other musicians attracted to the Black Muslim’s message was R&B bandleader Johnny Otis and his discovery, the blues singer Etta James. “Hearing the white man called the devil didn’t bother me at all. Calling anybody the devil gave me a chuckle,” writes James, who is African American and white, in her autobiography. James was the child of a young, wayward mother and an absent father whom James never knew but claimed was pool shark Minnesota Fats. Her success as a singer for the pioneering rock ‘n’ blues label Chess Records of Chicago transformed her from a child in the Los Angeles ghetto to an R&B star. Initially James, who struggled with addiction, joined the Black Muslims as a way to get clean. As Jamesetta X, she attended Temple 15 in Atlanta, where Louis Farrakhan was minister: “I became an honorable Elijah Muhammad Muslim… No more slave name.” She believes that her enthusiasm for the NOI was what compelled one of her admirers, the boxer Cassius Clay, toward exploring and becoming directly involved with the faith. However, in James’s case the faith didn’t stick; she left it after calling herself a Muslim for ten years. “Looking back, I see it as something of a fad for me—it was the radical, the ‘in’ thing to do—but at the time I took it seriously.” However the community’s messages on pride and self-determination stayed with her, especially in difficult times. “If I didn’t fall off the wagon so easily and frequently, Islam might’ve helped me avoid all sorts of problems.”
James’s early mentor Johnny Otis was especially influenced by Malcolm X’s liberation rhetoric. As the son of Greek immigrants, Otis lived his life if not passing then certainly living more comfortably among blacks, participating in the struggle and becoming adept at his own political and spiritual speechifying: “Whites can exalt about ‘bombs bursting in air,’ but if a Black man or woman so much as suggests kickin’ some ass to get free, the right wing bristles, and the liberals are pained,” he writes. Otis discovered, produced, and nurtured gigantic talents; he recorded the foundational rock ’n’ roll song “Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton and worked with rock pioneer Hank Ballard and soul singer Jackie Wilson. On the road, Otis saw the rigors of racism. He participated in organizing discussions and boycotts and ultimately parlayed his frontline musical experience and strong point of view into broadcasting his political beliefs. He contributed to community welfare by becoming a preacher himself. Though Otis admired Dr. King, “I guess my role model was more Malcolm X,” he says.
Where Folk Meets Jazz, Poetry, Politics, and Africa
Her political involvement stirring, Nina Simone was among the artists who congregated at the Village Gate, the club at the heart of the Greenwich Village jazz scene. “Politics was mixed in so much with what went on at the Gate, I remember it now as two sides of one coin, politics and jazz,” she writes in her memoir. As an artist who would come to defy all standard classification, Nina Simone’s album Little Girl Blue, alternately known as Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club, was simply one of those late 1950s recordings that every American household seemed to own, sold largely on the strength of her Billie Holiday–inspired take of “I Loves You, Porgy” from the popular musical Porgy and Bess. “She was put in a jazz category but she very strongly said she was not a jazz artist,” says Al Schackman. Deeply involved in the movement himself, Schackman was a player with Harry Belafonte and a practitioner of Sufism; he was also Simone’s sole collaborator, musical director, and guitarist. A Greenwich Village regular himself—“They used to call me Sparks. I think I was one of the first electric guitar players on the scene”—Schackman says of Simone, “If you wanted to classify her, she said she was a folk artist.” But Simone’s folk was not coffeehouse strumming; rather, it was folk as in the people’s music. She felt folk was more inclusive and indicative of the breadth of her work, plus she resented the jazz tag, feeling ghettoized and hemmed in by the label.
Simone’s coming to black consciousness had been coaxed along by friends already committed to the movement for equality: writers James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and LeRoi Jones; the comedians Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby; and jazz poet Langston Hughes. Chronicling the New Negro Movement of the 1920s and 1930s, Hughes was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Originally a midwesterner with a family history that includes mixed-race people and abolitionists, Hughes wrote about lives in a vernacular that was familiar and authentic. He incorporated the sound of music into his prose and poems: “Take Harlem’s heartbeat, Make it a drumbeat, Put it on a record, Let it whirl.” His style was a breakthrough in modern literature and its lyricism translated into the development of blacker voices in music, too. Simone, Len Chandler, and Richie Havens are just three of many artists who say they were profoundly influenced by Hughes’s jazz-inspired work. His ability to distill truth and outrage while maintaining an uncommon faith in humankind had a profound impact on the voices of the freedom movement.
