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Black Music and the Civil Rights Movement

In: Historical Events

Submitted By aomunoz
Words 4492
Pages 18
Anna Munoz
Dr. Jones
DISC 1313
December 4, 2015
Music and The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s
All forms of Black music, from jazz to rock and roll, played an important part in the Civil Rights Movement. The songs were sung for multiple purposes and played a critical role in inspiring, activating, and giving voice to the people involved. The evolution of music during the early 1950’s and 1960’s in the Black freedom struggle reflects the evolution of the Civil Rights Movement itself. The progressive thought of the 1950s nurtured new ideas and cultures including the Civil Rights Movement and the fast spread of rock and roll. One such cultural revival occurred after the end of World War II during a time of change, prosperity and restoration. The “Puritan dicta” outlined by Baldwin represents the American ideology before the Second World War. As the first settlers of this nation, the Puritans set the mold for many common American ideologies. In the Puritan view white represented good and black represented evil, including Africans and their culture. After the war, Baldwin states that the former puritanical views of whites will be challenged. Musicians such as Elvis Presley were the first to issue this challenge to white society. Early rockers like Elvis would pave the way for social commentary in music that would add much fire to the Civil Rights Movement.
To fully understand the explosion of popularity of Black music in the years following World War II, one must understand the social conditions in which Blacks and Whites lived in the South. An article entitled “Not Just the Same Old Show on my Radio” delves into the very issues behind racism. The article names three aspects necessary for social segregation to exist a stigmatism of the oppressed group; signs of “labeled interaction” between groups, and a hierarchy of discrimination. (Kloosterman, Quispel 152). In the case of the American South we see evidence of Baldwin’s “Puritan dicta” in each of these points. The stigmatism of the African race is based on the belief that African’s are inferior. The “labeled interaction”these authors refer to represents the strict segregationist code in the South. Blacks were forced to comply with certain “rules” around Whites. In his essay “Color,” James Baldwin refers to these guidelines of interaction as barriers between white and black society (674). Barriers were both concrete and abstract; they could be the railroad tracks or the way Blacks were supposed to speak. Segregation did more than separate Blacks and Whites to opposite sides of town, it forced each race to carry a distinctly biased view of one another (Kloosterman, Quispel 153). However since both races live within the same society there were also points of interaction between the races. Often the “labeled interaction” is less antagonistic when the two groups have something in common. The most obvious intersection between the two races during the 1950’s was music. In his essay “Down at the Cross” James Baldwin makes a statement that could explain the popularity of black music among white people, “In all jazz, and especially in blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged. White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad, and that, God help us, is exactly the way most white Americans can sing them” (311). Baldwin uses this statement to describe the differences in how whites and blacks view music. A White person sees music merely as a form of entertainment and the tone of the song should be taken literally. Blacks view music as a means of attaining freedom, no matter whether the song carries a sad or happy tune; the song will temporarily free the singer and listeners from their troubles. Before the end of slavery blacks would sing for hours a day to free themselves from the toil of long days in the hot sun. Frederick Douglass once said “Slaves sing when they are most unhappy. The songs of a slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them” (Yamasaki 181). Obviously a stark difference exists in how the two races view music. This concept could explain the appeal of Black music to White Americans. Since a listener would rather feel free of trouble than take a song for its literal meaning, one could reason that White Americans began to appreciate the black outlook on music after World War II. The admiration of black music would improve acceptance of black status in society.
