Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Bloody Sunday: Freedom Highway Revisited

Five songs into their set at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church, the Staple Singers get down to the real, and the reason, they called their gospel meeting on April 9, 1965.

“A few days ago freedom marchers marched on Selma to Montgomery, Alabama,” says Roebuck “Pops” Staples. “And from that march, words were revealed and a song was composed. And we wrote a song about the freedom marchers and we call it the ‘Freedom Highway.’ And we dedicate this number to all the freedom marchers, and it goes something like this.”

Tearing into their new song as if it was a longtime traditional favorite, the Staples evoke the energy and resistance of the historic freedom trail for voting rights, right there at their South Side parish. Though few could’ve predicted or believed that the messages of the Martin Luther King, Jr.-led movement would still be necessary or relevant 50 years on, this timeless performance at the height of the fight has been mercifully preserved, restored and reissued on Legacy’s new Freedom Highway Complete—Recorded Live at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church, April 9, 1965, for all the world to once again bear witness and hear the beauty in a song.

The whole world is wondering what’s wrong with the United States

Yes, we want peace if it can be found

Marching freedom’s highway, 

I’m not gonna turn around…

Stay on freedom’s highway until the day is done

Following an introduction from Pops encouraging folks to sing, clap, and shout amen, the group (accompanied by Al Duncan on drums and Phil Upchurch on bass) eases in parishioners with the familiar invocation, “When The Saints Go Marching In.”  But they waste no time getting to the darker stuff, slipping in the Hank Williams tale of “The Funeral,” concerning the closing of the casket on a little curly-headed boy. The secular movement standard, “We Shall Overcome” is delivered easily enough, serving as the crowd-participatory number it was built to be, though in the Staples’ hands, all is holy. Their originals like “Freedom Highway” and “Tell Heaven,” and the arrangements of spirituals like “He’s All Right” strive to tear the roof off the chapel and touch greener pastures, delivering the listener from all earthly distraction. For gospel singers like the Staples family, “Jesus Is All” (one of the set’s previously unreleased tracks) and “Help Me Jesus” are not just proud declarations of their savior’s name, they are a way of life, a deep faith that does not ask its adherents to acquiesce in God’s presence; it puts the holy spirit in charge, so that the faithful may take action on the streets and in all matters of the everyday, fearlessly and free.

Church was where the gospel group first practiced its faith as family singers—Roebuck, Pervis, Cleotha, Yvonne and Mavis—in the late forties and early fifties, developing an acoustic folk-gospel style with a bluesy feeling, distinguished by soul-solid lead vocals by Mavis and piercing, bending guitar by “Pops.” They recorded for a number of labels including Vee-Jay (famous for releasing blues acts and later, the Beatles) where they had some early success with “Uncloudy Day,” (a song Bob Dylan recently called the “most mysterious thing” he’d ever heard). In later years they joined the Stax label where during the apex of soul music, they enjoyed Top 40 success with funk-based, gospel-powered hits like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.”  In between these distinct eras, the Staples were signed to Epic where their A&R man and producer Billy Sherrill (remembered mostly for his Nashville productions) assisted in the development of merging their sacred and soul sides. For the Freedom Highway session, he arranged the necessary equipment be brought to the church and recorded the service/rally. Mobile units were in their infancy at the time, but the project was not conceived as a “field” recording. Before release, the tracks were edited, telescoped, and worked to conform to studio and broadcast standards, purposefully leaving behind the churchy and ambient parts, though even with the tweaking, the set was a revelation. Becoming one of the era’s most beloved recordings, it was also long left out-of-print, only to become highly sought after (a 1991 Legacy reissue titled Freedom Highway is not the original recording, but rather a compilation).

StapleSinger_cover

Bolstered by the anticipation of the tracks becoming once again available digitally and on vinyl, the new and expanded edition produced by Steve Berkowitz and Nedra Olds-Neal stands to surpass the original’s already relic-like status. By daring to return the tapes to their original form and to recreate the evening from front to back, Freedom Highway becomes all at once a historical document, a spirit-lifting gospel session, and a fist-raising call for freedom now. Accompanied by rock and soul historian Robert Gordon’s liner notes which ascertain the place of race in music and in the country then and now, the Staples brand of “message music” is spelled out for non-believers and anyone else in need of a nudge.

