Essay, 14 pages (3500 words)

Freedom songs of the civil rights movement

It is undoubtedly clear that the purpose and moral urgency of the civil rights movement was best expressed through the lyrics of protest songs and the emotions evoked by gospel. Whether sitting on pews, on stools of “ sit-in diners,” on the ledge of jail windows, or walking across a city’s sidewalks, the singing that accompanied all of these forms of protest showed the importance of African American cultural identity while exposing the injustices of the Jim Crow south.[1]The musical genres that emerged as a result of the movement had the ability to aggressively confront and paralyze racial injustice with a violence that could, in contrast, not be afforded by African Americans’ actions. The music of this era was ever-changing and creative, much like the movement itself, and the lyrics of these songs would come to be described as “ tell[ing] the story of life’s difficulties.”[2]Some of the most popular musical compositions illustrating the brutality of racial tensions included Billie Holiday’s “ Strange Fruit” and Bob Dylan’s “ Oxford Town.”[3]As a parallel to the movement’s complexity, the gradual musical evolution of the period would become a catalyst towards a sense of “ overcoming” and hope that brought together audiences through lyricism that spoke of events they had all endured. The emergence of new musical genres and freedom songs during the civil rights movement therefore proved to be a unifying force for all Americans by providing a defiant sense of “ black pride” in a then white America.

At the basis of every known freedom song of the sixties lied the remains of an older religious folksong or spiritual. Ever since the arrival of the first slave ships in 1619, African American culture has strongly revolved around spirituals.[4]These “ codified protest songs” used biblical allegories to present themes of liberation and freedom through figures such as Daniel and Moses.[5]Early spirituals began defining a musical genre that would later become known as black folk music. Despite the overwhelming surge of Christianity over the majority of slaves, spirituals kept their uniquely African identities. Microtonally flatted notes, African counter rhythms, and a call-and-response format were distinguishing characteristics in the styles made famous by songs such as “ This Little Light of Mine” and “ Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”[6]Spirituals were, for many, the sole medium of creative expression which allowed for sentiments and desires for freedom to be conveyed. As time allowed for styles of spirituals to diverge and merge, black folk music surfaced as a new genre in the early 20 th century as the musical basis of all modern protest songs.[7]

The rise of freedom songs upon the national landscape can be traced back to the Highlander Folk School. Founded in 1932 in New Market, Tennessee, the school became a key right of passage in training labor and civil rights activist such as James Bevel, Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr.[8]Education at Highlander was not based on grades, credits, exams, or the receiving of a degree but rather a curriculum of non-violence through film, music, and drama.[9]From this school emerged a new singing protest group known as the Freedom Singers who crossed racial and sectional divide with their stylistic interpretation of traditional songs. The group, comprised of Bernice Johnson Reagon, Cordell Reagon, Ruth Harris, and Charles Neblett, formed as a result of the Albany Movement in 1961.[10]Although the movement was a major failure, the campaign held by the Student’s Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the National American Association for Colored People in Albany, Georgia, marked the first time that music was formally sung as a form of protest.[11]Bernice Johnson Reagon described the campaign as “ a singing movement” that led to folk singer, Pete Seeger, to ultimately suggests the unification of a singing protest group.[12]The Freedom Singers took many stylistic liberties in their vocal interpretation of traditional gospels and spirituals using slower tempo, a clearer syncopation, and vocal punctuations.[13]Their distinctive interpretation of songs such as “ We Shall Overcome” and “ Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round” led the group towards the national spotlight and helped spread the message of the movement throughout the country. Opportunities throughout their active years such as the famed Newport Folk Festival and a performance alongside Mahalia Jackson at the March on Washington in 1963 led to additional awareness of the cruel reality of segregation.[14]The prominence of the Freedom Singers on American radios and televisions led to the naming of their repertoire of music as Freedom Songs. Although known through the civil rights movement, these songs were not a product of the movement but rather, a part of a longstanding African American musical culture. These songs’ purpose lied creating racial cooperation by unifying artists and listeners who coexisted through the events that heavily influenced the civil rights movement.[15]The context that Freedom Songs were performed within led to the expansion of the genre’s limitations, as both a tool for peace and a challenge to injustice in lyricism. The practice of freedom songs redefined and reshaped African American culture as well as establishing a tradition that would be seen again during the Vietnam War.

