By David Perry
Anyone around in the late 1960s and early ‘70s more than likely felt the hum of deep racial tension. Living in the U.S. sometimes felt like dwelling in the palm of a clenched fist.
Kennedy, King, Malcolm X, Kennedy…Hatred was fused with gunpowder to turn idealists into martyrs, one after the other. Unrest, injustice and war turned cities into riot zones and made rubble and ash of city blocks. Race and politics became bloodsport. Authorities beat U.S. citizens like dogs in the streets.
The beaten fought back. Through the courts and legislation, African-Americans gradually gained footholds in justice and human rights. But it was too little, too late for some. Patience was frayed. Charismatic leaders called for everything from equality to separatism to violent overthrow of the white power structure.
Television came of age, the cathode messenger beaming it all into living rooms everywhere, from the heart of urban unrest to the whitest suburbs. The whole world really was watching.
Light in The Attic, the Seattle-based label whose passion for doing things right results in amazing reissues and compilations, just released Listen, Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power 1967-1974, a 16-cut collection of music, spoken word and political speech rooted in “the movement.” The set was compiled and exhaustively researched by producer, writer and musician Pat Thomas. (Thomas has also written a companion book.)
The heart of the set is a handful of spoken word pieces accompanied by music. In “Invitation to Black Power,” over bop sax, the Shahid Quintet lures a budding revolutionary from violence toward the Black Muslim movement. The Watts Prophets make the revolution sound like a theater production with “Dem Niggers Ain’t Playing.” Seminal poet/rappers The Original Last Poets storm through “Die Nigga!!!” and Amiri Baraka asks, “Who Will Survive America.”
But the killer is that all of the vocals, from singers to the most strident speakers, ring with melody and art.
The breadth of the revolution’s sound track is well represented on 16 cuts and a broad swath of genres, from jazz to soul to comedy and spoken word, from Kain’s frenetic word-skronk-funk to the sweet bite of vastly overlooked vocalist Marlena Shaw’s “Woman of the Ghetto” and Bob Dylan’s eloquent protest ballad, “George Jackson,” making its debut on CD.
John and Yoko are here with an ode to Angela Davis, and Dick Gregory offers humor and irony with “Black Power.” Gil Scott-Heron, Eddie Harris and Gene McDaniels, the Black Panther house band, the Lumpen, and Roy Harper, singing “I Hate the White Man,”which even Thomas claims is the “most curious choice” in the set – Harper was a white English folksinger (Some will recall Led Zeppelin’s hat-tip to him on III).
Want to see how much and how fast things morphed back then? You don’t even have to really listen. A sample of the movement’s charisma is embodied in the cover photograph of a handsome, shirtless and buff Black Panther leader Huey Newton. In his hand, Newton clutches Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited LP. You say you want a revolution? This was how you fused cultures and drew attention to a cause.
It’s probably a little weird to say what a great time it was. American history had a raw throb to it, as did film, music and literature. It was urgent.
And something so electric was apt to move in another direction, too. Take Eldridge Cleaver’s cut, “Tim Leary.” Slowly and methodically Cleaver disowns the acid king, announcing that a few days earlier, he had placed Leary and his wife under house arrest at their compound in Algiers. Two men once bonded by the cause of revolution were now sharply divided. Leary was left to flap in the wind
It was a fascinating tim. Here is its soundtrack.