Today we begin what will be a monthly discussion of protest songs that JusticeAid is singing, with this inaugural edition focused on the classics—songs inspired by our thoughts around Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—his work, his life. Before we get to those selections, we should remember what this is all about—something we tell ourselves at JusticeAid:
There is a reason why we sing protest songs, and there is a reason why we sing in the face of trouble and oppression. When we sing together, we voice aloud our concerns, we trigger parts of our brain that have empathy for others. Sometimes we sing out of anger, sometimes out of love, but always from a place of making change. The song changes the singer, it changes us, and in the right moments, we are the song.
At JusticeAid, we never underestimate the power of a song, and today, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we want to share some songs with you.
In the months to come we will focus on protest songs as to different themes or causes, or that have inspired particular people. In the course of this project, we are sure that we will occasionally omit songs that others think are obvious selections (e.g., as to today’s songs, “What, no Dylan, no Joan Baez, no Marvin Gaye?!”). But, we will limit ourselves to 10 primary songs a month, with a playlist containing more (and which will pick up some of those omitted songs). As we choose songs, we will at least briefly explain why, and when we can, provide a video of a key performance of them. And, we promise, in months to come, we will touch today’s protest music, and different genres of music.
This month we focus on songs that we hope you agree directly reflect the spirit of Dr. King’s work—the work to which he sacrificed his life. These are songs that one sings today thinking about the voices that sung them before. But they are not artifacts—they still live and breathe because they are still relevant today. Dr. King’s issues did not die with him—we live them today—racism, institutional and otherwise; economic disparities based on race or origin; a criminal justice system seemingly designed to unfairly impact minorities. These are songs we still sing today, because we need them as much today as we ever have.
With all that said, here are the songs that JusticeAid is singing this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
We Shall Overcome
I’ll Overcome Some Day,
Charles Albert Tindley
Of course we start with We Shall Overcome. It is a universal song that appears to have been created organically, evolving into its constituent parts as a result of adaptation to the grounds that made us need it in the first place. We Shall Overcome has been sung around the world by those fighting oppression or injustice, but its origins are right here. For those interested, here is a brief history of the evolution of the song. Though the article references a copyright for the song, courts eventually denied copyright protection—the song belongs to us all. More importantly, here is a moving performance of the song by Mahalia Jackson, who sings with passion, walking off the stage propelling the song without amplification with her incredibly powerful voice. If it does not send chills up your spine, get to a neurologist right now.
For an updated version, with a great video, the second clip features John Legend, supported by various other wonderful artists, from the Soundtrack for a Revolution collection.
Lift Every Voice and Sing
James Weldon Johnson: Poem,
John Rosamond Johnson: Music,
The second song is also a no-brainer, Lift Every Voice and Sing, a song that recovers the idea of a “national anthem” and makes it purely uplifting. While the song is not as easy to sing as We Shall Overcome, we venture that it is just as important. And, here is a wonderful version from Aretha Franklin, who makes it her own, of course.
Ray Charles does the same with it, in the second clip.
We Shall Not Be Moved
So much of civil rights protest involved access to accommodations made available only to whites. One of the most fundamental acts of protest was simply being present—whether it was on a bus, at a diner, or in a school. We Shall Not Be Moved captures this essential act of assertion of a right. And, of course, like so many essential songs of protest, it originated as a spiritual, based on biblical verse. It has been part of protests since at least the 1930s, and it was sung at the March on Washington by the Freedom Singers.
Mavis Staples sings it to this day in many of her live performances. Here is a version of her singing it as a young woman. And, an even better version of her singing it a couple years ago follows, where she talks about marching with Dr. King. Mavis Staples is a national treasure; see her (and buy her work).
People Get Ready
Written by Percy Mayfield
Recorded by The Impressions
The March on Washington is said to have inspired Curtis Mayfield to write People Get Ready. Dr. King said (according to some) that it was the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement. The song captures the need for change, the hope that change is possible, and that nothing can be done without faith. There are so many great versions (including the Chambers Brothers, Live at the Fillmore, let alone the original), but nothing takes it to church like the Blind Boys of Alabama (a previous JusticeAid performer) with Susan Tedeschi live at Tipitina’s. It might change your life.
As a bonus, here is a Curtis Mayfield version, after he left the Impressions.
Wake Up Everybody
Written by John Whitehead, Gene McFadden and Victor Carstarphen
Recorded by: Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, 1975
Wake Up Everybody, by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (with the incandescent Teddy Pendergrass as lead vocal), would not be on everyone’s list, but it captures social change and the idea that it falls on us all to make change happen.
“The world won’t get no better, if we just let it be. The world won’t get no better we gotta change it yeah, just you and me.”
In the unfortunately segmented music industry of the 60s and 70s and thereafter, Teddy Pendergrass dominated, even after his devastating car accident, without much of white America knowing. (See this recent excellent documentary on him: Teddy Pendergras: If You Don’t Know Me.)
Here is a live version from Teddy, introduced by Sammy Davis, Jr. (with the largest shirt collars known to man). This performance shows just how he could light up any stage.
Note how those first five songs all unify. It is “everybody” that wakes up, it is “we” that will overcome and that will not be moved, it is “every” voice that is lifted, and it is the “people” who are getting ready. Protest songs literally bring us together and unite us, and these songs all do so—it is partly why they are so powerful. But not all protest songs do so—sometimes they are terribly personal and sometimes they are full of sadness or rage. The next few songs come from different points of view, but have equal power.
A Change Is Gonna Come
Written and performed by Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke wrote A Change is Gonna Come as a civil rights song in December 1963, in the wake of the March on Washington. It was said (though not carefully researched here) that he wrote it in part in response to Dylan’s Blowin in the Wind, as Cooke felt a personal responsibility to speak to civil rights issues. The song itself has a confessional and personal point of view, even though it is a view that we can all feel. It has been covered so many times that it feels irresponsible to pick any particular version, though here are a few great ones: Aaron Neville’s version with the Neville Brothers is wonderful and not overdone; Warren Haynes has an emotional and tightly arranged version; but Brian Owens and his father sing it beautifully together, and you can join the nearly 35,000,000 (that is no typo) views of them making the song their own. Still, the original remains the standard, at least in our view, and of course that is the version in our playlist for today.
Written and performed by Nina Simone
Mississippi Goddam by Nina Simone is a song of rage. The assassination of Medgar Evers inspired Bob Dylan to write Just a Pawn in Their Game, and he actually sang it from the podium at the March on Washington, (but nowhere near his best performance of the song) captured here.
And we promise we will get to plenty of Dylan in the course of this project.
However, Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam was also prompted by Evers’ assassination, among other outrages. Rage, not wryness, was and is sometimes the best response to an act of terror. Here is a wonderful article about Simone’s writing of the song. Simone performed it after the Selma to Montgomery march to 10,000 people. While we have not a version of that, here is an entirely different electric performance of her singing it to an almost all white audience shortly after she wrote it:
There are so many amazing Nina Simone songs of protest. We will echo some of them at our May 18 concert in NYC, which will feature Nina’s songs, and benefit Election Protection 866-OUR-VOTE.
Woke Up This Morning
Updated by Rev. Robert Wesby
Woke Up This Morning, like a couple other of these songs, started as a spiritual and was adapted to the civil rights movement. Reverend Robert Wesby came up with the rendition that became a civil rights anthem while he was jailed in Mississippi in 1961 for his protest activity. The song became one of the steadiest anthems of civil rights marches. John Legend does a beautiful version in Soundtrack for a Revolution. And Ruthie Foster rocks a version of her own in the second clip.
Written by Abel Meeropol, 1937
Key Performer: Billie Holiday, 1939
There is no way to have a list like this and not include the haunting and painful Strange Fruit. Lynching prompted the poem that became the song, and Billie Holiday’s performances of it were always her last of the night—no encore, and she would just walk off the stage. Her record company would not support her recording of it, so she had to get a release from her contract to record it as a separate single. The song, and especially her performances of it, remind that underlying all of the other civil rights issues was unspeakable violence. The song forces us to look straight at the horror, not turn one’s head and pretend it is not there. If that is not a protest song, nothing is. There are cover versions of the song, some very good, but today it feels right to link only to Billie Holiday’s singing of it, the first live, the second a recorded version.
Written and performed by Bob Marley
Finally, a song not recorded until years after Dr. King was murdered, but which quickly became a universal for so many people—Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. It begins with slavery (“Old pirates, yes they rob I; sold I to the merchant ships”), recovery through faith (“But my hand was made strong, by the hand of the Almighty”), the need to fight through one’s individual consciousness, quoting Marcus Garvey (“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, None but ourselves can free our minds”), the transience of earthly concerns (“Have no fear for atomic energy, cause none of them can stop the time”), and it returns repeatedly to the communality of great protest, “Won’t you help me sing, these songs of freedom.”
If the song had existed in 1963, it would have been sung on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28. And, on a day like today, it resonates with its plaintive question:
“How long shall they kill our prophets, while we stand aside and look?”
The song was Marley’s last song on his last album, with the cancer that would eventually kill him having been already identified. Here is a wonderful version, with Marley singing a private version for friends, solo on guitar, and adlibbing with some of the lyrics.
Whatever songs you sing today, JusticeAid sings them with you.
We will be back next month with another release and commentary on protest songs, and below is a Spotify playlist of today’s songs and some additional apt ones for you to listen to on a day honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.
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