I am so very happy to sing once again in one of my most favorite cities in the world, San Francisco. These thoughts came to mind prior to my participation in the United States Congressional Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington last month. Please allow me this opportunity to share them with you.
MUSIC SOOTHES US, MAKES US PRACTICALLY GIDDY WITH JOY, GIVES us a Proustian moment of recollection when we expect it least. Music can also define a moment in history, a moment in the history of this country when no other source of human offering could have carved the path of our grief, expectations, hopes, challenges, and disappointments with greater depth within our souls and our intellects, or created a wider reach within us to a visceral response to the injustice writ large all over this land.
Music and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s are forever intertwined. Strumming her guitar in hope and majesty, beauty and courage, the great Odetta sang her protest against capital punishment, “Another Man Done Gone,” knowing then what it would seem others needed more time to realize: The disproportionate number of those whose lives were taken by the state were those who were disenfranchised in other parts of their lives and their citizenship, and who lacked the right and availability to a fair and just assessment of their alleged crimes.
The words were no less powerful than the soaring melodies:
Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired I am weak, I am worn.
Through the storms through the night, lead me on to the Light,
Take my hand, precious Lord, and lead me on.
When the great Mahalia Jackson took the microphone to sing “We Shall Overcome,” how many of us understood that this song—the song that one could claim to have been the rallying cry for the Movement— was originally sung by Pete Seeger in his protests against the steady building of the American underclass?
Harry Belafonte used his voice for more than his wonderful singing and he remains an eloquent champion of the duties and responsibility of what it means simply to be a human being. His many songs, including, “Oh, Freedom,” speak directly to the heart of the matter:
And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord, and be free.
LET US PAUSE TO THINK OF SONGS THAT EMERGED FROM THE HEARTS and minds of those who themselves suffered no loss of rights or challenges on a daily basis to their survival by the actions and the laws of Jim Crow or the cowardice of those who would hide behind those laws to see their fellow citizens violated. “Strange Fruit,” as sung by the one and the only Billie Holiday, was composed by a white man, sympathetic to the plight of his fellow citizens. Poetry poured from him as light through a very dark tunnel, and Abel Meeropol composed the words and music to a song that describes an act so heinous that we wonder today how a crime against the very fabric of the soul of a nation could have taken place on such a scale. I believe he hoped this song would shed needed light on the inhumanity of the thought and the actual practice of lynching. Billie Holiday’s unique gifts took this song to heights never dreamed of by its composer.
And lastly, the song “Amazing Grace.” There are still those who think this song to be an old spiritual. In speaking with a journalist in London only one year ago, I was stunned to find that he knew nothing of the slave ship captain in the British Navy John Newton, a devout non-believer, who saw the transportation of a free people from their own land into bondage as a means of making a living. Then, as it happens, when the universe is determined that the lesson before us is learned once and for all, on one of those crossings from Africa to Europe a mighty storm occurred on the sea. John Newton was certain that he would not only lose his precious “cargo,” but his own life, as well. In a moment of clarity with himself and with his “trade,” he wrote the words that the entire world now sings:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.
Some claim the melody for “Amazing Grace” to have originated in John Newton’s home country of Scotland. I choose to think that the meter, the shape of the melody itself, and its resemblance to so much folk music (particularly of West Africa), gives me a path to invent for myself the thought of rising sounds from the bowels of a slave ship, with human beings arranged to accommodate as many as possible on a single crossing, but still living and breathing through the miracle of a song, a melody. Humming as there was often no common language, yet making music from the deepest parts of their beings.
The Civil Rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s would find strength, determination, and sustaining faith through the music that would keep “Eyes on the Prize” and the involvement in the struggle of the “Young, Gifted, and Black.” Because we knew at that time as surely as we know now, “A Change is Gonna Come.”
Music lives, music breathes, music is the very food of life.
—Jessye Norman, New York City, July 2013