Indisputably, the events that shaped the civil rights movement also left their mark in the music of the time. In December of 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for defiantly refusing to give up her bus-seat to James Blake, a white man who had just entered the bus.[16]The event would spur on the yearlong Montgomery Bus Boycott organized by the Montgomery Improvement Association.[17]Many artists turned towards the events in Montgomery to craft songs that would inform and reflect Park’s actions. Songs such as the Nelville Brothers’ “ Sister Rosa” and Betty Mae Fikes’ “ If You Miss Me in the Back of the Bus” became vital to the morale of protesters.[18]Years later, the March on Washington 1963 would draw in over 250, 000 people at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to protest under the words of “ jobs and freedom.”[19]Accredited with helping pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the march was one of the largest gathering that showcased both the calls for freedom by activists and many musical artists. Beyond Martin Luther King Jr.’s “ I Have a Dream” speech was a medley of musical performances that were just as memorable and compelling as his words. Mahalia Jackson sung the opening act of the program with “ How I got Over” and “ I’ve Been ‘ Bucked and I’ve Been Scorned.”[20]In fact, Jackson would be the one who encouraged King’s speech as she gestured towards the audience and said, “ Tell them about that dream Martin.”[21]Joan Baez would rise to her own fame as she led the crowd in “ We Shall Overcome” with the Freedom Singers. As crowds all over the country raged over the release of “ the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” three months earlier, Bob Dylan would perform “ When the Ships Come In” and “ Only a Pawn in the Game”, two newly composed songs which were inspired by the murder of Medgar Evans.[22]Other artists and performers included Peter, Paul, and Mary, Odetta, and Marian Anderson. Less than a month after the March on Washington, on September 18 th , 1963 at 10: 22 am, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church with 19 sticks of dynamite killing four girls attending Sunday school.[23]Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Diane Wesley, and Carole Robertson were killed as a result of the horrifying attack and the city of Montgomery’s cries for equality resounded all over the nation. John Coltrane’s “ Alabama” would become a lasting musical preservation of the sentiments that emerged from the bombing. He recorded the song in secret on November 18 th , 1963 at Rudy Van Gelder’s Studio with his legendary quartet comprised of McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Jimmy Garrison on bass.[24]The song that Coltrane would record that afternoon paralleled Martin Luther King Jr.’s “ Eulogy for the Martyred Children” speech given the day after the bombing.[25]Both Coltrane’s playing and King’s speech start softly and crescendo towards a furious call for determination. The song was first performed on December 7 th , 1964 on Ralph J. Gleason’s public television series, Jazz Casual, and the national response to his avant-garde jazz led to his iconic style becoming a symbol of black pride and a rejection of white musical correctness.[26]

In leading to the movement’s true height, several individual songs became sparks that counterpointed the atrocities of segregation that clouded the nation. The most widely known of these songs was the traditional hymnal, “ We Shall Overcome.” Written by Chales Albert Tindley in 1901 as “ I’ll Overcome Someday”, the song was brought to public attention when tobacco workers sung the hymn in front of Zilphia Horton, the musical director at the Highlander Folk School.[27]Very quickly, the song became an anthem for the school and with the help of folk singer, Pete Seeger, a national anthem for the movement. “ We Shall Overcome”’s changing nature reflected the hybridism of African American culture, and the creative way songs were adapted and modified to mold the intrinsically different emotions that audiences felt when desiring to protest with song. Over the years, the performance style grew closer to the “ southern folk tradition” of call and response instead of the traditional sing-along gospel. The lyrics of the song were many times changed as well. Bernice Reagon Johnson changed the ‘ I’ to ‘ We’- as to unite both black and whites who had different understandings of the words.[28]“ We Shall Overcome”, as a song, was without a doubt the most powerful summary of the movement’s purpose. More than anything, the words possessed a universality that allowed its popularity to grow beyond the civil rights movement. In fact, the traditional hymnal has been sung everywhere from the streets of Montgomery to Tiananmen Square to Beirut.[29]Another notable song of the civil rights movement was Bob Dylan’s “ The Times Are A-Changin’” Written and released in 1963, Dylan’s earthy and distinct voice brought a wide variety of age groups to find themselves within his profound lyrics that did not just appeal to the youth of the counterculture.[30]In his song, he called for action that was both political and in people’s mindset: “ Come Senators, congressmen/ Please heed the call/… And rattle your walls/ For the times are-a changing.’”[31]First performed at Carnegie Hall on October 26 th , 1963, “ The Times Are A-Changin’” became a representation of youthful frustration and became especially significant after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.[32]The song speaks at great lengths about the influence of the media and the speed at which people witness change of the emerging counterculture. Even today, the song has a resounding meaning with a newer generation as it was the choice song performed by Jennifer Hudson at the March for Our Lives in 2018.[33]Dylan’s other hits often spoke of political tensions and fears that Americans faced daily. “ Oxford Town”, “ The Ballad of Emmitt Till”, and “ A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” are all telling examples of the way music evolved with the American people even through times of crisis and turmoil.[34]However, it is clear that genuine spirit of the movement was best capture by Nina Simone’s darkly humorous, witty, and truthful composition of “ Mississippi Goddamn.” The song, itself, was written in just an hour as a speedy-happy ragtime that contrasted with the gloomy lyrics that exposed the failure of the Thirteenth Amendment.[35]The poignancy and punch of her diction and words were best seen in the first few lines of the song. “ Alabama’s got me all upset” references the outcry caused by the Sixteenth Street Church Bombing earlier that year.[36]Allusions to the state of Tennessee as a major battle site for the Civil War is found in “ Tennessee made me lose my rest”, and references to the assassination of activist, Medgar Evans, is heard through “ everybody knows about Mississippi Goddamn.”[37]The song was Simone’s launch into politics and was often banned by most radio and tv stations for the usage of the phrase “ Goddamn.” Moreover, “ Mississippi Goddamn” defied style categorization for it proved that assassinations of African American men and women had become threaded into the quilt of normal routine with the same ease that her expressive and dark lyrics could be sung with upbeat pace of a ragtime.

Several artists, as individuals, would also become great leaders in the movement by providing music that transcended the barriers of race. Aretha Franklin, known as the “ Queen of Soul”, defined the evolution civil rights songs as her own with gospel and soul. Made famous by her reauthoring of Otis Redding’s “ Respect”, Franklin was the first woman in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.[38]Ever since a young age, she had become heavily involved with the musical side of activism as she would both compose and reauthor anthems for various communities in America. Franklin’s father, Clarence L. Franklin, was an important organizing figure in the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom who would greatly influence Aretha’s activism throughout the sixties.[39]Songs such as “ Respect” and “ Think” would truly invigorate women of all races across America for they spoke of freedom in a an attainable manner. Franklin would become known for hosting eleven concerts for free as a means to fundraise for Reverend Jesse Jackson. Most notably, Franklin would sing “ Take My Hand Precious Lord” at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral following his assassination.[40]Joan Baez, a politically inclined folk music artist, would also become a fierce advocate for human rights through her songwriting. Becoming popular following the 1959 Newport Folk Festival and the March on Washington in 1963, Baez became a representation of counterculture.[41]She would appear appeared at Woodstock in 1969, and continued involvement in politics through her free concerts for UNESCO.[42]Baez’s voice and musical talents were most recognized through her renditions of other artists’ songs. Her visibility increased during the Vietnam War when she was arrested multiple times for “ disrupting” with her protest. The lasting impact of Joan Baez’s music is still seen today as she has truly popularized the tradition of singing for social justice. Lastly, Ray Charles would become a predominant figure of the civil rights movement and one of the first artists to intertwine blues with gospel as a means to pave the way for RnB.[43]As a child, Charles attended the St-Augustine school for the death and blind where he learned to read music in Braille.[44]In 1952, he would sign with Atlanta records and later release his first big hit, “ What’d I Say?”[45]Charles refused to play in front of segregated crowds and numerous of his songs were rewritten for rallies and protest songs. “ Hit the Road Jack” became “ Get Your Rights Jack” and “ What’d I Say” became “ Sit-In Showdown: The A&P Song.”[46]Ray Charles’ style and pioneering towards RnB led him to truly unite all kinds of audiences through his funky beats. He best summarized the power of song during the movement by saying that “ Music is about the only thing that people don’t kill each other over.”[47]

