Today, it is my pleasure to host a Q and A with Neil White. Neil usually writes crime fiction but last week published a novel called Lost in Nashville that is about a father and son who look into the life of Johnny Cash and attempt to rebuild their relationship. The novel is a fascinating read and my review will be published shortly.
Do you feel that things would have changed if what happened at Selma hadn’t happened?
Yes, except the spark would have been ignited somewhere else.
Things had been boiling for a while. Martin Luther King was a prominent figure and had nationwide support. You have to remember that Selma happened more than a year after the famous I Have A Dream speech, when he packed out the Mall in Washington and spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Selma accelerated the demands for civil rights, that’s all, because it provided the tipping point.
Like the bus boycott in Montgomery following Rosa Parks’s refusal to move from her seat, if it hadn’t been her and at that point, it would have happened somewhere else and over something else. Rosa Parks might have been a weary seamstress when she boarded that bus, but she was also a committed protestor who had been to weekend training sessions, where she and others learned effective ways to protest. She had the fight she’d been waiting for, and there were a lot of people like her. Change was needed, and people were ready for the fight. Selma didn’t start anything, as such, but became the point where people everywhere said enough is enough.
Before I visited the town, I was slightly apprehensive, not knowing what kind of town I would find, because the town is a symbol of racism. The famous bridge, where the march to Montgomery started and the police clubbed peaceful protestors, stood out on images as a symbol of white brutality in a very brutal Deep South. When I visited, however, it took on a different meaning, because it is presented as a symbol of hope, the marker for where the scales shifted heavily in favour of civil rights.
Selma and protest songs were big news in the 1960s, do you think that today’s media would report differently and have changes in law and the speed that information is distributed make it completely different?
Fundamentally, it would be the same.
Compare it to the Black Lives Matter movement. It is similar in tone and origin, because the events in Selma accelerated because of the killing of a black man by a white police officer. Depressing to see that fifty years on, little progress has been made. Selma may have been about voting rights, but the message was largely the same as the current movement, that black lives matter in every sense.
Black Lives Matter is very much focused on the more direct point that black people shouldn’t be suspects first and citizens second when being dealt with by the police, but the fundamentally the same point is being made as it was in Selma in 1965. Now, it is starting to branch out into a protest movement about economic inequality on racial grounds.
The main difference with the events that followed Selma is that as it was dealing with a specific issue, voting and equal rights, and it had an aim it could achieve. The Black Lives Matter movement is more to do with creating a shift in public consciousness and police attitudes, and it will be harder to assess when success has been achieved.
Change is usually generational though. The young people of today are the most tolerant there have ever been, and that is something you could probably have said throughout history at any given point. Things will change. There were things being said twenty years ago that we wouldn’t say now.
Do protest songs still have the same impact?
I don’t think so, but I think it reflects more on how music has changed. Now, music is more eclectic. Back then, there was soul, rock and roll, blues, country and folk. Everyone knew all the chart acts. Now, it is spread over more formats and platforms, and is more market-driven. Gone are the days when A&R people would trawl the smoky clubs of the provinces, looking to hear that new exciting band that is creating whispers. Music has become lazy in that regard, and too financially-driven.
Take the music I loved as a teenager, the ska revival of the end of the seventies. In early 1979, Madness were playing in pubs around London, gaining an audience and doing their own thing. By autumn 1979, they were a top chart act, doing the same songs in the same clothes. No remodeling. No reinvention. Come in, record the tracks, take a picture for the album cover and release. I don’t think it would happen like that anymore.
Could you even name the current number one? I couldn’t. Go back thirty years, most people could.
I think music is listened to differently too. Music used to be something you did as a static thing. You’d sit and listen to an album, pouring over the lyrics sheets and even reading the thank you messages at the end. Now, it feels often like music is what you listen to when doing other things.
I’m not saying either is better or worse. I’m glad music was how it was when I was a teenager and older, but now there is access to so much more than before. You lose with one hand and gain with the other, and I accept that as I’m much older I’m perhaps not looking in the right places. But I just don’t get the sense that the youth of today are driven by music in the same way that they were thirty years ago and more. Now, music is the backdrop to their lives. Then, it was the framework.
Or maybe I’m just old.
I don’t think protest songs would find the same traction because not many songs filter into the national consciousness in the same way that they did in the past. There’ll never be another Bob Dylan. Not because he was a unique songwriter, and he was just as derivative as all those who have been derivatives of him, but because a songwriter will not be able to get the broad appeal in the same way.
Johnny Cash was criticised for not supporting Selma in song, was this justified even though he did support other causes, i.e. the plight of the American Indians, that he believed in? If you protest about too much does it weaken the argument?
It is something I look at in Lost In Nashville but I don’t know whether he was actually criticised at the time or whether it is merely something that stands out with hindsight.
At the time the events in Selma happened, Johnny Cash’s album Orange Blossom Special came out, February 1965, and there is a civil rights song on there, All Of God’s Children Ain’t Free, so it isn’t right to say that he was ignoring the civil rights movement.
To put it into context, however, in the lead up to that album, he’d been getting a lot of criticism for singing about causes that weren’t popular in the country music circles; namely, those in support of Native Americans.
He’d taken a lot of flak for his single The Ballad of Ira Hayes, a song telling the true story of one of the American soldiers who raised the flag in the famous Iwo Jima photograph and monument, as well as his album Bitter Tears, all about Native Americans. He had to bring out an album that would bring him back into the country music fold, and Orange Blossom Special was that album, but he did sneak onto it a song in support of the Civil Rights movement. The fact that it came out as the same time as the events in Selma makes the album seem strangely silent on the issue, but he wasn’t to know the events would occur at that time, and they had been bubbling for a while.
The sour thought, however, is that it is unclear how much support he would have had for bringing out an album in support of the civil rights movement, as it could have killed his music career. For all the time Johnny Cash was bringing out albums in support of Native Americans, the civil rights movement was gaining ground, and it seems as if the record labels were just about content to let him protest on issues that were vaguely Wild West in tone but I’m pretty sure they would have killed an album supporting Martin Luther King.
You can buy the novel here