Jazz

'Strange Fruit' to 'Hey Jude': Music Protests Large and Small

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For my money, WBGO, which airs out of Newark, NJ, is the world’s finest jazz station. Founded in 1979, WBGO is “a publicly supported cultural institution that preserves and elevates America’s music: jazz and blues.”

Due to the wonders of the internet, you can livestream WBGO anywhere in the world. In this case, I was at the Sun Gate at end of the Inca Trail in Peru. Looking down upon Machu Picchu, at an elevation of over 9,000 feet, a wild thought jumped into my high altitude addled brain. “WBGO? Up here?” So I dialed it up on my iPhone and was soon listening to WBGO deep in the heart of the Andes Mountains. What an amazing world we live in!

As our tour group was getting ready to move on, I heard only a snippet of an in-studio interview with a young jazz musician. I didn’t catch his name, but heard loud and clear him explaining the responsibility of artists to tell the stories of what goes on in society or culture. “As an artist”, he explained, “it’s part of the deal. You have a powerful platform. But you must wield that power thoughtfully and responsibly.”

There has been a lot in the news recently about athletes using their platform to advocate for civil rights and social justice. Similarly, artists and musicians have a rich history of doing the same. Their music or art provides them a platform to shed light on social norms, beliefs and attitudes.

Nina Simone articulated it well, “You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”

John Lennon also referenced this responsibility. “My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try to express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher. Not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.”

Or, in the words of Trent Reznor, founding member of Nine Inch Nails, “I have influence, and it’s my job to call out whatever needs to be called out, because there are people who feel the same way but need someone to articulate it.”

It reminded me of the time, long ago, when I participated in a musical act to protest and to comment on the times and express what we, as peers, felt.

The year was 1971.

Granted, our little act of activism wasn’t something that led to the kind of cultural change spurred by the arrival of Elvis, the Beatles or Chuck Berry, but within the halls of Little Falls School #1 it reverberated.  It’s been argued that it drove Ms. Haynes, the school’s music teacher, to an early grave.

Rather than music class being a joyous and creative experience, Ms. Haynes wielded music like a club, virtually bludgeoning us into submission, all while primly perched behind her piano. She taught the school chorus “her” way, made us sing “her” songs that “her” chorus had sung forever.  Songs like “It’s a Grand Old Flag” and “The Wells Fargo Wagon.” Nothing against either of those songs, but did they have to be on the song list every show, every year?

It all came to a head during rehearsal for the spring concert. After the third run-through of “Waltzing Matilda,” we were restless. The times they were a changin’ and we wanted in on it. We wanted to sing at least one song that was timely and relevant. And to us, that meant The Beatles. And Ms. Haynes represented what needed to change.

I raised my hand. “Do you know Hey Jude by the Beatles?"

“Of course, I know the Beatles,” she snapped, eyes piercing over wire spectacles. No matter how hard she may have tried to deny them, those long-haired lads from Liverpool managed to slip through the side door of Ms. Haynes’s musical domain. “I am, however, unfamiliar with the song.”

“It’s a great vocal song with a cool ending. We’d like to sing it” I replied.

“I don’t think the Beatles would be appropriate for the spring concert,” she responded.

But we were dead set on singing it.  At the next practice, we asked again. Again, she refused.
So we walked. Five of us, including Skippy Brask, her prize student. We quit the chorus. Our demonstration caused quite a stir in our small suburban elementary school. A group of eighth graders walking out on Ms. Haynes? Quitting over the Beatles?  Maybe it wasn’t Woodstock , punk rock or Chuck Berry, but it was our own little rock ‘n’ roll revolution. We drew a line in the sand at “Hey Jude.” We had no clue at the time, but we were using music’s transformational powers to make a statement to spur change.

Yes, I know. It wasn’t Billie Holiday performing “Strange Fruit”. But it did shake up our little grade school in our little corner of our world for a couple of days.

This comparison is by no means meant to trivialize the power of an artist or a song to shake up the world. To the contrary, it is to illustrate the broad, far reaching power to do so.

Abel Meeropol watches as his sons, Robert and Michael, play with a train set.  Courtesy of Robert and Michael Meeropol

Abel Meeropol watches as his sons, Robert and Michael, play with a train set.
Courtesy of Robert and Michael Meeropol

There is no better song to sharpen that point than “Strange Fruit”. Written as a protest to the inhumanity of racism, it was penned and arranged by Abel Meeropol, a white, Jewish man from the Bronx after seeing a picture of a lynching.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

This is one of the most powerful and haunting songs ever written. In 1999, Time magazine named it the “Song of the Century”. Clearly, it made an enormous difference in raising awareness and shaping the dialogue around the issue of racism in America.

Sadly, athletes and artists continue to face blowback and criticism for using their platforms to raise the collective consciousness of our populace regarding timely and relevant issues of the day. Far too many continue to believe and say that athletes, artists, entertainers and musicians should, “Shut up and play, paint, or sing”, and not comment on the important social, cultural or political issues that impact their lives in profound ways.

