“We’ll Never Turn Back”: Gaining Sympathy and Forcing Intervention in the Voter Registration Struggle

John Poppy, “The South’s War Against Negro Votes” in Look vol. 27, no. 10. May 21, 1963, http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15932coll2/id/5401, accessed April 29, 2018.

Discouraged by the violence and disappointment, a 21-year-old woman sings with tears in her eyes. She sings of the horrors she has witnessed. She sings of the friends and leaders she has lost. She sings of her hopes for the future. Bertha Gober’s singing of “We’ll Never Turn Back” in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee Atlanta field office exemplifies the struggle and dedication of the fieldworkers trying to register black voters in the Deep South. Furthermore, the news article featuring the description of her performance works to gain the sympathies of readers.

John Poppy opens his article with the emotional scene of Gober singing. He uses her singing to usher in his discussion of the hardships and barriers, such as violence and withdrawal of aid, which fieldworkers and anyone who talks to them face in the Deep South. Poppy then inserts the question: “Why does Bertha Gober sing, ‘We’ve had to walk all by ourselves’”.1 He uses this lyric to emphasize the fieldworkers’ demand and need for federal intervention and their frustration that they have not received help at this point.

As an article published in Look, a popular magazine covering anything from sports and fashion to “social issues such as the Civil Rights Movement and women’s changing roles,”2
it had the power to reach people across the United States. The use of music in the article demonstrates how SNCC and their demonstrators utilized music as a tool of propaganda. Poppy illustrates the students’ determination and passion through describing a young woman’s performance of a freedom song. The poignant account of Gober singing “We’ll Never Turn Back” and working alongside her fellow young volunteers to gain equality, worked to gain the sympathies of readers, shifting popular opinion and eventually forcing the federal government to intervene.

1John Poppy, “The South’s War Against Negro Votes” in Look vol. 27, no. 10. May 21, 1963, http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15932coll2/id/5401, accessed April 29, 2018.

2 Library of Congress, “About This Collection,”  Look Collection, https://www.loc.gov/collections/look-magazine/about-this-collection/, accessed April 30, 2018.

Ending On a Question

Last Fourth of July weekend, I attended church with some family friends. After the service everyone gathered in back to sing some patriotic songs together. One of those songs, I remember, was “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. I didn’t find anything curious about it at the time–the lyrics were fitting for the occasion. But then I learned when the song was written and what the original lyrics were. (Spoiler alert: We were not singing all the original lyrics.)

Post-1944 lyrics taken from the official website of Woody Guthrie

During the Great Depression, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” became an optimistic anthem for the hard times. In 1940, Woody Guthrie wrote “God Blessed America for Me”, with the phrase repeated at the end of each verse, in response to Berlin’s hit song.1 The lyrics were meant to capture a more accurate image of the United States, still celebrating the land but “without glossing over its imperfections or pretending that all in America were blessed equally.”2 The last couple verses were especially overt in their political protest, and–what I find most fascinating–the song ended on a question: “I stood there wondering, if God blessed America for me.”3

When Woody Guthrie changed the title to “This Land Is Your Land” in 1944, he altered the repeated lyric to “This land was made for you and me.”4 Thus, his message became a lot more inclusive. This turned the ending question into “I stood there asking, Is this land made for you and me?” However, in his 1947 recording, he left out the two protest verses but added another verse (“Nobody living can ever stop me…”). While previous versions have been very difficult to find, this is the version that has become most well-known.5

Despite the changes it has undergone, the lyrics of “This Land Is Your Land” still promote inclusivity–a land for you and me, where no one should be left out. The song was even adopted as a campaign song for the NAACP in the 1950s.6 Because Guthrie supported the Civil Rights Movement, I’m sure he would be proud to know his words were used in the fight for equal rights. On the other hand, his words have also been adopted by military bands, big corporations, and presidential campaigns for the purpose of eliciting patriotic sentiments.7 (I even sang it in a church around Independence Day.)

It’s incredible how one song, originally intended to question the ‘blessed’ nature of this country, has become known today as an optimistic, patriotic tune, alongside “God Bless America”. I’m not saying this is a good or bad thing, but I do believe it is important to keep in mind what this song originally stood for and what it asks: was this land blessed for you and me?

1 “This Land is Your Land.” Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200000022/.

2 Galyean, Crystal. “‘This Machine Kills Fascists’: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie.” U.S. History Scene. http://ushistoryscene.com/article/woody-guthrie/.

