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Throughout history music and other forms of expression such as literature and art, have been used to portray Ideas of the time. In United States history, we have seen music represent issues in politics, society, and culture. American history has had its darker times, and creating something beautiful out of even the worst conditions, seems to be a commonality. One of the biggest movements in American history was the Civil Rights movement that stemmed from the racism that continued after the Emancipation Proclamation, and that lead to the creation of many inspirational works. Two such works were Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” which showed the struggles of African- Americans during both decades. Music showed the harsh realities of racism towards blacks in the 20th century and people’s opinions and experiences on the matter.
Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”(1939), is a chilling tale of the racism that goes on in the American south. In these racist areas, random people of colour are hanged and are left to rot in the blazing sun. When sung the chilling tale comes to life and bodies can be seen hanging from the trees. The message is unchanging, and for that time in history was fairly common. There are references to “strange fruit” which are means to represent those who are victims of lynching and how badly they are treated. The tone of the piece is one of casual conversation, making it seem as though this was a normal topic and a common one at that. “ Here is fruit for the crows to pluck For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop Here is a strange and bitter crop(Holiday)” showing just how mistreated the corpses of these poor unfortunate souls were. The problem was not only were living African-Americans mistreated but their bodies weren’t even taken down from the trees they died in. These lynchings described in the late 30s song did not stop for many years. In 1976 the farmer’s daughter named Ruby Bond, was interviewed about her young life and leaving her home in Mississippi. When asked about her parents decision to move North, she stated “I knew that after we came here my mother and dad used to tell me that if I went back to Mississippi, they would hang need to the first tree (Bond).” This ties back with the lyrics of the song, in proving that there was no misleading information on the part of Ms. Holiday. Another injustice that African-Americans faced during this time where the Jim Crow laws, which segregated the two races. “Lynchings were public, often sadistic, murders carried out by mobs. Between 1882, when the first reliable data were collected, and 1968, when lynchings had become rare, there were 4,730 known lynchings, including 3,440 black men and women. Most of the victims of Lynch Law were hanged or shot, but some were burned at the stake, castrated, beaten with clubs, or dismembered. In the mid-1800s, whites constituted the majority of victims (and perpetrators); however, by the period of Radical Reconstruction, blacks became the most frequent lynching victims (Dr. Pilgrim).” The Jim Crow laws created an idea known as separate but equal. This concept let racism flourish further in places such as the South. These laws gave whites the idea that their actions where right no matter what and led to the overstepping on boundaries such as murder and assault.
In the 1950s, The African-American civil rights movement sparked and forever changed the course of history. Many African-American citizens faced injustices in everyday life and many sought to end it. This led many movements by world-renowned rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. During this time expression became a big collaboration of art, literature, music, e.t.c. In 1964, Sam Cooke wrote and released a song titled, “A Change is Gonna Come.” “ I was born by the river in a little tent Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ev’r since It’s been a long time, a long time coming (Cooke),” signifying that he came from nothing. Throughout the piece he repeats the phrase, “But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.” When Cooke begins to sing, you can hear the pain and passion behind his voice, making the mood of the piece entirely. The words on a page are somewhat dull, but when sung they create a sense hope and a meaning that can be interpreted by all. The change of equality is a big idea of the civil rights movement and it was repeated wholeheartedly by other members of the black community. One such member is Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote a speech called “I have a dream” in which he reveals his thoughts of a future blacks and whites are equal. “One day this nation will rise up, Live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.’ (King Jr.)” Mr. King’s dream was that there would be a change in American society and that all races would be equal. “Then I go to my brother and say, ‘Brother, help me please.’ But he winds up knockin’ me back down on my knees (Cooke).” In this excerpt, Cooke is not referring to his actual brother, but his “brother” men. All he wants is help for his change in society to make both blacks and whites equal but white men won’t help him and wind up hurting his cause. “We concluded that in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal (Chief Justice Earl Warren).” During the time of the civil rights movement in the United States, there were many small wins for all including the ending of segregated schools. Mr. Cooke’s song seems to have quite a bit of accuracy when it comes to capturing the hope and struggle of the average African-American. With a similar message being repeated by Martin Luther King Jr. and many other members of organizations like the NAACP, the thought that change and reforms were on their way helped many with the idea of a brighter future.
My favourite part of Billie Holiday’s piece the vibrato on certain words. It adds emphasis on phrases that give more meaning to the song itself. The change in tempo and volume also add more to the story she’s telling. When she adds these elements to the phrasing, it changes the entirety of the piece. My favourite part of Sam Cooke’s piece was the vivace tempo when the trumpets play. I wasn’t that big a fan of the andante tempo in the middle where he describes his struggle with the man who told him not to hang around and his “brother.”
Not only have a lot changed since then, but we now have insight to what was thought by those affected. There are many injustices faced towards non-whites, creating horrid treatment as Ms. Holiday’s beautiful song painted an image of in our heads. However Mr. Cooke showed us, there will always be hope for a brighter future no matter how bleak things seem in the present. The expression of these ideas are what gives others the ability to understand the opinions and experiences of a person living through that time.
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