Authenticity, part IV

Some of you missed this in class yesterday: the great Muddy Waters at a Chicago club, being gracious enough to invite the Rolling Stones, visiting while on tour, up onstage with him.

More from the same evening: Waters invites bluesmen Buddy Guy and Lefty Dizz up onstage. Mick Jagger seems to silently acknowledge that he’s out of his depth.

As someone commented, Waters needed none of them, but they definitely needed him.

Ragtime, part 1

TW/CW: Racist imagery.

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One of the earliest published songs that uses a ragtime style, Rollin Howard’s “Good Enough” (1871). The chorus, marked “Dance” (at 1:15) used a syncopated figure before going back into the straightforward on-the-beat verse section. This rhythmic figure is a bridge from the cakewalk to ragtime.

The cakewalk was a dance from slave days, which was originally an exaggerated parody of upper-class white dance forms. Slave masters found it so amusing to watch that they began to hold dance competitions among their slaves, with the prize being cake — hence, “cakewalk.”

Here is an example from an early silent film dramatization of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

After a wildly popular demonstration of the cakewalk at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the dance made its way into the vaudeville theaters and ballrooms of white America and Europe.

The technique of rhythmic syncopation in the cakewalk was known as “ragging.” Ragtime developed the simple syncopation of the cakewalk into something more complex, the early stages of which can be seen in this 1895 piece by Ben Harney (a white Kentucky-born composer who Time magazine called “Ragtime’s Father”). Harney’s piece also uses “stop time,” which would become a popular ragtime technique (see 1:51). Harney’s song attempts to imitate African-American banjo-picking style.

A vocal version, sung by a white singer putting on a minstrel-esque “blackvoice” style:

Tom Turpin’s “Harlem Rag,” published in 1897, was the first piano rag written by a black composer.

Ragtime marked one of the earliest transitions of the oral/aural traditions of black American musical performance to the printed page.

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What is the Blues?

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(W.C. Handy)

White folklorist Dorothy Scarborough, in your reading assignment, interviews the famous bandleader W.C. Handy (1873- 1958), known as the Father of the Blues, about the origin of the blues. When Scarborough asks about the relationship of the blues to folk music, Handy tells her that that the blues are folk music, pure and simple.

Handy’s first hit, “Memphis Blues,” published in 1908:

“St. Louis Blues,” from 1914:

While Handy was the first composer to publish blues songs (and one of the first African-Americans to make a living from music publishing), he openly acknowledged that his own music was influenced by the rural African-American folk music he had heard and transcribed while touring Mississippi in 1902-1905. In his memoir, Father of the Blues, Handy described sharing the stage at a dance he played with  a trio of musicians who

struck up one of those over and over strains that seem to have no beginning and certainly no ending at all. The strumming attained a disturbing monotony, but on and on it went, a kind of stuff associated with [sugar] cane rows and levee camps. Thump-thump-thump went their feet on the floor. It was not really annoying or unpleasant. Perhaps “haunting” is the better word.

Some of the songs that influenced Handy:

Alan Lomax wrote in 1948:

Child of [the] fertile [Mississippi] Delta land, voice of the voiceless black masses, the blues crept into the back windows of America maybe forty years ago and since then has colored the whole of American popular music. Hill-billy singers, hot jazz blowers, crooners like [Bing] Crosby, cowboy yodelers — all these have learned from the native folk blues. . . . the whole world can feel, uncoiling in its ear, this somber music of the Mississippi. And yet no one had ever thought to ask the makers of these songs — these ragged mister-singers — why they sang. 

Why did they sing?

Birmingham Sunday

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This past Saturday was the 55th anniversary of the KKK’s bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, in which four children died.

The (white) folksinger Richard Fariña wrote a song to commemorate the tragedy, “Birmingham Sunday”:

The tune of Fariña’s song is taken from the Scottish folksong “I Loved A Lass.”

Fariña attended Cornell University, and wrote a comic novel about his time there called Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, whose title he took from a song by Furry Lewis:

Incidentally, Furry Lewis’s song, “Turn Your Money Green,” was covered by other white folksingers.

Richard Fariña’s “Birmingham Sunday” was made famous by his sister-in-law, Joan Baez:

Rhiannon Giddens covers it on her recent album Freedom Highway:

Giddens’s arrangement of the song begins with a quotation from Mozart’s Piano Sonata no. 11 in A Major:

Why do you think Giddens references Mozart in her version of “Birmingham Sunday”?

Why do you think that, until Giddens, only white artists recorded the song?

