Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Music of perseverance and hope ...


Margaret Block

Mississippian Margaret Block was a young woman just out of high school when she became one of the first SNCC volunteers. She was sent to nearby Charleston, Miss., to go door-to-door trying to register voters. Margaret remembers singing freedoms songs with her cohorts when times were frightening; the slow-paced chant of the music would help her to maintain focus and peace within.

Those were the bad old days, when restaurants, hotels, bathrooms and even drinking fountains were divided by race in the segregationist South, when African-Americans marched for basic freedoms and were assaulted with police clubs, water cannon and attack dogs.

Now Margaret often meets with youngsters to teach them the songs from those days and I always enjoy watching and listening as she brings back the music for others.

I just received Mavis Staples' new CD of Freedom songs and began listening this afternoon. I thought of Margaret immediately as Staples' haunting music was playing.

The Staples Singers, like Margaret, were on the front lines back then, along with the Freedom Singers.

Here's a list compiled by Kim Ruehl of About.com of some of the most popular songs of that era, "songs of perseverance and hope in the face of debilitating odds."

1. "We Shall Overcome"
This spiritual tune was originally called "I Shall Overcome," but when Pete Seeger learned it and started spreading it around, the "I" became "We." This song has since been sung during pretty much every struggle when people have stood up for their rights, but it was particularly inspirational during the civil rights movement because of its deep roots in the African-American community.

2. "When Will We Be Paid For the Work We've Done?"
This Staple Singers classic brings to light the entirety of African-American history until that point, including slavery, the construction of the railroads, and highways, and demands payment and reparations for the horrors and exploitation of the working class African Americans. "We fought in your wars ... to keep this country free for women, children, man ... When will we be paid for the work we've done?"

3. "Oh Freedom"
This song also has very deep roots with the African-American community, as it was sung by slaves dreaming of a time when there would be an end to slavery. On the morning preceeding Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., Joan Baez started the day's events with her rendition of this tune, and it quickly became an anthem of the movement. "Oh, Freedom! Oh, Freedom over me! Before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave ..."

4. "I Shall Not Be Moved"
This spiritual was adapted to anthemic status during the antebellum slave liberation movement, and again during the civil rights movement in the 1950s & 60s. Like many of the period's great protest songs, it sings of the refusal to bow to the powers that be, and the importance of standing up for what you believe in: "Like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved."

5. "Blowin' In The Wind"
This Bob Dylan tune was performed by folksingers like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary. The song raised a series of important questions, beginning with the signature civil rights issue: "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?"

6. "This Little Light of Mine"
This old spiritual tune talks about the importance of unity in the face of adversity. Its refrain sings of the light in each individual and how, whether standing up alone or joining together, each little bit of light can break the darkness. The song has since been applied to many struggles, but was an anthem of the civil rights movement at the time. "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine ... let it shine over the whole wide world, I'm gonna let it shine."

7. "Going Down to Mississippi"
Phil Ochs was a songwriter with a fierce cannon of protest songs. But this one in particular resonated with the civil rights movement, because it talks specifically about the struggle that was happening in Mississippi. Ochs sings, "Someone's got to go to Mississippi just as sure as there's a right and there's a wrong. Even though you say the time will change, that time is just too long."

8. "Only a Pawn In Their Game"
Bob Dylan's song about the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers talks about the greater issue at hand in Evars' murder. Dylan honed in on the fact that the murder of Evers wasn't just an issue between the assassin and his subject, but was a symptom of a greater problem that needed fixing. "And he's taught how to walk in a pack, shoot in the back, with his fist in a clinch, to hang and to lynch ... He ain't got no name, but it ain't him to blame. He's only a pawn in their game."

9. "Strange Fruit"
When Billie Holiday premiered this song in a New York club in 1938, the civil rights movement hadn't approached its ultimate velocity. The song was so controversial that Billie's record company wouldn't release it. Luckily, it was picked up by a smaller label and preserved to this day. "Strange trees bear strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, black bodies swinging in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees."

10. "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize"
This song set to the tune of the old folk song "Hold On" talks about enduring any struggle for the sake of the ultimate objective: freedom. "The only chain that a man can stand is the chain of hand in hand. Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on."

Monday, April 23, 2007

Mavis Staples; From the Land of Emmett Till


Mavis Staples

Mavis Staples has a new CD. The Drew, Miss. (now living in Chicago) throaty singer's latest CD, "We'll Never Turn Back,"

....takes "freedom songs" from the days she spent in the thick of the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s and delivers them with a flinty edge guaranteed to jar anyone who thinks they know these pieces well. Classic betterment songs like "Eyes on the Prize," "On My Way" and "We Shall Not Be Moved" might easily have sounded pale and antique today. But as produced by Ry Cooder, they have the kick and spontaneity of punk-soul. Staples and Cooder chiseled a brutal sound, using just a four-piece, rock-edged band to back Mavis' guttural wonder of a voice.

Staples - best known for the early-'70s pop hits like "I'll Take You There," recorded with her family group the Staples Singers - says the way she and Cooder worked ensured the music's verve. "We didn't have any rehearsals," the 66-year-old explains. "I never knew what I was going to do in the studio until the day of the recording. Then we would go in. Ry would start playing guitar, and I would start singing."
(from The New York Daily News, 4/22/2007)
* * * * *

Welcome to the civil rights music blog -- and what a way to start! With the music of Mavis Staples.

I'm a writer and learned about Staples when working on a book about civil rights in the Mississippi Delta—the northwest portion of Mississippi, wedged between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, with some of the most fertile soil on the planet.

"Where Rebels Roost; Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited," is the story of the Delta and how the region brought great wealth to white planters and industrialists who built their Southern society on the exploitation and impoverishment of African Americans.

But the Delta is also the home of a rich Blues tradition, running from Charlie Patton on through Pops Staples who originated the Staples Family Singers.

Roebuck “Pops” Staples had learned to play guitar from Charlie Patton in the late 1920s. I learned this from blues historian Marvin Flemmons who still lives in Drew where he once owned a blues record store.

Flemmons says that in the 1930s, Staples moved away from Drew to Chicago and with his children formed The Staple Singers, an internationally known gospel group. Blues lovers in Drew later hosted a Pop Staples Festival annually until funding was no longer available. Flemmons, however, would like to see the tradition return and keeps contact with Mavis Staples.

Flemmons, in collecting history about early Delta musicians,learned from Staples that musicians were plentiful in Drew, all learning from each other.

“Some of [them] had as much talent as those doing recordings. They chose not to leave for a recording career but were content to entertain at the house parties and small juke houses.”

The best house party Flemmons said he ever attended took place one summer during the Staples festival when “so much hail fell down we had to move the festival into a house. Each musician and his band took different rooms to play their music.”

Flemmons has created a list of many blues players of the Drew tradition that numbers “nearly thirty but is not complete.” His information comes from “front porch interviews conducted with blues researcher and the author of a biography on Howlin’ Wolf, James Segrest of Notasulga, Alabama. Often these interviews included a front porch concert.”

Flemmons list includes:

Mott Willis, who moved to Drew in 1919 from Crystal Springs and “played many instruments in Henry Bailey’s Minstrel Show at the age of eighteen or nineteen.”

Tommy Johnson, also from Crystal Springs, who lived in Boyle around 1915 and then moved to Drew with his brother LeDell in 1921. “They lived on the plantation belonging to Tom Sanders, also from Crystal Springs. Johnson was a major Mississippi blues singer for more than thirty years.”

(From "Where Rebels Roost; Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited.")

Please post your comments and stories. Thanks, Susan

I'll be returning to the Delta in May to do some research and work on a documentary. While there, I'll blog and put up photos.
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