In 1965, long before coming to Capitol Hill, future Congressman John Lewis led 600 people on a march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama to question Governor George C. Wallace's role in subverting black voting rights in his state. Wallace is the same man who less than a year before famously declared “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Having already been beaten several times from participating in the Freedom Rides and numerous other marches throughout the South, Lewis crossed Edmund Pettus Bridge into a wall of state troopers. So bent on conflict, those officers had already donned their gas masks and had their billy clubs at the ready. They had every intention of kicking Lewis’s ass. Not only did he and the marchers keep going forward to meet them, but they did so with no intention of fighting back.
Congressman Lewis still bears scars from that day now remembered as Bloody Sunday.
The role of the song in that video in that powerful moment is one of many stories retold in the documentary Soundtrack of a Revolution whose main focus is the role of music during the Civil Rights movement. Seems like music would be a minor thing within that epic struggle against institutionalized prejudice and hate, but this film illustrates how it was an important thread that bound people together in a time when they couldn’t afford stand alone.
It’s directed by Bill Guttentag, who is no stranger to documenting the epic struggles of ordinary peoples. He directed another powerful documentary about the Japanese occupation of Nanking during World War II, a film covering atrocities so horrific that it made the Nazis the good guys.
Guttentag contrasts familiar footage of grand marches and brutal beatings with lesser seen footage of people, both black and white, singing and dancing not too long before, after, and sometimes even during those events. They're combined with interviews with people who were there like Rep. Lewis to explain what the music meant to them and how it lifted their spirits even when the possibility of being beaten or bombed was very real.
I attended a screening of that movie last Friday as part of Filmfest DC where it won the Audience Award. The screening was followed by a very interesting Q & A with the director. Attending things like this in DC is always an experience since audience members tend to be as knowledgeable or even moreso than the filmmakers themselves. Many people who lived through those times and even participated in the movement asked some pointed questions and made some heartfelt comments.
Although the comments and questions were generally supportive of the movie, the director admitted that he felt a bit on the defensive because the audience members were asking him very specific details of songs and activists that weren’t covered in the film like The Negro National Anthem, Lift Every Voice.
This illustrates the perennial problem of outsiders recounting experiences like this. No matter how much they care, are sensitive to the subject matter, or are passionate about the subject itself, there’s no substitute for being there.
A recently revived thread on Yehoodi.com has some people trying to find the newspaper that inspired the name “Lindy Hop.” To a certain extent I understand the curiosity, but at the same time, contrary to popular belief, figuring out dates, times, and places is not history. That’s trivia.
In my post about instructor bio’s, I talked about the importance of providing basic answers to the questions of who, what, when, and where. That’s simply because some things are easier to convey and digest in a small chunk. Questions of why and how are too big to be answered in one neat paragraph. But that’s the meat of what you should be studying in History and other disciplines.
But even if could conduct comprehensive interviews, crunch all kinds of statistics, or dig through the dustiest of archives, there are just some things that you won’t truly understand unless you experience it firsthand.
Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the death of Frankie Manning. He was with us for almost 95 years, sharing himself by speaking and dancing. Despite that generosity, there’s a lot of knowledge and experience that he either did not or could not share, and that's what makes his loss that much more tragic.
When I used to work at the National Museum of the American Indian, it was, and still is, a big deal for them to emphasize that that is a place where natives tell their own stories, and are not coldly analyzed by outsiders. The reason for that is what you gain in objectivity through the latter, you also lose in perspective.
This is why I appreciated the gesture at the end of the Q & A session for “Soundtrack of the Revolution.” The moderator asked us all to rise, join hands with the person next to us and sing the beginning of “We Shall Overcome.” It sounds cheesy, but I was surprised at myself for knowing as many (but not all) the lyrics especially since it's a song that I’ve ever formally learned.
It reminded me of something that Skye Humphries wrote for this blog in reference to the concept of “a usable past.” I touch on that subject myself on a re-posted blog about cultural memory and dance. In short, singing isn’t always just about singing, in the same way dance isn’t always just about dance. The former director of NMAI, Rick West, summed it up nicely in a speech he gave about Native American crafts.
“In creating and making the art we have, both for the ages past and for the present, we are, in the end and as Native people, not merely creating objects for commerce. We are, as we always have, also marking, for the world to see, to know, and to value, profoundly important pieces of our lives, our worlds, our experiences through time – ultimately, our realities. Those acts, among the most significant for any human being, really are for us rather than for someone else in the end, and for that reason alone we must respect and treasure them always – for ourselves and as our legacy to those who will come after us.”
During the Q & A, the director of the film shared that he has gotten some criticisms for his use of modern singers like Joss Stone, Wyclef Jean, and John Legend to sing alongside other more traditional gospel groups. I’ll admit the effect of seeing one of those contemporary singers in modern comfortable recording studios after watching grainy black and white footage of a man getting beaten is a bit disconcerting. But I think it serves as a reminder that most of those songs weren’t created during the Civil Rights movement. Many of them are hundreds of years old and pass down experiences and lessons that people can still learn from today.
For all the DC area peeps, if you missed it at Filmfest DC, then you can catch Soundtrack of a Revolution when it starts a week long run at the AFI Silver Theater this weekend.
Trailer for Soundtrack of a Revolution
Also, here's part of an older documentary featuring archival footage of John Lewis facing down state troopers on Bloody Sunday.
 “Native Weaving: Enduring Traditions of Life and Commerce”, Selling Yarns – Australian Indigenous Textiles and Good Business in the 21st Century Conference Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory Darwin, Australia August 13, 2006 By W. Richard West, Jr. Director, National Museum of the American Indian Smithsonian Institution Washington, D.C.