 

Authenticity (part III)

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White Tears, from which you have read an excerpt, is the story of Seth, a young, white, college-educated sound engineer, who accidentally records a line from an old blues song while picking up ambient sounds in Washington Square Park. He and his business partner, the scion of a wealthy family whose riches come from running private prisons and black ops sites, post the recording online as a prank, and call it a historical record by Charlie Shaw, a blues musician from the 1920s whose name they have made up. Soon, however, a record collector contacts them to tell them that Charlie Shaw was, and perhaps still is, a real person. So the novel is a kind of a ghost story, as well as a commentary on black music and the ways it has historically intersected with the American class system.

Hari Kunzru, an Englishman of Pakistani descent, says of his novel, “This is a book about absence,” raising the questions: Why were some black artists from the past recorded, and not others? Why are some black musicians remembered, and others forgotten?

In the video linked above, Kunzru speaks of moving to the United States around the time of Barack Obama’s first election:

The moment of false hope . . . for a post-racial America, the idea that we could just forget all this stuff and consign it to history, and then the realization that actually this history still poisons public life in the U.S. to an unbelievable degree . . . I was quite shocked by that . . . I wanted to bring my own experience, because I am an outsider, but I have a particular history with those questions here [in England]. My history is all about empire and dealing with that . . . There was a moment when . . . this romanticized idea of American history was very big in the hipster culture . . . [White Tears is also] a story about wealth and inheritance, and inherited money, and what . . . rich young people, whose parents have whatever to make [their] money, come to New York in order to convert [financial] capital into cultural capital.

What does Kunzru mean by “cultural capital”?

The line of the song that Seth inadvertently picks up is “Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own.” This is probably a reference to this song, “Furry’s Blues,” by Walter “Furry” Lewis:

And possibly also to this country blues song:

Incidentally, in 1976, Joni Mitchell wrote a song about cultural appropriation in which Furry Lewis features, “Furry Sings the Blues”:

Old Furry sings the blues
Propped up in his bed
With his dentures and his leg removed . . . 

Old Furry sings the blues
You bring him smoke and drink and he’ll play for you
lt’s mostly muttering now and sideshow spiel
But there was one song he played
I could really feel . . . 

Old Furry sings the blues
He points a bony finger at you and says
“I don’t like you”
Everybody laughs as if it’s the old man’s standard joke
But it’s true
We’re only welcome for our drink and smoke . . . 

W. C. Handy, I’m rich and I’m fey
And I’m not familiar with what you played
But I get such strong impressions of your hey day
Looking up and down old Beale Street . . . 

Furry sings the blues
Why should I expect that old guy to give it to me true
Fallen to hard luck
And time and other thieves
While our limo is shining on his shanty street
Old Furry sings the blues

Near the end of Kunzru’s novel, an entire chapter consists of the repeated words “ha ha ha,” a reference to “The Negro Laughing Song,” a popular song from the days of minstrelsy. As Kunzru describes it,

The genre of the laughing song comes from the 19th-century. These songs start with a black performer singing about the racist things white people say when they see them. Then the song dissolves into rhythmic laughing. It’s the laughter of somebody who is trying to diffuse a potentially violent situation. There is such a horror to the laughter. The laughter is a window into what it felt like to be a black man on the street at sun down in the south during segregation.
 
I specified to the publisher that I wanted it to run as spread so that the reader turns the page and has “ha ha ha” on the left and right side. To me that is the heart of darkness, or the heart of whiteness, in the book. It’s the kind of horror that can’t be described and just exists in this contentious laughter.

A remaster of the original 1891 recording of  “The Negro Laughing Song” by George W. Johnson:

I loved White Tears. This guy, who happens to be my brother, disagreed with me, however.

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My brother George Grella, who wrote this book about Miles Davis, said on GoodReads:

This is a terrible book.

. . . Nothing against the ambition, which boils down to the question of authenticity, what it is and the dangers of pursuing it to the utmost level of purity. The vehicle is old-time American music, from poor Southern musicians, mostly black and mostly blues players, recorded in the 1920s on labels like Paramount. The characters who carry this are Seth (the protagonist) and Carter, buddies from college who use Carter’s family money to start a recording studio. They in turn are paralleled by the story of an older record collector and the obsession of one of his colleagues. Both pairs are connected through what is essentially an imaginary song from a pseudonymous musician, Charlie Shaw.

