Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King

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By Kelly McCartney

On January 15, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 86, if not for the bullet that cut short his life in 1968. Today, Folk Alley remembers his life, his legacy, and his lessons as documented in song by some of the great roots artists of our time, from Pete Seeger to Patty Griffin, from Bruce Springsteen to Ben Harper. Now, almost more than ever, our world is at a crossroads, with love and peace down one road, fear and hatred down the other. It’s easy to wish we still had Dr. King around to show us which way to go, but he already did that. We just have yet to follow him.

Pete Seeger: “Take It from Dr. King”

Written in 2002, “Take It from Dr. King” was one of so many songs by Pete Seeger that called for peace. Here, in the wake of 9/11, he urges against a rush to war: “Don’t say it can’t be done. The battle’s just begun. Take it from Dr. King. You, too, can learn to sing so drop the gun.”

Otis Spann: “Blues for Martin Luther King”

On April 5, 1968, only a day after Dr. King’s assassination as the city burned around him, the great blues pianist Otis Spann performed in a storefront church in Chicago, unveiling two MLK tributes — “Blues for Martin Luther King” and “Hotel Lorraine”: “Oh did you hear the news happened down in Memphis, Tennessee, yesterday? Yeah, fellas, I know you had to heard the news that happened down in Memphis, Tennessee, yesterday. There came a sniper, wiped Dr. Luther King’s life away.”

Old Crow Medicine Show: “Motel in Memphis”

Focusing on Dr. King’s death, Old Crow Medicine Show lays it all out in “Motel in Memphis,” even name-checking the CIA. “Were you there when the man from Atlanta was murdered in Memphis? Did you see him layin’ at the Lorraine motel? Did you hear them say that the CIA is witness to the murder of a man at a motel in Memphis?”

Patty Griffin: “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)”

Inspired by Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, which he gave the day before his assassination, Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)” was first recorded by Solomon Burke in 2006. Other artists have also tackled it, but Griffin makes it ache: “The peaceful valley just over the mountain, the peaceful valley few come to know. I may never get there ever in this lifetime. But sooner or later, it’s there I will go.”

Daddy: “The Ballad of Martin Luther King”

Written by Mike Millius in 1968 and brought back around by Daddy, the band with Will Kimbrough and Tommy Womack at its heart, in 2009, “The Ballad of Martin Luther King” serves as a clarion call to never forget: “Gather ’round me, friends, I have a song to sing about a hero of our time named Martin Luther King; Martin Luther King was born to a sharecropper’s son and ev’ry racist feared him, and he never owned a gun. And I’ve been to the mountain top, and today I have a dream. Don’t you ever forget the words of Martin Luther King.”

Ben Harper: “Like A King”

Ben Harper, in response to the 1991 beating by police officers of Rodney King, drew a direct line between the two Kings in “Like a King” to highlight how far we had not come: “So if you catch yourself thinking it has changed for the best, you better second guess, ’cause Martin’s dream has become Rodney’s worst nightmare. Like a King, like a King, like a King.”

Dion: “Abraham, Martin & John”

This 1968 composition by Dick Holler emerged from that year’s deaths of both Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., but also incorporates two other fallen civil rights heroes, Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy. Although Andy Williams, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and others recorded the ballad, Dion made it his own: “Has anybody here seen my old friend Martin? Can you tell me, where he’s gone? He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good die young. I just looked around and he was gone.”

Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band: “We Shall Overcome”

First published in 1948, the gospel-inspired “We Shall Overcome” has served as a protest anthem for more than one generation standing up for more than one cause. A lot of folk singers have called out and on its message of hope: “We shall overcome, we shall overcome. We shall overcome someday; Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday.”

Eileen Jewell: “How Long”

Also inspired by Dr. King’s words, Eileen Jewell’s “How Long” holds tight to a faith in the arc of the moral universe that, Dr. King says, bends toward justice: “The darkness is deep, but night will end ’cause truth crushed to earth will rise again. How long will it take, you want to know? How long, not long because you reap just what you sow.”

Paul Simon: “So Beautiful or So What”

On his 2011 ‘So Beautiful or So What’ album, Paul Simon used the title track to shine light where there is darkness, offer hope where this is none. Because he invoked Dr. King’s message, he thought it also fitting to include his memory, as well: “Four men on the balcony overlooking the parking lot pointing at a figure in the distance. Dr. King has just been shot.”

Music from the 1963 March on Washington

Including performances by Joan Baez, Odetta, Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, Peter, Paul & Mary, and others, this compilation brings it all home.

1. Joan Baez: “We Shall Overcome”
2. Peter, Paul & Mary: “Blowin’ in the Wind”
3. Peter, Paul & Mary: “If I Had a Hammer (Part)”
4. Odetta: “I’m on My Way”
5. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez: “When the Ship Comes In”
6. The Freedom Singers: “We Shall Not Be Moved” (Cordell Reagon, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Charles Neblett, and Rutha Mae Harris)
7. Peter, Paul, & Mary: “If I Had a Hammer”
8. Joan Baez: “All My Trials”
9. Bob Dylan: “Only a Pawn in Their Game”
10. Len Chandler, Joan Baez, Stuart Scharf, and Bob Dylan: “Rally Song”/”Keep Your Eyes On The Prize (Hold On)”
11. Marian Anderson: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”
12. Eva Jessye Choir: “Freedom Is a Thing Worth Thinking About”
13. Mahalia Jackson: “How I Got Over”
14. Eva Jessye Choir: “We Shall Overcome”

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