Mid 20th Century News Music

Mid 20th Century News Music

Mid 20th Century News Music

This is the second post on on 20th century songs that I’ve come to call “News Music.” As the name hopefully implies, the songs’ intent  was to implicitly or explicitly comment upon, challenge, or simply point out a social problem.

These examples are from 1941 up to the more famous 1960s.

“Freedom’s Road”

In 1942…Langston Hughes wrote the lyrics, Emerson Harper wrote the music, and Josh White sang “Freedom’s Road” in which they attempted to link the war abroad to the struggle for racial justice at home. (next BH, see Jan 17)

Mid 20th Century News Music

This Land Is Your Land

In 1944…Woody Guthrie wrote the lyrics to This Land Is Your Land (initially titled God Blessed America for Me) in 1940, but not record it until 1944. It was Guthrie’s parody of Irving Berlin’s God Bless America (1938), a song Guthrie felt didn’t express the right sentiment. Guthrie stated: “I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world…that make you take pride in yourself and your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you.”

Mid 20th Century News Music

The House I Live In

Abel Meeropol, writer of “Strange Fruit,” was an active member of the American Communist Party. [In 1953, he and his wife would adopt Michael and Robert Rosenberg, the sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg who were executed in 1953.]

Meeropol taught at the De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx for 27 years, but continued to write songs, including Frank Sinatra’s 1945 hit, The House I Live In with Earl Robinson.

The House I Live In” was a 1945 short film written by Albert Maltz and made by producer Frank Ross and Frank Sinatra (as an actor) to oppose anti-Semitism and prejudice at the end of World War II.

It received a special Academy Award in 1946.

Mid 20th Century News Music

People’s Songs

December 31, 1945: Pete Seeger wrote in the People’s Songs newsletter No. 1: “The people are on the march and must have songs to sing. Now in 1946, the truth must reassert itself in many singing voices. There are thousands of unions, people’s organizations, singers and choruses who would gladly use more songs. There are many songwriters, amateur and professional, who are writing these songs. It is clear that there must be an organization to make and send songs of labor and the American people through the land. To do this job we formed People’s Songs, INC. We invite you to join us.”

Mid 20th Century News Music

I Wonder When I’ll Be Called A Man

In 1946…even though serving in World War I, Big Bill Broonzy (1903 – 1958) realized his country was not yet ready to treat him equally. He wrote, “I Wonder When I’ll Be Called A Man.”

Mid 20th Century News Music

We Shall Overcome

In 1947…Zilphia Horton (1910 – 1956) was music director of the Highlander Folk School of Monteagle, Tennessee, an adult education school that trained union organizers and a place committed to democratic principles. Seeger learned “We Shall Overcome.”  there. Seeger included it in a People’s Songs booklet. Martin Luther King, Jr used the phrase in several of his speeches. (see December 10, 1964)

By the mid-1950s, the support of unions and pro-socialistic ideals had so fallen from public disfavor that artists like Seeger looked for another cause to support and effect changes. They found that cause in the civil rights movement.

Mid 20th Century News Music

Finian’s Rainbow

January 10, 1947: Finian’s Rainbow opened on Broadway. Among its songs was “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich” written by Yip Harburg.

Mid 20th Century News Music

Talking Atom (Old Man Atom)

In 1948…Pete Seeger recorded the 1945 Vern Partlow song “Talking Atom (Old Man Atom)” which expressed a fear of atomic energy and its possible consequences based.

Mid 20th Century News Music

Deportees

In 1948: Woody Guthrie  wrote the words to “Deportees” or “Plane Wreck At Los Gatos” in response to an airplane crash which resulted in the deaths of 32 people: 4 Americans and 28 migrant farm workers who were being deported to Mexico from California. The news media reference to the workers as simply deportees, never mentioning their names, outraged Guthrie. The Mexican victims were placed in a mass grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno, California. There were 27 men and one woman. Only 12 of the victims were ever identified. In deteriorating health due to Huntington’s Disease, it is considered Guthrie’s last great song. In 1958 Martin Hoffman added a melody to Guthrie’s words.

Mid 20th Century News Music

If I Had a Hammer

In 1949: Pete Seeger wrote and the re-assembled Weavers sang “If I Had a Hammer.” Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes first sang it in New York City at a testimonial dinner for the leaders of the Communist Party of the United States, who were then on trial in federal court. In 1962 Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version became a top ten hit.

