Historical Overview

From 1940-1970, notorious African American musicians like Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Ray Charles, Grant Green, and many more traveled to Paris during the Civil Rights era to record and/ or perform music that will live on for future generations. These artists poured their hearts into these melodies and have touched the souls of many. Below, is a playlist of the songs performed and or recorded during this era. Join us and let us travel back in time to explore and appreciate music from the Civil Rights in the City of Lights.

The sections are as follows:

Songs performed in Paris – Songs recorded in Paris – Songs performed and recorded in Paris

Songs Performed in Paris:

Organized Chronologically Then Alphabetically by Artist’s Last Name

Chuck Berry was an African-American musician from St. Louis, Missouri who played a crucial role in the birth of rock-and-roll music. Particularly, “Roll Over Beethoven” calls attention to the death of classical music and the role that rock-in-roll played in the musical canon. It was designed and was successful in challenging what music was acceptable in society. It disturbed those who preferred classical music like Beethoven or those who believed in the standards for what constituted good music. Black music, like jazz, R&B, and rock-and-roll, was unacceptable by many until the genre was taken up by white artists, who are more likely to be remembered than the Black artists who inspired them. For example, someone is more likely to remember and recognize the music of Elvis Presley, but not that of Chuck Berry, who played a pivotal role in opening the doors of all musicians to play and people to enjoy rock-and-roll music. This song in particular, “Roll Over Beethoven,” gives a voice to the development of and social perception of rock-and-roll music in 1956.

–Chasia Jeffries

Earl Rudolph “Bud” Powell was one of the best known American jazz pianists of the 20th century. In December of 1959, Bud Powell gave a performance at the Blue Note (a jazz club in Paris). One of the songs featured in this performance was “Get Happy.” During this performance, Kenny Clarke was on the drums and Pierre Michelot (who was French) was on the bass. The original recording of “Get Happy” was released on the 1956 studio album Jazz Giant by Norgran Records (an American jazz record label in Los Angeles). The album consists of two sessions that Bud Powell recorded for Norman Granz (the owner of Norgran Records) on February 23, 1949 and in February of 1950. Powell moved to Paris in 1959 and began to play at jazz clubs – which is where this recording of “Get Happy” comes from.

–Hanna Adams

Miles Davis was an African American trumpeter, bandleader, and composure from Alton, Illinois. In 1944, Davis left Juilliard to make his first public professional debut in Charlie Parker’s bebop quintet. Throughout his career Davis would become renowned for his diverse set of Jazz skills, and starting particularly in the 60s we see Davis using elements of funk in his music. This was because Davis wanted to breakout of the traditional forms and understandings of Jazz to create a music that African Americans could relate too. It was important to him to create music that both he and his community could relate to particularly during the height of the civil rights era. Additionally in 1960, Davis goes on a European tour where he performed with his quintet and saxophonist John Coltrane. Coltrane (Trane), like Davis, had a very diverse range of jazz music and he would even find himself as a leader of Free Jazz. This was an avant-garde form of jazz created in the 50s and 60s that sought to challenge jazz norms and music. Free Jazz was different in the sense that it did not follow traditional chord changes and tempos. Trane was brought on tour with Davis as a sideman, but as we will hear through this song and many others performed during the tour there is a clear tension in the music between the two musicians as Coltrane continuously pushes past Davis during the performances. Specifically, when “So what” was first performed in Paris at the Olympia we see Davis using a double-time tempo which is different from his traditional smooth jazz sounds. During the performance we can hear Coltrane adding some elements of blues and increasing the tempo of his notes and in many points surpassing Davis. When Trane was ask to come on tour with Davis he was not to keen on the idea and had already developed his own style of jazz, which became clear with the tensions in the sounds of European tour. So, over all the addition of blues, free jazz elements, and changing tempos in “So What”, as well as other songs performed during the tour, we can see the influence of the civil rights on sounds of Jazz as these artist breakout side of the traditional notes and tempos.

