Reviving the King, Retuning the Songs, Remembering Stephen Hawking

Illustration by Susan Coyne

This week: MLK from the Mountaintop -with Michael Honey, Brandon Terry, Rev. Michael Haynes and Rev. William J. Barber. Listen today at 2 pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

MM: We did our MLK show this week to get out ahead of the media saturation to come marking the 50th anniversary of King’s death on April 4th. We wanted to uncover a fuller picture of Martin Luther King, specially from the years between 1965 and 1968, after the bus boycott and after voting rights were passed. King was becoming more radical about wealth and power, about the Vietnam War and about the self-sacrifice demanded of committed Christians than most of us remember. You’ll be hearing more than you want about the man on the postage stamp, and the man who’s voice was used in a Ram pickup truck ad during the Super Bowl. As our guest Michael Honey said, Dr King has been turned into an advocate for color blind capitalism.

We learned this week that if we think of Dr. King from his “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall in 1963, we’re missing the man and the point. “A failing in how we remember King,” Honey writes in his book The Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice , “is our typing him as a civil rights leader. We do not type him as a pastor, prophet, theologian, scholar, preacher…and that allows conventional minds across the country to thereby stereotype him and eliminate him from an overall analysis of our society. Beyond King’s dream of civil and voting rights lay a demand that every person have adequate food, education, housing, a decent job and income, and a more revolutionary quest for a non-violent society beyond racism, poverty and war.”

We were lucky to interview the Rev. William Barber who has a voice that will remind you of Dr. King’s. All week we wondered where the movement is that King started and who can speak with his moral authority. Barber’s new Poor People’s Campaign and his national call for a moral revival might just fit the bill.

Chris Lydon: This was an almost typical Sunday at the Twelfth Baptist Church on Warren Street in Roxbury: Michael Haynes presiding, Ted Kennedy connection, Chris Lydon taking it in from the choir loft. Here’s our convo with Haynes.

Students from Cambridge Rindge & Latin High School

MM: I’m moved by the activism from teenagers everywhere after the Parkland, Florida shooting. Dr King would be supporting the student walkout this past week and the March for Our Lives next weekend. From a New York Times editorial this week:

Listen: The Music of Martin Luther King,

A tribute to MLK from Ben Branch’s Operation Breadbasket Orchestra—the band playing at the Lorraine Motel on the day of King’s assasination

Zach Goldhammer:

This week we discussed many sides of MLK—the labor leader, the scholarly teacher, the prophetic preacher—but one mode I thought we missed was King the musician.

King’s voice was an instrument unto itself. The strength of his final speeches can’t be fully credited for the soundness of his rhetoric or the effectiveness of the call-and-response he’d inherited from the black church. There’s a musicality that occurs between the words which is hard to explain, but that is immediately heard, felt, heard, and understood in the final beats of MLK’s final speech.

There’s nothing particularly remarkable about these words as read on the printed page—they aren’t even the most memorable turns-of-phrase from MLK’s prophetic “Mountaintop Speech” in Memphis, April 3rd, 1968. Yet listening back to the recording, there’s something palpable in the moments heard between the delivery of the words and the responses they elicit from the audience.

Civil rights leader Andrew Young and others pointing in the aftermath of King’s assassination at the Lorraine motel

They key is hearing each “somewhere” as a blue note —momentarily sustaining the dissonance between the major and minor keys of hope and reality; between what was promised and what was given. There is no easy synthesis here—the tensions do not resolve back to a tonic chord. Everyone knows the mountaintop was never really reached, even if it was briefly glimpsed in the moment before King received the bullet.

King himself recognized that music was a way of expressing the unspeakable. In an opening address which he wrote—but never spoke—for the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, King describes the vitality of the black musical tradition as part and parcel of the freedom movement:

Martin Luther King in East Berlin, 1964

At the Cambridge Public Library last month, Cornel West revived these embedded connections between black music and politics, as he so often does, in a panel discussion with Brandon Terry, Tommie Shelby, and Elizabeth Hinton on MLK’s legacy. His remarks were recently transcribed and published by the Boston Review in a piece appropriately titled, “Martin Was a Blues Man”:

This is a familiar riff from Cornel—you hear versions of it in our conversation with him about Baldwin —but with King in particular, it rings true. Just as Coltrane created an imitable tone for the tenor saxophone—unsurpassed by the thousands of horn players who came before and after him—the sound of MLK’s voice as a liberatory instrument can’t be recreated. It’s in this sound—in what is said between the words, between the notes—that you hear the path West is always steering us towards: something beyond the hope and empty promises of modern politicians as well as the pessimism of modern journalists.

