This Is What You Need to Know about African-American Spirituals and Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony
Czech composer Antonín Dvořák is among the world’s great masters of 19th century symphonic form. His Ninth Symphony has achieved lasting popularity among the professional musicians who appreciate its technical achievements, as well as among generations of listeners who love it for its captivating melodies, grandeur of expression, and echoes of American—notably African-American—folk music themes.
Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, is specifically entitled “From the New World.” Here’s what you need to know about the composer, his Ninth Symphony, and its connection to African-American spirituals:
Dvořák’s Immigration to New York
Dvořák arrived in the United States in September 1892, wife and children accompanying him. He was taking up a position as music director of the National Conservatory of Music of America, hired away from Prague by wealthy patron of the arts Jeannette Thurber.
The salary was 25 times what Dvořák earned back home, and even came with a perk: he would have summers off. The composer remained in New York until April 1895, working on composing music that incorporated American themes.
He finished an “American” string quartet while on summer vacation in the Czech-American town of Spillville in Iowa. Dvořák also conducted a special “Bohemian Day” at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. And he composed the New World Symphony.
The “New World” Symphony
He completed the score for the “New World” Symphony in May 1893. One of the reasons Dvořák may have felt a strong connection with African-American folk music was his own Czech cultural nationalism. The Bohemian lands of what would become the Czech Republic were then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
A Czech nationalist revival gathered force throughout the 19th century, promoting Czech as an alternative to the German language, and elevating Czech folklore themes in literature, art, and music. Dvořák was among the leading exemplars of this Czech national pride.
The New York Philharmonic debuted the Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall on December 16, 1893. The now-storied venue had only been open for 18 months. Dvořák himself, who had previously conducted at Carnegie Hall on four occasions during his sojourn in the United States, was present in the audience, with the Philharmonic under the leadership of Anton Seidl.
The Influence of Harry Thacker Burleigh
The National Conservatory, in a rare decision for its time, opened its doors to talented music students regardless of ethnic background or family connections. This included many Black students. Several of the professional connections Dvořák made during his tenure brought African-American music to his attention.
One such connection was Harry Thacker Burleigh, the son of an Erie, Pennsylvania, domestic worker. Although Burleigh’s mother had a classical education and knew Greek and French, no other employment was available to her. Always musical, the young Burleigh took a number of clerical jobs, including that of librarian for the National Conservatory’s orchestra while he was studying there on scholarship.
Conductors typically work closely with an orchestra’s librarian. This was certainly true of Burleigh and Dvořák. Operetta composer Victor Herbert later noted that Burleigh provided Dvořák with a number of themes used in the Ninth Symphony. This contemporaneous evidence is particularly notable in light of the fact that, even today, some sources discount the influence of African-American musicians on the symphony.
Burleigh often sang the spirituals he had learned from his blind grandfather—an enslaved man who later purchased his freedom—for the Czech composer. He, in turn, was a defining influence on Burleigh’s later career as a singer, teacher, and composer.
The Influence of Will Marion Cook
Will Marion Cook, a young violinist and Dvořák’s student at the conservatory, also deepened the great composer’s knowledge of the rich heritage of what were then called “Negro spirituals.” Cook, born in Washington, DC to a middle-class family, would go on to become a noted conductor, composer of Broadway musicals, and teacher of a young Duke Ellington.
The Library of Congress lists Cook among the greatest African-American musical talents before the Jazz Age. Cook himself first encountered African-American folk songs when he, at age 12, was sent to visit his grandfather in Tennessee.
Dvořák himself later wrote, using the language of the day, that any truly American music would need to draw its main inspiration from “Negro melodies or Indian chants.” He went on to say that “the most potent as well as most beautiful among them” were the “plantation melodies and slave songs,” with their “unusual and subtle harmonies.” Harry Burleigh recalled Dvořák once remarking that the spiritual “Go Down, Moses” was equal in greatness to any of the works of Beethoven.
The New World Symphony uses numerous elements that distinguish the spirituals anchored in the lives of enslaved Americans: pentatonic scales, syncopation, and flattened sevenths. While musicologists still debate whether or not Dvořák literally transported traditional spirituals into the work note-for-note, there is no doubt that it was heavily influenced by them, as the composer himself attested.
Music scholar Joseph Horowitz told NPR in 2019 that the African-American influences on classical music—on Dvořák in particular—are part of “buried history.” The Czech composer, said Horowitz, became “consumed” by a desire to show America a truer musical portrait of itself by highlighting this contribution to a renewed and more authentically American style.
In the first movement of the New World Symphony, the second theme echoes the melody of the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” In the lyrical Largo second movement, Dvořák developed what is now called the “Goin’ Home” theme, played by English horn. Beloved by generations of Americans, this theme is Dvořák’s creation, although it certainly references traditional African-American melodies and harmonies he had picked up.
The theme only acquired words in 1922. William Arms Fisher, one of Dvořák’s white students, wrote the lyrics. They referenced the beauty and power of traditional spirituals. African-American churches, along with many others, have adopted the melody into numerous hymnbooks.
Notable Performances of “Goin’ Home”
“Goin’ Home” was played in tribute by an African-American US Navy accordionist, Graham W. Jackson, in Warm Springs, Georgia, after President Franklin Roosevelt died there. In 1949, Black pianist Art Tatum composed the “Largo” swing, referencing Dvořák’s tune, and in 1958, Paul Robeson famously performed “Goin’ Home” at Carnegie Hall.
The haunting, transformative power of this piece of music has moved people all over the world. In one recent notable performance, the Silk Road Ensemble recorded it under the direction of Yo-Yo Ma. The performance featured a Chinese sheng and an American banjo, with a singer performing in both Mandarin and English.
In 1904, Dvořák died in Prague at age 63. One of his obituaries noted the sorrow of so many music lovers, saying specifically that “Afro-American musicians alone could flood his grave with tears.”
Over the decades, social and racial justice movements have produced powerful, memorable music that can be performed and enjoyed for years afterward. The enduring nature of the songs created to elevate the struggle for peace, justice, and equality, as well as those written to memorialize lives unjustly brutalized or cut short, continue to enrich American culture even years after the events that they commemorate.