As a teenaged library clerk in Akron, Len Chandler discovered Hughes. “My job was to shelve and I got really good at it, really fast… I would hide and read and in the last hour, I’d be a blinding streak and get everything done. One of the things I found was Shakespeare in Harlem. He became a big favorite of mine and I read everything he did.” Chandler says he fell into the pictures of Picasso and the words of John Steinbeck in the comfort of his middle-class childhood. “My father played in the Tuskegee Air Force Army Band, behind Lena Horne,” he explains, so clearly talent ran in the family. As for his stepmother, “She contributed a lot to who I am and what I’m about. She made possible every opportunity a child in Akron could enjoy, culturally, educationally, sports… I went to summer camps, I learned to swim and ride horses,” he says. He attended the Cleveland opera; as an usher, he watched orchestras and legendary composers and players like Vladimir Horowitz. “From the time I was about fourteen, I saw everything that happened in that town and when I say everything I mean everything.” Chandler left Akron on a classical music scholarship to Columbia University in New York; he too arrived in Greenwich Village.
Richie Havens didn’t have to travel as far to find himself at the center of the action there. A budding poet, painter, and doo-wop singer from Bedford-Stuyvesant, it never occurred to him to visit the Village till some kids on the block called him a beatnik. Deciding to investigate for himself, he was turned on to the new folk sound there by the song “Get Together” by Dino Valenti.
Love is but a song we sing, fear’s the way we die.
“He wrote it in 1958,” Havens says. “We were awakening by these songs.” As a young songwriter, Fred Neil’s “Tear Down the Walls” moved Havens similarly.
The music’s in the air, where every man is free.
“In 1959? I’m going, wow. Almost nobody was asking those kinds of things or projecting them,” he says. “We’d sit at a table with our little books and Allen Ginsberg would say, what’s in those books? Get up there and read them! That’s how it began for me.” After his baptism into folk tradition in a Village coffeehouse by Ginsberg, Havens began to blend his Bed-Stuy doo-wop poetics with his developing style of percussive acoustic guitar.
With the Village doing its job on its new arrivals, Nina Simone included, it was inevitable there would be a defining moment, one that gave Simone direction, away from jazz and into the area that would and helped shape her into the singularly potent, impossible-to-pigeonhole international artist she was becoming. “Babatunde Olatunji took us to Africa for a big international festival, to Nigeria. That was really the beginning of her African traditions,” explains Schackman. Babatunde “Michael” Olatunji had come to America in 1950 on a scholarship from Lagos, Nigeria. On his way to becoming a master drummer, the activist and educator studied public policy at New York University and founded the Olatunji Center For African Culture in Harlem and fell in with the jazz crowd, specifically John Coltrane. Olatunji jammed with Max Roach on We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. Olatunji’s 1960 album, Drums of Passion, was a watershed recording. Not only did it introduce the American masses to African music (it sold upward of five million copies), its release coincided exactly with the sit-in at the North Carolina lunch-counter that marked the beginning of student involvement in the nonviolent desegregation campaign. Olatunji had attended Morehouse University in Atlanta; he rode in the front of buses there before his New York arrival and was acquainted with the movement toward nonviolent desegregation. He was a profound influence and fixture on the rapidly expanding civil rights scene.
Between his music studies uptown at Columbia, Len Chandler worked a day job at a downtown center for children in need; the boys there led him to the singing sessions at Washington Square Park. Folk wasn’t exactly Len’s bag, but he knew the songs of Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Big Bill Broonzy well enough to get by and soon was getting paid to play. “Hugh Romney—Wavy Gravy—took me down to Orchard Street in New York and put me in a costume. I had a chambray work shirt, some real nice black boots and a little bandana handkerchief around my neck and that became my folk costume,” he says. Securing gigs at all the folk clubs, he held a regular spot at the Gaslight, one of the Village’s most desirable venues, notable for its history of beat poetry readings and its prestige bookings of folksingers. Following a performance there, Chandler was tapped for contract with a Detroit television show, performing two songs a night. He took the gig, using it as an opportunity to expand his traditional folk repertoire. When he returned to New York thirteen weeks later, “everyone had on the same black jeans and chambray shirt,” he says. The golden age of Greenwich Village had begun; the scene’s most famous son, Bob Dylan, arrived there in January of 1961.
