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date: 04 July 2020

Civil Rights Movementlocked

  • Tammy L. Kernodle


Although African American music has contained an undercurrent of resistance and transcendence from its beginnings, most associate these ideals with the manner in which black song traditions were used during the Civil Rights Movement, c1954–76. Freedom songs, or civil rights songs, were drawn from different genres and were used in myriad ways as movement activities diversified and spread.

Although singing was not a prominent part of the movement prior to 1960, the singing of hymns, spirituals, and gospel songs preceded many of the meetings associated with the early movement. The increased use of music in coordination with movement activities coincided with the rise of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1961 and its role in desegregating Albany, Georgia, beginning that same year. SNCC, the student-based arm of the southern movement against segregation, in conjunction with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), sponsored sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters and public facilities, Freedom Rides to desegregate the interstate transportation system, and wade-ins and marches throughout the South. SNCC was also instrumental in defining the role that music would have in the movement. Freedom songs became central in movement activities especially during mass meetings. Their function was two-fold: to focus participants on the directives of the movement at that time, and to motivate activists. These early songs were simple in their construction and were generally adapted from spirituals, gospel hymns and/or R&B songs. They were generally performed in call and response with texts that were adapted to transition the concept of freedom from an abstract form to the specific activities used in order to achieve it. Songs familiar through the black church such as “Wade in the Water,” “Oh, Freedom” and “I Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” were modified to fit the new context. One of the most famous and referenced examples of this type of recomposition is the adaptation of “We Shall Overcome” from the gospel song “I Will Overcome Someday” written almost 60 years before by composer and preacher Charles A. Tindley. The song was revamped musically and the text altered so that Tindley’s initial “I” becomes the collective “we.” The song became the “anthem” of the movement and today is song at many black history or movement commemorations....

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