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Civil Rights Music

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With Black History Month well underway, it would be appropriate to reflect on the civil rights era that changed America. In service to that ideal, I've compiled a brief look at the movement's most notable anthems as something to listen to at this time of year to remember this pivotal point in history. It was one of those unique moments where history and music were so overtly intertwined; the sounds of the time could not help but reflect the spirit in the air. Art has always been an affectingtool for creating change. Each piece functions as an entry into the greater cultural conversation, and the right words – a good argument or an inspiration for empathy – can change minds and then society. There is no better example of this than the music of the civil rights era. It's not fair to say that the music was the reason for progress, or even the driving force behind it, but there were songs that humanized the plight of black Americans in the '60s, spoke out against war and injustice, and generally helped strengthen the resolve of the movement. If we're going to talk about the music of the '60s that gave aid to activism, it would be important to talk about the precedents like Billie Holiday's heavy rendition of "Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol in the 1930s. It was less of a polemic and more of a poetic metaphor for the horrors of lynchings. Although there was originally resistance and controversy to the promotion of the song, it eventually caught fire in the 1940s with a feverish success, ultimately making Holiday's career. It was a sign that not only were people listening, but that they had come to feel strongly about its message and stance. The era also brought a spotlight to folk music. The black artists of the time tended to work in jazz, rhythm & blues and gospel, but they often shared stages with white folk singers, who were supportive to their cause. Folk music of the 1960s as a popular genre drew life and vitality from the diasporic spread and reinterpretation of traditional cultural music, so it complimented the movement's spirituals and gospel music. The activist folk scene produced things like Pete Seeger's rendition of “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” or Joan Baez doing her version of ”Oh Freedom.” When Medgar Evers was assassinated in 1963, the music community was part of the conversation. Bob Dylan wrote “Only a Pawn in Their Game” while Nina Simone wrote “Mississipi Goddam,” which she describes as a show tune with no show. That initial cheerful illusion serves to sharpen the conviction, contrast with the message and make the darkness extra dark. When talking about Simone's work in this era, one also has to mention her recording of “I Wish I Knew How To Be Free,” in 1967, the year before Robert Kennedy and Dr. King were assassinated. If anyone ever questions if music and art is important beyond entertainment and catharsis, they only need to look at the power and impact these songs had. Toni Cade Bambara, an activist, film-maker and professor, once said,“The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” Because what greater accomplishment is there for an artist than to help make a difference in the world?

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