“When Dylan came to town, he wasn’t writing much, he wasn’t writing anything, really,” Chandler remembers. “We’d drink coffee and look through the daily newspapers left behind on the counter to see if there was any song material in any of it,” Dylan writes in his book Chronicles of himself and Chandler. “I hadn’t yet begun writing streams of songs like I would, but Len was and everything around us looked absurd—there was a certain consciousness of madness at work.” Dylan’s self-directed studies of history, current events, traditional music, and the rebellion songs of Ireland’s Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were parts of a longer equation; his Greenwich Village relocation and relationship with a politically aware young woman, Suze Rotolo, further flesh out the portrait of a musician as a young man, just one of many folksingers on the new beat.
“The first song I ever heard of Dylan’s was ‘Hey ho, hey Lead Belly, I just want to sing your name’... stuff like that,” says Chandler. In December 1961, Chandler wrote his first song. “I was playing up in Saratoga Springs, New York. On the front page of the newspaper, the two pulp newspapers, the Daily News and the Post, they had similar pictures. There had been a terrible school bus accident in Greeley, Colorado, and I wrote about that. What was so heavy about it was everyone had seen that photo and it was really shocking… women standing like that [hands to face], kids messed up on the ground, and so I wrote… about that and played it as my last song of the set that night.” The audience was devastated, to the point of being struck silent by Chandler’s performance of his freshly composed original song. “I left the stage and went into the dressing room, took off my shirt… wiped myself off, put on a new shirt, put my guitar away and then applause started. People were hammering the tables and stomping, screaming and I thought… this is something.”
Alongside the folk standards on Bob Dylan’s 1962 debut album were two original songs: “Song to Woody” (inspired by Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre”) and “Talkin’ New York” fit neatly into his set of otherwise traditional arrangements and blues. Dylan borrowed Chandler’s melody for another of his own songs, the early civil rights era eulogy “The Death of Emmett Till,” about a fourteen-year-old African American boy from Chicago who was brutally murdered on a visit to Money, Mississippi, in 1955 because he spoke to a white woman.
“[Chandler] played me this one and he said, ‘Don’t those chords sound nice’ and I said, ‘They sure do,’ so I stole it. I stole the whole thing,” laughed Dylan during Cynthia Gooding’s radio show in 1962. “Len didn’t seem to mind,” he wrote later in Chronicles: Volume One. In the spirit of folk’s tradition of love and theft, borrowing and sharing was standard practice among folksingers, especially within the close circle of Greenwich Village friends.
Dylan first began intently studying the Civil War while attending a well-appointed high school in Hibbing, Minnesota. “The age I was living in didn’t resemble this age, but yet it did in some mysterious and traditional way,” he writes. “Back there, America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected. There was nothing synthetic about it. The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template of everything I would write.” Dylan’s material developed into pointed statements on injustice; as he deepened his queries into the human condition and the causes that drive people toward or away from certain actions, he made the transformation from folk imitator to innovator. “It was what was happening around him, right at the moment,” says Chandler.
Beyond the insular yet international island of Manhattan, there were other simultaneous movements and interpretations of freedom. James Marshall Hendrix of Seattle was just out of the army, living in Nashville. Before it became known almost exclusively for its country scene, Music City was a stop on the so-called Chitlin Circuit, the clubs dotting the south where African Americans worked without hassle in the era of segregation. Hendrix was part of the high-level R&B scene there, sharpening his tools as a sideman. “Every Sunday we used to go downtown to watch the race riots. We’d take a picnic basket because they wouldn’t serve us in the restaurant,” he said. He was arrested with his musician friend Billy Cox during a lunch counter demonstration there in 1962. In Detroit, a hotbed for freethinking and musical innovation, for musician and entrepreneur Berry Gordy Jr. black unity was a way to financial freedom. Tired of earning pennies on the dollar for his compositions for R&B singer Jackie Wilson, he formed the labels Tamla and Motown in 1959 and began to bank on the dividends of building an all-black business empire. He built rosters consisting almost entirely of kids from around the way. As it turned out, Tamla’s first national hit, “Money (That’s What I Want)” sung by Barrett Strong, was as prophetic as it was strong: “Well now give me money (that’s what I want)... I wanna be free.”
