50 Greatest Concerts 1959-2009: Part Three (Throwback Thursday)
1. Various Artists, Washington Mall, Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963
When we step back and assess what our countryâs 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 â the performers, the venue, the crowd, the context â the March on Washington is our countryâs greatest.
While it is a day most remembered for profound speeches â as it should be â 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, âIâll Overcome Some Dayâ from the turn of the century. Quickly shaped by historyâs socio-economic tides, Pete Seeger tweaked the âWe Will Overcomeâ version sung by striking tobacco workers with a few extra verses and a slight word change: âWe Shall Overcome.â
When twenty-two-year-old Joan Baez, the dayâs first performer, led the ever-growing crowd through âWe Shall Overcome,â it was more than just a song â it was a declaration that would manifest itself that day â 200,000 strong. All of the artistsâ songs that followed seemed to have been born for one of our countryâs ultimate moments. Peter, Paul and Maryâs take of âIf I Had a Hammerâ took on a new urgency with every âwopâ the group belted out.
Dylan performed the dayâs most topical song â âOnly a Pawn in Their Gameâ â 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 âWhen the Ship Comes Inâ in which the lyrics declared âWill remind you once again/ That the whole wide world is watchinâ.â
Josh White performed, as did Odetta â the powerful singer whose âgreat, full-throated voice carried almost to Capitol Hillâ according to the_ New York Times_ â who delivered her spiritual trilogy of âOh, Freedomâ / âCome and Go With Meâ / âIâm on My Way.â âBefore Iâd be a slave, Iâd be buried in my grave,â she sang in the latter, âAnd go home to my Lord and be free.â The crowd, as it responded for every performer, erupted.
Dylan, Baez, Odetta and White along with Peter, Paul and Mary joined together to sing Dylanâs âBlowinâ in the Windâ with ultimate conviction: âYes, ânâ how many years can some people exist/ Before theyâre allowed to be free?/ Yes, ânâ how many times can a man turn his head/ Pretending he just doesnât see?â
Singer Marian Anderson, who had performed at the same location on Easter Sunday in 1939, led the benediction and offered the prescient âHeâs Got the Whole World in His Hands.â Several speeches and a choir performance followed. The crowd â the nationâs largest gathering ever â was fully assembled.
Shortly before Martin Luther King Jr.âs speech, the eventâs final musical performer took the stage. Mahalia Jackson was the worldâs foremost gospel singer at the time â perhaps ever. When she sang, it was a revelation. First offering the song âI Been âBuked and I Been Scornedâ â perhaps the clearest reason as to why 200,000 had assembled â she facilitated a crowd sing-along of âHow I Got Over.â
King took the podium to deliver what would become his legendary âI Have a Dreamâ speech. As he wrapping up, Jackson who was nearby, assailed King to âTell them about your dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream.â King stopped looking at what heâd 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: âFree at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!â
As Shakespeare once wrote, âAll the worldâs a stage/ And all the men and women merely players.â King may been a temporal player, but his performance and othersâ on August 28, 1963 were ones for the world. Josh Baron