Music and the Civil Rights Movement: 10 Life-Altering Moments

Posted: June 21, 2017 in History, Interesting Videos, Music, Politics, Things I Love
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Man, it was difficult to narrow this list down. There were a thousand musicians who stepped up and made statements musically during the Civil Rights Movement. These just happen to be my favorite moments. Let us proceed. Oh, and click on the title to hear a song if it applies.

PETULA CLARK AND HARRY BELAFONTE TOUCH ON NATIONAL TV

Yes, I said “touched.” Petula Clark was one of the most popular recording artists of the 1960s. She sang songs like “Downtown”, “Don’t Sleep in the Subway”, and “I know a Place”, good tunes all.

In early 1968, Clark was given the chance to host her own special on NBC. She had, as a guest star on the program, the popular singer and noted civil rights activist, Harry Belafonte.

Incredible as it may seem now, the show made waves when, during the performance of an anti-war song written by Clark, “On the Path of Glory”, Clark locked arms with Belafonte.

The program was sponsored by Chrysler, and a vice-president of the company, Doyle Lott, was present at the taping in early March of 1968. He took issue with the “interracial touching,” and asked them to use a different take of the song (they had filmed a number of different takes). Clark and her husband (co-producer of the special), Claude Wolff, objected.

To make sure that they could not be overruled, Wolff told the producer of the special, Steve Binder, to actually destroy all other takes of the song. Binder checked with NBC, who said that they’d defer to whatever he decided to do. He agreed with Wolff. Binder later recalled telling the editor to erase the other takes and the editor actually made him sign a document attesting that Binder was taking full responsibility for the erasure of the other takes.

The whole situation made major public waves, and attracted a lot of publicity for the show. Bottom line, good for everyone who fought the good fight that day.

The show aired on April 8th, 1968.

CHUCK BERRY’S DUCKWALK INTEGRATES SOUTHERN DANCE HALLS

Rock n’ Roll played an immeasurable part in getting blacks and whites together in the 1950s. Rock music itself was the result of a blending of the blues and country, sounds that had been pretty seperate the previous couple of decades. The early face of this wild new genre was Chuck Berry, and his risqué lyrics and signature moves sent teenagers of all colors into a frenzy. A few years before Elvis’s pelvic thrusts would define a generation, Berry’s “Duckwalk” guitar solo created such demand from black and white audiences that clubs would hold integrated parties with velvet ropes running down the middle of the dance floor to keep the races separated. Soon, the velvet ropes would disappear. Rock can’t see color, kids.

JAMES BROWN SAVES BOSTON FROM RIOTS

The spring of 1968 was darkened by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the subsequent rioting that took place in cities across the country. Boston, Massachusetts, wasn’t spared, and on the night the news broke, kids took to the streets in Roxbury, Dorchester and the South End to express their rage. James Brown was scheduled to perform there the next day, and the city decided to broadcast the show on local TV to keep folks in their homes and off the block. During the concert, attendees ran on stage and the police began to swarm, but Brown halted them and addressed the kids directly. “Now I ask the police to step back, because I think I can get some respect from my own people.” The crowd obliged, and the concert went on without incident. The next day, he walked through the hoods of the Bean and personally asked the people not to riot, promising, “there’s another way.”

BILLIE HOLIDAY RECORDS “STRANGE FRUIT”

“Strange Fruit” was first performed by Billie Holiday in 1939, and it paints a portrait familiar to southerners in the first half of the 21st century. The song describes “a strange and bitter crop” with “bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,” an illustration of a then all-too-common sight – a lynching. The song is weird because it sounds sort of romantic and sensual. Only when you really listen to the lyrics does the real, more sinister meaning of the song become clear. Just a chilling song, really.

RAY CHARLES REFUSES TO PLAY AUGUSTA

After Bell Auditorium announced that Ray Charles was going to do a show there in 1961, students told Charles the dance floor would be for whites only and the upper balcony would be sectioned off for blacks. Ray immediately took a stand and cancelled his appearance. The venue fined him for breach of contract, expecting him to back down. Instead, in one of civil rights history’s greatest boss moves, he paid the fine and didn’t play another show in Augusta, Georgia until it was desegregated. Ray, man.

MARVIN GAYE RELEASES “WHAT’S GOIN’ ON”

Marvin Gaye needs no introduction: his name has become synonymous with the rich legacy of Motown and the soulful R&B that came to define Black music for decades to come. It should come as no surprise that the man released his (arguably) best single eleven albums into his career. “What’s Going On” is all at once a gripping protest song, a syrupy love song and a giddy party starter. When the track dropped in 1971, Gaye was struggling through the sudden loss of his frequent collaborator and close friend Tammi Terrell, a brother that had been shipped off to war, and a country that was still mired in the dregs of violence and racism. Although inspired by an act of police brutality, “What’s Going On” led to some of Gaye’s most bright-eyed work on the landmark album of the same name, and gave the movement one of its defining anthems.

BOB DYLAN RELEASES “THE TIMES THEY ARE A CHANGIN'”

I’ve always thought of this classic song by Dylan as more anti-Vietnam than pro-Civil Rights, but the lyrics can apply to both. “This was definitely a song with a purpose,” Dylan would later say. “The civil rights movement and the folk music movement were pretty close for a while and allied together at that time.” That same year saw the arrival of the Civil Rights Act, putting an end to racial segregation in the US. Songs like this one were the soundtrack to the movement.

SAM COOKE RECORDS “A CHANGE IS GONNA COME”

After hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Cooke wanted to write a song about race that had the same impact. He’d encountered racial turbulence in the year prior when he and his tourmates tried to book a “whites only” hotel and were arrested for disturbing the peace. That incident was the inspiration for “Change,” and the song became a massive success in the black community after its release in 1963.

JOHN COLTRANE RECORDS “ALABAMA”

In the early morning hours of September 15, 1963, four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted a box of dynamite under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The bomb was detonated a few hours later, murdering Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, all under the age of 14. The incident became a lightning rod for the Civil Rights Movement, which was exactly what the KKK didn’t want. Another unintended consequence – it inspired jazz legend John Coltrane to write and record the stunning song “Alabama”. The song, without lyrics, is a mournful tribute and was patterned after Martin Luther King’s “Eulogy for the Martyred Children,” the speech he gave at the funeral for the four girls. That same year, Coltrane performed the song live on television’s Jazz Casual in front of a stunned, spellbound national audience.

PHIL OCHS RECORDS “HERE’S TO THE STATE OF MISSISSIPPI”

Phil Ochs was never one to mince words, and this song was no exception. After visiting Mississippi and being outraged at what he saw, he wrote this blistering tune where he lays it all on the line. Here’s a sample of the lyrics:

Here’s to the State of Mississippi,
For underneath her borders, the devil draws no lines,
If you drag her muddy rivers, nameless bodies you will find.
Oh the fat trees of the forest have hid a thousand crimes,
The calender is lyin’ when it reads the present time.
Whoa here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of,
Mississippi find yourself another country to be part of!

Yikes.

Like I said up top, I know there are many other songs and incidents that I could have listed, but these are the ones that stand out to me. If you have any suggestions feel free to comment.*

*See what I did there? Feel free? Civil Rights Movement? Never mind. 

 

 

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