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Backtracking: 'Let Freedom Ring' includes civil-rights classics

January 19, 2009 |  7:20 pm

Nat_king_cole_300 Backtracking: Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, James Brown and many others are heard on the three-disc boxed set.

If there was still skepticism six months ago that an African American could be elected president of the United States, imagine how unlikely the prospect felt to Nat King Cole a half-century ago when he recorded the song "We Are Americans Too."

Cole's recording session came just one month after some white supremacists assaulted him on stage during a concert in April 1956 in Montgomery, Ala. He never performed another concert in the South.

Because Cole's repertoire consisted almost entirely of love songs, "We Are Americans Too" was a dramatic change of pace -- though the song's message of brotherhood was expressed with an almost Sunday-school politeness. Sample lines from the song, which was written more than a decade earlier: "All our future is here / Everything we hold dear / We are Americans too."

Cole's record label, Capitol, never released "We Are Americans Too," but the song is one of several touching and revealing highlights of "Let Freedom Ring: The Music of the Civil Rights Movement," a three-disc boxed set that will be released Jan. 27 by Time Life.

In the set's liner notes, music historian Colin Escott says the label refused to release the single because "too much was at stake." Cole was, no doubt, already in discussions with NBC to become the first African American to host a network TV show, and any controversy over the single might have threatened the deal. The show did go on the air in November 1956, but lasted only a year because NBC couldn't find national sponsors.

Though the package's 57 other selections include such civil rights classics as Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," the Impressions' "People Get Ready" and James Brown's "Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud, Part 1," some of the most absorbing moments are found in relatively unknown tracks that speak about injustice with alternating humor and outrage.

In his introduction to the set, socially conscious rapper Chuck D. writes about some of those lesser-known recordings. He stresses how these blues, gospel, folk and R&B songs were a constant source of inspiration and pride in the African American community. "Way before an iPod, these songs rang in my head as they navigated me through my near half a century life," he declares. "You don't get a black president overnight."

This collection would be a remarkable document anytime, but it is especially powerful when heard in the light of the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Various Artists "Let Freedom Ring: The Music of the Civil Rights Movement" (Time Life)

The music: The boxed set begins, appropriately, with the Southern Sons' 1941 recording of the old spiritual, "Go Down Moses." As Escott points out in his detailed liner notes, the song's arrangement features a smooth harmony that feels "closer to doo-wop than anything you'd hear in African-American churches down South."

Here are some of the highlights drawn from the less familiar material.

* Big Bill Broonzy's "When Do I Get to Be Called a Man?" Like many songs of the post-World War II years, this 1955 recording was in part a response to segregated conditions encountered in the military and when returning to civilian life. The song also has been called "I Wonder When Will I Get to Be Called a Man." In one key verse, Broonzy sings, "When I get back from overseas, we had a ball / But I meet the boss the very next day and he says, 'Boy, get you some overalls' / I wonder when will I get to be called a man / Do I have to wait until I get 93?"

* Brownie McGhee's "Black, Brown and White." This song was also written by Broonzy, and it, too, dealt with post-World War II conditions. He sings about what goes on in the employment line, "If you're white, you alright / If you're brown, stick around / But if you're black, oh brother / get back.' "

* Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam." Escott tells of Simone writing this song in 1963 after hearing about the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi. "I suddenly realized what it was to be black in America . . . it came as a rush of fury, hatred and determination." Sample lyric: "Alabama's gotten me so upset / Tennessee made me lose my rest / And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam."

* George Perkins & the Silver Stars' "Cryin' in the Streets, Part 1." Recorded just months after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, this mournful track features some chilling falsetto shrieks that convey the deep desperation and despair of the time.

* Lee Dorsey's "Yes, We Can." Long before will.i.am wrote a song based on Obama's campaign line, Allen Toussaint wrote this idealistic number for Dorsey, who had enjoyed success earlier with Toussaint's "Working in the Coal Mine." The record was only a modest R&B hit in 1970, but the song got a second life three years later when the Pointer Sisters' version (titled "Yes We Can Can") went into the pop top 20.

--Robert Hilburn

Backtracking is a monthly column devoted to CD reissues and other pop items of historical importance.

Credit: Los Angeles Times file photo