Two years ago, just when then-Senator Barack Obama was announcing his run for the highest public office in the U.S., the producers at Time Life began work on this stupendous 3-disc, fifty-eight track collection. Scheduled in celebration of Februaryâ€™s Black History Month (and in conjunction with a PBS/TV-One documentary), the set gains an indelible exclamation point from the inauguration of President Obama as the 44th chief executive of the United States of America. Throughout these fifty-eight tracks one can hear spirit, belief, faith, fear, sadness, hope and empowerment that were an inspirational source from which participants in the civil rights movement drew strength and a narrative soundtrack of historical events.
The fluidity with which music intertwines daily life makes it more of a peopleâ€™s art than other performance media, self-sung as field hollers and church spirituals, passed as folk songs by troubadours, and saturating the ether of popular consciousness through records, radio, television and movies. Music is an accessible medium for documenting oneâ€™s times, creatable with only a human voice as an instrument. Like speech, music can both record and instigate, but unlike speech, musical melodies readily anchor themselves in oneâ€™s memory, forever associated with a time or place or person or event. That duality allows this set to play both as a public chronology of historic events and, for those old enough to have been there, a personal history of oneâ€™s emotional response.
The set opens a few years before Americaâ€™s entry into World War II with the a cappella spiritual â€œGo Down Moses,â€ the dire reportage of â€œStrange Fruitâ€ and the protest of â€œUncle Sam Says.â€ The ironies of post-war America continued to be questioned in â€œNo Restricted Signsâ€ and â€œBlack, Brown and White,â€ but as the â€˜40s turned into the â€˜50s, the tone became more direct, and at times angry. Historic court decisions and watershed protests intertwined with horrific killings, and this was reflected in the documentary tunes â€œThe Death of Emmett Till, Parts 1 & 2â€ and â€œThe Alabama Bus,â€ and the questing lyrics of The Weaversâ€™ â€œThe Hammer Songâ€ and Big Bill Broonzyâ€™s â€œWhen Do I Get to Be Called a Man?â€
The set list follows a rough chronology of recording dates, but the thematic flow paints the more circuitous route of gains and setbacks, hopes and disappointments, triumphs and retrenchments that highlighted and pockmarked the movementâ€™s progress. The turbulence of 1965, the year of Malcolm Xâ€™s assassination, provides a particularly keen microcosm of the conflicts, segueing the righteous protest of J.B. Lenoirâ€™s â€œAlabama Bluesâ€ with The Dixie Hummingbirdâ€™s temperate ode â€œOur Freedom Song,â€ and matching the cutting irony of Oscar Brown, Jr.â€™s â€œForty Acres and a Muleâ€ with The Impressionsâ€™ compassionate call â€œPeople Get Ready.â€
The last half of the sixties offered up beachheads in Aretha Franklinâ€™s â€œRespect,â€ James Brownâ€™s â€œSay It Loud â€“ Iâ€™m Black and Iâ€™m Proud,â€ Sly & The Family Stoneâ€™s â€œStand!,â€ and Lee Dorseyâ€™s pre-Pointers Sisters original â€œYes We Can, Part 1.â€ At the same time, assassinations and riots yielded John Lee Hookerâ€™s â€œThe Motor City is Burningâ€ and George Perkins & The Silver Starsâ€™ funereal â€œCryinâ€™ in the Streets, Part 1.â€ At the turn from the 60s into the 70s the movement seemed unstoppable, inciting Motown to veer into social commentary with The Temptationsâ€™ â€œMessage From a Black Man,â€ provoking the Chi-Lites to editorialize with â€œ(For Godâ€™s Sake) Give More Power to the People,â€ and launching Curtis Mayfieldâ€™s solo career with deep thinking, adventurous productions like â€œWe the People.â€ Mayfield would be joined by Marvin Gaye with the release of Whatâ€™s Going On, and the catalog of injustice and angst â€œInner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).â€
The momentum continued in the â€˜70s, but not without opposition, anger and dissent. Gil Scott-Heron provides a stream-of-consciousness news report from the frontlines with â€œThe Revolution Will Not Be Televised,â€ the Undisputed Truthâ€™s â€œSmiling Faces Sometimesâ€ displays caution bordering on paranoia, and Aaron Nevillâ€™s â€œHerculesâ€ is both paranoid and pessimistic. The embers of empowerment still burned, as heard in Bob Marleyâ€™s â€œGet Up, Stand Up,â€ which pairs nicely with the collectionâ€™s earlier reggae tune, a cover of Nina Simoneâ€™s â€œYoung Gifted and Black.â€ The set jump-cuts from the soul sounds of the Oâ€™Jaysâ€™ â€œGive the People What They Wantâ€ to the hip-hop works of the Jungle Brothersâ€™ â€œBlack is Black,â€ Chuck Dâ€™s â€œThe Prideâ€ and Sounds of Blacknessâ€™ â€œUnity.â€ Disc three includes new works by old masters Solomon Burke and Mavis Staples, but omits key figures of the â€˜80s and â€˜90s such as Public Enemy, KRS-One, and Mos Def. The set closes with the gospel spiritual â€œFree at Last,â€ answering the call of disc oneâ€™s opener.
These events, stories and lessons resonate against an evolving palette of musical forms â€“ doo-wop, jazz, gospel, blues, soul, rap â€“ pioneered by African Americans in parallel with the civil rights movement. The pairings of stories and sounds tell an indelible story of faith, belief, empowerment and spirit. The producers have mixed little-known gems with the movementâ€™s hits, providing much deserved exposure to the former and much welcomed context to the latter. Production quality is top-notch, with sharp remastering, an introduction by Chuck D, and Grammy-worthy liner notes by Colin Escott that interweave song details and historical moments. Disc one is mono, except tracks 11, 13-18; disc two is stereo, except tracks 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 11, 12, 14, 21; disc three is stereo. This is a fantastic music collection that doubles as the soundtrack to a history lesson. [Â©2009 hyperbolium dot com]