"They Did Not Die in Vain": On "Alabama," John Coltrane Carefully Wrought Anguish Into Grace

Nov 18, 2020

A Deep Dive into an immortal song, recorded 57 years ago.

In this era when it has been necessary to affirm that Black Lives Matter, John Coltrane’s powerful piece “Alabama” feels more relevant and urgent than ever.

In 2020, many people who had previously been silent finally had enough and made themselves heard, on the streets and online. Coltrane was a man who chose to keep his political opinions to himself; he once famously declined to give an opinion when pressed about hearing Malcolm X speak. So the fact that he recorded a piece called “Alabama” soon after the ghastly 1963 church bombing in Birmingham shows that he too had enough.

It might seem that instrumental music, lacking words, would not be the most effective medium for a statement of outrage. But Coltrane’s message comes through loud and clear. Just this past June, Ismail Muhammad, a critic from Oakland, Calif., wrote in The Paris Review that he totally “gets” the saxophone scream at the end of the recording: “Sometimes, you’d rather scream and storm than have to explain anything at all.”

Ever since it became known, partly through my work, that on “Psalm,” Coltrane is reading his poem “A Love Supreme” on the saxophone, people have been trying to find words to other pieces of his. And as we’ll see, “Alabama” is the top candidate for that. But in hunting for words to Coltrane’s compositions, people have often confused three different musical situations: Songs with Lyrics, Pieces Inspired by Words, and Pieces with Hidden Texts.

Songs with Lyrics are the most straightforward. Every song on the Ballads album, for instance, originally had lyrics. That is not at all what is going on in “Psalm.”

Pieces Inspired by Words: The late French journalist Michel Delorme, having seen Coltrane’s poem in the liner notes to A Love Supreme, asked, “Do you often write poems?” Coltrane replied (in my translation): “From time to time; I try. This is the longest that I ever wrote but certain pieces on the album Crescent are also poems… I sometimes proceed in this manner because it’s a good approach to musical composition.”

This is interesting! I take it that Coltrane means he likes to “proceed” from the poem to the music — that is, to write the poem first, as he did for “Psalm.” And he finds that to be a “good approach” to composing, because instead of abstractly poking around and waiting for a melody to hit you, a poem can lead in several ways to a piece of music. For example, as in “Psalm,” the music can be a syllabic setting of the poem. Or a poem can indeed become the lyrics for a song.

There are also pieces somewhere between the above two options: music that follows the mood or flow or phraseology of the words — but that makes no attempt to represent the words one syllable at a time, nor breaks into full-blown song. Without knowing the texts involved, how can one determine the likely relationship between text and music? The answer is simple: by listening!

The lyrical, wide ranging melody of “Wise One,” to choose one example, is nothing like the chanting back and forth on a few notes found in “Psalm,” and he plays it differently the second time (starting at 1:37). So even though we don’t know the text of “Wise One” — and as we’ll see shortly, according to Coltrane, there was one — we can feel sure in saying it’s not a syllabic setting of a poem.

Is it worthwhile hunting around to find the poem that inspired “Wise One”? Probably not, for two significant reasons: First, as we’ll explore here, “Alabama” is the only known instance where Coltrane took someone else’s poem or text and played it on his saxophone. He said that he liked to write his own poems, and he meant it. The poem had to be personal to him, to be truly one with the music he was writing — not from someone else’s experience.

Second, with pieces in this middle area — inspired by words, but not chanting them one syllable at a time— there are literally thousands of texts that might seem to vaguely fit. Without knowing the poem that Coltrane intended, one cannot possibly guess at the text.

Pieces with Hidden Texts: The third category concerns pieces that involve “reading” some words, like “Psalm,” with a one-syllable-at-a-time chanting style. Besides “Psalm,” are there in fact other examples of Coltrane “speaking words” to us on the saxophone? The answer is Yes! But we don’t have the texts. In fact, we might call these “Pieces with Hidden Texts.”

When our late friend Delorme asked John about poems, his full response was, “…certain pieces on the album Crescent are also poems, like ‘Wise One,’ ‘Lonnie’s Lament,’ ‘The Drum Thing.’”

“Wise One” and “Lonnie’s Lament” are both beautiful ballads, actually quite similar in mood. On those, it seems that Coltrane used his poems as inspiration, because these are not “readings” of poems, so I would put them in the middle category.

However, on the third piece, I distinctly hear Coltrane say on his saxophone “The drum thing” at the end of the opening (2:07) and closing (7:08). And the entire sax part sounds like a chant.

And, on a later album, “Attaining” is perhaps the closest to “Psalm” of any piece I know. The last three notes at 1:19 and 2:43 and 8:59 say “Attaining.” The last six notes at 2:54 and 10:30 say “Thank you Lord” and “Amen.” After that he plays freely — please listen carefully and notice the difference between his “chanting” and his free soloing.

