Completing the Circle, Part II
Vol. 21, No. 1, 1999 pp. 29-30
“How can I get a copy of that wonderful civil rights documentary series produced by the Southern Regional Council that I heard on public radio?” The most frequently asked question among the fifteen hundred email messages to the “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” web site now has an answer.
After June 1, 1999, copies of the Peabody-award winning civil rights audio documentary series produced by George King for the SRC will be available on compact disc and cassette.
SRC’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” tells the story of the Civil Rights Movement in five Southern cities: Little Rock, Arkansas; Jackson, Mississippi; Montgomery, Alabama; Atlanta, Georgia; and Columbia, South Carolina. Aired on more than 250 public radio stations in 1997 and 1998, the series brought hundreds of comments from listeners in more than thirty-five states from Alaska to Maine.
The CDs and cassettes are a “tremendous resource for teachers everywhere,” said University of Illinois educator Judith Hartley. A curriculum guide with sample lesson plans and creative activities for students in middle, high school and college is being prepared to accompany the series.
Arranging for rights to use the original music that is part of the oral histories has taken almost a year and half. Licensing requirements allow the music that enlivens the series to be played on public radio without any special arrangements with the artists. But to produce units for sale, even by a non-profit organization, requires licensing agreements with artists and publishers of the series.
The music gives this series incredible power. But the process of tracking down artists and music publishers was complicated because of the large number of songs excerpted in the series. Licensing guru Thom Watson, who located many of the close to 300 songs that enliven the series, searched through the Library of Congress and elsewhere to secure the rights.
Many people responded warmly to Watson’s requests to license the songs at a reduced rate. “I talked with Ted White, who wrote ‘Think,’ sung by Aretha Franklin,” said Watson, “and he was really encouraging right off the bat. When he got the booklet, he said, ‘This looks like it’s an absolutely wonderful project. I’m the father of a teen, and I think it is vital that this information is available to all new generations to make sure the truth is not forgotten. I wish you all the best of luck.'”
Watson attempted to license about thirty-three tunes from MCA Records, including “People Get Ready” by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, The Andrews Sisters’s version of “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” “I had sent the request in but hadn’t heard anything from MCA representative Kelly Martinez,” said Watson. “When she called, she told me that she and a friend had been driving to northern California. Her friend listens to public radio and they happened to hear the series on the air. ‘I told my friend,’ said Martinez. ‘This is the request that I got from that guy in Atlanta; we have to hurry and get back so I can work on that guy’s request.'”
Dealing with 189 different entities to license the rights wasn’t always easy, said Watson, but it was not without quite a few perks. “It was just an interesting feeling to talk to a lot of the artists and agents.”
A number of artists, recording companies and music publishers were generous and encouraging. “Warner Special Products gave us twenty-three classic rock and roll tunes gratis,” said Watson. “‘You can use my song “For What its Worth” free of charge,’ said legendary recording producer Brian Stone.
“I sent all the information to Rudy Simons whose publishing company co-represents such classic standards as “All of Me.” He wrote back immediately. He said ‘I will not accept any charge whatsoever for this.’ He was a civil rights activist back in the 60s. ‘Look out for me,’ he said, ‘I am still involved in civil rights and I will be coming to Columbus for the School of the Americas protest next week.'”
Some of the songs are by obscure artists who were hard to find. ‘”There’s Something On Your Mind”‘ was originally released on the Fire label in 1960,” said Watson. “There is no such label anymore. So, you go to the next step, which is getting in touch with some well-known recording company, like Rhino records or Warner Special Products or Collectables Records. They issue a lot of oldies and retrospectives. I called each of those, and finally Warner Brothers said, ‘You need to get in touch with Collectables.’ Collectables said, ‘We do not license that song, but we will research it for you and find out who does.'”
“Collectables showed records identifying the administrator of the recording as a gentleman by the name of Bobby Robinson,” Watson continued, “so I started writing him and calling him to no avail. We were just about to eliminate that song from the program and then out of the blue, I got a call from him, a good thirteen months later. And he said, ‘I no longer administer that song, but I know who does. It is Arista Records.’ With producer George
King in the sound studio literally doing the final re-mix of the shows, an urgent request was sent to Arista records and the recording was cleared for reduced-fee use.
Circle on Tour
Producer George King has visited a number of cities in response to interest in the series. King was hosted by the National Oral History Association in Buffalo, New York, and the Southern Oral History Association, which met at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia in 1998.
“I would say there was a great deal of enthusiasm from the audiences,” said King, “People were very moved by the content and the authenticity of the voices.”
At Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, King found many avid listeners with comments and questions. “They put together a reception for us,” said King. “I was talking to somebody who I found out was (Michael) Schwerner’s brother , who is teaching there now.” Michael Schwerner was a civil rights worker who was murdered with James Chaney and Andrew Goodman in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964. “I remember telling him that we actually have some testimony from his mother in the show,” said King. “We also used a little piece from James Chaney’s younger brother, recorded at the time, talking about the experience.”
King worked for most of the 1990s, interviewing civil rights veterans-both known and unknown-and producing the radio version. The process of collecting the oral histories, however, began even earlier in the late 70s, with an idea from Randall Williams and Hilda Dent, of Montgomery, Alabama. Executive Producer Steve Suitts found backers of the project at the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Ford Foundation. Williams and folklorist Worth Long also interviewed many of the movement activists.
“We were doing these oral histories originally because we did not want to lose these voices,” said King. “Of course, subsequently we have lost many more, Virginia Durr being the most recent example. Others, like Aaron Henry of Clarksdale, Mississippi, are not around any more.”
King spent countless more hours in the studio, re-editing the series for the CD and cassette version. He even recorded some original music, solos and short transitional pieces with local Atlanta artists, bassist Brett Hartley, keyboardist Rob Grable, oboeist Deborah Workman, and Tom Wolf on harmonica. King, who plays occasionally with the Expand Band, filled in on percussion.
You can reserve a copy of the series now by calling or writing the Southern Regional Council at (404) 522-8764, 133 Carnegie Way, Suite 900, Atlanta, GA 30303-1024 or visiting the series’ web site at www.unbrokencircle.org.