Given the widespread outrage at the killing of George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests on both sides of the Atlantic, I thought it might be timely to post up on Facebook some important songs of the past that brought the struggle of black people into the popular arena, especially during the Civil Rights era. All are classics, loved by millions, but hopefully this will offer some context with regards to the times in which they were made and the weight of their subsequent cultural significance.
I ended up including 22 tracks in all, posting one or two daily over the past few weeks in chronological order (apart from the final track), focusing on songs particularly pertinent to the black experience, mainly in the US, where most of these records were made, but sometimes from a British or Jamaican perspective – all inclusions recorded in these 3 countries. I hope I’ve missed nothing obvious – I’m aware that there are plenty of lesser-known records that would also fit the criteria, but perhaps don’t have the requisite history and global renown.
I started with Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ (1939), and concluded with Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s ‘The Message’ (1982), but all other 19 inclusions, with the exception of ‘Redemption Song’ (1980) by Bob Marley & The Wailers, are from the ’60s (11) and the ’70s (8). Bob Marley & The Wailers / The Wailers have 3 inclusions, whilst Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye have 2 each. I’ve tried to bring some context to their historical significance and what these (mainly) singles, or 45s as the US called them, represented at the time of their release and subsequent popularity.
BILLIE HOLIDAY ‘STRANGE FRUIT’ (1939)
The first, written over 80 years ago in 1939, is perhaps the greatest of all ‘protest songs’. Blues singer Billie Holiday’s recording of Lewis Allan’s anti-lynching poem ‘Strange Fruit’ was named as Time Magazine’s ‘song of the century in 1999. You can still feel its weight watching old footage of Holiday performing it – its impact at the time was enormous, saying more in the few minutes she took to sing it than someone could put into the many pages of a thick book.
BOB DYLAN ‘ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME’ (1964)
Dylan recorded this at just 22 years of age. The reluctant ‘the voice of a generation’ had well and truly announced his presence via the 1963 album, ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’, in which, drawing from his Folk roots, he had addressed American society in a deeply thoughtful and sometimes scathing manner, with tracks on the LP including ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’, ‘Masters Of War’, ‘Oxford Town’ and, of course, ‘Blowing In The Wind’ (adapted from the Negro spiritual ‘No More Auction Block’), which became a civil rights anthem and inspired Sam Cooke to write ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ (1964). There’d been nothing like Dylan before and all ears were on what he had to say.
‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’ focuses on the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers on June 12th 1963 in Mississippi, with Dylan getting right beneath the surface of this tragedy and straight to the heart of the bigger problem – the song illustrating how the powers that be employ the strategy of divide and rule to further their political aims, in this case the manipulation of poor white people in inflaming their hatred of the blacks.
Dylan first performed the song less than a month later, on July 6th, when at the behest of Folk legend and activist, Pete Seeger, he travelled to Mississippi for a voter registration rally for black people, where he took out his guitar to debut the song before a small gathering beside the truck they were in. In contrast, the following month (Aug 28th), this time before hundreds of thousands he again gave a rendition of ‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’ at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (aka The Great March on Washington), taking to the same rostrum where Martin Luther King delivered his immortal ‘I Have A Dream’ speech that day.
The recording appeared in January ’64 on his album ‘The Times They Are a-Changing’, opening Side 2 – the title track perhaps his best-known and most prophetic composition, whilst ‘God On Our Side’ (based around Irish Ballad ‘The Patriot Game’) was also a particularly poignant inclusion. However, it was ‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’ that spoke directly to the Civil Rights issues facing the black community, and for a young white guy from Minnesota (the same state in which George Floyd was killed) to articulate this so starkly at a time of segregation was both remarkable and, given the expected hostility vented towards his viewpoint by a large and powerful swathe of America, extremely brave.
SAM COOKE ‘A CHANGE IS GONNA COME’ (1964)
So moved was he by Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, Sam Cooke was inspired to write one of the most emotive songs of all, his 3-minute masterpiece of hope and longing, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. That a white artist had expressed how black people felt so emphatically forced Cooke to feel a sense of shame that he hadn’t written something of similar weight.
Born in Mississippi, but brought up in Chicago, Cooke is widely regarded one of the greatest all-time vocalists. He first recorded in 1951 as the new lead singer with the celebrated Gospel group The Soul Stirrers, and as the ‘50s unfolded his personal popularity had grown to such a degree that he was credited for bringing Gospel to a younger generation of listeners, especially girls, who began to view him more as a pop star.
In 1957 he, controversially for the Gospel community, took the secular direction, singing love songs, as opposed to those glorifying God, and stacking up the hits in the process, kicking off with a US #1 for his solo debut, ‘You Send Me’, with further classics including ‘Wonderful World’ and ‘Chain Gang’ in 1961 and ‘Cupid’ in 1962. Cooke, along with the likes of Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson and James Brown, are right there at the roots of Soul music, infusing Gospel with Rhythm & Blues.
‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ first appeared in February 1964 as the closing track on his ‘Ain’t That Good News Album’. It wouldn’t be released as a single (back to back with ‘Shake’) until the following December, and even then with the lines ‘I go to the movie and ‘I go down town, somebody keep telling me, don’t hang around’ edited out as they were viewed as too contentious for white sensibilities. Cooke would not live to see this – less than a fortnight beforehand he was shot dead in squalid circumstances at the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles, his death shrouded in conspiracy theory.
Many believed that the song’s prophecy was about to be fulfilled with the election of a black president in 2009, but it’s now clear with hindsight that this optimism was premature as we still wait for that change to come.
MARTHA & THE VANDELLAS ‘DANCING IN THE STREET’ (1964)
Perhaps not an expected inclusion, but this US #2 (UK #4) from the summer of ’64 became an accidental Civil Rights anthem. Written by Marvin Gaye, William ‘Mickey’ Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter, the track is one of Motown’s best-loved releases.
With race riots that year in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Chicago, the song took on a different meaning to young black demonstrators, representing a call to arms – the record’s hidden symbolism seized upon by activist H. Rap Brown, who framed it as an anthem of unrest. Motown owner, Berry Gordy, had always strived to avoid politics in his artists’ recordings, mindful of the company’s commercial stature, so this was an association he was uncomfortable with, whilst Martha Reeves found questions asking if she had militant tendencies absurd, exasperatingly stating ‘it’s a party song!’.
