Five Songs for MLK

Categories: lists

From my web ed. brother in Minneapolis, Jeff Shaw:

On the Dreamer's day, we offer up five divergent songs about Martin Luther King and the holiday that bears his name. They are upbeat and somber, they are angry and hopeful, they are old and new.

5. Ray Charles, "Abraham, Martin and John"
First recorded by Dion, the soulful Ray Charles version is my favorite. Penned in response to the assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy, artists from Marvin Gaye to Bob Dylan have lent their voices to the tune.

4. Common, "A Dream"
The most modern and up-beat of these songs is Common's track from the 2007 film Freedom Writers. The track samples King's famous speech, expertly weaving words into an update of the preacher's pro-freedom themes.

3. Public Enemy, "By the Time I Get to Arizona"
Influential as P.E. were, it's startling how dated some of their material seems now. The violent imagery in the video (Chuck and the S1Ws fantasize about taking out their frustrations on politicians who opposed the King holiday) is a bit discordant with MLK's pacifist message -- but this song reminds us that it wasn't long ago when powerful people were openly resistant to honoring King's legacy. Embedding for the video has been disabled, but you can watch it here.

2. U2, "Pride (In the Name of Love)"
Bono messed up the time of day in his reference to King's murder (it happened in early evening, not early morning), but what the hell, his heart was in the right place, and it's nice to see a purely rock song represented. From the same Unforgettable Fire album, there's MLK, a sweet lullaby-style tune in its own right, though you wouldn't know what it's about if not for the title.

1. Stevie Wonder, "Happy Birthday"
This offering from the legendary Stevie Wonder gets the nod not just for its subject matter, but because it was a centerpiece in Stevie's activist campaign to get King's birthday recognized as a national holiday. It's not just catchy, it helped catch a fire.


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