More than 50 years old, freedom songs still inspire today Civil Rights Movement Co-Founder Dr. Ralph David Abernathy and his wife Mrs. Juanita Abernathy march with Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King as the Abernathy children march on the front line, leading the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965. The children are Donzaleigh Abernathy in striped sweater, Ralph David Abernathy, 3rd and Juandalynn R. Abernathy in glasses. (Abernathy Family/Wiki Commons/AP Photo/Chick Harrity)
More than 50 years old, freedom songs still inspire today
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Of the songs heard during the credits following the acclaimed 2014 Ava DuVernay film "Selma", one of them, performed by John Legend and the rapper Common, won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe award.
 
But another track in the credits features the very voice of the marchers, whose songs of hope, defiance and unity were directly captured and documented by a man who carried a large tape recorder under his coat. Carl Benkert was a successful architectural interior designer from Detroit who had come down South in 1965 with a group of clergy to take part and bear witness to the historic march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
 
In addition to his camera, he brought a bulky, battery-operated reel-to-reel tape recorder to capture the history all around him, in speech but also in song. In their struggles to make a stand against inequality, Benkert wrote, "music was an essential element; music in song expressing hope and sorrow; music to pacify or excite; music with the power to engage the intelligence and even touch the spirit."
 
So stirring were the tracks he captured in churches and marches that they were recorded on a Folkways Records album within a matter of months. The resulting "Freedom Songs: Selma, Alabama," released more than 50 years ago and which has never been out of print, is one of two Smithsonian albums covering the era. It is that most unusual of albums, an authentic documentary of the marches for voting rights as well as a compendium of march songs that would inspire and be used in marches for freedom ever since. (The Smithsonian acquired Folkways in 1986 after the death of its founder Moses Asch and continues the label as Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.)
 
"I was really pretty thrilled," said Catherine Benkert, when she first learned that her father's recordings were in the film. "I told everybody I knew. He would have been thrilled, too."
 
The elder Benkert died in 2010 at 88 and had been a lifelong amateur audio documentarian.
 
"He made a point of being at some of those important junctures of the 20th Century," says family friend Gary Murphy.
 
"He made a recording of the last steam engine trip that went between Pontiac and Detroit - in stereo," Benkert adds. "And that was back when stereo was brand new."
 
Why did he go to Alabama?
 
"Dr. King called for people to come and he felt moved to do it," she said.
 
While in Alabama, Benkert and others from the Detroit area were enlisted to be night watchmen for the marchers, to keep sure things remained safe overnight, she said, "making sure nothing was happening there."
 
In the daytime, Benkert had his tape recorder at the ready, albeit behind an overcoat that cloaked it from police or angry whites. Songs rose frequently.
 
"He told me that when people were scared down there, people would sing," Murphy said.
 
The track used in "Selma" was a percussive-heavy medley of "This Little Light of Mine / Freedom Now Chant / Come by Here" recorded at Zion Methodist Church in Marion, Alabama, where Jimmie Lee Jackson was beaten by troopers and shot by a state trooper while he was participating in an earlier peaceful voting rights rally.
 
The killing inspired the Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights that culminated at Edmund Pettus Bridge across the Alabama River a month later.
 
An evening mass meeting on March 18, 1965, at the church where Jackson had been a deacon "was attended to overflowing by residents and visitors who had spent the day working in the counties north of Selma," Benkert recalled in the liner notes in his album. 
 
In the medley, the familiar, optimistic song of determination, "This Little Light of Mine," driven by percussive clapping, shifts to the familiar and still heard "Freedom! Now!" chant, before the entreaty for heavenly support: "People are suffering, Lord, come by here/ People are dying, my Lord, come by here."
 
For Benkert, traveling to Selma in those charged times provided the opportunity "to see life in a vital totality never otherwise experienced," he wrote. It was a moment that permanently affected him, judging from his comments on the Zion Methodist mass meeting. "Participating in 'We Shall Overcome' is always a moving occasion for the spirit," Benkert wrote, "but this was for the few outsiders present the most powerful and electrifying yet experienced."
 
And a number of his recordings of speeches, particularly by Martin Luther King, have had historic importance. Benkert made the only known recording of a May 31, 1965, King speech that came at the end of the march to Montgomery, that had grown to 50,000 people during its five days. In it, King told supporters at Brown Chapel in Selma, "Equality is more than a matter of mathematics and geometry. Equality is a philosophical and psychological matter and if you pluck me from communicating with a man at that moment you are saying that I am not equal to that man.
 
"Let us not rest until we end segregation and all of its dimensions," King said. Benkert donated the bulk of his recordings and papers to the University of Michigan before his death, but royalties for the Selma recordings still come in, his daughter said.
 
"To be still in print after 50 years, it's got to be part of the fabric of the whole American story," says Murphy. "It will probably never go away."
 
And the attention of the "Selma" movie likely brought new audiences to the original recordings, Catherine Benkert said. "His whole thing, with any of his recordings, was: he wanted people to hear them."

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why did the film "Selma" use the very voices of the marchers?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (17)
  • yeseniam-bri
    1/18/2017 - 10:26 a.m.

    During the march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama, the people note only shouted but also sang. Carl Benkert had a recorder underneath his coat and captured this moment. The song was used in the credits of the movie, Selma.

  • josea-bri
    1/18/2017 - 10:35 a.m.

    so that it could be directly from the people marching

  • rileya-bri
    1/18/2017 - 12:28 p.m.

    He didnt want it to just be a movie he wanted actual recordings so it would mean something."His whole thing, with any of his recordings, was: he wanted people to hear them."It made the movie turn into a real life experence.

  • ashlynnb-bri
    1/18/2017 - 12:29 p.m.

    very voice of the marchers, whoes songs of hope, defiance and unity were directly captured and documented by a man who carried a large tape recorder under his coat.

  • maed-pla
    1/24/2017 - 12:05 a.m.

    During the film Selma, a song featuring voices from real people during the march was used. Using voices from over 50 years ago was made possible after a marcher, Carl Benkert, hid a recorder under his coat. This article really resonates with me because it is about a group of people coming together and finding hope through songs during bleak times. The fight for equality has been a long and hard process that still goes on today, with protesters like the Black Lives Matter movement and most recently, the Women's March. Protests are a way for issues to be heard so they can be resolved. It is also a way to stay civically engaged, as it epitomizes important American values such as democracy and first amendment rights. As I grow older, I plan to participate in protests to fight for what is right.

  • johnz-pla
    1/24/2017 - 01:23 a.m.

    The film "Selma" gained attention for its use of authentic period recordings of marching songs. Carl Benkert recorded the songs while participating in civil rights marches and rallies. Songs like "This Little Light of Mine" were used in the movie's soundtrack. Benkert was civically engaged by using his recordings to call attention to the struggle of the activists. Rather than directly approaching the government, Benkert sought to influence public opinion by giving them a firsthand look inside the civil rights movement.

  • rachelt-pla
    2/07/2017 - 01:43 a.m.

    Carl Benkert went down south in 1965 to witness the historic marches for voting rights in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. As an outsider, he experienced such a powerful and electrifying time, recording all of the march songs. When people were scared in the marches, they would sing, and these recordings were captures in order to preserve the time and for people years later to be able to hear them (a few of these songs were included in the credits of a 2014 film, "Selma"). In regards to civic engagement, Benkert felt the need to be a part of these events by promoting the quality of life, especially for those who were in the minority. Through the use of his recording, Benkert was able to develop a combination of knowledge, skill, values, and motivation to make a difference in the community and country. These recordings preserves the monumental times and makes them still stand true and be provoking, even 50 years later!

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