Historically, music has certainly played a key role in uniting people during national and social hard times. Many of the songs people respond to then continue to touch us in deep ways even in good times.
Think of France’s “La Marseillaise,” South Africa’s Nkosi Sikelel i’Afrika” (God Bless Africa), and the U.S.’s
“God Bless America.”
At Barak Obama’s inauguration Aretha Franklin turned “God Bless America” into a powerful gospel hymn of hope during a time of troubles.The reminder of the commitment to liberty and freedom, the echoes of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, all came together beautifully in her performance.
Another song that immediately comes to our minds, when we think about music that has helped people transcend pain is “We Shall Overcome.”
Its history shows its great staying power. Apparently it started out as a Sicilian mariner’s song in the 18th century. Over the next 2 centuries multiple composers –many anonymous–adapted, reshaped, and refined the basic melody, adding bits and pieces from other songs to both the music and the words, until the final product became the compelling version we sing today.
Those of us who remember the early days of the Civil Rights Movement can recall the thrill of hearing it sung by Pete Seeger at Carnegie Hall on June 8, 1963, in front of almost three thousand people. A few months later it was sung by hundreds of thousands during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.
In South Africa, during apartheid, it was sung by political prisoners on the gallows.
(A personal note:Josh left South Africa in December 1959, just before apartheid became a national policy, but he is very proud of the night he stood alone in front of the South African Parliament Houses as a college student to protest the proposed segregation of the University of Cape Town.)
BTW, did you see the placard at the Inauguration which proclaimed, “We Have Overcome!”? What a moment!
What makes this song so memorable? Well, the words are an affirmation of a collective determination to resist oppression. Both words and music are simple in the best possible sense: most people can sing
them with ease because the voice range is comfortable; the music is made up of assertive chords that underline the strong words; the key Pete Seeger sings in (B major) is warm and just a half step down from C,
the key connected with light, truth and justice from Beethoven on.
At the concert, in fact, Pete Seeger introduced the song with these words:
“If you would like to get out of a pessimistic mood yourself, I’ve got a sure remedy for you”;
everybody began to clap and whistle because they knew what was coming. And they began to sing along with him.
Another magical moment.
You can get a sense of this historic moment and also hear the Soweto Gospel Choir’s stirring rendition of God Bless Africa on the audio recordings below:
To stream: http://www.audioacrobat.com/play/WRWbv2wQ
What do you think about our choice of music for a time of adversity? Does this music speak to you too?