This week I wrote about the gratitude I feel for having received such an education on systemic racism in America and the UK simply through to having an interest in music. Exploring new music as a teenager, I sought out the songs rather than the political and emotional understanding yet gained both at the same time, and now I would like to return the favour to those who are coming at things from the opposite perspective: abruptly awakened to the state of race relations in modern America and seeking to expand the depth of their understanding. Alongside myriad feature films, documentaries and books (fictional and academic), I believe one of the finest ways to do so is by exploring eighty years of black music from America and the UK.
Let’s not beat around the bush: black people invented popular music. From blues to jazz, from rock ‘n’ roll to rap, from disco to house, from soul to R&B: myriad white musicians have released fantastic music in what is ultimately a black form. It’s no coincidence; when black people in America couldn’t express themselves at the ballot box, they could express themselves in song. This is a playlist of fifty songs from across the past eighty years of African American musicianship. Many of them are well known, some have been overlooked or are simply too old to be remembered by most. They’re largely listed in chronological order with some exceptions, and are mostly American with a handful of songs from the UK.
Jim Crow Blues – Lead Belly
Recorded sometime in the 1930s, this song by blues icon Lead Belly – a man born on a plantation on 1888 – is a small window into the life of African Americans in the first half of the 20th Century; a response to the segregationist laws enforced until 1965 in the Southern United States. Jim Crow laws made black American’s second class citizens in their own country, forcing segregation in all public services and removing the few political and economic gains made by African Americans in the wake of the abolition of slavery in 1865. Hullie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter urges in his rumbling baritone to “get together, break up this old Jim Crow”, and the reference to Bunk Johnson, a jazz trumpeter from New Orleans, is testament to the unifying power of song for a uniquely disenfranchised population.
Black, Brown & Beige Part IV (Aka ‘Come Sunday’) – Duke Ellington & His Orchestra Featuring Mahalia Jackson
The pioneering pianist and composer’s Black, Brown & Beige suite debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1943. Ellington’s most ambitious symphony was introduced as “a parallel to the history of the Negro in America” and contained three titular movements, with each part broken into different periods of African American history; from the 700 Haitians who came to the aid of African Americans during the Revolutionary War to the influence of West Indians, the emancipation and the contemporary Blues period. The enchanting vocals of Mahalia Jackson – who later performed at the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s funeral – elevate this portion of the music, which went on to become a traditional spiritual on its own terms. It captures the healing power of Christianity for many disenfranchised African Americans, including Ellington’s own faith. William McClain has noted the importance of Sunday to black Americans, even in secular music: “To the Christian, Sunday is, or should be, another Easter, in which God’s victory in Christ over sin and death are celebrated in work, word, song, prayer, and preaching. After all, even [slave] masters and owners tried to be more human on Sunday”.
Fables of Faubus – Charles Mingus
Written in 1959 in direct reaction to the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus – who sent out the National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School by nine black teenagers – “Fables of Faubus” is the both one of bassist and jazz composer Charles Mingus’ most strikingly political songs, and testament to sweeping censorship enacted by white label bosses against their black musicians. Columbia Records refused to include the lyrics Mingus wrote for the song, forcing the classic album Mingus Ah Um to be released with only the instrumental version included. When the version of the song featuring call-and-response vocals by Mingus and drummer Dannie Richmond was finally released, it became apparent what the label bosses were so scared of: “Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie / Governor Faubus! / Why is he so sick and ridiculous? / He won’t permit integrated schools / Then he’s a fool! Nazi fascist supremists!” They may have been silenced, but they weren’t wrong.
Strange Fruit – Nina Simone
Recorded originally in 1939 by Billie Holliday, this haunting ballad compares lynched African Americans to fruit on a tree, and in doing so declared war against the perpetrators of these pubic executions, and in effect began the civil rights movement in earnest. The words were written by Abel Meerpol, in reaction to the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. Equally iconic is Nina Simone’s cover of the song, released on her 1965 album Pastel Blues in the midst of the same movement. Simone’s incredible barritone gives the song the same twisted darkness of it’s subject matter, the moment when the instrumental falls to silence as Simone howls the line “strange and bitter crop” surely being one of the most shocking in modern music.
A Change Is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke
Blessed both with one of the finest voices of the original soul era and soaring string orchestration, “A Change Is Gonna Come” became emblematic of the entire Civil Rights era, taking all the nuance and division of the first post-war movement for the fight for equitable rights of black Americans and placing them in their plainest and most hopeful terms: “there have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long / But now I think I’m able to carry on / It’s been a long, a long time coming / But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will”. Upon the election of the first black President, Barack Obama, in 2008, the song was played widely in the nation’s capital, however the failings of the President to create the manner of society Cooke sung of over half a century earlier show the extent to which racism is ingrained in every American system and institution.