Elvis was the first stone in the bridge between black and white societies. As a white man playing Black inspired music, no one could have done it better. Elvis had the power to appeal to white audiences because he himself was white and the style of his music made him attractive to all races. Elvis grew up in the Mississippi Delta town of Tupelo, about seventy-five miles southeast of Memphis. Indeed Elvis’s birthplace gives us many clues as to the roots of his musical influences. The Delta region has long been regarded as the birthplace of blues in many music circles. The music influence in the area surrounding Memphis was integral to Elvis’s success. WDIA, a Memphis radio station, featured many blues musicians from the area and was reputedly Elvis’s favorite radio station as well as the one which would feature his first cut in 1954 (Kloosterman, Quispel 161). Undoubtedly Elvis was influenced by such Delta blues kings as Charley Patton, Big Bill Broonzy and of course the most famous, Robert Johnson. Today Robert Johnson is regarded as the “father of rock and roll” due to his unique guitar style. Johnson popularized a technique called the blues “turn-around” which brings the chorus of the song back to the original chord. Because Johnson played the guitar so well he was believed to have sold his soul to the devil. He tells about the experience in his song “Crossroads Blues.” Twenty years after his death, the Civil Rights Movement will descend on his home state. The “Crossroads” will represent the call for black freedom and the music he helped to invent combine and create a new African-American identity.
After the Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954 the Civil Rights Movement received its first burst of momentum. However, it wouldn’t be until 1955 that the movement would officially the movement wouldn’t officially begin until 1955. In December of 1955, Rosa Parks a forty-two year old black woman, refused to yield her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Her actions challenged the sixty year old segregation laws in Alabama and across the South. A simple act of civil disobedience ensued would set the Civil Rights Movement into full spin. The Civil Rights Movement gained more traction among the Black religious community as most protests were organized by church groups. However, the student movement led by groups such as SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and CORE (Congress on Racial Equality) played an integral role in the Civil Rights Movement in the South. As the movement progressed it began to get national media attention for the events taking place in the South. Images of police beating protesters and spraying them with fire hoses filled the television sets of Americans. Music, like the rest of the media aided the struggle for racial equality as well. By the early 1960’s rhythm and blues had successfully morphed into rock and roll and thus into the mainstream consciousness of many American music listeners. Although popular singers like Elvis and Chuck Berry did not call to mind the battle against segregation in the South, many of their musical counterparts did. Folk artists such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger offered much commentary on the social state of the nation. Seeger’s contribution to the Civil Rights Movement has been immortalized with his song “We Shall Overcome.” The song, which he co-wrote in 1946 for a labor union strike, was introduced into the Civil Rights Movement at the founding meeting for SNCC (Amberg). Seeger’s influence would undoubtedly continue with his song “If I had a Hammer” in which he calls to “ring out freedom” and “hammer out justice all over this land.” Although Seeger and Guthrie had their own unique influences on the social change of the 1950’s and the 1960’s, their most important role was their influence on none other than Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman to Jewish parents in the mining community of Hibbing, Minnesota. Dylan grew up in a small town listening to the music of Fats Domino and Little Richard and once told a friend that he would one day make better music than Elvis (Shank 105). While still in high school Dylan gathered together the best musicians he could find and made a recording of Little Richard’s “Jenny Jenny” (105). However, his focus quickly turned from blues and rock to folk music during his college years. After becoming heavily involved in the folk scene at the University of Minnesota, Dylan developed a deep interest in the music of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. While in New York he made the recordings for his first album, Bob Dylan, which would debut in 1962. The two albums that would follow, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) and The Times They are A-Changin’ (1964) would quickly become anthems for the social change of the 1960’s. Songs such as “Oxford Town,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” and “The Times they are A-Changin’” voiced the struggle for black equality from a white perspective. At the March on Washington in 1963 Dylan performed “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” a song he wrote about the murder of black civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Here’s a selection from Dylan’s “Oxford Town” which he wrote about the events following James Meredith’s attempted entry into the University of Mississippi:
“He went down to Oxford Town
Guns and clubs followed him down
All because his face was brown
Better get away from Oxford Town
Oxford Town around the bend
He come in to the door, he couldn't get in
All because of the color of his skin
What do you think about that, my frien'?”

