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A Soundtrack for Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day


MLK Day never fails to find us reflecting on Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. But as a lifelong record collector and musician, it also reminds me how the birth of the civil rights movement was a groundbreaking era in music. It was a time that inspired songwriters of many genres to pen some of the most powerful and beautiful songs in the history of recorded music. During this part of the 1960s and 1970s, gospel, folk, rock, funk, soul, blues, and jazz included musicians singing about themes of freedom and equal rights.




To celebrate this incredibly important time in history, I like to raise the volume on an inspiring Pandora station: Protest Songs. Spanning the 1960s to more present-day recordings, this station was programmed with a consciousness-raising collection of music largely inspired by rallying cries for social change. As much as I dig all kinds of new music, it’s the songs from the civil rights era that tend to populate most of my music collection. And although my generation’s musicians have been through many ordeals, the lot of us are lucky that we never had to muse on the draft or the kinds of segregation that existed in the past. Of course, inequality still exists and we all still have a lot of work to do. But to feed my motivational energy, it’s the old songs that inspire new work.


Even though Bob Dylan wore many musical hats, his protest-era songs still grip me most. To this day, I’m still amazed at how much assertion, tension, and strength came from just an acoustic guitar, a reedy old harmonica and a man’s impassioned voice singing out against injustice. Shortly after discovering Dylan in my late teens, I was drawn to the jingle-jangle 12-string interpretations of his songs via The Byrds. I even scored a Rickenbacker guitar and tried to teach myself how to play like Roger McGuinn. But after learning how to fret and pick six extra strings, I realized that I was more moved by the way his voice shook and trembled when he was singing about longing for peace. Since I was never that dexterous a guitar player, I also looked to Neil Young for inspiration because some of his most memorable solos sound like he’s playing them with one finger. But it’s when he’s singing about racism in the South – that’s when the intensity of his music makes my hair stand on end. And if you want to hear an even more intense version, check out Merry Clayton’s fiery cover of “Southern Man.”




Sometimes the fire of funk burns even brighter. The impassioned recordings of James Brown showed me that groovy music could groove even harder when its lyrics empower people to stand against prejudice and hatred. It was music like this and that of Sly & The Family Stone that first made me realize the staying power of songs that fight for equality when the lyrics are hinged to heavy rhythms. And in hindsight, both of those artists were a gateway that opened the doors of discovery to the proto-rap, activist anthems of Gil Scott-Heron. I also get goosebumps from hearing Mavis Staples’ searing vocal inflections when she’s singing against racism. I think one of the most underrated bands of the civil rights movement is The Staple Singers.




Of course, there’s nothing more instantly emotional to my ears than the blues. Muddy Waters has two voices – his singing voice and his guitar’s deep commanding tone. But no matter how hard his guitar solos resonate; it’s his raspy inflections that get me every time he sings about a hard life lived during the Jim Crow era. Billie Holiday originally recorded the jazz classic “Strange Fruit” in 1939. The song’s haunting lyrics about lynching in the American South were powerfully revisited by Nina Simone when she recorded a gripping version of the song for her album Pastel Blues in 1965, the year many cite as the birth of the Black Power movement.




Again – I’ve got nothing but love for new music (I record and release new music, myself). But I also believe much of the music recorded before my time was played with a more palpable urgency. It was music that stoked the fires of change. This MLK day when we recognize Dr. King’s work, I recommend listening to Pandora’s Protest Songs station for inspiration. These songs help me remember that music doesn’t just soundtrack change. Music is change.



-Eric Shea