Recently I learned about this beautiful project by Duke Ellington. After reading James Baldwin’s “Letter to My Nephew on the One-Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” I was driven to research things happening in music around 1963. I was excited to learn Ellington was invited to create a musical revue titled “My People” for an event called the “Century of Negro Progress Exposition” that took place that same year. After looking a little deeper, I found that they recorded this collection of music. The show is also home to what Ellington proclaims is the first published song that sang Martin Luther King’s praises.
Ellington, outraged by the actions of Bull Connor and the police in Birmingham, Ala., in April 1963, re-imagined King as the protagonist of “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” writing a mighty, forward-looking salute not only to King but to Birmingham’s courageous black residents as well.
King himself heard it rehearsed, appreciate it so much that he, allegedly, wept—an anecdote recounted in Harvey G. Cohen’s magnificent 2011 cultural biography Duke Ellington’s America, which has a comprehensive chapter on My People.