Monday, December 26, 2011

In Memoriam: Matt Jones

 Matt Jones: Ballad of Medgar Evers

The civil rights movement peaked during my childhood. I vaguely remember reading about it in the newspapers and seeing things on TV, and I remember hearing that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. On my mother’s birthday. Of course, growing up in the 70’s in a liberal suburban New York family, the civil rights movement was always there, always something that I was aware of, but not something that directly affected my life.

Fast forward to about 10 years ago. My wife and kids and I are living in a small village on the Hudson River, and we get invited to a “music party” at a neighbor’s beautiful brick house. The owners lived in Manhattan and used this house on the weekends. We were told that they had friends who were folk singers, and that we should come, bring a bottle of wine and be prepared to sing, if we wanted to.

Over the next few years, my wife and kids and I attended a few of these parties. There was a rotating group of singers and musicians—playing guitars, mandolins, banjos, concertinas—and singing old labor songs, anti-Vietnam War songs, Civil Rights songs, as well as classic and modern folk songs, and original compositions.

It was an amazing experience. The clear leaders of group were two brothers, Matt and Marshall Jones. Using the power of the Internet, I learned that they were true heroes of the Civil Rights movement—members of the SNCC Freedom Singers and participants in many of the famous marches and demonstrations. Being in the same room as them made me feel a connection to something that I had only previously read about, and hearing them sing songs that they probably played at demonstrations gave me chills. I was also glad that my children, who have grown up in a multicultural community where the legacy of the Sixties is, often, taken for granted, got a chance to get a personal connection to some of the people who put their comfort and safety on the line and fought for equality and peace. Matt Jones once said “I don’t think of myself as a cultural worker, I am a freedom singer; a freedom fighter. I’ve always been a freedom fighter; I’ll probably go down that way, too.”

A few years ago, one of the hosts had a stroke, and the parties ended. Earlier this year, I read that Matt Jones had died. I haven’t seen his name on any lists of musicians who died this year, and maybe that would be OK with him, but he left an amazing legacy. Listen to his Ballad of Medgar Evers, sung by the SNCC Freedom Singers, a tribute to the civil rights leader who was assassinated by a KKK leader in 1963.

Guest Post by J David

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