Blues Is a Part of Black History
Let’s face it, Music has always been part of every protest movement. “Yankee Doodle” had Americans marching through the Revolutionary War. ” The Battle Hymn of the Republic” led Americans through the Civil War while the losing side was whistling “Dixie”. And many of us more seasoned Blues lovers cut our teeth on the protest songs of the Vietnam War. It started with Folk singers and Seegar, Guthrie, Baez and Dylan and spilled over into the Woodstock Nation. Heck the best Rock and Roll in the 60s seemed to come from protesting the Vietnam War! “Eve of Destruction”, “Ball of Confusion”, “Fortunate Son”, “Running Thru the Jungle”, “Revolution”, “Imagine”, “Give Peace a Chance”, the list was endless.
Music played an equally huge role in Black History and Civil Rights. Historian Carter G. Woodsen, the force who delivered Black history month, said, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” There is NO genre that serves as the soundtrack of Black History more so than the Blues. Black History is the story of the struggles and cruel hardships that led to a triumphant spirit…the Blues is a recording of those struggles, hardships and triumphs.
Many of the early Civil Rights songs were old spirituals like “We shall Overcome”, “Go Tell it on A Mountain”, and “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Sam Cooke wrote “A Change is Gonna Come” after being turned away from a ‘white’s only’ motel in Louisiana in 1963. The song became an anthem after MLK was assassinated. In 2007, “A Change is Gonne Come” was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress, with the National Recording Registry deeming the song "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important. Curtis Mayfield’s powerful hymn of the movement “People Get Ready” like many freedom and blues songs used the imagery of a train (coming from the Underground Railroad and escape to freedom, not an actual train). There were many blues voices. Odetta was known as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement” and deserves an article on her efforts alone, and I’ll try to do that in the future.
Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in 1964 as a response to the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the bombing of a Black Church in Birmingham Alabama that murdered 4 black children. The song begins as an upbeat tune but soon spins into its political focus, with its powerful refrain "Alabama's got me so upset, Tennessee's made me lose my rest, and everybody knows about Mississippi goddam." Mississippi Goddam was banned in many Southern states. Boxes of promotional 45s sent to radio stations around the country were returned with the records cracked in half. In 2019, "Mississippi Goddam" was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
We all know Civil Rights and the America’s shameful treatment of Black Americans finally erupted in the ‘60s, but it can be said it started in March 1939, when 23-year-old Billie Holiday walked up to the microphone at West 4th's Cafe Society in New York City to sing her final song of the night. Suddenly the room went completely black. The servers had been instructed by Holiday to stop serving. A single spotlight ion her face was the only light in the room. Then her soft yet emotional voice painted the words with a rawness no one was expecting "Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees..."
STRANGE FRUIT Songwriter: Abel Meeropol
Southern trees bear a 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 magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is a fruit for the crow to pluck
For the rain to wither, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
When the last words were sung, the spotlight went out, the lights came back on and Billy was gone from the stage. She did not do an encore and until her death 20 years later that is how Billy Holiday finished every performance of hers. “Strange Fruit” became her signature song. Civil rights activists and Black America embraced "Strange Fruit," for its powerful and frank portrayal of racism in America. Those on the opposite end of the spectrum, namely racist America & the South, opposed it so much that many racist whites walked out of clubs. Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger, a known racist, forbid Holiday to perform "Strange Fruit.” When she refused, he devised a plan where his own men sold her heroin (she was a known user) arrested her and had her in prison for a year and a half. Sadly, the 2020 version of the Anslingers still have too loud of a voice. Maybe that song needs a modern blues performer to bring the song to the front of the stage again. In 1999 Time designated "Strange Fruit" the "song of the century." The song was created from a poem written by writer, teacher and songwriter Abel Meeropol as a protest against lynchings of Black Americans. The song was originally published in the New York Teacher’s Union Newsletter and entitled “Bitter Fruit”. Holiday tried to record it on her label Columbia, but they refused saying it was too political. A smaller label called Commodore Records did record it, but it still never got much radio play. Southern states banned it and Northern states were afraid to stir up racial unrest and many nightclubs refused to let Holiday do the song in her act. Yet the song still caught the attention of the public with its powerful lyrics and it even reached #16 on the Billboard charts. In the 50s and 60s it was a powerful voice during the Civil Rights scene. Record producer Ahmet Ertegub went so far as to state “Strange Fruit” as a declaration of war that resulted in the beginning of the civil rights movement in America. While I never heard Billy Holiday do this live, I have heard Cassie Taylor, daughter of Colorado blues legend Otis Taylor, do it several times- the same way that Billy did, with the lights out, just her voice- and I have to tell you, I am sure it is as haunting and chilling -and powerful- today as it was almost 80 years ago.
The thing that makes the Civil rights movement and blues music such a perfect union is that not only was the blues an inspiration during the most difficult of times, but it helped with healing the hostilities and eliminating the hate in the years that followed. People with no common ground on any subject were able to come together in agreement on the music of their times. Ironic that the blues which rose out of the unjust and violent relationship between blacks and whites in the segregated south just might also be the medicine that helps cure the current social ills and wounds of segregation left in a civil rights era that is still incomplete 60 years later. The story of the blues is about rising above the pain and refusing to let the oppressor win and about the healing power that can be found in this amazing music. by Chick Cavallero ( this was a re-working of a piece I did 2 years ago for The Holler)