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My Song Is My Weapon: The Long Sonic History of Black Resistance

My Song Is My Weapon: The Long Sonic History of Black Resistance
My Song Is My Weapon: The Long Sonic History of Black Resistance | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

Written and curated by Dr. Tammy L. Kernodle

"My Song Is My Weapon" attempts to illustrate the long and varied history of Black sonic resistance in America. It is in no way an exhaustive survey of this history, but more so an examination of how Black people weaponized the one thing that could not be contained, enslaved, or silenced—their voices. The strategy of weaponizing sound reflected in these examples reflects the Africans’ knowledge of and belief in the vibrational power of the voice and how it could shape and/or alter the energy and purpose of the environments it inhabited.

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Nested in each performance, poem, prayer, and speech is the African principle of Nommo, which means “the power of the word.” There was a strong and inherent belief in traditional African societies that one could shape their circumstances, the world around them, and their mental state by the words they spoke or sang. This is one of the many reasons why vocal music remains prominent throughout the African Diaspora. African people believed that their voices had the power to transform both the metaphysical and physical world. Sound became the most common and defiant way in which to challenge the brutalities of the Atlantic slave trade, white supremacy, government-sanctioned violence in the form of lynching, economic exploitation, and negation of basic human rights.

When the singing of young activists and the communities they sought to mass-mobilize moved from the insularity of the mass meetings and spilled into public spaces in the 1960s, the energy of the mid-century civil rights struggle completely changed. The collective, unified voices of those people disrupted the energy and function of those spaces and shook detractors to their core. The effectiveness of this strategy has been substantiated through the numerous accounts of activists that detail how jailers attempted to suppress the loud and consistent singing that took place in jail cells by threatening to take away mattresses. The jailers’ ploys failed, as many did in trying to silence Black voices. As this playlist illustrates, the backlash that was directed at Black people advocating for their civil rights not only strengthened their resolve and spirit of defiance, it also birthed an aesthetic of vocalized resistance that continues in this present age.

It could easily be argued that there is a narrative of resistance and radicalness that underscores every form of black cultural expression. After all, the first utterances made in the New World by enslaved and indentured Africans reflected a world view, a form of spirituality, and a way of conceiving and producing sound that challenged white, European cultural values. The intricate ways in which Africans gave meaning to the sounds they produced were not lost to cultural suppression or acculturation but became the basis of new forms of expression. Notes were bent to reflect the ethos and emotion of the stories told through lyrics, and instruments were played in experimental ways that often mimicked the timbral variations of the Black voice.

“My Song Is My Weapon” examines the history of Black sonic resistance through different mediums—vocal and instrumental music, speeches, prayers, and poetry. The organization and flow of this playlist were influenced significantly by scholar Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s call for a re-examination of our understanding of the civil rights movement in America. Hall invites us to think more deeply and broadly about both Black resistance culture and history. She urges us to not fix our understanding of the struggle for social change and racial justice only on the wave of activity that took place during the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Instead, she advances that the movement was a continuum of activism and resistance that frame a larger historical arc. Whether indentured or enslaved, Africans in the New World faced challenging social and political phenomenon that negated all the promised potential that drove colonization and migration for Europeans. If we convert to this mode of inquiry, then Dowd’s concept of the Long Civil Rights Movement facilitates an understanding of the connective tissues that existed between varying waves of activity, ideology, strategy, and culture.

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Our collective understanding of mid-century civil rights struggle that was ignited by Brown vs. the Board of Ed, the lynching of Emmett Till, the arrest of Rosa Parks, and the initiation of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is sonically rooted in the soundtrack of freedom singing. Collective voices singing “We Shall Overcome,” or “We Are Soldiers” or “Walk with Me Lord,” are important in shaping collective memory and the nostalgia that now underscores discussions of the movement. Many of those songs are represented here, but there are also references to this larger historical and cultural arc of resistance culture as represented through different iterations of the spirituals, and blues, ballads, jazz, and gospel. This playlist also invokes the cultural and ideological connections that existed between the freedom songs of the 1960s and the social-conscious rap idiom of the late eighties and early nineties. In all these genres, we hear the ways in which music was used to challenge social structures, inform the consciousness of different generations, and mass-mobilize communities.

"My Song Is My Weapon" is not just a compilation of Black protest songs, poems, and speeches. It is a story narrated through sounds that trace their beginnings to the acoustical environment of the hulls of the slave ships that crossed the Atlantic and were later nurtured through a nexus of cultural spaces that framed the geographic identity of Black America. It tells the story of how folktales, poems, and an alchemy of rhythms, harmonies, and melodies move from fields through slave cabins, frolics, fish fries, hush arbors, praise houses, jooks, nightclubs, street corners, dance halls, rent parties, storefront churches, and house parties to create a rich tapestry of sound that nurtured a spirit of resistance, perseverance, and hope. More importantly, these sounds reveal the symmetry that existed between these spaces, especially the shared, transcendent nature of the sacred and the profane or Saturday night and Sunday morning. This playlist tells a story whose ending is unfinished due in part to the dichotomy that continues to exist between America’s appetite for Black music and its continued distain for Black life.

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Dr. Tammy L. Kernodle is University Distinguished Professor of Music at Miami University in Oxford, OH. Her scholarship and teaching focus on the contributions of Black women musicians to the progression of African American music.

