Why do this concert?
A Set of Reflections on the Importance, the Promise and the Power of Our Performance of Music by Black Composers and Performing Artists
By Jim Lopresti
In her address to the 2016 Democratic Convention, First Lady Michelle Obama said "I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves." It is also true that the US Capitol Building would never have risen over a hill a few blocks east of her home without the work of black men and women who earned nothing in their day for their herculean efforts. On top of the Capitol sits the Statue of Freedom, a 19-foot bronze woman holding a sword and a laurel wreath. It was crafted by Philip Reid, a slave who was chosen because no one else had the skill to make a bronze statue out of the plaster cast model. Mt. Vernon, Monticello and the Castle at the Smithsonian are among the other great edifices built by forced labor. Their overlords saw those workers as their property. They were the muscle force and levers of their masters’ power and influence. But America’s First Lady saw them as the men and women who built her home, “the people’s house.” And her speaking clearly that simple truth helped cut our history free of its shackles. Without the work of the ancestors of nearly all who today call themselves African American, we all would be impoverished. History, reframed to tell the full truth, will someday enshrine these forgotten builders in the pantheon of our founding ancestors.
At the same time, most of current American popular music is grounded in Black America’s experience. The ancestral sources of our music were uprooted from Africa and planted in the cotton fields of the South. Dig down just a little and you will find the roots of Spirituals, R&B, Ragtime and its precocious child, Jazz. All from the rhythms, chants and songs of a people forcibly removed from their homes. In effect, so much of the music that followed is based on a story fashioned not only in “blood, sweat and tears,” but in a deep, incontrovertible hope for a just future. The music gave voice to the experience of a people enslaved in body, but free in Spirit, eager and ready to “cross over the Jordan” into the Promised Land. Later generations of ground-breaking composers and performing artists nurtured in the homes and churches of Black America were their progeny. And the beneficiaries of their labors and their gifts now span the globe. We all are included.
Over many decades, Black America’s music evolved and begot generations of Jazz, Swing and Soul. What’s more, in 1949, Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed was arguably the first to use the term “rock ‘n’ roll,” as a part of his effort to sell black rhythm and blues music to white audiences. Soon after, Ike Turner’s 1951 single “Rocket 88,” that touts the power and beauty of an American car, is considered by many to be the first Rock ‘n’ Roll record. The genre’s great artists of the 50s – black and white alike-- emerged from that same root stock. Their new sounds quickly circled the globe. A decade or so later, groups from the other side of the Pond, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones understood this history and their debt to its origins. They came back to our shores with their own offspring of early 20th century American music. All while new forms of music were soon to show up in discos with DJ scratch artists and new urban beats.
We are choosing to honor our American musical ancestors. It would be a gross understatement to say that “Black Music Matters.” Simply put, without it, we all would be impoverished. So we sing with gratitude and pride.
About the Songs
Like Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and JFK’s charge at his inaugural. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream Speech’ at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 ranks among those greatest moments when the words of our leaders dramatically directed our attention toward our better angels. You can watch it HERE
CAN YOU FEEL A BRAND NEW DAY?
From The Wiz, music by Luther Vandross
Shifting the scene from rural Kansas to the streets of Harlem, The Wiz recast one of America’s most beloved original fairytales into an urban classic. Now ruby red slippers turned silver do their magic for everyone “judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.” Perhaps dated, and clearly replaced by films with Black performers in far more nuanced roles, still the 1978 movie adaptation of the 1974 Broadway musical welcomed a new audience. Of course, it was not on a par with moving oratory from inspired leaders, but it did engender new affections for Dorothy, scarecrow, the cowardly lion and the tin man who looked and felt like their own kin. It transposed the image of home to a new key. That is no small matter.
It's such a change
For us to live so independently
Freedom, you see, has got our hearts singing so joyfully
Just look about
You owe it to yourself to check it out
Can you feel a brand new day?
Can you feel a brand new day?
