Interview

Smithsonian Folkways' Intimate Look at a Legendary Civil Rights Activist

Songs My Mother Taught Me, an album of live and private recordings of singing by Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, was released earlier this year by Smithsonian Folkways to little fanfare. And it is a humble disc in many ways. Hamer was not a professional performer, though she was a natural singer, and there’s something softly moving about her home-based renditions of her mother’s songs. But these songs also bear witness to an intensely moving period of history that saw Hamer on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement. The opening track is the classic African-American gospel song “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” but the song becomes more powerful as Hamer speaks to the brutal beating she endured at the hands of Mississippi police (in custody), a beating that would stay with her for the rest of her life and eventually hasten her death. She’s singing this song also to the brother of assassinated Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, sitting there in the congregation during this recording. While Hamer and fellow members of the SNCC were being beaten within an inch of their lives in a Mississippi jail (and so were the next few SNCC members that came to bail them out), that same night Medgar Evers was assassinated in his own home, an infamous act that would later inspire Bob Dylan’s famous song “Only A Pawn in Their Game.”

The album’s thematic focus on songs from Hamer’s mother is another powerful statement, since much of Hamer’s strength against injustice came from her mother. Born to sharecropping parents, Hamer tells the story of her mother bringing a gun to her cotton fields as self-defense against whites looking to attack her children. While many blacks in the early 1900s were leaving the South in the Great Migration, Hamer’s parents stayed in rural Mississippi, braving the segregation and prejudice there. 

I thought it was a remarkably subtle and beautiful act to craft an album full of family songs for one of the main voices of the Civil Rights movement, rather than an album primarily of rhetoric, and somehow this is even more powerful than a speech, because it relates to our humanity more than our beliefs. It’s also sadly very timely. Hamer’s testimony before Congress of her beating was instrumental in the formation of the Voting Rights Act, which has currently been under attack, leading the Supreme Court to repeal part of the Act in 2013. As Black Lives Matters protests around the country call attention to the white supremacy of the American police force, Hamer’s story of her treatment at the hands of the police in the early 1960s is deeply chilling.

I wanted to learn more about this powerful album, so I reached out to national folklorist Mark Puryear, who produced the album. For three decades, Puryear has been one of the pre-eminent (and few) African-American folklorists, and he had a lot to say about this album and where we’re at today.

 

Devon Leger: Maybe you could tell me the story behind this particular recording originally.

Mark Puryear: It’s a compilation of a series of field recordings. This recording, the way it was first put out, was on a cassette tape and it was done with the vision of Worth Long who is a folklorist and scholar. He brought the idea to Bernice Johnson Reagon, who you may know from Sweet Honey in the Rock. At that time, Dr. Reagon was working at the Smithsonian American History Museum and had convened a number of meetings on different aspects of African-American heritage and history. She convened a meeting and it was Sounds of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s actually a Folkways recording, and she had a conference, a weekend long conference, that she convened to bring people together from the Smithsonian American History Museum. Worth [Long] came up with the idea of putting a compilation of Fannie Lou Hamer’s singing and field interviews together for the people who attended the conference. Worth did the background research, located the recordings. He put together this playlist, compiled the playlist, and then, they got permission from Pap Hamer, Mrs. Hamer’s husband, who survived her, to put the cassette out and I never could find out what it sold for, or if it was sold or if it was a give-away, but I think only 300 copies were printed or were actually produced rather. It was a simple cassette with a simple J-card. It didn’t have much information on it, just a picture of Mrs. Hamer on the cover. But the same playlist essentially, the same tracks. That’s how it came about and that sat for some years in the Smithsonian archives.

I did a project in 2005 or 2006. It was probably ‘06, when I did a survey of all the African- American recordings that the Smithsonian Folkways had in their archives. It was an exhaustive survey and the idea was to come up with some albums or concepts rather for recordings. Not really albums… I’m speaking like the old person I am. Come up with some concepts for putting out some of this material under a combined label: Smithsonian Folkways and African-American Legacy series which was also co-produced with the new museum, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. There have been a number of releases [in this series]. If you look in the Folkways catalog, you’ll see a number of releases that have been put under that sub-print or imprint.