Dylan once again calls to mind the topic of school integration as a challenge to the government in “The Times they are A-Changin’:”
“Come senators, congressmen please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall
For he who gets hurt will be he who has stalled”

Here we see that he has issued a direct challenge to the leaders of the nation to take a stance on Civil Rights or be lost in the fray of a changing society. Dylan’s timing was impeccable, at the very moment he was writing this song, Congress was stalling on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The song’s reference refers directly to the events at the University of Alabama when Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway as Black students tried to enroll at the school. Dylan’s perspective as a youth who knows more than he should, wise beyond his years, will ultimately be the key to his popularity among the nation’s youth.
Dylan’s impact on the Civil Rights Movement was evident in 1964 during the Freedom Summer in Mississippi. Under the leadership of CORE and SNCC a summer long voting rights campaign was initiated to get Blacks across Mississippi registered to vote. According to John Lewis, the chairman of SNCC, three out of every four volunteers on the campaign were white college students from the North (Lewis 249). There lies a very good chance that these white college students listened to Bob Dylan’s music and were awakened to social justice as a result. After the murder of three CORE volunteers, two white and one black, the nation’s eyes turned to Mississippi and the fight for freedom taking place there. Two weeks after the disappearance of the volunteers Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a crucial precursor to the famous Civil Rights Act of 1965. Dylan’s music undoubtedly played a role in facilitating the passage of this law.
The liner notes of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan include a most intriguing commentary written by jazz producer Nat Hentoff. During the sixties Hentoff was highly regarded as a music critic of both jazz and rock music alike. In his commentary on Max Roach’s We Insist: Freedom Now Hentoff discusses the role of jazz in the social changes of the 1960’s. Jazz music started at the turn of the century in New Orleans. As Blacks migrated North their music came with them, which is part of the reason jazz and blues became popular in cities like New York and Chicago. Jazz was rejected among many pop music circles mainly because its black roots did not sit well with the radio bosses of the time (Kloosterman, Quispel 158). Referring back to Baldwin’s puritanical America we can see why jazz music would not be accepting with white culture prior to World War II. The word “jazz” was merely a euphemism for sex and the music represents, for lack of a better phrase, “the notation of sex.” According to the philosopher Friederich Nietzsche, jazz falls under the category of Dionysian music in that it seeks to excite the body and mind rather than calm it (Yamasaki 180). Here we have a literal and figurative association between jazz and sin, or at least actions considered sins in Baldwin’s puritanical America. Thus jazz remained underground largely until about the same time that blues and rock and roll made their way into the American mainstream in the 1950’s.
The cover art of Max Roach’s 1960 LP We Insist: Freedom Now features a photograph of SNCC students participating in a sit-in at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. The relation to black identity and the Civil Rights Movement immediately makes and appearance. Nat Hentoff makes a long statement in the liner notes relating the jazz movement to Civil Rights and challenges record listeners to take their own stance on social activism (McMicheal 381). Dizzy Gillespie remarked once that jazz represented the “only original American art form” (McMicheal 375). Gillespie is referring to the underground culture from which jazz originated. Jazz received almost no radio air time throughout the 1960’s and the people who did listen to it did so in urban clubs. The television and print media of the early 1960’s was loaded with images of white brutality on black southerners. These images forced many white northerners to reconsider their whiteness and one of the ways they could do this was through music (McMicheal 377). White Northerners had the money to attend jazz shows and purchase jazz records and thus creating an integrated scene of white listeners and black musicians. The jazz culture represented an integrationist subculture because of the intermixing of blacks and whites. The pre-war puritanical conception of sinful black music was changed as a result of this subculture. As the conceptions of the black art forms changed so too did the conceptions of the black man as an individual. Suddenly when blacks were viewed as humans and their struggle became a bit more real to Americans. As the year 1965 approached, many changes took place in the Civil Rights Movement and the popular music scene. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 brought about an end to the Civil Rights Movement protests, although a great deal of racial inequality in the South still existed. Many changes occurred in the music world as well. Bob Dylan abandoned his traditional folk roots and outright cries for social justice and began to make electric music. To the dismay of many hardcore Dylan fans Highway 61: Revisited, the title of the album referring to the long strip of road connecting his native Minnesota with the Mississippi Delta. It is this writer’s impression that the title represents an allegory for taking his music back to the source of his inspiration; musicians like Little Richard, Elvis and blue’s artists of the Mississippi Delta. However his music still carries hints of social commentary as represented here in the title track of the album, “Highway 61: Revisited”:
“Now the rovin' gambler he was very bored
He was tryin' to create a next world war
He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor
He said I never engaged in this kind of thing before
But yes I think it can be very easily done
We'll just put some bleachers out in the sun
And have it on Highway 61.”

