In any given Black History Month, the three-disc Let Freedom Sing: The Music of the Civil Rights Movement would be a powerful anthology. But its release a week after the Obama inauguration will give these anthems and rarities chronicling African-American struggle, pride, and empowerment greater meaning — if not quite a definitive sense of closure, then at least one of measurable progress.
The subtitle is something of a misnomer, since the recordings span nearly seven decades, from Billie Holiday's 1939 "Strange Fruit" through recent tributes by Mavis Staples and the Blind Boys of Alabama. And though the focus is on those '50s-'70s cornerstones — Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam," the Impressions' "People Get Ready," James Brown's "Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud," Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" — it's the earliest inclusions, the harrowing accounts of Jim Crow and racist murder and the defiant black response, that stir the strongest emotion.
As we listen now to Big Bill Broonzy wonder, in 1955, "When Do I Get To Be Called a Man?" and the Golden Gate Quartette long for a world with "No Restricted Signs," it's easier to imagine a promise fulfilled. And when Otis Redding volunteers his impassioned take on Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," we can finally reply with an honest "Yes it is."