The Berkshires

Hope in a Hateful World

September 2021

The Black Legacy Project launched in September 2021 in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, known for its pastoral beauty and longstanding cultural heritage. The region’s widely unheard historical significance in Black activism and advocacy is what draws the Black LP to the Berkshires.

 

The Project celebrates the Black legacy of the Berkshires by examining and reinterpreting the works “Strange Fruit,” made famous by Billie Holiday, “My Country Tis of Thee,” written by W.E.B. DuBois, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” by brothers James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson, and “We Shall Overcome” made famous by Pete Seeger, all with direct ties to the Berkshires.

 

“Strange Fruit” is the poetically gruesome protest song made famous by Billie Holiday throughout her career. The piece was originally written as a poem in 1937 by activist Abel Meeropol, who was inspired by a commonplace picture of two Black men being lynched. Merapool was friends with local civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois and visited his home in the Berkshires. In addition, Billie Holiday performed in the Berkshires at the Armory in North Adams in 1938 and the Music Inn in 1957. 

 

“My Country Tis of Thee,” is a poem that W.E.B. Du Bois wrote to the tune of the famous patriotic American hymn of the same name. DuBois was born and raised in Great Barrington and remains one of the most influential Black scholars, activists, and thought leaders in American history. The poem is a reflection of his ongoing work to make the United States a community of belonging for Black Americans; bringing light to both the reality of slavery as well the pride Black Americans had in fighting for freedom. 

 

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a poem written by civil rights activist and writer James Weldon Johnson and put to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson. A peer of DuBois and the first Black person to head the NAACP (which was co-founded by Du Bois), James Weldon Johnson wrote much of his iconic poems in his summer home in Great Barrington. Providing a visionary message of hope and courage around continuing the fight for freedom and belonging for Black Americans, Johnson’s song is revered as the Black National Anthem.  

 

“We Shall Overcome” is a song made famous by folk singer and civil rights activist, Pete Seeger. The melody and lyrics evolved from European melodies, Negro spirituals, gospel arrangements, and protest songs over the centuries. However, once brought to the Highlander Folk School by labor activist Lucille Simmons, Pete Seeger learned it and performed it for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., giving the American Civil Rights Movement it’s anthem. Seeger performed in the Berkshires numerous times at the Music Inn and elsewhere, and was great friends with Berkshire resident Arlo Guthrie and his father, the late, great protest singer, Woody Guthrie. 

 

Billie Holiday, Abel Meeropol, and W.E.B. DuBois all used their voices and their talents to speak out against the horrors of lynching. Their pieces, “Strange Fruit” and “My Country Tis of Thee”, express the continued need for activism and solidarity among Black and white Americans to extirpate lynching and the oppression it represents in order to advance freedom for Black Americans. Similarly, James Weldon Johnson and Peter Seeger used their gifts to inspire us to envision a nation of liberty, justice, equality, and belonging. Their works, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “We Shall Overcome,” call forth Black and white Americans to build that nation together.

 

Local Black artists, under the creative direction of Wanda Houston, revisited and reimagined “Strange Fruit”, a song written initially by a white man and adopted by the Black community.  Local White artists, under the creative direction of Billy Keane and Matt Cusson, revisited and reimagined the piece “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” a poem written by a Black man, but performed to the traditional patriotic American hymn that many White Americans know and love.  Local Black artists, under the creative direction of Gina Coleman and Diego Mongue, also revisited and reimagined  “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, the Black national anthem while local White artists, under the creative direction of Annie Guthrie and Eric Reinhardt, revisited and reimagined  “We Shall Overcome,” a protest song with Black and White roots made famous by a White man. 

 

These seven musical co-directors along with other local Black and White artists worked together to write and record two songs that envision a world of hope in which hateful acts of racial oppression, such as lynching, are replaced by one that embodies equity and belonging for all.