Various Artists: Let Freedom Sing

various_letfreedomsingPerfectly timed musical anthology of the civil rights movement

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 February’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 people’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 one’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 one’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 one’s emotional response.

The set opens a few years before America’s entry into World War II with the a cappella spiritual “Go Down Moses,” the dire reportage of “Strange Fruit” and the protest of “Uncle Sam Says.” The ironies of post-war America continued to be questioned in “No Restricted Signs” and “Black, Brown and White,” but as the ‘40s turned into the ‘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 “The Death of Emmett Till, Parts 1 & 2” and “The Alabama Bus,” and the questing lyrics of The Weavers’ “The Hammer Song” and Big Bill Broonzy’s “When Do I Get to Be Called a Man?”

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 movement’s progress. The turbulence of 1965, the year of Malcolm X’s assassination, provides a particularly keen microcosm of the conflicts, segueing the righteous protest of J.B. Lenoir’s “Alabama Blues” with The Dixie Hummingbird’s temperate ode “Our Freedom Song,” and matching the cutting irony of Oscar Brown, Jr.’s “Forty Acres and a Mule” with The Impressions’ compassionate call “People Get Ready.”

The last half of the sixties offered up beachheads in Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” Sly & The Family Stone’s “Stand!,” and Lee Dorsey’s pre-Pointers Sisters original “Yes We Can, Part 1.” At the same time, assassinations and riots yielded John Lee Hooker’s “The Motor City is Burning” and George Perkins & The Silver Stars’ funereal “Cryin’ in the Streets, Part 1.” At the turn from the 60s into the 70s the movement seemed unstoppable, inciting Motown to veer into social commentary with The Temptations’ “Message From a Black Man,” provoking the Chi-Lites to editorialize with “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People,” and launching Curtis Mayfield’s solo career with deep thinking, adventurous productions like “We the People.” Mayfield would be joined by Marvin Gaye with the release of What’s Going On, and the catalog of injustice and angst “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).”

The momentum continued in the ‘70s, but not without opposition, anger and dissent. Gil Scott-Heron provides a stream-of-consciousness news report from the frontlines with “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” the Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes” displays caution bordering on paranoia, and Aaron Nevill’s “Hercules” is both paranoid and pessimistic. The embers of empowerment still burned, as heard in Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up,” which pairs nicely with the collection’s earlier reggae tune, a cover of Nina Simone’s “Young Gifted and Black.” The set jump-cuts from the soul sounds of the O’Jays’ “Give the People What They Want” to the hip-hop works of the Jungle Brothers’ “Black is Black,” Chuck D’s “The Pride” and Sounds of Blackness’ “Unity.” Disc three includes new works by old masters Solomon Burke and Mavis Staples, but omits key figures of the ‘80s and ‘90s such as Public Enemy, KRS-One, and Mos Def. The set closes with the gospel spiritual “Free at Last,” answering the call of disc one’s opener.

These events, stories and lessons resonate against an evolving palette of musical forms – doo-wop, jazz, gospel, blues, soul, rap – 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 movement’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. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

Listen to Let Freedom Sing, Disc 1
Listen to Let Freedom Sing, Disc 2
Listen to Let Freedom Sing, Disc 3
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