Now, a new generation is adding its distinctive voice to our culture through music composed to accompany the Black Lives Matter protests, which have existed as a movement under the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag since 2013. This new music has also revitalized the already universally popular genres of traditional hip hop, rap, and R&B.
A family bears witness to loss
In 2014, Eric Garner of Staten Island, New York, was killed at the hands of police while saying, “I Can’t Breathe” 11 times in succession. Two years later, the Garner Family formed a group to release a single titled, “I Can’t Breathe.” The song is not only a tribute to Garner, but an updated R&B-style rallying cry for principled protest against police brutality. The lyrics echo the ongoing tension between local communities of color and oppressive policing tactics (“We all know the solution, but they blame you and me”), while at the same time offering a positive plea for unity and mutual support and noting with tragic finality, “A life can change as the wind blows.”
One of the Internet’s most popular anthems
In early June 2020, rapper Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” skyrocketed into first place among the most popular protest songs available on the Internet, tallying some 65 million streamed views within the space of two weeks. In his video, the singer-songwriter’s harrowing depiction of unjust death and the grinding brutality of dealing with trauma on a daily basis are complemented by images in the media chronicling the coronavirus pandemic and divisions around the nation.
Starting with its introduction that references the killing of George Floyd and his “I can’t breathe,” echoing Eric Garner, the song runs its lyrics against background footage of some of the protests in support of Black Lives Matter, and highlights both black and white faces among people fighting for positive change.
The singer zooms out to reflect on the fact that, “It's a problem with the whole way of life,” then asks listeners to understand that we need to “start here.”
Music with a message
In Usher’s “I Cry,” the Grammy-winning singer of the 2015 hit “Chains” gives us another poignant song decrying police brutality.
The raw emotion in “I Cry” is Usher’s way of letting his sons know that it’s acceptable for men to show emotion, particularly in the face of waves of overwhelming violence against Black communities. In the related music video, he sings the spare lyrics against a backdrop of newspaper headlines describing the horrific killings of innocent Black Americans. The words summarize Usher’s feelings of helplessness at what is happening in the world around him, as well as his determination to be a part of the solution: “I’ll fight for the future we’re making.”
While “I Cry” is gentler in terms of the lyrics and beats than the more raw “Chains” (featuring Nas and Bibi Bourelly), the two songs complement each other in their ability to portray the African American experience in the present moment as fraught with tension and a constant sense of being unfairly targeted, while refusing to accept the untenable status quo.
The soundtrack of our moment
With their 2020 album RTJ4, the hip hop supergroup duo Run the Jewels (Killer Mike and Jaime “El-P” Meline) released a work that the online publication Vox immediately dubbed as “required listening” for the year. The Vox reviewer wrote that the performers had put “racial unrest to music.”
Coming as it did after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick, Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and George Floyd in Minneapolis that galvanized street protests even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the entire album hit the nation where it still had a number of unhealed wounds.
“Walking in the Snow” is one of RTJ4’s central songs. “They feed you fear for free,” the lyrics go, leading listeners through the numbness and pain of seeing victims’ names unroll on the evening news. The song goes on to try to help listeners see the urgent need to replace “apathy” with “empathy” for the sake of those targeted with hate, as well as those expressing the hating.
An icon celebrates struggle and joy
In 2016, Beyoncé began using her enormous platform to come out strongly on behalf of racial justice in general and Black Lives Matter in particular. After the widely publicized police shooting deaths of Philando Castile near St. Paul, Minnesota, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that year, the superstar posted a call to action on her social media pages, pleading with fans to speak out against police brutality and demand solutions.
The video for her 2016 song “Formation” includes an image of the phrase “Stop killing us.” Another video that year, for “Freedom” (featuring Kendrick Lamar), juxtaposed the song’s moving lyrics against a visual backdrop that included images of the mothers of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin holding up photos of their slain sons. Both songs appear on the Grammy-winning album Lemonade.
To celebrate Juneteenth on June 19, 2020, Beyoncé dropped “Black Parade,” a single focused less on suffering than on the abiding resilience and solidarity of the Black community. Juneteenth is a holiday that marks the end of slavery, observed by African American communities since the end of the Civil War in 1865.
Describing the new song that aims to uplift roots, history, and the beauty of the Black communities and voices, regardless of the circumstances, Beyoncé wrote a message on her Instagram highlighting the need to focus on “joy,” while posting an authorized directory of Black-owned businesses and rallying fans to support them throughout the year.
Music and literature have met and mingled countless times, as composers have taken inspiration from poems, plays, novels, and stories to create listening experiences that bring out new dimensions of original literary works. Many of these musical pieces have become classics in their own right, part of the lasting cultural heritage of humanity.
One of the great American poets, Langston Hughes (1901 or 1902 - 1967), is today remembered as a writer who gave voice to the hopes, dreams, and common experiences of African Americans. A leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance in New York, Hughes wrote in numerous genres, but is best-remembered today for his lyrical poems that contain a sense of both the joy of living and the painful path of history within their sinuous lines.
Hughes drew enormous inspiration from music to feed his creative process throughout his life. Composer Margaret Bonds and Langston Hughes developed an enduring personal friendship that began a decade after she discovered his poems as a teenage music student at Northwestern University in 1929.
Their Friendship Began with His Poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”
Born in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” shortly after his high school graduation. The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, published the poem in 1921. Hughes went on to study at Columbia University, becoming immersed in New York’s vibrant cultural scene, which he soon helped shape.
“I have known rivers,” the poem opens. Its lines wind down through history, as Hughes’ voices speaks on behalf of the millions of voiceless Black and Brown men and women over centuries who lived, loved, dreamed, and died beside the world’s great rivers, from the Nile, the Euphrates, and the Congo, to the Mississippi.
Margaret Bonds (1913 - 1972) was an accomplished musician and composer who had begun composing at age 13. According to Bonds, Northwestern University was a “terribly prejudiced place.” She had made enormous sacrifices to be able to study at a well-known school, and she won prizes in piano and composition during her time there. Yet, due to the practice of segregation, she was not even allowed to use the Northwestern swimming pool. Restaurants in the area refused to serve her.
