These Songs of Freedom

Issue section: 

In the 1960s, blues and folk singer Julius Lester put his voice at the disposal of the US civil rights movement. He talked to Yuri Prasad about how music and politics mixed.

The year 1965 was a tumultuous one for the civil rights movement. In Selma, Alabama, marchers were brutally attacked by police with clubs, whips and tear gas on a day that was dubbed "Bloody Sunday". In Watts - the overwhelmingly black suburb of Los Angeles - anger at racism, poverty and police harassment exploded into one of the biggest riots the US had ever seen. The movement also lost one of its most radical leaders when Malcolm X was assassinated as he addressed a public meeting.

Julius Lester was already a civil rights activist of some standing when, in that same year, he got his first record deal. While kids in the US were dancing in the street to Motown's "sound of young America", Lester was among those who shunned pop and instead chose to sing blues and folk.

"Folk was the music of choice for the movement," he says. "That's where I got my start as performer, singing for mass meetings of the civil rights movement in the southern states," he recalls. "In the early to mid-1960s folk music was extremely popular. Bob Dylan wrote "Blowin' In The Wind" in 1962, and he was one among many folk artists who were getting recognition. Once a month I would play at hootenannies of protest songwriters at the Village Voice club in New York - those nights were always packed. Among the circles that I moved in, people who fought for civil rights, folk music was much more popular than Motown."

It wasn't just the style of music that made folk a natural home for many activists. "Folk was also attractive because it was a racially integrated scene," says Lester. "It was still a very innocent time for the civil rights movement, a time when young blacks and whites 'discovered' each other without a sense of self-consciousness. For that reason, it was a period that influenced the rest of my life."

In 1961, Lester left Nashville bound for New York. "I was glad to get out of the South," he says. "In New York I got a taste of freedom, a freedom of movement. You know, blacks in the North had a certain amount of access to public space that just didn't exist in the South - so in that sense it was liberating. But in reality, racial discrimination was just much better hidden in the North."

In the North there were no laws to prevent a black person from living in an affluent white neighbourhood, it was economics that kept most blacks confined to the ghettos where disease and poverty blighted their lives. Nevertheless, the movement against legally enforced segregation that began in the South had the effect of telling black people everywhere that you could fight back. "The different ways in which black people in the North and South faced oppression had an influence on the struggle," Lester explains. "It meant that the dominant force in the North was around the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), who organised a lot of protests on the question of jobs and hiring practices, whereas in the South it was the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), of which I was a member, that was the main player." SNCC was in the forefront of the sit-in movement that had seen thousands of young people arrested for protesting at segregation. "And, of course, the movement had Malcolm X," Lester adds. "His influence was much greater after his death than in his life, but nevertheless, he very much spoke for the anger of ghettoes in the North."

We Shall Overcome

These differences also had a cultural expression. In the North, the songs of the movement tended to be made by adding or changing the words of contemporary pop songs to make them relevant to the struggle. Ray Charles' classic "Hit The Road, Jack" became "Get Your Rights, Jack", while "What'd I Say?" was sung with verses that celebrated the sit-in at the A&P store in Atlanta. "In the South, our music was based on the church and Negro spirituals that dated back to the time of slavery," says Lester. "The song, 'We Shall Overcome', is an example. It started life as a spiritual, and was adapted at Highlander Folk School by Zilphia Horton, a white woman, who in turn taught it to Pete Seeger, who added new lines, including 'black and white together'. The SNCC activists marching across the South slowed down the tempo and turned it into a call and response song. Through that process it became the anthem of the movement."

For Lester, being a civil rights activist and an artist meant putting yourself at the disposal of movement. "We singers had tools that we could use to help the struggle," he says. "I don't think people could have struggled as hard, for as long as they did, without it. If you were an activist in the South, you would go to a church for a mass meeting and when you got there you would sing for maybe the first hour. It was a way of bringing people together, and a way of addressing their fears. Even in jail, where people could not speak to each other, they would sing - from cell block to cell block.

"Music carried the spirit of the movement as well as giving people courage in difficult times. There were occasions when we'd be marching and the police, who were armed with dogs and clubs, would stand in our way - and we'd sing, 'Ain't Nobody Gonna Turn Us Around'. And as they started hauling us into the paddy wagons, we'd sing, 'I ain't afraid of your jail 'cos I want my freedom'. That really disconcerted the police because they had never arrested people who responded by singing. Sometimes in jail the police would get very angry about the singing and threaten people with beatings unless they shut up."

The albums that Lester recorded in 1965 and 1967 contained a mixture of folk and blues songs. In the song "No Count Man" Lester rounds on his father saying:

Daddy don't you remember about the slaves?
You know they worked for a long, long time and never got no pay
No since they didn't get the money that they were due,
I ain't working until someone pays off that IOU

In "Dressed Like Freedom", Lester responds to the lynching of civil rights activists with the following lines:

Lord, if I get killed down South
I want a white boy by my side
'Cos I don't want nobody saying,
"Just another nigger", when I die

Lester explained why he was attracted to the blues: "It offered a lot of freedom of expression, as it could act as an outlet for things that were difficult to say directly. For example, in 'Dressed Like Freedom' there is an argument going on between two black people about the question of racial integration. There is a kind of teasing aspect to the song, a tongue in cheek quality, which helps to get the message across.

"The blues is at the foundation of so much American popular music. It's a very accessible form, both in terms of the chord changes, and the way the verses work."

By 1967 the question of the Vietnam War had become central to many of those who had been activists in the civil rights movement. Lester was the official photographer of the SNCC delegation to North Vietnam. "The US was still denying that it was bombing the North," says Lester. "But we saw US planes bombing rice paddies. There was nothing else for them to bomb but rice paddies.

"Most North Vietnamese had never even seen a black person before. Yet for most of us activists, the war and the fight for black liberation were part of the same struggle. The Vietnamese were fighting to maintain their sovereignty and freedom, while blacks in the US were trying to get a little sovereignty and freedom. For me, the switch came when the SNCC ceased to define itself as a civil rights organisation, and began thinking of itself as a human rights organisation. As SNCC activists, we began to see ourselves as part of a global battle."

By 1969, the open radicalism in music, previously confined to folk and blues, started to breakthrough into pop. Curtis Mayfield had hit records titled "We're A Winner" and "This Is My Country", while the Tempations would have success with "Ball Of Confusion". The restrictions on pop that kept out references to war and racism had started to breakdown. Lester could not have been more enthusiastic about the changes: "We thought it was great. We'd been saying all along that pop should be less interested in love and sex, and instead concentrate on something a bit more real. I think that us blues and folk musicians, as part of a much wider movement, helped create the space that allowed pop writers and artists to be open about what they felt."

In the 40 years that passed since those recordings, Lester became first an acclaimed children's author, and later a university professor. Today, his records are just being rediscovered and the themes are still as relevant as ever. Does this mean that the achievements of the civil rights movement have been rolled back? "I have a mixed response," says Lester. "On the one hand it is sad that the issues I was singing about back then are still with us 40 years later.

"But it is not true to say that nothing has changed, but it is certainly true that not enough has changed. Today there is a larger black middle class than there was before, and there are black people in positions of power. But there are much greater number of black people who are invisible. And, despite those who've made it, we still find that the US can spend billions of dollars fighting a war in Iraq but cannot find money to build levees in New Orleans."

Thinking about the situation in the US today Lester says, "I still have revolutionary aspirations, even if I don't have revolutionary energy anymore. But I think it is about time young radical artists came together and put these issues on the agenda."

Dressed Like Freedom by Julius Lester is out now on BGP records