Are all great ideas this simple? Children’s entertainer Bill Harley invited 20 people, among them musicians active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, to spend a weekend making an album of freedom songs. ”Many of the songs were rehearsed for 20 minutes,” Harley writes in the liner notes. ”They are not perfect…Our intent is to give you these songs so that you will sing them.”
And you (and your kids) will. From a rousing ”Get on Board, Children” to ”We Shall Overcome,” the majestic finale 19 songs later, I’m Gonna Let It Shine: A Gathering Of Voices For Freedom is 53 minutes of transcendent a cappella music.
It’s not subtle. For instance, Harley and friends sing in ”Hold On”: ”The only thing that we did right/Was the day we started to fight.” Across the spectrum is the serenity of ”I’m Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table” (”I’m gonna walk the streets of glory…I’m gonna tell God how you treated me”). In between are songs of recent history, many performed by the same artists (Sally Rogers, Charlie King) who sang them 30 years ago in freedom marches.
Relevant lyrics include ”As fighters we are aware of the fact that we may go to jail/But when you fight for freedom, the Lord will go your bail” (from ”Get on Board”). Other songs address Nelson Mandela and ”the back of the bus.”
”Calypso Freedom” has the same melody as ”Day-O” (familiar to fans of Harry Belafonte’s) and ”The Banana Boat Song” (popularized by Raffi and The Little Mermaid soundtrack). But the words go beyond mere entertainment (”We had a little trouble in Montgomery town/They burned the bus almost to the ground”). You may flinch at the comparison of South Africa to the American South; Shine means for you to.
”The linkage was deliberate,” says Debbie Block, Harley’s wife and the album’s assistant producer. ”We wanted to make this a sounding board for discussions between parents and children.” At the least, Shine’s lyrics evoke historical continuity, and artistically and politically, the collection works.
The planning for Shine began in 1989 at Block and Harley’s annual sing-along observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday (Jan. 21). ”We eat and then sing and the house just rises,” says Block. Harley (You’re in Trouble, Cool in School) and Block took out a second mortgage on their Seekonk, Mass., home to make the album, which was recorded in April 1990, in Pascoag, R.I. Boston public-radio station WGBH donated recording equipment and engineered the album; the station also produced a show from the recording sessions for National Public Radio. Shine was recorded in a barn. ”If you listen real closely, you can hear birds singing,” says Block. Profits from the album, if any, will go to civil rights groups.
If Shine were merely the sum of its good intentions, it would be worth buying. But it’s more. Listening to these powerful songs of oppression and rebellion, you’ll be reminded that through history, freedom has been the exception, not the rule. ”Shine” ends with an uplifting version of ”We Shall Overcome.” If it makes you feel a bit sheepish for not having much to overcome, that’s not a bad feeling to take away from this splendid collection. A