MATTHEW JONES, FREEDOM SINGER, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: 1936 - 2011
By John Pietaro
Somehow the reports were too slow to come in; a quick note on the internet, a bare posting on a folksong blog, but no details, no sense of the powerful life and legacy left behind. The social fabric that Matt Jones helped to re-shape hadn’t bothered to note his passing. Sitting at my keyboard in cool early Spring, in the hours after just reading these sparse notices, I type with care, vexing over the disturbing lack of news. It simply wouldn’t do to leave it at that. We cannot accept silence in memory of a man who made a joyful, intense, indeed agitated noise throughout his life….
Matthew Jones was already a schooled, experienced musician when he became active in the fight for civil rights by joining the Nashville Student Movement in 1960. He also became an outspoken participant in the struggle in Danville, Va., for which he organized a vocal group, the Danville Freedom Voices, in 1963. Shortly thereafter, Matt relocated to Atlanta, Ga., with his brother Marshall and the two became affiliated with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and their powerful music ensemble, the Freedom Singers. This legendary group was actually born via a series of meetings held between Cordell Reagon, SNCC Executive Secretary Jim Foreman and Pete Seeger, already viewed as an elder of the protest song. In 1964, Matt, a SNCC field secretary, became a Freedom Singers member and then the group’s director.
That year, the Freedom Singers toured the country as part of the wide organizing drive to build the Friends of SNCC, initially focusing on northern states to build the movement’s momentum. Of the Freedom Singers, Matt has said, “We were organizers first, singers second.”
During such tumultuous times, the fight for equality in the Jim Crow South could often be terrifying. Matt faced down the Klan on many occasions and endured 29 arrests. His experiences developed him into a “freedom singer” in the most visceral manner.
“I don’t think of myself as a cultural worker,” Matt said. “I am a freedom singer; a freedom fighter. I’ve always been a freedom fighter; I’ll probably go down that way, too. Freedom songs are different than other protest songs because they are really a mantra. The use of repetition allows for the message to be understood. If we sing a powerful statement enough times in a song, like ‘This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,’ then we can internalize it”.
Matt maintained his role as an artist-activist even as SNCC broke apart, performing his radical repertoire around the world, including alongside freedom fighters in Northern Ireland.
During the struggle against the Vietnam War, he recorded a 45 that has become quite legendary, “Hell No, We Ain’t Gonna Go” backed with “Super Sam.” For this occasion, Matt worked in collaboration with lyricist Elaine Laron to produce two powerful selections accompanied by a muscular rock band complete with a horn section. It stands out as an exciting moment and its antiwar message is still relevant today.
Matt’s experiences included performances alongside such luminaries as Seeger and the Reverend F.D. Kirkpatrick. He worked with Barbara Dane and performed at the legendary Vietnam Songbook concert. He sang at the Highlander Folks School. He became a frequent contributor to Broadside during that magazine’s far-too-brief run, working closely with its founder, legendary protest singer Sis Cunningham, a dear comrade. He’d been a participant in the annual Phil Ochs Song Nights from the start and his music has been heard in such lasting films as ‘The Ghosts of Mississippi’. And in Harlem he organized an annual tribute to Dr. King which was never without the body of song that Matt had always marched to.
Over the decades he continued to perform for numerous rallies throughout New York and beyond including several of this writer’s May Day concerts and the 1998 ‘Hanns Eisler Centenary Festival’, tributes to Woody Guthrie and of course Sis, when that icon was lost to us. But Matt could be found at any number of events where people gather for an important cause. Starting with 1986 he led a weekly song circle at the Advent Lutheran Church on 93rd Street and Broadway. This series, dubbed the Open House Coffeehouse, was not just any vehicle for folksingers and poets, but a venue that encouraged original music with a strong message. To Matt, there was little space between the song and the activism. In this sense he was sure to reach out to younger generations of singer-songwriters, shepherding in as he taught; his respect for new songs of struggle was only matched by his need to preserve older forms including spirituals and ballads. In the latter decades he’d returned to his prized nylon-string acoustic guitar, that which he seemed to barely tickle most of the time, the softest accompaniment to a hushed, thickened voice--but the notes played where always the necessary ones, those which would touch us deepest. Matt called out to the muses with open hands, conjuring up just what was needed to be heard. And the audience always left feeling terribly, wonderfully moved.
Matt never ended a gig without “The Freedom Chant,” an affirmation he based on a famous quote by Fannie Lou Hamer and his own many years of direct action. It, more than anything else, speaks volumes about this musician of the people who refused to tire:
“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.
I will not allow anybody at any time
To violate my mind or my body
In any shape, form or fashion.
If they do they’ll have to deal with ME immediately!
Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!”
---Surely Matt ‘went down’ as a freedom fighter and it is certain that he’d like to always be recalled as such. Let’s not forget. Let’s not ever forget.