4 years later, in 1968, The Rolling Stones referenced the track in the lyrics of their hit ‘Street Fighting Man’, released around the time of anti-Vietnam War protests and the Paris riots, changing one of the words for the line ‘summer’s here and the time is right for fighting (dancing) in the street’.
Martha & The Vandellas would stack up the hits in the ‘60s via tracks like ‘Nowhere To Run’ (1965), ‘I’m Ready For Love’ (1966) and ‘Jimmy Mack’ (1967), which all went top 10 in the US, along with their previous hits from ’63, ‘Heatwave’ and ‘Quicksand’. David Bowie & Mick Jagger recorded a cover of ‘Dancing In The Street’ as part of Live Aid in 1985, the single reaching #1 in the UK and the top 10 stateside.
THE IMPRESSIONS ‘PEOPLE GET READY’ (1965)
A major anthem of the civil rights movement, endorsed by Martin Luther King, ‘People Get Ready’ was the title track from the 4th album by the Chicago-based Impressions, one of Soul music’s leading groups of the ‘60s, which featured a young Curtis Mayfield, whose political awareness was beginning to fully surface. Mayfield wrote the Gospel-inspired ‘People Get Ready’ in the long-standing tradition of Freedom Songs dating back to the days of slavery, and probably best illustrated by ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’, its imagery taken from the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the first-half of the 19th century to help slaves escape to the free North.
The Impressions would have a big influence on the Jamaican band The Wailers, who were finding their feet in the ‘60s, but would, subsequently (as Bob Marley & The Wailers) achieve global fame, with one of their best-known hits, ‘One Love/People Get Ready’ (1977), incorporating Mayfield’s song. Curtis Mayfield would go solo in 1970, becoming an important artist in his own right and recording classics like ‘Move On Up’ (1970), and from the soundtrack of the 1972 Blaxploitation movie ‘Pusherman’, ‘Freddie’s Dead’ and ‘Superfly’.
In 1998 ‘People Get Ready’ was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which honours musical recordings of lasting qualitative or historical significance. would come it at #24 on Rolling Stone’s 2004 list of ‘500 Greatest Songs Of All Time’. Mayfield’s guitar break on the track was also cited as an influence by Jimi Hendrix.
ARETHA FRANKLIN ‘RESPECT’ (1967)
Written and originally recorded by Otis Redding, ‘Respect’, first appearing on single just ahead of his much-loved 1965 ‘Otis Blue’ LP, was one of his most popular recordings – a US top 40 and top 5 R&B hit. Otis’s lyrics came from the perspective of the working man asking for respect from his woman when he gets home.
Then along came Aretha’s version in 1967, completely flipping the gender, so, as she said, the song now associated with both black freedom struggles and women’s liberation, which had begun to gain momentum. Having made her top 10 breakthrough with ‘I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)’ earlier that year ‘Respect’ would rise to the top of the US chart, whilst becoming a top 10 hit in the UK, and has come to be regarded as Aretha’s signature recording.
Otis paid her the ultimate complement in remarking that ‘a girl took away from me, a friend of mine, this girl she just took this song’. Later that year Otis died in a plane crash, aged just 26, having made his triumphant Monterey Pop appearance in front of the hippie throngs earlier that summer.
Aretha, ‘The Queen Of Soul’, would subsequently give us many classic songs including ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ and ‘Chain Of Fools’ later in ’67, ‘Think’ and ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ in ’68, ‘Spanish Harlem’ and ‘Rock Steady’ in ’71, and ‘Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)’ in ’73. Although the big hits dried up, she experienced a renaissance in the ‘80s, when she’d score a 2nd US #1 alongside George Michael with ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)’.
JAMES BROWN ‘SAY IT LOUD – I’M BLACK AND I’M PROUD’ (1968)
1968 was a desperate year for the black struggle, forever epitomised by the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis that April, resulting in riots in various US cities (Brown played a key role in averting riots in Boston, where he happened to be performing – this is the subject of a fascinating documentary film ‘The Night James Brown Saved Boston’).
James Brown was black music royalty, even before he’d invented Funk (with ‘Cold Sweat’ in 1967), his breakthrough a dozen years previous with his 1956 single ‘Please, Please, Please’. His 1963 LP, ‘Live At The Apollo’ had brought him to mainstream attention, reaching #2 on US album chart, his dynamic performance the result of years touring on the Chitlin’ Circuit – he wasn’t known as ‘the hardest working man in show business’ for nothing.
1965-68 was particularly fruitful for Brown, his most commercially successful period when he placed a handful of his singles in the US top 10 – ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’, ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’, ‘It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World’, ‘Cold Sweat’ and ‘I Got The Feelin’’. He’d also been immortalised on the Arthur Conley single (co-written with Otis Redding), ‘Sweet Soul Music’, which reached #2 stateside in ’67, as ‘the king of them all’.
All ears were on how Brown would respond on vinyl to the dire situation following the assassination, and he didn’t disappoint, choosing to highlight the positive as opposed to the overriding negativity with a single that was described as ‘an affirmation of self-respect’. It was a song of empowerment that very much chimed with the ‘Black Is Beautiful’ movement that grew in the ‘60s. ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud’, co-written with ‘Pee Wee’ Ellis (which featured call and response backing vocals from a number of young people brought into the studio from the LA suburbs of Compton and Watts, where there’d been a major race riot in 1965) became the instant black pride anthem, providing a further top 10 hit for Brown in the process (his last until ‘Living In America’ in 1985).
The track played a big role in retiring the term ‘negro’, African-American’s now firmly referring to themselves as black. It was a powerful transformation, reflected in the rise of the Black Power movement and an increasingly radical stance – the death of Dr King leaving many feeling that there was nothing left but violent confrontation now the man of peace had been slain.
