By Ron Wynn
Music played a huge role during and throughout the Civil Rights Movement, both in terms of providing inspiration, and serving as an illustration of the feelings and sentiments that were being expressed during marches and protests. Artists from multiple idioms contributed tunes that became a vital part of the movement. Some groups and performers regularly appeared at vents, while others quietly contributed money and support without fanfare.
This is only a small list of some the music I consider among the most important. They provided the musical backdrop to a largely peaceful (at least by the direct participants) revolution that led to landmark changes in legislation and status for millions of Black Americans. These citations include spirituals, R&B/soul, gospel and jazz numbers, both originals and tunes that date back centuries.
Perhaps the song most associated with the Movement is “We Shall Overcome.” It is actually a combination of two numbers. It merges the lyrics of the gospel tune “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” written in 1903 by the Rev. Charles Tindley, and the melody from a vintage Black gospel song titled “I’ll Be All Right.”
While folksingers Pete Seeger, Guy Carawan and Frank Hamilton registered a copyright on it in 1960, there are others who remember hearing it back in the 1940s being sung at demonstrations for labor workers. No matter, it became a rallying cry at countless marches and events, and even today is often sung and performed at various political settings and events.
Another vintage number that became a Movement staple was “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” It was based on a classic spiritual titled “Don’t Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” but its lyrics were updated by groups like the Freedom Singers to include references to segregation and contemporary oppression. It has also been performed often by numerous folk artists and R&B groups, among them were Sweet Honey in The Rock, Odetta, and The Staple Singers, who were among Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’.s favorite artists.
The Staple Singers began as a gospel group, then later had huge hits as a soul ensemble whose music was grounded in spiritual fervor and influence. One of their strongest and most relevant Civil Rights numbers was “When Will We Be Paid for The Work We’ve Done?” It covers a lot of lyric territory and is among the earliest tunes to actually demand reparations and even cites the sacrifices of Blacks in various wars while continually asking the question when will we (Black Americans) get the justice we deserve, both fiscal and legal. This song didn’t prove quite as popular as their later hits for Stax like “Respect Yourself” or “I’ll Take You There,” but it’s arguably their most overtly and politically direct work.
Two white folk singers whose music was popular and who also sometimes appeared at Civil Rights events were Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Baez, who was heavily influenced by Odetta, frequently appeared at rallies and demonstrations and was also found of performing traditional numbers like “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” and “We Shall Overcome.” A pair of Dylan numbers, “The Times They Are A-Changing” and “Blowin” In The Wind” were harbingers of the new feelings and sentiments regarding freedom and liberation for all that were emerging.
A lesser known but just as vital white singer/songwriter who contributed a major tune to the movement was Phil Ochs. Unfortunately, his song “Going Down To Mississippi” isn’t quite as well known because it doesn’t have the smooth melodic flow or easily memorizable lyrics of some others. But it’s every bit as emphatic in its specificity regarding exactly what was going down in the state during the early and mid’-60s, and what needed to be done about it right then rather than later.
Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” was the inspiration for Sam Cooke’s prophetic “A Change Is Gonna Come.” It began as the “B” side to a bigger hit “Shake,” which entered the charts only days after Cooke’s death in 1964. As is often the case, it was inspired by a personal event in Cooke’s life, as he and a group of his friends were refused service at a motel in Louisiana. Cooke initially recorded the tune for a benefit album designed to raise funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He only performed it once during his lifetime, on a February broadcast of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
But though it was included on his March LP “Ain’t That Good News,” by the time it was released as a single that December Cooke had been shot and killed in a strange incident at a Los Angeles motel. The details of that incident remain murky to this day. But the song’s message of impending freedom and ultimate justice were razor sharp then and now, as was the passion and authority in Cooke’s voice. It has since been covered by dozens of other artists and is emblematic of the energy and futuristic vision many in the Movement had.
The great Mahalia Jackson was one of the gospel singers most directly connected to the Movement. She sang in Montgomery, Alabama in 1956 at a benefit for the Montgomery bus boycott at the personal invitation of Rev. Ralph Abernathy. There she met Dr. King for the first time, and they quickly formed a deep friendship. The story goes it was her urging that led to Dr. King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech as reportedly she said to him “Tell them about the dream Martin.”
Jackson appeared at many events in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, including the March on Washington in 1963. The number that’s both her signature tune and one frequently performed at marches and demonstrations was “How I Got Over,” a tune written in 1941 by Clara Ward. Though not necessarily a political song, the theme of personal salvation and uplight incorporates the notion of overcoming oppression and brutality. As someone who grew up in the Jim Crow South, Ward (who also often appeared at Civil Rights shows) certainly knew America’s ugly racist history and factored that into the lyrics.
The great Chicago-based singer/songwriter Curtis Mayfield penned many anthemic numbers, but perhaps the two best known and most influential in terms of the Movement were “People Get Ready” and “Keep On Pushing.” The former signals folks to prepare for a journey to freedom, while the later urges them not to give up no matter what happens or who tries to stop them. Black liberation and personal uplift were key themes for Mayfield his entire career, and he’d later go on to compose many others in that vein even after the passing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
Another dynamic vocalist and songwriter who penned a tune many in the Civil Rights Movement instantly identified with was Nina Simone. Her “Mississippi Goddamn” in 1963 remains one of the strongest and most lyrically vivid condemnations of Jim Crow, Mississippi, segregation, and by extension America. It still stands today as an incendiary indictment of a deplorable situation and state, and Simone was famous for performing it in concert settings full of ostensibly liberal whites who would squirm in their seats at its fire and lyrical heat, as well as Simone’s furious performance of it.
Dr. King loved the SCLC’s Operation Breadbasket Orchestra directed by Memphis tenor saxophonist Ben Branch. They performed at many benefits and rallies during the ‘60s for Operation Push and Dr. King. One of the unforgettable but tragic historical moments from the Movement concerns Dr. King turning to Branch just before his assassination in 1968 and requesting he play “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at an upcoming rally they planned to attend. Two weeks after his death, the Orchestra released “The Last Request.” It was loaned to the National Civil Rights Museum in 2017 by Branch’s widow Vivian.
There has also long been a jazz connection to the Civil Rights Movement. Such songs as Louis Armstrong’s “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue?” from 1929, and certainly Billie Holiday’s intense anti-lynching epic “Strange Fruit” in 1939, were early signals of what was to come. Duke Ellington in 1941 composed “Jump For Joy,” and two years later “Black, Brown, and Beige.” Both were songs vastly different in arranging style and tone from what folks normally expected in that era from a Black composer and bandleader. Dr King’s love for jazz was such he wrote an essay that was read at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival. It said in part: “God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create – and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy.” These are far from the only songs or artists recorded which celebrated, highlighted and served as an inspiration during the Civil Rights Movement, but they are among its staples, and they’re all performed and remembered today in an era when it often seems many battles of the Movement are still being fought.