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 won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe award. It was performed by John Legend and the rapper Common.
 
But another track in the credits features the very voice of the marchers. The lyrics to their songs spoke of hope, defiance and unity. They 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. He had come down South in 1965 with a group of clergy. They were 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. The resulting "Freedom Songs: Selma, Alabama," was released more than 50 years ago. It has never been out of print. It is one of two Smithsonian albums covering the era.
 
The album is most unusual because it is both an authentic documentary of the marches for voting rights as well as a collection 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 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. He 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, Carl Benkert and others from the Detroit area were enlisted to be night watchmen for the marchers. Their job was to keep sure things remained safe overnight, she said.
 
In the daytime, Benkert had his tape recorder at the ready. He kept it 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". It was recorded at Zion Methodist Church. The church is in Marion, Alabama. It is the church where Jimmie Lee Jackson was beaten by troopers and shot by a state trooper. It happened while he was participating in a peaceful voting rights rally.
 
The killing inspired the Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights. The march finished at Edmund Pettus Bridge across the Alabama River a month later.
 
An evening mass meeting was held on March 18, 1965. It was at the church where Jackson had been a deacon. The meeting "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. This came 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. That's judging by 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. It 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. 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 (42)
  • luisa-kul
    1/10/2017 - 01:52 p.m.

    I think its amazing how this songs still inspire people today, this tell us that no matter how old is a song, if the song inspired the people once, it can make it twice. I also like this kind of songs because they make me feel like i am living in the good old days.

  • aaliyahv-hei
    1/10/2017 - 03:41 p.m.

    They used the voices of the marchers to show what they said during the march.

  • eduardov-kul
    1/11/2017 - 11:31 a.m.

    It’ cool that this songs inspire a lot of people. This song has a really good message of respect. I think that this songs are really cool. A lot of things are happening in the United States we should hear this type of songs so they can be better as a Country.

  • charliet-orv
    1/12/2017 - 11:55 a.m.

    Because it shows what those people back then had to go through. So it's a more effective film.

  • andrewf-kul
    1/13/2017 - 01:53 p.m.

    I think this is super cool. Music has always been a great motivator. Whether it's from way back in the day when native americans would use pow wows and dance to music to motivate their war party, or if it's today and your trying to motivate yourself to play a basketball game.

  • charmaynes-kul
    1/13/2017 - 10:48 p.m.

    It is cool that it still has importance today. If we never saved anything from the past what would we learn in school today? Since they keep history we are able to learn about these different things in school today. It is interesting it shows the hardships people went through back then. It is important that we still have things like that around.

  • jasmineb1-bur
    1/17/2017 - 01:21 p.m.

    The creator of the movie Selma chose to use the real voices of the marchers because it leaves a more powerful affect on watchers to show that this fight is one to be remember. I feel that many people don't understand that African Americans don't like when white people steal black culture. This relates to Selma because in the movie we play the sounds of marchers as they stand to fight for freedom and not long after that movie i hear whites questioning how they should have done that scene.

  • brassfieldm-bur
    1/17/2017 - 06:57 p.m.

    they used a recording of the marchers talking and singing

  • rcoat-wim
    1/20/2017 - 11:33 a.m.

    It does not surprise me at all that these songs are still listened to today. Little do some people know, songs are very very influential and inspirational to people. These songs are what helped the Civil Rights moment and who knows, maybe they will be used again in the next large moment.

  • lukeh-orv
    1/20/2017 - 11:48 a.m.

    This doesn't surprise me that they still have importance today. It is nice that we can still look back at that time period and have these recordings to look back at. I feel that we will find more and more every year.

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