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Music Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum: Shelby Walton-Clark Brings “The Music and the Movement” to Literary Arts

by Michael Porwoll, 2019-2020 @ LA Events Intern 

            American music is inseparable from American history. And music, especially that which proves most socially impactful, is often inseparable from the painful experience of suffering (and triumphing) our nation at its worst. In her lecture, “The Music and the Movement: Gospel, Jazz, and Rhythm & Blues, and The Civil Rights Movement: 1959-1969,” Shelby Walton-Clark provided a timely prelude to the upcoming 2020 Biamp PDX Jazz Festival by visiting Literary Arts on October 23rd to talk about the intrinsic symbiosis between internally sourced musical expression and the external circumstances that motivated them.

            Throughout this overview, Walton-Clark examined these three genres according to the previous sounds they reacted to, their technical elements of style, groundbreaking figureheads, sociopolitical context, and their usage as tools for rebellion and change. Each movement gradated into the next in complex and often reactionary juxtapositions against one another in search of not only new forms of emotional and sonic expression, but also to transmit higher personal and political truths. “It’s important to see patterns in history,” Walton-Clark said. “Genres that are based in the same community will build off of each other.”

            The roots of socially conscious African-American music were traced back to the freedom songs of Antebellum slavery—a blanket term for spirituals, hymns, ring shouts, and gospel. These yearnings for liberation, both religious and secular, were later revived during the Civil Rights Movement as a widespread protest tool. The minister Dr. Martin Luther King’s involvement and non-violent philosophy influenced anthems like “We Shall Overcome,” “Which Side Are You On,” and “Precious Lord Take My Hand” to find renewed power at the forefront of the national stage. On a mass scale, these group call-and-response songs sought to defuse tensions during marches and maintain a sense of calm and peace while also amplifying urgent illustrations of black hope and sorrow. Broadcasting this secular hope through faith earned Mahalia Jackson the title, “The Queen of Gospel.” Her modernization of old hymns created a source of inspiration for not only the Civil Rights Movement’s leaders and members, but the rest of the globe looking on.

            Contrasting these ameliorative peace psalms, a new, tenser form emerged in pursuit of wider-scale structural reform. Jazz reinvented the notions of tradition, convention, and sonic and social rigidity countless times throughout its various manifestations of blues, swing, big band, bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, and free jazz, the latter of which Walton-Clark chose to focus on for the second phase of the lecture. “As [jazz] grew in popularity, you started to see more and more people try to put rules on it,” she said. “It became more regulated by European standards of music. The free jazz movement is the reclaiming of that non-Western tradition. [Free jazz] is a true act of liberation for jazz artists, pushing against every single element of regulated style before.” A new sense of black individualism— whether directly or incidentally affiliated with Black Nationalists or the Black Arts Movement— thrived through improvisation in the foreground of oppressive political systems. This “anti-structural” freedom allowed musicians to explore dizzying amounts of innovations that accumulated into new structures of unprecedented technical and emotional complexity. “Music speaks louder than words,” Walton-Clark said, after playing segments of John Coletrane’s “Alabama” and “Psalm.” “All this was emotion-driven.”

            Continuing what she emphasized as the “ebb and flow, that push and pull of music,” Walton-Clark switched lenses to rhythm and blues. “Originally, rhythm and blues referred to what the dated term was race records. Any song put out for the black community, by the black community, was called rhythm and blues.” Solo vocalists like James Brown, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin, along with the burgeoning electric guitar and organ, helped forge the way for a new popular, pre-funk offshoot of gospel aimed at empowering the nation’s youth, through the radio, to get out, be black, be proud, and make change. Again, issues similar to jazz’s tireless commodification-dodging arose. “When something rises in popularity in a minoritized and oppressed community, there’s a lot of co-opting. So, as rhythm and blues grew in popularity, you saw a lot of white artists taking those songs and re-releasing them as rock and roll. It wasn’t unknown for a black community band to record a song and sell a dozen, and a white band to take that song, record it, and sell thousands.”

            Walton-Clark’s brief recapitulation of mid-century black music provided a three-dimensional blueprint of the motivations artists had when simultaneously telling their truth and reflecting a tumultuous (but not unfamiliar) passage of American history. These fluid genres, which form the foundations of American music, coexisted with, rebelled against, responded to, and collaborated with one another throughout a relatively short period of time. Walton-Clark’s final reminder that, “Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” proves relevant in today’s hyper-referential culture where decades of interrelated audio output have only been made more complicated by near-infinite streaming access, borrowing and appropriation, sampling, and cross-cultural genre mutations. Everything comes from something else, and we all move forward together. But what we know today cannot be fully understood, progressed upon, or reconfigured to suit our contemporary needs without maintaining a sincere and critical reverence for music’s myriad sources. “The next time you listen to a song,” Walton Clark concluded, “Check the date it was made.”


 Q&A with Shelby Walton-Clark 

Q: What inspired your passion for the music of the Civil Rights Movement?

A: While studying music at Gonzaga University, there was a heavy emphasis on music history, but we never seemed to get outside of European musical influence. Once I was given more latitude to study what I was interested in for my thesis, I kind of gravitated towards the idea of social/political and musical environments intertwining and the incorporation of non-European art forms as a form of protest. The Civil Rights Movement has such a rich musical and cultural history in America, that I was immediately drawn to it. 

Q:Why is developing a sense of music history important for this generation of listeners?

A: I think when it comes to music, like any art form, it’s important to know where you came from to know where you’re going. Today’s musicians stand on the shoulders of giants and I think it’s critical that we recognize the pioneers of every genre and the work they have done to get music where it is now. It adds a certain depth of appreciation for music that I think has been left out of the conversation for a while. 

Q:  American audiences have assigned jazz kaleidoscopic reputations throughout history. What do you think is most frequently misunderstood about it?

A: There seems to be this idea that jazz is a very stagnant genre of music, and that there is only one way to make music that can be called “jazz.” The birth of jazz was a melding of cultures at the turn of the 20th century, and it has never stopped being just that. From fusion and Latin jazz, to the intertwining of jazz and hip hop, jazz is constantly evolving and pushing musical boundaries. Jazz isn’t just the music we play in elevators, or in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. There are so many incredibly dynamic jazz artists and pieces that bring together musical traditions from all over the globe.

Q: What songs, artists, and/or emerging genres do you think best “carry the torch” today by representing or reacting to issues facing today’s ongoing civil struggles? 

A:  I think we’ve been seeing a rise of artists across genres really tackling the issues of injustice and inequality happening in the world today. The first few that come to mind are Grandson, Kendrick Lamar, The Highwomen, and The Killers. All from very different genres, these artists are using their music to make statements about today’s issues and aren’t holding back any punches. Here are some recommended songs from each artist:


Grandson: “Blood//Water”



Kendrick Lamar: “Alright”               



The Highwomen: “Highwomen”



The Killers: “Land of the Free”



PDX Jazz Education and Outreach Manager Shelby Walton-Clark (she/her), a California native, has spent the last 6 years living in the Pacific Northwest. After graduating from Gonzaga University with a B.A. in Music and an Elementary Teaching Certificate, Shelby spent 2 years teaching elementary music in Washington, singing in the St. John’s Cathedral Choir, and sitting on the board for the Spokane Jazz Orchestra.

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