Thursday, June 11, 2009

Freedom Songs: The Music of the Civil Rights Movement (PBS)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When Charles duly arrived I showed him a pledge program I’d just recorded from KPBS which I thought he’d be interested in: Freedom Songs: The Music of the Civil Rights Movement, which I’d assumed would be a documentary about the actual “Freedom” groups of the period (like Bernice Johnson Reagon’s Freedom Singers) but instead turned out to be a broader account of the interchange between African-American popular music of the late 1950’s and 1960’s and the civil rights movement. The program made the point that the civil rights movement was started in churches whose members had sung the classic spirituals, but not in the formal style of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and H. T. Burleigh’s arrangements (the ones just about every major opera singer of African-American descent, from Marian Anderson to Denyce Graves, has had to suffer through); rather in the (far more moving, to me) gospel style exemplified by Mahalia Jackson.

It paralleled both obscure and well-known Black hits of the period — including the Impressions’ “People Get Ready” (which, with its explicit references to the Lord, really qualifies as a gospel song), James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” (which they presented not in Cooke’s original version but in the freer, more ornamented cover by Otis Redding), Otis Redding’s “Respect” (which they presented in the far better-known version by Aretha Franklin — one commentator even attributed the part in which the singer spells out “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” to Redding without realizing that had been added by Aretha in her arrangement), Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” (which was presented as a complete performance clip from 1960’s TV while Aretha’s “Respect” was presented only as an excerpt, from what appeared to be a contemporary music video in which Aretha danced in the street to her own record), Stevie Wonder’s “Heaven Help Us All,” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” (presented in a quite beautiful live performance in which Gaye sat at a piano and played as well as sang — and he remodeled his own melody quite extensively and, if anything, made the song even more yearning and questioning than it had been on his record) — with the events of the period, the nonviolent early days of the civil rights movement, the rise of Black Power (it’s still impossible for me to watch a clip of Stokely Carmichael in full rhetorical cry and not hate him, though for all its talk about taking up the gun the Black Power movement wasn’t particularly violent in practice — the violence involving it came almost entirely from the police, FBI and other authorities against it!) and the killings of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy (and RFK was presented in a series of carefully edited film clips that made him seem a good deal more liberal than he was!).

It was a moving show and an important, evocative slice of both American political and cultural history, though if it had a flaw it was that it was too self-consciously drenched in nostalgia and offered nary a clue as to how the lessons of the civil rights movement could be drawn upon by both activists and artists interested in social change today.