This was one of those that was thought up and coincided with the Voting Rights Act. You know, this is the 50th year anniversary of the Voting Rights Act being signed by Lyndon Baines Johnson, back in ’65. So, if you know the background of Fannie Lou Hamer’s activism and her organizing skills… [she was] one of the more interesting and impactful motivators for Lyndon Baines Johnson to do what he did.

I read through the liner notes as carefully as I could but, are you saying that Fannie Lou Hamer’s work was key in Lyndon B. Johnson’s response in signing the Voting Rights Act in 1965?

It was a motivator. I think it was a significant motivator for him to do something, along with other people of course, like Dr. Martin Luther King. Many things were building, but Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony at the Democratic National Convention in 1964 in Atlantic City was such that it shook Lyndon Johnson… I don’t know if you’ve seen the video. You can see the documentary on American Masters called Freedom Summer.

She was speaking to the credentials committee trying to be seated as a delegate from Mississippi and he preempted her [televised] testimony with a B.S. press conference on the national media. He was essentially trying to keep the Dixiecrats in Mississippi from squirming too much and staying in his camp. In doing so, it backfired because there were only a few stations back then, unlike today with cable. There were a few national stations and they broadcast the testimonies in full the next day. It really was powerful because she spoke about her experience in Mississippi trying to register to vote, being basically terrorized and assaulted by sheriffs and state troopers in Winona and other instances in her life that really pulled the covers off the horrific living situation of African-Americans in that state. That’s the way to sum it up…

Bob Moses, actually who was involved with SNCC, Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, says, “Lyndon Johnson wasn’t afraid of Martin Luther King, he was afraid of Fannie Lou Hamer.” She impacted him in a way that many people didn’t because she wasn’t going to sit and negotiate something when she knew right from wrong. It was like, “This is wrong. There’s no nuance here. That’s wrong.”  There was no nuance to look at this, that and the other, which King had to do a lot, having access to presidents and access to powerful people, he always had to negotiate. That wasn’t her personality. [laughing] She’d seen enough people get killed, lynched and experienced her own body being terrorized that she was just like, “Eh, nah, no compromise here. Either we do it or we don’t.”

To be clear, she doesn’t have other recordings publically available. Is this the main recording?

When you say, “other recordings publicly available,” Smithsonian Folkways has, on the Song of the Civil Rights Movement, 3 tracks of Fannie Lou Hamer. I’m sure there are other archives and places. Some of the universities in Mississippi may have recordings of her. Many people were making field recordings during that time at rallies and different events. She also performed at the Newport Folk Festival and they were doing, as a lot of festivals were doing back then, to record for archival sake. There are recordings there as well. This is the only one that I am aware that’s been commercially available, that isn’t just in a research archive.

What was your role in producing this album?

My role was to seek the rights, to make sure that Smithsonian Folkways had the rights. We had to redo agreements with the estate of Mrs. Hamer, her heirs, for rights, agreements as far as royalties. Then, to do the research, put the liner notes together, do the photographic research. I did a lot of interviews with Worth Long, with Bernice Johnson Reagon. Bernice sang with her at different times. She performed with her at Newport; she performed with her on the boardwalk in Atlantic City during the ’64 Democratic convention when the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegates were trying to generate and persuade other state delegates to give them the votes so that they could go before the credentials committee. There was a whole set of steps they had to make before they could even entertain the idea of being presented to the credentials committee.

Did you ever meet her by any chance?

No, no, I never had a chance to meet her unfortunately. I was alive but young. I was at the ’63 march. I’m a native to Washington DC. I was at the march in ’63 but I was in tow of my parents. My oldest siblings were able to go on their own and be with their friends but I was in the care of my mom and dad.  I would have been in elementary school. It had a lot of impact on me. I think I had a lot of optimism coming out of the 60s and I’m really disappointed that it hasn’t come to fruition but that’s that. I think there was a lot of hope and optimism at that point for most people.

The interesting thing about Fannie Lou Hamer is she’s not primarily a performer, right?

