A Ballad for Climate

Katherine Fredricks
photo by Maria Marsh, used by permission.

Thank you to writer Katherine Fredricks for sharing her story!

In the summer of 1964, 3 civil rights workers were murdered while registering voters in Mississippi.  Civil rights organizers begged singer/activist Harry Belafonte (a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr.) to raise funds to keep their volunteers in the field.

Belafonte organized several benefits and hand delivered more than $70,000 in cash to Mississippi.  The KKK shadowed him from the airport, trying to run the car off the road, and firing guns into the air.  When Belafonte suggested the driver outrun the Klan, the response was, “No, that’s exactly what they want us to do. They got a state trooper up there waiting in his car with the headlights off, ready to arrest us for speeding.  He takes us to the station, lets us out in an hour, and even more of the Klan be waiting for us.  That’s how they work.  That’s how those boys got killed.” 

Belafonte delivered the cash, and led the volunteers in a riotous anthem: “Freedom, freedom.  Freedom come and it won’t be long!” (Read the full story in Belafonte’s biography, “My Song.”)

Whether it’s “We Shall Overcome”, or Billie Holiday’s famous “Strange Fruit,”  music and activism have a long shared history.  But in the decades following the 1960s, activism has been conspicuously absent from the music world.  As Peter, Paul and Mary sang, “But if I really say it, the radio won’t play it.”

Stephen Bennett
Photo by Vanessa Van Burek, used by permission.

Recently, that trend has changed.  Whether it’s parodies of Donald Trump by Randy Rainbow, or “March, March” by the Chicks, protest songs are back!

Composer Stephen Bennett & I had never met before we were partnered in a writing group.  I had just finished temping for a chiropractor whose office got evacuated during the Oregon wildfires.  Stephen has family who were indirectly impacted by the California wildfires.  I have attended several Climate rallies and Stephen saw Greta Thunberg speak in New York last summer.

We started talking about how climate is often represented as a choice between having a life or making a living.  Stephen suggested we write a song about someone who is not a climate “believer,” having an epiphany moment.  So I started wondering, who is having this epiphany? 

Then I remembered seeing a coal miner on TV, saying that his son is a solar installer.  As I researched coal mining, I discovered that cases of black lung disease were up in the last decade.  Which created a problem for this song, because a coal miner suffering from black lung disease cannot sing.  He can barely breathe.

After losing a lot of sleep, I wrote the lyric “I Remember Dad.”  Stephen wrote the awesome music! (Listen on Soundcloud.)  And hey, listen up, renewables are cheaper!  Having a life vs making a living is a false choice!

Katherine Brann Fredricks has had 6 shows in NYC festivals in the last 8 years, winning or nominated for 28 Awards. 

Stephen Wagener Bennett is a writer, composer, director, and dramaturg based in Brooklyn. He has written for new and experimental theatre for the last decade, and holds an MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program.