Today, we veer away from the predictable to feature a work of art that contributed just as much to American 20th century social movements as the most political of soul songs in the 1960s. We go astray because the work is not only distinctly not of the soul genre, but it also is by someone who isn’t even from the United States.
Born August 15, 1925, the great Oscar Peterson was a Canadian jazz pianist and composer whose prolific career spanning sixty years would elevate to the status of legend and icon. Over his career, “O.P.” would release over 200 recordings, win 8 Grammy awards, become a member of the Companion of the Order of Canada (the highest degree of merit for civilians), and perform thousands of concerts around the world.
In the beginning though, he was the son of immigrants from the West Indies who had a curiosity for trumpet and piano. When a bout with tuberculosis denied him the trumpet, he turned his attention to the piano seriously to the degree that at age 14, he won the national competition organized by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Afterward that victory, he dropped out of school to pursue music as a professional. From there, he would soar to work with, and tutor, many legendary figures in jazz before receiving the Grammy for Lifetime Achievement and being inducted into the International Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997.
Of his many works, one that many could recognize is the work we feature today. Written in 1962 just a year before Martin Luther King would give his iconic speech on the National Mall in D.C. and just two years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Hymn to Freedom is written for piano, bass, and drums, the instruments that occupied his famed Oscar Peterson Trio then.
Urged by his producer and friend Norman Granz — who was them produce the album Night Train that this song would be on — to produce a song with “a definitive early-blues feel,” Peterson turned to Negro spirituals from his childhood in Baptist churches for inspiration. According to his wife in an interview on the 50th anniversary of his Night Train album, he did not write the piece until the day of the recording.
All the more praise, then, to the man who produced such poignant work that would be hailed as an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement:
As counter-intuitive as it may be, what drives this song is its simplicity. The song begins by introducing the chord progression the rest of the song is based on. Even this introduction feels poignant for it takes its time, piano alone, wading in the silences before moving forward in a melancholy spirit toward a hopeful resolution. The bass and drums join in for the subsequent iterations, allowing Peterson to build upon this theme and explore, though never falling too far astray from the original chord progression, never too far from its roots. The steadiness of the piece too, allows one to feel a spirit persist, quietly yes, but with courage and insistence. Peterson layers shimmers atop the chords in the final few iterations, as if to hint at the coming of a climactic breakthrough before withdrawing again into the original theme, slowing things down as if to have returned to the theme a bit wiser and more judicious, as if to affirm the coexistence of melancholy and hope in the final hour. Indeed, make no mistake about his return to a very Bach-like ending, with a suspended fourth chord resolving with a Baroque turn; he grew up practicing Bach fugues and in later years would advise students to practice Bach before all else.
The song now stands immortal with lyrics added and countless covers and other editions, including multiple versions produced by Peterson in later years. What it could do musically without the words (initially) and the instrumentation that American soul music in the 50s and 60s assumed is immense. It could say so much with so little, demonstrating a power in silence, a strength to persistence. When it was released it required no lyrics to be felt, and to be understood; even not knowing the title, one could grasp its gravitas and subtlety, and be moved to reflection and action. If this is not the project of music — to reach and teach the souls of its witnesses — then music has no power in shaping our lives.
But of course, you and I both know the truth. No matter the genre, music moves the soul and can forever our lives and the worlds we live in.