In 1965, two years after the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church killed four innocent girls, Dudley Randall wrote “The Ballad of Birmingham.” The poem is a fictional account of a girl whose mother refuses to let her attend a freedom march and sends her to church instead, where ostensibly she’ll be safer. In a stirring juxtaposition of innocence and violence, the girl meets her death anyway. “Bathed rose petal sweet,” with “white gloves on her small brown hands,” she leaves to sing in the choir. An explosion sends her mother running after her, but it’s too late: “She clawed through bits of glass and brick / Then lifted out a shoe.”
In an intersection of art, education and community, three TSU students—Santayana Harris, Kameka Word and Branson Edwards—have created a commemorative musical work that moves beyond Randall’s text and into the haunting immediacy of the tragedy.
“Mother dear, may I go downtown / Instead of out to play,” the song begins, “And march the streets of Birmingham / In a Freedom March today?” Harris, who is lead vocalist on the track, sings in velvety aches and phrases intuitively, drawing out the word “march” into two breathy syllables.
“No, baby, no, you may not go / For the dogs are fierce and wild / And clubs and hoses, guns and jails / Aren’t good for a little child,” the mother responds. The phrase “No, baby, no, you may not go” is repeated call-and-response style by Word. Edwards’ somber piano accompaniment is so sparse that at times the song feels a cappella.
Harris initially performed the piece at the suggestion of TSU English instructor Bob Bradley. “I had gotten a paper back from Mr. Bradley, and it had red marks all over it,” Harris recalls. “So I went to talk to him, and some of my music fell out of my folder. He asked me what instrument I played, and I said ‘voice.’ He asked to talk to me about it after class.
“He said he had this poem that I should read and set to music,” Harris continues. “I didn’t think anything about it, but later I sat down and read the poem to see what he was talking about. I started singing a rhythm to the words and thought, ‘This sounds pretty good.’ So I called my friend Kameka to collaborate with her. We took it to Mr. Bradley, and he was surprised we had taken him seriously. Then he asked us if we knew anyone who could play piano.”
As the collaboration continued, Bradley, who also is a singer-songwriter, saw the possibilities for the song’s inclusion in documentaries or museums and called upon his connections within the community. He contacted Janiro Hawkins, pastor of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, who acts as a liaison in TSU’s Service Learning program, which partners educators with community members to extend learning beyond the classroom.
Hawkins was impressed with what he heard and set the students up with Chris Parker, then the owner of IV Studios in Nashville, where the song was recorded. “I don’t want to resurrect the past, I want to learn from the past,” Hawkins says. “As a community, we all have to deal with race issues. A song like this can be a catalyst for dealing with those issues.”
Sept. 15 marks the anniversary of the 1963 bombing. For a terrorist act that sought to slow the progress of civil rights movement, it only served to intensify the efforts. Bradley and his students hope the song will acquire a life of its own, becoming something that heightens awareness and reminds us that we ignore the past at our peril.
“It would be great if one day I turned on the TV and saw a civil rights documentary and there was my music in the background,” Harris says. “The bombing is an event that is overlooked. I can’t remember the last time someone talked to me about it. This song can be a learning tool.”
Harris, Word and Edwards will perform the song Sept. 15 at the 7th Annual “Freedom Sings” concert at the Bluebird Café.