Then one day, going through books at her neighborhood public library outside Chicago, Bonds began reading “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” from Hughes’ first poetry collection, The Weary Blues. Reading it gave her a sense of security, a belief that she, as a young, African American woman, had a rightful place in the world. “I know that poem helped save me,” she said.
After They Met, They Began a Long and Fruitful Collaboration
Bonds’ discovery of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was the touchstone that led her and Hughes to a decades-long artistic collaboration. She finally met him after she finished her university education, at the home of a mutual friend. They became inseparable, “like brother and sister,” Bonds later said, getting to know each other’s families and becoming comfortable in one another’s homes.
Bonds even often sent Hughes melodies she had composed, asking him to write lyrics for them. By the mid-1930s, she had set numerous Hughes compositions to music, including “Poème d’Automne,” “Winter Moon,” and “Joy.” Bonds’ interpretation of Hughes’ “Love’s Runnin’ Riot” went on to be performed and recorded by Duke Ellington. In 1940, Hughes and Bonds worked on the revue Tropics After Dark, collaborating with Arna Bontemps, another writer who played a key role in the Harlem Renaissance.
Bonds set “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” to music in 1941. Bonds’ music unwinds Hughes’ words at a stately and sonorous pace as it sets to music the historical events in which Black people moved through the world through deliberate or forced migrations. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” remains perhaps Bonds’ most often-performed art piece, and she always remembered it as among her favorites.
Their Collaboration Culminated with the Now-Famous Three Dream Portraits
The 1959 Three Dream Portraits is a song cycle of three Hughes poems set to music by Bonds. “Minstrel Man,” once notably recorded as a poem read by legendary African American bass-baritone Paul Robeson, is a soliloquy juxtaposing the speaker’s outward mask of frivolity with his inner pain. The irony lies in the fact that this pain went largely unnoticed by the white audiences that typically attended minstrel shows.
“Dream Variation,” the center movement, speaks of “a place in the sun.” It is filled with harmonies gathered from world cultures beyond American borders, and has a joyous sense of movement through dance.
The concluding movement, “I, Too,” uses Hughes’ poignant yet ringing words, “I, too, sing America.” Even as the speaker, the “darker brother,” is banished and forced to eat in the kitchen, he feels that when others “see how beautiful I am,” they will invite him to the table, ashamed that they ever excluded him. Critics note that Bonds’ music becomes more self-assured with each of the three movements. It reaches a crescendo of confidence toward the end of “I, Too” that winds down into wistful uncertainty by its concluding notes.
This artistic choice by Bonds in the late 1950s mirrored the world around her. The Civil Rights struggle was beginning to gain momentum, with enormous struggle and loss ahead. When Bonds wrote her music for Hughes’ words, the outcome of this struggle was still unknown. Three Dream Portraits remains a deeply meaningful work more than half a century later.
Medgar Evers, born in 1925 in the city of Decatur, was a soldier who fought in the invasion of Normandy in World War II before becoming Mississippi’s first field secretary for the NAACP. He was in charge of leading voter-registration drives and directing targeted economic boycotts across the state.
In addition, his job involved looking into hate crimes committed against African-American citizens. He launched an extensive investigation into the murder of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old lynched in 1955.
As a result, Evers was used to receiving death threats. On one occasion, someone tried to run him over. Another time, someone threw a firebomb at his house, where he lived with his wife Myrlie and their young children. Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 12, 1963, by white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith. He was not yet 38 years old.
On June 19, 1963, a week after Evers’ murder, President John F. Kennedy sent to Congress the proposed legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson. President Barack Obama officially declared the home of Medgar Evers home a historic landmark in 2017.
There have also been a number of songs composed about him. Here are three of the most well-known:
“The Ballad of Medgar Evers”
The Freedom Singers were one of several noted choral groups active in the days of the Civil Rights movement. The Freedom Singers’ rendition of “The Ballad of Medgar Evers,” also known as “They Laid Medgar Evers in His Grave,” is one of a number of songs memorializing the slain civil rights leader. It was written by Reverend Matthew A. Jones, Sr., a SNCC field organizer who modeled its cadences on the folk song “The Ballad of Jesse James,” making it ideal for choral interpretation.
Notably, the lyrics of “The Ballad of Medgar Evers” name his murderer, white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith. Beckwith was not convicted of the slaying until 1994. However, the song lyrics provide contemporaneous evidence that he had immediately been identified as the killer by the community.
Strong forensic evidence pointed to Beckwith, who had left his rifle behind at the scene of the crime. Still, the all-white juries in two 1964 trials failed to reach a unanimous verdict. Myrlie Evers never stopped fighting for justice for her husband’s memory. In 1994, Beckwith was finally convicted. He would die in prison in 2001 at age 80.
“Too Many Martyrs”
As a young man, now-legendary folk singer-songwriter Phil Ochs composed another “Ballad of Medgar Evers” at about the same time as the song written by Jones. The piece by Ochs has a faster tempo, but it also relies on traditional folk ballad rhythms and storytelling style. It begins with the image of “a boy of 14 years” who “got a taste of Southern law.” This is a reference to the murder of Emmett Till.
After learning of the Evers assassination, Josh Dunson, a writer for the folk music publication Broadside, was quoted as saying “We’ve already got too many martyrs.” The refrain of the Ochs piece references the many “martyrs” who lost their lives to hate-fueled violence. Ochs later called the song “Too Many Martyrs.”
Whatever its title, the song’s relentless pace and highly detailed imagery—describing Evers’ assassination as he stood in his own driveway—continue to elicit a visceral impact on listeners today. Evers got out of his car late on the night of June 12, 1963, after arriving home from a meeting. His assassin used a rifle to fire at him from the cover of a nearby honeysuckle bush, shooting him in the back. Evers died about an hour later.
“Only a Pawn in Their Game"
Bob Dylan was another folk and protest singer deeply moved by Evers’ murder. Dylan wrote his own tribute to Evers, “Only a Pawn in Their Game." He performed it at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Dylan’s song asserted that the murderer was “not to blame,” due to his being “a pawn in their game.” Instead, he depicted Beckwith as just another part of a wider system set in place by others and beyond his control.
