Volume 3, Summer 2007

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Singing and Struggling
Up and Down the Highway with Bettie Mae Fikes—a Civil Rights Luminary on the 2007 Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama

Born in Selma, Alabama in the late 1940’s, freedom singer Better Mae Fikes has never been a stranger to hard times.

“I was born in a struggle.  I was born black in Alabama.  Not only was I born black, I was born a black female…. Been in the storm so long…I have scars that time will never erase…I watched as the police [on horseback] played polo with people’s heads…old people, young people, whoever”

Despite these wounds, Ms. Fikes has spent her life using her voice to “turn a mess into a message.”  As she is oft to say, you’ve got to “make your test become your testimony.”

Predisposed to music at an early age—her mother a gospel singer, her father a blues musician—Ms. Fikes’s was four years old when she sang her first solo: “O Lord Help Me to Carry On.”  From then on, she said, she didn’t have a choice; she had to sing.

Like many other young African-Americans in the 1950s Deep South, Ms. Fikes’s voice was nurtured and took shape in the church.  “My livelihood was the church [when I was young].  I didn’t get out of the church until the [Civil Rights] Movement started.  When the Movement started, that was the first time I did something out of the church.”

After her mother died when Ms. Fikes was only ten, she relocated to Los Angeles for several years, returning to Selma for high school.  When she came back she said she had yet to comprehended the seriousness of the Movement—of what was taking shape in the 1960’s American South.  “When the Movement started, it was just a way for me to get out of the house,” said Ms. Fikes.

But as time wore on, the struggle became impossible to miss—fire hoses, dogs, ropes.  Soon Ms. Fikes became an active Civil Rights Worker, teaching people how to read during the day and singing at night.

It was at this time that her style—a unique blend of the blues and gospel—was honed, as she took freedom songs all over the state.

“There is something about music, just something; something that goes further than from the mouth to the ear.  It goes to that inner part.”

Fikes singing in MLK’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

To Bettie Mae Fikes, a song has to have a message.  “If a song doesn’t have a message, I can’t sing it, because I don’t become it.  When I sing, I become the story.”  Indeed, hearing her voice, listeners are transported to a time and a place.  She will often begin in spoken word and then seamlessly weave song in and out, giving shape, substance, and soul to a story.  As she becomes the story, so do her listeners. 

When Ms. Fikes sings, people mistakenly think she is belting into a microphone. Those not used to her singing are often amazed that a human vocal instrument could be that powerful. The crystal clarity of her voice resonates so completely that it envelops the listener and carries him or her to a higher, more beautiful place.  As one pilgrimage participant put it, “She’s got a voice that could woo angles and a soul as pure as gold.”

Today, Ms. Fikes is still singing strong.  She recently cut her second CD and tours frequently around the nation bringing Freedom Songs to clubs, schools, and churches.  She rarely writes out a song list or rehearses with other musicians, preferring to “just wait until God puts the song in my head.”

As Ms. Fikes puts it, “My whole life, I’ve just been up and down the highway, singing and struggling, struggling and singing…and I’ve been blessed, cause the Lord has just opened doors.”

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