Let Freedom Sing: When Roots Music Says the Unsayable

As history continues to repeat itself in the race-plagued streets of the United States, and on the war-weary battlefields of the Middle East, people are again turning toward music to voice feelings that cannot be spoken, to comfort hearts that cannot be healed. Music has always been a touchstone for trying moments such as these – and the happier ones, as well. Songs contain the oral history of the United States as told by the people who built it, tales of fact and faith handed down from one generation to the next so that we may not forget the moments that added up to now. For them to be suppressed or forgotten would leave a gaping hole in our collective story, which is why so many roots musicians proudly carry them forward.

“Americans are very ahistorical. It doesn’t take us but two to three minutes to forget what just happened and start ranting and raving about what you think is happening, not even really knowing the facts. We don’t hold onto culture,” observes Carol Maillard, a founder of the influential singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock. The members of Sweet Honey are not only singers; they are educators, agitators, and historians keeping slave songs, protest anthems, and gospel spirituals alive – which is not always an easy task, and it has been much harder in the past.

Before America had a Constitution, we had censorship – of music and the press. In fact, according to Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center, “It’s important to note that there’s been music censorship in America for as long as there’s been an America.” In 1733, a printer named John Peter Zenger was critical of William Cosby, the governor of New York who had been installed by the British government, in The New York Weekly Journal and in a ditty called “A Song Made upon the Election of New Magistrates to the City.” In retaliation, Cosby had Zenger arrested, but a grand jury refused to indict him. Two years later, in 1735, the attorney general charged Zenger with libel. “In his trial, an attorney argued that, because what he published was true, you had to set him free no matter what the law said. That’s why it’s famous,” Paulson explains. The jury bought that argument and, after deliberating for a mere 10 minutes, found Zenger not guilty of libel. Paulson, who also authored Freedom Sings, a musical about censorship in music, continues, “But, what the people don’t know is that, when the government came and shut down his paper, they also shut down his song publishing operation, which included, essentially, folk songs that mocked the king and Great Britain. So, 1735 … that’s 41 years before the Declaration of Independence. So there is, unfortunately, a long tradition of music censorship in America.”

“You can cage the singer but not the song.” – Harry Belafonte

And then came freedom of speech. Adopted on Dec. 15, 1791, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution originally prohibited only the U.S. Congress from passing legislation that would impede the freedom of expression through religion, speech, the press, peaceful assembly, and redress of government grievances. But, in its ruling on Gitlow v. New York in 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the same standards to states. From there, freedom of speech rights grew steadily, albeit slowly, with each subsequent decision from the court. However, alongside the protections, a series of exceptions also rolled out.

Even once the First Amendment was enacted, censorship continued. In 1862, during the Civil War, Septimus Winner was charged with treason after writing and publishing “Give Us Back Our Old Commander: Little Mac, the People’s Pride.” Winner aimed the piece at President Lincoln, pleading for the reinstatement of Union General George B. McClellan, whom Lincoln had removed as commander of the Army of the Potomac.

Give us back our old commander:

Little Mac, the people’s pride.

Let the army and the nation

in their choice, be satisfied.

With McClellan as our leader,

let us strike the blow anew.

Give us back our old commander.

He will see the battle through.

The anti-Union song sold more than 80,000 copies in its first two days in print and Winner secured his release from jail by agreeing to destroy any remaining copies. However, the composition found a new life two years later when McClellan ran for president. All told, “Give Us Back Our Old Commander” sold more than a million copies, despite the government’s best efforts to suppress it.

Singing in Code

In terms of 18th- and 19th-century milestones in government censorship, those two cases clearly stand out. But there was another form of suppression going on as well. Southern slaves sang folk spirituals as a means of expressing their faith in God and their feelings about their lot in life. Some historians believe these songs were often sung in code, passing along messages about the Underground Railroad through songs like “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Using songs as code for freedom and protest began to taper off as African-American traditional music gave way to the blues in the early 20th century. But, at the very least, those old “spirituals” could be considered early examples of African-American protest songs. As Herb Jordan, a constitutional lawyer and music historian, notes, “The tradition of protest songs – songs with messages tied to liberty – was actually stronger during slavery. It was all coded, like ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.’ White folks, I guess, just didn’t get it when they sang those songs. It was pretty good code. In the blues, you hear so little of that – even in a coded way – as you moved out of slavery.”

As someone who has studied American history through these songs, Sweet Honey in the Rock’s Maillard knows of what she speaks: “Some of the things that Americans, as a whole, hold on to are not even historically accurate; they are some glamorized version of what people have written. Columbus Day is one example. It’s not factual. It’s not accurate. You can go to a book and read that it’s not accurate, but people like this grandiose, rah-rah-siss-boom-bah kind of feeling about what it was or whose country it was or how it got put on the map or whose map it is … the stealing and the pillaging and the horrible things that happened to make this place what it is, not necessarily what it was supposed to be.”

You can go to a book and read about the history of this nation, or you can listen to the songs of the people as rendered by Sweet Honey in the Rock and others dedicated to preserving this music. Indeed, Maillard sees their work as something quite basic to America: “It’s music that carries a vocal tradition and an emotional tradition of singing about things that matter in the old-style folk traditions of troubadours and spirituals and small songs, folk music and workers music, chain-gang music, blues … people talking about things that are going on in their lives.”

