Let Freedom Sing: Music of the Civili Rights Movement

It is one of the most inspiring stories in American history. Within a generation, Americans of African descent overturned several hundred years of slavery and brutally enforced segregation to win their Civil Rights. Civil Rights wasn’t the first movement in American history to generate memorable songs, but it was the first in which music not only reflected the movement but drove it. The songs of the Civil Rights movement are the subject of a stunning new 3-CD set from Time Life Music that will be released during Black History Month 2009.

Let Freedom Sing—The Music of the Civil Rights Movement traces a seventy-year journey with songs that reflect the thoughts and feelings of those at the forefront affected by the movement as well as those simply trying to make sense of a troubled period in our history. Some of the songs are well-known (Respect, Change Is Gonna Come, Blowin’ in the Wind, We Shall Overcome, Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud, People Get Ready, Get up—Stand up, and many more) but the set also includes extremely rare recordings such as Brother Will Hairston’s account of the Montgomery bus boycott, The Alabama Bus, and Nat King Cole’s unreleased protest song from that era, We Are Americans Too.

The story begins with Go Down Moses (“let my people go”), one of many spirituals that led African Americans on their quest for Civil Rights. It continues with a bitter indictment of the lynchings that plagued the South after the Civil War (Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit) and an equally bitter indictment of the treatment of African Americans in the armed forces during World War II (Josh White’s Uncle Sam Says).  No Restricted Signs and Black, Brown and White protested the segregation that greeted returning servicemen. The call for change became more clamorous during the 1950s with the bus boycotts, the lynching of Emmett Till, the enforced integration of schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the lunch counter sit-ins. All were etched memorably in song.

The escalating bitterness of the 1960s is captured in songs like Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam, Phil Ochs’ Too Many Martyrs, and John Lee Hooker’s The Motor City Is Burning. The riots following Dr. King’s assassination are echoed in George Perkins’ Cryin’ in the Streets. And the Black Power era is reflected in Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand, Curtis Mayfield’s We the People Who Are Darker than Blue, Lee Dorsey’s Yes We Can (adapted as a campaign slogan by President-Elect Barack Obama), and Gil Scott Heron’s 1971 classic The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (cited by many as the first rap record). The story continues to the present day with artists such as Chuck D., who also wrote the introduction to the set.

“This project was conceived almost two years ago because we understood the importance of bringing the story to life and taking the time to get it right,” states Michael Mitchell, Vice President of Marketing and Strategic Partnerships at Time Life Music. “For centuries, music vividly communicated injustices, especially for African-Americans in the South. This set encapsulates the struggles that eventually allowed African Americans, like me, to rise within our chosen professions, and allowed President-Elect  Barack Obama to become the 44th President of the United States. Notably, in his acceptance speech, he adapted the words of Sam Cooke’s “Change Is Gonna Come.” The songs bring the movement alive with more immediacy than any other medium, and when we listen to LET FREEDOM SING from beginning to end, we realize what an incredible transformation has taken place during our lifetime.”

Time Life’s Vice President of Audio & Video Retail, Mike Jason, adds, “From the dark and ominous ‘Strange Fruit’ to the joyous message of ‘Free At Last,’ the set is filled with songs that reflect the painful, yet ultimately triumphant, Civil Rights struggle. Music nurtured the movement and the movement inspired the music. The nation’s lowest point is undoubtedly its treatment of African Americans while the ability of African Americans to contribute so prodigiously to the culture in spite of that treatment is perhaps the finest example of what we can be as a nation. It’s an honor for all of us at time Life to share this music and a small part of the story.”

Time Life will release Let Freedom Sing: The Music of the Civil Rights Movement on January 27, 2009 and will feature liner notes as well as historical events that are relevant to the song selections.