The Death of Emmett Till

On January 24 in 1956, Look magazine published “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi” that featured a confession from two men claiming they had murdered the teenage Emmett L. Till on August 28, 1955.  The killing would inspire both Bob Dylan and the Civil Rights movement.

The Murder

Jurors had acquitted the two white men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, of the 1955 kidnapping and murder of Till. But after the acquittal, in the magazine article, Bryant and Milam described the killing.

After beating and shooting Till, they used barbed wire to tie a heavy cotton gin fan around his neck to weigh down his body when they threw him in the Tallahatchie River.

Throughout the ordeal, the two men could not break the spirit of the teenager.  Till maintained that he was as good as them and that he had dated white women.

Emmett Till

Till was a 14-year-old African-American teenager from Chicago.  Prior to his death, he was visiting Mississippi relatives in 1955.

In Money, Mississippi, he went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to buy some candy. Reportedly, while he was in the store, the teen either whistled at or requested a date from Carolyn Bryant, who ran the store with her husband Roy, who was out of town.

As word spread around town about the incident, the husband Roy Bryant returned to town and contacted his half-brother J.W. Miliam. A few days after the encounter in the store between Till and Byrant’s wife, Miliam and Bryant abducted Till from his great-uncle’s home. Three days later Till’s body was found in the river.

Response to the Murder

Word of the horrible killing spread. Reportedly, 50,000 people attended the funeral, where Till’s mother had an open casket to show the world what was done to her son (warning: disturbing photo at link).

Authorities arrested Miliam and Bryant, who were tried and acquitted by an all-white all-male jury. Many were outraged with the acquittal, and some credit the events with helping inspire the Civil Rights Movement.

Miliam and Bryant later both died from cancer.  But as recently as 2005 the U.S. Justice Department was looking into the case about prosecuting others still living who helped with the crime.

Bob Dylan’s “The Death of Emmett Till”

The events also inspired a young Bob Dylan to write about the Till in the song “The Death of Emmett Till.” He performed the song on a radio program in 1962, explaining the tune came from a song by folk-musician Len Chandler.

On the March 11, 1962 radio show, the host flattered the young Dylan’s skills.  But Dylan responded, “I just wrote that one about last week, I think.”

Relatively consistent with Dylan’s comments, in Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Oliver Trager reports that the 22-year-old Dylan wrote the song around February 1962.  That date means it is one of the first songs Dylan ever wrote. Trager also suggests that Emmett Till’s death may have affected Dylan because they were born only months apart.

Although Dylan initially was proud of “The Death of Emmett Till,” he later seemed embarrassed by its literalness.  He claimed he was just trying to write about something topical. He even went further and said that it was a “bullshit song.”

It’s true that the song does not rise to the poetic level of the more brilliant similarly themed song, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” But “The Death of Emmett Till” was a good start for the young songwriter, and it helped highlight a great injustice.

Through the years, listeners rarely got the chance to hear Dylan’s song.  “The Death of Emmett Till” never appeared on an official Bob Dylan release until in 2010 when it was on the CD The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 (The Bootleg Series Vol. 9) (2010).

This video below includes some historical interviews about the crime.  Dylan’s song starts at around the 1:55 mark.

The photo above of Till — whose nickname was Bobo — was taken by his mother on Christmas 1954, eight months before he was murdered.

How does “The Death of Emmett Till” rank in the Dylan canon? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Martin Luther King, Jr. Day News: From D.C. to Burma

    Today is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, and Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day here in the United States. Below are some recent stories related to the holiday. For more history on the holiday, as well as Stevie Wonder’s birthday song for the great man, check out this Chimesfreedom post on MLK Day.

    – The National Park Service will correct a paraphrased quote on the Martin Luther King Day Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C. The chiseled quote is not only an inaccurate quote, but the change makes it sound like a boast: “”I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” King actually said in a 1968 speech, “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

    Occupy Wall Street activists plan to honor King.

    The Grio noted that some people prefer to celebrate Robert E. Lee’s birthday on the King holiday.

    – The Milwaukee Courier wrote about “the New South” and the legacy of King.

    Slate has some newly discovered photos taken at the Lorraine Motel around the time King was killed.

    – Amnesty International considers what King would think about today’s criminal justice system and what he had to say about capital punishment.

    The Huffington Post collects a number of quotes from MLK. Hopefully these are more accurate than the one chiseled in stone on the memorial.

    – Finally, below is a 2009 U2 performance of “MLK,” the final song song from their Unforgettable Fire (1984) album. Here, they use the song as a lead-in to their song “Walk On” from All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2002).

