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50 Greatest Concerts 1959-2009: Part Three (Throwback Thursday)

September 04, 2014


1. Various Artists, Washington Mall, Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963

When we step back and assess what our country’s greatest concerts of the last 50 years are, the March on Washington is not the first that comes to mind. Yet, when one assesses what makes a great concert – the performers, the venue, the crowd, the context – the March on Washington is our country’s greatest.

While it is a day most remembered for profound speeches – as it should be – music had a significant voice that day, too. If the solidarity of the Civil Rights Movement lies in profound convictions of equality, then music helped keep the ties bound tightly.

The anthem for the Civil Rights Movement came from an old hymn, “I’ll Overcome Some Day” from the turn of the century. Quickly shaped by history’s socio-economic tides, Pete Seeger tweaked the “We Will Overcome” version sung by striking tobacco workers with a few extra verses and a slight word change: “We Shall Overcome.”

When twenty-two-year-old Joan Baez, the day’s first performer, led the ever-growing crowd through “We Shall Overcome,” it was more than just a song – it was a declaration that would manifest itself that day – 200,000 strong. All of the artists’ songs that followed seemed to have been born for one of our country’s ultimate moments. Peter, Paul and Mary’s take of “If I Had a Hammer” took on a new urgency with every “wop” the group belted out.

Dylan performed the day’s most topical song – “Only a Pawn in Their Game” – a song he wrote that June following the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers whose death weighed on the crowd. He and Baez dueted on the poignant “When the Ship Comes In” in which the lyrics declared “Will remind you once again/ That the whole wide world is watchin’.”

Josh White performed, as did Odetta – the powerful singer whose “great, full-throated voice carried almost to Capitol Hill” according to the_ New York Times_ – who delivered her spiritual trilogy of “Oh, Freedom” / “Come and Go With Me” / “I’m on My Way.” “Before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave,” she sang in the latter, “And go home to my Lord and be free.” The crowd, as it responded for every performer, erupted.

Dylan, Baez, Odetta and White along with Peter, Paul and Mary joined together to sing Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” with ultimate conviction: “Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist/ Before they’re allowed to be free?/ Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head/ Pretending he just doesn’t see?”

Singer Marian Anderson, who had performed at the same location on Easter Sunday in 1939, led the benediction and offered the prescient “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Several speeches and a choir performance followed. The crowd – the nation’s largest gathering ever – was fully assembled.

Shortly before Martin Luther King Jr.‘s speech, the event’s final musical performer took the stage. Mahalia Jackson was the world’s foremost gospel singer at the time – perhaps ever. When she sang, it was a revelation. First offering the song “I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned” – perhaps the clearest reason as to why 200,000 had assembled – she facilitated a crowd sing-along of “How I Got Over.”

King took the podium to deliver what would become his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech. As he wrapping up, Jackson who was nearby, assailed King to “Tell them about your dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream.” King stopped looking at what he’d prepared and began riffing on previous speeches, his fervor and adamancy swelling like torrents of water against a hapless dam until finally it burst with unbridled passion: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

As Shakespeare once wrote, “All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players.” King may been a temporal player, but his performance and others’ on August 28, 1963 were ones for the world. Josh Baron

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