People Get Ready
Excerpt, chapter five, 'Souled American'
From Souled American: How Black Music Transformed White Culture by Kevin Phinney. Copyright (c) 2005 by Kevin Phinney. Published by Billboard Books, an imprint of Watson-Guptill Publications, a division of VNU Business Media Inc. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Within days of John Kennedy's victory, nearly 1,000 white New Orleanians showed up to prevent black 6-year-olds from entering an all-white grade school, and Martin Luther King found himself back behind bars after participating in an Atlanta sit-in. Casual observers dismissed the arrest as business as usual, and it might have been just that except that many activists considered Kennedy's election the sign they had been waiting for, and that the time had come to press their case.
If integration had to be won on every street corner, at every dime-store lunch counter, and in every bus station throughout the nation, a broad alliance of black and white equal-rights groups wanted it known they were up to the task. Dr. King said as much in Stride Toward Freedom, his 1958 account of the Montgomery bus boycott. "We will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer," he wrote, "and in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process."
Music and nonviolence became synonymous with the civil rights movement, especially for those watching from the sidelines. Witnesses who saw the demonstrators file past recall hearing an assortment of gospel favorites and contemporary protest tunes, many borrowed from the bohemians in New York's Greenwich Village. Such Peter, Paul, and Mary hits as "If I Had a Hammer," and "Blowin' in the Wind" (the latter written by a young folk artist calling himself Bob Dylan) were commonplace, as were "Go Tell It on the Mountain," "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round," and the inevitable "We Shall Overcome."
These anthems bridged the reality gap between the disparate marchers, who were now older as well as younger, not always local or even Southern, and increasingly white and Jewish. After-hours, however, there remained little race mixing between them. Northern liberals retreated to the comforts of their Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Dylan records, while black marchers flicked on the radio to hear Ruby and the Romantics vow that "Our Day Will Come" or imagine a cool summer night spent "Up on the Roof" with the Drifters.
Acoustic blues was the one place where the tastes of both groups overlapped. White student activists so revered Robert Johnson that an album of his newly rediscovered tunes called King of the Delta Blues might as well have been on the Ivy League's recommended list of school supplies. Their devotion betrayed a view of blacks as cosmically fated to suffer, with the downtrodden bluesman offered up as Exhibit A. During this time, even Muddy Waters, the father of Chicago's electric blues, was recast as a "folk" artist. Buddy Guy was mystified.
"I made a record with Muddy when they were calling it 'folk music,'" he says through the slightest of smiles. "Somehow blues got in the colleges in the '60s, and I don't know how it got started; maybe because you could play it with an acoustic guitar. But a guitar is just a guitar. I could unplug mine right now, but does that make me a folk singer?"
Bob Dylan cemented the folk/blues alliance by adding a number of blues standards to his acoustic debut. Dylan's record included Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," Willie Johnson's "In My Time of Dyin'," and "House of the Rising Sun." Eventually, these were supplanted both in the singer's repertoire and on the front lines by newer originals, including Dylan's own "Ballad of Emmett Till," "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," and "The Times They Are a-Changin'."
Protesters sang as they were cursed, kicked, punched, clubbed, and spat upon. They sang while they were cuffed and hauled away from the scene. They sang and their voices trailed off into the distance as paddywagons carted them off to jail. Nightly appearances on the network news raised their profile and sparked a short-lived interest in the movement's music and speeches, released under such titles as Freedom in the Air Albany, Georgia, Songs of the Selma-Montgomery March and The Story of Greenwood, Mississippi. Observing the struggle had a galvanizing effect on the young Bonnie Raitt:
"I was bitten by the folk music bug through being raised as a Quaker and my family's interest in the civil rights and peace movement," she recalls. "There was a marriage of social action and populist music with Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. They're all part of a tradition that I caught onto when I was about eight or nine."
Raitt spent many a school break at summer camp, learning folk tunes from older counselors swept up in the cultural zeitgeist. "There was a revival that started in the main populace with the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary," Raitt says, "which actually began in Greenwich Village in the folk and beat centers and out west at Berkeley where social progressive movements converged with folk music."
A chain reaction of demonstrations, racist reprisals, and media exposure nudged the movement toward critical mass. Backed into a political corner by Dr. King, the Freedom Riders, and the loose coalition of groups around them The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) the Kennedy administration reluctantly shouldered the burden thrust upon it by history.
On June 11, 1963, JFK gave a prime-time address throwing the weight of his administration behind the civil rights struggle. Blacks had been too long denied equality, he said, restating the same argument posed to him. "Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay? One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free." Segregationists in Mississippi responded within hours of Kennedy's plea for justice by killing the state's most visible NAACP activist, Medgar Evers.
By summer, the blood, sweat, and tears shed over racism crested into a tsunami. The August 28 March on Washington featured Mahalia Jackson, Peter, Paul, and Mary, black folksinger Odetta ("the only person," in the words of one observer, "who could sing 'Kumbaya' without sounding ridiculous"), Bob Dylan, Lena Horne, Bobby Darin, Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, and the great Marian Anderson reprising her 1939 appearance and Martin Luther King, Jr. Also present were 250,000 onlookers, some 60% of whom the media identified as white.
