Songs of freedom, tears of rage

Peter, Paul and Mary sing ‘Blowing in the Wind’ at the March on Washington

Previously, I recalled how my 15 year old self responded to news of the civil rights movement in 1963, and in particular reports of the March for Jobs and Freedom that August.  Remembering those times, and leafing through my teenage diary, I recall, too, how big a part music played in the inspiration I drew from those events.

At the time, what was really noteworthy for me was the fact that musical icons such as Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary had sung before the quarter of a million people gathered before the Lincoln Memorial that day.

There were appearances by gospel legend Mahalia Jackson and contralto Marian Anderson (revisiting her historic performance  at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, 1939) but these were not the singers that caught my attention then.

Odetta singing 'I'm On My Way' at the March on Washington

Odetta singing ‘I’m On My Way’ at the March on Washington

Joan Baez, whose early albums I was devouring back then, had led the crowds in several verses of ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘Oh Freedom’. Bob Dylan performed two songs I wouldn’t hear until the following year when they appeared on his next LP, The Times They Are A-Changin‘: ‘When the Ship Comes In’ and ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’.  Peter, Paul and Mary sang ‘If I Had a Hammer’ and Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, both songs with which I was deeply familiar, endlessly playing their first two albums (especially the brilliant In the Wind that had appeared that year, and which had raised Dylan’s profile to a new level). Odetta, too, was familiar: she sang  ‘I’m On My Way’.

Peter, Paul and Mary had released ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ as a single in June 1963, just three weeks after The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was issued. The trio’s version peaked at number 2 in the States and number 13 in the UK.  In June 1962, the song had been published in Sing Out!, accompanied by Dylan’s comments:

There ain’t too much I can say about this song except that the answer is blowing in the wind. It ain’t in no book or movie or TV show or discussion group. Man, it’s in the wind – and it’s blowing in the wind. Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some …But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know . . . and then it flies away. I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong. I’m only 21 years old and I know that there’s been too many . . . You people over 21, you’re older and smarter.

With ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, Dylan’s song-writing reached a new level, successfully incorporating the musical format and religious imagery of more traditional anthems of the civil rights movement (the melody is an adaptation of the old Negro spiritual ‘No More Auction Block’).  In Martin Scorsese’s documentary on Dylan, No Direction Home, Mavis Staples expressed her astonishment on first hearing the song, recalling that she could believe how a young white man could write something which captured the frustration and aspirations of black people so powerfully.

Dylan, Baez, & Stookey In The Lincoln Memorial

Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter Stookey at the Lincoln Memorial

Dylan critic Michael Gray has noted that the lyric is based on a text from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel (12:1–2):  “The word of the Lord came to me: ‘Oh mortal, you dwell among the rebellious breed. They have eyes to see but see not; ears to hear, but hear not.” Dylan transforms this into

Yes, how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky ?
Yes, how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry ?
Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died ?

Some of those present then, such as Dick Gregory, were critical that the performers were mostly white.  Dylan himself reportedly said that he felt uncomfortable serving as a public image for the civil rights movement. Yet the fact that so many of the popular folk singers of the day joined the March and participated in the civil rights movement was hugely relevant, not only because it drew added media attention, but also because it showed that there were white Americans  willing to stand up for the rights of  black Americans. Something like a quarter of those who marched on 28 August were white.

Joan_Baez_Bob_Dylan March

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan sing ‘When the Ship Comes In’ at the March on Washington

Music played a central part in the civil rights movement: Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and even Bob Dylan (once) had led songs of freedom in open fields and in churches across the South. Mavis Staples tells of her father meeting Martin Luther King one time and how they talked about the need to find songs for activists to sing. Pop Staples said ‘If he can preach it, we can sing it.’