Dylan also mentions the many law enforcement officers, white preachers of segregation, Ku Klux Klansmen, and even the governor of the state as other “pawns” in this game. In fact, Mississippi’s former Governor Ross Barnett shook hands with Beckwith in the middle of Myrlie Evers’ testimony at one of the killer’s 1964 trials. Barnett also visited Beckwith in prison.
The song’s larger point is that it is not only individuals who need to change, but also a system of entrenched racism. This message continues to be meaningful. However, in 2020, Dylan's lyrics sound hollow and tone deaf to many listeners, particularly because he is white. The song depicts adult human beings as mere chess pieces, rather than as men filled with hatred so strong that it would cause them to support, and sometimes to commit, acts of violence against innocent people.
The spirituals that developed within the African-American tradition still form the core of the melodies and lyrics that make up the American folk song treasury. These spirituals, typically composed around Bible passages that poetically describe a longing for salvation and freedom, were originally sung among enslaved people in the American South.
Scholars have catalogued approximately 6,000 African-American spirituals. Some fell into the category of work songs. Others focused on uplifting lyrics describing life in a better world to come. Still others served as psychological supports that helped enslaved men and women keep a measure of their individuality and dignity under inhuman conditions.
Many of these songs became widely known during the abolition movement of the mid-19th century. They were particularly popular among “conductors” and “passengers” along the Underground Railroad, the network of safehouses through which slaves escaped north into freedom. Many scholars believe that the lyrics of some of the songs held deliberate clues that helped escaping slaves on their way along the Underground Railroad.
There is not universal consensus about this issue, or even regarding the precise provenance of each song. However, it is certain that many were used during the days of slavery to encourage thoughts of freedom, and to provide solace and spiritual sustenance to enslaved people. Here are five of the most important such spirituals:
1. “Go Down, Moses”
In “Go Down, Moses,” the lyrics describe the escape of the ancient Israelites, led by Moses, as they fled Pharaoh’s armies. The first sheet music publication of a form of this song, entitled “The Song of the Contrabands,” appeared in 1861. Some scholars trace its first widespread use to 1862. It is said to have served as a fighting anthem for escaped slaves sheltered at Fort Monroe, nicknamed “Freedom’s Fortress,” in Virginia.
Tubman herself earned the nickname “Moses” for her role in freeing enslaved people, so it is easy to find double references in the song. The ancient Israelites and African-American slaves were both “oppressed so hard they could not stand.” And Tubman took on the responsibility of saying to modern-day Pharaohs, “let my people go.”
For her biography of Harriet Tubman, published in 1869, author Sarah Bradford was able to speak directly to her subject. According to Bradford’s book, Tubman used both “Go Down, Moses” and another hymn, “Thorny Desert,” to alert waiting slaves that she was nearby, ready and able to help them escape to freedom. Tubman’s first-person account further supports the conclusion that at least some spirituals carried a double, coded meaning, and were deliberately used as tools in the fight against slavery.
2. “Follow the Drinking Gourd”
“When the sun comes back, and the first quail calls, follow the drinking gourd,” say the opening lines of this song. The lyrics continue, asserting that an “old man” will be waiting to show the way to freedom. Some scholars believe there is strong evidence to suggest that “Follow the Drinking Gourd” encoded instructions for escaping slavery by navigating according to the position of the Big Dipper, popularly called the “Drinking Gourd” among enslaved African-Americans.
The Big Dipper points toward the North Star, which slaves are said to have used as a marker to keep them bearing north. The Newark Museum, in Newark, New Jersey, has prepared an analysis of each line of the song, comparing it to landmarks known to have appeared along many slaves’ escape routes.
Other researchers aren’t sure that this song is even that old, pointing to its first known publication in 1928. Regardless, it continues to serve as a striking “map” song that illustrates the way escaping slaves used landmarks in the natural world on their path to freedom.
3. “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”
“Jordan River is deep and wide, hallelujah, milk and honey on the other side, hallelujah.” It’s not heard to hear an echo of an enslaved person’s longing for freedom. A number of music historians trace “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” back to Civil War days, noting that it may have first been written down on St. Helena Island near South Carolina.
St. Helena lies at a geographic focal point of the distinctive and linguistically rich African-American Gullah creole culture. Traditional folklore surrounding St. Michael depicts him as a guide of souls to heaven. The Jordan River itself represents the experience of crossing a divide, from life into death and eternal reward—or into freedom from slavery.
The Reverend Velma Maia Thomas, a contemporary public historian and author, has noted that rivers figure prominently in African-American spirituals, and for good reason. Rivers cleanse and heal. They also represent a transition from one state of being to another. Coincidentally, rivers conceal the scent of humans from any dogs tracking them.
4. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”
The Jordan River in “Swing Low” equals the Ohio River, and the “band of angels” are the “conductors,” who are “coming for to carry me home.” As Thomas explained it in an interview recorded for a recent PBS broadcast, slave owners would hear what they thought were innocuous lyrics about heaven. But, “next day, two or three people would be gone.”
“Swing Low” was among Harriet Tubman’s favorite songs, according to scholars at Eastern Illinois University. Its authorship is often credited to Wallace Wallis, a mid-19th century enslaved man (possibly later a freedman) who worked on an Oklahoma plantation owned by members of the Choctaw Nation.
Another account credits it to enslaved woman Sarah Hannah Sheppard, whose daughter Ella Sheppard would grow up to join the Fisk Jubilee Singers. What is certain is that the Fisk Jubilee Singers were among the numerous African-American groups who performed the song widely in the last years of the 19th century.
5. “Steal Away to Jesus”
This song, also often credited to Wallace Wallis, is frequently cited as a coded song. The title does refer to spiritual salvation after death. The determined, stately, slow music is filled with a sense of longing and melancholy, even of resignation to whatever fate will bring. But the song also describes the sense of escaping into a physical state of freedom. “I ain’t got long to stay here,” say the lyrics.
“Steal Away to Jesus” has been recorded by numerous performers over recent generations, no time more memorably than when renowned gospel singer Mahalia Jackson guest-starred on jazz great Nat King Cole’s television variety program in 1957 (a clip is available on YouTube). Cole joined Jackson at the mic for the final verses of the song. Their rich voices blend into an incomparable listening experience—one filled with deeper historic meanings.
