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September 16, 2013 / robinswood

“Alabama” | 50 years later

This past Sunday September 15th marked the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church; an event that both galvanized the Civil Rights movement and inspired John Coltrane to create what many consider one of his most poignant pieces of music, “Alabama.”

There’s been a good deal of media coverage dealing with this 50 year milestone, and those images of the faces of the four girls killed in the bombing make it seem so very, very real. To make it even more real, it is important to remember their names. From left to right, they are Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14), Addie Mae Collins (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14).

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In chapter 6 of my book, I reflect at length on Coltrane’s “Alabama”; on what informed it socially, politically, and even religiously. Here’s the opening few paragraphs from that chapter:

At 10:22 on the morning of Sunday September 15, 1963, Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss detonated a charge of dynamite in Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, wounding several church members and killing four young girls. Three of the girls were fourteen years old, and the fourth only eleven.  Though Chambliss and three associates underwent an F.B.I. investigation, in the end he was issued only a small fine and sentenced to a six-month jail sentence for possession of a box of over a hundred sticks of dynamite.

On November 18, 1963 John Coltrane took his quartet into the studio and recorded “Alabama,” his haunting lament for all that was lost—and all that was signified—in the violence of that morning in Birmingham. As recalled by Coltrane’s friend, the bass player Art Davis,

He was very conscious of what was happening when those girls were murdered in the bombing in Alabama. He was incensed—we talked about that. And for this to happen in a House of God and people were there worshipping God and for people to bomb a church like that, he said, ‘That’s reprehensible. I’m livid with the hate that can happen in this country.’ (Cited in Leonard Brown, ed. “In His Own Words,” John Coltrane & Black America’s Quest for Freedom, 25)

What was recorded that day and released in January 1964 as one of two studio tracks on the Live at Birdland album doesn’t strike the listener as being particularly angry, though for a brief section near the end of the piece the quartet does cry out with an impassioned intensity. No, as a statement “Alabama” is mournful and melancholic, yet filled with dignity and a firm resolve. In his album liner notes LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka describes the piece as having “a slow delicate introspective sadness” which is “almost hopelessness, except for Elvin [Jones], rising in the background like something out of nature.” Almost hopeless, in the same way that the deepest of the blues and the deepest of the biblical laments sing out the experience of lostness as a way of telling the truth, and so of somehow keeping hope alive. To be mute in the midst of sorrow, that is hopelessness. “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” asks the author of Psalm 137. In the midst of this exilic nightmare, after we’ve experienced so much loss and so much violence, what could we possibly have to sing about? Yet the sorrow is expressed—can only be expressed— precisely by giving it voice in a freshly written psalm of lament.

I go on to reflect on the psalmic nature of “Alabama,” but also to the way it evokes the deepest of the blues. More than any other chapter in my book, this one is deeply indebted to the work of James Cone, Jon Michael Spencer, and Cornel West. Whatever I truth I may be able to articulate rests on all I’ve learned from them.

The Birmingham church, by the way, is still very much alive and engaged in the life of its city; simply click here to visit their site. 

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