Songs of King's era: 'Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round'

By Anthony Leach

Martin Luther King Jr. will be remembered across America this month as many celebrate the national holiday honoring his work as civil rights activist, preacher and Nobel laureate. This black Baptist preacher fused the fervor, energy and intensity from the black church experience along with nonviolent protest philosophy to create a human rights movement that has forever changed American culture and society.

The songs of protest sung during that era -- before leaving a church gathering for a sit-in, protest march or other nonviolent civil rights event -- were based on songs performed by choirs and congregations in black churches. In all cases, the melodies remained the same, but the lyrics could be changed to reflect the intent or purpose of the participants.

Some of these songs were:

"Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round"

"I/We Shall Not Be Moved"

"Glory, Glory Hallelujah!"

 
"The Storm is Passing Over"

"This Little Light of Mine"

(Click on the titles to hear song excerpts from the Smithsonian's Folkways Recordings; a full version of "The Storm is Passing Over," as posted on YouTube, is attributed to The Barrett Sisters.)

The familiar lyrics and melodies, combined with prayer and affirming words of encouragement, provided comfort to people who knew that they were risking their lives and/or time in jail for participating in acts of civil disobedience. There was strength in numbers, but at the core of their activism was also a faith that enabled them to walk, sit, march and rush forward toward freedom.

While doing research for my master’s degree monograph on black gospel music, my travel took me to Chicago. Lena McLin, retired music educator, pastor, composer and niece of Thomas Dorsey, composer of "Precious, Lord," shared the following statement with me in October 1979 as we discussed African American sacred music: “The spiritual was the slave’s therapeutic response to the conditions in which he/she found themselves. The traditional gospel song is contemporary African American’s response to the conditions in which he/she found themselves.”

I like to think of the spiritual as a lament performed by African Americans and others as they reflect on conditions in culture and society over which they have no control. It is a call to remembrance of times, conditions, people and places that presented obstacles of employment, residence, worship and recreation over which we have and continue to overcome as we encounter trends in contemporary American culture.

The music of the civil rights era from the 1950s and '60s is rich in the message of encouragement and empowerment for singers and listeners to not be afraid while confronting obstacles, whether physical or psychological.

One of my goals as a musician during this commemorative period for the M.L. King Jr. holiday is to provide opportunities for audiences in a variety of settings to hear, sing and respond to this rich musical legacy as captured in the spiritual, folk song and traditional gospel music idioms. This inspiring music will be performed by Penn State students in Essence of Joy, one of the vocal ensembles I lead. The music has a profound impact on audiences young and old, and I’m excited to share this musical offering.

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Leach is the 2009-10 Penn State laureate and an associate professor of music and music education, in Penn State's College of Arts and Architecture. For a list of upcoming appearances by Leach with Penn State choirs, go to http://live.psu.edu/story/43416 online.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010