I would say, no, Fannie Lou Hamer didn’t make a living performing. That wasn’t her focus. She had an incredible voice. Her voice, as one author put it, could marshal armies. Her singing and her spirit were very instrumental with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, in Mississippi. Also, in the Freedom Summer, she travelled to train students who were coming into the South and work during the Freedom Summer. She went to trainings in Ohio; she went to South Carolina, I believe, Atlanta. I know she was involved with Guy Carawan and the folk school there in Tennessee, the Highlander School. Just like a lot of the music of the Civil Rights [movement], it was music that was sung in solidarity, music to steele your spirit, to motivate people, it was music that was part of the moral righteous agenda that was behind the Civil Rights Movement. It was calling out the powers that be about their hypocrisy, about their brutality, about the terrorism tactics that were used against African-Americans, about the unjust economic and work situation, education, the whole thing. Many people have no idea what was going on in Mississippi at that time. That it was that bad! The economic and living conditions, sharecropping, things were that bad. Even today, it’s much improved but there’s still stuff going on in the South, as you know, that is a continuation of that legacy.

It’s interesting that songs were such a key part of the Civil Rights Movement. Do you have any idea why songs are not as much a key part of Civil Rights Movements today?

I don’t want to say I have the answer to such a question. I think songs are still there; I think people still use music as a way of creating solidarity amongst groups. It’s also, for the same reasons I said before, it’s to settle people’s nervousness, to bring them into a cohesive whole as a group of people [at a protest]. I can only say that today, so much has changed since that period in the 60s. I’m imagining you weren’t even alive then, I’m not sure, but I was and I can say that culturally, our country was in a very different place. That stuff that’s going on today, I don’t think people in the 60s could have imagined some of it getting any traction, or even being entertained as worthy of the attention it’s getting today, especially the politics.

Could you elaborate on that?

It’s just like night and day. We have current Republican candidates who are speaking in a way that I think if it was in the 60s, people would have called them out. The media would have called them out. The national media would not just be willing to make money off of the rhetoric and the spectacle, which is what is happening today. Today if you say something outrageous, you sell newspapers, you get clicks on the internet out there for advertising, therefore, you get coverage. In the 60s, just because of the nature of our media outlets, the nature of communication, that didn’t fly very well. People even in the national media… I don’t want to get too deep into the politics but you could compare it to the coverage of war and the Vietnam War in the 60s was covered in a very different than the current wars are. That’s a good comparison and contrast. The Civil Rights Movement today, or any movement like Black Lives Matter or the economic issues that are going on, really has an interesting burden compared to the past as far as morals. People are making up their own morals… It just seems very specious and anything goes almost. No one’s questioning; no one’s asking the hard questions. As I said before, that’s really what it is. They’re making money off of spectacle; they’re making money off of controversy whether the spectacle or controversy is worthy of the coverage or worthy of people’s attention, isn’t even being asked. It’s just, “Look at that! Look what he said. Look what she said. Look what they’re doing.” When you think of those times, in the 60s, people were not as gullible. I guess that’s a good way to put it. The people in the movement were not as gullible and the media was not as gullible or malleable…The advertising dollars that are paying for everything have become really powerful and are driving what’s presented to the media: what we talk about, what’re the topics of the day...

The Civil Rights Movement, I think today, they would be blacking out, for example, the pictures of the police with their dogs. They would be saying, “Oh, don’t show that picture of the guys hosing these people down, shooting with high pressure fire hoses.” Or, “Don’t show the people getting beat upside the head on the Pettus Bridge or the bus being blown up or the church being blown apart. We’ll just talk about it but don’t show any graphic images.” So, you see the sanitization of just keeping it palatable to an imagined public. Fannie Lou Hamer would not have stood for that; she would have called it out. “This is us. This is what happened. In my life, this is what happened. And the sheriff did this and that and that.” It’s just a different time; it’s a very different time.

To my generation, there’s something almost impossibly innocent about the thought of these people standing forward in the Civil Rights Movement with song, standing in front of all this violence with song. Obviously, they weren’t innocent at all; what she’s gone through is incredible but where does that come from? Is that an idea from the church that song would enable you to stand in front of this violence?