The March for Jobs and Freedom left its own musical legacy. The ‘promissory note’ section of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech was the inspiration for the Staple Singers’ song released in the following year, ‘When Will We Be Paid For The Work We’ve Done?’:

We worked this country
From shore to shore
Our women cooked all your food
And washed all your clothes
We picked cotton and laid the railroad steel
Worked our hands down to the bone at your lumber mill

When will we be paid for the work we’ve done
When will we be paid for the work we’ve done

Fought in your wars, in every land
To keep this country free, y’all
For women, children, and men
But anytime we ask for pay or a loan
That’s when everything seems to turn out wrong

We’ve been beat up, called name, shot down, and stoned
Every time we do right, somebody say we’re wrong

When will we be paid for the work we’ve done

In the weeks following the March on Washington, Bob Dylan wrote ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’. In Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art, Mike Marqusee writes:

“At this moment, in this song, Dylan seems to believe that this movement can and will rise to the challenge of bringing justice to an unjust society.

Dylan’s friend, Tony Glover, recalls visiting Dylan’s apartment in September 1963, where he saw a number of song manuscripts and poems lying on a table. ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’ had yet to be recorded, but Glover saw its early manuscript. After reading the words ‘come senators, congressmen, please heed the call’, Glover reportedly asked Dylan: “What is this shit, man?”, to which Dylan responded, “Well, you know, it seems to be what the people like to hear”.

Dylan later recalled writing the song as a deliberate attempt to create an anthem of change for the moment. In 1985, he told Cameron Crowe:

This was definitely a song with a purpose. It was influenced of course by the Irish and Scottish ballads …’Come All Ye Bold Highway Men’, ‘Come All Ye Tender Hearted Maidens’. I wanted to write a big song, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. The civil rights movement and the folk music movement were pretty close for a while and allied together at that time.

Dylan will be forever associated with ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’, but the song he performed at the March on Washington is much more interesting.  On  12 June 1963 Dylan heard the news that civil rights activist Medgar Evers had been assassinated. He responded with a song that was a provocative and difficult.  I remember puzzling over its lyrics when I heard it a year later: what did he mean when he asserted that Medgar Evers’ killer, as a poor white man, was not personally or primarily to blame for the murder?

It’s typical of Dylan’s awkward nature that at the March on Washington, on a day when everyone else was singing about freedom and deliverance and unity, Dylan presented a class-based analysis of racism:

A South politician preaches to the poor white man
“You got more than the blacks, don’t complain.
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin,” they explain.
And the Negro’s name
Is used it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game

Dylan Greenwood

Dylan singing at Greenwood in July 1963

Dylan’s performance of this song at the Lincoln Memorial was not the first. On 2 July, after an overnight flight to Mississippi, Dylan had sung in support of one of the many voter registration drives under way in communities across the South.  In Greenwood he performed before a small gathering of civil rights workers, singing his new song about the murder of Medgar Evers, ‘Only A Pawn in Their Game’, along with several others.

The song is remarkable because it does not adopt the stereotypical format of a protest song.  Although Medgar Evers’ name is mentioned three times, the song is not about the civil rights activist, and does not celebrate him in the way that other, lesser songwriters might have.  Instead, Dylan focusses on the killer, suggesting that the killer was a product of his environment.  Whilst condemning his actions, Dylan places the focus not on the individual, but on the Southern politicians and police who upheld segregation, manipulating and reinforcing the climate of bigotry in which the shooting took place for their own gain.

In an interview for NPR radio a couple of months back, Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz said:

‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’ leans hard on the idea that Evers’ killer was not the only guilty party. The whole point is, the killer is guilty, yes, but he’s not the person to blame. There’s rather a much larger system that’s out there, and that’s what the song is really about.

Wilentz notes how Dylan’s lyric scrutinizes the means by which the Southern white elite enraged poor whites against blacks in order to divert them from their own social and economic position:

It’s a sort of standard left-wing take on what Southern segregation and racism was all about. It isn’t simply a matter of hatred; it isn’t simply a moral question. It’s a political question and an economic question. The poor white man’s at the caboose of the train, but it’s the system — the rich, the powerful, everyone from the cops on up and down – they’re the ones who are twisting this guy’s head around with racism in order to keep him down.

