Thoughts on Freedom Songs
Penny Patch
(SNCC workers, Georgia and Mississippi)

Answers to interview questions, 2016

Can you briefly describe your role in the Civil Rights Movement?

I was at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, and taking part in sit-ins along the Eastern Shore of Md, when I was recruited to join the Southwest Georgia SNCC Project, led by Charles Sherrod. I went to Albany, GA in the summer of 1962 and continued to work for SNCC in Georgia and Mississippi until August, 1965. I was a foot soldier.

I was also a white woman, which placed some constraints on my role. That said, I wrote reports and answered the telephone in our offices, canvassed endlessly door to door, helped to organize direct action demonstrations and voter registration campaigns, taught in freedom schools, and learned to work through exhaustion and fear.

2. Do you think music was important in the Civil Rights Movement? Why do you think so?

Music was critical. It helped us feel strong and united as we got ready to go out into danger. When we sang we felt powerful. I know that the Labor Movement also did a lot of singing, but some movements in the US have not and do not. I think this is a huge loss. The critical element is that although there were people who led songs, these were never performances, these were entirely participatory. It would be a rare person who was not singing. It was also a creative act — much of the music was drawn from Black southern church music, with deep historical roots in the Black experience.

3. How did the singing of freedom songs impact your relationship with other participants in the Civil Rights Movement?

We sang at every opportunity. During demonstrations, during mass meetings, and at our own SNCC staff meetings. These songs brought us all together. Those were times when my experience was that we were completely united. Sometimes the songs were deeply serious, sometimes they contained humor so we could laugh as we sang. I cannot think of a time when we did not at least momentarily become closer as we sang. This enabled us to go forward together, even as we might have serious disagreements.

4. What impact do you think the freedom songs in particular had on race relations, or racial tension?

Well, if you are talking about race relations between black and white movement workers, race relations were extremely complicated, far more than I knew when I came as a young white middle class woman into the Movement. We were separated, black and white by our history, national and personal. So I would never say that music resolved all those issues except perhaps momentarily. And yet, I think those times when we were singing together helped us to hang together well enough and long enough to accomplish what we did accomplish. If you're asking about race relations between the Black Liberation Movement and white southern segregationists, I don't know.

5. What impact did singing freedom songs have on you personally?

This music was a revelation. Yes, I had had some exposure to Black spirituals, but as a white middle class girl in the 1950s, early 1960a I had minimul contact with Black music, much less Black church music. And I had participated in singing folk songs on occasion. But nothing had prepared me for a packed church singing in unison projecting strength, courage, pain, hunor. And the music was beautiful and I got to sing with everyone. It was an absolutely new experience for me.

6. Did they evoke an emotional responses(s) in you, or others? If so, what?

Sometimes I cried, sometimes there were humorous songs and I laughed and smiled while singing. Usually the lighter songs were more recent compositions and not drawn from Black church music as so many freedom songs were. Sometimes the songs were fierce and they made me feel fierce (which was helpful under the circumstances), other times the songs were softer and slower and so utterly beautiful that I felt transported as I took part.

7.What was it about the music that elicited your, and others', emotional response(s)?

It was beautiful music? Beautiful voices leading us at times? And, perhaps most important, the context in which we were singing this music.

8. The most popular song to come out of the Movement is We Shall Overcome. What impact did this song have on you in particular?

First of all, when I hear We Shall Overcome I immediately cry, and have to sing too, wherever I am, whether loudly or softly or just humming. It is such a gorgeous inspirational piece of music, as I experienced it within the Movement, and it served an utterly unifying purpose.

That said, there were many other songs that had a similar effect. I think of Oh Freedom which takes me straight back to Southwest Georgia and to Charles Sherrod, our SNCC project director, whose signature song it was. It has the same effect on me that We Shall Overcome does. Also, let's mention Woke Up This Morning With My Mind on Freedom, Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round, We Shall Not Be Moved, Go Tell It On the Mountain, when sung by Mrs Hamer ... and on and on.

It would be a mistake to regard We Shall Overcome as the be all and end all. There is no question though that it has spread around the world.

Copyright © Penny Patch, 2016.

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(Labor donated)