Monday, 2 March 2015

Music At The 1963 March On Washington

2014 marked fifty years since the Freedom Summer which followed the iconic March On Washington. This year brought the release of "Selma" about the only slightly less iconic Freedom March To Selma. So to wrap up Black History Month I thought I'd take a quick look at the musical artists that played at the March On Washington. Martin Luther King's speech is the one thing everybody remembers but there were also a few singers who added their voices to the day.

Joan Baez ~ Baez had been the star of the Folk scene since her breakout at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 including a coveted "Time Magazine" cover. Besides her musical success she was also a committed supporter of the Civil Rights Movement having gone down, by herself, to Clinton, Tennessee to escort black students seeking to integrate the high school there, protecting them from an angry mob with her very presence. The mob backed down even though she was alone. She more than earned her stripes and her presence at the march made sense. She was the first singer to perform and helped the crowd to settle down and set the proper mood for the rally to come. Baez would never waver in her commitment to social justice, including going to jail for protesting the Vietnam War and Apartheid several times and putting herself in the line of fire, literally, in Bosnia. At the March she sang "We Shall Overcome" and "Oh Freedom" along with a duet with Bob Dylan.


Bob Dylan ~ Dylan was considered a bright young star and the romantic foil to the Folk Princess Baez who he often sang with. Baez probably insisted on bringing along the often remote and diffident Dylan to the rally for his own good. In later years he would distance himself from the folk scene, both musically by plugging in and embracing Rock & Roll, and politically flirting with Christianity, Judaism and apolitical cynicism. At the March he sang "When the Ship Comes In", as a duet with Baez. Dylan also performed "Only a Pawn in Their Game",


Peter, Paul & Mary ~ Although they are best remembered today for "Puff The Magic Dragon" they were major crossover stars of the early to mid sixties with several hits. Considering their safe, all-American image and friendly songs it's a little surprising that they were considered rather controversial among folk purists for what some considered their overly polished versions of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger songs. Besides their star power they were also vocal supporters of the Civil Rights Movement and played at other rallies so their presence here to help keep the crowd happy was an obvious move. They would continue to have hits well into the Psychedelic Sixties even though by end of the decade they were considered distinctly conservative in musical terms. At the March they sang "If I Had a Hammer" and Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind".


Odetta ~ A respected figure in the folk scene as well as a vocal supporter of the movement, and one of the few politically oriented black folk singers. Active as a recording artist since the mid-fifties she was cited as an influence by white artists like Baez, Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary. She did the classic version of "Take This Hammer" but at the rally she sang "I'm On My Way". She had a long career dying in 2008 at the age of 77.


Mahalia Jackson ~ The Queen Of Gospel was a powerful figure in the Civil Rights Movement with it's roots in the black churches, and was the favorite of Martin Luther King in particular. She sang at many of his speeches to warm up the crowd with her powerful voice and he would have wanted her there to set the mood for her speech. She sang "How I Got Over". She then in fact stood behind him during his speech, goading him on as in a sermon in a black church. She would continue to play the role of warm-up for King at other rallies in years to come. Jackson was a huge influence on soul singers like Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight. She died in 1972.


Marion Anderson ~ A respected opera singer for many years Anderson was at the rally as a nod to historical symbolism. In 1939 Anderson gained natural attention when the Daughters Of The American Revolution banned her from singing at one of their functions at Constitution Hall . An outraged first lady Eleanor Roosevelt then responded by inviting her to sing at the Lincoln Monument to far more attention than she would have had if the DAR had not banned her. Anderson later became a Civil Rights Ambassador for the United Nations while continuing her career as an opera singer at the Met. She was awarded the Presidential Medal Of Freedom in 1963. Although she was an opera singer at the March she sang the gospel standard "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands". She died in 1993.


Josh White ~ A blues and gospel singer from the 1930's to the 40's, White was considered a possible cross-over star in the 40's and early 50's. He was handsome and charming with a smooth voice capable of making the blues palatable to the larger white mainstream. However his political activities harmed his career. Like Paul Robeson (and Leadbelly, who died in 1949) White became a vocal supporter of left wing radical causes including civil rights, he also became a supporter of the Communist Party. Like Robeson he became a target of the FBI and McCarthy's Red Scare. He found himself largely banned from radio and TV with shows cancelled in the prime of his career. Unlike the defiant Robeson, White caved in the pressure and largely avoided controversy and was allowed to eventually continue performing as the Red Scare petered out in the late fifties. By that time however White's style had been surpassed by rock and roll and smoother singers like Nat King Cole. White moved to Britain where he hosted a TV show. He returned to America and his defacto blacklisting was ended in 1963 when President Kennedy invited him to perform on a televised show.


