LEESHA FAULKNER: Timeless folk music gives insight into history | Chroniclers
Folk music tells us stories about places and people in time, giving us a glimpse into history. Interestingly, these folk songs sometimes change to reflect the pressures – the very time and situation – that the singers find themselves in right now.
Take, for example, the song from the civil rights era, “We Shall Overcome”. Most of us have heard Joan Baez sing this standard. Fewer of us have heard the late Pete Seeger’s version. Many, at one point, have joined with others in chanting, â€œDeep in my heart, I believe we will overcome one day.
In fact, the song didn’t start out as a civil rights protest song. Instead, the origin rests with a Methodist Episcopal Church preacher, Charles Albert Tindley, who wrote this hymn in 1901, and the first verse says:
The world is a great battlefield,
If in my heart I don’t give in
I will overcome one day.
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Yet historical records show that over time the anthem evolved into different versions to adopt the musical motif of “No More Auction Block” and simpler words to become what we know today as the protest hymn.
Now what does this have to do with the history of Tupelo?
In 1945, Representative John Rankin of Tupelo made a clever move in the United States House of Representatives to make the House Un-American Activities Committee a standing committee.
The committee began in 1938 under the chairmanship of Representative Martin Dies Jr., a Democrat from Texas. The HUAC has investigated leftists, organizations suspected of having communist or fascist leanings, and private citizens or public employees who may be members of these groups. Some testimonials are hilarious.
For example, there is the 1938 inquiry into the New Deal Federal Theater Project, in which Representative Joe Starnes asked whether Christopher Marlow was a Communist and whether “Mr. Euripides” preached “class war.”
Rankin had long denounced the Communists, in particular calling the community of Jewish intellectuals in New York Red and African-American as ready to join these Communists in overturning “life as we know it.” This was pretty standard rhetoric for a racist demagogue like Rankin, who had gained his political savvy by following in the footsteps of Theodore Bilbo and James K. Vardaman, among others.
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In response to his very public running bait, folk singer Lee Hays of Little Rock, Ark., Teamed up with Walter Lowenfels, a New Yorker and editor of the weekend newspaper “Worker” sponsored by the. Communist Party, to write “The Rankin Tree. “
The song, performed by Hays, Seeger, and others throughout the 1940s and Senator Joe McCarthy’s Witch Hunts the following decade, took a big hit to Congressman Tupelo with this ditty.
HUAC changed its name, but remained a committee until 1975. Rankin did not last that long. Voters ousted him in 1952 and replaced him with Thomas Abernathy.
Hays says it’s an allegory in the song. Words:
Well I had a farm and on this farm
There was a tree and the name of the tree
That he hid the sun for miles around
All poisoned in the ground.
It molded my whole Monday wash.
In fact, this tree has grown too big.
And I turned the stone around and around
And sharpened the blade to the edges indicated.
Then I went to the tree and one, two, three,
And I put it on the ground
And I chopped it to light some wood.
I made a fire and the flames rose higher
And I thought to myself as I sat by the fire
‘This is the only time Rankin Tree has done any good
When I cut it to light wood.
This is the end of my melody on this terrible Rankin Tree!