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