Movie theme songs can serve as touchstones for personal memories, define key cultural moments, and even become part of history. The following are a few of the greatest and most popular theme songs that have been made famous on the big screen. All of them can evoke the spirit of the movies they defined with just a few notes.
1. “As Time Goes By"
“You must remember this.” As sung in the 1942 film Casablanca by performer Dooley Wilson, “As Time Goes By” carries with it a bittersweet sense of longing for the past, along with resignation and affirmation of the power of an enduring love.
We all know the story: Humphrey Bogart plays world-weary cafe owner Rick, existing on the periphery of the fighting in Casablanca, Morocco, during World War II. His former love Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) suddenly appears, begging him for help in getting her husband, a resistance fighter played by Paul Henreid, to safety in Lisbon.
“As Time Goes By” was Rick’s and Ilsa’s song, and they both request to hear it, becoming immersed in the glow of the past. Torn between love and duty, Ilsa and Rick enjoy a few stolen moments before she joins her husband in order to help support his work.
The song was actually repurposed for the film. Songwriter Herman Hupfeld originally wrote it for a now-forgotten 1931 musical, and pop icon Rudy Vallee recorded it.
Now honored with a place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame as a “Towering Song,” “As Time Goes By” still reminds us that “The world will always welcome lovers.”
2. “Moon River”
Audrey Hepburn remains a legend, for her grace, style, and warm personality, as well as her role as a UNICEF Special Ambassador. Hepburn’s most memorable performances include playing the lead role in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) as Holly Golightly, a madcap young woman in New York who makes her way through life by mooching off of the admirers she gathers, while she lives a vivid fantasy life.
“Moon River,” with wistful lyrics that perfectly complement the soulful flow of its music, is the song Hepburn’s character sings, playing her guitar while musing and dreaming on her fire escape: “Wherever you’re going, I’m going your way.” The song, for which Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics to Henry Mancini’s music, won an Oscar for Best Original Song, followed by two Grammys.
The movie’s storyline, with its twists and turns of plot as Holly’s past threatens to shatter the genuinely tender love that develops between her and her handsome neighbor (played by George Peppard), works the song into its most vivid and heartbreaking moments, until these two lost souls find each other again and are “off to see the world” together.
3. “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”
The 1969 western “buddy” film about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford in a fictionalized version of the life stories of the famous outlaws, and Katharine Ross played their mutual love interest. The film won multiple Oscars, including one for William Goldman’s witty, highly quotable script. The film also won an Oscar for Best Original Song for Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”
The simple lyrics and joyful tune, performed in the film by BJ Thomas, accompany a now-iconic moment in the film, when Newman and Ross ride together on a bike down a dirt road through an orchard. The song lifts the scene into a depiction of pure happiness about being alive, despite the “raindrops” that may fall. It’s a pick-me-up song whose rhythms and lyrics have made it a favorite among young performers over the decades, even while adults get its more poignant references to keeping the “blues” at bay.
4. “9 to 5"
In 1980, singer-songwriter Dolly Parton joined actress Jane Fonda and comedian Lily Tomlin in one of the first female “buddy” comedies ever. The movie 9 to 5 also delivered a stinging message of social commentary about women’s rights and the fair treatment of employees. The movie’s eponymous theme song, written by Parton, remains a popular anthem for people struggling for dignity in the workplace.
The storyline involves the three friends, who all work as secretaries, in an epic take-down of their sexist tyrant of a boss who denies women promotions while using and abusing them for their abilities. Ultimately, he is dethroned and the three women are finally recognized for their talents.
The song’s lyrics ingeniously weave social satire with a buoyant can-do attitude, as the music bounces through Parton’s descriptions of stumbling through another day fraught with ambition denied and dreams shattered, but still with the confidence that there are some things no one can take away.
As Parton reminds us in the song’s refrain: “There’s a better life.”
Once you’ve heard the song “Happy,” it will probably be impossible to get its upbeat and danceable rhythms out of your head. Pharrell Williams’ hit song seems to be an embodiment of dance itself.
The song was a central part of the 2014 animated film Despicable Me 2, the second in the already-classic series of movies about the villain-turned loving father Felonious Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), his adopted children, and the hordes of bright yellow, exuberantly chaos-making Minions. “Happy” went on to become the biggest-selling song of the year.
Don’t we all want “a room without a roof?” The playful visual imagery of the song also seems to hold deeper meanings about an acceptance of life’s wanderings, whether by hot air balloon or otherwise, and always with the attitude that “happiness is the truth.”
“Happy” will bring back a whole wealth of fun family memories for many people. It will also be part of the joyous history of the life of the late civil rights hero and United States Congressman John Lewis. Vital and life-affirming to the end of his 80 years, Lewis was captured on a now-viral piece of campaign film footage moving with confidence and fluid grace, as he danced alongside supporters of then-Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams to the beats of “Happy.”
We may not often think of the great composers and musicians of the past as heroes in the sense of being physically brave, or courageous in the sense of putting everything on the line for ideals they believed in. However, behind the great music we know, there are also personal stories of heroism, dedication to causes beyond the self, and steadfast love and kindness that deserve our attention and respect, particularly in today’s chaotic and divisive world.
Here are only a few of these heroes from our musical past.
Clara Schumann (1819 - 1896)
Clara Schumann’s husband, German Romantic composer Robert Schumann, is far more widely known. He created magnificent, intricately virtuosic symphonies and a rich collection of songs and piano pieces, many of them written expressly for her.
However, Clara was a highly gifted musician and composer in her own right, and we can attribute her historical neglect to long-standing sexism. In her youth, she was renowned all over Europe as a child prodigy of the piano. Felix Mendelssohn conducted the premiere of her piano concerto, with teenage Clara at the keyboard. She would go on to compose solo pieces and chamber music, and to teach at Leipzig Conservatory. Remarkably, she did all this while caring for her increasingly ill and troubled husband and their many children.
The Schumanns had a Romeo-and-Juliet love story. Robert proposed to Clara when she was 18, but her abusive and tyrannical father, Friedrich Wieck, forbade the match. Robert trailed her across Europe as she performed, hoping for a few chance hours together.