During the 1950s, protest was coupled with Communism and suppressed particularly during the McCarthy hearings which investigated the purported infiltration of Communism into all areas of American life. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) held these investigations from 1953 to 1954. In 2003, his hearings’ transcripts were released. At that time Carl Levin (Chairman) and Susan Collins (Ranking Member on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations), wrote in their Preface to the release of the investigation’s transcripts:

The power to investigate ranks among the U.S. Senate’s highest responsibilities. As James Madison reasoned in The Federalist Papers: ‘‘If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels governed men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.’’ It is precisely for the purposes of government controlling itself that Congress investigates.

They continued: The phase of the Subcommittee’s history from 1953 to 1954, when it was chaired by Joseph McCarthy, however, is remembered differently. Senator McCarthy’s zeal to uncover subversion and espionage led to disturbing excesses. His browbeating tactics destroyed careers of people who were not involved in the infiltration of our government. His freewheeling style caused both the Senate and the Subcommittee to revise the rules governing future investigations, and prompted the courts to act to protect the Constitutional rights of witnesses at Congressional hearings. Senator McCarthy’s excesses culminated in the televised Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, following which the Senate voted overwhelmingly for his censure… These hearings are a part of our national past that we can neither afford to forget nor permit to reoccur.

Mid 20th Century News Music

Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream

In July 1951: folk-music magazine “Sing Out!” published Ed McCurdy’s song, “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.” McCurdy had written the song in 1950 and Pete Seeger first recorded it on his 1956 album “Love Songs for Friends and Foes”

It has been recorded in seventy-six languages (including covers by The Weavers in 1960, the Chad Mitchell Trio in 1962, Simon & Garfunkel in 1964, Cornelis Vreeswijk in 1964 (in Swedish), Hannes Wader in 1979 (in German), Johnny Cash in 2002, Garth Brooks in 2005, Serena Ryder in 2006, and Charles Lloyd in 2016.

Mid 20th Century News Music

Get That Communist, Joe

In 1954: the Kavaliers sang “Get That Communist, Joe” in which they poked fun at McCarthy’s passion to find Communists everywhere.

Mid 20th Century News Music

Sixteen Tons

In 1955: Tennessee Ernie Ford released “Sixteen Tons,”  a song about the hardships of coal mining. The song’s author is generally credited to Merle Travis who first recorded it in 1946.

Mid 20th Century News Music

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

In 1956: Alice Wine wrote lyrics called “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” based on “Old Plow,” a traditional song. It is another example of a musician applying a new meaning to an old song.

Mid 20th Century News Music

Oh Freedom

In 1956: Odetta recorded a Civil War era song called Oh Freedom. The song would become one of the many songs that civil rights activists sang during the 1960s.

Mid 20th Century News Music

Tom Dooley

November 17, 1958: the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” hit #1 on the Billboard pop chart. While not a protest song, protest folk probably owed its commercial success to the Kingston Trio, three guys in crew cuts and candy-striped shirts who honed their act not in Greenwich Village cafes, but in the fraternities and sororities of Stanford University in the mid-1950s. Without the enormous profits that the Trio’s music generated for Capitol Records, it is unlikely that major-label companies would have given recording contracts to those who would challenge the status quo in the decade to come. Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, for instance, may have owed their musical and political development to forerunners like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, but they probably owed their commercial viability to the Kingston Trio.

Mid 20th Century News Music

December Music et al

December Music et al

Thelonius Monk

In December 1961: Thelonius Monk with John Coltrane album released.

From Michael Nastos in All MusicUniversally regarded as one of the greatest collaborations between the two most influential musicians in modern jazz (Miles Davis notwithstanding), the Jazzland sessions from Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane should be recognized on other levels. While the mastery of the principals is beyond reproach, credit should also be given to peerless bassist Wilbur Ware, as mighty an anchor as anyone could want. These 1957 dates also sport a variety in drummerless trio, quartet, septet, or solo piano settings, all emphasizing the compelling and quirky compositions of Monk. A shouted-out, pronounced “Off Minor” and robust, three-minute “Epistrophy” with legendary saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Gigi Gryce, and the brilliant, underappreciated trumpeter Ray Copeland are hallmark tracks that every jazz fan should revere. O

December Music et al

Bob Dylan

In mid-December 1961: shortly after recording his first album for Columbia, Dylan moved into his first rented apartment in the middle of West Fourth Street, a tiny, scruffy place above Bruno’s Spaghetti Shop, and persuaded his girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, to move in with him. (see January 1962)

December Music et al

Jimi Hendrix

In December 1965: The Leaves released single of “Hey Joe” later covered by Jimi Hendrix. (September 24, 1966)

December Music et al

News Music

In December 1966: Simon and Garfunkel’s Seven O’clock News/Silent Night Beginning softly at first, a newscast reports various discomforting events and gradually overrides Simon and Garfunkel singing of Silent Night.

December Music et al

Rock Venues

December Music et al

In December 1973: New York bar owner Hilly Kristal opened CBGB in December 1973 at 315 Bowery in Manhattan, the site of his former establishment, Hilly’s on the Bowery. Before that, Kristal had put most of his energy into a West Village nightclub. When noise complaints forced him to close, he focused on his property in a less desirable part of town. (see October 11, 2006)

December Music et al

Nat Turner Slave Revolt 1831

Nat Turner Slave Revolt 1831

From 1831–1862: The Underground Railroad Approximately 75,000 slaves escape to the North and to freedom via the Underground Railroad, a system in which free African American and white “conductors,” abolitionists and sympathizers help guide and shelter the escapees.

Birth and education

October 2, 1800: Nat Turner was born  on the plantation of Benjamin Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, the week before Gabriel  Prosser (see Aug 30) was hanged after a failed slave insurrection in Richmond, Virginia.

Nat Turner’s mother was enslaved woman named Nancy, who was captured from West Africa. His father, presumed to be a slave named Abraham, ran away from the Southampton, Virginia, plantation when Nat was about ten years old

Benjamin Turner allowed Nat Turner to be instructed in reading, writing, and religion.

Nat Turner Slave Revolt 1831

First vision

While still a young child, Nat was overheard describing events that had happened before he was born. This, along with his keen intelligence, and other signs marked him in the eyes of his people as a prophet.

Nat was given as a gift, along with his mother and grandmother, to Benjamin’s son Samuel around 1809, and formally willed in 1810.

In 1821, Turner ran away from Samuel, but returned  after thirty days because of a vision in which the Spirit had told him to “return to the service of my earthly master.”

Nat Turner Slave Revolt 1831

Second Vision

By 1822, Samuel had died, and his widow, Elizabeth Turner, oversaw Nat until she married Thomas Moore, who took formal ownership of Nat in 1823.

According to a National Geographic article, “After Elizabeth’s death, Moore married Sally Francis, who became a widow and then married Joseph Travis, Nat’s last master, although Sally’s 10-year-old son, Putnam, was legally Nat’s owner.”

In 1825: Nat Turner had a second vision. He saw lights in the sky and prayed to find out what they meant. Then “… while laboring in the field, I discovered drops of blood on the corn, as though it were dew from heaven, and I communicated it to many, both white and black, in the neighborhood; and then I found on the leaves in the woods hieroglyphic characters and numbers, with the forms of men in different attitudes, portrayed in blood, and representing the figures I had seen before in the heavens.

Nat Turner Slave Revolt 1831

Third Vision

May 12, 1828: Turner “…heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first… And by signs in the heavens that it would make known to me when I should commence the great work, and until the first sign appeared I should conceal it from the knowledge of men; and on the appearance of the sign… I should arise and prepare myself and slay my enemies with their own weapons.

By 1830, Southampton County was home to 6,573 whites, 1,745 free blacks, and 7,756 enslaved African Americans.

It was in 1830 that Turner was moved to the home of Joseph Travis with his official owner being the young child Putnum Moore. Turner described Travis as a kind master, against whom he had no complaints. The Travis plantation was lived 411 acres and had 17 slaves working his property in 1830.

Records show that Nat married an enslaved woman named Cherry who lived on a neighboring plantation, and they had at least one child, a son named Reddick. Nat would have to obtain a pass from his masters to visit his family.

Records show that he was outspoken in his beliefs that blacks should be free, and that freedom would be theirs one day; an opinion for which he was whipped in 1828.

Nat Turner preaches religion. “”Knowing the influence I had obtained over the minds of my fellow-servants…by the communion of the Spirit, whose revelations I often communicated to them… I now began to prepare them for my purpose.” (Image Credit: The Granger Collection, New York)
Nat Turner Slave Revolt 1831

Signs from the heavens

February 1831: there was an eclipse of the sun. Turner took this to be the sign he had been promised and confided his plan to the four men he trusted the most, Hark Moore, Henry Porter, Nelson Edwards, Sam Francis, Will Francis, and Jack Reese . They decided to hold an  insurrection on July 4 and began planning a strategy. However, they had to postpone action because Turner became ill.

August 13, 1831: there was an atmospheric disturbance in which the sun appeared bluish-green. Turner interpreted this as the final sign.

Nat Turner Slave Revolt 1831

Revolt

Nat Turner Slave Revolt 1831

August 21, 1831: Turner, Moore, Porter, Edwards,  Sam Francis, Will Francis, and Reese  met in the woods to eat a dinner and make their plans.

