washingtonpost.com
A Progressive Top Five

By Jabari Asim
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, May 30, 2006 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- If "American Idol" didn't completely satisfy your appetite for gimmickry, you might consider turning to National Review. A recent issue offers its handy list of the top 50 conservative rock songs of all time.

The list is intended to be provocative because rock is often considered a focal point of progressive sentiments. What I found far more striking, however, was the relative whiteness of the artists. Exactly when did rock 'n' roll, once the province of Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, become so white? The only black band listed is Living Colour, whose "Cult of Personality" is less a praise song to conservatism than a blast at egotistical leadership of any political stripe.

The National Review list suggests that blacks have become little more than a footnote to a cultural phenomenon they are largely responsible for creating -- or, more plausibly, that black conservatives rarely express themselves via rock songwriting.

It also exposes the irony in a term with such bawdy roots being used to identify so-called conservative values. In his memoir, "Only the Strong Survive," the great soul singer Jerry Butler wryly commented on white deejay Alan Freed's legendary borrowing of "rock 'n' roll" from black slang. "From the time I was a little guy, I knew that rockin' and rollin' was euphemism for sexual intercourse. Thus I looked on in amusement when the phrase turned up in the American lexicon as something respectable," he wrote.

Rather than dispute the alleged conservativeness of National Review's nominated songs, I offer a handful of progressive alternatives. My choices logically descend from the protest songs of the 1960s, in which artist-activists such as the SNCC Freedom Singers revised spirituals and gospel songs to eloquently address the tenor of the times.

My limited space requires I limit my recommendations to five instead of 50, and I present the titles in alphabetical order.

-- "A Change Is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke.

This timeless ballad blends a plaintive bluesy feel with a stalwart optimism. The combination is delivered perfectly by Cooke's golden voice, which manages to console and inspire. When Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, Rosa Parks found solace by listening to this song. She described Cooke's singing as "medicine to the soul. It was as if Dr. King was speaking directly to me."

-- "Mississippi Goddam" by Nina Simone.

Picket lines

School boycotts

They try to say it's a communist plot

All I want is equality

For my sister, my brother, my people and me

OK, some of the lyrics prevent me from playing this one in front of my kids. For adults, however, it perfectly captures the impatience and frustration that many Americans once felt regarding the slow pace of justice.

Simone composed the tune in 1963 following the bombing of the Sixteenth St. Baptist Church in Birmingham and the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi. She described the process in her autobiography, "I Put A Spell On You": "I sat down at my piano. An hour later I came out of my apartment with the sheet music ... in my hand. It was my first civil rights song, and it erupted out of me quicker than I could write it down."

-- "Wake Up Everybody" by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes.

Wake up everybody no more sleepin in bed

No more backward thinkin', time for thinkin' ahead

The spirited optimism of this tune, propelled by Teddy Pendergrass' churchy baritone, is one for the ages. It remains current, too, having recently been covered by a group of hip-hop and R&B all-stars. It also turned up as background music in "Akeelah and the Bee."

-- "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye.

Gaye's careful scrutiny of current events resulted in a masterwork that addresses both existential longing and the ground-level realities of being black in America. The musical equivalent of Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man."

-- "You Haven't Done Nothin"' by Stevie Wonder.

Wonder is a lover but he's also a fighter. Few can do righteous indignation like the blind genius from Detroit. This is a primer on how to turn rage into something constructive, instructive and beautiful too.

It's not too cool to be ridiculed

But you brought this upon yourself

The world is tired of pacifiers

We want the truth and nothing else

Perhaps now more than ever, that's a thought worth conserving.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive