Fannie Lou Hamer ‘Songs My Mother Taught Me’ (Smithsonian Folkways) 5/5

fannie-lou-hamerThis is as much a social history document as a musical one and it covers a critical period in US race relations, the period of African-American activism during the civil rights era. Fannie Lou Hamer embodies the struggles that so many fought for during the 1960s and her life story, supremely chronicled in the extensive line notes that run to over thirty pages, is worthy of a documentary alone. From the humblest of backgrounds, working in the cotton fields of a deep south plantation, Hamer slowly worked her way up and by 1964 ran for Congress in her native Mississippi, becoming the founding member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). She ran for Senate and was defeated, though so few blacks were registered at the time due to exploitative restrictions. As for the music, it was originally only available on a limited cassette, has been re-mastered and gives a true indication of Fannie Lou Hamer’s prowess as a civil rights singer with a gospel background.
The songs themselves are in microcosm a history of the African-American experience in the United States and the voice comes directly from the heart. They cover some of the most famous of the gospel canon with traditional spirituals such as ‘I’m going down to the River of Jordan’, ‘This little light of mine’ and a rousing call-and-response take on ‘Certainly Lord’ to name just three. It is important to stress that the music never comes across as overly preachy since the texts are couched in the everyday struggle for human dignity. Fannie Lou Hamer ends the memorable recording with the all-time classic ‘Amazing Grace’ ands one wonders what the then young Aretha Franklin made of the delivery. Hamer was by no means the only gospel singer to interpret this number and Mahalia Jackson covered it with a near definitive version, but, as the inner sleeve notes rightly indicate, this particular song had an important resonance for the Civil Rights Movement since it expressed the moral righteousness of the struggle against racial segregation in the United States.

Included are an interview between Fannie Lou and Julius Lester from 1965 during which Hamer talks about what is was actually like being a sharecropper and how she sought to better her life, and a speech excerpt where she speaks about the civil rights struggle and how she relates this to her religious beliefs. Other gospel singers would emerge in the 1960s such as Marion Williams and Shirley Caesar, but none had quite the impact on the wider political scene as Hamer. Worthy of your attention equally is a previous releases on the label entitled, ‘Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966’.

Tim Stenhouse