NINA SIMONE ‘AIN’T GOT NO, I GOT LIFE’ (1968)
A song written by James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot for the hit ‘60s musical ‘Hair’, which took its cue from the Hippie generation, then at its height. ‘Hair’ had opened on Broadway in April 1968 and caught the zeitgeist perfectly with its themes of pacifism, sexual freedom, drug use, religion and race – it was a production where no less than a third of the cast were African-American, Ebony magazine commenting that the show was the biggest outlet for black actors in the history of the US stage.
Nina Simone was already long-serving in the civil rights struggle, and had written a number of songs confronting the issues that faced black people, not least ‘Mississipi Goddam’ in ’64 (which, as with Bob Dylan’s ‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’, focused on the killing of activist Medgar Evers), but the heat had been turned up to full with the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis earlier that April, the US ripped apart by the subsequent race riots.
Her version of ‘Ain’t Got No, I Got Life’ was recorded live in New York 3 days after Dr King’s death, first appearing on her album ‘Nuff Said’, and then as a single. Whilst it was only a minor hit in the US, its uplifting message resonated in the UK where it reached #2 on the chart, her highest placing here. The song starts with a list of material and personal non-possessions, before taking a much more optimistic direction by listing the physical things that are possessed, before concluding with the affirmation ‘I’ve got my freedom, I’ve got the life’.
In Simone’s hands the song was an expression of black pride against adversity, and although her most successful song of struggle stateside would be ‘To Be Young, Gifted And Black’ (I’ll be covering the Bob & Marcia version), a top 10 R&B hit in 1969, ‘Ain’t Got No, I Got Life’ remains one of her most enduring and heartfelt recordings.
SLY & THE FAMILY STONE ‘EVERYDAY PEOPLE’ (1968)
Released in late ’68 and entering the US chart in January ’69, ‘Everyday People’ would climb all the way to the summit, where it stayed for a month, the first of 3 US #1s for the band – ‘Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’/’Everybody Is A Star’ (1969) and ‘Family Affair’ (1971) making up the trio.
Sly & The Family Stone were a seminal/alchemic band, there at the roots of Funk with James Brown, but coming from a more Psychedelic West Coast perspective, their leader, Sly Stone (Sylvester Stewart), a DJ on San Francisco station KSOL before setting up the group in 1966, unique in that it was both racially integrated and included members of both sexes. Bassist, Larry Graham, is also credited with inventing the slap bass style of playing.
They exploded onto the scene in ’67 with the classic ‘Dance To The Music’ and would make a triumphant appearance at Woodstock in ’69. They adorned colourful hippie garb, rather than the more formal attire of the Soul groups, and if you want to know who inspired Prince’s creative flamboyance, look no further than Sly Stone.
‘Everyday People’ has an easy, somewhat playful nature, almost like a children’s song. It’s a call for unity in diversity, perfectly reflecting the ethos of the band performing it – it also popularised the phrase ‘different strokes for different folks’. Sly & The Family Stone weren’t always gentle with their politics though, putting it right out there with ‘Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey’ on ‘Stand!’, the million selling 1969 album on which ‘Everyday People’ also resides.
Their music took on a darker tone in the ‘70s, the Black Panther Party, with whom Stone was associated, taking a more militant stance, inspiring the 1971 #1 LP ‘There’s A Riot Going On’. Increasing drug use and gangster buddies added to the tension, whilst, the band in disarray, Stone recorded most of the album on his own, with the early use of a basic drum machine, the album’s masterpiece, ‘Family Affair’, its main benefactor. ‘Runnin’ Away’ (1971) and ‘If You Want Me To Stay’ (1973) kept the group’s name in the top 30 but it was a gradual decline for the next 3 years for Sly Stone, both professional and personally.
Sly & The Family Stone would, of course, later be embraced by Hip Hop, and provide the source of many a sample – ‘Everyday People’ becoming ‘People Everyday’ for Arrested Development’s top 10 hit in 1992.
DESMOND DEKKER & THE ACES ‘ISRAELITES’ (1969)
The first inclusion from Jamaica, where, following the rise of Ska, Reggae had become the new buzzword and the floodgates were about to open for this evolving genre, with hits galore on the horizon. It would provide the soundtrack for the skinhead movement, which had derived from the mods (who’d embraced Ska along with US R&B), with Desmond Dekker undoubtedly Reggae’s first major artist.
His 1967 single ‘007 (Shanty Town)’ was rude boy anthem in a Rocksteady style. It was the first Jamaican produced record to make the UK #20 (Millie Small was the first artist, but her hit, ‘My Boy Lollipop’, was recorded in London), but ‘Israelites’ would take things to a whole new stratosphere. Recorded in 1968, but not appearing on the UK chart until March ’69, it climbed all the way to #1, displacing another all-time classic, Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’. It would sell a million worldwide and top the chart in a number of countries that year, whilst reaching the US top 10.
It evoked the Old Testament story of the enslavement of the Israelites in Babylon, which provided major symbolism for the Rastafarian Movement, who were marginalised in Jamaica. Life was hard for many there, whilst its streets were growing increasingly violent, heralding the rise of the Rude Boy outsider from the poorer areas of Kingston. Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie’s historic state visit to the country in 1966 had brought 100,000 Rastafarians to Kingston Airport to witness the man they revered as the returned messiah of biblical prophecy, and many more would convert to the faith as a consequence.
It was against this backdrop of religious awareness, systemic poverty and the growing propensity towards violence, that Dekker and producer Leslie Kong wrote the track, which captures the attention immediately with its sermon-like opening lines, giving it one of the most instantly identifiable of all intros. Then that addictive offbeat Reggae groove drops and you’re swept along by a sheer joy of a record, jaunty and uplifting, belying the harsh realities of its subject matter.
Dekker was a dapper dresser, uniquely identifiable in the manner he sung from the side of his mouth. He’d go on to score 2 further UK top 10 hits with ‘It Mek’ (#7 1969) and his cover of Jimmy Cliff’s ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want It’ (#2 1970) – 3 if you include a re-recording of ‘Israelites’ that reached #10 in 1975.
