Black History Month, 'Strange Fruit', Civil Rights and a Trip to Memphis

Feb 02, 2018

By Gene Stevens

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Every February, when Black History Month comes around, I look forward to making my small contribution. I hope my program raises awareness, and generates some conversations. This first Sunday of February, my ‘Vintage Favourites’ show features ‘The Civil Rights Edition’, packed with powerful and poignant songs from across the decades and the genres.

Perhaps the strongest of songs – certainly among the most controversial – was Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ – composed by a New Yorker, Abel Meeropol, who saw a photo of a southern lynching, and wrote searing lyrics that revealed America’s ugly racism. Legendary producer Ahmet Ertegun called the 1939 record the ‘beginning of the civil rights movement’.

From ‘Strange Fruit’ and ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, to ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ and ‘Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud’, it was a long and painful road – a society’s journey which continues even today, with breath-taking victories and heart-breaking set-backs. I hope you’ll join me for these and other amazing songs.

As you may know I love history, and whenever I can combine music and history on a traveling holiday – well, that just makes the vacation so much better. Some years ago, my girlfriend and I were driving through the American South, visiting some of its great music cities like New Orleans, Nashville and Memphis. It was in Memphis – Presley’s city, with Graceland, SUN Studios and Beale Street – where we also toured The Civil Rights Museum. This was the most emotional highlight of our long driving holiday. Located in the historic Lorraine Motel, the Civil Rights Museum tells the story of slavery, the Old South, the Civil War and Reconstruction and the long, slow and painful struggle for basic, decent, human ‘civil rights’.

It’s especially poignant the museum is in the very place where civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated that April day 50 years ago. Let me share a few photos with you – including the view from the balcony outside King’s room, where he was shot – directly across from that red, two-storey building. That is also part of the museum – you can see the bathroom where James Earl Ray took his shot – preserved in its exact condition from 1968. There’s also a detailed exploration of the various conspiracy theories surrounding King’s assassination. If you travel to Memphis – take in the Elvis sights for sure, but leave time for the Civil Rights Museum – you’ll be glad you did. And please tune in this Sunday at 2 for ‘The Civil Rights Edition’ of Vintage Favourites, plus African-Canadian artists, and birthday spotlights on Nikki Yanofsky and Stompin’ Tom Connors.

Cheers – Gene.

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