Author Archives

Tom Maxwell
I communicate. Then with music, now with words. I like how the two inform each other.

A History of American Protest Music: This Is the Hammer That Killed John Henry

John Henry

 Tom Maxwell | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,465 words)

 

They point with pride to the roads you built for them,

They ride in comfort over the rails you laid for them.

They put hammers in your hands

And said – Drive so much before sundown.

—Sterling Brown, “Strong Men” (1931)

 

In the folktale, a powerful black steel-driving man named John Henry challenges the steam drill to a race, beats it, and dies. In some versions, John Henry is almost seven feet tall. In others, he wears fine clothes and commands any price for his work. In our national consciousness, he stands for the common man, beaten by industrialization, but unbowed.

Songs about John Henry became popular in the early 20th century. He is a folk hero in all—by resisting either the dehumanizing effects of technology or a racist power structure. His story helped give rise to an iconic American “blues ballad” as well as the “hammer song:” a rhythmic style which helped synchronize the work of manual laborers on railroads, prison work farms, and logging camps. Each axe or hammer blow rang out in rhythm to the tune, and as the tempo of that industrialized century increased, this would ultimately become the backbeat of rock and roll. Read more…

A History of American Protest Music: ‘We Have Got Tools and We Are Going to Succeed’

 Tom Maxwell | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,439 words)

Read part one of “Hammer Songs.”

Lee Hays was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. He learned to sing Sacred Harp—the traditional shape-note choral music—in his father’s church. Just as he reached his teens, Lee’s life fell apart. His father died in a car accident. His mother lost her mind from grief. The Great Depression wiped the family out, preventing Lee from attending school. He ended up in Cleveland, Ohio, working as a page in a local library. Here the 16-year-old Lee Hays—already over six feet tall, blue-eyed and sandy haired—became radicalized.

“Every book that was considered unfit for children to read was marked with a black rubber stamp,” Hays remembered. “So I’d go through the stacks and look for these black stamps. Always the very best books. They weren’t locked-up books, just books that would not normally be issued to children—D.H. Lawrence, a number of European novels. Reading those books was like doors opening.” Read more…

A History of American Protest Music: When Nina Simone Sang What Everyone Was Thinking

Nina Simone

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | April 2017 | 10 minutes (2,329 words)

 

On June 12, 1963, in the early morning after president John F. Kennedy’s Civil Rights address, activist Medgar Evers was shot in the back as he stood in the driveway of his Mississippi home. He was returning from a meeting with NAACP lawyers and officials, and carried an armload of T-shirts that read “Jim Crow Must Go.” Evers was taken to a local hospital, where he died less than an hour after being admitted.

On September 15, 1963, four girls were killed when white supremacists planted more than a dozen sticks of dynamite beneath the side steps of the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The children were preparing for a sermon titled “A Love That Forgives.” According to one witness, their bodies flew across the basement “like rag dolls.” Read more…

A History of American Protest Music: How The Hutchinson Family Singers Achieved Pop Stardom with an Anti-Slavery Anthem

Hutchinson Family Singers, 1845

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | March 2017 | 9 minutes (2,170 words)

 

On March 18, 1845, the Hutchinson Family Singers were huddled in a Manhattan boarding house, afraid for their lives. As 19th Century rock stars, they didn’t fear the next night’s sellout crowd, but rather the threat of a mob. For the first time, the group had decided to include their most fierce anti-slavery song into a public program, and the response was swift. Local Democratic and Whig papers issued dire warnings and suggested possible violence. It was rumored that dozens of demonstrators had bought tickets and were coming armed with “brickbats and other missiles.”

“Even our most warm and enthusiastic friends among the abolitionists took alarm,” remembered Abby Hutchinson, and “begged that we might omit the song, as they did not wish to see us get killed.”

It wasn’t that most people didn’t know the Hutchinsons were abolitionists. The problem was that slavery (as well as its parent, racism) was an American tradition, and performers who wished to be popular did not bring their opposition onto the stage. Five of our first seven presidents, after all, were slaveholders. Read more…

The Story of ‘Ella and Louis,’ 60 Years Later

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | November 2016 | 7 minutes (1,807 words)

Nineteen fifty-six was a defining year for American popular music. The foundations of rock and roll were solidified when Elvis Presley, newly signed to RCA Victor, released his eponymous first album. The harder-edged rockabilly band Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio did the same. The year’s jazz releases were just as iconic: “Chet Baker Sings” helped originate a smoother West Coast sound, and The Miles Davis Quintet would ultimately find four full-length albums worth of hard bop material recorded during only two day-long sessions. There was magic coming from every corner of musical expression — Glenn Gould, Sonny Rollins, The Jazz Messengers, Fats Domino — but one album, released in October of that year, was its own quiet revolution.

The album cover is a picture of two middle-aged black people, seated on folding chairs. The woman is in her late thirties, the man in his mid-fifties. She wears a plain print housedress and a wry expression; the man’s white socks are rolled at the ankles. A trumpet is on his lap, supporting his folded arms. There is no written information on the cover other than the name of the record label: “Verve,” it says. “A Panoramic True High Fidelity Record.” On the spine is the album’s title: “Ella and Louis.” Read more…