TW/CW: disturbing imagery of Transatlantic slave trade and police brutality.
After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Anthony McGill, the principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic (and the only African-American principal in that illustrious orchestra), recorded himself in his living room playing a mournful, mixed-tonality version of “America the Beautiful,” and posted the video on YouTube.
In the last 15 seconds of the video, McGill knelt down with his head bent, holding his clarinet behind his back. His posture evokes many conflicting images: not only prayer, but also bondage:
The great tenor Lawrence Brownlee responded by singing the spiritual “There’s a Man Going Round Taking Names” on both knees, both the song and his posture an allusion to the death of George Floyd.
Other classical musicians across race and ethnicity took up the hashtag #TakeTwoKnees in support of black lives and against police brutality.
Do you think classical music is an effective tool for protesting against injustice? Why or why not?
Season 3 of the Amazon Prime series Mozart in the Jungle featured an episode called “Not Yet Titled,” in which the fictional orchestra, based on the New York Philharmonic, plays a concert at Rikers Island under the direction of their charismatic Mexican conductor Rodrigo De Souza (Gael Bernal). The episode was filmed live at Rikers, and the audience was made up of real inmates. Watch it here. Do you agree with the inmates interviewed about the power of classical music?
Meeropol wrote the text after seeing this iconic image of a lynching which took place in Marion, Indiana, in 1930.
Southern trees bear strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south, The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth, Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh, Then the sudden smell of burning flesh. Here is fruit for the crows to pluck, For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop, Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Billie Holiday in 1959, the year of her death:
2. Which was sampled by Kanye West:
3. John Legend:
4. Jill Scott:
5. India Arie:
6. Operatic mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson and guitarist Tyron Cooper:
7. Late guitarist Jeff Buckley:
8. Katey Sagal as Gemma in the series Sons of Anarchy:
9. Jazz singer Cassandra Wilson with the trio known as Harriet Tubman:
10. Annie Lennox with a string orchestra. She faced pushback for not mentioning the song’s topic of lynching when she did publicity interviews for the album on which it appeared.
Do these cover versions work? Why or why not?
Do you think a white artist should sing this song?
At the March on Washington in 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech, folk singer Joan Baez led the masses in singing the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
In a 1965 speech, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 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 [English nineteenth-century philosopher Thomas] 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.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson, when he signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, also referenced the song in a famous speech. As his biographer Robert Caro tells the story, Johnson was in his limo on the way to the Capitol on March 15 to give a planned speech in support of civil rights, when his car came upon a phalanx of protestors outside the White House gate, singing “We Shall Overcome.” Just a week earlier, police in Selma, Alabama, had beaten, tear-gassed, and shot protesters — including children — marching to Montgomery to advocate for voting rights for blacks.
Johnson hastily re-wrote his speech, ending it with the words: “And we shall overcome.”
Dr. King watched the speech on television at a friend’s house in Selma, surrounded by his aides, including John Lewis, who had been brutally beaten during the Selma marches, and would later become a long-serving congressman. In his graphic novel March, Lewis remembered the occasion (above).
“We Shall Overcome” is a song derived from multiple sources, including the slave song “I’ll Be All Right Someday”:
The slave song “No More Auction Block for Me (Many Thousands Gone)”:
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 in its best-known version was sung by striking tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina in 1945. It spread to other states where workers were involved in union organizing, and Pete Seeger, one of the leaders of the folk music revival, who was also a musical presence at many union rallies, 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:
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 civil rights activists?
What do you think about Joan Baez leading the March on Washington in singing it? Could a white-Latinx singer credibly do this today? Should they?
And it gets more complicated: a recent lawsuit alleges that “We Shall Overcome” was pirated from a similar song, “If My Jesus Wills,” composed by Louise Shropshire, a friend of Dr. King. Read the allegations and watch video here.
In those days the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) would not allow anyone to go on a demonstration if that person so much as confessed that he would entertain a thought about hitting a white person [back] who had struck him. You had to put your body in the struggle and that meant . . . entering the church and listening to prayers, short sermons on your courage and the cause you were fighting for, singing freedom songs — “Ain’t Gon’ Let Nobody Turn Me Round” . . . and, always at the end, “We Shall Overcome” with arms crossed, holding the hands of the person next to you and swaying gently from side to side, We Shall Overcome Someday, someday but not today because you knew as you walked out of the church, two abreast, and started marching toward town, that no matter how many times you sang about not letting anybody turn you around, rednecks and po’ white trash from four counties and some from across the state line were waiting with guns, tire chains, baseball bats, rocks, sticks, clubs, and bottles, waiting as you turned the corner singing about This Little Light of Mine and how you were going to let it shine as that cop’s billy club went upside your head shine shine shining as you fell to the pavement . . . singing I Ain’t Scared of Your Jail ‘Cause I want my Freedom.
Indeed, young, increasingly radicalized SNCC activists had accompanied Dr. King on the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches. The marchers camped in the fields at night, and, when Stokely Carmichael, the new head of SNCC (he had followed later long-serving congressman John Lewis in his leadership role), heard “We Shall Overcome” being sung around the campfire, he and his SNCC colleagues drowned it out with their version: “We Shall Overrun.”
“The Beloved Community” is a term that was first coined in the early days of the 20th Century by the philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation. However, it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who popularized the term and invested it with a deeper meaning which has captured the imagination of people of goodwill all over the world.
For Dr. King, The Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.
Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.
As early as 1956, Dr. King spoke of The Beloved Community as the end goal of nonviolent boycotts. As he said in a speech at a victory rally following the announcement of a favorable U.S. Supreme Court Decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s busses, “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
Read the facsimile of Dr. King’s suggestions for black riders of the newly-integrated Montgomery, Alabama buses in 1956:
In addition to being a writer and activist, Julius Lester was also a folksinger, who collaborated with Pete Seeger on an instruction manual for the 12-string guitar.
Recently, in Portland, Oregon, the white parishioners of St. Francis Catholic Church sang “We Shall Overcome” to protest liturgial changes made by their more traditional African pastor.
What do you think of this use of “We Shall Overcome”? Is it cultural appropriation? Is it ironic?
Addendum: a scene from the opera Freedom Ride by my friend, Dan Shore. Read more about the opera here.