Some Thoughts About Music
 — Annette Jones White

In 1961, I sat mesmerized in Mt Zion Baptist Church as I listened to congregational singing during a mass meeting in Albany, Georgia. The songs being sung were common-meter hymns — wailing, mournful songs that projected the people's longing for justice and equality. I could feel the music engulf me from head to toe and the power and emotion of the voices, not the words of the hymns, brought tears to my eyes.

I looked around me and saw others who were deeply affected by the music as well. When my classmate, Rutha Harris, sang "This Little Light of Mine," she belted it out with exuberance and determination, in her clear, strong soprano voice; and her face mirrored the joy that her song expressed. The words that she sang with such conviction made me feel that she indeed had a guiding spirit or light inside of her that she would exhibit in everything that she set out to do. As I sat there I realized that I also had a kind of determination or light inside that, when allowed to come forward or to "shine," would keep me positive and confident in pursuing my goals.

As the congregation rose, swayed from side to side and sang with her I felt that they were feeling what I felt. Rutha later made that song her signature song when she became one of the original Freedom Singers of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. But it was that night at the meeting that started me to think about music for several days — what was music? How did it begin?

Who or what made the first music? Was music created or did it always exist, hidden in the sound of the wind, the call of a bird, the roar of the ocean? Perhaps the first music was a caveman's guttural imitation of an animal.

Did music begin as man's attempt to imitate or interpret nature? I think of music as the issue of man and nature — a child trying to capture and give form to things untouchable, like the whisper of wind among the trees, the inquisitive call of an owl at night, the imitations of a mockingbird, the rumblings of an angry sea, the display of color in a sunset, the power of love or the pain of a broken heart.

The music of the Movement often had lyrics that told specific stories of repression, brutality, hope and sometimes success and humor. But the poignant mournfulness of the common meter hymns seemed to encapsulate the fears and weariness of a people deprived of equal and civil rights while it also pleaded for a better day.

Of course, the young people, north and south, had popular music to sustain them in the Movement, music that mirrored how they felt about being second class citizens. Such songs like "Governor Wallace," "The A & P Song," "Which Side are You On?". Folk songs were also an important part of the Movement. By the time of the Movement, it is interesting to think how far music had come, how far it had evolved from what it must have been like at its beginning.

There is another kind of music that I feel reveals itself and allows itself to be heard and seen, not just with ears and eyes but also with the hearts and minds of a sensitive audience. Witness: the symphony in a tank of fish that one sees, knows and feels. And this, too — Are not we all music in a sense? The Movement contained people who were segregationists, racists, gang members, ministers, elderly, young, poor, middle class, of different races and the like. Although we were people, we seemed to be random notes, tones, rhythms and melodies bumping into one another as we tried to play our individual songs of life. We created dissonances that were not always pleasing to the ear or to society as we struggled towards the goals we each sought. In harmony and in discord, we were the best and the worst of ourselves at war, the instruments of change playing our parts under direction until the Movement's coda.

Copyright © Annette Jones White


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