Kunzru is woefully unprepared to execute this task. The self-conscious quality of his research is painfully embarrassing throughout: the author picked up details of audio engineering, musicians’ names, song titles, and serial numbers, without ever picking up any understanding of the subject. He seems to have never heard the music in question, or it seems to have never penetrated his understanding—he comes off as the collectors themselves, obsessed with the completeness and quality of the physical object and not much interested in the art it contains. Seth and Carter somehow find themselves caring only about old acoustic recordings without ever seeming to find anything in the music that matters to them as human beings (that Kunzru name checks some well-known music writers who are features of the upper middle-class white bourgeoisie and can’t hear African-American music past Beyoncé is a tell).

This all turns into an overwrought potboiler of sex and murder, with a heaping condescension of the young white man finding, through violence and tragedy, the authentic feeling of being a young black man deep in the Jim Crow South. This is a terrible kind of slumming, Kunzru arguing that Seth has achieved this experience through writing that is nothing more than gazing at (and never putting the needle down on) the shellac grooves on a 78 side. The prose itself has the earnest, focussed, affectlessness that is everywhere now, spawned from countless MFA programs, and that is professionally smooth, bland, and that allows the author to disavow any specific meaning. That is dishonest, and the foundation of this deeply dishonest book.

Okay then. But if we went another semester, I would assign this book.

Call and Response

Call-and-response form is a structure imported to the Americas by African slaves in the seventeenth century.

A brief history:

A prison work song:

(“Hammer, Ring,” Jesse Bradley and group, State Penitentiary, Huntsville, Texas, 1930s)

A spiritual:

“Talking ‘Bout a Good Time” (Moving Star Hall Singers, 1967)

A sharecroppers’ work song:

(“Arwhoolie,” Thomas J. Marshall, Edwards, Mississippi, c. 1930s).

Some children’s songs:

(“Who Are the Greatest?” John’s Island children, South Carolina, 1973)

(“Miss Mary Mack,” John’s Island children)

(“May-Ree Mack,” Ella Jenkins and children, c. 1970s)

“John the Rabbit,” which probably dates from the nineteenth century, is so widespread across the English-speaking world as a children’s song that its origins in Black American folklore are largely forgotten. John, who turns the tables on the farmer by making off with his vegetables, may be an example of Br’er Rabbit, who is, in turn, a mutation of the classic mythological figure of the Trickster.

This version uses only voices and drums.

This one makes a nod to African-American traditions by using gospel-stye piano accompaniment:

And here is a veddy veddy English version:

Time and Space from Beethoven to 1913

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(Variation V m. 30 from the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 32 in C minor, op. 111.)

In 1913, an art exhibit was mounted at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue in New York City (around the corner from where Hunter College is now located). This exhibit, which came to be known as the Armory Show, was the first introduction to American audiences of Modernist art. One of the most notorious and vilified paintings in the show was Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.

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The artist spreads out every moment of a motion that takes place over time —  a woman walking down stairs — on one plane.

The artist Man Ray did something similar a few years later with his painting The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself With Her Shadows.

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The painting shows every moment of a dance, flattened out on one canvas, all at once.

It has been theorized that the perception of time changed with the birth of Modernism. Certainly technology had something to do with this: the invention of the automobile and innovations in railroads made it possible for distances to be breached more quickly than anyone would have imagined even a few years earlier. 1913 was also the year that Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring had its premiere:

What does Stravinsky do with the concept of time in this ballet?

Do you think that Henry Ford’s assembly line, also rolled out in 1913, contributed to the changed idea of time? How?

Einstein published his Theory of General Relativity three years later, in 1916, in which he declared that gravitation is a principle of space and time, or spacetime. 

Nevertheless, let us think back to the year 1822, when Beethoven wrote his last piano sonata, no. 32 in C minor (op. 111). In it, Beethoven (who was by then profoundly deaf) begins to experiment with space and time, predating Einstein’s theory by decades. In a sense, it’s not even a sonata, but rather a searching meditation on time itself.

If you look at the second movement (out of only two!) in your course packet — which Beethoven calls an “Arietta” — you will see that it starts with a sixteen-bar theme in 9/16 time. Why do you think Beethoven used such an unusual time signature?

The movement takes the form of a theme and variations. Notice that, as the variations succeed one another, Beethoven is further subdividing the beat and the time signature. Notice, for instance, that by variation III, the pianist is playing 64th notes against 32nd notes. And notice that Beethoven takes the meter from 9/16 to 6/16 to 12/32 and back. 12/32! Why does he do this?

Note that tiny note values does NOT mean fast playing. What does it mean?

