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.

You can’t have a moral conversation that says the only moral concerns are where you stand on abortion, where you stand on homosexuality, being pro-gun, pro- tax cuts, pro ending entitlements, and claim that those are the moral issues. Dr. King would say no. He would say your budget is a moral issue; health care is a moral issue; how we treat children is a moral issue; in fact he would say to us that any time you have a religion that says nothing about the policies that damn men and women’s souls, it is a good for nothing religion…the problem is we have 140 million people who are poor, extreme poor working poor and over 30 million people without health care, and we’re spending 60 some cents of every discretionary dollar on the war economy and militarism and people can buy unleaded gas, but they can’t buy unleaded water and we have voter suppression in some ways like we haven’t seen since Jim Crow. We have a moral malady not merely a left versus right or democrat vs republican problem, but we have a deep moral malady that must be changed.

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:

“The ‘children’ you pissed off will not forget this in the voting booth. Don’t doubt the power of the younger generation, because we are a force to be reckoned with.”

— Aly Sheehy, Senior

“Maybe the adults have gotten used to saying ‘it is what it is,’ but if us students have learned anything, it’s that if you don’t study, you will fail. And in this case if you actively do nothing, people continually end up dead, so it’s time to start doing something. We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks. Not because we’re going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America, but because…we are going to be the last mass shooting.”

— Emma González, Senior

“Our trauma isn’t going away, but neither are we. We will fight everyday because we have to, because change is the only thing that makes any of this bearable.”

— Leonor Munoz, Senior

“The fact that some of the students at Stoneman Douglas high school … are showing more maturity and political action than many of our elected officials is a testament to how disgusting and broken our political system is right now in America. But we’re trying to fix that.”

— David Hogg, Senior

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.

Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly.

Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech.

Somewhere I read of the freedom of press.

Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights.

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:

God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create — and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.

Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.

Modern jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.

It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.

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”:

King was a sweet man. To think of Martin Luther King, Jr. is to think of Eddie Kendricks singing “Just My Imagination.” There is a sweetness to him … He comes from a blues people, where catastrophe is always confronting you every minute of your life — institutional catastrophe and personal catastrophe. But you take that catastrophe and you reshape it with your compassion and with your creativity into a style and a smile. like BB King, and Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday and Coltrane and Kendrick Lamar — he’s a blues man, he’s just doing his hip hop thing. You can see him wrestling with catastrophe but not allowing despair to have the last word, but despair must be heard. It must be heard. Because that’s what it to be human. All of us wrestle with catastrophe in that sense.

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:

I’m confused about the meaning of the words riot, revolt, dissent, civil disturbance, civil disobedience, violence. Our country was born from violence, riot, revolt, dissent, civil disobedience, but we record these historical events as The War Of Independence, The Boston Tea Party, The Cicil War, Conquest of the West, etc. However, when American people of African descent are involved in efforts to achieve Freedom, Justice, The Right To Work, To Educate Their Children, etc., the words Treason and Communism are included with the words Riot, Revolt, Dissent, and Civil Disobedience.

The concept that this country is moving towards two separate societies is true. Our country is Racist, the Churches have failed completely, Uncle Tom is gone forever and the Black, Brown, and White Militants are here to stay.

I wasn’t totally convinced of my own position until after a State Department tour of French West Africa. The countries visited were East and West Cameroon, The Central African Republic, The Republic of Chad, Republic of Niger, The Republic of Mali, Gambia, Senegal and The Republic of Upper Volta. The trip to Africa made me realize once and for all that my roots are here in America. It made me see very clearly that America must change before the Silent Majority elects a George Wallace — which will bring about the inevitable holocaust. The Music on this album reflects some of the events that have made deep impressions upon me over the last two years

MARTIN WAS A MAN, A REAL MAN was intended to be for Male Voice and Orchestra. I envisaged a Black Voice of the Paul Robeson or William Warfield variety but somehow I couldn’t find a lyricist in time, so the vocal line is played rather than sung. The piece is derived from the intervals C, F, A, C, which are identical with the note steps used when Taps are played. This is my final salute to a Great Man, a Great American.

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:

REQUIEM, AFTERTHOUGHTS is optimistic somehow. I’ve seen enough of our world to feel that America just may have the guts to stand up and face itself. I hope it doesn’t take too long. Roy Haynes, a truly Great Drummer, happened by on his way back east and we put him to work. A percussion dialogue with Roy Haynes on the left and John Guerin on the right, Roger Kellaway on piano, Chuck Domanic on bass and myself on soprano saxophone.

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

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