by Laurie Ornstein
This month we commemorate the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death. Dr. King was the young and dynamic leader of the American Civil Rights Movement and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Growing up in the 50's and 60's in the United States, his name and the struggle he led were often the topic of dinner conversation. Television brought him into our living room.
You may ask how this connects to "Notes", a music column. "We Shall Overcome"! This song started its journey as a gospel hymn, made its way through the labor era as a union song, became the anthem of the civil rights movement and was later sung in anti-war demonstrations. It lives on today taking on new meanings as the times evolve. This is called the "folk process", a term used by musicologist, Charles Seeger. I still hear the words of the song resounding against the backdrop of the March to Washington, D.C. led by Dr. King in 1963.
Rosa Parks, known also as the "mother of the civil rights movement", lives on, too. On December 1, 1955, following a hard day's work, she refused to give up the seat she found in the front "whites only" section of the public bus and move to the segregated "black" section in the rear. She was arrested and the African-Americans in Montgomery, Alabama, encouraged and supported by Dr. King, boycotted public transportation for a year. The traditional song, "Oh, Mary Don't You Weep" evolved into, "If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus", lyrics by Charles Nesblett and "others". Another song that tells her story is "If Rosa Parks Goes to Jail" by Peter and Steve Jones.
Looking further back in history, we can find coded songs such as "Follow the Drinking Gourd". First published in 1928, it related instructions to runaway slaves on their way north to freedom. The "drinking gourd", a household utensil made of the dried squash, referred to the Big Dipper and the North Star. This song can be traced back to a traditional spiritual, "Follow the River, Lord". The line in the Underground Railway version, "The old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom," was written by Lee Hays 80 years after the Civil War, another example of the "folk process". Was Peg Leg Joe authentic? Legend has it that a one-legged sailor who worked on southern plantations in the south, taught the song to slaves he met and each spring, following his visits, slaves went "missing" from their plantations. Another story relates him to a carpenter from the north who worked winters in the south and helped slaves to freedom. This is probably one of the most well researched songs around.
The Jewish holiday of Pesach, now upon us, celebrates freedom. Try writing your own verses to one of the traditional holiday songs. Or perhaps, sing a folk freedom song and add a verse about the Pesach story as told in the Hagaddah.
And one last thought looking back to the fall and the teachers' strike. When the strike broke out, it was clear to me what I was going to do - join the "folk process". Outside the Ministry of Education in Beersheva and across the street from the Prime Minister's office, I sang some familiar verses and also created new ones to old protest songs. I'm not sure how much it helped, but I did get a chance to learn and understand the true "power of the song". Thanks once more to all of you who came out to sing and support the struggle!
* Find below a link to the lyrics of the songs above and other freedom songs: