HIGH FREQUENCIES: A dream goes on forever

Music played its part during the Civil Rights movement

Clock Graphic
Photo credit: Tony Paris
MOMENT MARKED: Clock on display at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, stopped at the time shots rang out in Memphis, April 4, 1968.

“Musick has charms to soothe a savage breast.” William Congreve first made that observation in 1697. Over three centuries later, the phrase, more commonly referenced as, “Music soothes the savage beast,” still holds true.

Fifty years ago, in the wake of the April 4 assassination of Dr., Martin Luther King, Jr., music did just that in Boston. The city was teetering. On the brink. As news of the killing of the Civil Rights leader spread across the United States, and the anger of Black America turned to rage, people took to the streets. American cities started to go up in flames. The decision to air Brown’s already-scheduled April 5th Boston Garden concert on a local public broadcast station that night kept the people of Boston calm — and the city safe. Smoldering, but safe.

Two nights later, in New York City, grief over the death of King brought together an unlikely gathering of musicians. According to Joni Mitchell’s website, on April 7, she, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, Al Kooper, and B.B. King consoled themselves with an impromptu jam in tribute to Dr. King at the Generation Club, a small Manhattan venue where Guy was performing. Mitchell was the first to join the bluesman onstage, followed by Hendrix and the others.

Music, of course, was an integral part of the Civil Rights movement. Songs learned in the church became anthems. “We Shall Overcome” echoed throughout the United States as the non-violent movement gained momentum. In Atlanta, during King’s funeral, gospel songs not only provided a release for the pain in the hearts of those who attended, but a sense of hope, that something good might come out of the tragedy.

James Baldwin, in an essay he penned for Esquire in 1972, recounted the day he sat with mourners inside Ebenezer Baptist Church. In particular, he remembered the singing of “My Father Watches Over Me,” by a member of the choir whose name he did not recall — it was Mary Gurley — “She was singing of a covenant a people had made, long ago, with life, and with that larger life which ends in revelation and which moves in love.”

Martin Luther King - Where Do We Go From Here? (Conclusion) from MLK Speeches on Vimeo.

King himself spoke of that love in his last address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Aug. 16, 1967, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” Distilled from his speech “Where Do We Go From Here?” delivered that day in Atlanta, many consider it to be the most radical, though lesser known, of his orations.

In the early days of the Civil Rights movement, music was ever-present. At the August, 28, 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Odetta were among those to perform. Dylan sang “When the Ship Comes In” and “Only A Pawn in Their Game,” his account of the killing of Medgar Evers, Baez offered “Oh Freedom” and “We Shall Overcome.” Jackson, who sang “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at King’s funeral, energized the massive crowd that day with “How I Get Over” and “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned.” But the songs, powerful in their messages, served only to warm-up the audience for King before he stood before the microphone, and the crowd, over 250,000 strong. King gave his galvanizing “I Have a Dream” speech, certainly one of the most inspired speeches of the twentieth century, cementing the goals of his non-violent means to equality for all.

As the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King passes, and people look back on all that has been accomplished for Civil Rights in this country, not just for African Americans, but for the female population and the LGBTQ community, much progress has been made. Yet the events of the last 15 months, following eight years of leadership by this country’s first black president, show many Americans have learned very little, or, at least, chosen not to accept King’s vision. The Black Lives Matter movement of today is no different from the striking Memphis sanitation workers who carried signs in 1968 proclaiming, “I Am A Man.” The Ku Klux Klan, once thought to be extinguished, has risen from the ashes, spewing hatred and bigotry long thought to be something outgrown by most in this country. Nonetheless, Dr. King’s words still ring true. And his teachings? His teachings are needed now, now more than ever. We still have a lot to learn from him. A lot to learn.

Contact Tony Paris regarding upcoming shows and noteworthy news, at cl.higfreqs@gmail.com. Such messages, sent by other means, are likely to get lost — and, as you probably know, he rarely answers messages received on his Facebook account.


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