In the despairing days
after Dr. King’s death, the nation was overcome by the blues, so it
was fitting that the pre-eminent blues band in the land would play
for the activists in Resurrection City.
Two plow mules draw the farm
wagon bearing the casket of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
along the funeral procession route in Atlanta, Georgia,
April 9, 1968.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated
on April 4, 1968, he was planning a nonviolent movement
aimed at winning an Economic Bill of Rights for the poor.
Two of the
most inspiring currents in modern American history came together when
Muddy Waters and his electrifying Chicago blues band traveled to
Resurrection City in Washington, D.C., on May 18, 1968, to play a
benefit concert for the poor people and civil rights activists camped
out in a shantytown in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial.
Both of the
mighty rivers that converged on that fateful day in the nation’s capital
- the river of song and the river of justice - had their headwaters in
the state of Mississippi, in two of the nation’s most poverty-stricken
The river of
song had its source at the ramshackle wooden shack where Muddy Waters
lived and labored and first played the blues; while the river of justice
had its headwaters in Marks, Mississippi, the small town in Quitman
County where Martin Luther King, Jr. first saw the full extent of
childhood poverty and hunger.
Justice Is Like a Mighty
rivers had joined together in Resurrection City, the encampment created
by the Poor People’s Campaign in May 1968. One of Dr. King’s most
oft-cited passages from the prophet Amos likens justice to a “mighty
stream.” Five years earlier, Dr. King had delivered his “I Have a Dream”
speech at the massive March on Washington in August 1963 while standing
at the same location where Resurrection City now stood. He had quoted
Amos in his speech: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness
like a mighty stream.”
quoted that same biblical passage from Amos in “Letter from a Birmingham
Jail. And those same words are now carved in black granite in the
memorial to the martyrs of the Freedom Movement in Montgomery, Alabama,
the city where King helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott.
constantly flows over the inscription carved in granite: “We will not
be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like
a mighty stream.” King’s name is now engraved on that memorial with
the names of 40 civil rights martyrs.
is like a mighty stream.
On May 18, 1968, six weeks after King’s murder on April 4, an endless
stream of justice-seeking activists began flowing into Resurrection City
from all over the country, traveling on the Mule Train from Marks,
Mississippi; setting out on caravans from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in
Selma, Alabama; and arriving in Washington, D.C., after 3,000-mile
journeys across the continent from Seattle, San Francisco and Los
thousand people had made this pilgrimage for justice, and once they
arrived in the nation’s capital in May 1968, they constructed a
settlement of plywood shacks and canvas tents on the National Mall - the
first stage of their struggle for an Economic Bill of Rights for the
Disadvantaged. Dr. King’s vision of an Economic Bill of Rights included
the crucial elements needed to overcome poverty, hunger and
homelessness: full employment, decent housing for all, and an adequate
income for disabled people and those unable to work.
supporters around the nation were traumatized and grief-stricken after
Martin Luther King’s murder, yet several thousand people had fought off
their sorrow and outrage and had come to Resurrection City in a valiant
effort to be faithful to the last, best dream of the slain civil rights
leader - the Poor People’s Campaign.
doomstruck and despairing weeks following King’s death, the nation
itself was overcome by the blues, so it was symbolically fitting that
the pre-eminent blues band in the land would play for the activists
camped out in the nation’s capital.
Blues from the Mississippi
On the day
after King’s assassination, Otis Spann, arguably the greatest blues
pianist of all and a mainstay of Muddy Waters’s band, had performed two
newly composed blues for the fallen civil rights leader - “Blues for
Martin Luther King” and “Hotel Lorraine” - in a storefront church in
Chicago, even as buildings were burning all around the church in the
riots that erupted after the fatal shooting.
weeks later, on May 18, 1968, Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, harmonica master
Little Walter and bassist Willie Dixon had driven all night from Chicago
to play a benefit concert at Resurrection City at the invitation of
folklorist Alan Lomax, the man who had first recorded Muddy Waters for
the Library of Congress in the summers of 1941 and 1942.
recorded Waters playing the blues in front of his primitive wooden shack
on the Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale, Mississippi, where Muddy had
lived for 17 years picking cotton and corn and driving a tractor for
miserably low wages.
