Backtracking: Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, James Brown and many others are heard on the three-disc boxed set.
If there was still skepticism six months ago that an African American could be elected president of the United States, imagine how unlikely the prospect felt to Nat King Cole a half-century ago when he recorded the song We Are Americans Too."
Cole's recording session came just one month after some white supremacists assaulted him on stage during a concert in April 1956 in Montgomery, Ala. He never performed another concert in the South.
Because Cole's repertoire consisted almost entirely of love songs, We Are Americans Too" was a dramatic change of pace -- though the song's message of brotherhood was expressed with an almost Sunday-school politeness. Sample lines from the song, which was written more than a decade earlier: All our future is here / Everything we hold dear / We are Americans too."
Cole's record label, Capitol, never released We Are Americans Too," but the song is one of several touching and revealing highlights of Let Freedom Ring: The Music of the Civil Rights Movement, a three-disc boxed set that will be released Jan. 27 by Time Life.
In the set's liner notes, music historian Colin Escott says the label refused to release the single because too much was at stake." Cole was, no doubt, already in discussions with NBC to become the first African American to host a network TV show, and any controversy over the single might have threatened the deal.
The show did go on the air in November 1956, but lasted only a year because NBC couldn't find national sponsors.
Though the package's 57 other selections include such civil rights classics as Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit," the Impressions' People Get Ready" and James Brown's Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud, Part 1," some of the most absorbing moments are found in relatively unknown tracks that speak about injustice with alternating humor and outrage.
In his introduction to the set, socially conscious rapper Chuck D. writes about some of those lesser-known recordings. He stresses how these blues, gospel, folk and R&B songs were a constant source of inspiration and pride in the African American community. Way before an iPod, these songs rang in my head as they navigated me through my near half a century life," he declares. You don't get a black president overnight."
This collection would be a remarkable document anytime, but it is especially powerful when heard in the light of the inauguration of Barack Obama.
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