Faced with the violence — both legal and extra-legal — inherent in the Jim Crow system, civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s forged a culture of strength and resistance. And, as Macomb, Illinois, guitar virtuoso Chris Vallillo says, music played a crucial role in the development of this movement culture: “Songs filled the movement. They bred inspiration, courage and solidarity in the face of the ever-present threat of violence. Freedom songs would be the glue that held the movement together.”
With his new CD, Oh Freedom! Songs of the Civil Rights Movement (out Jan. 18 and available online at ginridge.com), Vallillo celebrates the movement’s musical legacy. As fellow musician Bucky Halker comments, “Vallillo is one of the hardest-working road dogs in the music business, and his new CD features skillful slide guitar work, carefully conceived arrangements and strong performances throughout.”
Vallillo wears his influences proudly, from country blues artists like Mississippi John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb, to bluegrass guitar wizard Doc Watson, to his Pops Staples-style tremolo slide on “We Shall Not Be Moved” (as Vallillo says, “on a 1956 Gibson 225 through a mid-50’s Gibson amp for guitar geeks!”).
In Vallillo’s view, music both connected the movement to the long history of African American struggle and provided commentary on more timely issues. “Singing has always been a critical part of African American culture. Many of the songs that became known as Freedom Songs had their roots in the spirituals of the slavery era,” he says. “For instance, the lyrics of “I Shall Not Be Moved” stretch back to the days of slavery. The song evolved through time from a gospel tune to a labor song in the 1930s sung by coal miners before becoming a civil rights song. “Oh Freedom” started out as a song believed to have been written in response to the Emancipation Proclamation and sung in public as a response to the news of freedom.”
Vallillo believes the songs remain timely given the resurgence of a civil rights movement around issues like Black Lives Matter and the student activism at the University of Missouri and other campuses. “One of the main reasons I had for creating the project was to bring this music and these issues back into the forefront by highlighting the struggle that brought us this far. Very few artists are taking a stand on issues of social justice these days, but many of the issues that existed in the ’60s are still with us. If anything, it seems as if we are moving backwards in terms of race relations, given the particularly nasty nature of politics today. Movements like Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and the recent campus demonstrations all can — and do — draw an important lesson from the way music was used as a tool in movements of the ’50 and ’60’s. Ironically enough, I recently saw a segment on the national news showing students out west protesting recent gun violence on campus with a sit-in style candlelight memorial. They were singing ‘This Little Light of Mine’.”