To those of us who even know the name Fannie Lou Hamer, it’s one to stand next to Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr. in a file of black and white or daguerrotype images labeled “civil rights icon”–not an LP cover filed between Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. But as the new Smithsonian Folkways release of Hamer’s music Songs My Mother Taught Me reveals, song and struggle were as intertwined in the life of this renowned activist and voting rights organizer as they were in the expression of so many of the pioneering artists of the era. Recorded for the Smithsonian in 1963 and released on a very limited cassette run only 20 years later in 1983, Songs My Mother Taught Me embodies the long-running relationship between the validation of American folk music (black, white and indifferent) with the struggle against racism and class-ism, a thread that connects the work of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Aunt Molly Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Dylan and countless, less celebrated artists and activists who helped to shape our very conception of rights and freedoms. The recordings of Hamer’s voice herein give the world a whole new access point to her life and the fearlessness with which she lived it, a philosophy perhaps best summed up in Hamer’s own words:
“Sometimes it seems like to tell the truth today is to run the risk of being killed. But if I fall, I’ll fall five-feet four-inches forward in the fight for freedom.” (Mills, Kay. 1993. This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer. New York: Dutton).
It would not be possible or appropriate to reduce Hamer’s legacy to a form that would fit in this blog post but fortunately for a writer such as myself, Hamer’s voice speaks several volumes of American history (scroll down to hear her singing “I’m Going Down To The River Jordan”) and the album’s producer Mark Puryear does an able job of putting the songs in context for those who are unfamiliar with her life. Read his words below and click through (and share) the gallery of archival photos above, courtesy of The Smithsonian.
“Given the events of the past year, it is very informative to look back and listen to the powerful voice of Fannie Lou Hamer. She was born and raised in Mississippi during the era of Jim Crow rule and racial disenfranchisement. The 20th child of a sharecropper family, Mrs Hamer (1917-1977) was tireless and courageous in her struggles for voting and civil rights in the 1960s. She was subjected to harsh physical brutality, death threats and denied employment, yet she would not be intimidated. Mrs. Hamer pushed forward as a citizen activist setting an example for members of her community, state and volunteers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the Freedom Summer of 1964. The impact of her plain-spoken wisdom and her strong inspired singing resounded from the small town of Ruleville, Mississippi to the highest offices of the federal government. Songs My Mother Taught Me is the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings compilation of field recordings that provide us the opportunity to hear her voice and learn about her dedication and struggle for civil rights and democracy in the United States of America.”