3 Songs 1, Box 3, Folder 27, Woody Guthrie Archives, 250 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

How An Architectural Interior Designer Captured the Evolution of the African American Spiritual

http://ezproxy.stolaf.edu/login?url=https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity|recorded_cd|72058

It isn’t often that an architectural interior designer from Detroit with a battery-operated reel-to-reel tape recorder captures a vitally important moment in history, but Carl Benkert, a man who happened to fit the aforementioned description, managed to accomplish just that. In the year of 1965, when the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, and protesters were marching from Selma, Alabama to the State Capitol in Montgomery for access to the voting registration, Benkert recorded live freedom songs, chants, and speeches that were released in a documentary-album, “Freedom Songs: Selma Alabama.” One of the tracks (found in the hyperlink above), titled “Steal Away, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” caught my attention as it captures the spirit and constant evolution of the complex African American Spiritual.

While other musical traditions in North American such as Sacred Colonial Songs or American Indian music contain a strong and definitive presence of responsorial singing, African American spirituals have a unique take on the matter that seems to maintain traction throughout the 19th and early 20th century. Known as the “singing man” by many, spirituals have generally been led by one singer who introduces melodic material that is then repeated and varied upon by the “congregation,” or participants. In Benkert’s recording, Hosea Williams, a Civil Rights leader and member of the Souther Christian Leadership Conference, acts as this “singing man,” providing the melodies of two spirituals, which are answered by his fellow protestors. In addition to this call-and-response style comes an element of improvisation and variation that has been present throughout the history of spirituals. Author of 1867’s “Slave Songs of the United States” William Frances Allen touches on this subject, describing how “there is no singing in parts as we understand it, and yet no two appear to be singing the same thing.” This improvisatory tradition can be found in “Freedom Songs: Selma, Alabama” through the various declamatory vocables, including a man shouting “Come on,” and the distinctive bass and soprano voices.

SUDDEN AND WILD TANGENT: BUT WAIT, AREN’T THESE PERFORMERS SIMPLY LOWERING THE THIRD AND THE FIFTH TO ACHIEVE THESE VARIATIONS? NO, I’M GLAD YOU ASKED.

While using buzzwords such as “loose harmonies” are decent descriptions for the Western-oriented reader, listening to varied live music is the best way to capture the true distinction found in African American music. By comparing two saxophone players from different backgrounds, such as Kenny G. and Charlie Parker, we can quite easily see the emotional, personal, and distinct differences that cannot be captured through Western imitation or transcription.

END OF SUDDEN AND WILD TANGENT.

Another simple means which connects spirituals of the 18th and 19th century and the civil rights movement is the purpose behind and use of biblical texts. As put in the Crawford text, many original spirituals fashioned traditional biblical stories into songs of a “sober dignity and moral force” that were sung in ways that “condemned slavery, affirmed faith in God, and tapped the depths of human souls.” In other words, found not in our beloved textbook, spirituals were transformed in ways that signaled and led the ways for racial equality. To see such iconic pieces as Steal Away and Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen still being presented and utilized in a constant fight for equality during the March to Montgomery is a testament to the inherent emotional core of African American spirituals.

In describing the spirituals recorded during the Montgomery March, Benkert captures the idea behind this musical “core”:

“The music was an essential element; music in song expressing hope and sorrow; music to pacify or excite; music with the power to engage the intelligence and even touch the spirit.”

 

SOURCES:

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life: A History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.

Freedom Songs: Selma, Alabama. Folkways Records, Streaming Audio. Accessed October 3, 2017. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Crecorded_cd%7C72058. 
KennyGuille. “Kenny G – Titanic (My Heart Will Go On).” Youtube. Dec. 28, 2007. Accessed Monday, Oct. 2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qzUJphkVZs
 Kirkland, W. M.. “Hosea Williams (1926-2000).” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 23 December 2016. Web. 02 October 2017.
rgsmusicargentina. “Charlie Parker – Ornithology.” Youtube. Jan. 23, 2017. Accessed Monday, Oct. 2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z2tvlp7RnlM

Armstrong’s LR9

Us Americans love our musical stars. In fact, many people idolize them so much so that what they say and do can have a significant impact. If Taylor Swift is seen wearing a certain dress one week, the next week it is sold out from every Forever 21 in the nation.  Likewise, if Adam Levine gets a new hairstyle, every other young adult male will be making an appointment to their local Great Clips to rock the new do. Okay, so maybe shifting one’s physical appearance isn’t what you would call significant, but what about political opinions? Many artists choose not to share their views in fear of influencing their fans, but that certainly doesn’t stop some musicians from offering up endorsements. In the most recent presidential elections, music stars such as Rodney Atkins and the Zac Brown Band sent their support to Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the form of new songs and live performances.1 Musical celebrities hold a fair amount of clout in society and, for some, are not afraid to use it.

