Let Freedom Sing:
The Music of the
Civil Rights Era
- Buy the CD
Reviewed by Mojo Flucke, PhD
In context, however—say, stitched together in a box set—they comprise a powerful soundtrack to the civil rights movement. You've probably heard all these songs separately, but never back to back. It's riveting to hear them all in a row, whether you're black, white, or any shade between. It's a history lesson, sociology class, and time-machine trip wrapped up in some of the best grooves our country has ever heard.
The messages in the Jungle Brothers' "Black Is Black," Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam," and Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," are self-evident, requiring no explanation. Add to that a raft of 1970s hits from bands like Sly and the Family Stone ("Stand"), the O'Jays ("Give the People What They Want"), Chi-Lites ("[For God's Sake] Give More Power To The People") and Impressions ("People Get Ready"). We've heard them a million times, and through their repetition on AM radio and the decades that have passed, they've lost their edge. But this box shows them as they really were: A more contemporary extension of the message music that the gospel singers, blues musicians, and folkies before them laid out in their songs.
Every day in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it seemed, there was another story in the news about riots, death, rampage, fires, and bombs, as our cities smoldered because of racial strife. In the cozy confines of 2009, it's easy to get carried away with Marvin Gaye's beautifully soothing voice on "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" and forget the gut-wrenching angst he must have felt writing it as he watched Motown turn into a charred war zone, overrun by looters and the National Guard Humvees chasing them.
While there isn't much to say about the songs themselves that hasn't already been said, that isn’t the case for this box. The folks at Time/Life did a fantastic job assembling it, by and large; they cover blues/R&B artists especially well, including John Lee Hooker ("The Motor City is Burning"), Louisiana Red ("Ride On, Ride On"), J.B. Lenoir ("Alabama Blues"), and Brownie McGhee ("Black, Brown, and White"), and a fistful of others. I’ve always thought one of the greatest blues songs of all time is B.B. King's 1960s remake of his '50s hit "Why I Sing the Blues." It – and its epic, scathing history of being black in America distilled into a few short verses, delivered with a simple eloquence that escapes many of today's artists – is here, too. There's gospel and folk, too, a rich cross-section of artists telling it like it is, starting with Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" through to Otis Redding's version of "A Change Is Gonna Come" (begging the question, couldn't they license the definitive Sam Cooke version? The liner notes confirm no, they couldn't) to the Neville Brothers' "Sister Rosa."
Some songs are conspicuously absent, such as "I'll Take You There" by the Staple Singers, who are otherwise represented well, and "Love Train" by the O'Jays. Soul singers and their gospel counterparts sang at times with an almost defiant optimism, and while there are a few cuts (such as "People Get Ready" and Lee Dorsey's funky throwdown "Yes We Can, Part. 1") which illustrate that facet of the music, more are needed to counterweight the heavy-but-true songs like the Undisputed Truth's "Smiling Faces Sometimes." But for every conspicuously absent song, there is an under-appreciated gem here for the enjoying, such as Swamp Dogg's "I Was Born Blue" or Gil-Scott Heron's awesome 1971 proto-rap track "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised."
Public Enemy's Chuck D explains the relevance of these tunes in his intro to the liner notes, saying, "Way before an iPod, these songs rang in my head as they navigated me through my near half-century of life." Tell you what – they sound pretty good played back on an iPod, too, and serve as a reminder of how much heavy lifting it took to get a black man in the White House...and how much more remains to be done.