In years to come, King would rhapsodize about "the mountaintop," but the emotional peak of the civil rights movement took place that day in August 1963. Mary Travers of Peter, Paul, and Mary recalls her experience to author Joe Smith in Off the Record: "If I had to pick one song, my softest spot, it would be 'Blowin' in the Wind,'" she says. "If you could imagine the March on Washington with Martin Luther King and singing that song in front of a quarter million people, black and white, who believed they could make America more generous and compassionate in a nonviolent way, you begin to know how incredible that belief was."4
The rally called for an end to discrimination at every level: in voting, housing, transportation, education, and employment. Justice and the U.S. Constitution demanded no less, but they might never have resulted in the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 had John Kennedy lived to face re-election. His murder in November 1963 left Lyndon B. Johnson in charge, and as former Senate majority leader and the nation's most skilled manipulator of legislative flesh, LBJ positioned his civil rights agenda as a valedictory to the slain president. Johnson's experience at cajoling and calling in favors paid off with the passage of the most sweeping civil rights reforms since Reconstruction. Poll taxes and other vestiges of Jim Crow law crumbled overnight, leaving segregationists terrified they'd face the wrath of those they once subjugated.
Victory at the federal level may have been sealed with John Kennedy's blood, but those who cheered the president's assassination as "good riddance to that nigger-loving son-of-a-bitch" were far from finished. Even before Kennedy's trip to Dallas, radical segregationists were determined to foment a counteroffensive in Birmingham nicknamed "Bombingham" because of the 50 bombings carried out in the city between 1947 and 1965.
On September 15, 1963, a black singing duo from Florida visited the city. Sam Moore and Dave Prater had taken parallel paths as gospel singers, but they joined forces as Sam and Dave in hopes of crossing over to pop. In a few years, they would reach fame at Stax Records with songs custom fit to them by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, including "Soul Man," "Hold on, I'm Comin'," and "I Thank You." But in the early hours of this morning, they had long finished their show and were basking in the afterglow of a little clandestine Southern hospitality. That's when all hell broke loose: A bomb ripped through the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four schoolgirls.
"Dave and I were there, across the street at a hotel," Moore recalls. "We couldn't afford our own rooms, so we were there together, and believe it or not, we had two white girls in the room with us in Birmingham, Alabama. We were lying up with these young white women, talking and carrying on, and we heard this BOOM, and it shook us! I mean, we jumped up, and we ran to the window, and people were just staring, then they started running. And I remember we went downstairs, and Dave asked what was going on, and the guy at the desk kinda drawled something about, 'Trubble at th' nigger church. You niggers need to stay where you are now.' He wouldn't let us outside!
"Then," Moore says, "the police started checking the neighborhood, including the hotel rooms. Dave was in a panic. And of course, they came banging up on our door so hard they splintered it and I'm not going to lie to you: we put those girls up under our bed, pulled the sheets out over them and tried to act normal. Next thing you know, these white fellas barge in, all guts-hanging-over-their-belt and one says, 'Who is you niggers?' I said, 'Sam, and this is Dave.' 'Sammy Davis?' he said. He thought we were putting him on. We told him we were entertainers, and we sang church music. I swear to God, we were so scared our shirts were drenched. Naturally the clerk told them about the girls, and the cop wants to know where they are, but we're not talking. So he says, 'Why don't we have a look around, and if we find them, we cut your dicks off?' Then, for some reason, he backs off and says, 'We're gonna go downstairs, but we will be back, you understand what I'm saying, boy?' And we got those girls outta there and left up outta there as fast as two people ever did anything."
The true cost of defying racists on their home turf became apparent a few weeks after the disappearance of activists Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goldman, and James Chaney on June 21, 1964. The trio had been ambushed and murdered by nearly two dozen Klansmen abetted by a county deputy sheriff in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Overnight incarceration and bruises were tolerable risks in the minds of many idealists, but martyrdom was something else again. Rumors began to circulate that many whites in the movement were losing faith and had privately consigned black people to their fate. The SNCC began a purge of its white members lest their pessimism become contagious.
Black activists withdrew into church music and soul, leaving folk to the coffeehouse cognoscenti. White kids, in turn, abandoned their Southern crusade for the insulated calm of academia, but something had changed in their absence. Their transistor radios had become a musical hall of mirrors with a dozen Bob Dylan wanna-bes banging on as many guitars each one with a prettier voice, a slicker arrangement, and a less strident social agenda than the last.
Idealists saw firsthand how cutting-edge music becomes passé as soon as the record industry identifies a trend and starts to churn out copycats in the mold of the prototype. The Weavers, a Caucasian folk combo consisting of Pete Seeger and a few other left-of-center pals, unintentionally provided a blueprint in the 1950s with their straightforward readings of Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene" and a tune of African origin they called "Wimoweh," which became an international hit in 1952.
Journalist Rian Malan traced the song back to its roots in a 2000 article for Rolling Stone. As it turns out, black South African vocalist Solomon Linda improvised the original melodic line in 1939 when he recorded "M'Bube" (or "the lion" in Zulu) with a group called the Evening Birds. By the time the lily-white Tokens took it to No. 1 in the United States at the end of 1961, its title was "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," and Solomon Linda's name was missing from both the record and the sheet music.
4) Smith, Joe. Off the Record: An Oral History of Pop Music. New York: Warner Brothers, 1988, p.161.