It’s another Monday night in Manhattan. Uptown shimmers with the glow of lights and the blur of street traffic. People rushing to points south and north may have a hard time noticing the proud structure that is the Advent Lutheran Church high up on 93rd Street and Broadway. As he has since 1986, Matt Jones is organizing the evening’s proceedings of the Open House Coffeehouse, a weekly performance series at the church. This is not just any vehicle for folksingers and poets, but a venue that encourages original music with a message.

Matthew 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, Va., for which he organized a vocal group, the Danville Freedom Voices, in 1963.

Shortly thereafter, Matt relocated to Atlanta, Ga., with his brother Marshall and the two became affiliated with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and their powerful music ensemble, the Freedom Singers. This legendary group was actually born via a series of meetings held between Cordell Reagon, SNCC Executive Secretary Jim Foreman and Pete Seeger, already viewed as an elder of the protest song. In 1964, Matt, a SNCC field secretary, became a member and then its director.

That year, the Freedom Singers toured the country as part of the wide organizing drive to build the Friends of SNCC, initially focusing on northern states to build the movement’s momentum. Of the Freedom Singers, Matt 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. Matt 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,” Matt 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 in a song, like ‘This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,’ then we can internalize it”.

Matt maintained his role as an artist-activist even as SNCC broke apart, performing his radical repertoire around the world, including alongside freedom fighters in Northern Ireland.

During the struggle against the Vietnam War, he recorded a 45 that has become quite legendary, “Hell No, We Ain’t Gonna Go” backed with “Super Sam.” For this occasion, Matt worked in collaboration with lyricist Elaine Laron to produce two powerful selections accompanied by a muscular rock band complete with a horn section. It stands out as an exciting moment and its antiwar message is still relevant today.

Matt’s experiences included performances alongside such luminaries as Seeger and the Reverend F.D. Kirkpatrick. He became a frequent contributor to Broadside during that magazine’s far-too-brief run, working closely with its founder, legendary protest singer Sis Cunningham. He’s been a participant in the annual Phil Ochs Song Nights and his music has been heard in such lasting films as The Ghosts of Mississippi.

He continues to perform for numerous rallies including the annual May Day concerts in New York City and he was a featured performer at the 1998 Hanns Eisler Centenary Festival.

At each performance, Matt includes “The Freedom Chant,” an affirmation he based on a famous quote by Fannie Lou Hamer and his own many years of direct action. It, more than anything else, speaks volumes about this musician of the people who refuses to tire and continues to be a force to be reckoned with.

“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!”

– John Pietaro (leftmus@aol.com)

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