Redeeming Time:

Art Transforming History



By Robert R. Bradley

Office of Service Learning and Civic Engagement

Department of Languages, Literature and Philosophy

Tennessee State University

Nashville, Tennessee





I.                    Overview

II.                 Suggested Talking Points for presentations

III.       Text of poem


I. OVERVIEW (partial draft)


TSU SL: ONE HEART, MANY VOICES, a collection of student musical compositions (songs) taking poetry as their lyric, took shape in Fall 2004 in ENGL 1020, a research-based writing course in the Department of Languages, Literature and Philosophy at Tennessee State University, a member of The Tennessee Board of Regents.


Its intellectual property prototype, “Ballad of Birmingham,” was conceived and created in Fall of 2004 in an ENGL 1020 class taught by Robert R. Bradley and represents a unique outcome of a Service Learning collaborative project in the arts and humanities.


Bradley suggested to student Santayana Harris that she set to music a poem found in the class anthology (TOUCHSTONES). The poem, “Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall, eulogizes the four girls killed in the 1964 bombing of the Birmingham church.


Ms. Harris, along with Kameka Word (TSU Music) and Branson Edwards (TSU Music), did just that. Bradley then played a scratch demo to TSU Service Learning community partner Reverend Janiro Hawkins of Friendship Community Outreach Center. Pastor Hawkins then suggested a meeting with IV studio chief, Chris Parker.


After hearing the demo, Parker gave the green-light to a full-on recording session at the controls. The students knocked out the demo in five takes.


Bradley also obtained permission from Dr. Melba Joyce Boyd, head of Africana Studies at Wayne State University and literary executor for the estate of Dudley Randall, to use the lyrics for the song on a TSU/Office of Service Learning and Civic Engagement website, created to raise money online for a Service Learning Scholarship Fund. Bradley also obtained verbal permission to use footage from Boyd’s documentary on the poem and its creator, Dudley Randall, who composed the poem in reaction to the 1963 Birmingham church bombing.


In fact, Pulitzer-Prize Winning author and ex-Tennessean Civil Rights reporter David Halberstam points out in his book, The Children, that the bombing was in part a desperate reaction to the resounding success of demonstrations of the Civil Rights Movement. This success is directly connected to the training received by TSU, Fisk, Meharry, and American Bible College students in coordinated, non-violent political demonstration.


With that in mind, the historical role of TSU in this remarkable tradition is beautifully underscored by the song, considering that three TSU students in 2004 revisit a poem written in 1965 about an event that took place in 1963. This intergenerational linkage is nothing short of extraordinary and represents the kind of scholarship that is being created on the campus of Tennessee State University.  The synergy created by this visionary collaboration of institutional, community and corporate partners is only exceeded by the haunting quality of the song, which has been likened to the Billie Holliday classic, “Strange Fruit.”


TSU Office of Service Learning and Civic engagement will launch a website featuring outreach matrices/databases, oral histories, scholarship and art inspired by the legacy of the Civil Rights Era and its roots in the North Nashville/Jefferson Street Corridor. This website, its design, maintenance and content generation will be created and compiled by TSU students and faculty, and coordinated by the Tennessee State University Office of Service Learning and Civic Engagement.


 “Ballad of Birmingham” will be a featured part of  this initiative, which is part of a more comprehensive project entitled, GLOBALIZATION AND THE NEW URBAN SOUTH: Theory and Practice.


ONE HEART, MANY VOICES™  is a product of the LITERARY LEADERSHIP ™ curriculum project and the Tennessee State Office of Service Learning and Civic Engagement.




NOTE: While these points are certainly not exhaustive nor are they intended to be, they do represent a springboard for discussion. They will be used to facilitate a chatboard to be launched on the Global Nashville website.


The miracle of art in general and music in particular is that experiences both tragic and horrific are somehow transformed into an encounter that moves people by reminding them of the paradox of tragedy: while tragedy is painful, the experience of it as represented in art redeems this pain in part by reminding an audience of the remarkable dignity and resilience of humanity.


First, out of such tragedy and sorrow, a human created a poem--using all of his soul and intelligence--that captures the essence of that event in language.


Second, three students create a melody that casts that poem in song, a song so powerful that it has been likened to Billie Holliday's “Strange Fruit.” Thus, the poem has been revived and can reach a broader audience, its message being universal and timeless. Only art can convey such passion and intelligence to so broad an audience.


 “Ballad of Birmingham”both sees and raises the bar on  transcendent possibility in art. The song transports its audience into a “gateway” that redeems the past by uniting common humanity in the present tense with a common goal for the future. 


Third, the fact that three young people under 20 created this beautiful work is important because a younger generation has bridged the gap between the past and the present--an event takes place in 1963, a poem is written a few years later, and then, in the year 2004, nearly forty years after the fact, this event is remembered and its history honored.


Fourth, it demonstrates the positive outcomes that result when members of a community share resources, collaborating in  common vision. Here one sees the outcomes made possible by service learning/civic engagement aspect.


Fifth, whenever anyone sings or listens to this song, these victims are eulogized, and the sacrifices of many others honored and celebrated.




III. TEXT OF “Ballad of Birmingham

(On the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)

"Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?"

"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."

"But, mother, I won't be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free."

"No, baby, no, you may not go,
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children's choir."

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.

The mother smiled to know that her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.

For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
"O, here's the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?"

Written by Dudley Randall (1914-2000)