Now, in a
remarkable historic parallel 27 years after that first recording
session, the stark wooden shack that had been home to Muddy Waters on
the Mississippi plantation was mirrored in the hundreds of primitive
plywood shacks and tents erected by activists working with the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference to fulfill Martin Luther King’s vision
of a nonviolent insurrection for economic justice.
powerful currents of history flowed together and met at the base of the
Lincoln Memorial in front of the Reflecting Pool on virtually the same
site where Dr. King had earlier delivered one of the most momentous
speeches in U.S. history at the massive March on Washington for Jobs and
years later, Muddy Waters stood on the same spot, playing the blues for
a nation mourning Rev. King’s murder.
troubled, I’m all worried in mind.
never being satisfied, and I just can’t keep from crying.”
first time Muddy Waters was ever recorded in 1941, he sang those words
on a song that can be heard on “The Complete Plantation Recordings.”
years later, in 1968, those lyrics seemed to be a haunting description
of the grief in the souls of countless people who were left badly shaken
by the murder of Martin Luther King, and the recent assassinations of so
many others who had given their lives for peace and justice.
Muddy Waters sang, their hearts were “troubled” and they were “all
worried in mind” by the loss of Martin Luther King. Many felt it might
prove to be a fatal blow to the Freedom Movement, yet as they listened
to Muddy Waters sing at Resurrection City, the blues once again were a
better to play the blues for the poverty rights activists living in the
D.C. shantytown than Muddy Waters, one of the most influential masters
in the history of the blues, and a man of the people who had known
poverty while growing up in a shack himself.
Waters had begun developing
his brilliant slide guitar technique and enormously powerful vocal style
while living in the Mississippi Delta. In 1943, he left the plantation,
jumped aboard a train heading straight out of segregated Mississippi,
and journeyed to Chicago where he put together a band of the finest
blues musicians, including rhythm guitarist Jimmy Rogers, harmonica
genius Little Walter, and the matchless blues pianist Otis Spann.
Blasting the Blues at
described the impact of Muddy’s performance in Resurrection City in
The Land Where the Blues Began.
“Back of the
poetry that expressed their discontent rose the big sound that Muddy and
his friends had been cooking up, the sound of their new wind, strings,
and percussion combo. It had many voices: a closer-miked harmonica,
wailing and howling in anguish and anger like the wind off Lake
Michigan; Muddy’s lead guitar, with the bottleneck crying out the blues
all up and down the six strings, a rhythm guitar behind, both amplified
by big speakers so every crying note, every beat could be heard a
quarter mile away … and swanking it on a grand piano, Otis Spann,
filling in all the cracks with surging boogie.”
was first recorded, he was playing an acoustic guitar on the plantation,
but in Chicago, the country blues had been transformed into a brand of
urban electric blues that wailed with far greater amplification. But it
still expressed the primal spirit of the blues from the Mississippi
Delta, the blues Muddy had learned to love from his first musical hero
and his greatest influence, Son House.
music was rooted in the Delta, and Lomax wrote that it went all the way
back “through Son House to the one-stringed diddly bow, to the very
roots of African-American music in Mississippi.”
Now, in the
fullness of time, Waters had brought the spirit of the Delta blues to
Washington, D.C., invited by the same man who had first recorded him
playing his bottleneck guitar on the Stovall Plantation. As Muddy’s band
blasted the blues for the nation at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial,
Lomax described the impact that his hard-charging music had on the
poverty activists assembled there:
“The audience, folks from the
ghettoes of the Midwest and the Deep South, knew this sound. It was
theirs. They had danced it into being on a thousand, thousand nights in
barrooms and at houseparties. Now the old Delta music, rechristened
rhythm and blues, was on stage in the nation’s capital. A roar of
applause swept across the Reflecting Pool into Lincoln’s marble house.