The references that Dylan makes in this song are more vague than in his previous works but with a little analysis his message can be seen. When Dylan mentions the staged world war he is referring to the ongoing battle for integration in the South. The bleachers in the sun tell us that the whole nation will be watching as justice will be done out on Highway 61. Highway 61 referring to the heart of the Mississippi Delta, the most segregated region in the South. The very term “Revisited” also carries the connotation that even though many civil rights activists have left the South, there very well could be another Civil Rights Movement if order is not kept. Not only did 1965 see Dylan’s music move into the pop mainstream, it also signified the end of American rock and roll as the Beatles and Rolling Stones exploded onto the American pop music scene. Although their music contained rebellious undertones not much of it was relevant to The Civil Rights or Black struggle. Jazz also seemed to move its attention away from an integrationist philosophy. Long considered to be associated with the black power movement, jazz quickly abandoned its integrationist subculture and became a style of music popular only among blacks and intellectuals. Since 1965 music and social consciousness have not been as codependent. However it is evident to us today that the message and examples of the earliest versions of “pop” musicians helped the nation overcome one of its bloodiest battles. As Chuck Berry put it “We (musicians) might be doing as much with our music as our leaders in Washington to bring down the barriers” (Bertrand 41). Indeed, the writer agrees his logic does not stray too far from the truth.
The music created during the 1950’s and 1960’s is what gave the marches of the Civil Rights Movement the faith and strength to carry on when they knew no one was listening to their out cries. The music is what encouraged them to not give up and keep fighting for what they believe in. The lyrics in the music are what brought society together and gave them their drive to make a difference in a world so racially torn. Popular music of the time encouraged the people of this time period and gave them the inspiration to stand up for what they feel is right. The music recalls the sentiment of the power of the Civil Rights Movement, and our freedom is the aftermath. We will continue to feel free as long as we have the music.

An Annotated Bibliography

Baldwin, James. “Down at the Cross.” 1963. James Baldwin: Collected Essays. Ed. Toni Morrison. New York: Library of America, 1998: 296-347.

Baldwin, James. “Color.” 1962. James Baldwin: Collected Essays. Ed. Toni Morrison. New York: Library of America, 1998: 673-677.

Novelist, essayist, and public intellectual, James Baldwin was one of the most brilliant and provocative literary figures of the postwar era, and one of the greatest African-American writers of this century. James Baldwin joined cosmopolitan sophistication with a fierce engagement in social issues. Edited by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, the Library of America's Collected Essays confirms him as a uniquely prophetic voice in American letters. With burning passion and jabbing, epigrammatic wit, Baldwin fearlessly articulated issues of race and democracy and American identity in such famous essays as "The Harlem Ghetto," "Everybody's Protest Novel," "Many Thousands Gone," and "Stranger in the Village." Here are the complete texts of his early landmark collections, Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name (1961), which established him as an essential intellectual voice of his time, fusing in unique fashion the personal, the literary, and the political

Huber, Patrick. "Race, Rock, and Elvis: Bertrand, Michael T.: Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 327 Pp., Publication Date: September 2000." History: Reviews of New Books 30.1 (2001): 6.

Hentoff, Nat. Liner Notes (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan). Online at: 28 April 2004.
Nat Hentoff has been listening to jazz, blues, country, and gospel since he was eight years and tuned in (under the bedsheets) to Fats Waller broadcasting from Chicago's Hotel Sherman during the Depression - and he has been writing about it nearly ever since, with ever-increasing passion.

Kofsky, Frank. Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970.
Kofsky combines his background in sociology & his passion for the then new music to provide a solid and well-informed look at the social and political dimensions of jazz. His background is relevant to my subject which gives an objective view on music’s influence on the Black community.

