Tuesday: Recorded on This Day in History, John Coltrane’s “Alabama”
Tuesday on All Night Jazz, we’ll be featuring music by John Coltrane with a spotlight on the his song, “Alabama,” which was inspired by the horrific Birmingham church bombing that occurred on this date in history, September 15, 1963. WUSF’s Carson Rodriguez Bugarin and Steve Splane have more.
At the time of the bombing, the civil rights movement was well on its way to gaining prominence in the American consciousness, led in part by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had quickly become a renowned public figure.
In the city of Birmingham, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was a social and cultural hub for much of Birmingham’s black population.
Shortly before the beginning of a service on the morning of Sunday, September 15, 19 sticks of dynamite planted by four men, later linked to the Ku Klux Klan, were detonated under the central stairwell, killing four young girls and injuring more than 20 others.
Unfortunately, such occurrences were not rare. The deaths that morning of 14-year old Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson, and 11-year old Denise McNair illustrated the violence white supremacists were willing to inflect upon innocent African Americans.
This event shocked the nation and marked a turning point for the city and the burgeoning civil rights movement.
The FBI arrived on the scene hours after the explosion. Three of the four bombers who were identified by the FBI after their initial investigation were eventually convicted, but only after decades of frustrating delays.
Moved by the atrocity in Birmingham, Coltrane and his quartet (McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums) recorded the Coltrane song “Alabama” just two months after the tragedy, on November 18, 1963 at Rudy Van Gelder Studios in Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
The rhythm and cadence of the song has long been thought to have been inspired by the eulogy for the dead girls that King delivered three days after the bombing, but Coltrane never confirmed that.
Like the eulogy, the music begins somber and mournful, but transitions to a passionate and determined tone.
Typically, Coltrane kept his political beliefs private, believing that his music should speak for itself, in an oft-repeated quote he said, “My music is the spiritual expression of what I am — my faith, my knowledge, my being…When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hang-ups…I want to speak to their souls.”
A month after the song was recorded, Coltrane performed it with the same band on the TV show “Jazz Casual.” With the bombing still fresh on the country’s mind, listeners no doubt instantly recognized the inspiration for the emotion-invoking melody.
The song would first appear on the album “Live at Birdland,” released the following year.
Years later, in an interview with Frank Kofsky, Coltrane gave a rare glimpse into his thoughts about civil rights. “Music is an expression of higher ideals … brotherhood is there; and I believe with brotherhood, there would be no poverty … there would be no war … I know that there are bad forces, forces put here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be a force which is truly for good.”