Also, it sounds to me like Coltrane is chanting something on “Song of Praise,” at the beginning on the short 1964 version that was issued years later (significantly, recorded at the same sessions as most of Crescent), and on the originally released version from 3:40 to 5:40 (the theme statement after the long bass solo, on The John Coltrane Quartet Plays).

I also suspect that one reason the opening of the tenor solo on “Acknowledgement” is similar from take to take is that he had words in mind, say, from 0:59 to 1:15 on the original album version. But after that, the style is not the chanting style. In general, when Coltrane is playing fast notes, or quick little embellishments, we can assume that he’s not thinking of words.

So, let’s add “The Drum Thing,” “Attaining,” “Song of Praise” and possibly “Acknowledgement” to the list of pieces where Coltrane chants his poetry on the saxophone. But please don’t waste your time trying to fit existing poems to this music. Unless Coltrane’s son, the noted saxophonist Ravi, discovers clearly titled, handwritten pieces of paper with these poems, we will never ever know all the words Coltrane had in mind for these pieces.

McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane at New Jersey's Van Gelder studios in 1963.
Credit Joe Alper / Joe Alper Photo Collection LLC

But what about “Alabama”? What do we know about its genesis, and why is there this pervasive opinion that it has a hidden text? Well, John’s pianist McCoy Tyner, whom we lost this year, once told Ashley Kahn that the rhythms of the piece were based on the rhythms of a speech by Dr. King that John saw printed in a newspaper. (This appears on page 79 of Ashley’s 2002 book A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album.) Since then, people have been searching without success for a text that will fit the melody in that way. I too would like to believe that Tyner was right about this. And the style of the piece absolutely does sound like a recitation. 

The critic Francis Davis spoke with Tyner and Jones and learned that Coltrane did not tell them the inspiration for the piece, or even its name, when they recorded it in the studio on Nov. 18, 1963. But I don’t think that’s significant. As I’ve already noted, that’s the way John was. He hated to be didactic or condescending. In fact, he never even told anyone that the piece was a response to the sick and brutal Birmingham bombing of Sept. 15, though it seems obvious — why else would a piece be named “Alabama” so close to that heinous and criminal event?

(In fact, I wonder if Coltrane was more shaken up by the news of the bombing than he let on. On Monday, Sept. 16, 1963, the day after the bombing, he mailed a $100,000 Mutual of Omaha Travel Accident Insurance Policy to his mother in Philadelphia, before taking off on a flight to his next gig in Cleveland. Was he concerned that there might be more violence to come? Or did he simply always buy travel insurance — it was, and still is, an option on every flight — making it a coincidence that the only one we have a record of is this one? Please understand, this could mean nothing, but I think it’s worth considering.)

When the quartet performed the new song just a few weeks after its studio recording, for Ralph Gleason’s public television show Jazz Casual, Gleason announces it as “Alabama.” (This was first broadcast in 1964, but Gleason’s late widow Jean told me years ago that it was recorded on Dec. 7, 1963. Notice that you can see Alice Coltrane sitting in a chair on the left side of the screen.)

So Tyner knew before Dec. 7 that this was a response to the bombing in Birmingham on Sept. 15 — and it’s easy to imagine him talking with John about it, and learning that it was based on a newspaper report of Dr. King’s moving eulogy for the four murdered girls.

Some have said to me: maybe Tyner was wrong, and Coltrane’s inspiration was a radio broadcast of the eulogy. Well, first of all, do we believe Tyner or not? Let’s start there. Personally, I do — why discount what he said? Second, my research indicates that the speech was definitely not broadcast “live,” but was recorded locally, on location. Third, it seems that if and when it was broadcast, it was many years later, most likely, not even during Dr. King’s all-too-short lifetime, but excerpted in the many radio and film documentaries that came later.

And for whatever reason, the recording is missing the first paragraph, as well as two paragraphs in the middle, where Dr. King addressed the bereaved families. (We know what he said because we have his written text.) Dr. Clayborne Carson, in his collection of King’s speeches titled A Call to Conscience, notes that those portions were cut out of the original tape for a radio broadcast, and apparently discarded. (Yes, in the old days people often threw out the pieces of tape that they cut out during editing; even engineers editing jazz albums were known to do that.)

In short, I think we need to forget about the theory that Coltrane “learned” the speech from the radio. But here’s the answer: I found that excerpts of the speech were quoted in many newspapers around the USA on Sept. 19, 1963, the day after the funeral. Of course, The New York Times and other major papers had their own reports, and typically they quoted two or three sentences of Dr. King’s eulogy. But one Hoyt Harwell wrote a more detailed report for the Associated Press (AP), the independent news cooperative that covers events for the many small newspapers (at that time about 1,800 of them) that couldn’t afford to employ a staff of reporters. And his article has more substantial quotes.

The reporters wrote down what they heard: in those days, taking quick notes, sometimes using the “shorthand” system, was required. The evidence that they worked from notes is that they came up with slightly different versions of what Dr. King said. For example, the Times wrote, “Good still has a way of growing out of evil,” whereas Harwell wrote, “God still has a way of bringing good out of evil.” But what Dr. King actually said, according to his typescript, is: “God still has a way of wringing good out of evil.”