I don’t necessarily think that it simply comes form the church. Look at Fannie Lou Hamer’s mother… I recount that in the liner notes, she carried a pistol into the fields in her lunch kit. I think part of what gets lost in the younger generation because things have been not only marginalized but they’ve been reduced down to a few quotes here, a few quotes there. The way we teach any American history is really shameful. We don’t understand how much resistance there was throughout this country’s history, to the enslavement of people, all along the way. How many people really fought back? We have touchstone moments: Nat Turner, John Brown, but there were many more incidents that occurred during the enslavement period, during the period when we had legal slavery in this country. That was how many centuries? It only makes sense, if you think about human nature, that people were resisting over 300 years. There weren’t just 4 incidents or 3 incidents over 400 years of enslavement in America, there were MANY incidents. We just don’t have them in our historical knowledge. You have to do deep research to find out.

How does that idea relate to the Civil Rights Movement?

Because it’s all a continuum. The Civil Rights Movement was post World War II. Each time the U.S. went to war: World War I, the black soldiers fought in Europe, in France. They came back; the bloody summer in Chicago in 1919, right after the war. Race riots were all over the United States, not just in the South. That is not disconnected from the second instance where, after World War II, a similar push-back occurred because, there again, you have African-American men primarily coming back who have proven themselves in the way that America respects and understands. They were soldiers; they were warriors. That political act of fighting for one’s country is somehow screwed up and turned into this threat by the white power structure. They become a target for attack and the black community as well becomes a target for attack. The Civil Rights Movement in the 60s really resulted from a lot of those soldiers coming back and organizing. Medgar Evers, for example, who was killed while Fannie Lou Hamer was being tortured in the Winona jail. She got out of jail only to find that they had shot him in his driveway. He was a veteran. What I’m trying to say is that there is a continuum, and we in American history seem to think that there was peace in the valley between the Civil War and World War I and there was peace in the valley between World War I and World War II when, in actuality, the issues that were facing the black community and the people who were resisting, were getting very little coverage and are still getting very little coverage. It’s all part to me of the same process. These were different ways of dealing with and addressing some of the same issues. You had King with his non-violent process; you had people like Malcolm X who were much more willing to address the violence with violence... I think we tend to simplify and reduce things down to very easily digestible concepts, when it was actually more complex than that. Fannie Lou Hamer met both of those gentlemen and she didn’t have any idea that Malcolm was somehow wrong and that King was right. She saw both as having very righteous agendas. She did fundraising with Malcolm X.

This Smithsonian Folkways recording really captures a few things that I think are very salient here: one is that Hamer wasn’t raised to be an activist. Her parents were sharecroppers; they lived in the system that was very unjust, very one-sided. They didn’t leave the South like a lot of people did during the great migration. They, for whatever reasons, stayed where they were. They moved around the state of Mississippi but in their own way, they demanded respect for their humanity. That’s the best way I can put it. From the act of carrying a gun and telling a man who was coming to take a young girl out of the fields to do whatever he wished and her mother saying, “If you get off of that horse, you and I are going to have an issue.” In other words … “That girl’s not going with you and if you’re that serious that you’re going to get down off your horse to pick her up, I’ll shoot you.” That’s what I’m saying about resistance. People understood there were always negotiations going on in the world of enslavement and post-enslavement. They were always negotiations. Think about the white slave owners who had fathered children by slaves and sold them as slaves. What a negotiation went on there, what kind of mental leaving had to go on in that person’s mind to allow that to happen. Down to the people who would resist by taking their own lives rather than submit to enslavement.

In America, we have this nice box of “what it was” and it doesn’t really give you the full sense of what that period was. Fannie’s like a regular person who stood up and said, “Hey, at my local level, I’m not going to put up with us. I’m going to demand my rights.” She garnered enough attention that she ended up being presented on the national level. She wasn’t trying to do this, not like people today seeking publicity or seeking notoriety, to use that kind of a concept with her would be a mistake. She ended up back in Ruleville, Mississippi, in a sub-standard home and lived out her life in that same location. She wasn’t trying to get to the coast, so to speak. She wasn’t trying to get to a house in California or end up settling on the East Coast, getting out of Mississippi. That was her home. There were huge economic reasons why that remained her home and personal reasons too. That’s where she felt her duty was; that was where her feet were.

Was there a modern-day political decision behind releasing this album?

