Somehow the reports were too slow to come in: a quick note on the Internet, a bare posting on a folksong blog, but no details, no sense of the powerful life and legacy left behind. The social fabric that Matt Jones helped to re-shape barely bothered to note his passing.
Jones was already a schooled, experienced musician when he became active in the fight for civil rights by joining the Nashville Student Movement in 1960. He also became an outspoken participant in the struggle in Danville, Virginia, for which he organized the Danville Freedom Voices in 1963. Shortly thereafter, Jones relocated to Atlanta, Georgia with his brother Marshall and the two became affiliated with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and their music ensemble, the Freedom Singers. This legendary group was created in meetings between Cordell Reagon, SNCC Executive Secretary Jim Foreman, and Pete Seeger. In 1964, Jones, a SNCC field secretary, became the group’s director.
That year, the Freedom Singers toured the country as part of an organizing drive to build the Friends of SNCC. Of the Freedom Singers, Jones has said, “We were organizers first, singers second.” During such tumultuous times, the fight for equality in the Jim Crow South could often be terrifying. Jones faced down the Klan on many occasions and endured 29 arrests. His experiences developed him into a “freedom singer” in the most visceral manner.
“I don’t think of myself as a cultural worker,” Jones said. “I am a freedom singer; a freedom fighter. I’ve always been a freedom fighter; I’ll probably go down that way, too. Freedom songs are different than other protest songs because they are really a mantra. The use of repetition allows for the message to be understood. If we sing a powerful statement enough times, like ‘This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,’ then we can internalize it.”
Jones maintained his role as an artist-activist even after SNCC broke apart. He performed around the world, including alongside freedom fighters in Northern Ireland. During the struggle against the Vietnam War, he recorded a single that has become legendary, “Hell No, We Ain’t Gonna Go,” collaborated with lyricist Elaine Laron.
Jones’s experiences included performances alongside such luminaries as Seeger and the Reverend F.D. Kirkpatrick. He worked with Barbara Dane, performed at the legendary Vietnam Songbook concert, sang at the Highlander Folk School, and became a frequent contributor to Broadside during that magazine’s brief run, working closely with its founder, protest singer Sis Cunningham. He’d also been a participant in the annual Phil Ochs Song Nights from the start and his music has been heard in such films as The Ghosts of Mississippi. In Harlem, he organized an annual tribute to Dr. King.
Over the decades, he continued to perform for numerous rallies throughout New York and beyond, including several May Day concerts, the 1998 Hanns Eisler Centenary Festival, and a tribute to Woody Guthrie. Starting in 1986, Jones led a weekly song circle at the Advent Lutheran Church on 93rd Street and Broadway. This series, dubbed the Open House Coffee House, was a venue that encouraged music with a strong message.
Jones’s respect for new songs of struggle was only matched by his need to preserve older forms, including spirituals and ballads. In later decades, he returned to his prized acoustic guitar, which he seemed to barely tickle most of the time, a soft accompaniment to his now thickened voice.
Jones never ended a gig without “The Freedom Chant,” an affirmation inspired by a famous quote by Fannie Lou Hamer and his own many years of direct action. It speaks volumes about this tireless musician of the people: I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.
I will not allow anybody at any time
To violate my mind or my body
In any shape, form or fashion.
If they do they’ll have to deal with ME immediately
Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!
Surely Matt Jones “went down” as a freedom fighter. I know he’d like to be recalled as such. Let’s never forget.
John Pietaro is a musician, writer, and labor organizer from New York City. This piece first appeared at theculturalworker.blogspot.com.