[Written for Interference Archive’s anthology of protest music]

Many musicians and songs have influenced my radical politics, but maybe the most powerful is John Coltrane’s “Alabama” because it says so much without uttering a single word. Coltrane recorded “Alabama” in 1963 in the days after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, a terrorist act by white supremacists that killed 4 black girls between the ages of 11 and 14. He arranged its tempo to imitate the cadences of Martin Luther King’s eulogy at the girls’ funeral.  The first 90 seconds or so of “Alabama” might be the saddest combination of sounds I’ve ever heard. Coltrane’s saxophone, normally frenzied and furious, comes in slowly as a mournful dirge, with the piano, bass, and drums rumbling underneath the sax’s cries and hollers.

But then suddenly the tempo picks up, the rhythm section is rejuvenated, and the music starts to swing.  The musical shift in “Alabama” recalls the contrasting tempos of so-called jazz funerals in New Orleans, which begin with a slow, sorrowful walk but then develop into joyous celebrations involving a “second line” of dancers and musicians on the way back from the funeral. Jazz funerals embody the collective strength of African-American music to survive and celebrate while resisting racist and classist oppression; Albert Murray called it “stomping the blues.” 

The state of Alabama figured prominently in the struggle for Civil Rights, from the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 to the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March and the brutal police violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Conflicts over the state’s symbolic standing were later played out in rock music in the clash between Neil Young (“Southern Man” [1970] and “Alabama” [1972]) and Lynyrd Skynyrd (“Sweet Home Alabama” [1974]). This conflict among white rock musicians was expressed in an exchange of lyrical words, but none could capture the intensity and tragedy of those events like Coltrane’s “Alabama.”

The John Coltrane Trio performs “Alabama”