Friedrich controlled every aspect of his daughter’s life, so she took matters into her own hands and sued him in court. Before the court rejected his claims, her father attempted to gain control of all her concert earnings. He confiscated her piano, stole her letters, and wrote scurrilous slanders against Schumann. Robert and Clara emerged the winners in court and married in 1840.
In 1849, Europe was in tumult as revolutions swept the continent, eventually touching the young Schumann family in Dresden. Clara was seven months pregnant, and outside their home peaceful protestors were being gunned down in the streets. Walking through the town the morning after a tense clash, she saw the corpses of those killed and noted the troops knocking on every door to whisk away every able-bodied man to the fighting.
Robert Schumann had already shown signs of his severe and life-long mental illness. Clara, desperate to protect him, told the militias he was away from home. To ensure his safety, she devised a plan to spirit him out of Dresden.
She left three of her young children at home with a caregiver, to avoid suspicions of the whole family fleeing. Then, she got Robert, their seven-year-old daughter, and herself to the closest train station, talking her way through tense encounters at guarded checkpoints. With Robert and young Marie safely eight hours away, concealed with friends in a small village, Clara returned to Dresden—hiding to avoid detection by patrols of men wielding farm scythes as weapons—and rescued her remaining children from danger.
Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937)
French composer Maurice Ravel is likely best known for the orchestral piece Boléro. The composition is used so often in films and television that its rich, stirring music has almost become a cliché. Ravel’s technical mastery, finely tuned sense of melody, and fluidly expressive style are also evident in Pavane for a Dead Princess, his opera The Child and the Enchantments, and the ballet Daphnis and Chloe.
Ravel was not a very political man; his personality has been described as intellectual and a little aloof. But in 1914 at age 39, he tried to enlist in the French air force, hoping to serve his country after Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war. Ravel had kept himself anchored to his music for most of his life, separated from the troubles of the rest of the world, but now he felt he needed to become a man of action.
Initially, he was rebuffed when the air force thought him too old and unfit. Ravel was a short, slight man who weighed just 91 pounds. However, he was enraged by the deaths of his friends in uniform and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
He drove army gasoline trucks near Verdun, where 40,000 men every month were being slaughtered. Hemmed in by enemy fire, he once had to hide in the forest for 10 days. Discharged after contracting dysentery, he was sent home. Critics then and now have often pointed to the violent, clashing rhythms of La Valse (“The Waltz”) as his musical declaration of war against the Viennese enemy. He also composed the piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin and dedicated each movement to a friend who had died in combat.
Benny Goodman (1909 - 1986)
Beloved as “the King of Swing,” Benny Goodman was one of the greatest jazz clarinetists and bandleaders the world has ever known. His all-consuming devotion to perfecting his art led to a historic 1938 Carnegie Hall concert in which, for the first time ever, a concert hall audience was treated to a full program of swing music.
This New York-born son of Jewish immigrants from Tsarist Russia started out with a classical training, then quickly became absorbed into the Dixieland and jazz music scenes. He accompanied Billie Holiday in what are now considered landmark performances.
Goodman put together his own band in 1934 and went on to create—in solo performances and as a bandleader—what would become some of the 20th century’s most memorable live performance hits and recordings: “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” “Moonglow,” “Let’s Dance,” and scores of others.
That 1938 Carnegie Hall concert was historic for another reason, too: Goodman insisted on performing with his racially integrated band. This arrangement was almost beyond the ability of anyone at that time to comprehend. Most performance spaces were strictly segregated.
Throughout his career, Goodman worked with integrated ensembles. In the early 1930s, he had at first hesitated to bring Black performers into his band, but his merciless search for the best sound and his commitment to acknowledging common bonds of humanity won the day. One of the first events in American public life to break the color barrier, that initial Carnegie Hall concert featured half a dozen Black musicians, including Lester Young on sax, Lionel Hampton on the vibraphone, and Count Basie and Teddy Wilson on piano.
Hampton later recalled that Goodman’s decision to work alongside Black musicians came not from a desire for fame or money, but from the bandleader’s heart. He recalled Goodman saying that the “white keys and the black keys” just needed to be allowed to harmonize.
Musicians around the world have paid tribute to civil rights leader and human rights hero Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The tributes began immediately after his death by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, and have continued over the decades since then. Here are a few of the songs honoring Dr. King that have conveyed grief, remembrance, inspiration, and hope to millions of Americans, as well as to people around the world struggling to assert their rights amid bigotry and violence.
1. “Abraham, Martin and John”
“Abraham, Martin and John,” with words and music by rock musician Dick Holler, was written as a tribute to Dr. King and to presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated just shortly after King was gunned down. It was a tumultuous time, and communities nationwide—the black community in particular—were torn apart by anger and grief. Holler’s spare, repetitive chords, and gentle, evocative, and simple words—as originally recorded by singer Dion DiMucci—seemed just right for the moment.
The song references, in turn, President Abraham Lincoln, President John F. Kennedy, King, and Robert Kennedy, each of whom “freed a lot of people” but died violent, untimely deaths amid cataclysmic events that would change the course of history. The song’s four verses are identical except for the name of each man. Each one asks the listener if anyone has seen “my old friend Abraham,” “my old friend John,” and so on. The concluding words paint a picture of the four men walking side by side over a hill together.
The words and sentiments may be considered old-fashioned—even simplistic—to some listeners today. But for many who were alive at the time and looked up to King and the Kennedy brothers as the best of America, they can still summon tears and—often—a smile of wistfulness for the bright future that these men stood for that remains only partially realized.
2. “Happy Birthday”
“Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder is a song written for a didactic purpose, but one whose lyrics and music still bring joy to audiences who may not even be aware of their original meaning. Wonder, the blind superstar singer-songwriter whose poetic lyrics and musically complex and ingenious melodies embody the joys and struggles of the 1960s and ‘70s, has always been an activist.
So, he wrote “Happy Birthday” in 1981 as part of a campaign to get King’s birthday declared an official national holiday. At the time, there was vigorous opposition from conservative politicians and interest groups to a federal holiday honoring King. Wonder’s up-tempo beat and lyrics celebrate King and ask how anyone could oppose the national recognition of “a man who died for good.” Wonder’s lively refrain of “Happy Birthday to ya!” is still very danceable and much deserving of celebration.
