By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 13, 2018)
I came into this world on April 4, 1956. 12 years later, to the day, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. left it. My intention is not to attach any particular significance to that kismet, apart from the fact that I have since felt somewhat ambiguous about “celebrating” my birthdays (I could push the weird cosmic coincidence factor further by adding RFK was killed 2 months later on June 5th, my parents’ wedding anniversary…but I won’t go there).
There will be plenty of discussion and contemplation regarding that tragic day in a couple of months, especially as this will be the 50th anniversary, so I won’t dwell on that now. This holiday weekend is about celebrating his birthday. So tonight I wanted to share my top 10 picks for songs to honor the life and legacy of Rev. King. In alphabetical order…
“Abraham, Martin, & John” – Late 50s-early 60s teen idol Dion DiMucci reinvented himself as a socially-conscious folk singer in 1968 with this heartfelt performance of Dick Holler’s beautifully written tribute to JFK, RFK, and MLK. Seems they all die young…
“Barack Obama” – Yes, Cocoa Tea’s song is very much about MLK. Besides, you need to hear this right now. Remember, history is cyclical; one day, the sun will shine again.
“Blues for Martin Luther King” – In 1968, music was our social media. The great Otis Spann gives us the news and preaches the blues. Feel his pain, for it is ours as well.
“400 Years” – The struggle began long before Dr. King joined it; sadly, it continues to this day. A people’s history…written and sung by the late great Peter Tosh (with the Wailers).
“Happy Birthday” – A no-brainer for the list. Good to remember that Stevie Wonder was also a key advocate in the lobby to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday.
“Is it Because I’m Black?” – Syl Johnson’s question may sound rhetorical, but he pulls no punches.
“Pieces of a Man” – The late Gil Scott-Heron’s heartbreaking vocal, Brian Jackson’s transcendent piano, the great Ron Carter’s sublime stand-up bass work, and the pure poetry of the lyrics…it’s all so “right”.
“Pride (In the Name of Love)” – Including U2’s stirring anthem feels mandatory here.
“Strange Fruit” – “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.” Billie Holiday’s song was powerful then, powerful now, and will remain powerful forever.
“Why (The King of Love is Dead)” – Like the Otis Spann song on this list, Nina Simone’s musical eulogy (written and performed here just days after Dr. King’s death) is all the more remarkable for conveying a message at once so timely, and so timeless.