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The music of 'Selma': scoring the civil rights movement

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The new film "Selma" looks at a crucial chapter in the civil rights movement. The film chronicles the time that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spent in the city of Selma, Alabama, campaigning for voting rights. 

But, how does a filmmaker choose the music to represent one of the most important historical events in U.S. history?

That's a question "Selma" music supervisor, and Take Two regular, Morgan Rhodes, wrestled with when she was wading through thousands of tracks.

"I really feel like I didn't find these artists, these artists found me... I probably listened to a couple of thousand songs, and narrowed it down to about 300, and from 300, we chose about a dozen."

1965, the year of the Selma march, was also a key time in music, so Morgan had a lot to choose from. But "Selma's" director - Ava DuVernay - explained to her early on that she wanted to focus on using B-sides and underground hits.

"It allowed me to dig in the crates, to look for things that people may not have heard, or may not associate with the time, even if they associate the artists with the time. People always talk about the wall of sound, but what I associate with the '60s is the warmth of sound. Every single song sounded like there was a full orchestra in there with the artists."

She also found herself wanting to honor those who paved the way for her.

"In 1965, my parents were recent... college graduates, but in the deep South. So, I wanted to honor what I thought they might have experienced on a daily level. I just wanted to do right by them and you know, I think I've heard my mother say over and over again, we want you to learn from our lessons. And I wanted to let them know that they weren't lost on me. That the sacrifices weren't lost. So, seeing that, I thought I wasn't there, I wasn't born when this happened, I couldn't sound track it then. And there are great songs from that time, but I'm here now, and to be able to contribute in this way is a blessing and an honor and a dream."

So, she decided on tracks, including "I Got The New World In My View" by Sister Gertrude Morgan from 1957.

When the song is playing in the film, there's a group of black Selma residents, marching together to the courthouse in an attempt to vote. 

"We found this song on a project called "Let's Make A Record." I like it because, just her story. She left her husband because she was answering a calling to preach. And became sort of a street evangelist, so it was just her and her tambourine. She's also an artist, a painter and all of her paintings reflected her love for a book in the Bible, Revelations. So, all of them speak to the new world, new Jerusalem. And I thought it tied in well, because people were marching for rights that they did not yet enjoy, but had a vision of the world that they wanted. And I thought that it was really a good fit."

One of the most harrowing scenes in "Selma" depicts what is known as Bloody Sunday, which took place on March 7, 1965. 600 protesters set out to march from Selma, to the capitol of Alabama, Montgomery. When they got to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, law enforcement officers ordered them to turn around. The protesters refused. The officers shot tear gas and stormed into the crowd, beating non-violent protesters, brutally.

For that scene in the movie, Morgan picked "Walk With Me" by Martha Bass.

"I was attracted to the words "tedious journey" in this song. Because nothing was more tedious than that march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. You could describe it in a lot of ways, tedious, perilous, uncertain... This song, started out as a negro spiritual. So, I wanted something that belonged to generations of freedom fighters. And generations of struggle. Getting to that song was tough because... it's such a critical moment in the film, and it's such a historical moment in time, that I really really struggled with it."

Morgan turned to prayer.

"I actually called my mother one night because I was really struggling with this particular cue. And I said, "Pray for me, because I need to find this." And she said, "Remember that book that I gave you?" She'd given me a sort of daily journal that had some scriptures in the end. And so, I didn't read it that night, but when I woke up, I read the scripture for the day, and part of it said, "I am your strength and your song." And right after I read that, I got on line and I found this song on YouTube. And I started crying. I knew that this was the song. Not just a good song, but the right song. And I liked it, like I said, because it had traveled over the generations. From slaves singing it, to now, this critical moment in civil rights history." 

At the end of the film, Morgan used a version of "This Little Light of Mine" performed by Selma Workers at a mass for Jimmie Lee Jackson and recorded by a documentarian at the time.

"I thought it was a good way to end over credits, so that you remember that there was a time... a significant time in 1965, even throughout all the songs that you hear, that the core of this movement was also faith. The faith and the humanity behind this movement. So, I thought This Little Light of Mine, it just had such resonance to me in my journey. And it gets into your spirit and it just gives you chills, because you're transported back to that time."