ORLEANS — For decades, New Englanders looking for a daily antidote to life's stresses turned their radio dials to WGBH-FM for the start of “Eric in the Evening.” With the first notes of Tommy Flanagan's rendition of Horace Silver's “Peace,” listeners' souls were calmed and stirred.
On the 90th anniversary of the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, radio host and musicologist Eric Jackson did it again, this time in person as the keynote speaker of the 15th annual Martin Luther King Action Breakfast at the Church of the Holy Spirit.
Jackson, whose show is now heard on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, opened his talk by playing Duke Ellington's great hymn, “Come Sunday,” with the composer at the piano and Ray Nance on violin. A hush fell over the hall, and some assumed attitudes of prayer as Mahalia Jackson sang, “Please look down and see my people through.”
Then, in the stillness that followed, Eric Jackson sang, “Over my head, I hear music in the air,” and what was now more a congregation than an audience joined in two repetitions before he ended with, “There must be a God somewhere.”
Thus did Jackson demonstrate the essence of the spiritual, “the religious music of the slaves.” Some ministers, he said, said spirituals were like pearls: “beauty produced by irritation.” By the civil rights era, the old spiritual had a new message: “Over my head, I hear freedom in the air. Over my head, I hear justice in the air.”
Jackson is widely considered the “Dean of Boston Jazz Radio,” having hosted three decades of radio jazz programming. During that time, he has created a legacy as an informed, knowledgeable and personable voice in jazz radio broadcasting. Born in Providence, R.I., and raised in Camden, N.J., Jackson came to Boston to attend Boston University. In 1969 he began his broadcasting career and in 1975 he wrote and narrated “Essays in Black Music,” chronicling African-American musical history. He has hosted WGBH’s “Eric in the Evening” since 1981.
Jackson’s talk, supported by videos showing different genres of Black music, had three focal points: music, his personal experience, and Dr. King. He discussed the nature and role of music in Black society from its days of slavery through the Civil Rights era. Negro spirituals and “ring shouts” expressed the slaves’ desire, as “The Invisible Church” to “worship all day long,” while also being “code songs” offering secret messages to their “peer groups,” but not their masters, often related to planned meetings or opportunities to enter the Underground Railroad. Slaves’ self-identification with the Israelites of the Old Testament was also expressed in songs that are well-known today, like “Go down, Moses.”
Spirituals provided solace from the physical hardships of slavery and as importantly the mental hardships of attacks on self-esteem. Even when they were converted to Christianity, enslaved people found they were considered less than fully human. With white ministers admonishing them to “be good and obey your masters,” they found ways to worship without white supervision, in what Jackson called “the invisible church” after dark in the woods.
Music, at first just the sound of feet walking in a circle and an elder's cane marking time (no instruments, especially drums, were allowed them), expressed over the generations the cares and hopes of a people moving toward freedom.
In the current climate of discord, Jackson recalled a 1954 recording of King in which the minister spoke of “Rediscovering Lost Values.” King talked about being lost on the way to a meeting and getting this advice at a gas station: “You got to go back to get on the right road.” Recalling the famous “Is God Dead?” cover of Time magazine, Jackson asked, “Isn't that a lost value? Is God dead?”
“No,” the audience answered with conviction if not volume. “You didn't say that loud enough,” Jackson said. “Is God dead?” “NO,” came the more robust reply.
“God is alive, but somewhere along the way some in America lost sight of Him,” Jackson said. He referenced King's call for racial equality, social justice, and peace, noting how his pursuit of the last two goals had alienated him from many of his financial supporters near the end of his life.
Then he played John Coltrane's angry and somber lament “Alabama” for the lives of the four girls murdered in a bombing of their church. “It's said to be based on the rhythm of one of Martin Luther King's speeches,” Jackson noted. It was Coltrane's album “A Love Supreme, “about his love of God,” that helped Jackson deal with his own disillusionment with faith.
King's goals survive him. “He said, 'Bring your spiritual advancements up to the level of your material advancements,'” Jackson said, to strong applause. “He said, 'We have made the world a neighborhood (through technological advances) but not a brotherhood.”
Jackson cited several statements by Dr. King which he believes are important for today: “Bring your spiritual advancement up to the level of your material and technological advancement;” “Human life matters;” “Be maladjusted – do not adjust to the world;” and “Maintain hope – even if it is against Goliath.”
Finally, Jackson said that “spirituals were not sad songs. Blues and jazz are triumphant music. Music beings us hope even in adversity. Hope for a better day. A better future.”
The breakfast for about 200 people was sponsored by the Nauset Interfaith Association, which now counts 20 congregations among its membership, and its MLK Action Team. The latter is sponsoring more than two dozen local study groups that are reading and discussing King's “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” For more information about this and other Nauset Interfaith Association activities, send an email to the organization's chair, the Rev. Ken Campbell, at email@example.com.
Campbell said a donation would be made to help support 500 families on the Cape who are not getting paid during the partial government shutdown, including environmental scientists in Woods Hole and Provincetown, Coast Guard members, and Cape Cod National Seashore staff, “terrific folks who are getting the raw end of the deal.”