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Various Artists

Let Freedom Sing – How Music Inspired the Civil Rights Movement DVD

Review by Josh Turner

This is the story of the Civil Rights movement told through song, and it features a string of significant, time-sensitive artists. The program is narrated by Louis Gossett Jr., who is a songwriter in his own right. For instance, he penned an anti-war song in 1967 called “Handsome Johnny” for Richie Havens about what went on in Birmingham and elsewhere in The South.

Growing up around the era depicted in this film, Gossett Jr. is the ideal candidate to present its vital tidings, as he was fortunate to meet many of the heroes of the movement and those who created its anthems. As he reminds the audience, the number of these musical revolutionaries grows fewer every year. This serves as a tribute to them and all that they achieved.

Obviously, the narrative has some very serious moments since it deals with insufferable, oftentimes violent hardships. However, there is entertainment and interesting points superimposed upon sobering facts. As for the insight it gives, author and historian, Louis Cantor, gives thoughtful rationale; like the fact that the radio was playing “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover” and “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” to a minority-laden Memphis in the late forties.

Contrastingly, the voice of the civil rights movement was heard outside the church by artists like Big Bill Broomzy, who used Chicago Blues to protest how he was still being treated like a boy at age 53. Accordingly, there were publications like Jet that spoke directly to the people, yet nobody was pitching this material to audiences over the airwaves. Old stereotypes then gave way to WDIA’s Nat Williams. Giving disenfranchised citizens an identity, this new personality dramatically affected up and coming artist like Isaac Hayes, who went on to revolutionize and influence music in his own way.

Believe it or not, music played a key role in the famous speeches of the movement too. Viewers learn that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” extracts its essence from The Blind Boys of Alabama’s “Free at Last”. Intriguing teachings such as this come in waves and continue throughout the discussion.

Freedom Rider, Catherine Brooks, talks about the unpleasantries and incivilities that she personally experienced. Astonishingly, she isn’t bitter or resentful. Neither hateful or downbeat, she talks about the strength, direction, and focus that comes from music. Many other tales are told through honest dialogue and a cornucopia of songs is cleverly placed between sections and concurrent with their spoken reference. To make this work, the editing is both meticulous and immaculate.

Likewise, the content is comprehensive. The catalog it covers ranges from The Impressions’ “People Get Ready” to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”. Among contemporary folk, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, and Aaron Neville are glued to the collage as well. Doing something different, The Staple Sisters were a group that intermingled Gospel, Soul, and Reggae together, which they best exemplify in “I’ll Take You There”. Another unique concoction and half a world away, Hugh Masekela’s “Bring Him Back Home” goes to show the parallels in the pariah state of South Africa due to apartheid and the struggles of Nelson Mandela. Outside of that, just about every major genre is mentioned. Grand Master Funk & the Furious Five even make an appearance. Also, as a bonus, exclusive interviews - with Louis Gossett Jr. and Chuck D - are presented in their own section. Borderline funny but no laughing matter, the latter talks about connecting the dots for someone who once asked him about Malcolm “the tenth”.

For those inspired to learn (or listen) more, there is a 3-CD set that can be purchased separately. What’s best about this product is the tactics taken when talking about difficult and frequently-heated themes. Rather than use a heavy-handed approach, the filmmakers go instead with a soft-hearted one; profuse with thought-provoking music.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2009  Volume 6 at

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