Vocalist, actress, and activist Abbey Lincoln captured the energy of an era in recording and film as few others could, staring down the camera and shouting into the microphone with the force of a warrior. She refuted the oppression of Hollywood's type-casting as boldly as she rebelled against a song's harmonic structure. Lincoln's art was her most telling weapon and she brandished it with a fearlessness that would rock the white-dominated entertainment industry during years of social upheaval. Her most recalled work, We Insist!: Freedom Now Suite, angrily challenged those singing of overcoming some day; hers was not a protest art of patience.
Anna Marie Wooldridge was born in Chicago on August 6, 1930 when streams of unemployed workers roamed the streets and the African American population was struggling against apartheid America. The entertainment industry was one means to economic salvation in the Black community in Chicago—the site of the momentous development of jazz during the 1920s. Though raised in a rural suburb, Lincoln's singing spoke of the ages, informed by Billie Holiday, urban blues, field hollers, and swing.
The newly-christened Abbey Lincoln relocated to the West Coast and became an in-demand performer on the nightclub circuit. Lincoln recorded her debut album the same year she was cast in the Jayne Mansfield movie The Girl Can't Help It (1956), which also featured Little Richard and other popular musicians. In 1957, in spite of the possibility of a film career, the young actress focused her efforts on collaborating with drummer/composer Max Roach. Their projects together were revolutionary on several levels. They recorded several concept albums, most powerfully the Freedom Now Suite (1960), a hallmark of protest music. Lincoln's speech-song vocal on "Driva Man" is a lesson in the power of song as a force for social protest, a "Strange Fruit" for the Civil Rights era.
During the 1960s, Lincoln continued working with Roach (they were married from 1962-1970), but also with other jazz legends, including Sonny Rollins and Eric Dolphy. By 1964, she returned to film, co-starring with Ivan Dixon in Nothing But a Man, a depiction of the racism in the deep South. Shortly thereafter, she was paired with Sidney Poitier in For Love of Ivy (1968), where Lincoln was cast in the title role.
By 1970, Lincoln had become a common sight on television and film. Then, in 1980, she had something of a musical resurgence. In the next three decades, Lincoln performed widely and recorded numerous collections, often featuring her own compositions. Though her lyrics had been a part of several earlier collaborations, Lincoln's focus on her own material began in earnest in 1972 while traveling through Africa. She came to see her calling as that of a storyteller and developed a large catalog of original material. A series of albums exploring her career received much-deserved critical acclaim. To those in the crowded venues where she played, Lincoln was at the zenith of her art.
She remained a thriving, independent performer into her final years, speaking truth to the power that might otherwise have sought her silence. She died on August 14, 2010.
John Pietaro is a cultural worker from New York City.