Black History Month reflections on a social revolution
Ohio State President Michael V. Drake presents “Reaching for the Top: Music of the Civil Rights Era,” a complex story of social change movements and the role music played in them.
From Jane Carroll
COLUMBUS, OHIO – The role that music plays in social change took center stage on Tuesday as The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center welcomed Ohio State President Michael V. Drake as its 2015 Black History Month keynote speaker at University Hospital East and the Ross Heart Hospital.
Drake drew on his expertise in music and history to deliver his talk, “Reaching for the Top: Music of the Civil Rights Era,” a complex story of social change movements and the role music played in them. The lecture was based on a class that he taught to undergraduate students for several years when he was the Chancellor of the University of California, Irvine.
Drake demonstrated how music could be used in an anthropological sense to evaluate and reflect on the long journey to civil rights, and how it served as a device to take the social temperature of the time.
Music also functioned as an early tool for covert communication and, later, as an outlet for frustration, he said.
“Messages and stories about repression have been historically carried through song because people were not allowed to learn to write or read,” said Drake. “In many cases it was not safe to speak openly about personal rights issues, so they needed to use innuendo.”
Drake cited Go Down Moses, commonly known by its refrain, “Let my people go.” The song was ostensibly about God commanding Moses to demand the release of the Israelites, but in the context sung by Paul Robeson in 1958, it was about the need for equality and justice for people of African descent.
“Just as one can look at the art of any era and tell what the culture was like, so can you with music,” Drake said.
In the 1950s, due in part to increasing social integration, what was once knows as “race music” started to cross over into the mainstream and become Rhythm and Blues, or R&B. Drake noted that TV pioneer and entertainer Ed Sullivan was an unlikely agent of this social change.
When no one else in main-stream media would, Sullivan broke through cultural divides, promoting artists like Nat King Cole, Marian Anderson, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong, The Supremes, The Temptations and dozens of others over the course of the show’s 23-year run. He also created the space for “crossover” artists like Chuck Berry and Ray Charles on a national stage.
Songs of protest and organization came into the national spotlight during the 1960s. Drake described a touching ex-ample of how two artists—Sam Cooke and Bob Dylan, without every speaking to each other—further solidified the national consciousness through their music.
In 1962, Bob Dylan recorded Blowin’ in the Wind, which seeks solutions to race relations, war and peace.
“Dylan says that the answers are floating out there, just blowing in the wind without an anchor,” said Drake. “This was a sentiment musician Sam Cooke found particularly profound. As an African American man of great esteem and fame, he was having a particularly hard time with segregation and how it impacted him. He heard Dylan’s song and was so moved by that song that in 1964 he wrote Change Gonna Come as an answer to it. Dylan countered with encouragement and hope that same year with the song The Times They Are a Changin’.”
“In 1964, the country was also going through a real spasm of emotion,” said Drake. “The president had recently been assassinated and the nation was looking for relief. Ed Sullivan looked around and found the Beatles and got them here, to great fanfare.”
That same year also brought more complicated and even aggressive music onto the scene. The Rolling Stones echoed the sentiment of a generation with (I Can’t Get no) Satisfaction at a time when people were wrestling with the collective consciousness and past the mop-top balm and distraction the Beatles provided.
The end of 1968 was a time of great turmoil with the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April and Robert F. Kennedy in June, but it was also a time of great empowerment. Drake cited several examples: James Brown focused on what it meant to be Black and proud. U.S. gold and bronze Olympians gave the Black power salute on the podium.
The notoriously politics-shy Barry Gordy agreed to let Marvin Gaye record a political album, the iconic What’s Going On. Slowly, change was happening, and it could be seen over time through the music, Drake said.
“Maybe you don’t remember all of a song,” said Drake, “But you can remember the feeling it evokes. Our brains are amazing things and they tie us to emotion and how we are feeling as people. The music of this era is a reflection of what we as individuals and as a country were going through at the time, and that is not something any of us should ever forget.”