The song, Wilentz argues, was unique in aiming to communicate and understand what was taking place in the killer’s mind:

It wasn’t a song that played naturally into the moral geometry of the civil rights movement, you know, which was very much about the righteous civil rights workers – black and white – against an obdurate segregationist system. This dug a little deeper and made people think a little bit more. … He’s giving you the sound of what it’s like to have your brain screaming because you’re down, because you’re poor.

At the time, the songs of the civil rights movement -  songs such as ‘We Shall Overcome’ were essential to the spirit of the movement: uplifting and encouraging ‘eyes on the prize’ aspirations.

The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.

From the powerty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks
And the hoof beats pound in his brain
And he’s taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide ‘neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain’t got no name
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.

Christopher Ricks (in Dylan’s Visions of Sin) writes this:

‘Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?’ The question is a king’s, King Lear’s.

Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught
They lowered him down as a king

Lowered down, as even a king will be in the end, and yet for Evers there is the ceremonial dignity of a royal burial, too. He is a king, not a pawn. Black and white. Black against white. In 1963 there was. as it happens, a king. Martin Luther King. whose name must have meant a great deal to the man named Medgar Evers. Five years later, when another killer had been taught ‘To keep up his hate’, Martin Luther King was buried from the bullet he caught.

There’s a fine compilation on YouTube of all the available video performances from the 1963 March on Washington:

Another musician inspired – no, enraged – by the killing of Medgar Evers was Nina Simone. Immediately, she expressed her rage in a song: one that would damage her career for years to come. It was a song that lambasted government, churches – and her country, for treating her like a second-class citizen:

Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last

Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don’t belong here
I don’t belong there
I’ve even stopped believing in prayer

Don’t tell me
I tell you
Me and my people just about due
I’ve been there so I know
They keep on saying “Go slow!” [..]

But that’s just the trouble
“do it slow”
Desegregation
“do it slow”
Mass participation
“do it slow”
Reunification
“do it slow”
Do things gradually
“do it slow”
But bring more tragedy
“do it slow”
Why don’t you see it
Why don’t you feel it
I don’t know
I don’t know

You don’t have to live next to me
Just give me my equality
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

Just eighteen days after the euphoria of the March on Washington, four children – Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair – were blown apart by a bomb placed in the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  The atrocity of Sunday 15 September would provoke two more protest songs in a year filled by songs of protest. Richard Farina’s ‘Birmingham Sunday’ would come to my ears via the album Joan Baez 5, in 1964:

On Birmingham Sunday a noise shook the ground.
And people all over the earth turned around.
For no one recalled a more cowardly sound.
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.

The attack would also inspire Paul Simon to write ‘A Church is Burning’, a song I first heard him sing when he appeared each weekday morning one week in 1964 on the Light Programme’s ‘Five to Ten’ religious slot, a sort of ‘thought for the day’ thing. The songs would appear on 1965′s Paul Simon Songbook.

A church is burning
The flames rise higher
Like hands that are praying, aglow in the sky
Like hands that are praying, the fire is saying,
“You can burn down my churches but I shall be free.”

Three hooded men through the back roads did creep
Torches in their hands while the village lies asleep
Down to the church where just hours before
Voices were singing and hands were beating
And saying, ‘I won’t be a slave any more.’

John Coltrane’s was moved to make a personal response to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, too: ‘Alabama’ arguably expresses a depth of grief and rage that no lyric could better.

Another artist deeply troubled by the events of 1963 was Sam Cooke.  While on tour in May 1963, and after speaking with sit-in demonstrators in Durham, North Carolina following a concert, Cooke returned to his tour bus and wrote the first draft of what would become ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. The song also reflected Cooke’s own inner turmoil: for some time he had wanted to break out of the chart single straitjacket and sing songs that addressed discrimination and racism in the United States (he had been deeply impressed by Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and began performing it regularly at his shows). Although recorded in 1963, the song was not released until shortly after his death in late 1964.

Oh there been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come

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