Brodnax Discusses Music, Religion, and Civil Rights
Minutes before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. made a song request to musician Ben Branch. Branch was scheduled to perform at an event King was attending that evening. According to testimony by Rev. Jesse Jackson, King told Branch, “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”
According to Dr. David Brodnax, Sr., professor of history and director of black studies at Trinity Christian College, it’s appropriate that King’s last words were a song request. As part of Trinity’s Annual Celebration of Black History Month, Brodnax recently presented a lecture titled “‘How I Got Over:’ Music, Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement.”
In a talk that discussed music across continents, religions, genres, and cultures, Brodnax described how music shaped the civil rights movement and how the civil rights movement shaped music. He provided insights and audio clips to show how music over the centuries evolved to the gospel and protest songs that played a key role in the 1960s.
As an example of the evolution and reworking of music, he pointed to isicathamiya singer Solomon Linda, who recorded a Zulu song called “Mbube,” with his band The Evening Birds in the 1930s in South Africa. American folk singer Pete Seeger renamed the song “Wimoweh” and recorded it with his group The Weavers. The song was rewritten again by George Weiss and renamed “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and has been covered by multiple artists. Eventually the song appeared on the soundtrack of the Disney film “The Lion King.” While Linda received virtually no money for his original recording and died in poverty, his descendants reached a settlement with Disney for proceeds from the song.
Seeger, along with Zilphia Horton, is also closely affiliated with the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” It has several key elements of an effective protest song, according to Brodnax. “We Shall Overcome” is repetitive, has a simple chord and rhythmic structure, is emotionally moving and can be sung while people are marching.
Brodnax also traced how a grounding in gospel music inspired musicians like Ray Charles. His songs, and the songs of other popular singers, were further adapted into protest songs, such as the morphing of Charles’ hit “Hit the Road, Jack” into “Get Your Rights, Jack.”
Some protest music was so subtle that its message could be missed or ignored. John Coltrane’s instrumental song “Alabama” was written soon after a Ku Klux Klan bomb killed four girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. But since the song has no lyrics, listeners can focus on Coltrane’s saxophone, rather than the story behind it.
Musical tastes change over time, though. “The ‘70s killed protest music as a commercial success,” Brodnax said.