Marching down Freedom Highway with Rhiannon Giddens

Marching down Freedom Highway with Rhiannon Giddens

Once in a while there comes an album that is so musically perfect and so in tune with its times that you know on one listen that it is destined to be a classic. Such is Freedom Highway, the second collection that Rhiannon Giddens has released under her own name. Its songs are drenched in her country’s history while speaking directly to its troubled present. There is horror here, but inspiration too.

Continue reading “Marching down Freedom Highway with Rhiannon Giddens”

Ava DuVernay’s 13th: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons

Ava DuVernay’s <em>13th</em>: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
–Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution

Ava DuVernay makes documentaries, though her most celebrated film is Selma, a dramatisation of the story of the historic 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery and their place in the struggle for black voting rights. Last night I watched her most recent film, a Netflix documentary about the American prison system that goes under the title, 13th.

The film takes its title from the 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery but left a significant loophole which continues to permit involuntary servitude when used as punishment for crime. In meticulous detail, DuVernay shows how this loophole was exploited in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War and continues to be abused to this day.

In Selma, Stephan James portrayed John Lewis, the SNCC activist whose skull was fractured by police who attacked the marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge on ‘Bloody Sunday’, 7 March 1965.

That’s the same John Lewis whose reputation was besmirched in a tweet by Donald Trump the other day, and it’s the same Donald Trump to whom DuVernay devotes a powerful sequence in 13th. Continue reading “Ava DuVernay’s 13th: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons”

After 46 years, recognition for a moment in which we can take genuine pride

After 46 years, recognition for a moment in which we can take genuine pride

A long, long time ago – 46 years to be precise – along with some 300 other students I took part in an anti-apartheid protest at Liverpool University, occupying the university’s administration building for 10 days in the spring term of 1970. The key demands we were making on the university was for the resignation of the Vice-Chancellor, Lord Salisbury, a supporter of the apartheid regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa, and for the university to divest itself of its investments in the the apartheid regime in South Africa.  There were many sit-ins at British universities in this period, but in Liverpool it led to the severest disciplinary action of the time. Nine students, including Jon Snow, Channel 4 News presenter, were suspended for two years. But one, Peter Cresswell, was permanently expelled.

Yesterday, in an emotional ceremony following two decades of lobbying for restitution, Pete Cresswell, now aged 68 and retired from a career in social work, was at last awarded an honorary degree. His expulsion was finally recognised by those who spoke for the University as an injustice. As Pete observed in his acceptance speech, time had shown the protestors to be ‘on the right side of history’. Continue reading “After 46 years, recognition for a moment in which we can take genuine pride”

Selma 50 years on: one of Obama’s finest speeches

Selma 50 years on: one of Obama’s finest speeches

The photo says so much. The lady in the wheelchair is Amelia Boynton, last seen portrayed in the film Selma. She was the local leader of the civil rights protests in Selma in ’65. Now her hand is held by the first African-American to become president as she goes once more over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Continue reading “Selma 50 years on: one of Obama’s finest speeches”

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy

What does it mean to come home?
Home, page 106

Recently, I read the Marilynne Robinson trilogy that begins with Gilead (2004), continues with Home (2008) and concludes with Lila (2014). I don’t think I have read a finer suite of novels.  Collectively, in an undemonstrative fashion, they constitute an interrogation of America as a home, and of the obligations of religious belief in a society in which social justice and the care of others is not guaranteed for all.  The novels are set in the quiet and conservative rural America of the early 1950s, yet there’s an undertow of a country divided by race and prejudice. Continue reading “Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy”

Pete Seeger: he surrounded hate and forced it to surrender

Pete Seeger: he surrounded hate and forced it to surrender

Pete Seeger

‘He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad can kick your ass.’

Four years ago, Pete Seeger celebrated his 90th birthday party with a sell-out concert at Madison Square Garden.  Characteristically, it was a fundraiser for a campaign to which he’d dedicated years of his life: cleaning up New York’s Hudson River.  That night, Bruce Springsteen introduced Seeger with these words:

He’s gonna look a lot like your granddad that wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad can kick your ass. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country’s illusions about itself.