MARVIN GAYE ‘ABRAHAM, MARTIN AND JOHN’ (1969)
Bronx-born Dion (Dion DiMucci), had scored a run of hits between 1958 and 1963, both with his group The Belmonts, and later solo, most notably ‘Teenager In Love’ (1959), ‘Runaround Sue’ and ‘The Wanderer’ (both 1961). Success had dried up and Dion had struggled with heroin addiction, but in 1968 he was to have one final unlikely chart swansong with ‘Abraham, Martin And John’ – courtesy of Indianapolis songwriter Dick Holler – a huge departure from his previous post-Rock & Roll style, taking the singer into Folk-Rock territory, the track reaching #4 on the US chart following its August ’68 release.
Although the names in the title refer to Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, each of whom met the assassins’ bullet and are mentioned individually in their own verses, the inspiration behind the song was the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in LA that year, following his triumph in the California primaries that set him up for a run at the presidency. Holler had written it in the hours after he’d been shot, the fourth and final verse asking ‘has anybody here seen my old friend Bobby’, only this time the verse, and the song, ends with the words ‘I thought I saw him walkin’ up over the hill with Abraham, Martin and John.’
From questionable political beginnings, Bobby Kennedy experienced a deep personal epiphany, a process that had begun during JFK’s early-‘60s presidency when the Civil Rights movement was making urgent demands for equality in a country where apartheid was still a daily reality for a great many people of colour, but accelerated to its completion with the tragic death of his brother in 1963, one of the most shocking events of the 20th Century.
RFK came to champion the causes of the poor and downtrodden, whether they be black, Hispanic or white, visiting areas of deprivation and lending a powerful voice to their issues. The footage of him mobbed on the streets by huge crowds of supporters when campaigning is testament to his popularity with people of all colours. He was the symbol of hope to so many Americans during a particularly turbulent time in their history.
His assassination, just 2 months after Martin Luther King had been shot dead in Memphis, was almost too much for a great many people to bear. It’s no surprise that the non-violence stance of the Civil Rights movement and the peace and love ethos of the hippies soon gave way to the anger and unrest of communities who felt under siege – their heroes being picked off one at a time.
Dion’s original of ‘Abraham, Martin And John’ was a gentle tribute to these giant figures who died for their beliefs, offering some type of reassurance of a greater good, their lives not in vain due to the difference they made. The final ‘walkin’ up the hill’ line leaving a hopeful image of these 4 tragic figures offering each other support in an afterworld, their mortal deeds towering back over us. In many respects it’s a prayer that protests the violent waste of lives that so much changed the lives of others.
Despite its US success the track passed unnoticed on its UK release via the London label. In 1969, a cover by Marvin Gaye appeared on his album ‘That’s The Way Love Is’, but was never issued as a single in the US. The following year though it was released by Tamla Motown in the UK, climbing into the top 10. Marvin’s version, as you’d expect, is a much more soulful rendition, bringing an intensity of emotion to the song that wasn’t there in the Dion original, most poignantly highlighted in way he sings ‘can you tell me’ in the Martin verse, expressing the deeper grief felt by the black community regarding this particular loss. The recording, produced by the great Norman Whitfield, was certainly a precursor for Gaye’s metamorphosis from ladies man to social commentator, his next album, in 1971, his masterpiece ‘What’s Going On’.
Whilst the Dion original offered something of a hopeful ending with its final lines, Gaye’s 4th verse about Bobby simply repeats the first 3 – there’s no ‘up over the hill’ here to give things a positive final spin, just ‘I just looked around and he was gone’ once more. No sentiment, the words just expressing the senseless loss and helplessness. No answers, no explanation, no closure – this was a life lesson bestowed in the grooves of a record, its directness and simplicity its gravity.
BOB & MARCIA ‘YOUNG,GIFTED AND BLACK’ (1970)
Written in 1969 by Nina Simone and Weldon Irvine, ‘To Be Young, Gifted And Black’, was inspired by the off-Broadway play that year of the same name by Lorraine Hansberry.
It’s one of Nina Simone’s best-known recordings and was her first US R&B top 10 entry since her breakthrough track ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ a decade earlier. Following on from James Brown’s ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud’ the previous year, it was an empowering song for the increasingly embattled black populace – an affirmation of self-pride and righteousness. The song would take its rightful place in the Civil Rights canon, whilst Aretha Franklin would cover it as the title track of her 1972 album.
However, its the UK’s association with the song that I wish to emphasise, where the Windrush generation of West Indian immigrants were experiencing hardships and injustices of their own. This had all been brought to the boil by Enoch Powell’s bitterly divisive ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968. Racialism, is it was referred to back then, was rife, and many people in Britain supported repatriating the immigrants who’d been invited here to help the country rebuild post-World War II. To be black in Britain was to feel under siege from a society that seemingly didn’t want you to be there anymore.
It was into this environment that the Bob & Marcia version of ‘Young, Gifted And Black’ (with shortened title) landed like a breath of fresh air in 1970 on Trojan, the seminal label that did more than any other in exposing Reggae music in the UK – the hits stacking up throughout the late-’60s and early-’70s
With its Jamaican transformation, ‘Young, Gifted And Black’ became an inspiration for an emerging generation of young British blacks, speaking directly to their own experience and endowing a sense of much needed pride in the shadow of everyday adversity. It was a big chart hit, reaching #5 in March 1970 (the previous year, the release of Nina Simone’s original failed to make any impression here).
The track was sugar coated for the British market with strings overdubbed to the Jamaican recording in London, as was the case with a number of Trojan releases, adding dramatic emphasis and crescendo. The pre-strings JA original can be heard here, and is preferred in this organic form by many, although both versions, in their different ways, carry great merit:
Bob & Marcia (Bob Andy and Marcia Griffiths) would follow-up with ‘Pied Piper’, which just missed the UK top 10 the following year. With the hits drying up the duo split a few years on, but Marcia Griffiths would re-emerge, alongside Rita Marley, and Judy Mowatt, as a member of the I Threes, the lauded female backing vocalists for Bob Marley & The Wailers, with whom she performed and recorded between 1974 and Marley’s death in 1981.
THE TEMPTATIONS ‘BALL OF CONFUSION (THAT’S WHAT THE WORLD IS TODAY)’ (1970)
‘Ball Of Confusion’ was released in 1970, during what’s now regarded as the band’s ‘psychedelic period’, with Norman Whitfield stretching the boundaries of black music via both his sonic ingenuity and the social awareness of the song, which he wrote with Barrett Strong. It would reach #3 on the US chart and #7 in the UK.