The politicians might not be listening, but soon the whole world would
be dancing to this beat and singing these blues.”
Senator Robert Kennedy visited the
Mississippi Delta in 1967 where he found children
starving in windowless shacks, and saw the urgent need to combat
those who had heard the cry of the poor had responded by traveling the
long, hard road to Resurrection City. Thousands of poverty rights
activists had been battered by grief and anger and despair over the
murder of Martin, beaten by the police in a hundred demonstrations for
civil rights that had led up to this historic confrontation, and
battered over their entire lifetimes by the twin assaults of racism and
Poor People’s Campaign finally arrived in the nation’s capital to
confront the legislators who had allowed tens of millions of American
citizens to languish in poverty, they were besieged by unrelenting
rainstorms that transformed Resurrection City into Mud City.
demonstrators stood their ground through the rest of May and the first
weeks of June, but even as they tried to pick up the pieces and renew
their commitment in the broken-hearted days after Rev. King’s murder,
Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles on June 5, a demoralizing
and nearly unendurable death, especially since Kennedy was one of the
originators of the idea of a Poor People’s Campaign.
After he had
witnessed at first hand the shocking level of poverty, illness,
malnutrition and childhood deprivation in Mississippi, Robert Kennedy
and civil rights leader Marian Wright Edelman had encouraged Martin
Luther King to bring poor people to the nation’s capital “to make hunger
and poverty visible.”
reeling from the murder of Dr. King, the poor people’s movement had been
camped in Resurrection City for less than three weeks when they learned
that Robert Kennedy had just been shot to death.
Kennedy’s funeral procession passed through Resurrection City on its way
to his burial at Arlington National Cemetery, and as it passed by the
Lincoln Memorial, the mournful gathering sang “The Battle Hymn of the
Two of the
nation’s most prominent champions of poor people - and two of its most
outspoken antiwar voices - had been silenced. “Crucifixion,” an eloquent
song by protest singer Phil Ochs, poetically described the age-old
assassination of prophets, who were almost predestined for crucifixion
because they were “chosen for a challenge that is hopelessly hard.”
ahead to peace and justice in America now indeed seemed hopelessly hard
- and endlessly tragic.
Then, in the final chapter of
Resurrection City, the activists who had kept their faith and hope alive
for so many long years, even in the face of tragic assassinations and
countless police assaults on the movement, were tear-gassed by their own
country’s troops and, on June 24, subjected to mass arrests and
evictions by the police and the National Guard.
The Epic Journey of
Those who had come by caravan and mule-drawn wagons to
Washington, D.C., had traveled many long, perilous roads. But
Muddy Waters had traveled for decades en route to playing the
blues for the Poor People’s Campaign. It was one of the truly
epic journeys - a hard-traveled highway of historic
the evening of May 17, 1968, the day before he was scheduled to
play the blues for the poorest of the poor, Waters and his band
had set off on an all-night car trip from Chicago, reaching
Resurrection City the next morning, on May 18.
that was only the last leg of his historic journey. Muddy’s real
odyssey began long before that. He had traveled the nation’s
highways for 25 years on his way to bringing the blues of the
Mississippi Delta to lift the spirits of the activists gathered
in Resurrection City.
journey began at the Stovall Plantation in the Mississippi
Delta, where he had worked as a field laborer picking cotton and
corn, and then as a tractor driver. While living in Clarksdale,
Waters had been greatly inspired by the impassioned bottleneck
guitar and the deeply emotional vocals of Son House, one of the
foundational masters of the Delta Blues. House is my favorite
musician in the entire history of the blues.
