REWIND: Five protest songs by Black artists, in honor of Rep. John Lewis

John Lewis

A mugshot of civil rights activist and politician John Lewis, following his arrest in Jackson, Mississippi for using a restroom reserved for white people during the Freedom Ride demonstration against racial segregation on May 24, 1961. Courtesy: Kypros/Getty Images.

As I was writing this column it was announced that the legendary Rep. John Lewis, one of our greatest national heroes and a personal inspiration to me, died at age 80. His steadfast moral clarity and his “good trouble” philosophy—that doing what’s right doesn’t always mean doing what you’re told—has been a major influence on how I conduct myself and how I live my life.

This was already a column of protest songs by Black musicians in response to unidentified soldiers in unmarked vehicles disappearing protesters in Portland. But now, after the loss of a lifelong civil rights crusader, it seems even more appropriate. Let these songs and others like them serve as a reminder to, in the words of Rep. Lewis, find a way to get in the way. We can’t let fear of violence, fear of arrest or fear of any repercussions deter us from fighting for what’s right. Even as uniformed troops extrajudicially detain our fellow Americans for exercising their right to speak out, we can’t just not fear good trouble. We must actively seek it out, carried by the confidence that each act we take is one small step on a long journey we may not even live to see through.

We must all do more, not just in memory of Rep. John Lewis but in his honor. I only hope, in some small way, these songs can help inspire you to do so.

Fats Waller — “Black and Blue”

OK, so here’s the thing: Fats Waller never actually recorded his version of “Black and Blue.” Waller wrote and began performing his civil rights protest song in 1929 but died before he was able to make a recording of it, at least one that anyone knows about. So I linked to Louis Armstrong’s version, which is musically great but cuts out pretty much the entirety of the protest element.

Here are some of the verses of Waller’s song that Armstrong left out:

“I’m white inside, it don’t help my case/ ‘Cause I can’t hide, what is on my face.”

“‘Cause you’re black, folks think you lack/ They laugh at you, and scorn you too/ What did I do to be so black and blue?”

“How sad I am, each day I feel worse/ My mark of Ham seems to be a curse”

“How will it end? Ain’t got a friend/ My only sin is my skin/ What did I do to be so black and blue?”

That last one is almost in Armstrong’s version but he sings “My only sin is in my skin,” which is kinda the opposite of the original intent.

Billie Holiday — “Strange Fruit”

Another song that’s depressingly relevant more than 80 years after it was recorded is “Strange Fruit,” an anti-lynching protest song. Its brutally direct and agonizingly graphic description of lynchings in the lyrics led to it being hailed by some to be the beginning of the civil rights movement… and decried by other, worse people as a declaration of war.

Holiday’s label, Columbia, refused to record it. Her producer, John Hammond, refused to produce it. So she got a one-song release from her contract and released it through an independent jazz label. And it sold a million copies and became Holiday’s best-selling recording. Some people mailed copies of the record to their senators to encourage them to vote for the Civil Rights Act.

In an era when a disturbing number of Black men are found hanging from trees in incidents immediately declared suicides with little or no investigation, and anti-lynching legislation still being opposed by a sitting senator, maybe we should start sending copies to our senators again.

Josh White — “Trouble”

This is the last one from pre-WWII, I promise.

How did someone get away with opening a song with the line “Well I always been in trouble ’cause I’m a black-skinned man” in 1940? By being friends with the President of the United States.

White became friends with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt around the time this album was released and not only acted as an advisor, but was close enough that the Roosevelts became his son’s godparents. As he was releasing an album called An Album of Jim Crow Blues 25 years before Jim Crow laws were struck down, he had the ear of the most powerful people in America. And he was far from deferential; when FDR asked White if “Uncle Sam Says” was written about him, not only did White say yes, but that 1933’s “Low Cotton” was as well. Which, to Roosevelt’s credit, earned White his respect for the rest of his life.

Nina Simone — “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”

It’s incredibly sad that a song with lyrics that include “In the whole world you know/ There are billion boys and girls/ Who are young, gifted and black/ And that’s a fact” is a protest song, but that’s what the world was like in 1970. And that’s what the world is still like today.

Seriously, people, Black kids are gifted at the same rate and in the same ways as white kids. They’re just as talented and just as smart. But if you assume they’re all current or future criminals, then they won’t be able to let those gifts shine, either because they won’t have the opportunities or because they’ll be dead by police-inflicted gunshot wound.

This isn’t a complicated concept! They taught this on Sesame Street for crying out loud.

Marvin Gaye — “Inner City Blues”

All of Gaye’s legendary protest album What’s Going On should go on this list, but since I only had space for one I picked the final track, a brutal assessment of the bleak conditions in “inner city” America. It laments that the government can send rockets to the moon but can’t help the people, that its solution to problems in Black neighborhoods is “trigger happy policing.”

It was a protest song in 1971 when it was released, but just about every line is still true. Nearly half a century later nothing has changed and, in fact, some things have gotten even worse. What was lament is now, when factoring in how continuously appropriate it’s been for the intervening years, a scathing indictment of the priorities of the American government and the American people.

But we have to remember not to lose hope. To quote Rep. Lewis, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

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