Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

The Ballad of Trayvon Martin

The story of 15-year-old Emmett Till of Chicago, murdered while on summer vacation in Money, Mississippi, was among the events in the mid-‘50s that mobilized the Civil Rights Movement; the tragedy was chronicled by Bob Dylan in one of his earliest songs. This clip contains a bit of background as well as the audio of the song which tells the story.

Oddly, I had long been holding tickets to attend a staged reading this week of Ifa Bayeza’s play, The Ballad of Emmett Till, in which the scene above with Mose Wright is recreated, as is mother Mamie Till’s testimony. The script was beautifully written and the acting superb, especially by Lorenz Arnell who played Till.  But I had a difficult time sitting through the show, in light of the recent events in the Sunshine State, and the information that continues to surface following the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Today, as people gather in Union Square in New York City to protest the racially motivated killing of the young man in Sanford, Florida on February 26, his assailant has not yet been arrested or charged.  The rally is intended not only to shine a light on injustice—Martin’s murder was clearly a hate crime and needs to be treated with the kind of seriousness that an offense like that demands—but a plea to end the practice of racial profiling.

It’s been fifty years since Dylan sang his song about Emmett Till and it is unthinkable that it should have to be reprised as a mourning song anymore, except to be used as a history lesson. I encourage people unfamiliar with the Trayvon Martin case to read up on it and to listen to Dylan’s song. I hope that all of us will think of Martin and his family, and think of Emmett Till and his kin, and of all the Trayvon Martins and would-be Emmett Tills out there. And if there’s a freedom singer in the town square, maybe he or she will sing these verses loud, so everyone can hear them, all over this land, once and for all.

If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust

Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust…

…But if all us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give

We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.

Read more on “The Death of Emmett Till” in Keep on Pushing 


Filed under: Bob Dylan, Folk, Hip Hop, , , , , ,

Ben Harper and Tom Morello Occupy LA

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street, , , ,

International Women’s Day/Which Side Are You On?

This version of  the labor standard, “Which Side Are You On?” reworked by Ani DiFranco, seemed like just the right song for today’s occasion—big in some parts of the world, though not necessarily in the USA. And yet, US Women have long been at the forefront of workers organizing, voting and other equal rights, as well as the fights to end war, poverty, and racism across the planet. DiFranco’s version of the song takes in all of our contemporary concerns and desires for change—not only for the benefit of women, but for all the people of the world.

The origin of “Which Side Are You On?” dates back to the 1930s, when the United Mine Workers of America began to organize in the mines around Eastern Kentucky in an effort to end practices like payment in scrip and pay docking toward rent in substandard housing. It was a miner’s wife, Florence Reece, who first worked up the workers’ rights classic “Which Side Are You On?” based on the hymn, “Lay the Lily Low,” to fit her experience during the miner’s strike in the ‘30s.

They say in Harlan County

There are no neutrals there

You’ll either be a union man

Or a thug for J.H. Blair

Blair was the sheriff that rousted Reece’s family during the strike among Harlan County mine workers, just one of the struggles which contributed toward the region earning its nickname “Bloody Harlan County.”  In 1969, Loretta Lynn earned a number one country hit when she sang she was proud to be a “Coal Miner’s Daughter”; the autobiographical sketch set her up for a long career during which she’d be aligned with personal stories from her hard scrabble but loving home in Kentucky coal country. Already an advocate of women’s rights in song, Lynn knew full well the contributions women had made to the mining towns of her region. In the ‘70s, workers struck again and Reece reprised the song for striking miners (preserved in this clip from Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award-winning documentary, Harlan County U.S.A.)

“Which Side Are You On?” would go on to be used as a ’60s civil rights anthem (its words adapted for the movement by songwriter Len Chandler); today it is widely considered to be a protest standard.  I am so happy to hear DiFranco sing it whenever she does, and lately she sings it often: Which Side Are You On? is also the title of her new album, released just in time to kick-off the election year.

Filed under: Coal Mining Songs, , , , ,

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