Freedom's Song: Civil Rights and Protest Songs of the 1960s

Music mobilizes emotion and poetry often communicates indirectly. When Tom Hanks tearfully played Maria Callas singing an aria (“La Momma Morta”) for Denzel Washington in “Philadelphia” he not only won an Oscar, but communicated the humanity of gay people and the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic in a way that transcended cognitive argument.

When combined and shared in song at collective events music and poetry heighten the experience of community and solidarity.

Lee Hays was a member of the Weavers whose 1950s “folk revival” hits made them famous – and their leftwing politics caused the radio stations to exclude them. Hays told a story about

. . . a Southern preacher who belonged to a church that thought all music was sinful, etc., etc. I would argue with him about it by the hour and say, “Preacher, I just can’t understand your point of view. Music is divine, it’s the language of the angels. It defines the indefinable, expresses the inexpressible.” But he would just say, “I wouldn’t care if it unscrewed the inscrutable, it’s sinful and I don’t like it.”[1]

In concerts Hays turned this into a simple declaration: “Music unscrews the inscrutable.”

For social movements songs both stir “the mystic chords of memory…touched by the better angels of our nature” and they project forward the “band of brothers and sisters in a circle of love.”[2]

The Civil Rights Movement was the central generating force for the movements and protests of the ‘sixties. Nearly all of the youthful leaders of the anti-Vietnam War effort, for example, had been deeply involved with the Civil Rights Movement. And in turn, that was a singing movement.

The great songs of the southern Civil Rights Movement were based in songs and melodies organizers and participants knew from their church experiences. Like the labor movement songs that they adapted, these were familiar to movement activists and words could be adapted to new uses. “This little light of mine,” “We are soldiers in the Army,” “We shall not be moved” all made their way from churches sometimes through the labor movement of the 30’s and 40’s and then to the civil rights movement.

The universal anthem “We Shall Overcome” illustrates this path.

It is based on a traditional song, perhaps from Rev. Charles Tindley’s 1903 “I Shall Overcome.” Pete Seeger learned it from a Highlander Folk School staffer who heard it on a tobacco workers’ picket line in the thirties. Zilphia Horton, at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, a great crossroads of adult education, labor and civil rights training, Pete and tinkered with it in 1947 and sang it as a union song. Guy Carawan, the Highlander School’s music director, did some additional reworking and sang it in the ‘fifties.

In April 1960, Guy Carawan sang “We Shall Overcome” at the founding Convention of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It has become the most universally recognized song of the American Civil Rights Movement, and adapted by each movement which came after it. According to Seeger the key line is “We are not afraid today.”

During his televised speech for the 1965 speech for the Voting Rights Act on March 15, 1965, President Johnson both advanced the cause of voting rights and embraced the movement when he said “…it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.” Some activists felt their anthem had been coopted.

“We Shall Overcome” illustrates the characteristics of anthem songs. They are rhythmically simple so that they can be easily learned and sung by groups; they are based in familiar melodies or are easy to sing; the language though metaphoric, is straightforward. Think of John Lennon writing a peace song: Nine words, one melodic line: “All we are saying/ is give peace a chance.”

Movements are often surrounded by songs that are not anthems, not so much to be sung as to be listened to: message songs. These, as distinct from anthems, are often written fresh by a singer/songwriter. While they do not have the same group-forming impact, they can and do communicate through metaphor – so the listener sees in a different light. In 1967 Pete Seeger wrote “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” It recounted a World War II training exercise where an arrogant and ignorant Captain lead his men into a swamp and drowned. Only after 39 lines did Seeger move from history to instruction:

Now I’m not going to point any moral —

I’ll leave that for yourself.

Maybe you’re still walking, you’re still talking,

You’d like to keep your health.

But every time I read the papers, that old feeling comes on,

We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy

And the big fool says to push on.

Waist deep in the Big Muddy,

The big fool says to push on.

Waist deep in the Big Muddy,

The big fool says to push on.

Waist deep, neck deep,

Soon even a tall man will be over his head.

We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy,

And the big fool says to push on.

After CBS resisted and then let him on the Smothers Brothers TV show in 1967 they cut “The Big Muddy” out of the tape. The Smothers Brothers protested in the newspapers and finally in January 1968 Seeger sang the song– to seven million people[3]!

I am a bit saddened and, who knows, it may be socially significant, that recent movements do not have as many shared anthem songs as was the case fifty years ago. But the great popular upsurge against anti-labor legislation has caused Wisconsinites to hold a Solidarity Sing Along every day in the State Capital. Tom Morello composed an anthem- Union Town— for the labor movement. He also sings “We Are the 99%” with the Occupiers.”

The individualism of the message song from the singer/songwriters may be moving – but they are not substitutes for lifting every voice in song.[4]

Image: Roger Johnson and Pete Seeger leading Freedom School students singing “We Shall Overcome” at Palmer’s Crossing Community Center, Freedom Summer, 1964

[1] “The People’s Singer: The Embattled Lee Hays.” by Jeff Sharlet

[2] The first phrase is from Lincoln’s first inaugural address in 1861 ( ); the second from self-descriptions of Southern civil rights activists. See e.g. Staughton Lynd, Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change. Page 45. PM Press, 2012.

[3] How Waist Deep in the Big Muddy Finally Got on Network Television in 1968. Pete Seeger.

[4] From James Weldon Johnson: “Lift Every Voice and Sing” sometimes referred to as the “Negro National Anthem.”

Author: Robert J.S. Ross

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