And that’s the truth.  Pete Seeger, who died yesterday aged 94, opposed McCarthyism, and worked tirelessly on behalf of civil rights movement, making his first trip south at the invitation of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1956. One of the seminal political events in his life, and the one which solidified his intent to make actively combating racism a lifelong pursuit, was the 1949 Peekskill race riots. In this video, Seeger recounts his experiences:

Seeger is the only singer in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who was convicted of contempt of Congress. In 1955, he refused to testify about his past membership in the Communist Party. He had quit the party in 1949 though, he later admitted, should have left much earlier. ‘It was stupid of me not to…I thought Stalin was the brave secretary Stalin and had no idea how cruel a leader he was’.  His conviction was overturned on appeal in 1961, but Seeger continued to be blacklisted by American TV networks until 1967. CBS censored parts of his anti-Vietnam War song, ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’, when he sang it on the Smothers Brothers’ Comedy Hour.

Poet Carl Sandberg dubbed Pete Seeger ‘America’s tuning fork’, and there’s little doubt that Seeger helped introduce America to its own musical heritage, devoting his life to using the power of song as a force for social change. He went from the top of the pop charts (‘Goodnight Irene’) to the blacklist and was banned from American commercial television for more than 17 years. In his nineties, Seeger continued to invigorate and inspire the musicians – most notably Bruce Springsteen, whose album We Shall Overcome – The Seeger Sessions was a tribute, comprising songs popularized by Seeger. Three years later, Springsteen persuaded Seeger to sing ‘This Land Is Your Land’ with him at Obama’s inaugural concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Seeger sang the two ‘radical’ verses of the Woody Guthrie song that invariably get cut when it is sung in public, or in American schools:

As I was walking – I saw a sign there
And that sign said – no trespassing
But on the other side …. it didn’t say nothing!

Now that side was made for you and me!

In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office – I see my people
And some are grumbling and some are wondering
If this land’s still made for you and me.

He sang the song again last September in one of his last public performances at a Farm Aid concert in Saratoga Springs, New York state.  As well as Guthrie’s ‘radical’ verses, Seeger inserted another verse of his own that protested fracking in New York state – through the decades he has campaigned on environmental issues, leading a successful crusade in the 1970s to clean up New York’s Hudson River, which was so heavily polluted that there was nowhere on its course that was safe to swim in. He built a boat, the Clearwater, that travelled the Hudson River, drawing attention to the polluted condition of the river. He founded the Clearwater organization which supports environmental education programmes in schools and campaigns for tighter environmental laws.

Pete Seeger came from a wealthy, yet highly politicised radical family. He was born at his grandparent’s estate in Patterson, New Jersey in 1919, the son of musicologist Charles Seeger and his wife, Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger, a violin teacher. Both parents could trace their ancestors to the Mayflower.

His father was a pacifist during World War I whose pacifism, while teaching music at the University of California, cost him his teaching position.  In the 1930s Pete was attending Harvard, hoping to become a journalist.  In 1936, at  a folk song and dance festival he heard a five string banjo for the first time and his life was changed forever.  By 1938 he was passing out leaflets for Spanish civil war relief on the Harvard campus and had joined the Young Communist League. He left Harvard in the spring of 1938 without taking his exams.

He went to New York where he found work with the Archives of American Folk Music. Seeger sought out legendary folk song figures including Leadbelly. Inspired by these people and learning much about folk music, he began working with the five string banjo and soon became an accomplished player.

In 1940, Seeger met Woody Guthrie and together they formed the Almanac Singers, a musical collective including Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Sis Cunningham, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry and others. They recorded union songs, such as ‘The Talking Union Blues’ which they wrote as an organizing song, as well as pacifist songs. Drafted into the Army in 1942, the FBI was already building a file on Seeger because of his left-wing activities.

In 1945, after his discharge from the Army, Seeger founded the People’s Songs collective but by 1949 it had gone bankrupt.  On 4 Sepember 1949, Paul Robeson was scheduled to perform with Seeger at the Lakeland Picnic Grounds in Peekskill.  A large mob of anti-communist vigilantes stormed the venue, attacking performers and members of the audience. While trying to drive away from the scene, Seeger’s car was attacked by vigilantes. His wife Toshi and their three year old son Danny were injured by flying glass.

