Only in America


Maybe with a mind to today’s inauguration, and the fifty year journey it represents for civil rights, I’ve been listening to Change is Gonna Come, a compilation of 23 songs from black America between 1963 and 1973. The songs tell stories of aspiration, anger, and sometimes despair, in a decade marked by political confrontation, assassination, overt racism (the segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace carried five states and won 13% of the Presidential vote in 1968), and police and judicial assault on black activists and organisations.

One of the most illuminating stories in the sleevenotes, written by a British fan and collector, Tony Rounce, is of the song “Only In America”, written in 1963 by the Brill Building songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, and now best associated with the cleancut Jay and the Americans. But it was written originally for The Drifters, whose version is heard here.

Only in America
Can a kid without a cent
Get a break and maybe grow up to be President

The original lyric (now lost) was, apparently, darker and more ironic, and Leiber and Stoller, in their words. ‘whitened it’, but still intended that it should be performed by a black singer. Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler – certainly no racist – told Stoller, “We’d be lynched if we released that”.

The record sometimes feels like listening to a newsreel of the 60s. There’s an astonishing song about George Wallace by Ray Scott, The Prayer, wishing upon him ever worsening events. I’m not going to spoilt the punchline. George Perkins’ Crying in the Streets captures the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination, without ever mentioning him by name. And George Jackson, by J P Robinson, recalls the self-taught activist, radicalised in Soledad prison, and shot in the back by prison guards allegedly while trying to escape. His Soledad Brother is an essential text for anyone trying to understand the era.

The picture at the top of this post – used on the back of the record’s booklet – makes another link between white musicians and black civil rights activists. In the Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, Mavis Staples (who sings here on The Staples Sisters’ When Will We Be Paid) recalls her astonishment on hearing Blowin’ in the Wind that a white singer should so articulate so powerfully the aspirations and frustrations of black people. Sam Cooke wrote A Change is Gonna Come, which became an anthem of the civil rights movement, as a response to the Dylan song. For contractual reasons Otis Redding’s version is used here; but perhaps it’s one of those covers that improves on the original.

The image, of protestors in Beale Street in Memphis, shows civil rights protestors walk past National Guardsmen with fixed bayonets From the Voices of Civil Rights website.

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