I think this album, in particular, is a timing issue: the 50th anniversary, having the African-American museum opening next year in 2016. It wasn’t thought of as a result of the issue of Black Lives Matter or addressing policing. That is an interesting coincidence in our history. That’s a whole ‘nother conversation, but we have law enforcement throughout the country, as some big thinkers say, doing exactly what people want them to do. It’s no accident that these things are happening right now but I think that wasn’t the motivation for this CD. The release of the CD was to give voice to her again. As Bernice Johnson Reagon said, this is something she really hopes every school library and university library has in their collection. It’s important. It’s a first person account. Hamer’s interviews, where she’s talking about being a sharecropper, down to the sound of her voice. Here’s a person who’s not a trained vocalist but has this amazing voice and this amazing power and vocal control singing a cappella, amazing pitch control that would put these people and these reality shows to shame. [laughing] It’s all of that. It’s just a reminder of where we’ve been and where we have to go.

There’s something really elegant about the fact that it’s an intimate look about her, where she came from. Was that in the front of your mind when you were producing this?

Oh yeah, yeah. I think that’s one of the beauties of field recordings… You can hear the background in the “My Life as a Sharecropper” clip, you can hear things in the house, you get the sense of that house by the background noise. That wasn’t a huge house. You get the sense, in those recordings where she’s singing with the congregation in the church, of the electricity in that congregation... I think that’s something that is really powerful. When you have good field recordings, when you have the person talking freely, not being guided, they can just talk. Especially somebody like Mrs. Hamer who was very candid. She wasn’t afraid; she didn’t have hesitation or fear.

I was interested in Worth Long. Maybe this is just my own ignorance but it seems that maybe African-American folklorists have been written out of the history. Like the controversy over John Work III and Alan Lomax. I hadn’t heard of Worth Long. That might just be me, but, speaking as an African-American folklorist yourself, do you feel that the contribution of African-American folklorists has been downplayed by the larger system of folklore?

I don’t know if I can say it’s been downplayed; I think there’s elephant in the room problems with the field. That’s true of the field. I’ve studied and have my masters in Ethnomusicology. It’s all of the allied fields: Anthropology, Folklore, they all branch off from the same root and that is: the ethnographic process. I think right there is where you encounter the problem or you start to see the elephant, or at least a piece of the elephant because the ethnographic process has always been about exploring the other but at the same time, othering, making a distinction. It’s been driven by, as one of my anthropology professors said, the European literary tradition. I think Toni Morrison speaks to that. She did a lecture years ago–it’s in book form called Playing in the Dark–where she talks about that.

I think the reason you sense this rather, not you particularly, but a person, is because: there’s a number of factors. Most social scientists of African-American heritage or non-white heritage in America have had to contend with being marginalized. Then you have that compounded by the process of who can write about who. Who’s legitimate? There was a social scientist, E. Franklin Frazier, who wrote a piece and he has since been discredited somewhat, but he looked at racism and racial prejudice as a mental illness for example. He was a PhD trained scientist and he took the methods he was taught and explored racial prejudice and came to the conclusion that this was a mental illness. It had the same markers of a mental illness. Back to your question about John Work III and Worth Long, it also has to do with the institutionalization of racism in America, to put it simply. There’s so much going on at an institutional level that people don’t even see. They just accept it because that’s the way it is. You run into all kinds of walls and problems with that.

I’ll leave you with this thought… When SNCC started the Freedom Summer and they talked about bringing in college students from the North and particularly, having white college students come down to help with voter registration, she was one of the people in the organization, who spoke up and said, “We have to do this because if we segregate, we’re being just like them.” That’s her moral compass… If we start segregating ourselves off as black people, we’re just like they are. We’ve already done it. Let’s do something different. She had other good quotes about wanting the world to see a world much better than the world the white man has envisioned. That’s not enough for her. “I don’t want to be like the white man. I want to be better.”

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MORE INFO on the recording at Smithsonian Folkways' website

This is powerful. Education on the times, on the woman, and on the music. Very much appreciated.

Awesome, Devon. So damn good.

Thank you so much for your story, it brought back memories. I was priviledged to meet Ms. Hamer in 1971. I traveled to Sunflower County with a group of high school students to build houses. I met a group of young children who taught me to sing "Down by the Riverside" which cemented my life long love of gospel music.

Great piece. Thank you.