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Morning Song – Oh Happy Day

January 15, 2012

From our vantage point it can be hard to grasp what an astonishing moment it was in American popular culture when, in the spring of 1969, a gospel song performed by a group of young Black Pentecostals from Oakland, CA broke onto Billboard’s Hot 100.  In the (still) notoriously corrupt and segregated  music industry, a straight-out gospel song didn’t “belong” on the pop charts.

Edwin Hawkins had taken an old English baptism hymn, stripped out everything but the refrain, wrote a new verse, and completed the song’s transition from a 3/4 18th century melody to a 20th century 4/4 rhythm and blues-based American praise song.  Underground FM radio stations in the Bay Area picked it up, and it slowly but inexorably spread across the country, eventually reaching the Top 5 and winning a Grammy.

It’s a good song for today because as Charles Pierce points out in his terrific meditation about MLK Day, “We are all children of the civil-rights movement, and this weekend is our national holiday.”  And without the Civil Rights Movement there is no “Oh Happy Day”—at least in the form we have it—and it doesn’t become part of our common heritage.

“He taught me how to watch, fight and pray; And live rejoicing every day.”

That’s a line that makes sense only in the context of its time:  a time in which African-Americans led a mass social movement that transformed the country, and influenced the world.  That movement had at its core a philosophy, a strategy and a set of tactics that came from the Bible, from the teachings of Jesus and from the hard, bitter lessons learned over 10 generations of slavery, segregation and subjugation.

How to watch?  Vigilantly, reading the “signs of the times”, ready to act when the moment is right.  How to fight?  Nonviolently. “Turn the other cheek.” “Go the extra mile.” “Love your enemies; do good to those that hate you…for thereby you will heap burning coals upon their heads.”  How to pray?  Always. Constantly. You will not survive with your soul intact if you do not.

Shore dwellers know that a high tide at full moon during a storm will scour and reshape the landscape.  The Civil Rights movement was just such a flood tide for us.  It scoured and reshaped our relationships, our institutions, our vision of what is possible.

Without it the feminist, gay rights and disability rights movements do not exist—at least in the way we now know them.  Without it, there is no negotiated end to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, no Solidarity in Poland, no Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, no overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, no hordes of young people atop the Berlin Wall singing “We Shall Overcome”.  There’s no Tienanmen Square student movement in China, no Optor in Serbia and no April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt.  Without it, Nelson Mandela never walks out of Pollsmoor Prison a free man, and never becomes the first president of a united, democratic, non-racial South Africa.

Oh Happy Day indeed.


From → History, Music, Politics

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