Smithsonian Folkways: Voices of the Civil Rights Movement

Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966 is a two-disc set assembled by Smithsonian Folkways featuring 43 tracks of songs and audio clips recorded live at some of the mass meetings that were held during the Civil Rights era. The set includes a 38-page booklet written by Bernice Johnson Reagon analyzing the structure and historical inspiration behind the songs, particularly those performed in congregational style.

From the opening medley of “Freedom Chant”, “Oh Freedom”, and “This LIttle Light Of Mine” by the Freedom Singers in 1964 to the rousing finale of “We Shall Overcome” the same year, this set is filled with strikingly emotional moments.

Some of the most poignant tracks are the prayer and mass participation on “Lord, Hold My Hand While I Run This Race”, “Get On Board, Children” led by Willie Peacock, “Oh Freedom” by Hollis Watkins, “Ain’ Scared Of Nobody” led by Amanda Bowens Perdew and Virginia Davis, “Wade In The Water” led by Fannie Lou Hamer, “Don’t You Think It’s About Time That We All Be Free” by Mabel Hillary, “Get Your Rights, Jack” (based on Ray Charles’ “Hit The Road, Jack”) by CORE Freedom Singers, Bernice Johnson’s awe-inspiring rendition of “Been In The Storm So Long”, and “Ballad Of Medgar Evers” by Matthew Jones and SNCC Freedom Singers.

The set also has reworked versions of the old union tune “Which Side Are You On?” and the spirituals “I Told Jesus” and “City Of Heaven”, the former of which was recorded in its original form on Natalie Merchant’s The House Carpenter’s Daughter and the latter two on Spirituals by Marian Anderson.

Also included are several songs that were recently featured on the astounding We’ll Never Turn Back by Mavis Staples, including “Jesus On The Mainline”, “We’ll Never Turn Back”, “We Shall Not Be Moved”, “99 and 1/2”, “Ain’ Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round”, and Marshall Jones’ haunting “In The Mississippi River”.

This collection is even more affecting in light of the recent racial injustice in Jena, Louisiana and the horrifying hate crime in Logan County, West Virginia. Despite the appearance of progress on the surface of American society, it’s appalling to see how little some things have changed in the past three decades.

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
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Mavis Staples: We’ll Never Turn Back

We’ll Never Turn Back is what music should be. Gut-wrenching blues, earth shaking beats, hip swaying rhythms, deeply moving lyrics, and a rich voice that defies description. Produced by Ry Cooder and featuring guest vocals by original members of The Freedom Singers and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the April 27th release from the legendary Mavis Staples is a collection of modernized Delta-blues and spirituals both old and new. Inspired by the civil rights movement of the 1960s as well as the Hurricane Katrina disaster, police shootings, and celebrity racial slurs of this decade, Staples effortlessly blends the emotional, inspirational, and intelligent lyrics of past revolutions with contemporary dance beats to create a intoxicatingly powerful force. And her voice has not lost one ounce of its incomparable potency.

“Down In Mississippi” and “In The Mississippi River” set the album on fire with deep Southern Gospel thumps, bluesy guitar riffs, and funky dance grooves beneath Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s melodic choir and the bottomless growl of Mavis Staples.

“Eyes On The Prize”, “We Shall Not Be Moved”, “On My Way”, “Turn Me Around”, and “Jesus Is On The Main Line” are traditional songs given a modern spin by Staples and Cooder. “This Little Light Of Mine” and “99 And 1/2” are also traditional songs that the pair augmented with new lyrical rants and pumped up musical arrangements.

“My Own Eyes” is a Staples original inspired by the singer’s own life experiences – such as being unjustly jailed by “Southern racist cops” in the Civil Rights era – and the world around her today, particularly in New Orleans.

Producer Ry Cooder hit the mark when he called these songs “physical music”. The music on We’ll Never Turn Back is so alive and full of passion it’s almost tangible enough to grasp in a clenched fist. These are not background songs for other activities. This is music to give your full attention to, to immerse yourself in, to get lost in, to get high on. This is not only what music should be, it’s what all music lovers should be talking about.

Mavis Staples Official Site

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