Doug Jones’ surprising U.S. Senate victory in Alabama has brought back memories of one of the civil rights era’s most horrific crimes – the Birmingham church bombing – and Jones’ role in bringing its perpetrators to justice.
Even before the renewed spotlight on the September 1963 bombing that killed four young African-American girls, the events at 16th Street Baptist Church have been a topic for songs by everyone from Paul Simon to Nina Simone.
Fifty years later, that defining moment of the civil rights era – one that galvanized the movement – is still heard in song.
Former Carolina Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens resurrected the 1960s-vintage folk song “Birmingham Sunday” on her most recent album, “Freedom Road.” Onstage Saturday night at Saxapahaw’s Haw River Ballroom, Triangle band Chatham County Line performed their song “Birmingham Jail” with Dave Wilson dedicating the tune to Jones and “the good people of Alabama” who had just elected him Senator.
For many years, it seemed that the men who carried out the bombing, which also injured 22 people, would never be punished. But suspected ringleader Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss was convicted in 1977.
A quarter-century later, then-U.S. attorney Jones belatedly prosecuted and imprisoned two of Chambliss’ accomplices. During this year’s heated campaign, Jones called that “the most important thing I have done.”
Here are some of the most notable songs inspired by the Birmingham church bombing over the years.
Rhiannon Giddens, “Birmingham Sunday” (2017) – Written by the late folksinger Richard Farina, “Birmingham Sunday” is a stately and apocalyptic lament. Joan Baez popularized it in 1964 with a starkly unadorned version that became definitive enough for director Spike Lee to use it as theme song to his 1997 documentary “4 Little Girls.” But North Carolina native and MacArthur Fellow Rhiannon Giddens takes it straight to church with an old-school gospel version.
On Birmingham Sunday a noise shook the ground
And people all over the earth turned around
For no one recalled a more cowardly sound
And the choirs kept singing of freedom.
Chatham County Line, “Birmingham Jail” (2008) – This song from the Raleigh group’s 2008 album “IV” is about justice delayed. And it was directly inspired by Jones putting Ku Klux Klansmen Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr. into prison for the bombing.
“I picked up the paper one day and read about how those guys had been convicted for what had happened all those years ago,” Wilson in an interview last week. “And I was happy because justice had been served. But it sure seemed like it had been a little long to reach that point. So I sat down and wrote those lyrics out because those guys had gotten to live their lives.”
Down in the Birmingham jail
You’ve had a chance to live your life
But now you’re locked.
Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddam” (1964) – The Birmingham church bombing and murder of civil-rights worker Medgar Evers prompted the late Tryon native Simone to wrote “Mississippi Goddam,” setting lyrics of cold fury to a deceptively jaunty tune and tempo. The song made Simone, who was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this month, a civil-rights icon.
You don’t have to live next to me
Just give me my equality.
John Coltrane, “Alabama” (1963) – Yet another song by a North Carolina native, Hamlet-born saxophonist Coltrane, this instrumental was also inspired by Birmingham. The piece’s movements go back and forth between feeling mournful and conjuring undercurrents of dread. You’ll feel it.
Paul Simon, “A Church Is Burning” (1965) – This song from 1965’s “The Paul Simon Songbook” invokes crimes beyond the Birmingham church bombing, including the widespread arson of African-American churches during the civil-rights era. But Birmingham was part of that, and the song fits here, striking a note of defiance.
You can burn down our churches but I shall be free.
Amy Leon, “Burning in Birmingham” (2016) – This Brooklyn singer and spoken-word artist connects the horrors of the Birmingham bombing to the ongoing struggle still faced by African-American women, with a video that reimagines the explosion itself.
This looks a whole lot like Revelations
And I can’t tell if we’re being killed or saved.
Adolphus Hailstork, “American Guernica” (1982) – Like Coltrane’s “Alabama,” this chamber-music piece by the New York-born composer is an instrumental inspired by the Birmingham bombing. But where “Alabama” felt like a reaction, “American Guernica” is more like an emotional retelling of the event and its aftermath from the inside out. It’s both deeply moving, and kind of exhausting.