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  • Haunting AmericaEmmett Till in Music and Song
  • Philip C. Kolin (bio)

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The murder of Emmett Till has haunted the American imagination. Though Chicago born and bred, he will be forever linked to Mississippi and the South. Emmett Till artwork, designed by Kelly Rickert for the Goodman Theatre production of Ifa Bayeza’s The Ballad of Emmett Till.

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The murder of Emmett Till has haunted the American imagination. Though Chicago born and bred, he will be forever linked to Mississippi and the South. While visiting relatives in the Delta in August 1955, the fourteen-year-old boy whistled at or said “Bye bye, baby” to a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, while in her husband’s grocery store in Money, Mississippi, to buy bubble gum. For his offense, Carolyn’s husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J. C. Milam savagely murdered Till—cracking his skull open and gouging his eye out—and threw his body, with a seventy-five-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck, into the Tallahatchie River, where it was found three days later. Determined to show the world what Mississippi had done, Till’s mother, Mamie, insisted on an open-casket funeral for her son. Pictures of his mangled body, published in Jet magazine and elsewhere, horrified the world. Adding to the infamy of their crime, Till’s murderers were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury in Sumner, Mississippi, on September 23, 1955, and a few months later sold the story of how they abducted, tortured, and killed Till to William Bradford Huie for a Look magazine interview.1 Till’s brutal death and the subsequent sham trial were a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement.

Over the years, many composers have memorialized Till in music and song, but his presence in this genre has received little attention. Though the title of a leading novel based on Till’s life—Bebe Moore Campbell’s 1992 novel, Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine—underscores the significance of music in describing his tragedy, Till’s place in music and song is rooted in musical traditions inseparable from southern cultures. These songs range from “finger-pointin’” folk ballads to spirituals/Gospel to blues to jazz to rap and hip-hop. This music charts the popular response to Till, helping us to remember his tragedy and to measure his continuing importance in a racially divided America. Songs about Emmett Till reveal much about how we remember the Civil Rights Movement and how we formulate its discourse. But even more revealing, these songs illustrate how cultural memory works to shape and even reshape history. In them we hear about an Emmett Till who plays changing symbolic roles, reflecting key cultural shifts in thinking about racial identity and relations over the last six decades.2

Ifa Bayeza, author of the jazz opera The Ballad of Emmett Till, has eloquently identified two opposing “traditions” about Till that have major implications for a study of the music and songs about him.

There were essentially two conflicting traditions regarding Emmett Till. The first was Emmett’s mother’s memory of him, which became ritualistically instilled by her many public engagements. Her description of a prepubescent innocent with a speech impediment, with no real agency in his own life, when coupled with his death photo, froze Emmett Till in a state of perpetual victim-hood [End Page 116] and objectification. While the shock and outrage over this image awakened consciousness and stirred masses of people to action, Emmett remained in a stasis of permanent dehumanization. On the other side of the spectrum, the fraudulent, perjured testimony of Carolyn Bryant, deemed inadmissible in the trial but reprinted almost verbatim in the 1956 Look article, has been repeated and taken for truth in scores of subsequent treatments of the case. In this scenario, Emmett Till is portrayed as the classic black stereotype of a brute and sexual predator, lusting after white flesh.3

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While visiting relatives in the Delta in August 1955, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till whistled at—or said “Bye bye, baby”—to a white woman...


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