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“Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”: Dirges for a King

By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan |with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Thursday, April 5, 2018.

James Brown’s appearance at the Boston Garden on April 5, 1968 -- a concert that was televised on Boston’s WGBH — has become part of the widely remembered lore associated with the aftermath of Martin Luther King, Jr's assassination on April 4, 1968; the proverbial Soul Man helped avert a “riot” in the streets by encouraging Black youth to stay off the streets and watch his concert on TV.  Less remarked, and perhaps remembered, is Nina Simone’s concert at the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island, three days after King’s death. Simone’s concert is notable because it produced one of the first recordings that mourned King in death, and one of the most affecting dirges from that period that addresses not only the loss of Reverend Dr. King, but so many others in the Black Freedom Movement.

Simone opens the concert with statement “We hope that we can give you something…”, highlighting her own and audience’s self-awareness of the events that had taken place just days before.  The Westbury concert was captured on an album titled ‘Nuff Said  (1968) that includes eight tracks from the concert, and three studio tracks, overdubbed with audience applause to sound like they were part of the concert, including the album’s one “hit”, “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life” from the musical Hair.

The moment’s self-awareness shifts quickly into protest mode with Simone’s “Backlash Blues,” a song that appeared on Simone’s Nina Simone Sings the Blues (1967), which featured lyrics from Langston Hughes who had died a year earlier.  Where the studio version is performed as a traditional barrel-fisted Blues, the Westbury version picks up a pace animating a sense of defiance, particularly with additional lyrics where Simone recalls Hughes imploring her to resist: “When Langston Hughes died, he told me many months before Nina keep on working until they open up the door.”  Broadly viewed, Simone’s live rendition of “Backlash Blues” is one of her her most political performances, performed as it were within the context of what political retribution looks like in real-time with the murder of Reverend King.

The centerpiece of the performance is “Why? (The King of Love is Dead).”  Ms. Simone offers a poignant introduction to the song, acknowledging “we want to do a tune, written for this day, for this hour” adding “we had yesterday to learn it” in reference to her bassist Gene Taylor, who had written the song two days earlier.  As Simone’s brother and organist Samuel Waymon recalled to NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday in 2008, "We learned that song that (same) day...We didn't have a chance to have two or three days of rehearsal. But when you're feeling compassion and outrage and wanting to express what you know the world is feeling, we did it because that's what we felt."

The song is performed as a dirge that is as timely as it was telling, given the gravity of a moment when death was not singular, but communal, as Simone emphatically sings  “Will the Murders never cease, are they men or are they Beast?.” Simone sings, with more than a hint of resignation, “and Did Martin Luther King just die in vain?” And as that lyric barely registers among the crowd, the song is quickly transformed into a strut — feeling more like a reserved second-line — with the reminder that King “he had seen the mountaintop, And he knew he could not stop.”

One of the most powerful moments of ‘Nuff Said, is Simone’s spoken monologue at the end of “Why? (The King of Love is Dead)”, where she reminds the audience of the literal bodies that had been lost in the field:  “Lorraine hansberry left us...Langston Hughes left us, Coltrane left us, Otis Redding left us. You can go on. Do you realize how many we have lost...we can’t afford any more losses (oh my God), they’re shooting us down one-by-one.”  Here Simone is recalling not only the losses just in that moment, but the impact of others losses like Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and so many others in the five year period, prior to King’s death.

There were many pop songs that tried to give significance to the sense of  loss experienced by the nation in that historical moment, particularly after the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy in June of 1968. The Rascals “People Got to Be Free” and Dion’s (of Dion and the Belmonts fame) “Abraham, Martin, and John,” written by Dick Holler before Robert Kennedy’s death are but two examples. The latter song was covered by many artists, becoming a standard of the era, particularly among Folk music audiences. A version of the song appears on Marvin Gaye’s 1970 album That’s the Way Love Is, and as expected Gaye’s treatment  — with a touch of longing -- resonates within the context of the Black Freedom Movement.  Yet it is another song from that period that appears on the album, Lennon and McCartney’s “Yesterday,” that perhaps more fully captures the collective mourning on the era (listen to Gaye humming the song’s bridge).  That’s the Way Love Is is notable because it would be Gaye’s last studio album before the ground-breaking What’s Going On (1971)

Jazz drummer Max Roach was one of the young guns of the Be-Bop in the late 1940s, and by the early 1960s was a leading voice of Jazz’s revolutionary wing, largely on the strength of his collaboration with vocalist Abbey Lincoln with We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (1960). When Roach went into the studio to record Members Don’t Get Weary in the June of 1968, it seemed his goal was to remind folk that there was no time to mourn; indeed Roach’s “Equipoise” (written by pianist Stanley Cowell) was literal exhortion to find the balance of the moment. The title track  “Members, Don’t Git Weary” featuring Andy Bey on vocals, was a line in the sand in this regard; Roach’s drum is insistent throughout, along side Bey’s “voice of God”.

Yes, there would be time to mourn, and Roach does just that on his 1971 outing Lift Every Voice and Sing, where he is joined by the J.C. Watt Singers. Recorded only days after the third anniversary of Reverend King’s death,  the album opens with a rendition of “Motherless Child” and closes with “Joshua”, a song that reminds the congregation, if you will, that others have to pick up the mantle. “Joshua” appears after Lift Every Voice dénouement, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.

When JC White, bravely asked: “Were You There, When They Crucified My Lord?” it was something more than just another memorial recording marking the passing of the greatest symbol(s) of Black liberation struggle.  “Were You There?” is a timeless “Negro” spiritual but at the moment that the JC White Singers sang its words, it became a defiant response from a culture that long understood that filling the air with the sound of Black grief and Black trauma was perhaps the most defiant act possible. “Were You There?” begins as a dirge — a literal death march — musically transporting listeners back to the horse-driven carriage that so many boldly walked behind on the day of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral in April of 1968.   

But just as you could imagine the collective Black body kneeling at yet another grave, for yet another murdered soul and succumbing to an unfathomable despair, the song’s tone changes.  Like the phoenix, the collective Black body musically rises and when the JC White Singers ask the subsequent question, “Were You There...When They rolled away the stone?,” as in the Resurrection — the place and space of death, the physical and psychic — is transformed into something like a freedom, a freedom not explicitly in the traditional sense of the world, but something more philosophical as simply represented in a phrase like “I’m — We’re still here.”

The power of these songs — these dirges — cultivated in the darkest and most dire moments of Black life in the Americas — is that they are so easily recalled at a moment of great distress. These songs were not simply emotional responses to loss, but really an important intellectual response — the way that Blackness thinks life, through death.


Mark Anthony Neal is chair and professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University, USA. He is a prolific author of critically-acclaimed publications. Dr Neal is the curator and editor in chief of the digital portal, NewBlackMan (in Exile).

“Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”: Dirges for a King

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