–Ashlee Saucedo

Released in 1960, Ray Charles’ album The Genius Hits The Road featured the hit “Georgia on My Mind.” The song would go on to become the state of Georgia’s official state song in 1979, and although it was not originally written or recorded by Charles, it was largely popularized by him, and is today largely associated with him. Along with the release of Charles’ album came the announcement of his national tour, which was scheduled to begin in late 1960 and throughout 1961. These shows were widely received with great enthusiasm — and many of them were even sold out — by black and white Americans alike. On March 15, 1961, however, just prior to when Charles was scheduled to play at Bell Auditorium in Augusta, Georgia, he received news that the venue would be segregated: The dance floor would be reserved for whites only, and the balcony would be the designated space for blacks. Immediately upon hearing this, Charles cancelled his concert and paid the fine that was issued to him by the venue. Not only would Charles’ symbolic action invigorate the Civil Rights movement of the sixties, but Charles himself continued to refuse to perform in Georgia altogether until the states’ venues were completely desegregated.

–Ryan Nhu


Ray Charles (1990)






Charles Mingus was a jazz bassist, pianist, and composer in the mid-20th century. He was born on a military base in Nogales, Arizona in 1922, but grew up in Watts. His music influences growing up was from the church choir and hearing Duke Ellington over the radio. Being an amazing jazz bassist, he began to tour with famous musicians like Louis Armstrong as early as the 1940s and more leaders like Miles Davis and eventually even Duke Ellington in the 1950s. He also became a band leader and toured around the world, including in Paris, France. The inspiration for the “Fables of Faubus” was when the governor of Arkansas at the time, Orval Faubus, denied racial desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Mingus originally wrote this piece with very harsh lyrics that criticized Faubus, Rockefeller, and even Eisenhower. However, because the topic was so controversial, his record company at the time, Columbia Records, refused to produce it with the lyrics, but rather released an instrumental version in his album “Mingus Ah Um” in 1959. The song was able to gain its lyrics in 1960 when Mingus took it to be produced by a smaller independent label. It was released as “The Original Fables of Faubus” on his album “Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus.” The lyrics of this song follows a “jazzy protest” (Waye, 2009) with a call and response that clearly placed heavy meanings on the words and used the music to portray the emotions of the African Americans at the time. While they were able to release the lyrics in this song, the live performance in Paris in 1964 was only the instrumental version.

–Megan Ryu

Berry’s “Promised Land” was written in 1964 and charts a road trip from Virginia to California, the aforementioned promised land. Berry wrote the song in prison, using a prison atlas and recorded the song in Chicago. Born in 1926 in segregated Mississippi, Berry’s songs are full of young protagonists setting out in the world–he claimed that he did not write political songs, saying instead he made records for anyone who would buy them. Still, Berry’s songs are littered with allusions and coded words. His heroes are “poor country boys” and in “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” he begins with the decl aration of being “Arrested on charges of unemployment” a charge leveled against African Americans in Jim Crowe America. Though Berry did not explicitly talk about race, it permeated his music. With this view, “Promised Land” takes on new meaning, as the protagonist tracks a course through the South at the height of the Civil Rights movement. The interstate travel in the song is full of mishaps from bus breakdowns in Birmingham, Alabama, to needing help to get out of Louisiana, all the while supported by people who “care a little” about him. “Promised Land” talks about the struggles of travel for African-Americans as well as the people trying to change its problems.

–Serena Jarwala

Chuck Berry (1957)









James Brown, born in 1933, was a major blues and gospel-style performer throughout the 1950s and 60s. But in the late 1960s, he began to evolve his former style, becoming more influenced by African music and developing into the primary progenitor of funk music. “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” was recorded during his transition, in 1966, with its roots still firmly in R&B. On November 25, 1967, James Brown and his band, the Famous Flames, performed “It’s a Man’s World” at the L’Olympia in Paris. Though its lyrics have been criticized by Rolling Stone as “biblically chauvinistic,” the song has also been seen as feminist, as it emphasizes the important role of women in the world. In 2004, “It’s a Man’s World” was ranked #123 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. Brown also became known for his songs about social commentary, such as his 1968 “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

