A musical tribute to civil rIghts

Celebrate Juneteenth with “Oh Freedom!”

When the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s gained momentum, music and song were at the forefront of the action. To honor the holiday known as Juneteeth, celebrated on June 19 to commemorate an official end of slavery in Texas in 1865, and accepted by the African-American community as a national date for freedom, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum presents “Oh Freedom! Songs of the Civil Rights Movement.” Chris Vallillo, the author of the program, acts as narrator, leads a band and sings the songs, while accompanied by the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church Choir, led by the church’s musical director, Ezra Casey.

 In 2014, when Vallillo, a Macomb-based, lifelong folk singer and folklorist, took on the challenge of crafting a musical tribute to this period in American history, he wanted to “shine a light on the civil rights movement and celebrate the cause of social justice” and also to fight back against what he felt was a resurgence of racial injustice. He originally performed his program as a solo show, narrating, singing and playing various instruments. Then in 2018, he developed the concept of a larger, interactive presentation, including the choir addition (in cooperation with Dr. James Stegal, director of choirs at Western Illinois University), projected historical images and “firsthand accounts of the historic struggle and well as the history of the songs,” as a full-blown, theatrical production. Vallillo also produced a CD of his performances of the songs and filmed a WIU theater show to make a DVD and a television broadcast. He has done other college choir shows since then, but this ALPM performance is his first with a gospel choir of African-Americans singing along with the very songs so intertwined in the civil rights movement, something he felt passionate about producing. He noted a distinct difference immediately upon contacting Casey about working with the PGB choir.

“We used notated sheet music that we had written out for the college choirs, but Ezra informed me the church choir didn’t read music, or need to for that matter,” said Vallillo. “We just played the songs and then worked out the parts that they felt the music needed.”

According to Casey, that’s how the choir deals with all the music it creates, “by listening and hearing what’s needed or missing and adding the singing parts that way.” The entire group consists of 20 to 25 male and female vocalists of various ages and sings mainly at the church. The youth choir makes a special appearance at the “Oh Freedom!” program, joining in on the final number to add more voices and give the youngsters a spot in the experience.

When they met up for rehearsals, several of the 11 songs in the “Oh Freedom!” program were standards that everyone knew, such as “We Shall Overcome” and “This Little Light of Mine.” But, as Casey noted, when Vallillo related the history behind some of the lesser known songs, Richard Farina’s “Birmingham Sunday,” for example, the moment became a learning experience for choir members. When one singer asked about some lyrics because she “didn’t want to sing a song if she didn’t know what it meant,” Vallillo told the folklore behind the song, “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” and its relation to the Underground Railroad and slaves searching for freedom in the north by following the stars.

“I am really impressed by the passion of Chris and how he inspires other people,” Casey said. “It’s a real blessing to be able to keep the songs relevant and give people an opportunity to learn about the importance of the civil rights movement. We as a gospel choir are really glad and grateful to be a part of the show.”  

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum presents “Oh Freedom! Songs of the Civil Rights Movement” at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 19. Tickets are $10 for the general public or $8 for members of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation. To buy tickets online, visit www.PresidentLincoln.Illinois.gov and click “Special Event Reservations.”

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