Ask the Experts: Barry Long on John Legend and the role of jazz in the Civil Rights movement
Barry Long, assistant professor of music
Posted: January 19, 2012
LEWISBURG, Pa. — Barry Long, assistant professor of music, discusses John Legend and the role of jazz in the Civil Rights Movement.
Q: You've been investigating how spirituals and gospel influenced singing during the Civil Rights movement. What have you found?
A: Music played a central role in the Civil Rights Movement. I spent time in archives in Atlanta, Birmingham, in Oxford, Mississippi, and in New Orleans looking at correspondence between leaders of the movement — Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth and John Lewis. I also looked at correspondence between men and women who marched and were active in the movement. To a person, they've talked about how vital music was for them and how it gave them strength and served as a unifier within the community.
The activists sang during marches and mass meetings, which were typically held in churches. The meetings would go on for hours at a time, and throughout them there were all manners of singing. Music also provided strength and inspiration when marchers were arrested. Singing made prison a spiritual experience — even in a place like Parchman Farm in Mississippi, where officials had intentionally spread Freedom Riders throughout the prison. The singing out of the cells unified the prisoners even though they were so widely dispersed.
Q: What was jazz's role in the Civil Rights Movement?
A: Fewer jazz musicians were in the South to march at the time — jazz was primarily focused in New York City and the North. But the same spirituals that were sung during protests in the South were a tremendous influence. Not only were jazz musicians holding benefit concerts and making recordings whose proceeds would go towards the Congress on Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but their work was titled and programmed to more widely disperse information about the movement. Max Roach placed the iconic photo from the Greensboro sit-in on the cover of his Freedom Now record. Charles Mingus called out the governor of Arkansas on his landmark track, Fables of Faubus. John Coltrane famously recorded Alabama following the murder of four young girls in the bombing at Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and increasingly used spirituals within his later work.
Freedom Singers founder Cordell Reagon once told Nina Simone, "Singing is all right, but you've got to put your body on the line." Al Hibbler, a vocalist with Duke Ellington's band, took more direct action by leading mass meetings and marching in Birmingham during Project C in the spring of 1963. It impacted his career tremendously as record companies no longer offered him contracts or opportunities.
Q: John Legend is coming to campus Jan. 24 to speak as part of the Creativity: Beyond the Box speaker series. He says that growing up singing in the church influenced him. How is that reflected in his music?
A: As soon as you hear Legend, you hear the influence of the church in his singing. There's a wonderful video of him singing How I Got Over, and he talks in the beginning about how he was influenced by an Aretha Franklin recording. If you trace it back, you have John Legend listening to Aretha Franklin, who had to have listened to Mahalia Jackson, the legendary gospel singer who made that song famous. And Martin Luther King Jr. credits Jackson with his success at the March on Washington. So within three degrees, you've connected key figures of the Civil Rights Movement to a modern musician like Legend.
Q: Legend's collaborative album with The Roots, "Wake Up!," covers soul songs of the '60s and '70s with social justice themes. Could you talk about how that music is connected to Legend's current philanthropic and social efforts and why those songs in particular resonate now?
A: If you think about where Dr. King's work left off, his last project was the Poor People's Campaign. King saw that as the next logical step in the Civil Rights Movement, and John Legend similarly sees education as a vital equalizer. Through his charitable work and his Show Me Campaign, he's focusing on providing educational opportunities for individuals who might not otherwise have access to them.
Despite the progress of the Civil Rights Movement there were — and are — still wide economic disparities, especially in urban areas. The musicians whom Legend and The Roots cover on "Wake Up!" — artists like Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye — were singing about those disparities. Here we are 30 years out. The same songs resonate, and modern popular artists like The Roots and John Legend are reawakening our concern. In some ways it mirrors the Occupy movement's attempts to address economic inequality but with the added layer of race and difference.
It's wonderful that when John Legend is here, it will be a prime opportunity for students to remember that music isn't simply a product that they consume but something inspirational. Here's a musician just a few years older than they, whose art is attempting to change the world. Having Legend spend time on campus talking about why education is important — whether it be in the inner cities here in America or in Africa — is invaluable. And then, it's great music too.
Interviewed by Molly O'Brien-Foelsch
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