    In this 2009 performance, U2 dedicates the songs to Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who for fifteen years was under house arrest in Burma to suppress her struggle for democratic freedoms. I think King would have been happy to share his song with her. I think he’d be even prouder to share his birthday weekend this year with Burma’s release of a large number of dissidents and the government signing a cease fire with rebels. Walk on.

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    Best Gospel Songs by Pop Singers 3: Ready, Walk, Great

    To those who celebrate Easter, Happy Easter! This post concludes for now the Chimesfreedom series on Best Gospel Songs by Pop Singers. Today, we feature a timeless pop hit, a relatively new country gospel song, and one of the most powerful performances ever recorded on film.

    People Get Ready, The Impressions

    “People Get Ready” was written by Curtis Mayfield. Mayfield performed the song well, as have others like Al Green, Eva Cassidy, Rod Stewart, Alicia Keys, Crystal Bowersox, and Bob Dylan. But the original version by the Impressions, with Mayfield on guitar, is what sticks in one’s mind when you think of the timeless song.

    “People Get Ready” was released in 1965, and we associate the call for change with the social and Civil Rights movements. Indeed, the song was inspired by the 1963 March on Washington. But Mayfield’s music is straight from gospel, and the lyrics are also a testament to faith: “Faith is the key / Open the doors / and board them / There’s room for all / Among the loved and lost.”

    In a Curtis Mayfield biography, Peter Burns described “People Get Ready” as “a song of faith really, a faith that transcends any racial barrier and welcomes everyone onto the train. The train that takes everyone to the promised land, really.”

    The Impressions and Mayfield also performed something of a miracle in creating a hit record that also became a gospel standard covered by so many artists. Bob Marley incorporated the guitar riff and some of the lyrics into “One Love.” And Bruce Springsteen incorporated part of “People Get Ready” into his moving “Land of Hope and Dreams.”

    Rolling Stone Magazine ranked the song as the twenty-fourth greatest song of all time. And one cannot really argue with that.

    Can’t Even Walk, Marty Stuart

    Marty Stuart has an interesting position in country music. He stands between the generations of authentic classic country music and the newer pop country music. As he has aged, he has generally chosen to reside in the former, paying tribute to the talented old guard of country, like Johnny Cash, while many other modern country singers try to emulate Billy Joel more than the Louvin Brothers.

    Marty Stuart has recorded some excellent concept albums in recent years that are mostly overlooked. “Can’t Even Walk” is a beautiful song off his album of gospel songs, Souls’ Chapel (2005).

    I thought that I could do a lot on my own;
    I thought I, I thought I could make it all alone;
    I thought, I thought of myself
    As a mighty, mighty big man;
    But I realize I can’t even walk
    Without You holding my hand

    Unfortunately, there is only the above amateur video of Marty Stuart’s “Can’t Even Walk,” but give it a listen. Also, if you like the song, check out this very sweet version of the song sung by what appears to be a talented grandmother and grandson [2016 Update: Unfortunately, the video is no longer available]. I love it and would have posted it here, but it would not be fair to put them adjacent to the next powerful professional performance. . .

    How Great Thou Art, by Elvis Presley

    Critics often give bad reviews to In Concert (1977), the album of Elvis Presley’s June 1977 performances recorded for a TV special. The recording of one of Elvis’s final performances may not be the quality of his earlier work when he was healthy, but the CD is worth it just for the recording of “How Great Thou Art.”

    Here is Elvis, two months before he died. Overweight, sweating, with a body about to give out on him, but he still gave his gospel performances his all. The glitter on his jumpsuit seems inconsistent with the message of the song, and Elvis’s faith could not save him from his fated death.

    But in his performance he finds something deep within himself to cry out for help in an incredible despairing voice. Starting at around 2:20, he builds to a note that will send chills down your spine. If you only watch one video in this series, watch this one.

    There is nothing more to say after that.

    Check out our other posts in the series, Gospel Songs by Pop Artists.

    What are your favorite gospel recordings by popular artists? Leave a comment.

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    MLK Shot This Morning, er. . . Evening

    U2’s powerful song “Pride (In the Name of Love)” commemorates this date in 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed on a balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King was in town to support striking sanitation workers, and the day before he had given his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.

    U2’s song, which was from The Unforgettable Fire (1984) album, recounts the assassination:

    Early morning, April 4
    Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
    Free at last, they took your life
    They could not take your pride

    The shooting occurred at around 6:01 p.m. on this date, so why does “Pride (In the Name of Love)” refer to “early morning”? I have seen various explanations.