In part, the birth of rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s had successfully launched an integration campaign; as a demonstration of unification between black and white, the merging of “hillbilly” and “race music” was a wild success. However, it wasn’t long before the inevitable conservative backlash campaign to denounce the musical miscegenation started. As the 1960s began, rock’s originators were largely shunted aside for a whitewashed version of music founded largely on black creative inspiration; white remakes of black records. In the record business existed a system of unfortunate and unfair business practice—something that Gordy had initially tried to offset, though would later be accused of practicing himself—that persisted until the music business’s general decline in the early twenty-first century. Disputes over money matters between artist and label, black and white, businessmen and artists would haunt the record business for at least fifty years. Nina Simone was among those ripped off royally upon the release of her now-classic 1958 album Little Girl Blue. When she measured the album’s popularity against her earnings from it, she became aware fairly quickly that she’d been done wrong. In her lifetime she never collected what she was due for the album’s enduring success through the years. Hers is one of many stories that demonstrate the necessity of financial equality, education, and empowerment for recording artists from lower-income backgrounds. In particular need of representation was the young talent pool emerging from black America that Gordy helped initiate. Eventually a network of musician and professional associations developed to support eclectic artists from divergent socio-economic backgrounds, but economic justice remains an issue for recording artists.
Artistically, the new voices of freedom and equality found a West Coast advocate in Ed Pearl. There were few places to hear the new music outside of Greenwich Village, but when Pearl, owner of the Los Angeles club the Ash Grove, attended the first annual Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island in 1959, his entrée to the East Coast folk establishment led directly to the introduction of folk and traditional music to the West Coast. “I met Alan Lomax, the New Lost City Ramblers… people had started hearing good things about the Ash Grove, so I had all these good people doing the booking. I still hadn’t yet had the great traditional singers, but then Bess [Lomax] Hawes brought in Lightnin’ Hopkins. Slow but sure, word got around and I started to hire Big Joe Williams. I introduced Lightnin’ to Brownie [McGhee] and Sonny [Terry].”
The list of legends who went west and filled Pearl’s club with music starts with Maybelle Carter, Roscoe Holcomb, Robert Pete Williams, Sleepy John Estes, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Bukka White, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and Doc Watson. It continues with Mississippis— John Hurt and Fred MacDowell—and includes the three Bigs: Joe Turner, Joe Williams, and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. There were hundreds more. Pearl suggests these bookings affected the young folk as much as Woody Guthrie shaped Bob Dylan singing his way out of Minnesota and Greenwich Village, much as Beatlemania would eventually launch a thousand rock bands and encourage boys to grow their hair long. The folk and blues revival’s black/ white, young/old, traditional/contemporary, and country/urban music contrasts were a direct link to the “justice and equality for all” politics of the civil rights movement and the nation’s rapidly growing social consciousness led by its youth. “At the Folklore Center I’d seen posters of folk shows at the Ash Grove and I used to dream about playing there,” writes Dylan.
In Memphis, high school student Booker T. Jones quietly integrated his quartet, the M.G.’s, who were cooking up the basis for the sound of Stax Records. As Soulsville U.S.A., Stax became synonymous with a deeper kind of southern music that mixed gospel and rock ’n’ roll and defined the sound of soulfulness for most of the sixties. Meanwhile in New York, making his recorded debut at the age of twenty as a harmonica player on a Belafonte album, Bob Dylan’s Columbia Records debut Bob Dylan was a collection of mostly traditional songs. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan established him as a writer with more than old folk renditions on his mind. Dylan was well on his way toward changing the way the masses and his fellow artists related to political matters mixed with folk music. When she met Dylan, Joan Baez was folk music’s reigning queen at age nineteen. Inspired by Odetta and Pete Seeger, Baez made her debut on the Cambridge folk scene holding down a spot at Club 47. She appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, and invited Dylan to perform there in 1963. Baez practiced civil disobedience as a student and studied pacifism and the nonviolence teachings of Dr. King. She was enfolded into the civil rights movement not only as an entertainer but as a living example of its core values, singing to workers in Mississippi while she continued to study and teach nonviolence in her home state of California.
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.