Benjamin Booker – Witness

Benjamin Booker Witness
Title: Witness

Artist: Benjamin Booker

Label: ATO Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 2, 2017



Benjamin Booker’s appreciation for the historical social movements that helped shape the rock, gospel, and blues genres manifests in Witness, his second full album release following his self-titled debut in 2014. He calls attention to the modern day Black Lives Matter movement in his songwriting, connecting its relevance to the Civil Rights Movement.

Booker contemplates the possibility of death in his opening track “Right On,” an energetic soul rock song that feels like it could be played at an old-fashioned dance hall but with a heavier modern sound. Dramatically dropping in energy without losing its steady groove, “Motivation” juxtaposes the previous song, allowing listeners to focus their attention on reflections of a young Black man reasoning with his quotidian anxieties. From the sensuous aesthetic of “The Slow Drag Under” to the vintage blues pop of “Overtime,” Booker’s unmistakable vocal rasp takes center stage in a screaming whisper.

Perhaps the most meaningful feature that takes place on this album is Booker’s collaboration with the Civil Rights Movement’s musical icon Mavis Staples, who leads the gospel chorus on “Witness.” Booker wrote an artist statement about his attempt to escape the perpetual racism and violence he experienced at home and his process of writing this song during his retreat to Mexico:

I spent days in silence and eventually began to write again. I was almost entirely cut off from my home. Free from the news. Free from politics. Free from friends. What I felt was the temporary peace that can comes from looking away… It wasn’t until Trayvon Martin, a murder that took place about a hundred miles from where I went to college, and the subsequent increase in attention to black hate crimes over the next few years that I began to feel something else. Fear. Real fear. It was like every time I turned on the TV, there I was. DEAD ON THE NEWS… I knew then that there was no escape and I would have to confront the problem. This song, “Witness,” came out of this experience and the desire to do more than just watch.

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Opening with an intertwining of orchestral strings reminiscent of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Booker’s performance of “Believe” may be one of the more memorable tracks on this album. It plays as a gentle and hopeful rise out of his darker experiences and fears. His lyrics promote optimism in the face of opposition: “I’ve got dreams I can touch, I’d give them everything to keep from going under.”

Witness represents a continuation of the fight for racial equality in the United States and will surely be an important contribution to the music history of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

Let Freedom Sing

Title: Let Freedom Sing: The Music of the Civil Rights Movement

Artists:  Various
Label:  Time Life
Catalog No.:  80051-D (CD box set)
Release Date: January 27, 2009

You don’t get a black president overnight. Songs . . . in this box set make you understand the collective voices that make it happen.” –Chuck D (from the preface)

Just in time for Black History Month, the folks at Time Life have produced a wonderful 3 CD deluxe box set that is a must have for every library and educator. To sweeten the deal, a companion feature length documentary will also air this month on TV ONE, and possibly PBS (more on this following the review).  Sometime later this year the documentary will also be released on DVD, perhaps in an expanded version.

The Let Freedom Sing box set was produced with the assistance of noted music historian Colin Escott, who has written extensively on rock, rhythm and blues, and country music, and is known as much for his meticulous research as for his writing skills.  His liner notes situate each track within the historical context of the Civil Rights Movement, both within his descriptions of the music, and through the use of timelines. Though other CD sets with a similar focus have been released in the past, this compilation actually goes well beyond the Civil Rights era, including 58 seminal songs presented in mostly chronological order from 1939 through 2008 and the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. What I most appreciate about the set is the song selection, which is at times both surprising and provocative, but always representative of the struggle for equality.  The producers, which also include Mike Jason and Bas Hartong, spent two years on the compilation, and their care and attention to detail is evident in every aspect of the project.

The first disc covers a lot of ground, beginning with the popular spiritual “Go Down Moses” (sung by the Southern Sons in 1941), then veering off sharply to Billie Holiday’s ominous 1939 ballad “Strange Fruit” about Southern lynchings, before heading into the war years with “Uncle Sam Says” by Josh White. Post WWII disillusionment is expressed in “No Restricted Signs” by the Golden Gate Quartet, “Black, Brown and White” by Brownie McGhee (a rare blues track), and the original 1949 version of “If I Had  Hammer” by the Weavers. The tracks from the ’50s were selected to follow the Brown vs. Board of Education and other anti-segregation rulings, and include “The Death of Emmett Till” by the Ramparts, “The Alabama Bus” by Brother Will Hairston, and “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?” by the Staple Singers. The disc concludes in the mid-1960s, commenting on the Civil Rights Movement through “Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone and “We Shall Overcome” by Mahalia Jackson, but also including Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind” and Phil Och’s “Too Many Martyrs.”

Disc two focuses exclusively on the years 1965 through 1970, with the bulk of the songs released at the end of that period. Though many popular favorites are included, such as the Impressions’ “People Get Ready” and James Brown’s “Say It Loud-I’m Black and I’m Proud,” again the producers have added a number of interesting selections to the mix. Oscar Brown, Jr. addresses reparations in his 1965 song “Forty Acres and a Mule,” while John Lee Hooker’s “The Motor Town Is Burning” comments on the July 1967 riots in Detroit. Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., George Perkins sings “Cryin’ in the Streets” while Smokey Robinson and the Miracles lament three separate assassinations in “Abraham, Martin, and John.” Other highlights include the original “Yes We Can” released by Lee Dorsey in 1970, Syl Johnson’s “Is It Because I’m Black,” and Swamp Dogg’s “I Was Born Blue.”

The final disc of the set picks up in 1971 with Gil Scott-Heron’s proto rap “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and follows with a number of popular Black Power era songs by the Chi-Lites, Marvin Gaye, the Isley Brothers, and the O’Jays, along with Aaron Neville’s “Hercules” and Bob Marley and the Wailer’s “Get Up, Stand Up.” From this point the disc segues briefly into the ’80s with the Jungle Brother’s hit “Black Is Black” and the Neville Brother’s “Sister Rosa,” while the ’90s are represented only by Chuck D’s “The Pride.” The set concludes with five recent releases, including “Unity” by Sounds of Blackness, “None of Us Are Free” by Solomon Burke, “Eyes on the Prize” by the Sojourners, “Down in Mississippi” by Mavis Staples (from her 2007 Civil Rights album We’ll Never Turn Back), and, fittingly, “Free At Last” by the Blind Boys of Alabama.


(Excerpted from the press release) TV One will premiere Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement, a two-hour documentary that chronicles how the power of lyrics and songs helped move a nation during the most turbulent days of the 20th century, Sunday, Feb. 15 from 8-10 PM. The special will repeat at midnight and also air on Sunday, Feb. 22 at 1 PM (HD/all times ET).

Let Freedom Sing will trace the interaction among the music, the movement and the people involved. The film showcases how the music calmed tensions when protesters were arrested and how creative pioneers in gospel, blues, R&B and pop brought music, medium and message together as never before, composing a soundtrack perfectly tuned to the tempo and pulse of its time.

The film includes interviews with musicians, civil rights activists, music industry executives, historians and others involved in the movement, including former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young; actress Ruby Dee, influential musicians Pete Seeger, Gladys Knight, Jimmy Carter and the Blind Boys of Alabama, Ruth Brown, Jerry Butler and Chuck D; and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) co-founder Dr. Bernard Lafayette.

Let Freedom Sing begins in the era between the wars when segregation was often brutally enforced in Southern states, and when jazz and blues evolved from songs sung by African-Americans in church and in the fields.  It will feature never-before-seen footage from the 1960s, while tracing the influence of Civil Rights-inspired music around the world and revealing the enduring impact it retains on today’s popular music. Chronicling a musical and cultural past, the film also shows how this music is living history that inextricably binds the past with the present.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Christine Brewer Sings

Title: Christine Brewer Sings Songs by Wagner, Wolf, Britten and John Carter
Artists: Christine Brewer, soprano; Robert Vignoles, piano
Label: Wigmore Hall Live
Catalog No.: 22
Release date: 2008

This disc is not exclusively devoted to African American music; one will note the presence of German arch-romantics Richard Wagner, Hugo Wolf and Anglo composer Benjamin Britten in the title, all gentlemen who rather obviously do not qualify. Nevertheless, this disc includes the second recording of a highly satisfying and historically pivotal song cycle, entitled “Cantata,” by St. Louis based African American composer John Carter.

Not much is known about Carter; he was born in 1937 and his death date is variously listed as having been anywhere between 1981 and 1989. His musical output appears to have been mainly vocal as the few compositions that have heretofore been recorded are either choral, or as in this instance, in the genre of classical art song. “Cantata” was composed in 1963—the peak year of the Civil Rights Movement—and ostensibly appears to be a typical collection of arrangements of traditional black spirituals into an art song format. However, anyone expecting settings along lines of what was germane to Harry Burleigh, Lawrence Brown or Roland Hayes will not find that in “Cantata,” as these are not conservative sacred settings. Carter was on the same page with twentieth century musical techniques, and his spiritual settings are highly individual, challenging, compelling and at times quite dissonant.

When it comes to the Civil Rights Movement of 1963 and its relation to music—apart from the ubiquitous folk hymn “We Shall Overcome”—there is a range which can be roughly described as running between Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” to the work of free jazz artists like John Coltrane. Carter’s song cycle does not represent an ambitious, and admittedly courageous, undertaking from an otherwise commercial artist, nor does it work from a basis of deep emotional sorrow and anger as does a piece like Coltrane’s “Alabama.” The cycle encapsulates mixed feelings of fear, elation, struggle, self-determination and self-sacrifice—some of the moods no doubt experienced on the ground by participants in the Civil Rights Movement, though composed in an equally brave manner that would not have found wide sympathy among Carter’s peers in 1963. “Cantata” is highly unusual in that it was both written with the future in mind and succeeds in accurately documenting the atmosphere of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 that would not have gone down in any other way; it is both heroic and anti-heroic.

Brewer’s performance is singled out as it so good—it demonstrates that a performer need not necessarily be African American to sing African American art songs well, and that bodes well for the literature itself in terms of its potential outreach. Brewer is a native of St. Louis and maintains strong ties with that community; otherwise it is unlikely that she would ever have come in contact with Carter’s “Cantata.” Brewer also contributes a fine reading of Hall Johnson’s setting of “A City Called Heaven” in the encore section of this live performance.

Posted by Uncle Dave Lewis