Beginning with Whitfield’s count-in at the start, before Funk Brother Bob Babbit introduces that all essential bassline, as the track unfolds its clear that you’re boarding an aural rollercoaster. And then Eddie Kendricks’ vocal sets the scene; ‘People moving out, people moving in, Why? Because of the color of their skin, Run, run, run, but you sure can’t hide…”
We’ve barely started, yet the picture already painted leaves you in no doubt that we’re dealing in harsh realities here. The track is a snapshot of a point in time – with the 60’s moving into the 70’s it reflects the plight of black Americans, disillusioned by the slowness of change when it comes to their personal freedoms, whilst inhabiting a world that’s been changing at breakneck pace. As they try to make sense of the situation they find themselves in things only become ever more bewildering, the title of the song perfectly capturing the mood of the moment.
The Temptations, a five-piece vocal harmony group, were already one of Motown’s best-selling acts via hits like ‘My Girl’ (1965), ‘Get Ready’ (1966) and ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg’ (1966). With Dennis Edwards (formerly of The Contours) replacing David Ruffin as lead singer, Whitfield re-invented the band, his recordings taking their sound to a new stratosphere and placing them right on the creative cusp during his time as their producer (1968–1973), with US top 10 hits for ‘Cloud Nine’ and ‘Runaway Child, Running Wild’ (1968), and for ‘I Can’t Get Next To You’ (their first #1 since ‘My Girl’) and ‘Psychedelic Shack’ (1969). They’d top the US chart in ’71 with the classic ballad ‘Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)’ before reaching the pinnacle of their success with the epic ‘Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone’ (1972), which picked up a hat-trick of Grammy awards.
In 1970 Whitfield would also produce one of the great anti-war anthems, ‘War’ by Edwin Starr, another US #1 that year (#3 UK), which he had originally recorded with The Temptations earlier that year on their ‘Psychedelic Shack’ LP.
THE EQUALS ‘BLACK SKIN BLUE EYED BOYS’ (1970)
The first British recording I’ve included – Guyanan-born Eddy Grant was a dynamic force in the development of black music in this country, his pioneering contribution very much unsung (although author Lloyd Bradley went some way to redressing this in his 2013 book ‘Sounds Like London’). Grant’s multiracial band, The Equals, topped the UK singles chart and just fell short of the US top 30 in 1968 with ‘Baby Come Back’ and, following a run of smaller hits, returned to the top 10 with ‘Viva Bobby Joe’ the following year. Their ‘Unequalled Equals’ LP in ’67 would also go top 10, whilst their next album ‘Equals Explosion’ (’68) just missed the top 30.
Having found success by displaying a keen pop sensibility, ‘Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys’ was a much funkier somewhat militant departure from their previous hits, but nevertheless gave The Equals their 3rd top 10 single. Its stark racial theme was juxtaposed with the anti-Vietnam war sentiment of the period to provide a powerful statement over its driving groove.
The track is nowadays regarded as a Loft classic, a favourite of hallowed New York DJ David Mancuso following its 1970 release, the same year Mancuso began to throw his parties, whilst only last year it would be later covered as the opening track on The Specials’ ‘Encore’ album, the Two Tone legends citing The Equals as ‘spiritual ancestors’.
Eddy Grant’s career took a major setback in ’71 when he suffered a heart attack and collapsed lung, but he used his recuperation to set up his Coach House Studio in London (said to be the first black-owned recording studio in Europe), where he often offered advice and financial assistance in forwarding the black music cause, helping other black artists get onto the recording ladder.
The Equals would record 3 further albums between 1973-78, and issue a number of singles, the highlight being 1976’s ‘Funky Like A Train’, but ‘Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys’ would prove to be their final hit.
Later, as a solo artist with a distinct commercial touch, but often a politically conscious edge, Grant would stack up a string of hits during the 5 year period 1979-84, including ‘Living On The Frontline’, ‘Do You Feel My Love’, ‘Can’t Get Enough Of You’, ‘Electric Avenue’, ‘Gimme Hope Jo’anna’, and the chart topping ‘I Don’t Wanna Dance’. He’d also record the original version of ‘Walking On Sunshine’ in 1978, a major club and chart hit for Rockers Revenge 4 years on.
Grant, with his spirit of endeavour, provided a strong black British role model via the music he made and the messages within it, not to mention his business acumen. Even the name, The Equals, made a powerful statement in a time of blatant inequality within this country, a time when the majority of Brits were in basic agreement with Enoch Powell’s repatriation mantra, Eddy Grant being just the type of person they thought this country should ‘send back’.
By topping the chart with ‘Baby Come Back’ and appearing, white men alongside black, on Top Of The Pops, and within the pages of the music press, just a matter of weeks after the infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech, The Equals represented an inclusive philosophy, the opposite side of the coin to what Powell and his supporters advocated.
MARVIN GAYE ‘INNER CITY BLUES (MAKE ME WANNA HOLLER)’ (1971)
Marvin Gaye’s self-produced 1971 album ‘What’s Going On’ is undoubtedly one of the most spiritual recordings of the popular music era. It was a huge departure, initially resisted by Motown owner, Berry Gordy, fearful that Gaye might lose his existing fan base by making such a socially conscious record. Gordy needn’t have worried, ‘What’s Going On’, acknowledged as Gaye’s masterwork and widely regarded among the best album’s ever recorded, sold in massive amounts and continues to remain relevant today.
Having been a huge Motown star since his first hits in 1963, Gaye was very much marketed as the ladies man, his popularity, whether solo or with a female partner (Mary Wells, Kim Weston, Tammi Terrell, and later Diana Ross), he was a pretty much constant fixture on the chart. His brooding masterpiece, ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, produced and written (with Barrett Strong) by Norman Whitfield, gave him his first #1 in 1968 (‘Lets Get It On’ in ’73 and ‘Got To Give It Up’ in ’77 also achieving this feat).
