June is a month of noteworthy celebrations. For Black Americans, two of the most significants events is Black Music Month and Juneteenth. It is easy to tell what Black Music Month is all about on a “popular” music level but I have found that there are a lot of people that do not know or understand the importance of Juneteenth. For thse of you that don’t know, Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of “negro” slaves after the end of the Civil War. Though the war officially ended on April 9 and the last shots were fired around June 22nd, it took awhile for word to move across the country that the slaves had been freed. Some states like Texas were extremely resistant to the Emancipation Proclamation and it took federal troops to enforce it. This was particularly so in Galveston, Texas which is said to be orginator of Juneteenth celebrations.
Because these events (Black Music Month and Juneteenth) coincide during the month of June it is easy to see a connection that is more than just symbolic. Black music has long been referred to as “soul” music, but its origination happened way before the music that the title is currently applied to. I asked my friend and writer Wendy Woods Jackson to share her thoughts on Black Music Month and the Juneteenth celebrations and not surprisingly she came back with a piece that in my opinion smartly shows the thread of the “original” soul music and it’s relationship to the emancipation of the black slaves. The following is from the pen of Ms. Jackson.
The music we brought with us from a land far away was rhythmic blends that spoke to the soul. We found ourselves in unfamiliar waters and land and it was the music that universally gave our hearts clear message that we could endure whatever we need to endure. The American lullaby would have you believe that soul music began in Detroit in the arms of Motown, and for those who define soul music as entertainment, then the simplicity of this story works. For those of us who understand the complex soul of black folk, we need a little “somethin’ somethin’ more”.
To dismiss the DNA of soul music dilutes its beauty and intelligence. So we won’t do that today. We’re just going to tell the truth even if the truth does not entertain, cause the hips to swing out or make the fingers pop.
We listened for messages in songs sung by the slave. The songs sung in coded rhythm bore valuable messages. They told us when to run and when not to run. They told us where the slave catchers were and where they were not. They encouraged us to keep going and don’t come back. The beat of the drum, the song with words that only a run-a-way could utilize for his journey to freedom. It spoke to his soul and told him, though we are not running with you, your freedom is everything for us and we will help you. We will sing you to freedom and you will teach freedom songs to your children and their children.
These songs and their coded words with rhythm were the same weapons used when voting rights activists in Selma, Alabama need to get a message to the people while Jim Crow and his enforcers watched without a clue. They beat us to the ground and, yet we still sung our songs from the soul. Coded words that told those who did not have the strength to join in the struggle, to find the strength and “Come on ya’ll!”
Soul music is not entertainment. It is not Hip Hop. It is not Birdland. It is not the Four Tops or the Temptations. It is far more impeccable than genre of music. Soul music speaks to a place only black folk can feel, and in this place we hear the message. The message says, “Don’t stop! Keep going, don’t look back! Don’t destroy! Build, pave and reach! Build, pave, and reach!”
So I would like to encourage one and all to celebrate these two events and remember how they are intrinsically linked.
Spirituals and Anti-Slavery Songs
- Go Down, Moses
- Free At Last
- I Got a Robe
- Steal Away
- He’s Just the Same Today
- No More Auction Block
- O Freedom
- John Brown’s Body
- The Abolitionist Hymn
- Lincoln and Liberty
- The Underground Railcar
- I Woke Up This Morning With My Mind On Freedom
- This Little Light of Mine
- Go Tell It on the Mountain
- We shall not, We shall not be moved
- Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
- Wade in the Water
- The Ballad of the Underground Railroad
- Follow the Drinking Gourd
- Darling Nelly Gray
- Swing Low Sweet Chariot
- The Gospel Train’s a Comin’
- Juneteenth celebration (centraldistrictnews.com)
- juneteenth (michaellangford.org)
- April 16, 2012 – Emancipation Day (goodolewoody.wordpress.com)