See the first half of the Times article and compare it with Harwell’s story. The latter appeared in many papers, but I chose to reproduce the one from High Point, N.C., the city where Coltrane grew up; his family moved there when he was an infant. Harwell had written a few more paragraphs at the end, describing the funeral, but not all papers included that part, and anyway that part had no additional quotations from Dr. King.

I’m basing my analysis on Harwell’s article because, even though Coltrane probably saw the Times, it did not have as many quotes from Dr. King. But Coltrane moved around so much that he could easily have seen one of the hundreds of papers that carried Harwell’s piece. He was in Buffalo, N.Y., on the day of the bombing. Between that day and the recording, he performed in Cleveland and New York City, toured Europe, and performed in Philadelphia. Admittedly, we don’t know which newspapers he saw, but in those two months he also had two separate weeks off, and I’m willing to bet that he came across this article himself while traveling or while at home in New York (in Manhattan then and now, there were shops that sold out-of-town newspapers), or a friend showed it to him or even mailed it to him.

If I’m right, this and only this article — not a complete transcript, not an audio recording — is what Coltrane had access to in the two months between the funeral on Sept. 18 and the recording of “Alabama” on Nov. 18.  So what does this say about the claim that Coltrane based “Alabama” on Dr. King’s words? Well, there is surely enough there to work with, and he had two months to think about it, work on it, and reorder the excerpts.

So I began to listen again, and immediately I heard Coltrane start by saying: “They did not die in vain”! As I continued to listen with fresh ears, I thought I heard him jumping around to different parts of the article, and even repeating some phrases. I also heard him adding notes at the ends of some phrases.

All of this should not be a surprise. After all, this was very likely the first time that he set words to a saxophone line. A Love Supreme was still a year away. And it may be the only time that he used someone else’s words — as far as we know, from this point on, whenever he used words to help compose a piece, they were words that he wrote himself. Then again, he only had these isolated quotes, not the full text of the speech, so it was up to him to make them into something coherent.

I’m not yet certain how he rearranged the words. I have not yet managed to fit the words to every phrase in the music. It seems to me that, unlike “Psalm,” he might be embellishing some words with extra notes. But here’s what I have so far (words in parentheses are not played)

They did not die in vain. 

0:05: God still has a way (of) bringing good (longer note for “good”) out of evil — they did not die in vain.

0:15: (The) innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive (low notes) force for this city.

0:30: We must not despair (extra notes on “despair”), we must not become bitter.

(I haven’t fit words for 0:42 to 1:20 yet.)

1:20: (Softly, mournfully — the band goes along with the rhythm that he conducts with his head)

Today you do not walk alone---

1:34: Not walk alone.

This is followed by the improvisation, marked by Garrison’s walking bass.

After the saxophone solo, the entire recitation is repeated, but this time after “Not walk alone,” I hear Coltrane exclaim, screaming with passion on high notes:

They did not die – they did not die in VAIN….IN VAIN…

(This is followed by a cascade of improvised notes, and the second “In Vain” is not played on the televised performance.)

That’s as far as I’ve gotten at the moment. None of the other lines of the text fit so well to the music. And of course, it’s possible that John added some words of his own, or slightly reworded things.

Because it’s difficult to fit the melody to the words, some people have said to me, “Maybe it’s not a syllabic setting — maybe it’s a vague impression of Dr. King’s speech. Maybe that’s why it’s hard to match it to the words.” But this makes no sense, because there’s nothing vague about the music. For just one example, notice that the first phrase ends with three Cs (at 0:11). On the TV performance he does the same. Why exactly three? If it’s a vague impression, why not fool around with it, play whatever you feel like? The third and fourth phrases are entirely composed of the notes Bb, C, D and Eb, played up and down, in and out, with C repeated at the end. Playing in this extremely limited range is not singing a melody; it’s chanting, unmistakably. And if it were just a vague impression, why not embellish it, add a note here and there, as he always did on every ballad he ever played? I’m certain that Coltrane is chanting a text here, even though I haven’t fully figured it out yet.

I hope you can live with this unfinished resolution about “Alabama.” You can be sure that I’ll continue to think about and research this profound piece of music.

This concludes my Deep Dive series at WBGO, as I turn my focus to shorter, more informal pieces that I’ll post elsewhere online. Check my website for updates on my research, performing and recording. Stay healthy and safe!

For their help with this post, I would like to thank the following kind people: Meghan Weaver, Research Assistant at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University; Steve Rowland, co-producer (with Larry Abrams) of the award-winning 5-hour radio series Tell Me How Long Trane’s Been Gone; and Medd Typ Persson for our discussion. 

Lewis Porter is the author of acclaimed books on John Coltrane, Lester Young and jazz history, and has taught at institutions including Rutgers and The New School. He’s also a pianist whose latest album — Transcendent, a collaboration with guitarist Ray Suhy — is out on Sunnyside Records.