In 1982, Wonder joined King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, in delivering a petition with 6 million signatures on it in support of the holiday directly to the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. The following year, President Ronald Reagan signed into law a bill declaring Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a federal holiday to be observed every third Monday in January, beginning in 1986.
3. “Pride (In the Name of Love)”
“Pride (In the Name of Love)” by the Irish rock group U2 was released in 1984 as the lead single on the album “Unforgettable Fire.” The band’s lead singer, Bono, initially put together a set of lyrics intended to condemn the militaristic focus of the United States under President Ronald Reagan’s administration.
But after a 1983 visit to an exhibit honoring King’s legacy at Chicago’s Peace Museum, Bono began crafting the song to highlight King’s achievements, as well as those of other martyrs to the cause of peace throughout history. The finished lyrics echo King’s own phrases, such as “Free at last,” and “One man come in the name of love.”
The phrase “pride” in the title is used in two ways in the lyrics. One kind of “pride” that Bono refers to is the pride of aggression and violence. The second is the kind of pride moral heroes like King embodied, pride in being on the side of justice and freedom for all people.
4. “The King”
Pioneering New York hip hop composer and performer Grandmaster Flash, with his group the Furious Five, produced another moving tribute to King, with a song simply titled “The King,” which was featured on the 1988 album On the Strength. The song’s beats and rhythms alone serve as an example of Grandmaster Flash’s classic and fresh musicianship, even as its lyrics provide a lasting artistic memorial to King, a man who “brought hope to the hopeless.”
“His name is Martin Luther King,” and he dedicated his life to “making freedom ring,” the rap song proclaims. It relates how King, who was fearless in his convictions, was vilified and persecuted as a black man taking constructive action for freedom for all blacks, and it laments the fact that too many turned away from King’s message of peace and hope, during his lifetime and after.
5. “A Dream”
“A Dream,” which is rapper Common’s 2006 tribute to King, samples the words of the hero’s most famous speech. The music video for the song incorporates historical footage of King delivering the speech at the March on Washington in 1963.
Common weaves King’s original words and story (“I have a dream”) into his own perspective (“I got a dream”) as a 21st century black man “born on the blacklist” to struggle against enduring racism, but working to find the hope that still endures through the inspiration he draws from King’s words.
Common’s performance, featuring fellow American rapper will.i.am, elaborates on King’s words “one day” throughout its lyrics, and adds, of dreams, “I still have one.”
In 1939, Nazi Germany began an international war based on mistaken, hateful, and deadly ideas about a “master race.” That year, the United States also struggled under the strain of its own racism, with the struggle playing out in the world of music through now-iconic performances by Black American singers Billie Holiday and Marian Anderson.
Lady Day fights to perform a haunting song
A legend during her short lifetime, Billie Holiday was one of the most gifted, original singers the world of jazz has ever known. Her 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit” became an indelible part of music history—and the civil rights movement.
This tragic, deeply evocative song was written and sung as a deliberate protest against lynching, although it never directly refers to it. But the meaning of “strange fruit” hanging from Southern trees is agonizingly clear, as is the song’s graphic rejection of white supremacy.
Abel Meeropol, a poet, songwriter, activist, and teacher at New York’s DeWitt Clinton High School, was unable to put a photograph of a lynching he’d seen out of his mind. He wrote an impassioned poem, later published in a teacher’s union magazine. He set the words to music, and one evening at the Greenwich Village club Café Society, he offered the song to Billie Holiday.
It took great courage for Meeropol, a white Jewish man and the son of immigrants, to write the song, and for Holiday, a well-known performer but still a Black woman in a time of often-vicious racism, to perform it. Holiday’s goddaughter later told an interviewer that when her godmother performed the song in front of white audiences, the effect was “viscerally shocking.” Radio stations were afraid to play “Strange Fruit.” Clubs tried to get Holiday to leave it out of her sets.
This was a time when performers and activists were often accused of being Communists, and when people who struggled with addiction, like Holiday, were treated with public scorn or jailed. Government agents threatened Holiday with arrest if she continued to perform “Strange Fruit.” She refused, and it became her signature song. For years, Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger harassed and stalked Holiday, trying to arrest her for drug use.
She continued to perform “Strange Fruit,” even for white audiences in the Deep South. Anslinger, whom history reveals as a racist with a hatred for people with addictions—in particular Holiday—had her arrested while she was being treated in the hospital for liver disease. Anslinger refused to allow her to continue methadone treatment to wean her from her heroin addiction.
Holiday died soon after, in 1959. Biographers have commented that it’s not too much to say that her insistence on performing “Strange Fruit” killed her.
In 1999, Holiday’s first studio recording of the song was selected by Time magazine as its choice for the song of the century.
Marian Anderson’s quiet dignity breaks musical color barriers
The year 1939 was also a watershed one for Marian Anderson, the world-famous operatic contralto with the kind of voice conductor Arturo Toscanini praised as coming along only “once in a hundred years.” As a Black woman, Anderson had been denied access to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC, a segregated venue owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). So, on April 9, in a concert that stands as a focal point of the civil rights movement, she performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial instead.
Anderson later remembered her terror before the event. Although she had performed to acclaim across Europe and the United States, this crowd of 75,000 would be the largest she had faced. But she wrote that she “could not run away” from what she knew she needed to do.
The evening was chilly, and Anderson, a regal silhouette standing in front of the statue of another monumental figure, hugged her fur coat around her. She took a deep breath and began her performance with the patriotic song “America,” singing, “My country, ‘tis of thee” in a strong, resolute voice, with phrasings filled with power and sweetness.
Accompanied by a single pianist, Anderson continued her half-hour concert with “O Mio Fernando,” an aria from Donizetti’s opera La Favorite, followed by Schubert’s arrangement of “Ave Maria,” Henry Burleigh’s arrangement of the traditional spiritual “Gospel Train,” the Edward Boatner spiritual “Trampin’,” and “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.” Notably, this last piece is a spiritual arranged by Black American composer Florence Price, whose large body of work was only recently rediscovered.
The announcer broadcasting the event to an audience of millions stated that Anderson was not able to find an auditorium large enough to fit the many people who wanted to hear her. But that wasn’t it at all.
