A Q&A with Diane C. Taylor!
Learn how Diane C. Taylor explores the history of the Civil Rights Era through music and musicians!
What drew you to this particular topic?
I had already started writing a book for Nomad about civil rights leaders when my editor asked me if I could take on the music book as well. I wasn’t sure I really had the time. But James Brown and Sam Cooke are two of my favorite performers. I play Sam Cooke on Pandora at my bakery here in Bowling Green, Kentucky, nearly every day. And I find James Brown fascinating. He’s one of those figures that I consider uniquely American, and I had already read a biography of James Brown within the last year, and seen a documentary about Sam Cooke and another about Nina Simone recently. So I was already naturally interested in more than half the artists I would be writing about.
Did you come to the subject a Dylan fan?
No. Not really. And I’m still not, truth be told! I respect him as an artist and I understand his importance to contemporary music, but I’ve never been able to actually enjoy listening to the man sing. Dylan does a couple of songs that I truly love—“Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Maggie’s Farm,” for example—but I personally am happier when an artist covers a Dylan song. Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watch Tower,” that’s the kind of Dylan music I like.
But he absolutely had to be included. His social and musical legacy from the Civil Rights Era is huge. He was one of the first—if not THE first—pop artist to record songs that were deliberately central to the social unrest of the times. His music inspired all the other artists that I covered in this book, and they in turn inspired him.
What other criteria went into your decision about which artists you chose to profile?
One was availability of research material. I had really wanted to include a profile about Odetta. She was a great singer and an important figure in the civil rights movement. But I couldn’t find a thorough enough biography of her in time to meet my deadline. So it just didn’t work out.
The other thing I looked for was social relevance. I based the selections less on the quantity of the civil rights themed music each artist produced and more on the social quality of whatever songs they created during that time, plus the arc of their careers. Sam Cooke died so young, in 1964, so the only real civil rights song to his credit is “Change Is Gonna Come.” But that was a huge song. It’s still a huge song. And the struggles he endured just to get to the point where he felt he could even risk recording a song like “Change,” that was important, too. All the artists profiled in this book were exploring uncharted territory. There was a lot of social and creative tension in all of their work during the civil rights era.
I was also looking for ways that I could tie the music and the musicians directly to actual events that took place during the civil rights era. Dylan’s “Oxford Town” isn’t an especially great song, for example, but you want to discuss it, at least briefly, to educate kids about the importance of James Meredith. I was able to work in material about the Little Rock Nine with “Why (Am I Treated so Bad)” by the Staple Singers. Nina Simone talking about Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee in “Mississippi Goddam.” James Brown’s performance in Boston the day after Martin Luther King was killed. All of those songs or performances tied in to major events that you would want young readers to have some knowledge about.
Did your research change your own perception of these artists?
It did! Very much so, really. I knew virtually nothing about the Staples Singers, and I really came to appreciate their music a lot more. I had no idea how influential they were, Pops’ guitar style, and Mavis’s singing in particular. So that was a revelation. I hadn’t realized that Sam Cooke had a whole career in gospel music before he transitioned to pop. I had not ever thought too much about what these people endured just trying to travel on tour through Southern states. That hit me hard, trying to truly understand what that level of ingrained racism must be like and how they survived it. It made me respect them even more.
Nina Simone was a heartbreaker, when you think about her dream to play classical music and how that dream never came true. But then you see her ability to turn to another very different genre of music and become one of the most influential recording artists of her time. That’s an amazing level of talent.
I loved James Brown before I even started this book, but I have a new appreciation for him as well. He’s a true American original. There’s no one else like him, and there never will be. I think the most stunning thing I learned about James Brown is, in some ways, a throw away piece of trivia. But it’s remarkable all the same. He never once appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine when he was alive. He was an enormously influential performer, but also seriously underappreciated and misunderstood. Still, you’d think he would have made the cover of Rolling Stone at least once.
You’ve written two books about the civil rights movement—what’s the most serious lesson you take from that experience?
I definitely see those years differently now. I see it as a truly revolutionary, violent time in United States history. I see it as a much more complex movement, one where Black people struggled to define themselves in a hostile environment. It was a life and death struggle, and even today, Black Americans—all Americans actually—still need to wrestle with the history of racial oppression in this country.
I feel it as a moral and social responsibility to stay aware of that struggle. It’s far from over, and the bravery and the sacrifices that people made during those years needs to be honored with action today. I recently joined my local chapter of the NAACP here in Bowling Green and hosted a meet-and-greet at my bakery for the organization. A good number of people showed up. It was a really lively and engaging night of conversation. I had to sort of push people out the door after a couple of hours. But it was good! I’m looking forward to working with this group even more in the future.
Try a sample chapter from Diane’s new book about the Civil Rights Era!
Singing for Equality: Musicians of the Civil Rights Era introduces middle graders to the history of the Civil Rights Movement and explores the vital role that music played in the tumultuous period of American history during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.