A chorus for freedom and sell-determination

Reviewed by Mary A. Twining

Vol. 14, No. 2, 1992, p. 23

World Music of Struggle: We Shall Overcome, Folkways/Columbia/Smithsonian tape (CT 47850), produced by Worth Long, Ralph Rinzler and Don DeVito.

At a benefit for some political candidates from Blakely, Georgia, Charles Sherrod begin to sing as an introduction to his "few words" of exhortation. "A Charge to Keep I Have...," he sang, thereby opening up in a breathtaking moment his moral commitment to his own conscience, which would not rest well if he had not done all he could to ameliorate the suffering around him. The power of the words, the song and the singer took me back to the 1960s and 1970s when we believed telling the truth about what was going on would truly help to solve some problems. What has come clearly into focus since that exciting time is that the struggle continues.

Trying to segregate the African American freedom struggle from that of the peoples all around the world, people have labeled it "Civil Rights." All, in fact, are fighting for human rights, a label freely used about other people's conflicts. Nowhere is this a luta continua sentiment more beautifully expressed than in this fervently sung performance, taped live at the 1990 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife.

Recorded with clarity by the Smithsonian/Folkways staff for Columbia, the tape is technically well produced with only small interruptions in the sound quality as the Azanian (South African) double quartet broke into the toi-toi which added visual charm with auditory challenge. The recording is otherwise clear, making one feel present at the occasion, which generated a great deal of excitement for an overflow audience. The dedication and passion of the singers carries the urgency of the message. The engaging musicality of their songs and instrumentations pull and fascinate.

The producers, Worth Long, Ralph Rinzler and Don DeVito, deserve congratulations for their accomplishment in bringing out this tape. Anthony Seeger's essay and the excellent liner notes are well illustrated with pictures of the artists. We are given discography and references to the program book of the 1990 Festival and the fine program ably curated by Jacqueline Peters, who has also written a number of informative articles in that publication.

The gospel fervor of the opening "This Little Light of Mine," a mainstay of many a human rights gathering, obviously inspired the audience as much as it ever did the meetings. Those who were involved in the American social reformation, as many were in the South in the sixties and seventies, will find themselves plunged into memories of the imperatives of that time by the Freedom Singers.

Hazel Dickens, who has sung on the frontlines of labor strife for many years, brings that emotion to the women's defense. Her lively rendition of "The Coal Tattoo" brings to mind Atlanta's recently departed, and much missed, Esther Lefevre, whose voice similarly inspired urgency behind the social and moral struggle being fought. The beauty and authority of the music has aided many workers and organizers to survive the onslaught of violence, prejudice and unreason, the deadliness of which was so aptly illustrated without benefit of music in a recent television broadcast concerning the trial of West Coast neo-nazi Tom Metzger, who was found by a Seattle jury to be responsible in the skinhead beating death of Ethiopian American Mulegreta Seraw.

The finale, "We Shall Overcome," is a veritable United Nations of the dispossessed with bass singers who underwrite the whole with the undeniable authority of an old traditional African American style. The Spanish version says ahora (now) instead of "someday." These singers from different parts of the world show us the unanimity of the human struggle for freedom and self-determination which has many cultural faces and voices.

It is good to know that the passionate flow of song continues unabated, but it hurts deeply to realize, as few enough do, that the need for the action these songs represent and symbolize also persists. In fact, abuses of human rights endure in an increasingly cynical world. This tape, however, serves to remind us of hope and persistence.

Mary A. Twining teaches English and folklore at Clark Atlanta University. She and her husband Keith E. Baird are co-editors of Sea Island Roots: African Presence in the Carolinas and Georgia (Africa World Press, 1991).