And it’s not just time Beethoven is playing with: it’s also space. Space on the page, and distance on the keyboard. By the time we get to variation V, there are only eight measures per page, which is necessary because of the infinitesimal divisions of the beat. And notice that in variation V, m. 30, the pianist is asked to play virtually as high as possible on the keyboard, while in variation VI, m. 8-10 the right and left hands are outlining an enormous space across the piano from high to low.

Beethoven is expanding and compressing time and space in this late work in a way that foreshadows Einstein. Why? What do you think he means?

Intersectionality, part I: Julius Eastman

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Julius Eastman rehearsing Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King.

In the past few years there has been a great deal of interest in the music of composer and performer Julius Eastman (1940-1990). Recent concerts and exhibitions of his work have been held in New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, recordings of his music have been released, and a book of scholarly essays on Eastman, Gay Guerrilla, is currently #32 in classical music biographies on Amazon (you can find a review of the book and of some of these recordings, “Bad Boy from Buffalo,” in your course reading packet).

Julius Eastman grew up in this area, first in Syracuse and later in Ithaca, and went to conservatory for piano and composition at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He was also a profoundly gifted singer, who

by 1970 [became] an underground hero, thanks to his electrifying performance as King George III in Peter Maxwell Davies’s music theater piece Eight Songs for a Mad King. Imposing in his royal brocaded gown and furred cap, he created an astonishing impression of delirium, using his five-octave range to produce a clamor of squawks, cackles, roars, and cries. Eastman toured the piece throughout Europe and was nominated for a Grammy for the recording.

Listen to that performance here:

Eastman was a gay man, and both his blackness and gayness figured large in his music. He gave his compositions titles like Crazy N*gger, N*gger F*ggot, and Evil N*gger. He declared: “What I am trying to achieve is to be what I am to the fullest: Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest.”

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Listen to Evil N*gger, for four pianos, here:

In addition to these identities, it is very possible that Eastman was autistic as well. His mother told an interviewer in 2006 that

Julius was a different kind of baby . . . he didn’t like to be touched. Most babies want to be bounced, but you had to put Julius down. He didn’t want to be held. When he was about two years old, I used to read him stories, and, while standing in his crib, he would repeat the story word for word. So I knew right away there was something special going on.

The precocious word-for-word repetition little Julius exhibited is known as echolalia, and, combined with his sensory defensiveness, he would most likely have gotten an autism diagnosis were he a toddler today.

The cradle that nurtured Eastman’s vast creativity was the music department at the State University of New York at Buffalo, legendary for its commitment to emerging and avant-garde music genres. In the 1970s, SUNY-Buffalo nurtured and sponsored the great new music group the SEM Ensemble, with which Eastman frequently performed.

One performance he gave with SEM of John Cage’s Song Books, a semi-directed group improvisation, enraged the composer, who was in attendance. Eastman chose, in his solo, to give a sexually explicit lecture, which he believed was in accord with Cage’s instructions:

In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action, with any interruptions, fulfilling in whole, or in part, an obligation to others.

As Marke B. describes the performance in A Song Books Showdown:

It was clear from his first words that there would be a little juice poured into Cage’s austere, Zen blend of indeterminacy and transcendence-of-self. For some music historians, this was a night that intersectionality and identity politics officially breached the avant-garde: “Eastman’s performance that day may have constituted an intersectional testing of the limits of his membership – or, in American racial parlance, his ‘place’ – in the experimental scene,” writes George E. Lewis, professor of American music at Columbia University . . .

Over the next 14 minutes, Eastman delivered a bizarre lecture that focused on the erotic, but played on and exploded notions about race, colonialism and sexuality. . . . He invited [a] couple onstage with him to strip – the man ended up naked, the woman only partially so due to embarrassment. . . He joked that he chose members of two [different] races because he wanted “to show the best of both worlds.”. . . All the while, his voice growing more theatrical as his fellow ensemble members began singing and playing eery electronics, Eastman was camping things up, to the delight of the audience. He wrapped his leg around his male “specimen” and puckered his mouth with his fingers. “Julius only managed to get the man undressed,” recalled S.E.M. founder and director Petr Kotik, “and being an outspoken homosexual, he was making all sorts of ‘achs!’ and ‘ahs’ as he was pulling his pants down.” A review by Jeff Simons in the Buffalo Evening News said, “By the time Eastman’s little performance was finished, Mr. Charles was completely undressed, and Eastman’s leering, libidinous, lecture-performance had everyone convulsed [in laughter] with the burlesque broadness of his homoerotic satire.”

