With songs by Gladys Bently, Eric Bibb, Shemekia Copeland and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Blind Boys of Alabama and Kirk Franklin
A couple of years ago President #45 claimed he had “made Juneteenth very famous…nobody had ever heard of it.” Utter nonsense, of course. Happily his successor signed legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, enshrining June 19 as the national day to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. Nevertheless, more than 30 states have not as yet authorized the funding to allow state employees to take the day off and it’s been said that not enough people know about the holiday to make the effort worthwhile. This, in spite of the fact that In June 2022, the percentage of Americans who said they knew about the holiday, was around 60%, rather than the 37% of the previous year. Still…60% isn’t terribly good, is it? – I mean, this Irishman knows about it!
Anyway, the day is also sometimes called “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day.”
Juneteenth celebrates the 19th June, 1865, when Union soldiers read the announcement in Galveston, Texas, that all enslaved African-Americans were free, two months after the South has surrendered in the Civil War, and more than two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It is African-Americans’ Independence Day and has traditionally been celebrated with barbeques, parades and parties.
It’s an important day, it seems to me, not only for African Americans but for the whole country. Historian Kate Masur says that “Juneteenth…should serve not only to remind us of the joy and relief that accompanied the end of slavery, but also of the unfinished work of confronting slavery’s legacy.”
Down at the Crossroads celebrates Juneteenth with four songs. The first is Juneteenth Jamboree, recorded by Gladys Bentley, a Harlem singer, well known in the 1920s and 30s, who hits a note of celebration and joy.
There’s no shirking, no-one’s working
Gums are chompin’, corks are poppin’
Doing the Texas hop
Eric Bibb’s album Dear America, he says, is “a love letter, because America, for all of its associations with pain and its bloody history, has always been a place of incredible hope and optimism.” [check out our terrific interview with Eric here] In the title track, he addresses the open wound of America’s racial divisions in a way that is both personal and hard hitting. His simple appeal is, that although the “temperature’s rising”
“Don’t let hatred’s fire burn you and me”
Shemekia Copeland and Kenny Wayne Shepherd recently joined forces with Robert Randolph on steel guitar and veteran blues drummer Tony Coleman to record Hit ‘Em Back, a song which addresses divisiveness and anger within the greater blues community. Copeland said, “I don’t want my music to come from a place of anger because when it does, no one hears you. Let’s educate; let’s open people’s eyes; why can’t we be united?”
The song appeals to our common humanity and the power of love as an answer to division:
Don’t care where you’re born
Don’t care where you been
The shade of your eyes
The color of your skin
We all join together
Hit ‘em back
Hit ‘em back with love
Our next Juneteenth celebration song, is the Blind Boys of Alabama singing Luther Dickinson’s Prayer for Peace. The song celebrates progress made, but bemoans continued racial division. The song wishes we all could be “color blind.” In the voices and harmonies of the Blind Boys of Alabama, it’s another appeal to our common humanity. [check out our interview with Jimmy Carter here]
The innocence and love seen in our children’s face
Makes me pray ignorance and hate disintegrate into space
Shall we pray
Pray for peace.
And finally here’s the “Black national anthem” in the United States, a hymn written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson. This is a truly inspirational song, and Kirk Franklin and this fabulous choir, really hit the heights.
God of our weary years
God of our silent tears
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way
Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light
Keep us forever in the path, we pray
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee