Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit,” 1939. “Southern trees bear a strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the roots.” That’s the opening of this haunting ballad, which deals with the horrors of lynchings, which were not-so-distant history in 1939. The song was banned by some radio networks as too controversial.
William Tabbert, “Carefully Taught,” 1949. Broadway musicals were hardly known for social commentary in the 1940s, but Rodgers & Hammerstein challenged that idea with this song from their 1949 smash South Pacific. “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid/Of…people whose skin is a different shade,” Tabbert sang in his role as Lt. Joseph Cable.
Mahalia Jackson, “How I Got Over,” 1961. Jackson performed this gospel hymn at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, at which Dr. King gave his historic “I Have A Dream” speech. Clara Ward composed it in 1951 after she and other family members had a harrowing experience in the segregated south. Aretha Franklin and Blind Boys of Alabama later recorded the song.
Joan Baez, “We Shall Overcome,” 1963. Baez’s version of this anthem, which was co-written by Pete Seeger, reached #90 in November 1963. She performed this song and “Oh Freedom” at the March on Washington. In February 2010, she performed it at a White House celebration of music from the civil rights era.
Bob Dylan, “Only A Pawn In Their Game.” Dylan wrote this song following the June 1963 assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. The song suggests that Evers’ killer doesn’t bear sole responsibility for his crime, as he was only a pawn of rich white elites who pitted poor whites against blacks so as to distract them from their position on “the caboose of the train.” Dylan performed the song and “When The Ship Comes In” at the March on Washington. Both songs later on appeared on his 1964 album The Times They Are a-Changin.’
The Impressions, “People Get Ready,” 1965. Curtis Mayfield’s song reached #14 in March 1965. Another thoughtful Mayfield song, “Choice Of Colors,” reached #21 in 1969. Jeff Beck & Rod Stewart charted with “People Get Ready” in 1985.
Janis Ian, “Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking),” 1967. Ian’s tale of a thwarted interracial romance reached #14 in July 1967. It stirred considerable controversy, even though the protagonist gives in to society’s pressure and ends the relationship. Six years later, the Stories’ tale of an interracial romance, “Brother Louie,” barely raised a peep as it soared to #1.
Dion, “Abraham, Martin And John,” 1968. This poignant song reached #4 in December 1968, eight months after Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis and six months after Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles. The sad, wistful melody captured how many people felt at the end of that tumultuous year. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and 75-year old comedienne Moms Mabley had top 40 hits with the song in 1969. The song returned to the top 10 in 1971 in a montage by DJ Tom Clay that also featured “What The World Needs Now Is Love.”
Sly & the Family Stone, “Everyday People,” 1968. Leave it to Sly Stone to write a song that was both funky and as simple as a nursery rhyme: “There is a yellow one/That won’t accept the black one/That won’t accept the red one/That won’t accept the white one/Different strokes for different folks.” This hit #1 in February 1969. A cover by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts made the top 40 in 1983. An adaptation by Arrested Development made the top 10 in 1992.
Three Dog Night, “Black & White,” 1972. This song was written in 1954, shortly after the Supreme Court decision which outlawed racial segregation in public schools. Pete Seeger was the first to record the song in 1956. Three Dog Night’s punchy pop version hit #1 in September 1972.
McFadden & Whitehead, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” 1979. This could be interpreted as a black pride anthem, or just as a positive song that radiates great energy. Gene McFadden and John Whitehead co-wrote the song, which hit #13 in July 1979. The song was played at the Democratic National Convention in 2008 on the night Sen. Barack Obama accepted the presidential nomination.
Paul McCartney (with Stevie Wonder), “Ebony And Ivory,” 1982. This glossy brotherhood anthem hit #1 in May 1982. It’s so candy-coated that it hasn’t aged well, though it was just right for the moment. The song inspired a wicked parody by Eddie Murphy (as Wonder) and Joe Piscopo (as Frank Sinatra) on Saturday Night Live (“You are blind as a bat/I have sight.”)
U2, “Pride (In The Name Of Love), 1984. Bono was inspired to co-write this song after reading biographies of Dr. King and Malcolm X. It includes an erroneous reference to the time of day that Dr. King was shot (“early morning,” when it was actually after 6 p.m.). The song hit #33 in December 1984.
Bruce Hornsby And the Range, “The Way It Is,” 1986. This jazzy pop song came out just four years after “Ebony And Ivory,” but it’s far more interesting musically and lyrically. The song references the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “They passed a law in ’64/To give those who ain’t got a little more/But it only goes so far….” The song hit #1 in December 1986.
- Arts & Entertainment