November 17, 2010
On the night of February 18, 1965, 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson attended a civil rights rally at Zion’s Chapel Methodist Church in Marion, Alabama. But when the peaceful protesters exited the church, they were met with hostile reactions from the state and local police. Jimmie and his family tried to escape by decking into a nearby café, but the troopers followed them in and Jimmie Lee was shot in the stomach and died from his injuries eight days later. Although his death was officially investigated at the time, charges were never brought forward. The case was later reopened and earlier this week, 77-year-old former state trooper James Bonard Fowler was sentenced to six months in prison for pulling the trigger.
Jackson’s death was hardly a footnote in civil rights history. Rather, it was a driving force for the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches, the most famous being the “Bloody Sunday” march that took place on March 7, 1965 where some 600 people were attacked by local police with billy clubs and tear gas.
In remembrance of Jackson, and for those of you wanting to experience the sounds of personal empowerment, Folkways has two recordings that capture this moment in civil rights history. Music was a core element to these protests and Freedom Songs: Selma Alabama was recorded in 1965 and WNEW’s Story of Selma helps to paint a sonic picture of the times. You can sample these items using our music player below and you can also purchase them from the Smithsonian Folkways.
June 23, 2010
Soccer and music blend together to create an atmosphere that is unique only to the beautiful game. For 90 minutes, players are serenaded by supporters who don’t ask for tips in return, just that magical goal that sends them into hysteria.
As you read this, USA supporters in South Africa are almost certainly singing into the night celebrating today’s dramatic, stoppage-time win over Algeria that secures the U.S. Men’s National Team a place in the knockout stages of the FIFA 2010 World Cup for the first time since 2002.
Music is how fans communicate with their team and inspire them to victory. They live and die with every pass and their emotions fill every song and chant. Whether it be drums in South America, the vuvuzela in South Africa or good old fashioned singing in England, music can be heard in stadiums around the world.
Music and soccer are not always a perfect match as Shakira demonstrated with her official FIFA 2010 World Cup song, “Waka Waka – Time for Africa.” Criticism for the song was immediate as South Africans demanded to know why a Colombian singer was chosen to write and perform a song that represents their continent and features African elements throughout and yet, not performed by an African.
What has become synonymous with Africa at this year’s World Cup and has provided the background track to the world’s biggest sporting event is the vuvuzela, the plastic horn South African fans use to cheer on their beloved Bafana Bafana (The Boys, The Boys). Noise levels inside stadiums have reached deafening levels, broadcasters are filtering out the noise as much as possible; even the players have complained. (This editor’s dog hides under the sofa.)
But happily, the buzzing drone of the vuvuzela is not all that South Africa has to offer when it comes to music. To celebrate, we suggest you check out “This Land is Mine: South African Freedom Songs” from Smithsonian Folkways, which features songs that you can sing while sitting on your couch watching the next World Cup match.
Your neighbors will thank you for not breaking out your vuvuzela.
May 26, 2010
One of the things I remember most about growing up is that my dad was always whistling. Always. While he did the dishes, was out in the yard, driving us to soccer practice and even, to our horror, while walking around in public places (cause enough for my brothers and I to quickly dash to another aisle in the grocery store.)
It wasn’t until I tried to whistle myself that I realized it was more of an art than an embarrassment. Some people I know can’t even make a sound when they try to whistle, and though I can whistle and even stay in tune, I don’t have nearly the range my father does. He even makes a nice vibrato.
Whistling is on my mind today as the 37th International Whistlers Competition kicks off today, drawing whistlers young and old from across the world.
The four-day event is held this year in Quingdao, China, but the competition began out of the Franklin County and Louisburg College Folk Festival in Louisburg, North Carolina. The festival began in 1970 and included competitions for professional and amateur performers. As the 1974 competition approached, according to the IWC, a man named Darrell Williams asked if he could whistle the song he wrote— “Little River Blues”—rather than sing it. The judges accepted it in a solo vocal category, which Williams went on to win.
After Williams won again the following year, the judges created a separate whistling category. And in 1980, the whistling competition was so popular it had to find it’s own sponsor, and became the National Whistlers Convention that summer. Soon, judges began inviting famous composers and whistlers to conduct workshops with the competitors. In 1996, the contest began to offer an international award, helping it evolve into the International Whistlers Competition it is known as today.
What? You can’t whistle? Don’t worry—the IWC folks tell us the competition “is also a time for non-whistlers to support whistling and for whistlers’ fans to join the festival of events.”
Get in on the action wherever you are with one of our favorite whistling tracks from Smithsonian Folkways, “Whistle Blues,” from Mary Lou Williams’ album “Mary Lou Williams: The Asch Recordings 1944-47.” (No relation)
April 15, 2010
Hate to break it to you, but your federal taxes are due today. Post offices are staying open late to accommodate the madding crowds of people who waited until the last minute to send in their forms. (Although those who decided to electronically file have the privilege of keeping the mayhem of deciphering tax forms within the confines of their homes.) Suffice it to say, nobody enjoys coughing up a chunk of change to the taxman. But misery loves company, right? To mark the day, why not spin a few tunes from these two Smithsonian Folkways albums and vent your frustrations by singing along.
That’s right. It’s a whole CD of songs that explore the many emotions that come with dealing with money from hope and happiness to desire and disinterest. Featuring the iconic talents of artists like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Lead Belly, this may be one of the few enjoyable ways to mark tax day.
The lack of financial resources during the Great Depression of the 1930s spurred the creative energies of folk singers, and you can get a musical portrait of life during those less-than-rosy times with this album.
March 23, 2010
For most of the years I spent in my college’s music conservatory, I was the only female tuba major. A little more than half a century ago, though, it’s unlikely I would’ve been there at all.
Today, it’s easy to count the music industry as one place where women have seen equal, if not more, success than men, but it’s also easy to forget that music, too, was once a male-dominated field.
During Women’s History Month, Smithsonian Folkways has compiled albums in a feature called “Women Breaking Musical Barriers: She Isn’t Supposed to Play That,” which examines the female musical tradition in both other cultures and our own.
Here in America, pianist Mary Lou Williams broke onto the jazz scene in 1924 when she was only 14, and just a few years after women’s rights were passed, Not only did she go on to play with some of jazz’s greatest musicians—Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong, Thelonious Monk and Benny Goodman, among them—but like many women of her time, she never had any formal training. She was a self-taught musician, learning how to play and improvise along with writing her own music.
When folk music was revived in the 1950s, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard became known as the genre’s female pioneers. Dickens, a bluegrass singer and double bassist, and Gerrard, a singer, banjoist and guitar player, formed a successful female duo, recording albums both together and apart. Dicken’s high-pitched voice, and Gerrard’s ability to hoot, shout or croon, made them one of the most famous bluegrass duo. The pair still sometimes perform today.
Female musicians around the world are still using music as a way to assert their social status. The Crying Woman Singers, composed of American Indian women from Canadian and U.S. Plains tribes, have worked to establish a position in their traditional powwow drum circles by teaching more young girls in their tribes how to drum.
In Ghana, where the Dagarti culture lives, only men are allowed to play the xylophone (the culture’s principal instrument). But the women there have still found a way to participate, mimicking the xylophone’s sound by stretching their dresses and hitting the fabric, like a drum.
And Jean Ritchie, an artist in the Anglo-Celtic genre, sings traditional songs without changing gender pronouns to reflect a female singer, which makes it sound as if she is singing from a male’s point of view.
See the Folkways feature for their full list of female musicians, along with videos and song recordings—or stretch your dress and try your hand at the cloth xylophone with this track from the Dagarti women.