The album spawned 3 US top 10 singles in 1971, the title track, ‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’, and ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)’. Gaye wrote the song ‘What’s Going On’ with fellow Motown artist Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson, a member of The Four Tops, and Al Cleveland – it resulted from Benson witnessing Police brutality at the Peoples Park in Berkeley during an anti-war protest in which buckshot, as well as tear gas, was fired on the demonstrators, sanctioned by the then Governor of California, Ronald Reagan. As a consequence there was a fatality plus well over 100 hospital admissions due to head trauma, shotgun wounds, and other serious injuries inflicted by police – its remembered as ‘Bloody Thursday’.
Benson was shook by what he saw, and Gaye was shook by what his veteran brother had told him about the Vietnam War. The song set Gaye’s agenda and allied him with the Hippie generation, who’d taken the brunt of the police’s nightsticks in Berekely – this most clearly illustrated in the line ‘who are they to judge us, simply ’cause our hair is long’. Benson denied it was a song of protest saying ‘it’s a love song, about love and understanding. I’m not protesting. I want to know what’s going on’. Gaye had made a step in this direction with his recording of ‘Abraham, Martin And John’ the previous year, and was now about to take his place as one of music’s true preachers.
Whilst the song ‘What’s Going On’ is a classic amongst classics, it wasn’t specifically about black issues, its message more universal.The track I’ve included here, ‘Inner City Blues’, the album’s closing track, written by Gaye and James Nyx Jr., provided a grim appraisal of the day-to-day struggles people in the mainly black inner cities of the US were facing, and, as label mates The Temptations also pointed out on 1970s ‘Ball Of Confusion’, the discrepancy between those at the bottom of society in juxtaposition to a nation that can pay vast amounts to send men up to the moon.
TIMMY THOMAS ‘WHY CAN’T WE LIVE TOGETHER’ (1972)
One of the greatest of all pleas for unity, Indiana-born keyboardist Timmy Thomas made a demo of ‘Why Can’t We Live Together’ with just a Lowrey organ and early rhythm box bossa nova pattern to accompany his heartfelt vocal, and gave it to Steve Alaimo, who’d set up T.K. Productions in Miami with Henry Stone. Alaimo was about to re-record the track with a full band, but decided that he loved the song the way it was, so the demo became the definitive, released by T.K’s Glade label.
First appearing on the album of the same name in August ’72, ‘Why Can’t We Live Together’ was released as a single near the end of the year, climbing to #3 on the US chart (#12 UK) and topping the R&B chart in early ’73, eventually selling over 2 million copies.
Its long drawn out intro teases the listener, Thomas’ mesmeric organ melody and the distinctive rhythmic pattern setting the tone before the vocal drops, a minute a half in. The track is simplicity in itself, but with a knowing complexity, both within Thomas’ words and musicianship – the organ stabs breaking the ease of the track at a couple of points, to add a harsher more urgent sonic, like a wake up call wrapped up in a gentle message.
Thomas would subsequently have a few more minor hits, but his career was always in the shadow of this momentous recording.
STEVIE WONDER ‘LIVING FOR THE CITY’ (1973)
With Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ album taking black music to a new level of artistic expression in 1971, highlighting social issues and injustice with a depth that hadn’t been accomplished previously, Stevie Wonder, still only in his early twenties, was there to grasp the baton and build on the work of his friend and label mate at Motown. Wonder demanded artistic freedom from his record label and got it, before seizing the moment and becoming, for many people, the quintessential recording artist of the entire decade – right on the cusp of things both musically and lyrically.
He’d proved to be a hit machine following his explosive launch at the age of just 13 in 1963, when he topped the US chart with ‘Fingertips – Pt 2’ billed as Little Stevie Wonder. Before he was out of his teens he’d stacked up a further 9 top 10 successes, his songwriting developing and maturing all the time. One of these singles was his cover of Bob Dylan’s Civil Rights standard ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, which, along with the following single, ‘A Place In The Sun’, both released in ’66, hinted at his eventual positioning as an artist of conscience.
1972-76 is viewed as his ‘Classic Period’, when he issued a breathtaking body of work via the albums ‘Music Of My Mind’ and ‘Talking Book (1972)’, ‘Innervisions’ (1973), ‘Fulfillingness’ First Finale’ (1974) and ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’ (1976), with singles including a handful of US #1s – ‘Superstition’ (1972), ‘You Are The Sunshine Of My Life’ (1973), ‘You Haven’t Done Nothin’’ (1974), ‘I Wish’ (1976) and, also from ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’, ‘Sir Duke’ (1977).
His confidence is clear to the ear on ‘Innervisions’, the album that features the track included here, ‘Living For The City’, another top 10 entry on its single release with Wonder exploring the social and spiritual with a real air of authority. Not only the writer, producer and arranger, but an incredibly gifted musician, who played the majority of what you hear on the album, including every instrument on ‘Living For The City’, ‘Higher Ground’ and ‘Jesus Children Of America’.
‘Living For The City’ provided a window into the reasons behind the continued deprivation and unrest within the black communities of the US. The arrest section two thirds of the way through (on the full-length LP version) and the raw urgency in his voice during the verse that follows, underlining the overall power of the track and its message.
THE WAILERS ‘GET UP, STAND UP’ (1973)
Not a Bob Marley & The Wailers track, as its more often than not listed nowadays, but a track by The Wailers – there is a significant difference. The Wailers started out as an R&B influenced Ska band in 1963, formed by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone (aka Bunny Wailer), whereas the name changed to Bob Marley & The Wailers when Tosh and Livingstone left the group in 1974, having remarkably recorded close on 100 singles together. The classic line-up added brothers Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett (bass) and Carlton Barrett (drums), formerly members of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s Upsetters, as core members – they’d stay with Marley post-’74 when the group added the crack backing trio of Rita Marley, Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt (The I Threes) as permanent members.
Although they were well-known in Jamaica, it wasn’t until they signed to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records in 1973 that The Wailers came to wider attention. Over the years their songs became increasingly articulate expressions on political and spiritual issues, their Rastafarian beliefs more central to their music.
Blackwell had overdubs added into the rawer Jamaican recording of the first album for the label, ‘Catch A Fire’ (1973), adding a rock sensibility he felt important in marketing the group. It was a strategy that would work, but at a slow burn before Marley eventually tallied up the hits and became a globally-known ‘third world superstar’, as he was dubbed – a symbol of empowerment and freedom (with plenty of love thrown in for good measure, plus a generous sprinkling of kaya).