John Cage, however, was furious, and he asked Eastman to refrain from performing this work in the future.

This raises the questions:

  • Once a work has been composed, to whom does it belong?
  • Does the composer of a piece of music as freely structured as John Cage’s Song Books have the right to dictate the performers’ choices?
  • Was Julius Eastman’s outspoken and outrageous gay aesthetic an affront to the restrained, abstract, zen-influenced aesthetic of John Cage (who was also openly gay)?
  • Does race play a part in these different constructions of gay identity?

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Two pages from Song Books by John Cage.

Because of creative differences and personal difficulties, he later resigned from the faculty of SUNY-Buffalo and moved to New York to work as a freelancer. There, hw descended into mental illness, addiction, and homelessness, and he went back to Buffalo, where he died at the age of 49 of heart failure. During his dark last days, he told a fellow composer that

the music he had made reflected an ‘inconsistent period,’ best forgotten, and it nearly was. When Eastman died, only a few recordings of his powerful singing were available, and none of his compositions.

As it turned out, there were Eastman recordings, some stored in university libraries, others hidden away in private collections. . . Thanks in large part to [composer Mary Jane] Leach’s archival work, Eastman is now lionized in the art world and academia as a visionary practitioner of “intersectionality,” a queer black saint like James Baldwin.

Adam Shatz has written further of Eastman:

Those who knew [him] well all speak of this waste of potential, the fact that he succumbed to his demons and drifted away—of his own volition—from what was a very promising career. This is a story of refusal of society’s categories, and there’s something brave and daring about it. But it’s also a story of fragility, deterioration, addiction, and, perhaps, of mental illness. Part of Eastman’s difficulty, to be sure, was that the avant-garde, particularly in classical music, was always defined as always already not-black, as the cultural theorist Fred Moten has argued. But this was not Eastman’s only source of difficulty. . .  to define [oneself], to find [one’s voice], and to move from thought to expression . . . is a struggle for all of us, not just artists. And in this, let us remember that, as Cecil Taylor beautifully put it, people are all, at some level, dark to themselves.

An excerpt of a different section of Song Books, performed by the SEM Ensemble with Julius Eastman:

Authenticity (part I)

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The protagonist of Hari Kunzru’s 2017 novel White Tears, a young white recording engineer named Seth, describes days spent listening to music with his college friend, Carter Wallace:

We worshipped music like [Lee “Scratch”] Perry’s but we knew we didn’t own it, a fact we tried to ignore as far as possible, masking our disabling caucasity with a sort of professorial knowledge: who played congas on the B-side, the precise definition of collie. . . . The actual black kids at our school, of whom there were very few, seemed to us unsatisfactorily preppy or Christian or were basketball jocks doing business degrees . . . It seemed unfair. We were the ones who wanted to be at a soundclash in Kingston. We knew what John Coltrane was searching for when he overflew his tenor in the middle section of A Love Supreme. . . .We really did feel that our love of the music bought us something, some right to blackness.

(Lee Perry’s legendary Kingston studio, Black Ark.)

Carter, a white trust-fund baby, has schooled Seth in black music:

He began with Jamaican dub. From there, he introduced ska and soca, soul and RnB, seventies Afrobeat and eighties electro. He spun early hip hop and Free Jazz and countless regional flavors of Bass and Juke music. Chicago, London, Lagos, Miami. I had not known there was such music . . . He listened exclusively to black music because, he said, it was more intense and authentic than anything made by white people.

What do you think Seth and Carter mean by authentic?

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(John Lomax recording Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly, at Angola State Prison in Louisiana in the early 1930s.)

In the early 1900s, the pioneering musicologist John Lomax began collecting old American songs and ballads. To “collect,” in this context, means to go “into the field” to transcribe or record people singing and playing traditional music. The “subjects” who performed in these circumstances were usually not professional musicians, but rather ordinary people in rural America who had learned the music from their parents and grandparents. Lomax and his son, Alan, had a special interest in preserving the legacy of African-American music born of slavery. In the face of rapid industrialization and urbanization during the Great Migration, as people moved en masse from the country to the cities, old customs, traditions, and music were inevitably being lost (in addition to collecting songs, Lomax directed the U.S. government’s Depression-era project to interview and transcribe the narratives of former slaves, many of whom were still alive). Among the Lomaxes’ most important work were their recordings of the music of the black inmates of Southern prisons, which they believed, due to their isolation, helped incubate an environment that allowed the prisoners to retain the old songs in their purest possible forms, without any corrupting influences from the world outside.