The great blues musician Muddy
Waters grew up in a humble wooden shack on the Stovall
Plantation near Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Land Where The Blues Began, Alan Lomax recounts how he asked Waters
where he had first heard the song that became Muddy’s “Country Blues.”
answered, “I learned it from Son House; that’s a boy that picks a
guitar. I been knowing Son since (19)29. He was the best. Whenever I
heard he was gonna play somewhere, I followed after him and stayed
watching him. I learned how to play with the bottleneck by watching him
for about a year. He helped me a lot. Showed me how to tune my guitar in
wondrous to consider this direct transmission of the blues from Son
House to Muddy Waters. By studying Son House’s music for so long, and
emulating this early master of the Delta blues, Waters became a direct
lineal descendant of this deeply rooted strain of Mississippi blues.
‘His Voice Is in the Wind’
had labored on southern plantations, preached in Baptist churches, and
served hard time in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm penitentiary.
House’s impassioned blues were “created in the infernal laboratory that
was segregated, Depression-stricken Mississippi,” and “embody the
alienation and isolation of the modern condition, whatever the
listener’s cultural background,” as Tony Russell and Chris Smith wrote
in The Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings.
with unbelievable fervor and his intense, raw-edged slide guitar is the
perfect accompaniment to his harsh, raging vocals.
music reviewer David McGee captured perfectly the passionate intensity
of House’s slide guitar, writing that rather than employing intricate
polyrhythms or complex single-string solos, House fiercely attacked his
guitar and made it wail with unsettling intensity so that it howled
alongside his singing.
“House wielded his slide as if it were on the left hand of God: It
slashed, it wailed, it howled, it moaned, it wept.”
in 1988, but his guitar and voice have never been silenced. They live on
as a permanent gift and inspiration to the blues artists that followed
in his path, beginning with Muddy Waters. David McGee wrote, “His legacy
is a body of work rarely equaled, never surpassed. His guitar is in the
Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi; his voice is in the
Alan Lomax and musicologist John Work followed that wind through
Mississippi in 1941, and made some deeply valuable recordings of Son
House for the Library of Congress.
House then told Lomax about
Muddy Waters, and Lomax traveled to Clarksdale to make the first
recordings of Waters at the Stovall Plantation in 1941 and 1942. When
Muddy first heard his voice on those recordings, he finally realized
that he truly was a blues singer.
In May of
1943, less than a year after his final recordings for the Library of
Congress, Waters left his job at the plantation for good after the
overseer refused to raise his pay as a skilled tractor driver from 22
1/2 cents an hour to 25 cents.
The rest is
history. Muddy Waters boarded the train for Chicago, and never looked
back. He went on to electrify the world, creating an influential model
of highly amplified urban blues - born on the Mississippi Delta and then
alchemically transformed during countless late-night sessions in
Chicago’s blues clubs.
and Chicago’s other blues masters - Little Walter, Otis Spann, Howlin’
Wolf, Hubert Sumlin, Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Reed, Big
Walter Horton, et al - then began traveling all over America and Europe,
helping to give birth to rock and roll, jump-starting the British
Invasion, and ultimately inspiring music lovers all over the world with
their brilliant artistry that transcended all barriers of race, class
and nationality. They electrified the entire world.
Martin Luther King Witnesses
Childhood Poverty in Mississippi
Martin Luther King, Jr. described the significance that blues and jazz
music held for the Freedom Movement in a brief article written for the
Berlin Jazz Festival. King wrote: “The Blues tell the story of life’s
difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they
take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come
out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.”
King went on
to describe how significant and liberating that music had been to many
activists in the Freedom Movement. “Much of the power of our Freedom
Movement in the United States has come from the music. It has
strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It
has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.”
Just as the
Delta blues first came to life in Mississippi, so did the Poor People’s
Campaign. This attempt to build a nonviolent uprising for economic
justice first become an overwhelmingly urgent priority for Martin Luther
King after he visited Marks, Mississippi, a poverty-stricken town in the
Delta, in 1966.
come to Mississippi after civil rights activist James Meredith had been
shot three times by shotgun blasts on the second day of his personal
“March Against Fear” that began on June 6, 1966. Meredith had planned to
march from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, but Aubrey James
Norvell, a white assailant, gunned him down. Norvell would later plead
guilty to the shooting.
musician J.B. Lenoir sang out his outrage over the shooting in his song,
“Shot on James Meredith.”
