Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Alabama Mahatma: Martin Luther King Blues

Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

One of the reading pleasures of the past several years has been Hellhound on His Trail, the story about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the subsequent international manhunt to find his killer, James Earl Ray. Ironically, although J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the FBI, had a deep personal hatred of King, and had used the resources of the FBI to harass him and his colleagues, when it came down to ‘business’ (i.e. finding a killer), the FBI brought all of its innovative forensic skills and razor sharp investigative techniques to bear in a remarkable way to catch the flaky, paranoid Ray.

Among the many fascinating details about the assassination and the days that followed was the somewhat disappointing behaviour of the Rev. Jesse Jackson   who immediately claimed a much more intimate role in the events and of having held MLK in his arms as he died.   Not true, apparently.

Yesterday, 15 January, was the birthday of Martin Luther King and so as a belated tip of the hat to one of the true mahatmas (great souls) of the 20th century, I present Martin Luther King's Blues - African-American Blues And Gospel Songs On Martin Luther King.

The songs on this collection are living history.  Guido Van Rijn, a Dutch music writer/journalist wrote a book called President Johnson’s Blues which was an exploration of how Blues and Gospel artists responded to the Presidency of LBJ, and the assassination of MLK and Robert Kennedy, both in 1968. 

President Johnson’s Blues illustrates how African Americans experienced the Johnson presidency. This is achieved by an analysis of blues and gospel lyrics of the period containing more or less direct social and political comment. The lyrics of these often very rare records, which have never been systematically transcribed before, are vital and hitherto neglected sources of oral history.
When Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded the assassinated President Kennedy he was hailed enthusiastically by the blues and gospel singers, most of whom had been born in the southern states and saw an ally in the new Texas president. Johnson’s acute political skills ensured that the 1964 Civil Rights Bill was approved by Congress. However, the President was not allowed to reap the benefits of the Act for long. The violent clash in Selma, Alabama, sped up the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Next, the plight of the black ghettoes led to nationwide riots and the president and Rev. King drifted apart. The military build-up in Vietnam rose dramatically in the Johnson era. Proportionally there were not more African Americans in Vietnam, but their death rate was thirty percent higher. Johnson was forced to launch operation “Rolling Thunder” to intensify air attacks, but felt trapped by the consequences of his decisions and became severely depressed. People began burning their draft cards, and criticism of the once popular president became quite outspoken in blues and gospel lyrics. When Martin Luther King lashed out against the war in 1967, the president felt betrayed by his former civil rights ally. After the 1968 Tet offensive, Johnson’s approval rating dropped to 36%. The book also analyzes in depth the profound effect the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had on the African-American community. The resultant awakening of black self consciousness is dealt with in a final chapter. (

These are indeed rare songs. And we should all be very grateful to Guido for his fantastic digging and research to put this collection together. From raging gospel shouts, to classic Chicago blues and everything in between, this music is a reminder of just why Martin Luther King Jr. will always be a part of African American identity. Like the tales that grew up around the figures of Jesus and Buddha and Muhammad,  these songs not only preserve and re-tell history but are an act of the creation of a community’s history. 

Happy Birthday, Martin!

            Track Listing:
            01 The Alabama Bus, Parts 1 & 2 [Brother Will Hairston]
02 The Jail House King [Bob Starr]
03 I Got To Climb A High Mountain [Johnie Lewis]
04 What Manner Of Man (Was Dr Martin Luther King) Parts 1 & 2 [The Hewlett Sisters]
05 Hotel Lorraine [Otis Spann]
06 Where Do I Go From Here [Rev. Julius Cheeks & The Four Knights]
07 A Tribute To Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Stop Looting And Rioting) ["Little'' Mack Simmons]
08 Heaven Will Welcome You Dr. King [Big Maybelle]
09 Tribute To Dr. King [The Loving Sisters]
10 Free At Last [Ethel Davenport]
11 The Death Of Dr. Martin Luther King [Big Joe Williams]
12 Martin Luther King [Tom Shaw]
13 Ballad Of Martin Luther King, Jr. [Robert Chatman]
14 We All Praise Him [The Norfleet Bros.]
15 Tragic Story (A Tribute To Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.) [The Southerners]
16 Why (The King Of Love Is Dead) [Nina Simone]
17 Our Friend Is Gone [Earl Gaines]
18 We've Got To Keep On Moving On [Shirley Wahls]
19 The Non-Violent Man [Bill Spivery And The Sons Of Truth]
20 Something To Think About [Rev. Charlie Jackson]
21 Ode To Martin Luther King [Thomas Walton & The Blind Disciples]
22 Sleep On Dr. King, Sleep On [Elizabeth D. Williams]

1 comment:

Botched Surgery said...

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for posting this.