Protest songs on racism in North America


This video from the USA says about itself:

Music video by Public Enemy performing By The Time I Get To Arizona. (C) 1991 The Island Def Jam Music Group

Journalists of British daily The Guardian have made a list of protest songs. All of them in the English language.

I ‘ll reproduce some of that list on this blog. Not exactly in the same way as they did. Eg, they have options to listen to songs on Spotify, which is not available in all countries.

And I have added links. And grouped the songs according to themes. The theme of this entry is racism in North America.

(What Did I Do To Be So) Black And Blue, by Louis Armstrong.

Friend to the world he might have been, but Pops didn’t hide behind that smile. Listen to this 1929 performance of a Fats Waller number, on which he sings “I’m white inside but that don’t help my case,” and “My only sin is in my skin.” Little wonder that the protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man dreamt of listening to five versions of the song simultaneously. CLS

Alabama John Coltrane 1963.

The murder of four girls in the Ku Klux Klan’s bombing of the Sixteenth Street baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, on 15 September, 1963, proved a turning point in the civil rights movement in America, and inspired Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam, Richard Farina’s Birmingham Sunday and this elegiac masterpiece. Coltrane apparently patterned his saxophone playing on Martin Luther King’s funeral speech, and Elvin Jones’ drumming rises to a crescendo that sounds like the surging tide of the struggle. CLS

This video shows Nina Simone playing Mississippi Goddam live in 1965.

Hurricane Bob Dylan 1975.

Co-written with theatre director and Rolling Thunder Revue collaborator Jacques Levy, this hit single and track from the 1976 Desire album tells the tale of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a black boxer imprisoned for a triple murder that he and his supporters insisted he didn’t commit. Written in a richly cinematic style, the song highlighted a campaign that finally saw Carter released in 1988. Denzel Washington played Carter in Norman Jewison’s 1999 film. GM

This video is called Bob Dylan: Hurricane, Live 1975.

Respect, Aretha Franklin 1967.

When Otis Redding wrote it, he was asking for respect, and a little female succour. When Aretha Franklin sang it, she was demanding respect for an entire put-upon gender and, indirectly – thanks to the backdrop of the civil rights movement of the late 60s – an entire race. But there’s plenty of the naughty in the mix too, as Franklin’s sisters whoop it up on backing vocals and this polyvalent soul classic canters breathlessly to a close. KE

Strange Fruit, Billie Holliday 1939.

The central metaphor of black lynch-mob victims hanging like fruit from blood-stained trees, with their “bulging eyes and twisted mouth” remains unforgettable and genuinely haunting. Adapted to music by Jewish academic Abel Meeropol from his own poem, Billie Holiday’s spellbinding original is run a close second by Nina Simone, whose 1965 version from her Pastel Blues album, recorded at the height of the civil rights struggle, displays a near-perfect mix of sorrow and anger. GT

The video below here is the Nina Simone version.

To Be Young, Gifted and Black, Nina Simone 1969.

Composed by Simone – with lyricist Weldon Irvine – as a posthumous tribute to her friend, the black playwright Lorraine Hansberry, this is a heady hymn of affirmation, urging the world’s black youth population to view their ethnic heritage as a blessing rather than a curse: “There are a billion boys and girls/ Who are young, gifted and black/ And that’s a fact!” Later covered, somewhat bizarrely, by Elton John. GT

The Bourgeois Blues Leadbelly 1938.

Invited to Washington at the behest of Alan Lomax in order to contribute to Lomax’s project at the Library of Congress, Leadbelly and his wife were greeted with both condescension and racial discrimination by the city’s residents. This much-covered song, not least by Leadbelly himself, tells of that event with especial emphasis placed on the class of those he met, the word “bourgeois” being repeated 15 times in five verses. While eight other Leadbelly recordings now reside in Congress, this one does not. PMac

Now That The Buffalo’s Gone Buffy Sainte-Marie 1964.

Herself a Cree, Buffy Sainte-Marie has written a whole raft of superb songs about the plight of the First Nation and Native American peoples – but this painful yet poetic account of a history of broken treaties and promises ranks as the best. Sainte-Marie’s naturally tremulous voice and the simplicity of the melody add further poignancy to the shame loaded into the song and the plea for help and understanding she demands to right the wrongs. CI

Buffy Sainte Marie: The Hidden Story of Uranium on Indian Land: here.

We Shall Overcome Pete Seeger 1963.

Pioneering folkie Pete Seeger helped popularise We Shall Overcome – which had already evolved from an old slave chant into a Methodist hymn – as a civil rights anthem, belting it out in 1963 to a crowd of 300,000 during Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. The simple message of hope and endurance retains its power. When Bruce Springsteen recorded his 2006 album of protest songs made famous by Seeger, this was a shoe-in as the title track. GT

Long Walk to DC The Staple Singers 1968.

[Unfortunately, I could not find a video of this song. UPDATE January 2014: but I have found one now]

Starting in gospel, culminating in soul via folk and protest songs, the Staple Singers were the civil rights movement made music. Long Walk to DC was a celebration of Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington (five years after the event, but never mind) and their first record for Stax. Although the singing family hailed from Chicago, the guitar intro was pure Delta blues and the chugging rhythm exhibited the resolution and optimism that the group embodied so perfectly. SY

Slavery Days Burning Spear 1975.

Named for an African freedom fighter – Jomo Kenyatta – Burning Spear are roots reggae incarnate and Slavery Days is less a pop song than a Rasta military chant. There’s neither bridge nor chorus, just lead singer Winston Rodney detailing the suffering of the slaves, the other members answering him with a question: “Do you remember the days of slavery?” The uplifting brass section is there as reminder that it’s not an invitation to self-pity, but a call to action. SY

13 thoughts on “Protest songs on racism in North America

  1. 100 years ago: Black prize fighter Jack Johnson KOs Jim Jeffries

    World heavyweight champion Jack Johnson defeated former champion Jim Jeffries in a title fight in Reno, Nevada on July 4, 1910, which became a major political event in the US.

    Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, fought at the height of the Jim Crow era, when hundreds of blacks were lynched each year in the US and where racial segregation had reached its zenith. Racial thinking, moreover, was a veritable obsession of ruling circles, with a copious literature pondering “race suicide” and the “passing of the great race.” Johnson was not only a great fighter but a showman, who understood and capitalized on such racial fears.

    Jeffries, who as heavyweight champion had refused to fight Johnson, came out of retirement, he declared, “for the white race.” In the event, Johnson sent the former champion, who had never before been defeated or knocked down, to the mat twice before Jeffries’ corner threw in the towel in the 15th round.

    Upon hearing of Johnson’s victory—for which he earned the staggering sum of $100,000—blacks took to the streets across the US. At least 20 were killed by police and white mobs who attempted to shut down the celebrations. A number of cities and towns—with the support of former President Theodore Roosevelt—sought to suppress film footage of the bout.

    http://wsws.org/articles/2010/jun2010/twih-j28.shtml#75

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