Leaping into faith-based music in times of uncertainty is natural; gospel survives on rock solid melodies and timeless messages of liberation which by design were created to subvert slavery and oppression. And while the marchers in Ferguson, New York and Oakland in recent months may not have exactly had the notes of “Freedom Highway” on their minds when they shut down roadways, its words were already written on their souls.  Built to travel the distance, and as necessary as in the hour they were recorded, these songs performed 50 years ago (and some scored a hundred years before) are available to accompany movement, anytime, anywhere, there is a fight for voting rights, civil rights and human need. These songs’ messages are as urgent now as they were then, as is faith in the idea that the march will ultimately be won, mile by mile, hand in hand.

“Let’s say amen again,” says Pops Staples on the restored set’s recovered audio tracks. “Let’s keep on marchin’…Keep on marchin’ up freedom highway.”

(This review appeared originally in Blurt online, upon the release of the 50th anniversary edition of Freedom Highway)

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Bob Dylan, Civil Rights, Folk, Freedom Now, Gospel, Protest Songs, , , , , , , , , , ,

How to support small presses, indie films and theaters during the pandemic

Notes, Contacts, Name CQ's here

Liam Curley, warehouse manager at the Small Press Distribution, Berkeley, CA. During the high season of the pandemic’s shelter-in-place orders, it was lonely in SPD’s warehouse where Curley worked by himself, receiving and shipping orders by hand at a fraction of his usual pace.(Photo by Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle)

During the early phase of the coronavirus shutdown, small publishers and the Northern California distributor that ships those books to market were doing all right, operating with scaled down staffs and shipping customer orders direct. But as the fall publishing season approaches, with no end to the virus in sight, the closures indefinite, and college course texts and bookstore futures shaky, the small press industry is navigating the same uncertain future as everyone else. If there is a silver lining to this catastrophe, small presses are generally more attuned to matters of race, gender and class than the big five publishing houses: There is a demand for books authored, edited and published by Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). I wrote about the longstanding spirit and principle of intersectionality in small press publishing for the San Francisco Chronicle. I hope you’ll read the full story here.

SFE-SFLives

Documentary filmmaker Anne Flatte stands outside the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Her film,  “River City Drumbeat,” is about a year in the life of drum corps in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Some of the changes from digitization that impacted publishing even before the pandemic also reverberate through the art of producing, making and presenting independent film – a corner of the film business where woman traditionally find more opportunity than they do in Hollywood.  For the small art houses that regularly show movies by and about subjects that might not otherwise be seen on the big screen, the pandemic closures threaten to wipe out old time cinemas and movie-going entirely, though the best makers and curators are adapting.  Here in San Francisco, we can stream directly from our beloved Roxie, Balboa and Vogue Theaters, among others.  Filmmaker Anne Flatté is screening her latest work, River City Drumbeat, via virtual cinema. She and her co-director chose a youth drum corps as their compelling subject and made a visually captivating and emotionally powerful film about cultural legacy and survival. As a viewer, you can choose to watch indie films like River City Drumbeat in a way that supports local businesses instead of using your typical streaming services. Why would you? Well, the main multi-media/marketplace exploits its workers.  And the business models of the big streaming services also steal a disproportionate amount of revenue from the people who actually make the art. Those fat cats don’t need your money and artists need to be compensated for their work. Read more here.

Please support a small local press, filmmaker, theater or business today or this week: They need us – and we need them – if ever we’re going to get through this mess.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, film, San Francisco News, , , , , ,

Musical activism in the pandemic age: Betty Soo on safe distancing

Hello faithful family of friends and readers: First things first, I wish you health and safety in these troubling times. I’ve been keeping my head down, safe distancing and generally following the recommendation of my state and local leaders to shelter in place. Here in San Francisco, we went on the unfortunately termed “lockdown” at midnight on March 16 in an effort to “flatten the curve.” There is so much left to learn and know about this virus. I will continue to cover its impact from my usual arts and cultural perspective as long as necessary.

During early March when measures to control the coronavirus had still not widely limited performances at bars and nightclubs and elder states-players like Patti Smith and Elvis Costello carried on with gigs from the Fillmore in San Francisco to the Hammersmith Apollo in London, Austin-based singer-songwriter Betty Soo (pictured above) put the brakes on her live performance schedule to reflect on the potential hazards of proceeding with cramming people into confined spaces in the time of a pandemic.  I hope you’ll read my profile of Soo and the other musicians who led the way in the movement to seek alternatives to live performance in the time of the pandemic, not only to keep themselves healthy, but their fans, and you at home too.  Read the full column in this month’s edition of Tourworthy.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Folk, Texas, Women in Rock, , , , , , , ,

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