‘Get Up, Stand Up’ was the opening track on their 2nd Island album, ‘Burnin’’ – the final one featuring the classic line-up and the last credited to The Wailers, released just 6 months after ‘Catch A Fire’. Written by Marley and Tosh, moved by the level of poverty they’d witnessed while in Haiti, it was a no-nonsense straight to the point direct demand for liberty, with barbs towards religion and advice to, instead, look to yourself. Marley took the first 2 verses, but that all-important concluding verse brings Tosh to the fore, something so many people are totally unaware of. All 3 original Wailers would subsequently record their own versions of ‘Get Up, Stand Up’, and it would be the last song Marley performed live in Pennsylvania in 1980, before his untimely death the following year.
The best-remembered tracks from Tosh’s post-Wailers career were his ode to cannabis, ‘Legalize It’ (1977), and his cover of the Temptations’ 1965 R&B hit ‘Don’t Look Back’ for the Rolling Stones’ label the following year (Mick Jagger getting in on the act with a cameo vocal). Things went fallow for a while, but just as his career was experiencing a renaissance, Tosh was shot dead in 1987 during a robbery on his Kingston home – he was posthumously awarded a Best Reggae Album Grammy for his final LP, ‘No Nuclear War’.
So, to simply consider ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ a Bob Marley & The Wailers track is to negate Peter Tosh’s unquestionably pivotal part in this ongoing anthem of righteous protest, and his own place at the frontline of the rebel music he helped define.
BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS ‘WAR’
Following the departure of Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone (aka Bunny Wailer) in 1974, The Wailers became Bob Marley & The Wailers, with international recognition and superstardom gradually bestowed on the group’s leader as the rest of the decade unfolded. A champion of the oppressed, using his music to highlight inequality, Marley wasn’t just an artist, but a symbol of hope and a better tomorrow for people worldwide, his message and legacy transcending his tragic death in 1981, aged just 36. He’d been recording since he was 17, over half a lifetime beforehand.
In 1975, the group’s live recording of ‘No Woman No Cry’ from the Lyceum Theatre in London, took them into the top 10 of the UK singles chart for the first time, whilst the previous year an Eric Clapton cover of The Wailers track ‘I Shot The Sherriff’ went all the way to the top in the US (despite this, and his incalculable debt to the Blues, Clapton would launch a shocking racist tirade at a gig in Birmingham, England, in 1976, expressing support for Enoch Powell, whose divisive ‘rivers of blood’ speech 8 years earlier had put a massive dent in race relations, and warning that Britain could turn into a ‘black colony’. His words that night were absolutely horrific, the upshot of which would be the formation of Rock Against Racism, so many in the UK music industry finding Clapton’s outburst abhorrent).
The 1976 album ‘Rastaman Vibration’ confirmed the breakthrough, reaching the top 10 of the US album chart (top 20 UK). It would be their highest placing US LP until the posthumously released ‘Legend’ compilation, one of the biggest selling albums of all-time – Marley shifting many more records in death than he ever did in his already illustrious life. He’d only find moderate success in the US while living, his group’s albums selling steadily but with a complete absence of hit singles. The UK, where Marley was revered by its large West Indian community, was more receptive, the group soon part of the British musical landscape and, following on from ‘No Woman, No Cry’, going on to score top 10 singles with ‘Jamming’/’Punky Reggae Party’ and ‘One Love’/’People Get Ready’ in ’77, ‘Is This Love’ in ’78 and ‘Could You Be Loved’ in 1980, and also reach the top 10 with the albums ‘Exodus’ (’77), ‘Kaya’ (’78) and ‘Uprising’ (‘80) before his passing.
‘War’ has become one of Marley’s greatest protest anthems, brilliantly crafted from the impassioned speech made by Ethiopian Emperor and Rastafarian deity Haile Salassie before the UN in 1963. Marley’s recording would ensure its place, along with Martin Luther Kings ‘I Have A Dream’ address the same year, as the most enduring of all calls for liberty.
The song would hit the news in 1992 when Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor controversially tore up a photograph of the Pope, declaring ‘fight the real enemy’, whilst performing ‘War’ on TV show ‘Saturday Night Live’, as part of her quest to highlight child abuse by Catholic priests.
BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS ‘REDEMPTION SONG’ (1980)
The last track on the final Bob Marley & The Wailers album released during his lifetime, and at a point when Marley was starkly aware of his own mortality having been diagnosed with cancer, which would eventually take his life in May 1981.
It’s Marley’s concluding statement, the closing track on the group’s 1980 ‘Uprising’ album. Having written so many songs of struggle, his final one would be the most poignant, delivered more gently than Marley in his pomp, reflecting his own personal struggle, and performed in classic singer/songwriter mode with no more than guitar accompaniment, recalling his namesake Bob Dylan and his protest songs of an earlier era. It was a man, some would say a superman, who’d given so much in his 36 years, yet was now vulnerable and human, but still able to summon the words and melody to this glorious swansong.
GRANDMASTER FLASH & THE FURIOUS FIVE ‘THE MESSAGE’ (1982)
Whilst the ‘60s offered a vision of freedom, the hope was drying up by the ’70s. It was a bleak landscape in the ’80s for the black community in many parts of the US, especially in a city like New York, most specifically the South Bronx, an extremely scary place that had been left to rot throughout the previous decade – but against all odds the defining culture of the late 20th century would ferment in its tenement blocks. Hip Hop was about to emerge from its long incubation with its first acknowledged classic.
Oddly, DJ Grandmaster Flash isn’t even on this record – although key to live performances, Flash was increasingly marginalised in the recording studio, leading to growing tensions and the subsequent demise of the crew. Rappers Melle Mel and Duke Bootee stepped to the plate here to deliver a powerful tale of inner-city decay over an infectious downbeat Electro-Funk groove. This wasn’t the ‘throw your hands in the air and wave them like you just don’t care’ type party track we were used to – with ‘The Message’ Rap came of age, it was no longer regarded as a fad but now acclaimed as street poetry. The words not only translated directly to the experience of black people throughout the US, but also across the Atlantic here in England, where the track was a top 10 hit.
