“Alabama”.

On the back of yesterday’s Radio3 programme on the Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and all the publicity over Selma, I have been listening to Coltrane’s coruscating track Alabama (and the album it is on, Live at Birdland).

It was recorded in October 1963, over a year before A Love Supreme, and it sounds like a sketch for some of the slower passages. Curiously, Ashley Kahn, in his book about the making of A Love Supreme, calls Alabama “dirge-like”, and doesn’t make any connection with A Love Supreme – at least, none that he comments on. (I checked in case I was stealing the idea from him…)

Maybe not dirge-like: maybe a lament. Because Alabama isn’t about Selma, Alabama, but Birmingham, Alabama. Where, in September, 1963 – just a month before Coltrane recorded Alabama – four children were killed when white supremacists fire bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church. Kahn says that Coltrane took a speech by Martin Luther King about the killing (which may have been the funeral oration) and made his saxophone voice the words – the rhythm and intonation, the phrasing; and the passion.

Trane did the same with his own poem, which became the final movement of A Love Supreme, Psalm.

The 16th Street Baptist Church killings are also referred to by Charles Mingus in his spoken word text to, confusingly, It Was A Lonely Day In Selma, Alabama:

It was a lonely day in Selma Alabama
People gathered there to walk and watch for freedom
Mother with child in arms
I wonder about this freedom
Four little girls in the church
A minister and a longshoreman’s wife

before he goes into the poem, Freedom:

Freedom for your mama
Freedom for your daddy
Freedom for your brothers and sisters
But no freedom for me…

Presumably Mingus is first referring to the famous freedom march in Selma, which features in the film Selma, before he mentions the Birmingham killings.

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