Wide Angle

How Selma Got Its Sound

Music supervisor Morgan Rhodes explains how she whittled down thousands of options to select 13 songs for Ava DuVernay’s film.

A confident-looking Black woman wearing bright lipstick.
Morgan Rhodes. Courtesy of Morgan Rhodes

On this week’s episode of Working, Isaac Butler spoke with music supervisor Morgan Rhodes about her work creating the sonic narrative of TV shows movies like Selma, Dear White People, and Space Jam: A New Legacy. They discussed her process for deciding what kind of music the project requires, how she makes selections out of thousands of options, and the logistics of securing the rights to the songs. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Isaac Butler: Can you talk a little bit about how you approached music supervision for Selma? Because I love the use of music in that film—I love that movie in general—and I know you and Ava DuVernay have worked together many times. I’m just curious about how your collaboration evolved on that film.

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Morgan Rhodes: We wanted to use B-sides; that was her direction. She was like, “Let’s use B-sides. Let’s do a deep dive into 1965.” If you tell a DJ that, it’s just the biggest gift ever, and that’s how I approached it. Not only was this the biggest gift ever because of its historical context, but also the freedom to dig deep, to go into crates and to give a new take, sonically, of the music of the civil rights movement. Of course we use The Staple Singers, and we use The Impressions. So there were some songs people definitely associated with 1965; some songs people had no idea came out of 1965. We had two songs that weren’t from 1965—“Yesterday Was Hard on All of Us”, which was Fink, obviously “Glory,” by John Legend—but we pieced together pieces of 1965 that I knew people hadn’t heard of.

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The song for Bloody Sunday, which is “Walk With Me,” belongs to generations of freedom fighters and had been around a long time. I found a soulful blues version of it, and I found it on YouTube. Then I had to order the vinyl from Discogs, because there was no MP3, there was no WAV file, so I had to order the vinyl, rip it from my computer so that we could get the AIFF file, and then send it on to the mixers.

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That’s just one of the highlights, I think, of my career, because of the freedom that I was given, because my own journey to discover some of these songs from 1965, and the privilege of soundtracking that movement. We went deep—I listened to thousands of songs, and we ended up with 13, but I listened to thousands of songs getting there.

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Do you remember approximately how many songs you sent to your director to eventually start the whittling down process to get to the perfect 13 songs?

I think I listened to 3,000. I think I might have sent her maybe 10 percent of that—maybe 300—and then we got to 13.

That’s amazing.

We kept trying things and trying things, and we got to something that worked. I used a song called “One Morning Soon,” which was released in 1965 by a mother-daughter duo. The daughter played guitar; the mother was a singer.

Just something that I found as I did a wide sweeping search for 1965, and I’ve got to shout out Discogs, because they were very helpful in that. I mean, I went deep. You just put in “1965” and you get all genres: you get blues, you get rock, you get folk. What can I say about that? It was a beautiful experience working on the film.

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Where did the impulse behind doing all B-sides and deep cuts come from? Was that about budget, or was it just about not wanting to give us too familiar an experience of the ’60s?

I think it was a creative decision, which I thought was just such a gift, as I said before. I thought, Great, because you realize that not everyone that watched Selma was around then. My parents were around, but I wasn’t around in 1965, nor were my nieces and nephews. So some people were experiencing all that footage and that moment for the first time, and I think for me as a music supervisor, I just wanted to do something that I thought centralized 1965 as a moment, but didn’t have you saying, “Oh, I remember that song,” but saying, “Wow, what is that song?” Or, “I didn’t realize that song came out in 1965.” That is my goal as a music supervisor. I would rather be asked, “What was that song?” than told, “That was my jam.” I live to do that, to answer that question.

To listen to the full interview with Morgan Rhodes, subscribe to Working on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or listen below.

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