The Missing Songs of “Selma”

I loved the emotional Civil Rights movie, but it left out the real sounds of its story.

Seriously. I thought the movie Selma was great. The acting was extraordinary, the writing was compelling and realistic, and the directing was fast-paced, economical, and confident.

But . . .

But where was the soundtrack of Selma?

Certainly, it is hard to argue with the contributions by Otis Redding, the Soul Stirrers, the Staple Singers, Curtis Mayfield, and Bob Dylan. It was wonderful hearing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” in the style of Mahalia Jackson. And I’m sure the closing song “Glory” by John Legend and Common will win several awards.

dardenFor someone who has spent the last eight years listening to, studying, and writing about the origins and impact of the protest spirituals and freedom songs on the Civil Rights movement, I craved the songs sung on the protest marches, in the mass meetings, and in Selma’s jails. I appreciated the inclusion of the snippet of “This Little Light of Mine/Freedom Now Chant/Come by Here” from one of the extraordinary live documentary recordings released by the Smithsonian’s Folkways label. The trouble is that it only left me hungering for more.

I taught screenwriting for 20 years, so I understand the problem of including music in a screenplay. The performance of a song brings the action to a screeching halt. I understand that there are licensing issues for certain sermons and songs. And I know that director Ava DuVernay had her own, equally valid, artistic vision for this uniquely American story.

I get all of that.

Still, I would have loved to have seen (and heard) the actual freedom songs that were sung in Selma, 51 years ago:

  • The 500 brave marchers on Bloody Sunday singing “God Will Take Care of You” as they slowly walked towards their bloody destiny on the Edward Pettus Bridge.
  • The battered survivors of the march singing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round” on the floor and in the pews of Brown Chapel that night.
  • The demonstrators singing various clever versions of “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” as they stood, day and night, restrained only by a single length of rope on Selma Avenue.
  • Devastated protesters, black and white, singing “We Shall Not Be Moved” through their tears after being told of the death by beating of the Rev. James J. Reeb.
  • A handful of tiny nuns from St. Louis holding hands with Selma demonstrators singing “If you want FREE-dom, stomp your feet.”
  • Hundreds of marchers singing “I’ve Been in the Storm Too Long,” “Oh, Wallace,” “I Love Everybody,” “Hold On,” and “Woke Up This Morning” — sometimes all at the same time — as the line of joyous demonstrators stretched along Highway 80 between Selma and Montgomery.
  • A massive crowd of more than 25,000 lustily singing “You Gotta Move When the Spirit Say Move” outside the capitol building in Montgomery while Gov. George Wallace peered through the Venetian blinds.
  • Grieving African Americans holding hands and singing “We Shall Overcome” as Viola Gregg Liuzzo’s body was loaded on the plane destined for Detroit after her murder following the march.

With a two-hour running time, Selma couldn’t have shown all of those dramatic, heart-felt moments. DuVernay’s cinematic choices were solid. There was a lot of drama in Selma in those heady days and it would have taken an HBO mini-series to show them all.

That said, perhaps the dearth of freedom songs in Selma proves the point I’ve tried to make with the books I’ve been working on these past few years. I wrote Nothing But Love in God’s Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, Volume I (Penn State University Press, 2014) because I believe that historians and, now, filmmakers haven’t been able to give the music its rightful place as a transformative change agent in the movement.

What the participants told me, and what their diaries, oral histories, newspaper accounts, and books told me, was that the singing of freedom songs and protest spirituals wasn’t an accessory or after thought to the marchers and demonstrators — it was essential.

They told me that the songs were a catalyst in and of themselves.

They told me that they used the freedom songs to lift their spirits when they were beaten down. They said that the songs were used to calm down the demonstrators after they’d been attacked, to keep them from retaliating.

The freedom songs were songs of praise and prayer, of redemption, of humor and satire. They were sung to encourage participation by those too fearful to commit. They were sung to honor and commemorate the dead.

And they were sung for the sheer, unadulterated joy of singing, of singing while surrounded by dozens or hundreds or thousands of like-minded people — black and white together — singing for FREEDOM!

The freedom songs were sung — and are still sung — because the singers believe that by singing them they could change the world.

Kudos and praise to DuVernay and her talented cast for an excellent, emotional, authentic motion picture.

At the same time, perhaps there is another film-maker out there, another Ava DuVerney, one who is biding his or her time to make another movie about the Civil Rights movement, a different movie.

And in this movie, one of the main characters is going to be the redemptive, outrageous, irresistible power of song.

Image courtesy of the Abernathy Family.

Robert Darden
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  • P3P3P3P3

    ah, the quest of piety of the past, how quaint, can you spend the next 8 years of your life on how degenerate Black Rap music in the current Here and Now inspire crime, h@te, drugs and bad attitude? Do analyze it through your prism of religious morality, mutual respect, self control, discipline and prudence

    Americans love the Muslim call to pray, each time people hear the words yelling “Allah Akbar”, they fall to their knees with face to the ground

  • Urban Myths

    This analysis is spot on and is why I left the theatre feeling that something was missing and wishing the film had included the freedom songs which were integral to the spirit of the civil Rights movement. Selma may have been snubbed by the Oscars in terms of the performances which were amazing, but the movie was not snubbed overall since it lacks a sense of the emotion of the time due to a total lack pacing and a better musical soundtrack. The film’s big song is Glory, which as an original song did not even exist at the time, and it only plays at the end of the movie.

    The whole Civil Rights movement happened during the birth of R&B, Motown, and many popular freedom songs were part of the movement. We never hear anthems like We Shall Overcome, or Eyes on The Prize which the marchers were singing. By leaving these anthems out, Ava DuVernay completely missed the sense of time and place, the drama and the emotion of the time, which she could have easily done by adding better music at key moments.

    Were they trying to save money by not using more big hits? Perhaps. But that’s no excuse for omitting the freedom songs. Too much of what actually happened in Selma is missing.

    I recently watched a few old newsreels of the Selma march and the movie even changed the entire sequence of events on the bridge the day that Dr. King turned the march back to stop a confrontation with the police. The depiction of events on the bridge in the movie wasn’t even close. King’s decision to turn the march back was portrayed as some kind of last minute decision that came from God, when it is now known was all planned out in advance with the White House to avoid a violent confrontation and to allow the Federal Government to send in 3000 national guardsmen for the subsequent march.

    So they changed the retelling of our history all for dramatic effect. Wasn’t the march on the bridge dramatic enough in and of itself? For some reason Ava DuVernay decided to rewrite history and omit the music of the time. Had she not done so this would have been a much better and truly Oscar worthy film.