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Music for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

January 16, 2014

One of the greatest orators in American history, Martin Luther King Jr. made his own verbal music, as many musicians have long understood. Many of the finest pieces of music reflecting the civil rights era incorporate King’s words, such as Joseph Schwantner’s marvelous New Morning for the World. The playlist below contains some selected pieces, with descriptions and additional recommendations below.

  1. “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” The Boys Choir of Harlem

    A hymn that became an unofficial anthem, it was written in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson and his brother John Rosamund Johnson.

  2. “Deep River,” spiritual. Marian Anderson, contralto.

    Marian Anderson was a famous African-American classical singer who made history by singing a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of 75,000 people and a radio audience of millions. In a career that included many firsts, she was the first African-American singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

  3. “Words on Non-Violence," Miles Davis, trumpet, Miles Meets MLK

    Famous jazz musician Miles Davis underscores a recording of a famous King speech.

  4. “A Change is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke, off the album Portrait of a Legend. Sam Cooke, vocal

    This great song was one of several recorded in the mid-1960s by different African-American artists in support of the civil rights movement.

  5. “I Have a Dream,” Martin Luther King

    Given in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the climax of the March on Washington, August 28, 1963, this world famous speech needs no introduction.

  6. “Alabama,” John Coltrane, off the album The Very Best of John Coltrane

    Only two weeks after the March on Washington, Ku Klux Klan terrorists set off a bomb at the 16th St. Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, killing four little girls. John Coltrane wrote this mournful ballad in response, originally released on his album Live From Birdland.

  7. Spiritual Trilogy (“Oh Freedom,” “Come and Go With Me,” “I’m On My Way”). Odetta, vocalist, off the album Absolutely the Best

    Odetta was one of the folksingers active in the civil rights movement. She sang “Oh Freedom” at the March on Washington, and was dubbed “the queen of American folk music” by Martin Luther King, Jr. himself.

  8. “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Martin Luther King

    The final minutes of King’s last speech, in Memphis. The whole speech is stirring and strikes a note of determination: He recognizes that there is a long way to go, but he takes the significant victories already won as a sign that justice will eventually triumph.

  9. “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” Mahalia Jackson

    Jackson was a friend of King’s and one of his favorite singers, and this was his favorite hymn. She sang it at his funeral, after his assassination.

  10. “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Ray Charles off the album A Message from the People.

    Of course, King wanted his legacy to be more than the sum of his life and achievements. And so it is. Take us out on a high note, Mr. Charles!

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.