During the civil rights movement, Pete Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome,” Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” sparked white and some black antiwar and anti-segregation sentiment. These are the songs that we tie, rightfully, to the movement. Yet it was the driving, ecstatic harmonies of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles that spoke most directly to the power of black music and black art, and it was the sounds of “sweet soul music” that drove the black movements forward. It’s upon these foundations that this week’s mix, People Get Ready, is built.
Released in the summer of 1964 amidst violent protests, KKK terrorism, and the beginning of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Summer Project, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” topped the Billboard 100. Even though the frontwoman denied, consistently, the viability of a political re-reading of the tune, its topical reconfiguration was a call to action. In the New Yorker, Rollo Romig describes how the song was first articulated explicitly within the black power movement:
In October, 1965, the S.N.C.C. member Roland Snellings wrote an article called “Keep on Pushin’: Rhythm & Blues as a Weapon” for a black-power journal called Liberator: “WE ARE COMING UP! WE ARE COMING UP! And it’s reflected in the Riot-song that symbolized Harlem, Philly, Brooklyn, Rochester, Paterson, Elizabeth; this song, of course, ‘Dancing in the Streets’—making Martha and the Vandellas legendary.”
It’s a little apocryphal to call any of the songs that I put on People Get Ready “riot songs,” though I do think that there’s something to be said for Snellings, the black power movement, and the civil rights movement’s re-reading of them. Until the protest movements of the 1960s, interpretations of the racist, oppressive social structure were fixed—it took some creative reconsideration to open the possibility of a new order. When the remedy seems impossible, creativity might be the only thing left. “Dancing in the Street” may not intend its call to action, but it still lauded protesting at a slant. Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” performed on this mix by Otis Redding, demanded a romance on equal terms, and it also demanded a romance of equality, and a context of equal rights.
Lots of the songs on People Get Ready are more explicit, informed directly by the civil and black rights movements: The Impressions’ timeless “People Get Ready,” the quiet bombast that marks Jackie Wilson’s “When Will Our Day Come,” Chuck Berry’s surprising hip-shaker, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” Most of the songs that I pulled together were, at their time, incredibly popular. Mahalia Jackson was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorite singer, and Trouble of the World sounded the struggle of the black population in a way reminiscent of the hopeful blues of the twenties and thirties, “the sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday.” Nina Simone is still considered to be one of the most dexterous and fearless advocates of black empowerment. With those, I also slid in a few smaller tunes: R&B great Big Maybelle’s “Heaven Will Welcome You Dr. King,” released just after his assassination as a B-side to her cover of Eleanor Rigby off the small Rojac label, is an extravagant and little-known tribute to the leader, and Dock Reed and Vera Ward Hall’s “Free At Last,” a tune whose roots stretch to early slave songs. When these tunes weren’t explicit—“be black, baby” didn’t always top the charts—they read beauty and power into a black population whose agency was overwhelmingly repudiated, if not simply ignored.
Today, that denial persists. A week ago, June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof walked into Charleston’s historically black Emanuel AME and shot and killed nine black church members: Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson. You can already find lots of good writing on black mourning and forgiveness, the space of white women and black women in a racist social structure, and on the significance, in this context, of Roof’s confederate flag. We have to keep talking about this, name the dead, attribute the violence again and again to the white supremacist social structure that reproduces it. Understanding that the U.S. is built on slavery and capitalism makes these crimes legible. If we don’t keep repeating ourselves then we, and everyone else, might start to forget.
Let’s keep these songs close, then, mix them with Kendrick Lamar’s opus To Pimp A Butterfly and D’Angelo’s reckless and brilliant Black Messiah and hope that something comes out of them. There’s no point in talking if we don’t listen, too.