In the late 1940s, Seeger and Lee Hays wrote ‘If I Had a Hammer’. In 1950 Seeger, Hays, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert formed the Weavers. They achieved great success, especially with their recording of the Leadbelly tune ‘Goodnight Irene’.

However, blacklisting in the McCarthy era put paid to commercial success for the Weavers. During the 1950s Seeger occasionally performed with the Weavers but mainly paid the bills with his appearances on the college circuit, and with recordings for Folkways Records (including albums of songs for children, two of which our daughter would play repeatedly when young).

In 1956, after writing ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ Seeger, Arthur Miller and six others were indicted for contempt of Congress by the House of Representatives. He was found guilty of contempt in 1961 and sentenced to ten years in prison. He was released from prison in 1962 when his case was dismissed on a technicality.

During the folk music revival of the early 1960s, the TV networks occasionally invited Seeger to appear on folk music shows like Hootenany, but quickly dropped him when they discovered that he had been blacklisted.

Pete Seeger singing If I Had a Hammer at SNCC rally in Greenwood, MS, 1963

Pete Seeger singing If I Had a Hammer at SNCC rally in Greenwood, MS, 1963

Seeger became involved in the civil rights marches in the South, both as a marcher and as a performer for the marchers. One notable occasion was at Greenwood in Mississippi in the summer of 1963 when there were voter registration drives underway in various communities, one of which was in Greenwood. On 2 July, Seeger performed at a SNCC rally before a small gathering of civil rights workers,  singing ‘If I Had a Hammer’.  Bob Dylan sang ‘Only A Pawn in Their Game’, written following the murder of Medgar Evers less than a month earlier, on 12 June.

Pete Seeger’s version of ‘We Shall Overcome’ became the anthem of the movement.  He discussed the origins of the song in an interview in 2006:

Seeger was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War. In September 1967 he appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS-TV where he was scheduled to sing ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’, an attack on the war, but the song was cut by the network censors.

‘Songs won’t save the planet’, Seeger told his biographer David Dunlap, author of How Can I Keep From Singing? ‘But, then, neither will books or speeches…Songs are sneaky things. They can slip across borders. Proliferate in prisons.” He liked to quote Plato: “Rulers should be careful about what songs are allowed to be sung.’

I have been singing folk songs of America and other lands to people everywhere. I am proud that I never refused to sing to any group of people because I might disagree with some of the ideas of some of the people listening to me. I have sung for rich and poor, for Americans of every possible political and religious opinion and persuasion, of every race, colour, and creed.

Pete Seeger on The Johnny Cash Show in 1970 complete and uncut

It takes a worried man to sing a worried song….

Pete Seeger with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee: ‘Down by the Riverside’

In 2012 Pete recorded a hearty version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’ for an Amnesty International fund-raising album:

surrounded hate and forced it to surrender

‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender’

John Nichols’ closes a fine elegy on The Nation website (which reminds us that Seeger played a banjo inscribed with the message ‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender’) with these words:

He showed us how to do our time with grace, with a sense of history and honour, with a progressive vision for the ages, and a determination to embrace the next great cause because the good fight is never finished. It’s just waiting for a singer to remind us that: ‘The world would never amount to a hill of beans if people didn’t use their imaginations to think of the impossible’.

As I mentioned earlier, the fine biography of Pete Seeger written by David Dunaway is entitled How can I keep from singing? – taking its title from an old 19th century hymn revived and adapted by Pete in the early 1950s

My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear it’s music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness ’round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble sick with fear
And hear their death knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile
Our thoughts to them are winging,
When friends by shame are undefiled
How can I keep from singing?

So long, Pete.  It’s been good to know you.