Louis Armstrong is still a beloved American musical figure for his soulful trumpet playing and unique blues and jazz sound who was also lucky enough to bridge the color gap with his music.  Adored by both white and black audience members, Armstrong had it all as a performer of the era, and he was able to shake the world with his influence.

19_00933578

Little Rock Nine – LIFE.com

After the Supreme Court’s ruling that segregated schools was unconstitutional in the 1954  court case Brown vs. Board of Education, nine african-american students (later dubbed “The Little Rock Nine”) were refused entry in to the previously white Central High School in Little Rock, AK by the governor at the time, Orville Faubus. It wasn’t until the involvement of President Eisenhower did the students finally overcome their first of many hurdles by physically entering the building.2  The events surrounding the Little Rock Nine sparked media attention across the nation, but it not only reached American citizens everywhere, but also a number of famous celebrities including Louis Armstrong.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 3.49.42 PMArmstrong was furious at the discrimination faced by the Little Rock Nine and did not hold back.  In what was described as having the “explosive effect of an H-bomb”3, called out both Governor Faubus and President Eisenhower for their poor leadership. Armstrong was also quick to call off his government-sponsored tour to Russia, stating that these instances have adverse affects on U.S. relations with other countries and that when he was asked “What is wrong with you country”, he wouldn’t know what to say.4  Louis Armstrong stood by his beliefs and with his national image, was able to cause a noticeable impact. Some believe that it was Armstrong’s “verbal explosives” that expedited the whole process.5  Even if this is not the case, however, he did spark a bit of a push back among his peers. An article published in the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, displayed that many many other african-american celebrities agreed with Armstrong’s thoughts. Singer Lena Horne and baseball legend Jackie Robinson are just two of the multiple black stars that took a stand with Louis Armstrong to show the power of what a little clout can do.6

References:

1 Lee, Kristen. “Country Music’s Biggest Stars Singing Mitt Praises  .” NY Daily News. August 27, 2012. Accessed April 6, 2015.

2 Wallace, Vaughn. “Little Rock Nine: Photos of a Civil Rights Triumph in Arkansas, 1957 | LIFE | TIME.com.” LIFE. 2014. Accessed April 6, 2015.

3 “Ole ‘Satchmo’ Shook the World.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Oct 05, 1957. http://search.proquest.com/docview/492966958?accountid=351.

4 “Satch Blows Up Over Ark. Crisis.” Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1956-1960), Sep 19, 1957. http://search.proquest.com/docview/493670599?accountid=351.

5 “Ole ‘Satchmo’ Shook the World.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Oct 05, 1957. http://search.proquest.com/docview/492966958?accountid=351.

6 “Back Satchmo’s Blasts at Ike, Gov. Faubus.” Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1956-1960), Sep 24, 1957. http://search.proquest.com/docview/493577546?accountid=351.

Development of Folk: Pre-Civil War to Civil Rights’ Movement

Folk music is one that draws many questions from American music historians. Questions like, “who owns folk music?”, “where did these tunes originate?”, and “what is a folk song?”.  One perspective that is particularly interesting and comes to a strong conclusion is that the origin of American folk music is based upon African Tradition. An article in The Chicago Defender claims that from African Americans and slave music, the genre of folk emerged. The argument is that the melodies of African American music prior to the Civil war were considered true American folk songs. Some original, but also based on African traditional music. The English, French, and Spanish all brought their own style of song to the United States, so their music isn’t naturally American. Oscar Saffold wrote in his article, “There is, however, a real indisputable folk song in America, an American production, born in the hearts of slaves — expressing a part of the life of our country.” This can be argued against, saying that the music of the slaves is originally from Africa, but Saffold’s argument is moreover strong, in that the African American traditional music had a large influence on proceeding music styles such as the blues and then jazz.

During the time of the Civil Rights’ Movement, there were many protests in southern United States, to express the desires and rights of equality among people; To blur the racial lines. These protests were filled with demonstrations that used art to promote equality, and the folk song emerged as an effective protest song. This incorporated the melodies of the old slave songs, but with new words. For example:

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 1.16.50 PM

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 1.17.10 PM

This type of folk song is called a freedom song. It was used as a way to unite a community of people during the Civil Rights’ Movement, and was thought to communicate and express sentiments when words weren’t enough. This is tied into the work songs of slaves during the Antebellum South.

A poignant quote from the article says, “while there is no American folk song in the sense of expressing American life as a whole, still there is a folk song in America, and that is the music of the Negro” (Saffold). The roots of American folk music go deep into the history of the African American slaves of Southern American, and since, folk music has taken on many other attributes with the Folk Revival of the late 20th Century.