It had been just a year since Britain had had its own race riots in cities including London, Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham, resulting from the continued marginalisation and disregard of the black community by mainstream British society. The majority of the early Electro-funk crowd were black kids who’d either been directly involved, or at least caught-up in the unrest. Tensions had remained high, and ‘Don’t push me cos I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head’, was a sentiment that almost every young British black could personally identify with. Further to this there was massive unemployment, not just in black areas, but also amongst working class whites, and the future looked grim for a whole section of society (with an increasing number of white council estates kids now turning to heroin). Signing on the dole was becoming a way of life, and apathy had begun to eat away at a sizeable chunk of the population who found themselves with little prospect of finding work.
Arriving in the UK against this backdrop ‘The Message’, with its tale of urban degeneration, perfectly caught the mood of the time and just couldn’t be ignored, no matter what colour you might be. It was without doubt one of the most important releases of the decade and would take Rap music back into the Top 10 of the UK Pop chart following ‘Rappers Delight’ by The Sugarhill Gang, (1979) which was regarded as something as a novelty at the time, rather than the beginnings of a whole new genre.
Hip Hop would become the music of struggle, encoded into its DNA, and ‘The Message’ set the standard with it’s straight from the street to vinyl bulletin, ushering a new age of protest and continued outrage at the system and its lack of solutions.
STEVIE WONDER ‘BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND’ (1966)
Coming out of sequence in concluding these Songs Of Struggle, 22 in all, by going back to 1966 and the Stevie Wonder cover of the Bob Dylan song,
Dylan first recorded ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ for his LP ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ in 1963, but just a few weeks later a single version was issued, not by Dylan, but by Peter, Paul & Mary, a popular New York folk group who’d already scored US top 10 hits ‘If I Had A Hammer’ (’62) and ‘Puff (The Magic Dragon)’ (’63) – the trio were managed by Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager. It would have been via the Peter, Paul and Mary version that most American’s would have first heard this track, Dylan yet to become a household name. It would reach #2 on the US chart, the song quickly becoming a Civil Rights hymn. Peter, Paul & Mary would continue recording through the ‘60s, eventually reaching #1 with their final hit ‘Leaving On A Jet Plane’ in 1969.
Dylan’s own single of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ failed to chart, and although the ‘Freewheelin’’ LP provided his US breakthrough, reaching #22 on the album chart, and its follow-up in ’64 ‘The Times They Are A-Changing improved on this by 2 places for his first top 20 entry, his audience was still very much Folk music followers and Beatniks – it wouldn’t be until his release of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ in 1965 that he pierced the top 10 of the singles chart.
It was a different scenario in Britain, where ‘Freewheelin’’ was a #1 in 1964, whilst during the same year 2 further albums, ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ and ‘Another Side Of Bob Dylan’ (which had failed to reach the US top 40) followed it into the top 10. The song many regard as his magnus opus, ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’, was the first of 4 UK top 10 singles in 1965, whilst ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ returned him to the top of the album chart here.
By this point Dylan had retreated from the ‘voice of a generation’ mantle he’d been burdened with. Just 2 years earlier he’d shocked the conscience of those who’d heard his live performances and recordings with songs that got right to the root of the issues of race and inequality that festered in the US – he was a musical prophet for sure, foretelling the rise of the hippie movement and the widening of the generation gap as he warned American parents; ‘don’t criticize what you can’t understand, your sons and your daughters are beyond your command, your old road is rapidly agin’, please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand for the times they are a-changin’’.
Songs like ‘Oxford Town’, ‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’, ‘The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll’ and ‘The Death Of Emmett Till’ (which never appeared on an official album, but was performed live) dealt with racism head on, documenting actual events, whereas ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ is a softer, more philosophical appraisal of injustice, musing on the question of what it takes to truly be a man, and what responsibilities that entails.
The title is likely to come from a passage in the book ‘Bound For Glory’ (1943), written by Dylan’s great hero, the Folk legend Woody Guthrie. The song was based around the Negro Spiritual, ‘No More Auction Block’, sung by free former slaves who’d escaped to the North of America from the South, its origins going back to the institution of the first black regiments during the American Civil War (1861-1865). ‘No More Auction Block’ is also thought to have inspired perhaps the quintessential protest anthem ‘We Shall Overcome’, originally a Gospel song written in 1900.
Sam Cooke, an R&B superstar revered amongst the greatest of vocalists, was shocked to the core on hearing this song written by a young white man – it made him question why he, as a black man, hadn’t written something himself that spoke so clearly to his own and the wider black experience. Cooke would begin to perform ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ at his live shows, before taking its inspiration to compose his defining song, the soon to be Civil Rights standard ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’.
Stevie Wonder’s cover of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ was released on Motown’s Tamla label in July ’66, just after his 16th birthday. That someone so young could take on a song of such gravity was remarkable in itself, but Wonder summoned a depth and maturity beyond his years to bring new context to this song full of illusive meaning. His soulful rendition, which traded vocals with producer Clarence Paul, returned ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ to the top 10, 3 years on from the Peter, Paul & Mary version, and was a foretaste of what lay ahead of Wonder during his ‘classic period’ of 1972-76 when he wrote and recorded some of the most socially conscious and spiritually uplifting music of the time.
All these years on the answer is still blowin’ in the wind – we know it’s there, but it remains illusive. In 2020 things have come to the boil and, with Black Lives Matter demonstrations worldwide and a new generation voicing its own questions, people are no longer in the mood for the political rhetoric of empty promises, demanding change now.
I wonder how Bob Dylan feels amidst the anger and chaos overwhelming America. He’s 79 now and, until COVID-19 put a stop to things, still constantly performing on his Never Ending Tour, although he’s not the type of artist you expect to re-visit his greatest hits, changing his set around gig to gig and drawing from almost 60 years of musical experience. He’s just put out his first album to contain original material in 8 years and the critics love it. There doesn’t appear to be any reference to the current protests, but he told the New York Times that it “sickened me no end to see George tortured to death like that…it was beyond ugly. Let’s hope that justice comes swift for the Floyd family and for the nation”.