Howard University had invited Anderson to perform in its concert series, but because of her status as an international icon, the school needed an outside venue that could accommodate the anticipated audience.
Constitution Hall seemed the ideal choice, but the DAR’s contract specified that the space was only open to white performers. And, ironically, the nation’s capital itself was part of the segregated South.
People across the country were outraged. Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her DAR membership, stating that she could not in good conscience remain a member. The DAR refused to back down, even for the First Lady.
NAACP executive secretary Walter White had the idea of performing at the Lincoln Memorial. As a national monument, the property was under federal control. So, it was Interior Secretary Harold Ickes who led Anderson to her place on stage. In introducing her, Ickes told the desegregated audience, “Genius draws no color lines.”
Marian Anderson would live to be 96 years old, but the Lincoln Memorial concert would always be the defining moment of her career.
Anderson was not a vocal civil rights activist, but she believed that if she performed with grace and dignity, that would be enough to help shatter bigoted stereotypes and elevate future prospects for Black Americans.
But music historians note that her concert on those steps that spring day in 1939 was the start of a new era for Black musicians and performers. It was also yet another early event that would help ignite the passion of the civil rights movement in the coming decades, and one that remains a source of inspiration and pride.
Many young people—and even many adults—are not aware that many of the world’s foremost musicians and performing artists have lived with one or more disabilities. Here are six of some of the best-known singers, songwriters, and performers of the 20th and early 21st centuries who can serve as vivid role models of creativity and perseverance for musicians of all types of ability:
1. Django Reinhardt
Django Reinhardt (1910 - 1953) was a Roma musician born in an itinerant camp near Paris. As a young man, he became skilled on banjo, violin, and guitar, but at age 18 received severe burns from a caravan fire.
The accident left him with one leg paralyzed and with a badly damaged hand. He relearned how to play guitar with his hand injuries. He also relearned how to walk using a cane. At only 24 years old, he joined with violinist Stéphane Grappelli to co-lead the Quintette du Hot Club de France, and later toured with Duke Ellington.
A master of improvisation, Reinhardt is beloved today by scholars and music-lovers for the exceptional originality of his compositions. He is honored as one of the most richly creative spirits in the history of jazz.
2. Hank Williams
Hank Williams (1923 - 1953) was one of the world’s major country music stars, known for his talents as a singer, a guitarist, and a songwriter. Williams gave intense, lyrical performances of songs like “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Howlin’ at the Moon,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and “Lost Highway.” After he joined Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry he catapulted to international fame. His songs remain iconic and deeply moving expressions of the best of American popular music.
Williams was born with spina bifida oculta, a malformation of the spinal column that typically goes unnoticed, but that in his case resulted in lifelong chronic pain. Williams was a driven composer and performer who threw himself completely into his music. His use of drugs and alcohol intensified after a failed surgery to repair his spinal defect, and he died of a heart attack at age 29.
In 2010, Williams received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize citation for the extraordinary technical and emotional quality of his compositions, and for his role in transforming American country music on the world stage.
3. Rosemary Clooney
Rosemary Clooney (1928 - 2002) may be more famous today as the aunt of movie superstar and humanitarian George Clooney. But in the mid-20th century, the Irish-American jazz and pop singer was among the world’s best-known female vocalists, and was widely beloved by fans the world over.
She had an extraordinarily rich vocal quality and an unbeatable sense of timing and phrasing. Her 1951 recording of “Come On-a My House” topped the charts in its day, and remains popular.
After the assassination of her friend Robert F. Kennedy, a shock that was exacerbated by drug addiction, Clooney was hospitalized for several years. She relied on her music to help pull herself through. She battled bipolar disorder for decades, writing courageously about her experiences with the condition in her 1977 autobiography, This for Remembrance. The year that she died, she received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement.
4. Itzhak Perlman
Itzhak Perlman (born 1945) is an Israeli-born virtuoso of the violin. His range of interpretation and mastery of the technicalities of musicianship have caused numerous critics to rank him among the greatest musicians in history. Perlman contracted polio as a 4-year-old, and as a result he uses crutches to help him walk. As a teen, he made his debut at Carnegie Hall in New York.
In the decades since, Perlman has played and conducted with major orchestras around the world. He has recorded an extensive catalog of classical, jazz, traditional Jewish, and theatrical music, including the solo violin portions of John Williams’ score for the film Schindler’s List. He has earned 15 Grammy Awards to date.
Perlman, a vocal advocate for music education and for people with disabilities, also received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
5. Diane Schuur
Diane Schuur (born 1953) has been blind from birth due to a condition called retinopathy of prematurity. She is also one of the leading jazz vocalists in the world today as well as an accomplished pianist. Schuur, who began performing for family and friends while still a preschooler, went on to a genre-bending recording and performing career, earning two Grammy Awards to date.
Heavily influenced by jazz legends like Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, and the blind pianist George Shearing, Schuur rose to fame in the mid-1970s. Her smooth, effervescent interpretations of classic and contemporary songs made her a hit with the public, with musicians like Stan Getz and Stevie Wonder championing her talent.
In 2020, Schuur released a new album, Running on Faith. It includes interpretations of her favorite standards, including a thrilling rendition of Washington’s signature song, “This Bitter Earth.” In 2000, Schuur was honored with a Helen Keller Achievement Award from the American Foundation for the Blind.
6. Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder (born 1950) needs no introduction, even to music fans born long after the peak of his fame. Born Steveland Morris, the now world-famous singer received too much oxygen in an incubator as a newborn, which resulted in permanent blindness. As a young boy growing up in inner-city Detroit, Wonder idolized musicians like Ray Charles—who was also blind—and learned to play multiple instruments.
When he was only 11, Wonder was discovered by singer Ronnie White of The Miracles, a popular Motown singing group. At 12, he cut his first album for Motown Records, beginning a varied career of brilliant performance and composition that endures into the present.
Wonder’s work ranges from lighthearted love ballads like “My Cherie Amour” to powerful, driving, musically intricate pieces like “Superstition,” to songs that capture the chaos, deprivation, passion, and hope of the social changes of the 1960s and early ‘70s. Albums like Songs in the Key of Life (1976) have achieved milestone status among music critics, and Wonder has earned a total of 25 Grammys to date.