American Masters: Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (PBS)

Seeger at his home in Beacon, New York state in March 2009

The baton passed to another generation

See also

Pete Seeger

Don’t you know it’s darkest before the dawn
And it’s this thought keeps me moving on
If we could heed these early warnings
The time is now quite early morning
If we could heed these early warnings
The time is now quite early morning

Some say that humankind won’t long endure
But what makes them so doggone sure?
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing

And so keep on while we live
Until we have no, no more to give
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger

So though it’s darkest before the dawn
These thoughts keep us moving on
Through all this world of joy and sorrow
We still can have singing tomorrows
Through all this world of joy and sorrow
We still can have singing tomorrows

Long ago and far away: Dylan’s Witmark demos

Bob Dylan in 1962

Bob Dylan in 1962

Ramblin’ outa the wild West,
Leavin’ the towns I love the best.
Thought I’d seen some ups and down,
Til I come into New York town.
People goin’ down to the ground,
Buildings goin’ up to the sky.

Wintertime in New York town,
The wind blowin’ snow around.
Walk around with nowhere to go,
Somebody could freeze right to the bone.
I froze right to the bone.

I swung on to my old guitar,
Grabbed hold of a subway car,
And after a rocking, reeling, rolling ride,
I landed up on the downtown side;
Greenwich Village.

I walked down there and ended up
In one of them coffee-houses on the block.
Got on the stage to sing and play,
Man there said, “Come back some other day,
You sound like a hillbilly;
We want folk singers here.”

Well, I got a harmonica job, begun to play,
Blowin’ my lungs out for a dollar a day.
I blowed inside out and upside down.
The man there said he loved m’ sound,
He was ravin’ about how he loved m’ sound;
Dollar a day’s worth.
– Bob Dylan, ‘Talking New York’, 1961

America was changing. I had a feeling of destiny and I was riding the changes. My consciousness was beginning to change, too, change and stretch. One thing for sure, if I wanted to compose folk songs I would need some kind of new template, some philosophical identity that wouldn’t burn out. It would have to come on its own from the outside. Without knowing it in so many words, it was beginning to happen.
– Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Volume 1

Sometime in June 1963, probably via Radio Luxembourg, I first heard Peter Paul and Mary’s polished version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.  A few weeks later, listening to coverage of the March on Washington where Martin Luther King gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, I heard them sing it live from the podium at the Lincoln Memorial.  That was the first time I heard Dylan himself, singing ‘When The Ship Comes In’ and ‘Only a Pawn In Their Game’.

Dylan had only become known outside the New York folk scene in the previous month or so: he had he played the Newport Folk Festival for the first time, and had released his second album, Freewheelin’.  That LP and its successor Times They Are A-Changin’ gained a place alongside the Peter Paul and Mary single in my record collection: more than music, they were my conscience, the moment in history, the spirit of the time.

Peter Paul and Mary first heard ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ amongst the demos that Bob Dylan made for the prestigious music publishers M. Witmark & Sons. The Witmarks were Prussian immigrants who established the company in 1885, only 8 years after Edison had patented his phonograph.  Their business was songs, which is where the money was in the music industry.  Artists would record their songs for publishing companies so they could be heard by other artists who might cover their songs. Witmark’s studio, where Dylan recorded his demos, was a small 6×8 foot space where songs were recorded before being transcribed into sheet music. In the opening pages of Chronicles Volume 1, Dylan describes the scene in the cold New York winter when he first began laying down demos:

Outside the wind was blowing, straggling cloud wisps, snow whirling in the red lanterned streets, city types scuffling around, bundled up – salesmen in rabbit fur earmuffs hawking gimmicks, chestnut vendors, steam rising out of manholes…

I opened my guitar case, took the guitar out and began fingering the strings. The room was cluttered – boxes of sheet music stacked up, recording dates of artists posted on bulletin boards, black lacquered discs, acetates with white labels scrambled around, signed photos of entertainers, glossy portraits – Jerry Vale, Al Martino, The Andrews Sisters (Lou was married to one of them), Nat King Cole, Patti Page, The Crew Cuts – a couple of console reel-to-reel tape recorders, big dark brown wooden desk full of hodgepodge.

