Today, January 21, 2013, we welcome visitors to the annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Festival at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, an event that celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. King. There are performances, speakers and admission to the Museum is free.
The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday observance is a time for people to reflect on the accomplishments of the African-American people, including the art form known today as rock and roll. If not for the struggles and sacrifices that Dr. King and his contemporaries made, the voices and musical talents of many African-American artists may not have come to be respected and recognized at the level they are today.
Naturally, the Rock Hall salutes those visionary musicians who were the genesis of rock and roll – not just on Martin Luther King Day, but every day. King's pioneering spirit is echoed in the music that is the foundation of rock and roll, the foundation of all the Rock Hall celebrates.
The Rock Hall's "Roots of Rock" exhibit highlights the importance of recognizing rock's origins – those true pioneers – including gospel, blues, jazz and R&B, soul, country and folk music artists.
The blues is arguably the ultimate expression of the African-American experience in America – delivering both history and parable in song. B.B. King called it the "mother of American music." Names like Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Jimmy Reed – quite simply: there would be no such thing as rock and roll without these pioneering men and women, and there would be no Rock Hall. (pictured: Lead Belly's acoustic guitar circa 1937, on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.)
The wonderful tradition of gospel brought us the amazing voices of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward – women who would influence the likes of such seminal figures as Little Richard. It's the music that gave rise to vocal groups – such as Hall of Fame inductees the Soul Stirrers – and set the stage for the rise of R&B. It was gospel great Mahalia Jackson who sang "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" at her friend Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral. Then, in 1972, Aretha Franklin would sing that same song at Jackson's funeral. Franklin was the Rock Hall's 2011 American Music Masters honoree.
Doc Pomus once said that “Rock and roll would have never happened without him." He was talking about 1987 Hall of Fame inductee and one of R&B's first major figures, Big Joe Turner. Turner was among the first to mix R&B with boogie woogie, resulting in jump blues – a precursor to what became rock and roll. But Turner, when asked about rock and roll, said the genre was just given "A different name for the same music I had been singing all my life." He was spot on.
There's a reason Chuck Berry was the first ever inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and again saluted as the 2012 American Music Masters honoree: it's not hyperbole when we say he's the poet laureate of rock and roll. He took the amalgam of R&B and country and western and gave it form and identity. A true original, Berry crafted many of rock and roll’s greatest riffs and married them to lyrics that shaped the rock and roll vernacular for generations. Every budding rock guitarist has to learn the opening to "Johnny B. Goode."
And no discussion of soul, R&B or gospel – rock's roots – would be complete without mention of Sam Cooke.
Reflecting on the legacy of Dr. King today, it's hard not to recall the music that accompanied the civil rights movement, and among the most powerful songs of that era was Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come." The song was released in 1964 at the height of the civil rights movement and eloquently, honestly captured Cooke's own experiences: I go to the movie / And I go downtown / Somebody keep telling me, "Don't hang around" / It's been a long time coming / But I know a change is gonna come.
When Barack Obama became the nation's first African-American President in 2009, "A Change is Gonna Come" became a song of victory for the campaign.
When the BBC World Service broadcast its international call-in show "World Have Your Say" from the Rock Hall's studios in 2011, the subject was protest songs. As the program drew to a close, a 23-year-old woman in Baghdad recommended that show host Ros Atkins play "A Change is Gonna Come" as an example of protest music. The woman's suggestion highlighted the timelessness of Cooke's masterpiece, the cross-cultural appeal of music and how songs continue to be reinterpreted by generations and defy geographical boundaries. Cooke's song – much like Dr. King's message – still has a powerful resonance and relevance around the world – and perhaps more so now than ever. Decades after Dr. King’s passing, his message continues to inspire musicians.
In 1981, another Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee – Stevie Wonder – used music to help raise awareness for a Federal holiday to celebrate King's legacy. That track, "Happy Birthday," featured Wonder singing I just never understood / how a man who died for good / could not have a day that would be set aside for his recognition.
Ireland's U2 released "Pride (In the Name of Love)" in 1984 as a testament to Dr. King’s Legacy. It includes the lyrics: Early morning, April 4 / Shot rings out in the Memphis sky / Free at last, they took your life / They could not take your pride/In the name of love. The bracing lyric recalls the assassination of King and its impact. U2 lead singer Bono also penned a song quite simply titled "MLK" on that same album, The Unforgettable Fire.
This year, the Rock Hall will induct rap visionaries Public Enemy. Led by Chuck D., the group's 1991 release "By the Time I get to Arizona" was a direct response to Arizona officials not recognizing Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
More recently, Bruce Springsteen recorded "We Shall Overcome" in 2006, an overt homage to King's famous speech.
The point is rock and roll is the most relevant and accessible art form, and unquestionably one that has affected the most social change – Vietnam, Concert for Bangladesh, Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Live Aid, Farm Aid – the list goes on. Time and time again, music has given a voice to those who otherwise might not have been heard. Martin Luther King Jr. not only helped bring those voices to the forefront, but also continues to inspire artists, and the world is a better place for it. Certainly, rock and roll is.