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Song List & Context


approximately 50 minutes


Rocks And Gravel

by Anonymous

Derived from an African-American work song and was sung by groups of unnamed Black prisoners, Alan Lomax, a White ethnomusicologist collected the song as "Early in the Mornin'" in 1947 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary's Parchman Work Camp during one of his Southern sojourns. He registered the song as his own.

No Bald Headed Woman

by Anonymous

This is a traditional Chain Gang Prison Song, which was later adapted and arranged by Harry Belafonte. The song continued to be ‘covered’ with a version by Odetta Holmes which helped her be a voice to the Civil Rights Movement, and more problematic by today's standards, by The Kinks, The Who, and Swedish rock group Hep Stars.

Here Rattler Here

by Anonymous

This prison song is one of a number of songs about the escape of a prisoner named Old Riley. It is believed Old Riley's escape was from Clements State Farm "a long time ago”.
Rattler poses a metaphor for the danger White people posed to the Black community - they will hunt you like a hound dog.

Swing Low

by Wallace Willis

Willis is credited with composing (probably before 1860) several Black spirituals and his name was given to him from his owner, Britt Willis, probably in Mississippi.
This song is considered to be a coded song, and is one of a handful of spirituals that refer directly to the Underground Railroad.

Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen

by Anonymous

This is an African-American spiritual song that originated during the period of slavery but was not published until 1867. African-American scholar and sociologist W.E.B DuBois said "Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs (Nobody Knows being one of them) there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things, but, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins." This version was performed by Sam Cooke who was a Civil Rights Movement activist.

We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder

by Anonymous

This song is one of the earliest spirituals and is in part on the Biblical story of Jacob's Ladder. Scholars can trace it as far back as 1750 and attribute it to slaves from Liberia.
Like all spirituals, it has a double meaning - not only is this about escaping to heaven, but also from slavery."
It became one of the first slave spirituals to be widely sung by White Christians.

Deep River

by Anonymous

The song was first mentioned in print in 1867, and by 1917, when Harry Burleigh completed the last of his several influential arrangements, the song had become very popular.
It has been called "perhaps the best known and best-loved spiritual".

This Train

by Anonymous

A traditional American gospel song first recorded in 1922.
Although its origins are unknown, the song was relatively popular during the 1920s as a religious tune.
In the late 1930s, after becoming the first black artist to sign with a major label, gospel singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe recorded "This Train" as a hit for Decca.

Didn't It Rain

by Henry Thacker Burleigh

Popularized by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, this song was written and published by Henry Thacker Burleigh (1866 - 1949) - the first Black composer who was instrumental in developing characteristically American music, Burleigh made Black music available to classically trained artists both by introducing them to spirituals and by arranging spirituals in a more classical form.

Up Above My Head

by Anonymous

Apparently dating from the 19th century, Civil Rights leader Bernice Johnson Reagon changed the traditional words of the song in 1961, from
"Over my head / I hear music in the air..." to "Over my head / I see freedom in the air..."
In 1995, the National Association for Music Education published a list of songs that "every American should know", which included "Over My Head".

 I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'

from Porgy and Bess

An aria from George Gershwin's 1935 "folk-opera" Porgy and Bess. It has been called the first great American opera, made all the more significant by being set in a fictional Black American community and performed by Black artists at a time when Black culture was exoticized by the country's White majority.
With that, the opera incorporates a number of negative stereotypes, such as crime, poverty, drug-dealing and drug use, gambling and more. That, along with Gershwin's fake approximation of African American dialect, raises eyebrows.


from Porgy and Bess

A year after the opera’s premiere, a 21 year old jazz singer called Billie Holiday recorded this song; the first cover of the song that would reach the US charts.
Billie was from Harlem, the home of New York’s black community, which at the time was bursting with creativity. Black artists, musicians and intellectuals such as Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes and Lois Mailou Jones celebrated their African American culture through their works during this golden age.
This era is known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Why I Sing the Blues

by B.B. King

This song is a poignant reminder of the systemic racial oppression that has plagued African Americans for centuries, and a testament to the power of music as a means of expressing and coping with that pain.
King was born on a cotton plantation in Mississippi, and later worked at a cotton gin before solidifying his life as a musician. As his musical career grew to legendary status, he took the Blues, from "dirt floor, smoke in the air" joints, to grand concert halls around the world and successfully worked both sides of the commercial divide, with sophisticated recordings and "raw, raucous" live performances. 

What's Going On

by Marvin Gaye, Al Cleveland & 
Renaldo "Obie" Benson

Gaye had cited the 1965 Watts Riot as a turning point in his life, asking himself, 'With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?’ Along with his conversations with his brother Frankie, who served three years in the Vietnam War, Gaye had decided to make a protest record.
This song was generated by Renaldo "Obie" Benson after witnessing police brutality in Berkeley in 1969 during a protest held by anti-war activists later known as "Bloody Thursday". Upset by the situation, Benson asked, ‘What is happening here?’
Later bringing on Gaye, the song was eventually modified and released in 1971.

20 Minute Intermission

There are bottles of water in the lobby with any donation to Sound the Alarm:  Music/Theatre - which also makes you a member ($3 min).