At 2:00 AM they launched the rebellion by entering the Travis household, where they killed the entire family as they lay sleeping, save for a small infant. They moved from one farm to the next, killing all slave-owning whites they found. As they progressed through Southampton county, other slaves joined in the rebellion.

They continued on, from house to house, killing all of the white people they encountered. Turner’s force eventually consisted of more than 40 slaves, most on horseback.

August 22, 1831: Turner decided to march toward Jerusalem, the closest town. By then word of the rebellion had gotten out to the whites; confronted by a group of militia, the rebels scattered, and Turner’s force became disorganized. After spending the night near some slave cabins, Turner and his men attempted to attack another house, but were repulsed. One slave was killed and many escaped, including Turner.

Nat Turner Slave Revolt 1831

Escape

In the end, the rebels had stabbed, shot and clubbed at least 55 white people to death.Turner escaped and remained free for nearly two months.

In those two months though, the militia and white vigilantes instituted a reign of terror over slaves in the region. Hundreds of blacks were killed. White Virginians panicked over fears of a larger slave revolt and soon instituted more restrictive laws regulating slave life.

Nat Turner Slave Revolt 1831

Capture

Nat Turner Slave Revolt 1831

August 30, 1831: The Richmond Enquirer published a description of the rebels’ “murderous career” that likened them to “a parcel of blood-thirsty wolves rushing down from the Alps; or rather like a former incursion of the Indians upon the white settlements.” The lesson gleaned by the writer of the article from the case of Turner, “who had been taught to read and write, and permitted to go about preaching,” was that “No black man ought to be permitted to turn a Preacher through the country.”

Credit was given to “many of the slaves whom gratitude had bound to their masters, that thy had manifested the grestest alacrity in detecting and apprehending many of the brigands.”

According to the article, General Broadnax, the militia commander of Greensville County, was “convinced, from various sources” of the “entire ignorance on the subject of all the slaves in the counties around Southampton, among whom he has never known more pefect order and quiet to prevail.” [full text of article]

Nat Turner Slave Revolt 1831

Harriet Ann Jacobs

Harriet Ann Jacobs, born into slavery in North Carolina in 1813, eventually escaped to the North, where she wrote a narrative about her ordeal of slavery.

In Chapter Twelve of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, Jacobs describes the harassment of blacks in Edenton, North Carolina, following the rebellion.

Her “Fear of Insurrection” begins with a statement that captured the irony of white society’s fear: NOT far from this time Nat Turner’s insurrection broke out; and the news threw our town into great commotion. Strange that they should be alarmed when their slaves were so “contented and happy”! But so it was. [full text]

October 30, 1831: Turner captured and imprisoned in the Southampton County Jail, where he was interviewed by Thomas R. Gray, a Southern physician. Out of that interview came his now famous “Confession.

Convinced that “the great day of judgement was at hand,” and that he “should commence the great work,” Turner took the eclipse of the sun to mean that “I should arise and prepare myself, and slay my enemies with their own weapons.”

Gray described Turner as being extremely intelligent but a fanatic. He went on to say: “The calm, deliberate composure with which he spoke of his late deeds and intentions, the expression of his fiend-like face when excited by enthusiasm; still bearing the stains of the blood of helpless innocence about him; clothed with rags and covered with chains, yet daring to raise his manacled hands to heaven; with a spirit soaring above the attributes of man, I looked on him and my blood curdled in my veins.”

Nat Turner Slave Revolt 1831

Trial and execution

November 5, 1831: Nat Turner was tried in the Southampton County Court and sentenced to execution. (BH, NT, & SR, see Nov 10)

November 10, 1831: Nat Turner hung. He was buried the following day.

No grave marker exists for Nat Turner, nor for his fellow soldiers. The rebels were caught, tried, and executed in different places, and their scattered remains lie under unmarked soil.

The November 14, 1831, Norfolk Herald reported that: “He betrayed no emotion, but appeared to be utterly reckless in the awful fate that awaited him and even hurried his executioner in the performance of his duty! Precisely at 12 o’clock he was launched into eternity.”

In total, the state executed 55 people, banished many more, and acquitted a few. The state reimbursed the slaveholders for their slaves. But in the hysterical climate that followed the rebellion, close to 200 black people, many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion, were murdered by white mobs. In addition, slaves as far away as North Carolina were accused of having a connection with the insurrection, and were subsequently tried and executed.
The state legislature of Virginia considered abolishing slavery, but in a close vote decided to retain slavery and to support a repressive policy against black people, slave and free.

The basic information for this blog entry came from Brotherly Love, a PBS article.

Nat Turner Slave Revolt 1831

What's so funny about peace, love, art, and activism?

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