Although the Lomaxes were committed to the preservation of traditions that were in danger of dying out, their legacy has been re-examined in recent years.

[Patricia] Turner and some other scholars have come to question [Alan] Lomax’s influence. Lomax’s emphasis on the blues, they believe, presented a distorted and stereotypical picture of blacks. Karl Hagstrom Miller, the author of Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow, says when Lomax arrived in a black community, he didn’t ask for “‘the songs that you enjoy singing.’ He asked for them to find songs that fit into his idea of old time folk songs.”

This raises questions about whether the music the Lomaxes transcribed and recorded was truly authentic, or whether it was cherry-picked based on their notions of what black music should be.

The Lomaxes’ recordings fueled a new interest in traditional American music. In the 1940s and 1950s, listeners who were tired of the commercial values of the burgeoning music industry began turning to the Anthology of American Folk Music, a set of multiple LPs of the blues, gospel, and folk songs the Lomaxes had recorded. The Anthology  was so influential that it became something like the Bible of the folk revival . . . Bob Dylan wouldn’t have been possible without it.”

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One of those jaded 1950s listeners was Joan Baez (above, with Bob Dylan), the daughter of a nuclear physicist, who in her teens became a star of the folk revival movement. At the March on Washington in 1963, Baez, who is of Scottish and Mexican descent, led the masses in singing the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”

As the Library of Congress describes “We Shall Overcome,”

It was the most powerful song of the 20th century. It started out in church pews and picket lines, inspired one of the greatest freedom movements in U.S. history, and went on to topple governments and bring about reform all over the world. Word for word, the short, simple lyrics of “We Shall Overcome” might be some of the most influential words in the English language.

“We Shall Overcome” has it roots in African American hymns from the early 20th century, and was first used as a protest song in 1945, when striking tobacco workers in Charleston, S.C., sang it on their picket line. By the 1950s, the song had been discovered by the young activists of the African American civil rights movement, and it quickly became the movement’s unofficial anthem. Its verses were sung on protest marches and in sit-ins, through clouds of tear gas and under rows of police batons, and it brought courage and comfort to bruised, frightened activists as they waited in jail cells, wondering if they would survive the night. When the long years of struggle ended and President Lyndon Johnson vowed to fight for voting rights for all Americans, he included a final promise: “We shall overcome.”

In a 1965 speech, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. also referred to the song:

Yes, we were singing about it just a few minutes ago: “We shall overcome; we shall overcome, deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome.”

And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right: “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet, that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”

“We Shall Overcome” is a song derived from multiple sources, including the slave song “I’ll Be All Right Someday”:

the hymn “I’ll Overcome Someday”:

(which was composed by pastor of the East Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Charles Albert Tindley, the son of a slave):

and a Catholic hymn to the Virgin Mary from the eighteenth century, “O Sanctissima.”

The song was sung by striking tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina in 1945. It spread to other states where workers were involved in organizing. Pete Seeger, one of the leaders of the folk music revival, heard it, made a few changes, and began performing and teaching it to audiences around the country.

Bernice Johnson-Reagon, one of the founders of the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, said about Seeger’s changes:

The left, dominated by whites, believed that in order to express the group, you should say ‘we,’ . . . In the black community, if you want to express the group, you have to say ‘I,’ because if you say ‘we,’ I have no idea who’s gonna be there. Have you ever been in a meeting, people say, ‘We’re gonna bring some food tomorrow to feed the people.’ And you sit there on the bench and say, ‘Hmm. I have no idea.’ It is when I say, ‘I’m gonna bring cake,’ and somebody else says, ‘I’ll bring chicken,’ that you actually know you’re gonna get a dinner. So there are many black traditional collective-expression songs where it’s ‘I,’ because in order for you to get a group, you have to have I’s. . . And, you know, we’d been singing the song all our lives, and here’s this guy [Seeger] who just learned the song and he’s telling us how to sing it, . . And you know what I said to myself? ‘If you need it, you got it.’ What that statement does for me is document the presence of black and white people in this country, fighting against injustice. And you have black people accepting that need because they were also accepting that support and that help.

Johnson-Reagon led an all-star ensemble, including Joan Baez, in the song many years later on Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday:

What do you think about Pete Seeger changing “We Shall Overcome” and “teaching” his version to black activists?

What do you think about Joan Baez leading the March on Washington in singing it?

Could this happen today? Should it?