Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and told a few hundred thousand of his closest friends about a little dream he had. They told a few friends and so on. The rest as they say, is history. I guess that’s how history works; people telling other people about what just happened, and then other people make speeches about it.
Some of today’s giants stood in MLK’s shadow a few hours ago, at that same place, and paid homage to that moment, and that legacy, by wagging their own tongues. Obama was there, as was Clinton, Carter.. the Bushes didn’t make it. I’m sure that’s just a coincidence. They weren’t making a political statement by snubbing such an historical moment, were they? Naaaahh!
None of those who spoke on those steps today dreamed of outdoing MLK’s legacy (ok maybe Bill did a little). That wasn’t the point. Some of the wealthy and powerful in this country just wanted to make sure the rest of us believe they haven’t forgotten about King or what he lived and died to make happen. In the light of both domestic and international complications We The People are currently facing, I look at this event not with a small dosage of irony and whimsical folly. MLK would be proud to see a black man in the seat that John F Kennedy filled fifty years before. However, he would have been wise enough to see that for as far as we’ve come, we’re just spinning our wheels, and we got a lot of ground yet to cover. That mountaintop of his.. it’s frickin huge. Just when we think we reached the summit, we find more to climb. I’m neither a blind follower of Obama’s nor a crazy teabagger scary person who wants to impeach him for (not) being muslim or whatever. When I look at Obama I see a man of the same color as any other politician on Capital Hill. I see a man of green. Follow the Money, as Deep Throat once advised. The black/white thing is just a smoke screen. There’s the Have Mores and the Have Lesses. That’s where the lines of demarcation really fall, but those with power would rather the people who are gonna fight over this not know where the real lines of scrimmage fall, so when they do fight, it doesn’t get all over their fancy clothes and expensive cars, and nothing ever really changes.
Change. Hmm.. Weren’t we supposed to see change by now? Wasn’t that Obama’s dream? Oh well.
And what was King’s dream, exactly? The dream that people who worship green want us to believe they still believe in? Well, to put it simply, Martin Luther King dreamed of a day when a man will be measured not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character. It’s a nice dream. A nice sentiment. It’s a dream we still haven’t quite seen come to fruition in reality, but personally I’m okay with that, cuz I am not a man of much character. the Texas sun has made parts of me darker than others though. So in any case, I don’t measure up.
Rather than wax and wane further, I thought I’d celebrate the passage of time with the music of that time. What follows are just a few handpicked songs that were popular about when MLK gave his speech. These songs may have been playing in car radios as people drove up to the Washington Mall that day. Perhaps these songs were played in hotel rooms or department stores or in people’s homes before and after hearing MLK’s words, or while reading about him in their local newspapers. This was back before cellphones or the Internet. People went to places called record stores and bought discs called Long Playing Records or LPs which were made out of vinyl, and played on turntables by putting a small device called a needle on the groove of the record. You couldn’t dance too close to the record player cuz the needle might skip… I guess you kinda had to be there.
Sam Cooke’s version of Little Red Rooster is a fave of mine. Howlin’ Wolf’s version predates this one by two years, and was more likely what people were listening to around the time of MLK’s speech. The Rolling Stones did a cover a year later, but I just love how the organ’s used to imitate a dog’s bark in this one. Cooke for the win.
The Chiffons may not have been referring to Martin Luther King when they sang “He’s So Fine,” but why the heck not? It’s a very simple song with a familiar chord progression, used in many other songs. Some argue that George Harrison blatantly stole this song to make his own “My Sweet Lord” but no one ever proved it in court. Kinda like the similarities between Ray Parker Jr’s Ghostbuster Theme and “I Want A New Drug” by Huey Lewis and The News. It’s hard to find a chord progression pleasant to the ear that hasn’t already been repeatedly worn thin over the past century. This was pop music fifty years ago. Some might say we’ve made progress, and others would say we got a long way to go. There’s a lot of that going around.
Stevie Wonder (playing vocals, harmonica, AND bongos) was twelve years old when he recorded this in Chicago, about a year before Martin Luther King’s big hit on the Washington Lawn. Wonder was practically an overnight sensation, and he’s still a major international star today, with his signature fusion of soul, R&B, jazz, pop, and good old fashioned rock n roll. The fight for civil rights has been fought on many fronts, but the most important one has been the hearts and minds of American souls, and no one can turn a heart around like Stevie Wonder. I’d argue the real unsung hero in this particular recording is Marvin Gaye, twenty years Stevie’s senior, who was Wonder’s percussion accompaniment on the piece and keeps the rest of the orchestra together as he followed Stevie’s outrageous lead. I bet Gaye felt like he’d grabbed a tiger by the tail in that instant. Good thing he knew not to let go. It’s like watching a grown man hoist a younger brother up on his shoulders as he runs, and then they both stretch out their arms and pretend to be an airplane, feeling the wind on their faces and daring gravity to stop them. By the way that key is C minor, and Larry Moses can be heard at the 5:54 mark asking for the key towards the end cuz he stepped out too early preparing for the next artist, but Stevie wasn’t ready to leave the stage yet. The young man was simply on fire that night. The reason why it’s referred to as “Parts One and Two” is cuz to fit this song on a 45rpm vinyl disc, they had to cut the song in half, about the point when Stevie starts improvising with the audience: “Everybody say YEAH!”
Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World” is a love ballad that probably wasn’t intentionally a backhanded war protest song. Multiple reports and interviews point to her father’s death as being the inspiration that led to her writing this one. However, the words can work on many levels. This was actually the first song I sought out today, and inspired my making this list. I had tweeted BulletinAtomic of The Bulletin about maybe reconsidering where the current Doomsday Clock stands. He said he’d pass along my suggestion. And the rest, as they say, is history.