Chart Watch Extra: 25 Songs For MLK Day
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, here are 25 songs that touch on civil rights and race relations. This is not meant to be a complete list, but it’s a good cross-section of artists, styles and themes.
Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit,” 1939. “Southern trees bear a strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the roots.” That’s the opening of this haunting ballad, which deals with the horrors of lynchings, which were not-so-distant history in 1939. The song was banned by some radio networks as too controversial.
Frank Sinatra, “The House I Live In,” 1946. This patriotic ballad includes a line “All races and religions/That’s America to me.” Such a lyric would be unremarkable today, but in 1946, it was a progressive step. Sinatra sang it in a 10-minute short film of the same name in which he starred.
William Tabbert, “Carefully Taught,” 1949. Broadway musicals were hardly known for social commentary in the 1940s, but Rodgers & Hammerstein challenged that idea with this song from their 1949 smash South Pacific. “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid/Of…people whose skin is a different shade,” Tabbert sang in his role as Lt. Joseph Cable.
Mahalia Jackson, “How I Got Over,” 1961. Jackson performed this gospel hymn at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, at which Dr. King gave his historic “I Have A Dream” speech. Clara Ward composed it in 1951 after she and other family members had a harrowing experience in the segregated south. Aretha Franklin and Blind Boys of Alabama later recorded the song.
Peter, Paul & Mary, “Blowin’ In The Wind,” 1963. The trio’s version of Bob Dylan’s anthem hit #2 in August 1963, less than two weeks before they performed it at the March on Washington. “How many years can some people exist/Before they’re allowed to be free?,” Dylan asked. A version by Stevie Wonder reached #9 in September 1966. Peter, Paul & Mary had reached the top 10 in 1962 with “If I Had A Hammer” (co-written by Pete Seeger), which they also performed at the March on Washington.
Joan Baez, “We Shall Overcome,” 1963. Baez’s version of this anthem, which was co-written by Pete Seeger, reached #90 in November 1963. She performed this song and “Oh Freedom” at the March on Washington. In February 2010, she performed it at a White House celebration of music from the civil rights era.