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We Shall over: the Music Behind the Civil Rights Movement

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We shall overcome
The music behind the Civil Rights Movement
We shall overcome
The music behind the Civil Rights Movement

Jennifer Christopher
Christopher.jenniferj@gmail.com
HUMN 303 Course Project
December 14, 2014
Jennifer Christopher
Christopher.jenniferj@gmail.com
HUMN 303 Course Project
December 14, 2014

There is no other social movement in the entire history of the United States that is more poignant and significant than the civil rights movement – not even the Boston Tea Party. Some may argue that this movement was nearly our downfall as a country since it allowed the world to see all of our imperfections. How can we say that all men are created equally in our Constitution when in the south, African-Americans were treated as second-class citizens? We had no rights and contrary to what was stated in our Constitution, we definitely weren’t freed.
As a researcher and student, you cannot research this period of time without perusing the countless articles, news reels, pictures, and the written accounts given by people who actually participated in the marches and sit-ins. My research led me to numerous articles and videos of events that occurred during this time period. My heart ached as I watch people of all color being hosed down and attacked by dogs. I cried at the images of seeing young black men swinging from tree branches as onlookers stood there laughing and pointing at these “Strange Fruits”. I wondered what their crime was and why the crowd felt that it was okay for them to be punished in this way. I wondered if those people that witnessed or even participated in these lynching felt any remorse. Did those images of those swinging bodies haunt their dreams as often as they haunt mines today?
Although I was task to only research the music during this era, I could not help but feel myself being drawn to the underlying history of this movement. My job was to find how music played a role in the civil rights movement and how collaborations between white and black artists help created the soundtrack for this period. Were these songs readily accepted by society? Did the white artists meet opposition from their colleagues? How about the black artists—were they ostracized by their community for working with white artists? I will examine the works of Billie Holiday, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and James Brown and how they influence music during this tumultuous time.
I am hoping by the end of this paper to have a better understanding of the role of music in our history. From “We shall Overcome” to “To Say it Loud (I’m black and I’m proud), I’m going to explore the soundtrack of the civil rights movement.
We Shall Overcome
It is only fitting that I start my research with the history of “We Shall Overcome.” This song became the civil rights anthem and is still sung in many African-American churches during celebrations for Martin Luther King and black history month. But where did this song originate from and how did it became the most recognizable song for this social movement?
According to Bobetsky (2014), there are “seven songs whose melody and/or words are related to and may have influenced We Shall Overcome. They are O Sanctissima, No More Auction Block, I’ll Overcome Someday (Tindley), I’ll Be Like Him Someday (Morris/Twig), I’ll Be All Right, and the labor song I Will Overcome.”
By 1945, the labor movement was in full swing and were in need of songs that would rally support. Zilphia Horton, a teacher, who taught folk and labor movement songs at school in Tennessee, learned about the song I Will Overcome (which came from the African-American’s song I’ll Be Alright). The words to the song was eventually changed from “I will overcome” to “we will overcome” to show unity and purpose as a labor song.
The official “We Shall Overcome” came to fruition when Ms. Horton met and taught Pete Seeger, a famous folklorist, the song. During the civil rights movement, the song was changed again to better suit this social movement. Mr. Seeger is credited to changing the word “will” to “shall.” The song that we now know as We Shall Overcome was published in 1963 by Ludlow Music. In addition, to Mr. Seeger, Zilphia Horton, Frank Hamilton, and Guy Carawan was credited to being the author of this new arrangement of this newer version. According to Bobetsky (2014), each author “stipulated that all royalties for this song be given to the Freedom Movement.”
So why is this song the anthem for the civil rights movement? It has been said that this song was chosen because of its simplicity in lyrics. It was easy song for the protestors to learn and sing while marching and the song according to Martin Luther King “really sticks with you.”
Strange Fruit
This song was derived from the poem called “Bitter Fruit” written by a Bronx school teacher named Abel Meeropol. Mr. Meeropol wrote this poem in response to grotesque picture being circulated of a double lynching of two men named Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. He eventually composed the song version (Strange Fruit), first performed by wife and later by Billie Holiday.
Ms. Holiday performed this song at Café Society, a venue in New York where both white and black patrons could meet and socialize together. Management at the club, would have Ms. Holiday performed “Strange Fruit” with only a single spot light shining directly on her. It was in direct contrast to Al Jolson’s black face routine that was being performed at that time. Rumors have it that all activities in the club would cease while she performed this song. In her autobiography, Ms. Holiday wrote that after her first performance of the song “there wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping.”
Although this song became one of her signature songs, she did face some backlash from singing it. Her record label, Columbia Records, refused to record and release the song (she released it with the help of a smaller label). Radio stations refused to play it on air in fear of retaliation from people in the south. Other clubs in New York that would hire Billie to performed, would not allow her to sing that song in their clubs. She was once physically attacked by a patron at the Café Society in the ladies’ room after one of her performance. Ms. Holiday claimed that the woman patron yelled at her and ripped her dress. Even her own mother ask her not to sing that song again.
Why was people so threaten by this one particular song? Perhaps it was because it brought the harshness and reality of lynching in the South to light. This song served as a wake-up call to white America, who had often turned a blind eye to what was being done to African-Americans below the Mason-Dixon Line. It clearly showcase the inhumanity of the south.
We Shall Not Be Moved
What is known to be the catalyst for the civil rights movement – The Greensboro sit-ins—took place in the 1960s. On February 1, 1960 and the subsequent days after, four men who attended the North Carolina A&T college started the sit-in movement at their local Woolworth store. Contrary to belief, this initial sit-in was not staged. In fact, these students had come to the local five & dime store to purchase school supplies and other personal items. After making their initial purchases, the groups of friends went up to the lunch counter for a cup of coffee. Both the waitress and the manager refused to serve them. The students not deterred by this refusal, then sat at the counter until closing. Once word got around what these students had done, more and more students showed up at this Woolworth and the adjacent Kress stores. For months, these sit-ins took place. Some of the students and their white supporters were spit on, cursed at, and even had ketchup thrown in their face but these students never retaliated with violence. Finally after months of receiving negative national attention, Woolworth agrees to integrate their Greensboro store on July 25, 1960.
The history of the song We Shall Not Be Moved is unknown. No one seems to know who came up with the lyrics or when it was incorporated into the civil rights movement. I would like to think that it was incorporated during the sit-ins of Greensboro.
Blowin’ in the Wind
According to Bob Dylan, the song Blowin’ in the Wind is based off the old slave song called “No More Auction Block.” Dylan added lyrics to the melody of the slave song prior to performing at show in Greenwich Village in 1962. The story goes that prior to Dylan performing the song, he made a proclamation that the song he was about to perform is no protest song – as he does not write protest songs. The song wasn’t a hit for Dylan and it didn’t become popular until Peter, Paul, and Mary covered it a year later in 1963. Peter, Paul and Mary along with Joan Baez and Josh White (African-American) sang this song at the March on Washington and Dylan sang another song from his catalog.
Although the song did not resemble any protest song being performed during that same time period; the song, nevertheless, was still just as effective in getting people to think about the current racial injustice that was enveloping the United States. With a haunting lyric such as “How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man” over the melodic harmonies of that old slave song, you could not help but feel that so many African-Americans were asking the same question. Bob Dylan’s simple answer was that it was blowin’ in the wind.

Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)
After the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, African-American people found themselves at a crossroads. Many of us were fed up with the non-violence protests and felt that the only way to end violence was to counteract it with violence. The late 60s/early 70s issue in a new era for the civil rights movement. Many people were involved in the Black Panther Movement and leaders such as Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton were encouraging the African-American communities to take care of their own and do whatever necessary to protect their families.
In 1968, James Brown releases “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”. It immediately becomes the new black anthem. We were taking control of our destiny by any means necessary. We were opening businesses and building up our communities. We were becoming active participants in society.
So what is the message behind this song and why was it so empowering to that generation and future generations? This song gave so many young African-Americans the ability and power to believe in themselves and their dreams. It gave them the courage to speak and stand up for those that were still being oppressed by society. As a society, it was our time to be heard.
Conclusion
What can I add that hasn’t already been mentioned? Music played a very important role in the civil rights movement. It was used to make you think and questioned your own morality. Music was the only way African-Americans could be heard at a time where our voices were being drowned out by the cries of mothers’ watching their sons swing from those poplar trees in the South. You cannot just study the written history of the civil right movement. You must listen to the music and hear the melodic harmonies of a nation of people who is rising.

REFERENCES
Lim, E. (2007). JAMES BROWN THE LEADER: "SAY IT LOUD.". Consortium Journal Of Hospitality & Tourism, 11(2), 79-83.
BOBETSKY, V. V. (2014). THE COMPLEX ANCESTRY OF WE SHALL OVERCOME. Choral Journal, 54(7), 26-36.
Gezari, J., & Hartman, C. (2010). Dylan's Covers. Southwest Review, 95(1/2), 152.
Carvalho, J. M. (2013). 'Strange Fruit': Music between Violence and Death. Journal Of Aesthetics & Art Criticism, 71(1), 111-119. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6245.2012.01547.x

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