On this Juneteenth, we honor the struggle for equality with the sounds of freedom. One singer who heard the sounds of the Civil Rights movement was Fontella Bass from St. Louis. She walked a line between sacred and secular music having sung in churches, traveling shows and blues clubs. “Rescue Me” from 1965 is her best known song.
Fontella Bass: Well Raynard Miner, one of the writers, was in his studio, and I had stopped in, and he was doing this song. So I came in the door like, “Cuz I love you, cuz I want you,” you know, he said, “Yeah that’s it, that’s it!” Even in the studio when we recorded “Rescue Me,” I had lined out the lyrics on a scrap of paper, and it fell to the floor, and the band was playing live at the time, and I didn’t want to stop the tape, so that’s how “Mmhmm, mmhmm.” And then in the end Billy said, “No let’s keep it there, let’s keep it there.” And that’s what we did.
Nick Spitzer: If you just saw those words, “Rescue Me,” you might say that’s got to be gospel. You’re asking the Lord for forgiveness and to be brought back to the right side of life, but it’s a secular song. It’s a song about a man and a woman.
FB: Yeah and I was being rescued from a lot of things at that time because in the musical world, we had a lot of alcoholics also, and me just being poor and trying to make it and trying to do music. Then we had a lot of things going on, the Vietnam War, I mean you know, that was the start of Martin Luther King, I mean you know, the movement, the Watts riots, I mean everything was going down at that time.
NS: What were your impressions of Martin Luther King?
FB: Well at first, you know, the peace. Cuz I was more on the Black Panther side.
NS: And what’s your memory of actually meeting MLK in all of this? What were your impressions of him as a man?
FB: Oh I was very proud of him; he was a very soft-spoken man to me in real life.
NS: As an entertainer, did you feel you could help the Civil Rights movement or did they pull on you to get involved, or did you just kind of, you know-
FB: No I didn’t get involved. I thought I could get my message through through the music. I used my music as another venue to deal with the problems of the world.
NS: You moved with your husband to Paris for a little while here in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s.
NS: When you came back to the US, you did a record with the folks out of Shreveport, Paula Records.
FB: Yeah Stan Lewis.
NS: And the record literally is just called Free.
FB: Well that was my part of the movement, you know, everything was still going strong then. Just to be free for a little while, you know, I’m gonna go down by the river, sit down, try to rest my mind, clear my mind.
To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.