Freedom Songs

The Freedom Movement was a singing movement, and our songs were "Freedom Songs." In the words of Mary King, "The outpouring of freedom songs went to the core of the struggle and expressed, as nothing else was able, the hope, belief, desire, passion, dreams, and anguish of the conflict."[1]

From the midst of the Movement in 1963, Guy and Candie Carawan wrote:

Freedom songs today are sung in many kinds of situations: at mass meetings, prayer vigils, demonstrations, before freedom rides and sit- ins, in paddy wagons and jails, at conferences, workshops, and informal gatherings. They are sung to bolster spirits, to gain new courage and to increase the sens of unity.[2]

Some freedom songs were sung by performers for a listening audince. Nina Simone's Mississippi Goddam and Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come, for example. But when Movement veterans — activists and local folk — talk of "freedom songs" we mean the songs that everyone sang together. Songs that we sung, not as a performance for entertainment, not as something to be listened to, but as something we did together, something we created anew each time we participated.

"We would sing about anything we felt. We would sing about why we sing. We would sing about the abuses we suffered, like not being allowed to vote. We would sing of sorrow and hope." — Dorothy Cotton [3]

For us, freedom songs were more than music, they were the psychic threads that bound us into a tapestry of solidarity and purpose, hope, and courage. And it was the act of singing them, rather than the beauty of the songs, that gave them meaning and power.

"When I opened my mouth and began to sing, there was a force and power within myself I had never heard before. Somehow this music — music I could use as an instrument to do things with, music that was mine to shape and change so that it made the statement I needed to make — released a kind of power and required a level of concentrated energy I did not know I had." — Bernice Johnson Reagon[4]

   The songs spread our message,
      The songs bonded us together,
          The songs elevated our courage,
             The songs shielded us from hate,
                The songs forged our discipline,
                   The songs protected us from danger,
                      And the songs kept us sane.


The Power of Freedom Songs

The central role that freedom songs played in the Movement was both complex and varied:

origins/sources spirituals/gospel labor highlander pop (adapt lyics or only melody) freedom singers SNCC CORE & SCLC bridge the gap between performance & participation (but always a tension) The Songs WSO oath of committment to each other and the movement Luverne beating hear others singing WSO This Little Light of Mine FLH bus story Oh, Freedom Keep You're Eyes on the Prize (Paul & Silas) We Are Soldiers I'm Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table You Better Leave Segregation Alone Dog, Dog We Shall Not Be Moved Which Side Are You On Freedom's Comin' and It Won't Be long If You Miss Me from the Back of the Bus Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round Oh Pritchett, Oh Kelly Certainly Lord I'm On My Way to the Freedom Land I'm So Glad Woke Up This Morning with My Mind on Freedom Come By Here We'll Never Turn Back I Love Everybody Wade in the Water Demonstrating G.I. Oginga Odinga Ain't Scared of Your Jail I Want My Freedom Freedom Is A Constant Struggle Go Tell It On The Mountain This May Be the Last Time Do What the Spirit Say do Oh, Wallace


Freedom Songs Quotation Sources:

1. Freedom Song, Mary King
2. Sing for Freedom: the Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through its Songs, Guy and Candy Caraway
3. Everybody Says Freedom, Pete Seeger & Bob Reiser
4. In Our Hands: Thoughts on Black Music, Berenice Johnson Reagon, "Sing Out!" January 1976 [PDF]

 — Copyright © Bruce Hartford, 2009

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