LEWISBURG, Pa. — Assistant Professor of Music Barry Long is intrigued by the connections between the civil rights movement and music. With "songtalker" Bernice Johnson Reagon scheduled to come to the Bucknell University campus March 1, we ask him about his research and the civil rights leader.
Q: How have the civil rights movement and music affected each other?
A: It's been a reciprocal relationship dating back to slavery. Music was a primary form of not merely expression but protest. When African-Americans sang spirituals they went beyond sacred praise or cathartic release to express coded language. Their texts contained maps of the Underground Railroad and strategic locations to gather, literally placing themselves on the road to freedom in addition to musical expression. It was one of the first areas in which African-Americans felt ownership and control over the terms of inclusion. More than a hundred years before the modern civil rights movement, we were already seeing an interaction between music and culture that integrated protest.
Spirituals, blues and, later, jazz inform all of modern popular music. We view jazz today at New York City's Lincoln Center or even in our own Weis Center — similar sometimes to the way in which Western classical music is presented as a concert form — and we tend to forget that jazz started as a dance music that was also socially conscious and culturally vital. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith were pop stars as well as role models for emerging generations. When people of any race are responding to oppression or challenges of democracy, they use the voice they are given. And in this case it's popular music.
When we arrive at the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, music and activism are so intrinsic to one another that it makes complete sense for musicians to be involved in the movement and for marchers, politicians and ministers, like Martin Luther King, to draw on music as a way of organizing, inspiring and building community.
Q: Which ties into Bernice Johnson Reagon, right?
A: Exactly. Bernice Johnson Reagon writes that the only freedoms we have are the freedoms that we exercise. When marchers sang, they were exercising not only musical expression but also the freedom to organize and acquire communal strength. Their hymns, upon which Ms. Reagon will draw during her visit, come directly from the gospel tradition that grew out of early spirituals.
Q: Do you have examples of how events inspired music?
A: Jazz singer Billie Holiday received a song at the height of her popularity, "Strange Fruit," which was written by Jewish New York City schoolteacher Abel Meeropol. It's a scathing commentary on lynching in America that unapologetically depicts the violent act. She closes her set with it nightly at New York's Café Society. They stop serving drinks and place a single spotlight on the stage. Drawn in at the end of a performance by such a popular figure, the audience expects an encore but she instead takes advantage of the opportunity to make a powerful social statement. She recorded it in 1939 and it actually makes the Billboard charts. Imagine the influence of a song with that kind of weight and explicit depiction on radios around the country. It certainly doesn't end the practice of lynching, but it refuses to allow Northerners to look the other way.
Twenty years later, Louis Armstrong, both a jazz pioneer and beloved entertainer, speaks out about President Eisenhower's need to send federal troops to ensure that Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus allow the Little Rock Nine into Central High School. Armstrong had an incredible amount at stake yet risked his popularity and livelihood to take a stand.
Q: And can you tell us about the reverse — music that inspired events?
A: For a classic example of reverse impact, of musicians inspiring events, there's a famous story about Martin Luther King's speech during the March on Washington. His written notes go on to describe the creation of a new organization, but Mahalia Jackson, the legendary gospel singer, calls out to "tell them about the dream" and he goes off script. The most famous part of his speech is a riff inspired by Jackson. She had traveled with Dr. King in the weeks and months leading up to the march because he felt her influence and the gospel tradition were essential parts of the movement.
When I teach courses that address the civil rights movement, we discuss not only the importance of Dr. King's leadership but his ability as a religious figure to draw on faith and belief to raise their cause to a higher level. He and figures like Mahalia Jackson and Bernice Johnson Reagon connect the movement to a spiritual struggle.
Q: Does the civil rights movement still resonate in music today?
A: Definitely, both musically and culturally. The music that emerged from that period bears a great deal of influence on what we're listening to today, with activism being a natural extension for a number of musicians. The '60s receive so much attention — and rightfully so — because an incredible amount of change happened very visibly in less than a decade. The assassinations of J.F.K., R.F.K., M.L.K., Malcolm X, the signing of civil rights legislation, Vietnam, Woodstock ... these were lightning rod moments that played out on television every evening. Today, our news is twittered to our phones and over the Internet, and musicians similarly share their work more widely and instantaneously.
Certainly musical commentary on issues of social justice and racial discrimination remain, whether they reference events like the Diallo shooting or the Ground Zero mosque, but we've added the spread of genres like hip-hop to a global audience. In the early '60s it was significant when American jazz musicians joined in solidarity with anti-apartheid movements in South Africa. Today we hear hip-hop musicians in the Middle East and Northern Africa giving voice to protesters in the streets.
Q: Tell us about Bernice Johnson Reagon's description as a "songtalker."
A: She created that term to reflect the fusion of both spoken word and song in her presentations. Some might give a talk and then a performance, but she'll speak about specific moments in the movement or broader reflections on freedom then immediately continue the thought with a song or through melodies from a spiritual, and then seamlessly return to spoken word. It's a wonderfully rich experience that's reflective of how inseparable the sung and spoken are for her.
For our students, it's a perfect example of the relationship between music and the movement. Here's a woman who was actively engaged with boots on the ground, leading hymns with her fellow marchers. For me, to hear her describe it in both word and song is the ideal way of connecting with the depth and meaning of her experience and makes for a compelling presentation.
Q: You're leading a campus reading group on her. Does she inspire you?
A: Most definitely. There are many who are wonderful role models but few who can communicate that as engagingly as she does. Her biography is staggering: Consider this strong, African-American woman in the South during the early 1960s, marching, founding the SNCC Freedom Singers. She talks of overcoming a voice inside herself telling her she may be killed for taking a stand. Meanwhile she acts fearlessly.
Musically or just sonically, she has this rich, expressive sound. The goal for every musician is to have a voice — whether it's a trumpeter or a pianist or a vocalist — that is immediately identifiable. One of my colleagues in the music department, Professor Kay Payn, described it perfectly: She lives and breathes singing.
A wonderful recording to check out is the one we're listening to in the reading group, "Give Your Hands to Struggle," a Smithsonian Folkways recording. Or even just go to Google, type in her name, and one of the first things that appears is a video of her at a very young age singing, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." She's in her late teens or very early 20s — essentially the age of our Bucknell students — singing this anthem of the civil rights movement and calling us to action. It's the soundtrack to that era.
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