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'Oh Freedom!' Showcases Civil Rights-Era Music And History On Juneteenth

Illinois is among the 45 states that celebrate Juneteenth today. The holiday recalls the day at the end of the Civil War when slaves in Texas were told they were free, and is the oldest known commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States.

Juneteenth celebrations began in Texas, where African Americans there had to buy separate parcels of land to celebrate the day because of public land segregation there. It has been more widely celebrated since the 1980s, but is still largely unknown outside the black community. Though the day is not yet a national holiday, groups are asking Congress to declare it a national day of observance.

Springfield is hosting a number of events to mark the occasion, including a performance that brings together an unlikely duo: a white singer-songwriter named Chris Vallillo, and a black choir, directed by musician Ezra Casey.

They put together a concert of songs from the Civil Rights Movement, called "Oh Freedom!"  The two say the show aimed at sparking a wider conversation about the African American roots of that music, how it's been used in protest movements , and how it resonates today.

I spoke with the duo about three of the show's featured songs: "Birmingham Sunday," "We Shall Overcome" and "We Shall Not Be Moved."

"Oh Freedom!" takes place tonight at 7 PM at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Chris, how did you go about researching songs like that for the show?

CV: "Well, to create this show, I spent the better part of the year reading as much as I could on the Civil Rights Movement. And I was able to locate some wonderful primary source documents that not only documented the music of the Civil Rights Movement, but gave the stories behind the music, and how these songs interacted to help support the movement."

Ezra, can you talk about your personal experience with these songs?

EC: 'I've grown to actually learn the songs a little bit better, honestly. We knew the songs, but...the history wasn't explained, you know, as in detail as Chris gave us. We've always known the song "We Shall Overcome," it's a very popular song, it's more of an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement, and so, getting to know [that song] a little bit better with Chris has [given us] just a better understanding of where it came from."

"One thing I want to Chris to do from the first rehearsal was to explain the songs and where they come from...it's amazing to hear the background on it. And some of us, you know, while being skeptical, after hearing the history of the song[s], you know, it's more understandable, it's easier to sing, because now you know where the songs come from. You know, it would be...almost a shame for us not to sing [them]."

What is the sort of mood you and your choir are trying to get into when singing a song like "We Shall Overcome?"

EC: "I think "We Shall Overcome" was created at the time, [and] this is just my belief...there may be different opinions, but at the time, there was a hope...in this song, as many gospel songs deliver hope. This was one that originated during the Civil Rights Movement, so, this is a song more of hope, you know, 'we shall overcome.' meaning that one day, there's going to be a change..."

Part of that song talks about walking hand in hand, someday. The idea of someday, I think, is still pretty far off. How do performances like the ones that you're doing, especially at the moment that you're doing them, get us closer to that "someday?"

EC: "I think in general, music is a powerful tool to bring people together. There's so much power in the words of music and...it doesn't necessarily have to be gospel. But if you can bring people together in one accord in a positive message, I think that is the key. And music does it every time."

Chris, I want to push you a little on this. This has been something that's been talked about in the music community before when it comes to black spirituals, when it comes to protest songs; Can you or even I as as a white man sing [these] in an authentic manner? And what extra care and attention do you have to take as a performer to get the authentic message of what these songs are talking about out there?

CV: "Well, anybody can sing anything. But the question is, 'can I accurately represent that?' I can't begin to really tell the story of the African American experience. But I can tell what I've seen, what I have observed. I can tell it from my perspective, and then bring it together with Ezra, we can bring a whole community of people together to get a bigger picture of it."

Ezra, when this idea was first presented to you, how did it strike you? I mean, to be frank, a white man coming in and wanting to perform 11 Gospels and spiritual songs? How did you take that initially? And have you talked with Chris about how to do this right?

EC: "Well, I didn't so much talk to Chris is how to do it right. We definitely came together on a plan. To answer your first question, the the idea of having a white guy singing Negro spirituals...or you know, Civil Rights Movement songs [was] absolutely surprising. Shocking. It was also intriguing, if you will. So it was like, 'yeah, we can do this.'"

"It's amazing to have somebody like Chris come and ask us to be a part because you've never seen it before...you know, I haven't seen it before, and I've never been a part of something like that. And then to be asked to do something like that...[it] was actually  honor to be a part of that. [That's] a part of our walk, our belief, you know, is to actually come together in unity."

Why continue to sing these songs now, when they were written decades and even centuries ago?

CV: "They're great songs! They still resonate. These songs can touch people, these songs can tell a story. They're connected not only to the past, but to our most recent history, and they are also a a roadmap forward for us to try to find a way to understand one another, and live together peacefully."

EC: "I agree with Chris one hundred percent. You know, you got Chris being a white man. And then you have a black choir or gospel choir coming behind him singing, you know, those songs with a touch of soul, if you will...so, there is...that connection. [In] the body, you know, there is no color...once you start singing these songs, it's as if we all are in one accord."

Sam is a Public Affairs Reporting intern for spring 2018, working out the NPR Illinois Statehouse bureau.
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