As a result of almost three decades of Freedom Songs, the civil rights movement would produce new uniquely African American genres that would become a symbol of the movement’s musical evolution. In 1949, Billboard Magazine’s Jerry Wexler replaced the term “ race music” with RnB which would come to describe the merging of rhythm and blues.[48]Rhythm signified the traditional four beats and more liberal backbeats of songs, and Blues described the soulful melodies and complex vocal harmonies of RnB songs. The emergence of the genre would be to longest musical preservation of the civil rights movement as it is still heard within music today.  Following the assassination of Malcom X, the Black Art Movement would be founded as a means to express art in a genuinely African American format through poetry, dance, art, and music like RnB. The music of the Black Arts Movement that followed the musical explosion of the civil rights would be known as “ New Music” and would include innovative uses of language and emphasized orality which would lead to modern rap.[49]In 1968, the movement’s leader, Amiri Baraka, would publish “ Black Music” a book analyzing the evolution of jazz and the newly conceived expressionism of artists like John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Sonny Rollins.[50]His book judged music on musical and spiritual merit as a way to prove that the social importance of a composition was just as important as the melodies and harmonies. However, the Black Arts Movement, despite allowing for mass expansion of jazz and poetry, alienated African Americans from whites and was often criticized of advocating for homophobic, anti-Semitic, and sexist ideals.[51]The movement would eventually come to a close when Baraka and other prominent leaders faded from the civil rights scene towards Marxism, but the artistic impact of the movement still remained despite the tainted reputation of its leaders.

The development of modern musical genres during the civil rights movement proved to surpass the racial barriers created within a segregated America. Many would claim that there were more powerful unifying factors, such as walks and protests during the movement, that were more racially unifying than music or songs. However, Freedom Songs, unlike any march across any city, were created with artistic purpose which made them infinitely easier to understand regardless of cultural identity. Protests were often organized and met with much opposition due to their confrontational nature, and music, in contrast, was an exercise of creativity that also had a social political purpose and was far less intimidating that the shouts of protesters. More than anything, songs were able to be violent, powerful, and aggressive in a non-violent medium which is why protest songs have lasted way beyond the years of the civil rights movement.

In recent years, the impact of the civil rights movement’s music is seen through a multitude of American artists who are still voicing political opinions through song. Janelle Monae, a singer known for her afro-futuristic and RnB funk, released her newest album “ Dirty Computer” as a call to “ reboot” societal norms and America’s approach to race.[52]Much like Aretha Franklin, Monae has invigorated calls for social justice in songs such as “ Django Jane” and “ Make Me Feel.” Common, a rapper from southside Chicago, has been heavily influenced by the lyrical emphasis of protest songs and the way orality transformed the Black Arts Movement and the art of rap. His artistry led him to win the 2015 Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Original Song for “ Glory”, a song that was heard in the movie, Selma.[53]Thirdly, Wynton Marsalis, an acclaimed classical and jazz trumpetist, has passed on the traditions upheld by civil rights musicians like John Coltrane by promoting the “ egalitarian spirt of jazz.”[54]The true power of music whether in 1956 or in 2019 is inherently felt when lyricism or musicality promotes a greater purpose. The music of the civil rights movement was not necessarily the means to signing legislation but rather, the true vehicle in changing people’s mindset. There is therefore no doubt that music was and still remains a relevant tool to creating a bridge between all kinds of inequities and paving the way for a unified America.


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[1]“‘ People Get Ready,”’ Gilder Lehrman, March 23, 2019, http://ap. gilderlehrman. org

Firstname Lastname, “ Title of Web Page,” Publishing Organization or Name of Website in Roman, publication date and/or access date if available, URL.

[2]Morrison, Nick, “ Songs Of The Civil Rights Movement.” NPR, January 18, 2010, March 27, 2019, www. npr. org.

[3]“‘ People Get Ready,” Gilder Lehrman.




















































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