6th, 1966, they shot James Meredith down
President, I wonder what are you gonna do now?
believe you’re gonna do nothing at all.”
response to the shooting, thousands of civil rights activists came to
Mississippi to carry on the spirit of Meredith’s march, and Meredith
himself recovered from the shooting and was able to rejoin the march as
15,000 demonstrators entered Jackson on June 26.
March Against Fear, an elderly marcher, Armistead Phipps, died of a
heart attack, and King traveled to Marks to preach at his funeral.
first visit to Marks, according to Hilliard Lawrence Lackey’s book,
Marks, Martin and the Mule Train, Dr. King was moved to tears by the
“pervasive sense of hopelessness and widespread hunger” he witnessed in
again during his second visit to Marks in 1966 when he witnessed a
teacher feeding her young students a slice of apple and a few crackers
for their lunch. Public schools in many southern states had refused to
accept federal aid for school lunches in their attempts to avoid federal
Wright Edelman described King’s reaction to these encounters.
uncharacteristically broke down in tears and had to leave the room.
Later, he said to Dr. Abernathy, “I can’t get those children out of my
mind... We can’t let that kind of poverty exist in this country. I don’t
think people really know that little school children are slowly starving
in the United States of America. I didn’t know it.”
accompanied Senator Robert Kennedy on a trip to Mississippi. Edelman
wrote that when Kennedy saw the poverty and hunger there at first hand,
“his profound shock and sadness motivated him to act too.” Kennedy’s
visit to Mississippi put hunger on the national agenda, and resulted in
a coalition that became active on childhood hunger, malnutrition and
illness, she explained.
Mule Train from Marks
of the Poor People’s Campaign was to make poverty and hunger and slum
conditions visible to federal lawmakers and to the entire nation. Due to
King’s heartbreaking encounters with malnourished children in Marks,
Mississippi, the small Delta town was chosen as an important symbolic
starting point for the Poor People’s Campaign. Ralph David Abernathy
later wrote that Dr. King wanted the campaign to start “at the end of
the world” - meaning in the impoverished town of Marks.
most well-remembered image of the entire Poor People’s Campaign was the
Mule Train that left Marks, Mississippi, on May 14, 1968, on a
thousand-mile journey to Washington, D.C. Twenty-eight wagons pulled by
56 mules arrived in the nation’s capital on June 19, and went on a
procession down Pennsylvania Avenue.
arrived more than two months after King was assassinated, Abernathy
wrote that the “Mule Train fulfilled one of Dr. King’s dreams.”
Blues for the Dreamer
It is deeply
instructive to listen to the poignant blues songs written in response to
Dr. King’s murder, and thereby learn how people from the grass roots of
the black community - people who were not activists or political figures
- expressed their heartfelt reactions to the death of a leader, and the
loss of a man they considered a friend.
us to see that everyday people had found so much hope in King’s
courageous activism, and held so much love for him. It allows us to see
how deeply they had shared his dream, and how shattering his death was
and political theorists have argued ever since about whether “idolizing”
King takes away from the message that it is the people who build the
movement, and not just the charismatic leaders. That is true in many
Yet, in this
case, the honest and immediate reactions to King’s assassination
demonstrate how much reverence and love people held for him, and what an
irreplaceable and prophetic role he played in their lives. Those
reactions went far beyond the expected levels of grief and encompassed
everything from the outrage that erupted in widespread rioting to the
love that was expressed in so many unforgettable blues songs.
The murder of Dr. King
brought forth heartfelt elegies from Otis Spann, Big Maybelle, Champion
Jack Dupree, Big Joe Williams and Nina Simone. (We will look at Nina
Simone’s brilliant songs about civil rights, freedom and equality,
racism in America, the “backlash blues,” injustice in Mississippi, and
the murder of “the King of Love” in a later chapter of Street
Spirit’s series on The Blues and Social Justice.)
Heaven Will Welcome
Maybelle, born Mabel Louise Smith in Jackson, Tennessee, was one
of the finest rhythm and blues singers of the 1950s and ‘60s,
with a big, beautiful voice that could joyfully roar out in
soulful celebration, yet could also deliver sensitive renditions
of finely nuanced ballads. It is difficult to fully describe her
vocal talents without sounding like a contradiction in terms,
because Big Maybelle usually growled out the blues in a
gravel-voiced roar, yet could shift gears to sing in touching
and lovely tones.
Maybelle drew on both dimensions of her vocal talent to record
an extraordinarily moving elegy, “Heaven Will Welcome You, Dr.
King.” (Her song can be heard on the CD compilation, “Big
Maybelle: The Rojac Years.”)
Although she roars through this hard-rocking lament with
unbelievable passion, she also demonstrates how a powerful voice
under perfect emotional control can be sensitive enough to
express the sadness and grief in the hearts of many.
Maybelle’s singing is so strong that it rocks the foundations of
the world - just as King’s death rocked a nation to its core.
Yet, at the same time, she sings as tenderly as a mother who has
lost her child.
Big Maybelle, one of
the finest blues singers of the 1950s and ‘60s, sang the moving
tribute, “Heaven Will Welcome You, Dr. King.”
begins her lament with shocked disbelief at the loss of Dr. King. It is
a deeply felt reminder of how hard it was for people to believe that
“the King of Love is dead,” as Nina Simone described King’s death in her
Maybelle sings with so much love and grief and urgency, she takes us
right back to the time when the nation first learned of King’s death and
tried, in those heart-stopping moments of devastation, to comprehend how
much had been lost.
don’t seem real, that’s all I can say.
believe Dr. King has passed away.”
heartbreaking when she sings, “I can’t BELIEVE that Dr. King has passed
away.” Her sorrowful voice breaks into a sob right after the word
“believe.” The immense power of her singing is made all the more
expressive due to the scarcely controlled catch in her voice.
In my mind,
this is the finest tribute to Martin Luther King of all, and Big
Maybelle’s bighearted voice may be the only instrument strong enough to
carry the weight of an entire nation’s heartache and outrage and tears.
In fact, Big Maybelle’s heart and voice were big enough to bear the
sorrow of the entire world. That is precisely what she does in singing
this final verse.
whole world! The whole world is going to miss you!
true! And I know heaven, heaven is going to welcome you.”
Maybelle’s Expression of
Maybelle’s song is also the most spiritually profound and the most
deeply consoling of all the songs written in the aftermath of King’s
murder. She moves seamlessly from her outrage at the “great waste” of a
great man who was needed by his people, into a beautiful expression of
her faith that he has gone to a much better place.
She sings, “I
know you’ve gone - you’ve gone to a much better place.”
Her anger is
vivid, her grief and shock and anguish are shouted out with all the
power of her being, and yet her tender affection for King spills through
every verse she sings. It somehow leads her to the same affirmation of
faith in heaven that was at the heart of Rev. King’s life and faith and
carries out a fascinating transformation of one of the most common
lyrical themes in the blues. The determination to not be defeated or
broken by the blues can be found in the songs of virtually every blues
artist. True to form, Big Maybelle tells Dr. King “don’t worry” and
“never feel blue.”
doesn’t simply adapt this common blues theme to fit her song about King.
Rather, she TRANSFIGURES it into an extraordinarily powerful message
about faith. She can tell Dr. King to never feel blue because of her
faith-filled certainty that he will be welcomed in heaven.
worry, never feel blue.
I know heaven, heaven is going to welcome you
Oh yes it
And Big Maybelle still has
another prophetic lesson to offer the world. Now that the dreamer has
fallen to an assassin’s bullet, those of us who are left behind must
carry on his work for justice.
