- “Sing It So Loudly”The Long History of “Birmingham Sunday”
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Reflecting on her induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2017, folk icon Joan Baez was underwhelmed by the resurgence of protest music. “There needs to be more. It’s terribly important, because that’s what keeps the spirit,” she told Rolling Stone. “Carping and shouting, as much as it gets stuff off your chest in front of 100,000, you really need something uplifting . . . The problem right now is we have no anthem.” Baez’s definition of useful music—something uplifting, preferably an anthem—summarizes her own canon of protest music and history with activist movements. Baez famously marched hand in hand with Martin Luther King Jr. and Bob Dylan, singing “We Shall Overcome” at the 1963 March on Washington, in this spirit of optimistic uplift, and churned out topical songs that provided rallying cries against the Vietnam War and racial injustice.1
On what was reported to be her final album, Whistle Down the Wind (2018), Baez recorded a moving cover of Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” about the 2015 Charleston church massacre, further ensuring that activism would be entwined with her musical career. Baez’s extensive repertoire includes another significant anthem about violence in a black church: a song that turned the deaths of four black girls into powerful symbols of the Civil Rights Movement and mobilized an interracial audience to understand the moral necessity of racial justice. This particular song is essential for understanding Baez’s legacy of interracial activism, as well as the complicated racial and musical politics of the American folk revival—all of which provide critical prehistories to the rebirth of protest movements we witness today.2
In 1964, Baez recorded “Birmingham Sunday,” a plaintive ballad written by fellow folk revival member (and Baez’s brother-in-law) Richard Fariña about the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. On Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan planted dynamite in the predominantly African American church, injuring twenty-two parishioners and killing four little girls: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. Two black teenagers, Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware, were also gunned down by police and white vigilantes in the chaotic aftermath. The bombing was the latest show of violence that earned the city the moniker “Bombingham.” In response, Baez collaborated with Fariña, recording “Birmingham Sunday” for her 1964 album, Joan Baez /5. Her angelic, pure soprano narrates the Sunday morning of the bombing, imagining how each of the four girls entered the black Baptist church before “a noise shook the ground / and people [End Page 63] all over the Earth turned around / for no one recalled a more cowardly sound.” Fariña’s lyrics, highlighting the innocence of the children and the cowardice of the bombers, combined with the ethereal majesty of Baez’s voice, form a soft protest song, equal parts eulogy and condemnation.3
Baez’s “Birmingham Sunday” played a key role in the prosecution of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombers. Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, who finally succeeded in convicting one of the bombers, Bob Chambliss, in 1977, played her song ritualistically. Baxley recalled in a 1997 interview, “I hoped someday that I could be part of...