Track List:

1 - Langston Hughes, "The Struggle" (from The Voice of Langston Hughes)

2 - Langston Hughes, "Part I - The Struggle: Negroes with the Spanish Explorers" (from The Glory of Negro History)

3 - Bernice Johnson Reagon, "Been in the Storm" (from Bernice Reagon; Folk Songs: The South)

4 - Jake Field, Eastman Brand, and Arthur Holifield, "Down Here Lord, Waitin' on You" (from Music from the South, Vol. 6: Elder Songsters, 1)

5 - Moving Star Hall Singers, "Jesus Knows All About My Troubles" (from Been in the Storm So Long - Spirituals & Shouts, Children's Game Songs, and Folktales)

6 - Margaret Walker, "Harriet Tubman" (from The Poetry of Margaret Walker)

7 - Kinsey West, "Steal Away to Jesus" (from Black American Religious Music from Southeast Georgia)

8 - Ella Jenkins, "Wade in the Water" (from African American Folk Rhythms)

9 - Margaret Walker, "The Ballad of the Free" (from The Poetry of Margaret Walker)

10 - Fisk Jubilee Singers, "Great Camp Meeting" (from Fisk Jubilee Singers)

11 - The Princely Players, "Oh Freedom" (from Wade in the Water, Vol. 1: African-American Spirituals: The Concert Tradition)

12 - Paul Robeson & Alan Booth, "No More Auction Block for Me" (from On My Journey: Paul Robeson's Independent Recordings)

13 - Warner Williams with Jay Summerour, "Ain't Gonna Pick No More Cotton" (from Blues Highway)

14 - Ruby Dee, "Ida B. Wells-Barnett: Lynching, Our National Crime" (from What if I am a Woman?, Vol. 2: Black Women's Speeches)

15 - Brother John Sellers, "Strange Fruit" (from Classic Protest Songs from Smithsonian Folkways)

16 - Champion Jack Dupree, "I’m Going to Write the Governor of Georgia" (from Classic Protest Songs from Smithsonian Folkways)

17 - Lead Belly, "Jim Crow Blues" (from Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection)

18 - Enoch Brown, "Complaint Call" (from Negro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 1: Secular Music)

19 - East York School (Alabama), "I'm Goin' Up North" (from Negro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 1: Secular Music)

20 - Ma Rainey, "Traveling Blues" (from Jazz, Vol. 4: Jazz Singers)

21 - James P. Johnson, "Jungle Drums" (from The Original James P. Johnson)

22 - Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, "Black And Tan Fantasy" (from Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology)

23 - Big Bill Broonzy, "Black, Brown and White (intro)" (from Trouble in Mind)

24 - Big Bill Broonzy, "Black, Brown and White" (from Trouble in Mind)

25 - Langston Hughes, "Prayer" (from The Voice of Langston Hughes)

26 - Lou Bell Johnson, "Stand By Me" (from Wade in the Water, Vol. 3: African-American Gospel: The Pioneering Composers)

27 - Gwendolyn Brooks, "The Children of the Poor (Sonnet No.2)" (from Anthology of Negro Poetry)

28 - Johnny Young & Big Walter Horton, "Stockyard Blues" (from Blues With a Message)

29 - Jimmy Collier, "Rent Strike Blues" (from We Won't Move: Songs of the Tenants' Movement)

30 - Serious Bizness, "High Rise Tenements" (from For Your Immediate Attention!)

31 - Horace Boyer, Donald Vails, "Does Jesus Care" (from Wade in the Water, Vol. 3: African-American Gospel: The Pioneering Composers)

32 - Langston Hughes, "I Too" (from The Voice of Langston Hughes)

33 - Josh White, "The House I Live In" (from Free and Equal Blues)

34 - Serious Bizness, "Old Glory's Story" (from How Many More?)

35 - Nancy Dupree, "My People Is" (from Sweet Thunder: Black Poetry by Nancy Dupree)

36 - Dizzy Gillespie's All-Star Quintette, "Shaw 'Nuff" (from Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology)

37 - Sarah Vaughan, "Wrap your Troubles In Dreams" (from Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology)

38 - Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, "Moanin'" (from Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology)

39 - Bee Houston, "Things Gonna Get Better" (from The Hustler)

40 - Margaret Walker, "For My People" (from The Poetry of Margaret Walker)

41 - Odetta and Frank Christian, "Children, Go Where I Send Thee" (from Fast Folk Musical Magazine (Vol. 4, No. 10) Second Annual Greenwich Village Folk Festival)

42 - The Freedom Singers, "Which Side are You On?" (from Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs)

43 - Medgar Wiley Evers, "Medgar Evers Speaking" (from Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs)

44 - Cleo Kennedey and Carlton Reece, "Yes We Want Our Freedom" (from Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs)

45 - The Montgomery Improvement Association, "We are Soldiers in the Army" (from Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs)

46 - Fannie Lou Hamer, "On Being a Sharecropper" (from Songs My Mother Taught Me)

47 - Fannie Lou Hamer, "Woke up This Morning" (from Songs My Mother Taught Me)

48 - Mary Lou Williams, "I Have a Dream" (from Mary Lou's Mass)

49 - Sarah Webster Fabio, "Nina Giving Mr. Backlash the Blues" (from Soul Ain't Soul Is: Poems by Sarah Webster Fabio)

50 - Nina Simone, "Mississippi Goddam" (from The Best of Broadside 1962-1988: Anthems of the American Underground from the Pages of Broadside Magazine)

51 - Ruby Dee, "Angela Davis: I am A Black Revolutionary Woman, 1971" (from What if I am a Woman?, Vol. 2: Black Women's Speeches)

52 - Bernice Johnson Reagon, "Joan Little" (from Give Your Hands to Struggle)

53 - Serious Bizness, "How Many More?" (from How Many More?)

54 - Ruby Dee, "Coretta Scott King: The Right to a Decent Life and Human Dignity, 1971" (from What if I am a Woman?, Vol. 2: Black Women's Speeches)

55 - Public Enemy, "Fight the Power" (from Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap)