MLK Day never fails to find us reflecting on Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. As a lifelong record collector, musician and now Music Curator for Pandora – it also reminds me how the birth of the Civil Rights Movement was a groundbreaking time in music. It was a time that inspired songwriters of many genres to pen some of the most powerful and beautiful songs in the history of recorded music. During this part of the 1960s and 1970s, Gospel, Folk, Rock, Funk, Soul, Blues and even Jazz included musicians singing about themes of freedom and equal rights.
To commemorate this incredibly important time in history, we’ve made a Pandora Mix Tape: Songs Of Change.
As much as I dig all kinds of new music, it’s the songs recorded during this time that tend to populate most of my music collection – my Pandora profile alone is telltale proof of my love for the classics. My generation’s musicians are lucky in that they never had to muse on the draft or the kinds of segregation that existed in the past.
Even though Bob Dylan wore many musical hats, it’s his protest songs that still grip me most. To this day, I’m still amazed at how much assertion, tension and strength came from just an acoustic guitar, a reedy old harmonica and a man’s impassioned voice singing out against injustice.
Shortly after discovering Dylan in my late teens, I was drawn to the jangling 12-string interpretations of his songs via The Byrds. I tried to teach myself how to play like Roger McGuinn. But after learning how to fret six extra strings, I realized that I was more moved by the way his voice shook and trembled when he was singing about peace.
The fire of funk burns even brighter. James Brown showed me that groovy music could groove even harder when its lyrics empower people to stand against prejudice. Growing up sheltered in suburbia, it was music like this and that of Sly & The Family Stone that first made me realize the staying power of songs that fight for equality.
Since I was never that good a guitar player I always looked to Neil Young for inspiration because some of his most feverish solos sound like he’s playing them with one finger – but it’s when he’s singing about racism in the south – that’s when the intensity of his music makes my hair stand on end.
Of course there’s nothing more instantly emotional to my ears than the blues. Muddy Waters has two voices – his singing voice and his guitar’s deep commanding tone. But no matter how deep his guitar solos resonate; it’s his raspy inflections that get me every time he sings about the hard life he’s lived during both the Jim Crow era and Civil Rights Movement.
Billie Holiday originally recorded the jazz classic “Strange Fruit” in 1939. The song’s haunting lyrics about lynchings in the American south were revisited when Holiday re-recorded the song for her album Pastel Blues in 1965, the year many cite as the birth of the Black Power movement.
Again – I’ve got nothing but love for new music (I record and release new music myself). But I also believe much of the music recorded before my time was played with a more palpable urgency. It was music that stoked the fires of change – listening to Pandora’s Songs Of Change Mix Tape helps me realize that music doesn’t just soundtrack change. Music is change.