So, in terms of pure music, where was that message distilled? In MLK’s wake, there were many ambitious jazz recordings that tried to capture the spirit of the man’s mission. But it’s a difficult task to translate the feeling of MLK’s speeches into a world beyond words. The drummer Max Roach tried to do it by simply layer his own percussive bursts over King’s “I Have a Dream” speech—creating a retroactive duet between the words and the drums:

The jazz composer Oliver Nelson also created an album-length tribute to King in 1969 called Black, Brown, and Beautiful. The original record is hard to find and largely forgotten, but you can still listen to it on YouTube. The keystone track—“Martin Was a Man, a Real Man”—is worth checking out as a strange experiment and time capsule. Alternating between a spritely, orchestral string arrangement and a mournful saxophone salute, it sounds more like Aaron Copland than John Coltrane. It also sounds like an attempt to fit King into a distinctly American tradition rather than framing him as an outsider. Nelson describes the project in his original liner notes:

The final track on Nelson’s album— “Requiem, Afterthoughts”—is also worth a listen in part because it features Reverend Michael Haynes’s brother Roy on drums. Here are Nelson’s liner notes again:

My personal favorite jazz tribute is Archie Shepp’s record, “Dr. King, A Peaceful Warrior.” Shepp has a long track record of creating overtly political recordings. His 1972 album Attica Blues includes a similar blues tribute to a less peaceful warrior, George Jackson, which we used on our prison education program last week. But Shepp’s song for King occupies a quieter space.

A dusty and dissonant duet between Shepp’s tenor sax and the composer Cal Massey on electric keyboard, the tune creates an uneasy, ethereal vibe that never quite resolves. At the end of its short, two and half minute run, the song ends suddenly with a breathy, gasping final note from Shepp—an uncomfortable distillation of a beautiful life suddenly cut short. If I needed only one song to represent the painful promise of King’s legacy, this would be it:

More from Elsewhere

MM: Elena Ferrante’s inaugural weekly column for the Guardian (translated by Ann Goldstein): “Even today, after a century of feminism, we can’t fully be ourselves.” And speaking of Elena Ferrante, production of the HBO TV series of My Brilliant Friend is underway in Caserta, Italy. Nine thousand children auditioned and four young women have been chosen to play Elena and Lila as young children and teenagers. Fourteen apartment buildings, five interior apartments, a church and a tunnel have been built to create their Naples neighborhood.

Photos: Elisa Del Genio (Elena), Ludovica Nasti (Lila); Gaia Girace (Lila), Margherita Mazzucco (Elena) (Credit for both: Eduardo Castaldo).

Rev Barber got us woke to moral hijacking. Here’s the story of how the evangelicals sold out. Peggy Noonan on Deliverance from Hillary Clinton: “Democrats can continue to act as if they see America as “Deliverance” writ large (the movie of James Dickey’s 1972 novel), or they can be more generous in their judgements, and more human. Noonan is writing about Hillary’s tone-deaf remarks at a conference in Mumbai last week. “If you look at a map of the United States,” she said. “there’s all that red in the middle where Trump won. I win the coasts…But what the map doesn’t show you is that I won the places that represent two-thirds of America’s gross domestic product. So, I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward.” Get off the stage, Hillary!

A brief history of time in no time at all: How the Universe Works: Stephen Hawking’s Theory of Everything, Animated in 150 seconds:

Next Week: Astral Weeks

The secret Boston history of Sir Van’s epic album from 1968. Gonna be great.

Another music 50th anniversary this week — on the night of March 15th, 1968 Mississippi Harold Washington (Joe Rogers) played “I Feel Free” by Cream on a classical music radio station (Ron Della Chiesa was the music director) and started a radio revolution (and hooked this producer on radio). BCN helped launch U2, The Clash, The Ramones, The Police and loads of other punk and new wave bands. Some loyalists are trying to finish a documentary, and when they do, we’re having a radio rumble to celebrate. Help them out.

Til next week,

The OS Marchers

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Radio Open Source

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org