Various Artists

Let Freedom Sing! Music of the Civil Rights Movement

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Much of the power of the civil rights movement came with its speeches, but the movement lived just as actively through music. Whether it was blues, folk, gospel, jazz, or R&B, and whether the artist was part of the cause or simply feeling the same yearnings, the music of the civil rights movement provided focus, unity, strength, and power. Time Life's three-disc box set, Let Freedom Sing! Music of the Civil Rights Movement, not only appeared at an auspicious moment in civil rights history -- early 2009, when the United States inaugurated its first black president -- but it easily ranks as the most thorough look at the music that came to be identified with civil rights. Virtually every single anthem is here, and most of them are performed by the artists who made them popular and powerful, with no regard for label restrictions. And far from focusing on a moment in time -- such as the early '60s, when the movement was most fervent -- the box set makes a great case for spanning decades, whether particular songs occurred in the pre-history of the movement or dated from a later time, when equality was being celebrated (or still not being felt). Arranged in chronological fashion (roughly), the set is bookended by a version of "Go Down Moses" from 1941 and a 2008 recording of "Free at Last" by the Blind Boys of Alabama. Between those two songs comes a parade of momentous recordings: "We Shall Overcome," "Blowin' in the Wind," "I Shall Not Be Moved," "A Change Is Gonna Come," "If I Had a Hammer," "People Get Ready," "Is It Because I'm Black?," "Stand!," "Respect," "Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?," "Strange Fruit," "I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free)," "Mississippi Goddam," "Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud," "Yes, We Can," and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)." (One small caveat: it's difficult to call a civil rights compilation definitive when it fails to include Sam Cooke, although his landmark song, "A Change Is Gonna Come," is heard in one of its best versions, Otis Redding's.) The set moves seamlessly from gospel and blues to later voices such as soul, funk, and hip-hop (even if rap only gets two songs), and although the vast majority of these tracks are familiar, there are many intriguing choices, such as the work of radio DJs and obscure acts. The compilers (Colin Escott, Bas Hartong, Mike Jason) must be saluted for assembling a priceless collection of music.

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