THE MUSIC OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
How did popular music reflect the values of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and help the movement convey its message?
There is no American social movement of the 20th or 21st century more closely connected to music than the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Protesters, some in prison, sang freedom songs to keep their spirits up. Folksingers, black and white alike, wrote songs about the paradoxes and pains not just of the Jim Crow South, but of the racism that had long troubled American life.
Perhaps no song was more closely associated with the Civil Rights movement than “We Shall Overcome.” Based on a 19th-century African-American Gospel song, “We Shall Overcome” was picked up by the labor movement in the 1940s, during which time the folksinger/activist Pete Seeger first came across it. Seeger then helped popularize the song in the early phase of the Civil Rights movement, when it quickly became a ubiquitous sing-along anthem that crowds of activists embraced, often swaying side to side, arm in arm. Joan Baez performed it at the 1963 March on Washington; President Lyndon Johnson quoted it in his speech to Congress proposing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Songs reflecting the themes of the Civil Rights movement were not limited to Folk – the genre commonly associated with American protest songs – but could be found in all types of popular music. The Jazz revolution of the 1960s was affected by the Civil Rights movement. A number of Blues songs compared the oppression of southern blacks in the early 1960s to the racial injustices earlier in the century and before. By the end of the decade, even Motown Records was releasing records by artists ready to speak out against American racism.
In this lesson, students will examine the history and popularity of “We Shall Overcome” and investigate six additional songs from different musical genres that reveal the impact of the Civil Rights movement. These are: Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” a poignant Blues song depicting the horrors of lynching; Bob Dylan’s “Oxford Town,” a Folk song about protests after the integration of the University of Mississippi; John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” an instrumental Jazz recording made in response to the September 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four African-American girls; Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam," a response to the same church bombing as well as the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi; Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” a Soul song written after Cooke’s arrest for attempting to check in to a whites-only motel in Shreveport, Louisiana; and Odetta's "Oh Freedom," a spiritual that Odetta performed at the 1963 March on Washington.
Video pages: Nina Simone - Mississippi Goddam (1964) | Odetta - Oh Freedom (1961) | Billie Holiday - Strange Fruit (1959) | Joan Baez - We Shall Overcome (1966) | Sam Cooke - A Change is Gonna Come (1963) | John Coltrane - Alabama (1963) | Pete Seeger - Discussing "We Shall Overcome" | Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. - I Have a Dream (1963) | Bob Dylan - Oxford Town (1962) | President Lyndon B. Johnson - Speech on Voting Rights (1965) | Joan Baez - We Shall Overcome (2009)
Image pages: Bob Dylan, Album Cover, The Times They are A-Changin' | Bob Dylan, Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C.,1963 | Civil Rights March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963 | Joan Baez Album Cover | March on Washington, D.C., 1963 | Nina Simone | Odetta Holmes, march on Washington, D.C., 1963 | Pete Seeger, 1955 | Sam Cooke
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
“Without these songs, you know we wouldn’t be anywhere. We’d still be down on Mister Charley’s plantation, chopping cotton for 30 cents a day.”
-- Cordell Reagon, founding member of the Freedom Singers of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee
Ask students to write a short essay on the role of music in the Civil Rights movement, referencing specific songs in their argument. Why do many historians say that music had such a crucial role in the movement? Discuss whether the movement helped to create the Civil Rights music studied in this lesson, whether the music helped to create the movement, or both. Students should select one of the songs analyzed in this lesson and describe its importance to the Civil Rights movement.
College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text
College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language for Grades 6-12
Core Music Standard: Responding
Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators' and/or performers' expressive intent.
Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
Core Music Standard: Connecting
Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.