The Freedom Singers ~ Unlike the other musical artists at the March the Freedom Singers were not actually a professional singing group but rather a group of black students who were part of the Student Non-Violent Co-Coordinating Committee who often sang at rallies with a mixture of gospel songs with political undertones. As such they were quite familiar to Martin Luther King who was a fan. Their performance at the March was one of the highlights of their short career. They sang "We Shall Not Be Moved". After the March they sang at the Newport Folk Festival (with Dylan, Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary) and recorded a well reviewed album before breaking up although a reconstituted version calling itself The New Freedom Singers continued on.


Note that while Harry Belefonte was a prominent organizer of the rally and in the movement in general as well as being a highly successful singer he did not sing at the rally.

Somewhat predictably there has since been some criticism of the rally for not having enough black singers present (notably by Dick Gregory) but as we can see there was a five-to-three ratio, that's assuming Dylan was originally invited by organizers rather than by Baez. Such carping leaves aside two questions; firstly the issue of time. As a condition of allowing the rally in the first place organizers had to promise to be in at sunrise and out by sundown, no excuses. And they kept to that schedule tightly. Although music, both gospel and folk, were long considered important parts of the movement there was not the luxury to have much time set aside for music at this rally.

More interesting is the question of exactly who they would have otherwise invited if they had the time. Some obvious possibles include;
Paul Robeson ~ A towering figure of the civil rights movement since the 1930's, Robeson also had a devoted black following. Robeson had been an international star as a singer, actor and football player who's had a long and very active involvement with political causes for which he had paid a heavy price. Long a vocal supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, Peace Movement, Labour Unions, Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War and freedom of speech Robeson became a supporter of the American Communist Party (although never actually a member) and remained so even at the height of the Red Scare. He had been the target of brick throwing mobs, police harassment, targeting by the FBI and Joe McCarthy, had his passport cancelled, shows cancelled, blacklisted by Hollywood and Broadway and banned from TV and radio. He had played for hundreds of rallies over the years, including some in defiance of Jim Crow laws. He would have been an obvious, if not the obvious person to speak and sing at the rally. However what he had suffered a complete nervous breakdown a few years earlier along with panic attacks and a suicide attempt, by 1964 he was in total seclusion at his home from which he never left, certainly not to perform. Although the public would not have known much of this rally, organizers certainly would have. He watched the rally on television from his room. He died there in 1976.


Nina Simone ~ The jazz/soul singer known for her deeply personal and political songs and her mournful voice, Simone was a vocal advocate of civil rights who performed at several rallies but she sometimes she dismissed non-violence as a tactic and called for revolution and self-defense which would have been enough to get her dis-invited to sing at this particular rally where the organizers had promised the White House there would be no incendiary rhetoric. Like some other jazz figures she was happier in Europe and in 1970 she had moved to France (escaping a possible arrest for tax evasion after she refused to pay taxes in protest of the Vietnam War) having spent much time there so she may not have been available even if she had been invited which she probably was not. She continued on with her career, focusing mostly in Europe until her death in 2003.


JB Lenoir ~ A blues singer from the 1950's and sixties and one of the few to sing political songs. Having a light tenor voice, was a talented guitar player and possessing plenty of style and stage presence Lenoir had recorded for Chess Records and had a small but devoted following in Europe but he was never a major success in America and was not a real activist so it's doubtful the rally organizers ever considered him. He died suddenly in 1967.


Louis Armstrong ~ Modern Jazz historians like to claim Jazz as a force for progressive social change and it's true that Jazz probably did play a role in encouraging racial integration, as did Rock & Roll. However revisionist histories notwithstanding the blunt truth is that most Jazz performers were studiously apolitical or indifferent and played little role in the Civil Rights battles. Pretty much the only public exceptions (which Jazz historians always point to) were; Billie Holiday's anti-lynching ballad "Strange Fruit", Charles Mingus' "Fables Of Faubus" and few more oblique instrumentals by Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, and later Albert Ayler, Pharaoh Sanders and The Art Ensemble Of Chicago (on the other hand Stan Kenton would actively campaign for Barry Goldwater and George Wallace). Besides these there were some very direct public statements by Louis Armstrong calling out the government for allowing segregation. In spite of this Armstrong was not considered a major Civil Rights figure and mostly stayed away from controversy. His usual public personal as a grinning, shuffling, sweating, eager-to-please entertainer offended many activists as an embarrassing throwback to earlier times. The workaholic Armstrong also toured heavily and was probably not easily available even if he had been considered.


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