–Brianna Johnson

In 1969, songwriter, pianist, vocalist, and activist Nina Simone performed at the at the Olympia Music Hall in Paris, France. One of the songs featured in her set was “Backlash Blues.” The song was first recorded for Simone’s 1967 album Nina Simone Sings the Blues, produced by Danny Davis and recorded for RCA Records. The lyrics were written by famed poet Langston Hughes before his death in 1967. The song highlights the involvement of Simone and Hughes in the civil rights movement: “Backlash Blues” critiques racial discrimination in the army, housing, employment, and society as a whole, while vowing that there will be consequences. It was released at a time in Nina Simone’s career when her music and performances heavily reflected her involvement in the civil rights movement. In addition to the “Backlash Blues,” her set at the Olympia included “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” “Four Women,” and “Revolution” – all civil rights songs. Nina Simone’s performance of “Backlash Blues” at the Olympia was featured in the 2015 documentary What Happened Miss Simone?.

–Isabel Reed

Nina Simone (1982)







  • Save Me – performed by Nina Simone (1969)

Nina Simone was an infamous African American performer. Born in Tryon, South Carolina in 1933, she is a unique jazz musician in that she was classically trained from a young age before she broke into the popular music scene. In fact, Simone initially intended to become the first black classical pianist. She trained at Julliard, and tried to continue her musical education but was unable to due to her race. Needing to earn money, Simone began playing piano at a jazz club where the owner demanded that she sing as well. From there, she quickly grew in fame. But Simone did not participate directly in civil rights at first (and this probably would have prevented her from reaching the popularity that she did). It was the bombing of the church in Birmingham, Alabama that ignited Simone’s path into the civil rights movement. After the death of those four girls, combined with the assassination of Medgar Evers, Simone felt compelled to write “Mississippi Goddamn” in response. With this song, she went down a path from which she would not turn back. At the Olympia theater in Paris, 1969, Simone performed several songs, including “Save Me.” Though on the surface this song is about romance, its lyrics hold much deeper meaning. Simone croons, “We’re cryin’ together from coast to coast / ‘Cause love makes me cold and hurt inside / These tears of ours unjustified / Beggin’ ya to save me / Good lord / Somebody save me.” The spread of the civil rights movement from “coast to coast” is highlighted by Simone’s lyrics. Similarly, when she speaks of “unjustified” tears, she is reminding her listeners of the pain of slavery and that of racial injustice. Simone cries for this pain, and she asks for someone to save her. This line functions as a call to action demanding people to stand up and fight for what they believe in. Below the surface of this love tune, Nina Simone calls others to fight for civil rights.

–Marisa Johnson

Songs Recorded in Paris:

Organized Chronologically Then Alphabetically by Artist’s Last Name
Pete Seeger (1944)









Pete Seeger, along with the other members of the Kingston Trio, had long been known as one of the caretakers of American folk. However, in the late 60s, Seeger began to become a more global presence, expanding his vast ouvre to such disparate genres as Irish and Latin American folk. Furthermore, he began to perform in various places abroad, evidenced by this record produced by both Folkways and Le Chant Du Monde and recorded in Paris. A lyrical expansion of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letters From Birmingham Jail,” this folk song was written by and for civil rights activists participating in nonviolent protest. While the authorship of the song has been attributed to all Birmingham Protestors, “I Aint A-Scared” sounds similar to many of Seeger’s hits. The song does not deviate from a familiar refrain, other than mentioning the various tactics used by police to intimidate these protestors. The lyrics reference dogs, hoses, and the vicious Birmingham police chief, Bull Connor. Ultimately, Seeger’s peaceful and comforting voice does not shy away from the powerful demand: “I want my freedom now!”

–Lucas Bohlinger

Songs Performed and Recorded in Paris:

Organized Chronologically Then Alphabetically by Artist’s Last Name
  • Les Oignons – performed and recorded by Sidney Bechet (1953)
Sidney Bechet (1947)








Below is a Spotify playlist of the songs listed above:

Maria Manjarrez is a sophomore from San Gabriel, California, pursuing her B.A. in Political Science and B.S. in Public Policy and Law at the University of Southern California. She is a member of the Phi Alpha Delta Pre- Law Fraternity, a Norman Topping Scholar, and an Unruh Associate. When she graduates, she hopes to pursue a law degree with a concentration in immigration law.

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