Martin Luther King said, at the opening of the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival:
Jazz speaks for life. The blues tell the story life’s difficulties – and, if you think for a moment, you realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is important music.
This quotation demonstrates exactly why African American music was an integral element of the Civil Rights Movement. It is safe to assume that almost every American high school student is familiar with at least part of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in Wsahington, D.C. on August 28th 1964. But how many of them know the identities of the singers who sang before and after King spoke? The songs took up much more time than King’s famous speech. White performers dominated, numerically and in the number of songs they sang: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary; but two African American singers – Mahalia Jackson and Marian Anderson – also sang for the enormous and impassioned crow. Dylan and Baez went on to have successful careers after the end of the Civil Rights Movement and the Movement’s best-known singers perhaps, but the contribution to the Movement by African American artist was arguably more important in moving the issues of race and into the mainstream, while white folk music remained a specialized, niche taste.
Since the 1960s jazz has become a minority taste, but some writers argue that it important in the growth and recognition of African American music, and that its greatest innovations coincided with the Civil Rights Movement. Monson (18) argues that in the 1950s and 60s, amongst jazz musicians of all ethnic backgrounds, there grew a sense and a recognition that the very best jazz performers and composers were African Americans. The experimental, freeform jazz innovations of John Coltrane, Sidney Bechet and Miles Davies were held in the highest esteem and Molson argues that all three practiced
a musical practice that was committed to the idea of a ‘better future’ and embodied the style of agency that would be necessary for political innovation. (Monson, p. 20)
Their innovations in music and their breaking away from past jazz traditions can be seen to mirror the Civil Rights Movement’s aim to move away from out-dated, traditional forms of social structure – especially segregation. For Molson, modernity in jazz music created a sensibility that was open to “modernity” in race relations. Furthermore, the critical praise heaped on Coltrane and Davies in particular chimes with the ideas of Niagara Movement (Jones, p.180) which stressed the need for African Americans to achieve special attention through their achievements.
However, jazz was fast becoming a minority interest compared with other forms of popular music. Nonetheless, the African American musical tradition was a central part of the Civil Rights Movement. Candelaria & Ringman (p. 70) point out that “ in the early 1960s, protest singers from the North who went into the South at the time of the early civil rights struggle found a southern tradition.” And that tradition was based on gospel music, which itself had risen from the experience of slavery. For African Americans the Christian promise of redemption and the freedom of heaven had always appealed as members of an unjust and racist society, just as the story of the Jewish captivity in Egypt under the Pharaohs, and their subsequent liberation by Moses, held a particular resonance. It is easy to see how the freedom of heaven became a symbol and the expression of an aspiration for freedom here on earth – now! Therefore, it is easy to see why songs such as Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit”, with its haunting poetic images of the victims of Southern lynchings - “The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth Then the sudden smell of burning flesh” - should be re-recorded by so many artists in the early 1960s; why traditional gospel songs such as “When We gonna Get Paid for All the Work We Done” should also be revived; and why the protest movement’s anthem, “We Shall Overcome”, would be covered by so many singers both white and black, and would be sung on marches, at demonstrations and during sit-down protests.
However, what is even more interesting and arguably had a more profound effect on popular music as a whole is where African American artists wrote and/or recorded songs that would enter the mainstream and which often tackled the issues of race relations in a tangential, allusive way. Such songs were not openly political at all. Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” is light-hearted and playful, on the page when you read the lyrics and in performance, but when we consider the date of its release (1956) it is also a daring and confident assertion of African American pride and self-esteem, and yet it is clearly not an overt protest song. Sam Cooke’s “Change is Gonna Come” is typical of this ‘new’ music. The lyrics could be interpreted as being about a personal transformation or even facing up to the prospect of death and mortality, but taken in the context of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, it can be seen as a paean to freedom in an unfair society, and a confidence that social change will occur: the change, in this context, being the end of segregation. Small (p. 152) sees the music created by Stax Records and Atlantic records in this period as a fusion of jazz and blues to create a new form:
In soul music the antithesis of the styles of life that blues and gospel traditionally represented is denied. The divisions in black society that blues and gospel formerly symbolized have in music been eliminated. Reflected in soul music is the spirit and the ideal, if not the reality, of black unity.
Candelaria, Lorenzo & Ringman, Daniel. (2011). American Music: A Panorama. New York: Cengage Learning.
Jones, Angela. (2011). African American Civil Rights: Early Activism and the Niagara Movement. New York: Praeger Publishers.
Monson, Ingrid Tolia. (2007). Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Small, Christopher. (1998). Music of the Common Tongue: Survival and Celebration in Afro-American Music. Middletown, CT; Wesleyan University Press.