The Witmark demos – many of them, at least – have been around on bootlegs for decades, and one or two have turned up on previous official Dylan releases.  But now we have this new collection – The Witmark Demos 1962-1964 – that features all the Witmarks. Rough and raw, with false starts and Dylan forgetting the lyrics at times, it provides fascinating documentation of the speed at which Dylan’s art was moving in this period.  Here are near-on 50 songs –  all written before Dylan’s 24th birthday – that include works of genius such as ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’, and ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’.  The set opens with  conventional, Guthrie-styled folk material such as ‘Hard Times In New York Town’, moves speedily through the folk-protest anthems and social commentary of ‘Masters of War’ and ‘Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues’ before concluding, a mere two years later with Dylan striking out for new shores on ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’.

I can’t say when it occurred to me to write my own songs. I couldn’t have come up with anything comparable or halfway close to the folk song lyrics I was singing to define the way I felt about the world. I guess it happens to you by degrees. You just don’t wake up one day and decide that you need to write songs, especially if you’re a singer who has plenty of them and you’re learning more every day. Opportunities may come along for you to convert something – something that exists into something that didn’t yet. That might be the beginning of it. Sometimes you just want to do things your way, want to see for yourself what lies behind the misty curtain. It’s not like you see songs approaching and invite them in.  You want to write songs that are bigger than life.
– Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Volume 1

Among the notable songs officially released here for the first time is ‘Long Ago and Far Away’, one of several songs where he turned a spiritual into a civil rights anthem.  Rather like ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, it poses a series of rhetorical questions that probe contemporary events:

The chains of slaves
They dragged the ground
With heads and hearts hung low.
But it was during Lincoln’s time
And it was long ago.
Long ago, far away;
Things like that don’t happen
No more, nowadays.

The war guns they went off wild,
The whole world bled its blood.
Men’s bodies floated on the edge
Of oceans made of mud.
Long ago, far away;
Those kind of things don’t happen
No more, nowadays.

One man had much money,
One man had not enough to eat,
One man lived just like a king,
The other man begged on the street.
Long ago, far away;
These things don’t happen
No more, nowadays.

One man died of a knife so sharp,
One man died from the bullet of a gun,
One man died of a broken heart
To see the lynchin’ of his son.
Long ago, far away;
Things like that don’t happen
No more, nowadays.

And to talk of peace and brotherhood,
Oh, what might be the cost!
A man he did it long ago
And they hung him on a cross.
Long ago, far away;
Things like that don’t happen
No more, nowadays, do they?

One of the most perceptive accounts of Dylan’s trajectory in this period is Ian MacDonald’s essay – ‘Wild Mercury: A Tale of Two Dylans‘ (published in The People’s Music, 2001) – in which he writes:

‘Hard Times In New York City’ [which opens The Witmark Demos 1962-1964] is an act – or part of one. Though it may sound like it, this isn’t some visionary farm-boy new in town from deepest Oklahoma, but a shrewd middle-class Jewish college-dropout who, a mere two-and-a-half years back, signed off from high-school, recording his Yearbook ambition as “To join Little Richard”. He’s been a folk guitarist for little longer, having previously played rock-and-roll electric and piano. He took up harmonica a year ago.

“Bob Dylan” was as much the artistic invention (fiction) of Robert Allen Zimmerman as Ziggy Stardust was of David Robert Jones, alias David Bowie. This isn’t to say that Zimmerman didn’t, at one time, fully inhabit the role, just as Bowie “became” Ziggy. But there are creative limits to such personae – not to mention the risk of becoming identified with them and going gradually mad. In Bowie’s case, the role soon began to play him; within a year of assuming the persona of Ziggy, he had to get rid of him or crack up. For Bob Zimmerman at 20, there was a more immediate peril: exposure.

Bob Zimmerman had made a coolly considered decision in 1959 to dump his beloved rock’n’roll, which he saw to be in temporary recession, swapping his Little Richard persona (“Elston Gram”) for a folk version of himself: “Bob Dylan.” It wasn’t as if he’d arrived at this new concept by a sequence of absent-minded lapses.

