Friday, June 03, 2005

Freedom Songs and Some Convoluted Connections: Part III

One of the things I really want to learn more about is the role of gospel, roots and folk music in the Civil Rights Movement. It’s one of those topics I know a little bit about, but I’d love to have the opportunity to really dig into.

Here are a few scattershot quotes about the freedom songs:

“Music, folklore, and poetry have always been important windows in understanding the political culture and history of African Americans. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, “freedom songs” served many functions: they promoted solidarity, increased faith, expressed sorrow, and strengthened the wills of movement activists. Many of these songs were traditional songs of protests, whereas others were adaptations of spirituals or labor union songs. Marchers adopted “We Shall Overcome” as the unofficial theme song for the movement, and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round” was widely sung, in slightly different versions, across the terrain of the Black Freedom movement.”
--From Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal, edited by Manning Marable and Leith Mullings.


“If you cannot sing a congregational song at full power, you cannot fight in any struggle . . .it is something you learn.

In congregational singing you don’t sing a song—you raise it. By offering the first line, the song leader just offers the possibility, and it is up to you, individually, whether you pick it up or not . . . .It is a big personal risk because you will put everything into the song. It is like stepping off into space. A mini-revolution takes place inside you. Your body gets flushed, you tremble, you’re tempted to turn off the circuits. But that’s when you have to turn up the burner and commit yourself to follow that song wherever it leads. This transformation in yourself that you create is exactly what happens when you join a movement. You are taking a risk—you are committing yourself and there is no turning back . . .

When you get together at a mass meeting you sing the songs which symbolize transformation, which make that revolution of courage inside you . . .You raise a freedom song.”

--Bernice Johnson Reagon, “We’ll Never Turn Back,” in Everybody Says Freedom: A History of the Civil Rights Movement in Songs and Pictures, edited by Pete Seeger and Bob Reiser. Quoted in The African-American Odyssey. Ms. Reagon was one of the SNCC Freedom Singers. She is the founder of Sweet Honey In the Rock.

During the Civil Rights Movement, Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, an activist based in Mississippi, was known as “the woman who know how to sing.” A SNCC volunteer, Sally Belfrage, described the impact of singing on the college-aged volunteers at a training session at the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio:

“No one seems quite certain what to do but the singing fills in the gaps. They are all very young, very defenseless in all but the purity of their purpose, which connects them in a bond of immediate friendship. . .Out on the lawn [during their first moments together, students] formed in haphazard circles around the guitars, looking at each other self-consciously as they sang the words they scarcely knew. Then there was a change: a woman whose badge read ‘Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer’ was suddenly leading them, molding their noise into music.

If you miss me from the back of the bus,
You can’t find me nowhere,

Come on up to the front of the bus,
I’ll be ridin’ up there . . .

Her voice gave everything she had, and her circle soon incorporated the others, expanding first in size and in volume and then something else—it gained passion. Few of them knew who she was . . . .But here was clearly someone with force enough for all of them, who knew the meaning of ‘Oh Freedom’ and ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ in her flesh and spirit as they never would. They lost their shyness and began to sing the choruses with abandon, though their voices al together dimmed beside hers.”
--From God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights by Charles Marsh

Extra Credit:

Marable and Mullings suggest Guy and Candie Carawan’s Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs and Kerran Sanger’s “When the Spirit Says Sing!”: The Role of Freedom Songs in the Civil Rights Movement for more on the topic.

Read Reagon’s essay, “Freedom Songs: My African-American Singing and Fighting Mothers” in one of her books, If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me: The African American Sacred Song Tradition.

Craig Werner’s Higher Ground is a detailed, thought-provoking discussion of how soul music (specifically, the soul music of Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield) played a role in the freedom movement.

More on the music of the Civil Rights Movement can be found here.

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