Music as Communication

First and foremost, music was important to the movement because is was used as a form of easy and effective communication. Through song, a simple and straight to the point message was able to be conveyed and easily shared with many people. Often, freedom songs were merely religious or gospel songs with changed lyrics, so many people who would have sang these songs already knew these songs. This makes the ideas being communicated through song easily accessible and shareable for a wide range of people. All people, white or black or other, could convey a message adequately through song. For example, the most famous freedom song, “We Shall Overcome” was taken from an old African American church song titled “I’ll Overcome Someday”. By changing the lyrics of the original song from strictly religious tones such as “I’ll be like him…I will overcome” to more toned down religious lyrics with a focus on activism such as “We are not afraid…We shall overcome”, people were able to easily transition from a song they already know to a new song with a newer message conveyed. Pete Seegar, one of the many influential musicians involved in the movement is best known for spreading this specific song across the north.[1] Another song, “We Shall Not Be Moved” had lyrics that focus very directly and bluntly on the issues African Americans hoped to express, such as “We are fighting for our freedom…We are black and white together…We will stand and fight together.”[2] These new songs were able to convey the struggle that African Americans had been facing very effectively, as well as portray the situations in an uplifting manner for those participating in the singing.

In the book “When the Spirit Says Sing!”: The Role of Freedom Songs in the Civil Rights Movement, historian Kerran L. Sanger examines the use of music as African American communication in the Civil Rights Movement. Sanger explains that singing fully involves everyone and puts power behind the words being shared, as the messages can be communicated in large masses of people rather than just one voice.[3]  It can be seen through photographs of the movement, such as in image 1, of students singing outside a bus, that it was common for people to sing in large masses at marches or other public civil rights events.[4] The effect of a group of people gathered in song was very powerful and moving, for the people participating in the song, as well as the people watching. Music was used in the movement not only because it was such an effective form of communication, but it was a forceful and expressive form of communication that was able to involve many in spreading a strong message.

[1] Candie and Guy Carawan Candie, Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through Its Songs, (Bethlehem, Pa.: Sing Out Corporation, 1992), 15.

[2] Carawan, Sing for Freedom, 25.

[3] Kerran L Sanger, “When the Spirit Says Sing!”: The Role of Freedom Songs in the Civil Rights Movement, (Garland Studies in American Popular History and Culture. New York: Garland, 1995), 18.

[4] Ted Polumbaum, Student Civil Rights Activists Singing as They Prepare to Leave Ohio to Register Black Voters in Mississippi, (1964, PRNEWSFOTO/NEWSEUM).