    Some wondered whether at the time of the shooting, the band was in Dublin.  In that city, the time is six hours later than Tennessee time, making it just after midnight and “early morning” in Ireland. But then the date for them would have been April 5, and the song still has the correct Tennessee date of April 4.

    The time change could have been poetic license, but most likely it was an error.  Perhaps the error occurred due to Bono’s memory of when he heard the news.

    Sources note that Bono eventually recognized the mistake years later and began singing “early evening” instead of “early morning.” For example, in U2’s performance at the 2009 concert to celebrate the inauguration of Pres. Obama, Bono sang the “early evening” lyrics.

    This energetic Chicago performance also uses the historically accurate time of day:

    John Legend recorded a moving version of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” for King (2008), a series on the History Channel. His version, which also appears on the CD Yes We Can: Voices of a Grassroots Movement, is less bombastic than the U2 version, but it is still powerful.

    Legend replaces the “early morning” line with the words “late afternoon.”  Thus, he gives us a third time option in the lyrics to “Pride (In the Name of Love)”

    Unfortunately, I listened repeatedly to the U2 albums The Unforgettable Fire (1984) and Rattle and Hum (1988).  So,I always expect to hear “early morning” as in the original music video.

    Either way, it is still a great song about a great man. And, the time of day Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed is much less important than what he accomplished in his life in the name of love.

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    Happy Birthday Homer Plessy: A Change Is Gonna Come

    Happy St. Patrick’s Day this March 17, which also is the birthday of Homer Plessy, who was born in New Orleans on March 17, 1862 and is one of the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.  His work and action of trying to take a train led to one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in history.

    Homer Plessy’s Train Ride

    Thirty years after his birth, Plessy bought a first-class ticket on a Louisiana railroad on June 7, 1892. Plessy, who was part African-American, was working with the civil rights group Citizens’ Committee of New Orleans to challenge segregation laws.

    The Committee had notified the railroad of what was happening.  And when Plessy sat down in a car for white riders only, a conductor asked him about his race. Plessy was then arrested.

    Plessy v. Ferguson

    Plessy’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson.  In the case, Plessy overwhelmingly lost by a vote of 7-1.  In the case, the Court upheld the state’s segregation law under a doctrine permitting “separate but equal” facilities.

    Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote for the majority, claiming that if one views separate facilities for the races as implying one is inferior, that was “solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.” (163 U.S. at 551.) Justice John Marshall Harlan, who was from Kentucky, was the lone dissenter on Plessy’s side.

    “A Change Is Gonna Come”

    Sam Cooke’s famous song, “A Change Is Gonna Come” may have been partly inspired by an incident similar to Plessy’s that happened in the same state. According to Peter Guralnick’s Cooke biography Dream Boogie, in 1963 Cooke and his band tried to check into a segregated Holiday Inn hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana.

    The clerk would not let them check in.  Cooke argued with the clerk until his wife and others convinced him to leave because they feared reprisals. Soon thereafter, the police tracked them down and charged them with creating a public disturbance.

    Cooke wrote and recorded “A Change Is Gonna Come” the same year as the hotel incident. In the song, Cooke wrote, “Somebody keep telling me ‘don’t hang around.’ / It’s been a long, a long time coming, /But i know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.” Other national factors also inspired Cooke to write the song, such as Bob Dylan’s songs and sit-in protests taking place in the south.

    The Legacy of Homer Plessy

    Homer Plessy died on March 1, 1925, so he did not get to see Plessy v. Ferguson, one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in history, overruled. But his cause did eventually win. The Supreme Court overruled the case in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education, which was later followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

    Not long ago, the descendants of Homer Plessy got together with the descendants of Louisiana Judge John Howard Ferguson, the other named party in Plessy v. Ferguson. The two families created the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation to work for equality.

    Around 60 years after Homer Plessy took a seat on the train, another person helped inspire the Civil Rights Movement like Plessy did, by refusing to give up her seat in 1955.  In that year, Rosa Parks’s refusal led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a landmark moment in the struggle for Civil Rights.

    When years later Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, Rosa Parks sought comfort in listening to Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” She said Cooke’s voice was “like medicine to the soul. It was as if Dr. King was speaking directly to me.” (Guralnick, p. 651.)

    There is a little of Homer Plessy’s voice in the song too.

    What do you think? Leave a comment and give a Stumble if you like.

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