Once he knew what he wanted to do, precisely how he meant to get himself heard, Zimmerman moved with astonishing speed. Shifting smartly from an early flirtation with the monumental style of Odetta, he hoovered up everything he needed from his friends’ folk-blues records, sometimes “borrowing them without permission” by the arm-load. But his first real stroke of luck was meeting singer-guitarist Spider John Koerner on campus in Minneapolis.

Three years his senior, Koerner was a former student who’d got into folk guitar in 1958, had an epiphany, dropped out, and driven aimlessly around America for a year, living the extempore road-movie life of pioneer Beats Jack Kerouac and Neil Cassady. How far Dylan borrowed from Koerner and how far vice-versa is moot; certainly, Koerner’s style and Dylan’s early sound bear a more than casual similarity. As for Kerouac’s On the Road, that came to Zimmerman (now calling himself Bob Dylan) from Minneapolis hipster Dave Whitaker. As soon as he’d read this cult novel, Dylan saw what he had to do. Rather than go home to Hibbing for the summer vacation, he hit the road to Denver, seeking experience, and further brains to pick, in that city’s folk scene. (Five years into his career, he would cryptically salute the adventures of Kerouac and Cassady in ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’.)

In Denver, he found Judy Collins singing ‘Maid of Constant Sorrow’ – thangyew! He also discovered singer-guitarist Jesse Fuller, playing carnival harmonica in a neck-harness – taxi! Arriving back in Minneapolis a short while later (having quit Denver at speed in connection with items “borrowed” from someone’s record collection), he was handed Woody Guthrie’s autobiography, Bound for Glory. The penny dropped, big time. Within weeks, “Bob Dylan” was Woody Guthrie – and, to do him justice, he got extremely good at it in amazingly short order. The antidote to any simple-minded kleptomaniac theory of Dylan is this: from a standing start in two-and-a-half years, he turned himself into the most convincing and compelling folk performer in America. Only genuine musical talent, creative ability of the highest order, and formidable self-belief could pull that off.

The carefully studied counterfeit character who turned up on November 20, 1961 at Columbia’s studio A in Manhattan to record his debut album, Bob Dylan, was anything but a simple fake. Rather he was the real thing in folk-drag, made powerful, indeed unforgettable, by his innate resources of artistry and personal intensity – the deep feeling which drove him then and still does today. The propulsion in his style came from R&B and rock’n’roll, but its inner integrity was inescapable.

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird-First Edition cover

Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 10.

It was 50 years ago – 11 July 1960 – that Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was first published.  Since then it’s sold 30 million copies and become a staple of the school syllabus.  It’s a book that, like many parents, I encountered twice – once as a teenager in the sixties, and then again when our daughter read it as a GCSE text and we went together to see a stage adaptation.  Glancing back at it again I realise that this is a novel with the power to burrow its way into your soul, and like contemporaneous Bob Dylan lyrics such as ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, plant seeds that sustain a moral perspective towards fellow human-beings that last a lifetime.

Nelle Harper Lee began writing the book in the mid-1950s, at the start of a revolutionary decade for the South. The story is set in the period of her own childhood in the thirties – she was born on 28 April 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama, a small, sleepy town which she used as the template for Maycomb, the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.
To Kill a Mockingbird,  Chapter 1.

Harper Lee in the Monroeville courthouse

Harper Lee in the Monroeville courthouse

This week, in an excellent documentary on BBC 4, Andrew Smith visited Monroeville to explore the town and see how much it had changed in the half century since the book was written. Although he met many residents who know Nelle Lee well, he failed to meet the reclusive author herself. Like Atticus Finch in the novel, Lee’s father was a lawyer in the town.  The court house where he practised turned out to be just about the only building still standing from Lee’s younger days. The photo above shows Harper Lee in the court house in the 1960s; it was recreated in every detail for the film adaptation starring Gregory Peck.

Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird

Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird

The witnesses for the state have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court, in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption – the evil assumption – that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption one associates with minds of their caliber. Which, gentlemen, we know is in itself a lie as black as Tom Robinson’s skin, a lie I do not have to point out to you. You know the truth, the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men cannot be trusted around women, black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men.
– speech to the jury by Atticus Finch, Chapter 20.

