MLK Jr. Day 2021: Country Music and Classic Rock Songs Honoring the Civil Rights Leader

by Clayton Edwards

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a civil rights pioneer and inspiration to countless people. His influence could be seen across the world and through the years. There is no way of knowing where this country would be without Dr. King’s influence and inspiration.

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was standing on his balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. At 6:01 pm, a coward’s bullet fired from a Remington rifle tore through King’s face. It ended his life but did not end his legacy or influence. However, as word of his assassination spread through the land, so too did anger and sadness. For decades, songwriters have worked their craft to express that rage and sadness and to honor the fallen leader.

In celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we have gathered some of the best country and classic rock songs that pay tribute to Dr. King.

“Hotel Lorraine” – Otis Spann

The day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., blues pianist Otis Spann performed two newly-composed songs in honor of Dr. King. One was “Blues for Martin Luther King.” The other was “Hotel Lorraine.”

You can hear the pain and anger dripping from Spann’s voice as he sings about Martin Luther King Jr. and the assassination. During the song, Spann references not only the assassination but also the beginnings of what would come to be known as the Holy Week Uprising. “While he was talkin’, the poor man didn’t feel the pain. They tell me, 8:05 the whole world was up in flames.”

It is a hauntingly beautiful tribute that encapsulates the sadness and anger following Martin Luther King Jr.’s death.

“Motel in Memphis” Old Crow Medicine Show’s Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.

Old Crow Medicine Show may be best-known for “Wagon Wheel” but they have several more serious tunes as well. “Motel in Memphis” looks at the assassination of Dr. King and the days afterward. The song tells the story of the assassination and funeral in a series of questions. Such as, “Did you see Coretta? She was sobbin’ on the corner in a black veil/Did you see Mr. Crump in a white coat grin?/ Did you walk downriver where the cottonwoods are swingin’/ With the ghostly bodies of men?”

In the chorus of the song, Secor and company really hit the nail on the head. “Motel in Memphis/ Run and tell somebody there’s blood on the riverside/ Oh muddy water, rolling to Memphis/ If you were there, you’d swear it was more than a man who died.”

To an extent, Dr. King was more than a man. He was a figurehead, a rallying point, and a leader. His assassin tried to kill the civil rights movement with his bullet. In doing so, he created a martyr for a just and righteous cause.

“Up To the Mountain (MLK Song)” Patty Griffin

“Up To the Mountain” gets its title from the “I have been to the mountaintop” speech that Martin Luther King Jr. gave the day before his murder. In the song, Griffin sings about King going to the mountain top and into a peaceful valley just beyond that mountain. It’s all a metaphor for his passing from Memphis into Heaven.

It is a beautiful and touching country tribute to Dr. King.

“Dry Your Eyes” Neil Diamond

“Dry Your Eyes” is a slow classic rock song that discusses peoples’ feelings after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The song is a call for peaceful protest and perseverance. The first verse lays this out, “And if you can’t recall the singer, you can still recall the tune./Dry your eyes and play it slowly, just like you’re marching off to war/ Sing it like you know he’d want it like we sang it once before.”

In the lyrics, the singer is, of course, Dr. King. The song is his message of civil rights and peaceful protests. Which makes the juxtaposition of singing it like your going to war and singing it like you know he’d want you to sing it much more poignant. It was a war, but it was one that King wanted to fight as peacefully as possible.

“They Killed Him” Kris Kristofferson

Kris Kristofferson paid tribute to Dr. King in the song “They Killed Him,” along with some other important figures. The three men he talks about in the song really speaks to Kristofferson’s feelings about Martin Luther King Jr. The first verse is about Gandhi, the second is about Dr. King, and the third is about Jesus Christ – three men who were martyred because of their causes.

The reverence for King is clear not only in the company he is given in the song but also in what Kristofferson says about him. “Another man from Atlanta, Georgia/ By the name of Martin Luther King/ He shook the land like rolling thunder/ And made the bells of freedom ring today/ With a dream of beauty that they could not burn away/ Just another holy man who dared to be a friend/ MY GOD, THEY KILLED HIM!”

Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan also recorded solid versions of this tune.

More Music Inspired by MLK

Martin Luther King Jr. is an inspiration to several artists. More references to him and his Nobel Prize-winning work can be heard throughout several genres. From hip-hop and jazz to country music, his influence is everywhere. No matter your taste in music there’s a song in memory of Dr. King for you. Take a moment to listen to a couple and remember a true American hero today.