 

Bibliography

Saffold, Oscar E. “How american folk songs started.” The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967), 25 Feb. 1933. http://search.proquest.com/docview/492356076?accountid=351

“Songs seen Vital in Albany Demonstrations.” Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973), 22 Aug. 1962. http://search.proquest.com/docview/493909703?accountid=351.

 

Odetta Who?

When many people think of American folk music, some of the first musicians that comes to mind are Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie. Few people know of Odetta Holmes, known simply by her stage name Odetta. Her name isn’t even mentioned in the Wikipedia “American Folk Music” page! Most people know her as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” due to her influential role she played as an activist and blues/gospel musician.

Odetta in the Chicago Defender

Odetta in the Chicago Defender, 1964

[1]

However, Odetta started off not as a folk singer, but instead earned a music degree at Los Angeles City College. She went on to tour with a musical theater group performing “Finian’s Rainbow,” which was, fittingly, about prejudice. As she toured, she discovered that enjoyed singing in the coffeeshops late at night, infusing her music with the frustration she experienced growing up. In a 2005 National Public Radio interview, she said: ”School taught me how to count and taught me how to put a sentence together. But as far as the human spirit goes, I learned through folk music” [2].

Cover of Ballads and Blues

Cover of Ballads and Blues

[3]

Odetta released her first solo album, “Odetta Sings Ballad and Blues,” in 1956. This album would turn out to be influential for a certain Bob Dylan. He stated in a 1978 Playboy interview that “the first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta,” after listening to this album in a record store. He learned all the songs and found something “vital and personal” in her singing [4]. Not only did her music draw Bob Dylan to folk music, but she also met Joan Baez, another popular folk musician, and Baez cites Odetta as one of her primary influences as well [5]. Two of the biggest names in American folk music were influenced by a woman and social activist that would later go on to perform at the 1963 march on Washington, march with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, sing for presidents Kennedy and Clinton, as well as perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

I think that’s pretty neat

Ad for Odetta next to an ad for Bob Dylan in the Berkeley Tribe, 1969

Ad for Odetta next to an ad for Bob Dylan in the Berkeley Tribe, 1969

[6]

Odetta singing Muleskinner Blues, 1956

Bob Dylan Singing Muleskinner Blues, 1962


1.”Photo Standalone 23 — no Title.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967),  Jan 25, 1964. 10, http://search.proquest.com/docview/493137885?accountid=351.
2. Weiner, Tim. “Odetta, Voice of Civil Rights Movement, Dies at 77.” NYTimes.com. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/03/arts/music/03odetta.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (Accessed March 9, 2015)
3. “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, Expanded CD Cover.” 1956. wikipedia.org.
4.”Playboy Interview: Bob Dylan.” http://www.interferenza.com/bcs/interw/play78.htm (Accessed March 9, 2015)
5. Baez, Joan. And a Voice to Sing With: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009, p. 43.
6.”No Title.” Berkeley Tribe (1969-1972), 1969. 22-23, http://www.rockandroll.amdigital.co.uk/Search/DocumentDetailsSearch.aspx?documentid=1065486&prevPos=1065486&vpath=searchresults&pi=1

Langston Hughes on African American folk

It isn’t very often in history that we read African American views on African American music. Langston Hughes, who wrote a column for an African American newspaper called The Chicago Defender, published several articles reclaiming African American folk music after jazz, the blues, and really much of American folk music was influenced by that tradition and style. In his poetic storytelling, and sometimes angry tone, Hughes gets at an issue of American music-that it has consistently turned African American folk music tradition into popular music, entertainment, etc. and reaped the monetary benefits while casting authenticity aside.

His article titled “Slavery and Leadbelly are Gone, But the Old Songs Go Singing on,” complains that African Americans have forgotten their slave heritage. “In 1963 we will be one hundred years free. Have you forgotten that you were once a slave? Is it a memory you do not want to remember?” On one hand, singers like Leadbelly could be popular because there was a certain time distance from slavery so that musicians weren’t judged “Uncle Toms.”[1] On the other hand, there is some tension as to how the folk music out of the slave tradition should be remembered, because clearly Leadbelly’s songs that embody oppression and images of slavery remember it much differently than revivals of the blues and spirituals during the 50s and 60s.

slavery and leadbelly are gone

Chicago Defender, 1954 click image for linked article [3]

In another issue, “The Influence of Negro Music On American Entertainment,” Hughes celebrates the pervasiveness of African American folk music in American music. “The Negro has influenced all of American popular song and dance, and that influence has been on the whole, joyous and sound…America’s music is soaked in our rhythms.” It is no coincidence that Langston Hughes was writing during the civil rights movement, when African Americans often re-claimed and re-defined their identity in an effort to create unity and political momentum.[2] Many of the folk musicians singing about civil rights, however, were white musicians making money off a style that used the folk idiom to appeal to the popular masses. Langston Hughes is quick to criticize this, calling into question the definition of folk music, how it is used, how it is remembered, and who has the right and responsibility to perform it.

langston hughes

Chicago Defender, 1953 click image for linked article [4]

[1] Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life: A History, New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2001, 746.