As African-American people moved into the 20th century, they may have had their legal freedom from slavery, but they were anything but free. Women of all skin colors lacked equality, but African-American voices in particular continued to be suppressed through intimidation and violence. Herb Jordan adds, “The ability to speak freely … you weren’t allowed to question the opinion of a white person. You came to harm over the most trivial things. It was the heaviest suppression of freedom of expression that’s ever existed in America, and it still exists, to a certain extent. This whole thing about ‘don’t appear as an angry black man’ is a direct derivative of that.”

That suppression caused many blues artists to shy away from calling it like they saw it. Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, and others may have sung about picking cotton and dealing with the devil, but they tempered their tone to avoid offending people, or at least white people. “As you listen to Lead Belly’s ‘Pick a Bale of Cotton,’ he’s singing about what a bitch it is to be out in the sun or maybe here or there somebody would slip in a word about the boss, but it’s pretty remarkable because of the suppression. Why is that?” Jordan asks, then offers the answer: “The penalty was death. An astounding number of people ended up hanging from a tree.

“Can you imagine the things Robert Johnson could’ve sung about, as great a poet as he was, if he wasn’t in fear for his life? If he just started talking about what goes on in the Delta, we would’ve had some of the greatest works of art this country has ever seen. And we robbed ourselves. To me, that’s the punchline: We robbed ourselves of great works of art by suppression of freedom of expression. We lost great music that women could have written. We lost great paintings that black people could have done. All because we wanted to deny people a chance to participate.”

As a result, white writers, sympathetic to the cause, penned profoundly important musical messages. One of the most significant pieces came in 1937 with Abel Meeropol’s anti-lynching strain, “Strange Fruit.” Because Billie Holliday made the song famous in 1939 – and, at one time, claimed she co-wrote it with Meeropol and Sonny White – a lot of people are still unclear as to its origins. But Meeropol did, in fact, compose the music and lyrics on his own, albeit under his Lewis Allan pseudonym. Jordan sees that as a sign of the times: “If that doesn’t tell you about the suppression of freedom of expression … . There are lots of black writers out there capable of writing ‘Strange Fruit,’ but a Jew from New York felt more capable of expressing this when all the gifted black songwriters did not. It wasn’t just lynching. There were economic penalties, as well. You couldn’t get a record deal. It’s the Dixie Chicks all over again — they are a more recent example of something that’s gone on for a very long time.” After Holliday debuted “Strange Fruit” to a stunned audience at Café Society in New York City, the club’s manager insisted she sing it every night at the end of her set. Columbia Records, though, wasn’t as supportive, refusing to release the track. So, Commodore Records stepped up and issued what Time magazine would later call “the most important song of the century.”

 

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” – George Orwell

While “Strange Fruit” told – and continues to tell – the story of racial injustice in America via the pen of a white ally, gospel music spread its African-American-centric messages of hope, for the most part, unshackled from any suppression. The roots of protest songs like “We Shall Overcome” are planted firmly in the African-American hymns of the early 20th century, even as that song in particular represented the struggles of striking tobacco workers in 1945 and civil rights activists in the 1950s. From Ken Paulson’s perspective, the evolution of race music relies heavily on gospel music: “It has been the fuel for social movements over the past century. People of faith, who believe they need to address injustice, take to the streets and sing gospel songs. It’s most prevalent in the Civil Rights movement, but ‘We Shall Overcome’ shows up everywhere there’s a struggle for human dignity. I think, in part, because gospel music comes from the church, it’s very free. You really don’t dare try to suppress a gospel song.”

Paulson feels African-American traditional music’s freedom of expression continued unabated as the form evolved and expanded into popular music, even as its other freedoms did not follow suit. “Music was segregated, just as the population was,” he offers. “There was more free speech in R&B than there was in the conformity-laced pop music of the era. People like Ike Turner could get away with a lot more than Patti Page, and that had to do with their audiences. But that didn’t mean Ike was going to get played alongside Patti Page. So, a lot of the early censorship of rock and roll is of the so-called race records.”

Blacklisted

Around that same time, in the 1940s and 1950s, another form of censorship that had nothing to do with racism – and everything to do with politics – was beginning to take hold courtesy of the Red Scare. Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Oscar Brand, Alan Lomax, Burl Ives, Hazel Scott, Artie Shaw, Pete Seeger, and many others were put on various blacklists for either being or associating with “subversives” and “Communist sympathizers.” Testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee on August 18, 1955, Seeger said: “I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir. … I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody. That is the only answer I can give along that line.”

Seeger was eventually sentenced to one year in jail – a year that he did not serve in its entirety before an appeal overturned his guilty verdict. As the decade wore on, the blacklists began to fade due to the various victims pushing back with the help of lawsuits and colleagues. But the caustic force that is censorship would not go undeterred. It would find a new voice to try to squelch. In fact, it already had: Elvis Presley.


This is the first article in a three-part series about freedom of speech and censorship in American roots music for No Depression. Part two in this series will address the rock and roll years, the emergence of the “folk revival,” and the importance of freedom of speech during the 20th Century protest song movement. Part three looks at corporate censorship and country upstarts.

Photo of Lead Belly courtesy Smithsonian Folkways, whose collection titled Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection will release on Feb. 24, including a 140-page, large-format book, 5 CDs with 108 tracks (16 previously unreleased), historic photos, and more.