Kloosterman, Robert C., and Chris Quispel. “Not Just the Same Old Show on My Radio: An Analysis of the Role of Radio in the Diffusion of Black Music Among Whites in the South of the United States of America, 1920 to 1960”. Popular Music 9.2 (1990): 151–164. Web.
Popular Music is an international multi-disciplinary journal covering all aspects of the subject from the formation of social group identities through popular music, to the workings of the global music industry, or how particular pieces of music are put together. Relating to any kind of popular music, from the global commercial sphere to local folk or traditional music from any historical era or geographical location, the journal carries articles by scholars from a large variety of perspectives. Each issue contains substantial, authoritative and influential articles, shorter topical pieces, and reviews of a wide range of books. Recent thematic issues are on gender, sexuality and popular music, and music and television.

Lewis, John, and Michael D'Orso. Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
In "Walking with the Wind", John Lewis recounts his life with the fierce simplicity for he is known, both in public and private. It began in rural poverty but within the bosom of a loving and resilient family. It has ranged across almost every battlefield in the most dramatic struggles for racial justice -- from Selma to Montgomery to Birmingham and beyond. Lewis's leadership of the Nashville Movement -- a student-led effort to desegregate the city of Nashville using sit-in techniques based on the teachings of Gandhi -- established him as one of the movement's defining figures and set the tone for the major civil rights campaigns of the 1960s, from the Freedom Rides of 1961, during which Lewis was repeatedly brutally beaten and imprisoned; to the 1963 March on Washington, where his fiery speech thrust him into the national spotlight; to his selection as the national chairman of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), which he helped shape and guide; to the 1965 "Bloody Sunday" attack at Selma, where Lewis suffered a fractured skull during a tear gas attack by Alabama state troopers. Lewis, as a participant in the movement, was to be, and remains, utterly true to his boyhood hero, Martin Luther King Jr., as a believer in the philosophy and discipline of nonviolent social action. In 1966, Lewis was ousted as SNCC chairman by Stokely Carmichael, who represented the emerging militant "Black Power" direction of the movement. Two years later, Lewis joined Robert Kennedy in his 1968 campaign for the presidency. He was with Kennedy moments before he was assassinated. Lewis, committed to the principles of nonviolence, spent the next decade organizing and registering four million voters in the South. In 1986, he sought a United States congressional seat in a campaign against his old friend, comrade, and former SNCC colleague Julian Bond. Lewis won the seat in a great upset and serves in Congress to this day. John Lewis tells his story of struggle in the civil rights movement, of comradeship in that community, of its battles and triumphs, and of his own persevering faith with great charm, candor, and humor.

McMichael, Robert K. "'We Insist--Freedom Now!': Black Moral Authority, Jazz, and the Changeable Shape of Whiteness." American Music 16.4 (1998): 375. Academic OneFile. Web. 3 Dec. 2015.
This article examines jazz in America in the 1960s in the context of the African-American civil rights movement, racial identity, and black nationalism. Black representation in mainstream American culture is analyzed, and prominent jazz musicians discussed include Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane.

Shank, Barry. "“That Wild Mercury Sound”: Bob Dylan and the Illusion of American Culture." boundary 2 29.1 (2002): 97-123.
Shank uses the early part of Bob Dylan's career to explore the artificial authenticity that lies at the core of American popular music--the legacy of blackface minstrelsy. By historicizing Dylan's work in the context of the Civil Rights movement and the New Left, he hopes to show that the debates about the Left in the 1960s have been haunted by a search for a transparent authenticity that denies its artificial status. By disavowing any engagement with the complexities and masks of minstrelsy, historians of the New Left have been able to construct a tragic narrative of the 1960s.

Yamasaki, Mitch. “Using Rock 'N' Roll to Teach the History of Post-world War II America”. The History Teacher 29.2 (1996): 179–193. Web.
The writer describes how he uses rock'n'roll to teach the history of post-World War II America. He separates his students into groups and presents them with three essays on the birth of rock'n'roll. The students read one of the essays, summarize its main points, and read their summaries to the group. When they realize that they have different essays, they discuss how each essay contributes to understanding the birth of rock'n'roll and the history of the period. They are then required to write an essay on the connection between rock'n'roll and aspects of postwar America, such as the cold war, regionalism, economic prosperity, and the Civil Rights Movement. At their next class meeting, students read their essays, and the writer uses their essays and cassette recordings of suitable music to discuss rock'n'roll and postwar America. A glossary and three essays on the birth of rock'n'roll are presented.

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