Songs of Race & Me

Years ago in a Hyde-Bronx hallway with some great kids… adults today.

“Wish I could do something about this racial mess we’re all in.”
“I thought you were a teacher?”
“Yeah.”
“So, Teach.”

Not sure you can teach if you are not conscious of when and what you have been taught.

Ralph Waldo Emerson or Oliver Wendell Holmes — Hey, it was one of those tri-named dudes — said, “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.”

When it comes to race and my relationship to it, music has often been the “stretcher.” Take, for example, the spring of 1969 when I, an unsuspecting Hyde freshman, walked into the Portland Expo to see James Brown & His Famous Flames. A half-century later, I’m not sure what hit me more that night: the incredible music and showmanship of Soul Brother #1 OR the dual-edged realization that: 1) I am really white; and 2) more than I ever realized, there are many, many more people out there in this world who are not.  Since then, many songs have left me thinking about me/race in a new way.  Here are 20 of them.  Check ’em out on an an open Spotify playlist I have posted called “Songs of Race & Me.”

In chronological order:

“Taint Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” by Bessie Smith (1922) – Have always admired this woman’s sass, especially given that she lived during a time when it could not have been easy for her to be sassy… “If I go to church on Sunday; Sing the shimmy down on Monday. Ain’t nobody’s bizness if I do.”

“Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday (1937) – The angriest song ever released. (And many had no idea what it’s about.) The historian in me makes me feel the same way I do about Bessie Smith: What flat-out gumption those women had!… “Southern trees bear a strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

“Bourgeois Blues” by Leadbelly (1937) – On a visit to DC to record for the legendary Alan Lomax, Leadbelly is surprised to learn that our nation’s capitol is not the bastion of equality and liberty he had been led to believe… “Listen here, people. Listen to me. Don’t try to find no home down in Washington DC.”

“Fable of Faubus” by Charles Mingus (1959) –  Off the classic Mingus Ah Um album, a protest ode to Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, who had the National Guard prevent the “Little Rock 9” from integrating Little Rock Central HS in 1957. Deeming the accompanying call-and-response lyrics to be too radical and incendiary, Columbia Records refused to include them anywhere in/on the album. Here they are in full:

Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em shoot us!
Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em stab us!
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!

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! Boo! Nazi fascist supremists!
Boo! Ku Klux Klan (with your Jim Crow plan).

Name me a handful that’s ridiculous, Dannie Richmond.
Faubus, Rockefeller, Eisenhower.
Why are they so sick and ridiculous?

Two, four, six, eight:
They brainwash and teach you hate.
H-E-L-L-O, Hello.

“We Shall Overcome” by Mahalia Jackson (1961) – If you know me, you already know what I think of Mahalia. (Both of ’em)  This recording was a favorite of and inspirational force for Martin Luther King. (FWIW, more than any song on this list, this one makes me well up with tears. Damn, that woman could sing!)

“Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone (1964) –  Would’ve really been something to be in Carnegie Hall that night…  “You don’t have to live next to me. Just give me my equality.”

“A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke (1965) – A song to Stand By You… “It’s been too hard livin,’ but I’m afraid to die. I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky.”

“People Get Ready” by Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions (1965). Classic. Beautiful. Hymn-Like… “People get ready. There’s a train a-comin.’ You don’t need no baggage, just get on board.”

“Respect” by Aretha Franklin (1967) – “Her songs were songs of the movement. R – E – S – P – E – C – T. That’s basically what we wanted. The movement was about respect.” – Andrew Young. “…Find out what it means to me!”

“Say it Loud – I’m Black & I’m Proud” by James Brown (1968). See above… “Some people say we’ve got malice. Some say it’s a lot of nerve. But I say we won’t quit moving until we get what we deserve.”

“Stand” by Sly & The Family Stone (1969) – To me, as a high school kid, Sly was cool personified… “They will try to make you crawl. And they know what you’re saying makes sense and all.”

“When the Revolution Comes” by The Last Poets (1970). These guys were decades (not years) ahead of their time.  Will never forget the collage of feelings — bewildered, honored, floored — the day two African-American Hyde school mates dragged me into their Mansion room to play something that “you really need to hear.” My thought at the time: I guess Motown ain’t the only game in town...”When the revolution comes Jesus Christ is gonna be standing on the corner of Lenox Ave and 125th St trying to catch the first gypsy cab out of Harlem, when the revolution comes.”

“Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)” by Marvin Gaye – Off his 1971 masterpiece What’s Going On?… “Crime is increasing… Trigger-happy policing.”

“Respect Yourself” by The Staple Singers (1972) – Off Be Altitude. Incredible album… “If you’re walkin’ ’round thinking that the world owes you something ‘cuz your here… You goin’ out the world backwards like you did when you first come here.”

“Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder – Off Inner Visions (1973) – Ah, Stevie… “Her brother’s smart, he’s got more sense than many. His patience long, but soon he won’t have any. To find a job, it’s like the haystack needle. Cuz’ where he lives, they don’t use colored people!”

“Coon on the Moon” by Howlin’ Wolf (1973) – Off The Back Door Wolf. The Wolf gives a history lesson… “We used to pick the cotton. ‘Til we got too old. Tell me, who was the first man to go to the North Pole?!?”

“The Revolution Will Not be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron (1974). At the time, Scott-Heron explained that the song “does not merely posture and pacify, but presses one to consider the uncomfortable truths of contemporary blackness.” Don’t miss the ending: “The Revolution will not be a re-run, brother. The Revolution will be LIVE.”

“You Haven’t Done Nothing” by Stevie Wonder (1974) – Off Fulfillingness First Finale. Stevie owned the early 70s… “It’s not too cool to be ridiculed, but you brought this upon yourself.” Talk about timeless!

“Hurricane” by Bob Dylan (1976) – Dylan’s story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter became the anthem for freeing him after he was twice falsely convicted of murder, serving nearly 20 years before being released from prison… “The D.A. said he was the one who did the deed. And the all-white jury agreed.”

“When the Welfare Turns its Back on You” by Albert Collins – Off Ice Pickin’ (1978). I have always been fascinated by protest songs released by musicians who do not normally do protest songs. Here, the “Master of the Telecaster” (one of my top-5 ever fave guitarists) serves up a message foreign to privileged folks like myself… “Now, what you gonna do-hoo-hoo, when the welfare turn it’s back on you? You be standin’ there stranded, there ain’t a thing that you can do.”

“Fight the Power” by Public Enemy (1990) – I came of age well before rap did. But one of the benefits of working with teenagers is an exposure to new music on a level that people in other professions don’t get. Thanks, to you early 90s Hyde kids for enlightening me… “(Yo) bum rush the show. You gotta go for what you know. To make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be.”

Counting back, I guess that’s 21. A bonus, I guess.

Onward, Malcolm