Blues and Soul music has always contained some of the most moving socially-minded songs. Here are a few of my favorites…
This moody number might be one of the saddest songs about racial inequality ever written. Released in 1970 on the album IS IT BECAUSE I’M BLACK it’s sung from the point of view of a African American man living in an inner-city ghetto. Guitarist Syl Johnson wrote many songs about “real life” but this might be his finest moment.
A very somber but moving song about the assignation of Dr. Martin Luther King. Written in 1968 shortly after King’s death and recorded at a tribute concert for Dr. King. Muddy Waters plays guitar on the tack. Available on the album LIVE THE LIFE (Testament Records).
An under-rated member of the Chicago Blues scene during the 50’s, Lenior was “rediscovered” by Willie Dixon in the mid 1960’s. He returned to recording in 1965 during the height of the civil rights movement to record two of the most powerful folk blues albums of all time, ALABAMA BLUES and DOWN IN MISSISSIPPI. Produced by Dixion, both albums feature Lenior in strip-down acoustic setting tackling subjects such as Vietnam, James Meredith, and the march to Selma, Alabama. While these records are hard to find today on vinyl they are available together on a CD called VIETNAM BLUES.
Ms. Simone has recorded many songs about the struggle for civil rights but few of them are as soulful as “Backlash Blues”. Recorded for her 1967 album NINA SIMONE SINGS THE BLUES (RCA Records) this song talks about how some public officials used different forms of intimidation to keep African Americans from exercising their civil rights. Lyrics for the tune were penned by Jazz poet Langston Hughes.
Both of these tunes were written by Broonzy and recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. They can both be found on the CD TROUBLE IN MIND (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings).
Broonzy said he wrote “Black, Brown, and White” in 1939 while he was working as a molder. After he put in many long hours on the job he was told to train an new co-worker (who happened to be white). Broonzy did as he was told and took the new hire under his wing, teaching him all he knew about molding. Shortly after his training was complete the man he trained was promoted and became Broonzy’s boss! Weather or not this actually happened to Broonzy is inconsequential. Situations like these did (and unfortunately still sometimes do) happen in our society.
Written by Roebuck “Pops” Staples in 1965, “Why Am I Treated So Bad” is one of the most popular Civil Rights songs ever written. It’s said that Pops wrote the tune after watching what is sometimes referred to as “Little Rock Nine” on TV. The Little Rock Nine was a group of nine children who were refused entry to a public school in Little Rock Arkansas because they were African American. Tensions were so high in Little Rock that eventually President Eisenhower had to intervene and sent the National Guard to Little Rock to escort the children into the school. Outraged by this event Pops wrote this powerful song which he regularly performed at rallies with his group The Staple Singers. According to Pops’ daughter Mavis, the song was a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King. You can find this song on the Staple Singers “best of” collection FREEDOM HIGHWAY: The Epic Years (Epic Recordings).
While this might not be John Lee Hooker’s best know song it’s definitely one of his most powerful. From the underrated 1969 album SIMPLY THE TRUTH, this song finds Hooker calling out to his missing friends fighting overseas. Frustrated with the government he sings about the problems going on domestically and asks why they got involved with Vietnam when there were so many troubles at home? This is a beautiful song about a difficult time in U.S. history.
Other civil rights songs I recommend…
JAMES BROWN “Say it LOUD, I’m Black and I’m Proud”
THE TEMPTATIONS “Ball of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)”
WILLIE HIGHTOWER “Walk A Mile In My Shoes”
THE STAPLE SINGERS “Long Walk To D.C.”
BIG JOE WILLIAMS “The Death of Martin Luther King”
STEVIE WONDER “Living For The City”
MANCE LIPSCOMEB “Mean Boss Man”
SLY & THE FAMILY STONE “Everyday People”