“My music had roots which I’d dug up from my own childhood, musical roots buried in the darkest soil.” ~ Ray Charles.
The road trips of my early childhood included many a song. My family had a repertoire of songs which distracted and entertained on the long journey which would take us from the city to the Welsh seaside village where we camped each summer. The songs were not religious, they were songs like ‘Row, row, row your boat’, even old army songs like the quartermaster’s stor-or-ore (for some reason there was butter, butter, floating down the gutter in that store). As I write I can hear my father’s lonely bass harmonizing, brother Andrew’s voice would not have changed yet in these early years.
There are songs which, when you hear them, can take you back to a place in your distant past so clearly that you can even feel the emotion of that phase of your life. Perhaps it was a particularly troubling period, and you can conjure up the anxiety that would bubble close to the surface as you tried to deal with uncertainty or loss. It is amazing how powerful and emotive the memory can be, just through hearing the notes of a song. Some music seems to resonate in your soul, perhaps a clarinet solo so haunting it brings you to tears, vibrating at some level with your heart strings.
Yesterday I read an article about the singer Nina Simone. She sang many a powerful, emotional song, but the one the writer referred to was one I did not recognize. If you’ll pardon the expression, the title is “Mississippi Goddam”, a song written in a burst, rupturing out of her after the tragedies of the murder of Medgar Evers, followed shortly by the terrorist act of blowing up a church, resulting in the death of four young girls in Mississippi. As I read the article, I was reminded of the haunting, mournful song so powerfully sung by Billie Holliday: “Strange fruit”, a song written by a Jewish man.
Both songs brought to the fore the destructive and ugly side of America in the 20th century, and they confronted many white Americans with the reality of life for the black American. When we hear them we cannot hide, we cannot turn our faces away, we must acknowledge that the ultimate result of systemic racism is the destruction of another group of people, whether literally or metaphorically, as hopes, dreams and potential go up in smoke.
Both singers suffered for their creative expression. After performing “Strange Fruit” she became the target of a man called Harry Anslinger, who worked for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Billie, who had a traumatic childhood to say the least, suffered from the disease of addiction. But she represented everything that Anslinger despised, and (especially detesting her music and the song) he persecuted her to her deathbed.
Nina’s professional career also suffered after she produced “Mississippi Goddam”, and she soon moved to Europe. She had performed for the Civil Rights protesters, and when she met MLK Jr, she told him she could not be non-violent. ‘That’s ok Sister,’ he told her, ‘you don’t have to be.’ But the backlash was significant. One shipment of records came back with each record broken in half.
That act of suppression, of trying to prevent artistic expression reminded me of the prophet Bob Marley, a man who not only entertained but educated. He was the man who broadcast the words of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie (‘Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned…’) and also the words of the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey (‘Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds’). Through music, through song, he was able to raise consciousness and remind his listeners that even in the last quarter of the 20th century, racism flourished at the expense of so many people of color. His music helped to liberate Zimbabwe, but in South Africa his record sleeves had lyrics marked out with a sharpie, tracks were scratched to make the needle (of a record player) jump and miss the most revolutionary songs.
The power of a song. Protest movements have rallied behind songs for centuries. The original citizens of America would sing to heal, sing to encourage the harvest, sing to celebrate the gifts of Mother Earth. Enslaved Africans hid their acts of rebellion in the open, using ‘Negro Spirituals’ to spread word of planned uprisings, of trips on the Underground Railroad. Union organizers rallied around Folk Singers like Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger, singers who saw the injustice against workers of any color and married their cause with the struggle for Civil Rights.
It feels as if this time in the 21st Century has a need for such songs, for those who risk their livelihood to force the nation to confront the state of our union (disunion) today. We are sacrificing climate for profits, destroying national parks to satisfy the ego of one man, permitting policies which make it harder and harder for the majority of the population to live a fulfilling life. And yet there is still a segment of that population who has bought the propaganda wholesale. As incredible as it may be for those of us who refuse to believe the lies pushed out every day, there are those blinkered souls who wish to remain ignorant. We need a song.
This Friday morning, even as we continue to be distressed by current affairs, let us not forget to sing, to sing out loud and blast out the evil that is hiding in the corners. Let us chant a psalm to bring peace and harmony. Let us sing the praises of the great and famous (wo)men who went before us, who expressed themselves despite the risk. Let us be unafraid to express our own thoughts, remembering the 1st amendment which gives us the power of free speech/song. As Marcia Griffiths put it: “I shall sing”.
Have a great weekend, Family!