POOR WAYFARING STRANGER
In so many ways both visible and hidden, the genre of music long called “Negro Spirituals” is the birthplace not only of Black Music, but of a people’s still unfinished struggle to achieve the nation’s promise of “liberty and justice for all.” In young America’s earliest years, Negro Spirituals were both a proclamation of faith in a freedom to come and a set of code words about the way to get there right now. The Judeo-Christian image of “crossing over Jordan” meant more than the spiritual journey of the soul to “The Promised Land” at the end of life, as much as that was a source of comfort of its own kind for a life in shackles. It was also a coded reference to the Ohio river, the boundary between the land of the slave owners and the land of the free.
Not much is known about the origins of Poor Wayfaring Stranger, familiar as it may be to some from the movie 1917. In its earliest years, it was sung as a song of comfort for inmates in Richmond VA’s Libby Prison during the Confederate War. But the lyrics betray something more about its likely origins in Black America in the first half of that century. I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home I am a poor wayfaring stranger
While traveling through this world of woe
Yet there’s no sickness, toil nor danger
In that bright world to which I go
I’m going there to see my Father
I’m going there no more to roam
LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING
James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson
In 1919, a dozen years before the Star Spangled Banner would become the US National Anthem, the NAACP formally proclaimed the Johnson brothers’ Lift Every Voice and Sing, the “Negro National Anthem.”
Lyricist/poet James Weldon wrote about the anthem’s long route to that formal designation from the time of its initial performance by 500 Florida school children: “Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country … The lines of this song repay me in an elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.”
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on 'til victory is won
Andra Day and Jennifer Decilveo
In 2007, Black Entertainment Television began the annual tradition of honoring Black women in the arts, entertainment, business and culture. Andra Day, a featured performer for the show in 2016, sang "Rise Up" from her 2015 hit album Cheers to the Fall. Interviewed on the red carpet before the show, she said that she wrote the song as a reminder to herself to persevere, “to stand up because if you can stand up then you can take the next step, if you can take the next step, you can take the one after that.” While the song has origins in her personal struggles, it could not help but “raise up” the story of a people. Her performance at that show echoed the forceful words of one of Maya Angelou’s most celebrated poems. Both speak in the first- person singular to communicate a widely shared “we” experience. The great poet said:
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
These creative, strong Black women made it unwaveringly clear that It takes not only hope, but great resolve and a courageous, gritty heart to keep moving forward after being struck down again, again and again.
A CHANGE IS GONNA COME
Sam Cooke died in 1964 before the release of this song written to add his voice to the many artists crafting personal statements about the fight for freedom in the Civil Rights Movement of his day. It was released at the same time marchers were brutally assaulted in Selma, AL. On the fiftieth anniversary of its release, David Cantwell published the following in The New Yorker Magazine: “Cooke’s tale is down-to-earth. He was born alongside a river that, like him, has never stopped rolling. He’s been run off when trying to see a movie downtown and beaten to his knees when asking for help. He’s had his moments of fear and doubt, but through it all…he’s nurtured a faith, now a conviction, that change is on the way.
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
Common and John Legend
The Edmund Pettus bridge, built in 1940, carries business route US80 over the Alabama River in Selma, AL. It was named after a Confederate Army General and Grand Dragon of the state’s Ku Klux Clan who also served as one of the state’s US Senators.
On Sunday morning, March 7, 1965, as civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King and his protégé, John Lewis, began their march from Selma to Montgomery, they were met by armed police at the crest of the Pettus bridge. They stayed the course and were brutally attacked. That “Bloody Sunday” became a turning point in the nation’s consciousness about Civil Rights and led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is still under challenge.
The 2014 movie, Selma, chronicles this story. Common and John Legend composed Glory as the closing title anthem for the movie. It won the 2015 Golden Globe award for Best Original Song. In his acceptance speech Common said: "As I got to know the people of the Civil Rights Movement I realized I am the hopeful black woman who was denied her right to vote. I am the caring white supporter killed on the front lines of freedom. I am the unarmed black kid who maybe needed a hand, but instead was given a bullet. I am the two fallen police officers murdered in the line of duty. Selma has awakened my humanity."
In that same year, the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the President and First Lady led a contingent of national leaders across the bridge. Five years later, Lewis’ own funeral cortege crossed over the same bridge.
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, "Stay down", and we stand up
Shots, we on the ground, the camera panned up…
MAN IN THE MIRROR
Sideah Garrett and Glen Ballard
His life was short in years, but not in controversy. His personal style was unique and considered strange by some. But without a doubt, Michael Jackson’s talent was boundless and his influence in the world of music and entertainment legendary. In 1987, while “MJ” was at the height of his career, Sideah Garrett then a song writer for Quincy Jones’ publishing company, was relatively new to the high-powered life of international pop music in That is also the year she and Glen Ballard wrote Man in the Mirror. She wanted Jackson to record the song. She finally convinced Jones to listen to their composition, knowing that only he could get to Jackson. Moved by her work, he considered it one of the best he had heard “in the past 10 years.” So, he convinced MJ to record it on the new album “Bad” that Jones was producing for him. It was a new kind of song for the “King of Pop.” The message of the song is very personal. It shifts the focus of the struggle for change, appealing to everyone to be a part of the solution. It is not OK just to stand on the sidelines, watch sympathetically and then opt out.
WE SHALL OVERCOME
Multi source, attributed to Charles Albert Tindley
LEAN ON ME
Medley arranged for TTBB chorus by Mark Hayes
Both the music and the words of the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement have a complicated history. Some trace its musical roots back to a Sicilian Latin hymn “O Sanctissima.” That hymn was known to American churchgoers and likely influenced the melody of the Civil War battle cry “No More Auction Block.” Written about the same time, the words from revered African American preacher Charles Albert Tindley's hymn “I’ll overcome some day” are clear antecedents to the beloved anthem that Pete Seeger made popular in the 60s. But it was when Joan Baez led the singing crowd at the Lincoln Memorial that hot August day in 1963 that "We Shall Overcome" became inseparably associated with the Civil Rights movement.
Linking "We Shall Overcome" with "Lean on Me" has special significance for the building of allies in the current national awakening to issues of racial justice. There is a call to recognize that is is not enough to be non-racist; it is time for allies to be anti-racist. That call moved John Fogarty, co-founder of late 60s hit band Credence Clearwater Revival to comment on his recent cover the song. His rendition was posted on Fathers Day, 2020 on his popular weekly video series “Fogarty’s Factory.” Joined by his family, he introduces their moving performance with these words: “We are living in a remarkable time. Protesters all across America and around the world are standing up against the evil that is racism. I’m so proud of the young people of this generation for reminding us all who we are. Now some people will say, ‘ah, John, I wish you wouldn’t get political’ – kinda like shut-up and dribble. But this isn’t about politics. It’s about human rights. It’s about empathy. It’s about compassion.”
A SUMMARY: WHY WE SING
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Theodore Parker/Martin Luther King, Jr.
The music for Lift Every Voice & Sing has a cohesive theme to it. While we are honoring our musical ancestry and while we celebrate the remarkable and inseverable contribution of Black composers and performing artists, we are caught up in a universal human story. Most of us in the LGBTQ+ community are not strangers to rejection, socially sanctioned discrimination, and brutal hatred. It is true that there is no real value in comparing struggles, but a new comradeship in struggle can be fostered when we become more deeply aware that we share the road to freedom and equality.
We do well to be energized by an unshakable hope that we all will “get to the Promised Land” together because of an unstoppable movement for justice and equality….
… if we are guided by a clear conviction and a firm resolve to right the wrongs
… if we keep alive the struggle for equality because we know we can ne a part of bending the arc toward justice
… if we hold firm to our conviction and resolve even “when we fall”
… if “deep in our hearts, we do believe” that no one is free while anyone is held down and that there is no “equality” unless all are “equal.” No one is to be left out.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best in Atlanta in Aug 1967,
“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.
Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Let us realize that William Cullen Bryant is right: “Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.” This is our hope for the future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow, with a cosmic past tense, “We have overcome! We have overcome! Deep in my heart, I did believe we would overcome.”