The BBC documentary revealed that among Lee’s childhood friends was the future novelist Truman Capote, from whom she drew inspiration for the character Dill, Jem and Scout’s summer neighbour and friend.  Despite these similarities, Lee has always maintained that To Kill a Mockingbird was intended to portray not her own childhood home, but rather a generic Southern town: “People are people anywhere you put them,” she declared in a 1961 interview.

If the book’s setting and characters were shaped by Lee’s childhood, so was the case that is the moral heart of the novel: a black man charged with the rape of a white girl.  In 1931, when Lee was five, nine young black men were accused of raping two white women near Scottsboro, Alabama.  After a series of lengthy, highly publicized, and often bitter trials, five of the nine men were sentenced to long prison terms. Many saw the sentences as spurious and motivated only by racial prejudice.

The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch, Chapter 23

In handling the themes of racism and justice, Lee is not didactic: the story remains rooted in the childhood transition from innocence to the awareness of evil in the world of the adults around Scout and her brother, Jem. The first hundred pages of the book present a near-idyllic image of the community of Monroeville: then the huge flaw in the community is exposed.  Lee began To Kill a Mockingbird in the mid-1950s, after moving to New York to become a writer. She completed the novel in 1957 and published it  in 1960, at the height of the American civil rights movement. So the themes of race and class central to the novel were highly controversial in the racially charged atmosphere of the early 1960s.

In To Kill a Mockingbird Lee places these themes at the centre of an exploration of the moral nature of human beings – as seen through the eyes of the children, who come to a realisation that people who they regard as good can also be capable of acts of cruelty and blind hatred.  At the heart of the novel is the relationship between Atticus and his children and his determination to instil a social conscience in Jem and Scout.  In offering this moral education regarding justice and compassion, decency and rectitude in dealings with others, his most important lesson is one of empathy and understanding:

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch, Chapter 3.

The initial critical response to To Kill a Mockingbird was mixed: a number of critics found the narrative voice of a nine-year-old girl unconvincing and called the novel overly moralistic. But the book soon became an enormous popular success, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961.  The film version of the novel, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, won an Academy Award. Meanwhile, Lee had retreated from the public eye: she avoided interviews and published only a few short pieces after 1961. To Kill a Mockingbird remains her only published novel. Lee eventually returned to Monroeville and continues to live there.

In 1993, Lee penned a brief foreword to her book. In it she asked that future editions of To Kill a Mockingbird be spared critical introductions: “Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without preamble.”

Lena Horne: I’m me, and I’m like nobody else

‘My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman, I’m not alone, I’m free. I no longer have to be a credit, I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody, I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.’

Lena Horne, who has died aged 92, became one of the first African Americans to cross the music-business colour divide and tour with an all-white band, sometimes sleeping in the band bus when hotels would not let her enter with her colleagues. Her paternal grandmother, Cora Calhoun Horne, was a political activist who persuaded Lena to join the NAACP. Horne, backed by the NAACP, succeeded in breaking the Hollywood colour bar to sign a longterm deal with a Hollywood studio. One of the first results was the 1943 film, Stormy Weather.

As today’s Guardian obituary notes: “Horne not only rose above it all, but also significantly contributed to changing the situation. The velvet-voiced, multi-talented Horne first negotiated, and then resisted, the worst that a racist entertainment industry could throw at her. She rose to its summit as an original creative artist and a free woman whose style, beauty, eloquence and independence made her a role model for millions.”

Horne took part in the civil rights march on Washington in 1963, and had travelled to Mississippi to speak alongside Medgar Evers on the night Evers was assassinated that summer. She said: “Nobody black or white who really believes in democracy can stand aside now; everybody’s got to stand up and be counted.” She began to appear regularly at rallies organised by the National Council for Negro Women.

One of her later film appearances was in 1978 as Glinda, the Good Witch, in The Wiz, the all-black version of The Wizard of Oz, that also starred Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. The film was directed by Sidney Lumet, who I was surprised to discover was Horne’s son-in-law, (he had married her daughter, Gail, in 1963).