First Posted: 2/17/2009
When D.C. area jazz singer Lea Morris, known as Lea, set foot on Surry Community Colleges campus at the Knights Grill to perform yesterday, she wasnt just serenading a college crowd.
She was celebrating Black History Month with Songs of the Civil Right Movements, a repertoire of familiar songs urging peace, freedom and unity. She was also educating listeners about the course of black history in America through each song with occasional interjections about the songs history and meaning.
Some songs were traditionally associated with the plight of racial oppression and inequality in America like the Negro spiritual Oh Freedom, while others spoke to issues easily relative to it like Bob Dylans Blowin in the Wind.
I really enjoy doing this because its informative for folks, the 30-year-old said of her performances, which she does throughout the year on various college campuses around the country. Lea of Baltimore, Md., has been performing professionally for 10 years and has been singing since she was 3-years-old. She has co-written songs for British pop trio Indigo Wild and sung with the jazz ensemble Black & White. She has also performed in England and throughout Europe.
Taking on a soulful rendition of each song, she serenaded those at SCC with acoustic versions of Wade in the Water, Think and Lift Every Voice and Sing.
Before performing Lift Every Voice, which is known as the Negro National Anthem, Lea told the crowd of about 40 students and teachers that the song isnt simply about the unity of a particular ethnicity but everyone.
I dont think that when James Weldon Johnson wrote this he intended for it only to mean unity for a certain group, but unity for all, she said of the lyrics, which say Lift every voice and sing, Till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty.
Lea said the song, which was originally written by Johnson for a presentation in celebration of the Abraham Lincolns birthday, embodies principles people should embrace daily.
The fight for the unity didnt end when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated or when Barack Obama was inaugurated as president, she said after performing the song. We all have ways we can contribute to the unity, even if just means laughing with your friends or being kind to someone thats your contribution.
Her list of songs included Strange Fruit, which was performed most famously by jazz singer Billie Holiday. While beautiful in melody, the solemn song condemned American racism, specifically the lynching of blacks. Holidays version of the song was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978.
Lea told the audience of students and teachers packed in the cafe about the origins of the song.
Strange Fruit began as a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high-school teacher from the Bronx, about the lynching of two black men.
Lea, who said the songs lyrics were too intense for her to sing, instead recited it.
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees, she recited. Pastoral scene of the gallant south, The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth, Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh, Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
I just get too emotional to sing the song, she said. I will not get through it.
Although Bob Dylans Blowin in the Wind poses a series of philosophical questions about peace, war and freedom without supplying concrete answers, Lea said she performed it because it resonates to the issues during the Civil Rights Movement.
It can inspire us on different levels, she said of the song. It has a peaceful melody that resonates with me.
She said its important to incorporate a variety of songs that can reach people of different backgrounds about civil rights and unity.
Its important to mix it up for everyone, civil rights is an ongoing process, she said after her performance.
As a singer and songwriter, Lea was nominated five times for excellence in contemporary folk music, including songwriter of the year, best female vocalist and best new artist by the Washington Area Music Association. She has six albums including Great Big World, Something Worth Keeping and her most recent, Get it Right, released June 2008.
For more information about Lea, visit www.thisislea.com.
Contact Erin C. Perkins at [email protected] or 719-1952.