Please donate via Canada Helps for a Charitable Tax Receipt to be emailed to you 

Just show us the receipt on your phone for your water, or come to the counter to pay.



Act 2

approximately 50 minutes


Hymn To Freedom

by Oscar Peterson

A true Canadian music legend, Oscar Peterson was considered one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. With eight Grammys and numerous other awards and honours, he was celebrated worldwide in a career lasting more than 60 years.
Recognized as one of Peterson’s most significant compositions, Hymn to Freedom was written in 1962 and was swiftly embraced by people over the world as the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. He drew upon church renderings of Black Baptist hymns recalled from his childhood in Montreal.

Strange Fruit

by Abel Meeropol
(under his pseudonym Lewis Allan)

The lyrics were drawn from a poem by Meeropol published in 1937.
The song protests the lynching of Black Americans with lyrics that compare the victims to the fruit of trees. Such lynching's had reached a peak in the Southern United States at the turn of the 20th Century and the great majority of victims were Black.
The song has been called "a declaration" and "the beginning of the civil rights movement".

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free

by Billy Taylor

Starting out as a jazz instrumental piece, the song with added lyrics served as an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement in America in the 1960s.
A widely played version was recorded by Nina Simone in 1967.

Higher Ground

by Stevie Wonder

Guided by a mix of Christian morality and astrological mysticism, Wonder believed he was writing a "special song" whose lyrics suggested a coming day of judgment.
A true leader in the music industry, Wonder renegotiated his deal with Motown Records at age 21, taking control of his recordings by forming his own production and publishing companies. Motown was very regimented in terms of what musicians and producers were used on recordings, but Stevie wanted to do most of this work himself.

What Kind Of Fool Am I

from musical Stop the World – I Want to Get Off

“The Crump Twins”, were two of the most recognizable entertainers in Vancouver from the late 1940’s to the early 1960’s. They were raised in Vancouver’s now lost neighbourhood of Hogan’s Alley where Jimi Hendrix was once a Crump Twins sideman. As child stars, they performed alongside Sammy Davis Jr. and Louis Armstrong who invited them to go on tour - but alas, their mother did not allow them to go.
This song was made famous by Samey Davis Jr. and became a standard performance hit for the Twins.

Does Your Mama Know About Me

by Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers

Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers were discovered  by The Supremes who brought them to Motown records in Detroit. From there, their songs with topical lyrics began climbing the Billboard Charts. As per this song, Bobby Taylor was a black man singing about meeting his white girlfriend's family at a time when interracial relationships were hardly the norm. This song had a profound effect on Motown Records, nudging it in a more defiant, topical direction. 

Little Wing

by Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix lived and spent summers in Vancouver's Strathcona area with his grandmother, Nora Hendrix, from the time he was 7 in 1949 - even attending school at the West End’s Dawson Annex.
Rolling Stone magazine included "Little Wing" on its list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" at number 357.

She's My Lady

by Jayson Hoover

In 1964, Jayson Hoover arrived in Vancouver and quickly became the focal point of Vancouver’s Soul and R&B scene in the '60s and '70s. The Trials of Jayson Hoover opened for a few big acts including Led Zeppelin’s 1968 Canadian debut.
His 1974 self titled album, under Mushroom Records, Vancouver’s largest home-grown label, has a number of funk gems including “She’s My Lady”. He released a dozen 45s, more than any other soul artist in Vancouver of that era.
He went on to a lengthy music career in B.C until his recent passing on November 5, 2023, at the age of 78.

Change is Gonna Come

by Sam Cooke

The song was inspired by various events in Cooke's life, most prominently when he and his entourage were turned away from a Whites-only motel in Louisiana. Cooke felt compelled to write a song that spoke to his struggle and of those around him, and that pertained to the Civil Rights Movement and African Americans.

Mississippi Goddam

by Nina Simone

“Mississippi, Goddam” directly tackles two 1963 bombing’s. The first is the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which saw the Ku Klux Clan kill Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14) and Carol Denise McNair (11), and injure 22 others, and second, is the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evans in Jackson, Mississippi.

Old Man River

from Show Boat

From the 1927 musical with music by White composer Jerome Kern. Kern wrote "Ol' Man River" with singer Paul Robeson in mind and despite the racism prevalent at the time, the African-American actor had managed to create a sensation on the stage with his 1925 performance in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones.
Robeson became a huge success through Showboat, which mirrored the determined defiance in the face of oppressive circumstances expressed in the song. 

Let the Good Times Roll

by Theard and Moore

Co-written in 1942 by Sam Theard and Louis Jordan, but credited to Jordan's wife Fleecie Moore - tonight's version was made famous by B.B. King.  Jordan was a significant figure in the development of Rhythm and Blues and according to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, he and Big Joe Turner laid the foundation for R&B in the 1940s, cutting one swinging Rhythm & Blues masterpiece after another.

Freedom Highway

by Pops Staples

This song was written for the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights and reflects not only on the actions of the activists but what suffering they endured to get there, even referencing the murder of Emmett Till at Tallahatchie River.
Mavis Staples reprised the song in 2008 on Live: Hope at the Hideout, which was released on November 4, 2008, the same day that Barack Obama won the presidential election.

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