Music in the Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement was exactly that, a movement. At no point did it stagnate, and the cause for which was being fought kept the members of the movement pushing forward. Just because the fight endured however, does not mean that its members never grew tired.

“We’re tired of the battle, we’re tired of the struggle," was a quote taken by NBC news on June 4 2020 from by Reverence Donna Beasly, who was protesting the death and mistreatment of George Floyd. The battle was not new for her, as she marched seventy years earlier with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself. When people are tired, when they have been beaten and repressed once again, how can you re-motivate the crowd? How can you unite a crowd of people who have never met each other and each have had their own individual stories and struggles? Though there are several answers which could be argued, in this case the answer is music.

In the pre-COVID days, San Joaquin Memorial united within the school gym and celebrated as a family, whether singing together after Mass or yelling and screeching as the spirit stick reached their side of the gym during pep rally. Similar to this cacophony, music and singing has been used for decades, if not centuries, in order to unify and express. There is a quote by choreographer Bob Fosse, “when words aren’t enough, sing. When singing isn’t enough, dance.” This quote can be seen perfectly in application within the events of the Civil Rights Movement.

What comes to mind when the Civil Rights Movement is thought of? Primarily, people such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks might appear. Maybe afterwards, you will think of the more recent movies and coverage on the Civil Rights Movement, whether that is the latest coverage of Black Lives Matter, movies such as Selma (2014) or musicals like Hairspray (2007).

The Civil Rights Movement spanned across both the 1950s and 1960s. With that time period in mind, what music was popular then? Some of the biggest hits of the 1950s included "The Great Pretender" by the Platters, "Jailhouse Rock" by Elvis Presley and "La Bamba" by Ritchie Valens. In the 1960s some of the biggest hits included "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash, "The Sound of Silence" by Simon and Garfunkel and "A Day in the Life" by the Beatles.

Though this music was popular, it was not always consistently heard at peaceful protests or events for the Civil Rights Movement. That is because music popular at these events tended to be made by the protestors themselves, in an impressive show of unity and shared faith. The popular songs of the movement were identified as Freedom Songs, sung in a congregational style. This congregational style mimicked something already seen in predominantly African American churches, where songs had a song leader to lead the charge, and then slowly the congregation would join in, each individual voice adding flair to what eventually became a beautiful tapestry of sound. This music was convenient for several reasons; primarily, it was portable. Though instruments can and are used in this style of music, all you really need is voices, because the harmonies and pitches create their own accompaniment.

However, just as every news outlet has its theme song and every movie has its backing track, the Civil Rights Movement and its protests, provided their own background music. Unlike the background music of movies this background music had a specific name: Freedom Songs.

These Freedom Songs contained simple tunes with simple harmonies. A comparison that could be drawn would be to think of it like SJM's Fight Song: something simple enough both in lyrics and tune to remember offhand, but containing and driving home an impactful message. There were no complex chord progressions, no John William’s-level orchestration. Music came from the voices of the people themselves, and any harmonies that arose were either unplanned or simple enough to arise spontaneously.

Also like the school fight song, they served to unify; you can not argue with music. If you do not follow the song leader, then the music leaves you behind. You sing as one, and the more people singing the louder it gets, even if the message is simple.


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