“You served God’s
purpose and now you’re gone.
Those of us who are
left, in your name, must try to carry on.
There’s one more
thing, oh Lord, I would like to say.
Those of us who are
lucky, Lord, will see you again one day.”
Even to this day, after
hearing her song so many times, I am still amazed how, in just a little
over three minutes, Big Maybelle expresses an entire nation’s outpouring
of love and sorrow and anger, and then goes beyond that to teach us so
much about life, about death, about finding the strength to carry on
after so great a loss - and about faith in heaven and the spiritual
conviction that death will not have the final answer.
“Those of us who are
lucky are going to see you again one day.” Listening to Maybelle
sing those words, I am reminded of how much our nation learned - and how
much I learned - from the Freedom Movement led by African-American
people in the South. I learned nearly everything I know about
nonviolence, nearly everything I know about building a movement of
resistance. I also learned so much about the power of love and faith.
Big Maybelle’s song
conveys so much of what the great gospel singers rooted in the black
churches taught us. She sings with tremendous power and conviction,
“Dr. King, I know heaven is going to welcome you. Oh yes it will.”
Her singing has the
emotional depth of the blues and the spiritual depth of the gospel music
created in the African-American churches. Both these forms of music -
blues and gospel - come together beautifully in the way Big Maybelle
roars out the lyrics, “Heaven will welcome you, Dr. King.
She shouts out the word
“heaven” with all the vocal fury and passion of great Mississippi blues
singers like Son House and Howlin’ Wolf. Her voice is full of despair
and heartache and loss, an emotionally expressive outcry that only the
greatest blues shouters could match.
Yet, in that same voice -
a voice with all the soul-fire that the best blues singers ever
possessed - she also reaffirms all the love and faith in God expressed
in the great gospel songs.
‘I’ve Been to
On April 3, 1968, on the
day before his death, Rev. King told the congregation of a church in
Memphis, “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” I cannot help but believe that
Big Maybelle’s voice was powerful enough, and resounded far enough, to
reach that mountaintop.
Right after four Sunday
School students - Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson
and Denise McNair - were killed when their Birmingham church was
destroyed by the Ku Klux Klan’s dynamite, Martin Luther King talked
about faith. After his own home was bombed, Rev. King talked about
faith. And after King himself was fatally shot in Memphis, Big Maybelle
picked up the fallen torch and sang about faith.
Big Maybelle, one of the
most powerful blues shouters of all time, was transformed, for the
duration of this awe-inspiring song, into a pastor, a caregiver for the
Her spirit rose to the
occasion with a performance that is heartbroken, but still believing.
She is enraged and outspoken, but still gentle and comforting. Her song
is both an elegy and, at the same time, a freedom song in the best
tradition of the Freedom Singers who gave so much strength to the
We can only thank God for
giving Big Maybelle a voice big enough and glorious enough to roar out a
freedom song that transforms heartbreak into fierce determination.
“Those of us who are left, in your name, will try to carry on,” she
Labor organizer Joe Hill’s
famous statement, “Don’t waste any time mourning, organize!” is supposed
to be inspiring, yet it always has seemed somewhat lacking and
incomplete. It does inspire us to carry on the struggle, yet it tends to
reduce us only to political beings. When you lose someone near and dear
to you, a mere slogan to keep up the good fight doesn’t fully take into
account the depth of the human soul. Unless we’re merely political
automatons, more than that is at stake.
Why can’t we mourn and
organize? Big Maybelle’s song seems so much deeper to me, so much more
soulful and human-hearted. It gives full voice to our sadness and
tenderly expresses how much we miss the loved ones we have lost, while
also expressing an unbroken determination to carry on the struggle for
I’ll always treasure Big
Maybelle’s sweetly sorrowful voice singing the simple, yet profoundly
deep truth of our loss:
“The whole world is going to miss you.”
thanks to Terry Messman for granting permission to publish this article.
- Alan White,
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