[2] Reebee Garofalo, “Popular Music and the Civil Rights Movement,” Rockin the Boat: mass music and mass movements, ed. Reebee Garofalo, Boston: South End Press, 1992.

[3] Langston Hughes, “Slavery and Leadbelly are Gone, but the Old Songs Go Singing On,” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Sep 04, 1954, http://search.proquest.com/docview/492889401?accountid=351.

[4] Langston Hughes, “The Influence of Negro Music on American Entertainment,” Chicago Defender (National Edition),(1921-1967), Apr 25, 1953, http://search.proquest.com/docview/492962325?accountid=351.

Folk Music Revival During the McCarthy Era

Link

In the 1950s, several Americans who worked in the public sphere were under attack from United States Senator Joseph McCarthy during a time known as the Second Red Scare. Attempting to rid American media and entertainment of any trace of Communist sentiment, Senator McCarthy blacklisted writers, actors, and musicians who were suspected of Communist allegiance or sympathy. Anxiety over Communism lasted well into the 1960s, and one such victim of late McCarthyism was folk singer Pete Seeger in 1963. In the video below, former Governor Gordon Browning speaks at a press conference about Seeger’s suspected alliance with the “Communist Conspiracy” to warn folk music consumers of this potential “threat” to American entertainment.Screen shot 2015-03-07 at 11.01.37 AM

Seeger’s alignment with populist / socialist sentiment and his incorporation of it into music was no secret. He had been a member of the Communist Party from 1942-1949, and he was a founding member of The Weavers, a folk group that performed songs like “Talking Union”1 at workers strikes and other such political events until McCarthy blacklisted the group in 1953. Just two months before the 1963 press conference, Seeger released his album “We Shall Overcome” which featured songs that aimed to rally supporters of the Civil Rights Movement. That Seeger’s music was political is undeniable.2

However, Browning brings up an interesting point when he says:

Folk singing, for hundreds of years, has been a highly respectable art, and a very wonderful form of entertainment, and now we are concerned that the Communists are moving into this field and that they are going to pervert this wonderful form of entertainment so it will satisfy their own needs.3

Were folk revivalists, as Browning believes, using folk songs for political causes they were never meant to support, or has folk music always belonged to populist / socialist causes? In some ways, both are correct. It is certainly true that folk revival songs like “Talking Union” had more overtly political messages than traditional folk ballads like “Barbara Allen:”

Was in the merry month of May
When flowers were a-bloomin’
Sweet William on his deathbed lay
For the love of Barbara Allen

Slowly, slowly she got up
And slowly she went nigh him
And all she said when she got there
“Young man, I think you’re dying”

“O yes I’m sick and very low
And death is on me dwellin’
No better shall I ever be
If I don’t get Barbara Allen”4

Yet, folk ballads such as “Barbara Allen” often addressed universal themes like love and played important roles in rural, often poor and oppressed communities like those in Appalachia. While traditional folk song did not always directly encourage political activism like songs of the folk revival movement did, they represented the common person. So, Browning was not mistaken in noticing the overt political messages in folk revival music that were absent in earlier folk music, but he was wrong to assume that traditional folk music did not support the same sentiments that the Leftist songs of the folk revival movement did.

Footnotes

1“Talking Union,” Youtube video, posted by farmboy10001, December 8 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=osnjAb-hoPo

2“Seeger Pete.” In Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Larkin, Colin. : Oxford University Press, 2006. http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195313734.001.0001/acref-9780195313734-e-25192.

3Gordon Browning, “Folk singers linked to alleged ‘Communist Conspiracy,’ Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975, 2:25, August 19, 1963, http://www.rockandroll.amdigital.co.uk/video/videodetails.aspx?documentId=664253&videoSearch=Pete+Seeger  

4“Ballad of America.” Barbara Allen (American Folk Song). Accessed March 8, 2015. http://www.balladofamerica.com/music/indexes/songs/barbaraallen/index.htm.