But the fact is, perhaps now, more than ever, we need artists, athletes, entertainers and musicians to continue to “reflect the times.” It’s “part of the deal”. And we will all be better off if they continue to meet one of their most fundamental responsibilities to wield that power thoughtfully and responsibly.


Billie Holiday Performs the Song

The Times They Are a Changing: Sports, Music and Social Change

One of the most important and powerful impacts of sports is in the universe of social change, particularly as it relates to diversity and civil rights. The fundamental principles that drive progress in these areas are tolerance, acceptance and cooperation.  Sports are a very effective platform through which these principles can be demonstrated. There is no question that sports have played, and will continue to play, a vital role in providing examples of these fundamental building blocks of a civil society.

For example, one of the most significant events in the history of the struggle for civil rights was Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball. During a time when blacks were considered, to put it mildly, second-class citizens by many and, more bluntly, less than human by others, the sight of Robinson playing alongside white teammates, all on equal footing on the field, was both instructional and inspirational.

Sports is an enterprise where race, creed and background have, for the most part, little impact on achievement and opportunity, at least on the fields of play. Coaches are interested not in the color of a wide receiver’s skin but in whether that player is able to contribute to the team’s success on the field. Coaches play the best players regardless of color or creed because they want to win above all else. Their jobs and livelihoods depend on it.

Similarly, for the most part, athletes are unusually tolerant and accepting of other athletes. Like their coaches, athletes want to win and a player’s color or background means little if he or she can help in achieving that result.

The sight of athletes working together toward a common goal, sharing in the sweat, pain and sacrifice, provides a powerful example of the possibilities for tolerance, diversity and integration. Sports offer a vivid display of how people, regardless of background, can work together to accomplish impressive things. Seeing black athletes perform on equal footing with their white teammates sparked a light that suggested the possibility that the same could be done in many other occupations and situations.  A lot of the progress we have made as a society, whether in business or every day life, has to do with examples of racial tolerance and acceptance demonstrated through sports. When the public sees athletes working together successfully, it provides an example for others to emulate.

There are plenty of stories of whites refusing to stay at a hotel that would not accept their black teammates.  Pee Wee Reese went out of his way to put his arm around Robinson in the field, to demonstrate solidarity when Robinson was the target of racial slurs. And, of course, Jesse Owens defeating his white opponents in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a platform Hitler planned on using to demonstrate his despicable notion of white supremacy, resonated throughout the world. In short, sports have played an important role in the world’s ongoing civil rights journey.

This is one of sports’ most powerful and enduring legacies.

But sport is not the only vehicle to play an important role in this regard. While sports may have a more visible public platform, music has the same potential, power and history in promoting tolerance, diversity and integration.

While Jackie Robinson was breaking the color barrier in baseball, there were many bands of all types, styles and sizes demonstrating the power of inclusion and tolerance. Like the stories of white athletes standing up for their black teammates, there are similar stories of musicians doing the same for their black band mates. Like athletes, musicians want to perform their best and don’t particularly care about the color of the saxophonist or drummer as long as he or she can play.
One only has to take a close look at the iconic Art Kane photograph titled Harlem 1958 (or “A Great Day in Harlem”) to imagine what was transpiring on bandstands in concert halls, clubs and bars during the civil rights struggle. Kane used a wide-angle lens to capture a telling photo of fifty-eight jazz musicians sitting, standing and kneeling on the steps of a Harlem brownstone apartment building. Just about all of the jazz “heavyweights” of the era are pictured enjoying what must have been a very lively and entertaining photo session.

Coleman Hawkins is front and center in the picture. A young Dizzy Gillespie is on the right fringe of the group, laughing. And important jazz musicians of the day such as Jimmy Rushing, Count Basie and Thelonious Monk are pictured as well. While the majority of these jazz greats are black, Gerry Milligan, Max Kaminsky, Gene Krupa, George Wettling  and Bud Freeman, all white, are also pictured. In addition, Maxine Sullivan, Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams represent women jazz musicians. Kane’s photo is a wonderful testament to the fact that music, like sports, was way ahead of the curve in terms of providing examples of blacks, whites and women working together in the equal opportunity arena of a bandstand.

Further, the emergence of “black music” in our cultural landscape served as a powerful example of black culture being accepted and valued, at least by the younger generation. Not surprisingly, it often took the older generation longer to catch on to the inevitable reality that integration was on its way. Chuck Berry’s popularity with white audiences and Elvis Presley, a white kid singing “black” are only two examples. 

And the legacy of both sports and music’s role in prodding social change continues to this day in the form of athletes such as Colin Kaepernick and Lebron James and musicians such as John Legend and any number of modern day rap artists.

Clearly, in the area of integration, tolerance and diversity, sports and music have had a powerful impact. Although they are different arenas, their respective potential to provide examples of people of different color, gender and background working together in harmony are, for all practical purposes, identical.

And in today’s increasingly culturally toxic and polarized society, perhaps now more than ever, it is a blessing that their power in this regard is enduring.