Music Building Community

Music was critical to the movement was because music helped to maintain and develop a sense of community involved in this activism. Through the religious undertones and strong black tradition that was reflected in freedom music, as well as the format in which music was shared, music in the movement helped to develop the black community and make it stronger. Because many freedom songs came from African American gospel or religious songs, many people hearing these new songs would already have had a shared experience, as well as a sense of community, that came from worshiping in a church together. One young activist in the movement, Jamila Jones, when discussing her experience as a church goer and participant in her church’s music group recalled in an interview that their pastor and song leader, “taught each Sunday about accomplishments they had made…towards the needs of the black community”.[1] Jones statements emphasize the importance of church, the culture associated, and therefore music, to the community that formed within the movement.

Songs that came from churches played a role in community building within the movement as well. For example, the song “This Little Light of Mine,” was, and continues to be associated with religious tones and was used during the Civil Rights Movement as a freedom song.[2] People sang this song while worshipping, so by associating this song with the movement, Black Americans would probably have felt a sense of community and reflection back to their church where they had learned this song. Music often reflects a shared experience that all of these people have, in a format that is familiar with them which perpetuates and emphasizes a semblance that is already in existence. Many gospel songs are also very old and come from long time held African American tradition which also contributes to this sense of community that was already in existence but therefore emphasized by music and people sharing the music. Not all songs came from religious music, so the community aspect might not come from churches.

African American students and schools were often the center, birthplaces, and driving forces for activism. Younger people are often more willing and excited about participating in the work for change. African American students would have had the shared experience of growing up a minority in America and would have already seen the effects of this in school. Groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were essential to the movement because of their extreme involvement and leadership from a large, young group of people. Students involved in this specific group sang freedom songs during their protest which would have only made their connection to each other and the movement stronger.[3]

Some schools formed or acted in accordance with the movement. The Highlander School is an example of a school that specifically formed for the purpose of African American activism. Not just for young people, this school brought various different people together to learn how to best effectively express the need for equality and lead others in the fight. This school was often a focal point for music to be taught to others in order to be shared with masses. Important figures in the movement participated here in teaching and creating music specifically for this struggle. Guy Carawan, a musician and ethnomusicologist, worked as the musical director at the Highlander School and was able to help teach people to educate and influence the movement through music.[4] In an interview Guy Carawan’s wife, musician Candie Carawan described the Highlander School, saying “it’s dealt with really hard problems and pressed people to make really good decisions, but they’ve always used the uplift of culture…” [5]. This explains how the Highlander School was focused on culture and community as a part of their teaching process. Places where people can converge to learn about and try to change an issue are essential to building a community and places like the Highlander School and other schools are a noteworthy place for making change this way.

Other formats in which music was shared often contributed to this closeness that formed from the experiences in the movement. Different festivals and workshops that took place regarding the Civil Rights Movement were another meeting place for people to share songs, experiences, and tactics for achieving equality. Meeting formats such as these are unique because they can involve the experience of many different types of people. Festivals and workshops can attract attention of people of various genders, ages, and race. These festivals were not confined to only African Americans and some of the most important song leaders were white. Musicologists such as Alan Lomax, Pete Seegar, and Guy Carawan attended and helped organize festivals such as these in order to teach people music but also to collaborate and create music as well. In attendance were often groups of black Freedom Singers such as the Georgia Sea Island Singers and the Moving Hall Star Singers.[6] Working on music together in these settings creates a strong sense of understanding and community.

Pete Seegar described in an interview the experience of singing “We Shall Overcome” with a black community by explaining how people began crossing held hands when singing and how “your shoulders touch, and you sway slowly from right to left. And this is also a great African tradition”.[7] From his explanation, a real sense of community or at least understanding can be felt. Music was important in establishing and maintaining important, raw, and powerful connections between people.

In image two, the Sing for Freedom Festival is photographed, depicting a small workshop with a small group of rather influential names.[8] Many intimate festivals like these would have been great for creating a sense of community between different groups of people. A small room with a group of diverse people, ready to listen and understand one another was set up to be very productive in moving towards the common goal of equality for African Americans. This closeness and community that brought many African Americans together, as well as white Americans, strengthened the power and effect of the messages being expressed through song. Because many African Americans could come together because of shared experiences through religion or just growing up African American, the words they expressed through song brought people from many different backgrounds together in the fight for equality. There were many effective means for sharing songs and experiences that brought people together and helped to express African American struggle.

[1] Civil Rights History Project, U.S, Joseph Mosnier, Jamila Jones, and John Melville Bishop. Jamila Jones oral history interview conducted by Joseph Mosnier in Atlanta, Georgia, -04-27. Atlanta, Georgia, None, 4, 2011. Video.

[2] Carawan, Sing for Freedom, 27.

[3] Josh Dunson, Freedom in the Air; Song Movements of the Sixties, (Little New World Paperbacks, LNW-7. New York: International Publishers, 1965).

[4] Josh Dunson, Freedom in the Air; Song Movements of the Sixties, (Little New World Paperbacks, LNW-7. New York: International Publishers, 1965), 37.

[5] Civil Rights History Project, U.S, Joseph Mosnier, Guy Carawan, and Candie Carawan. Candie Carawan and Guy Hughes Carawan oral history interview conducted by Joseph Mosnier in New Market, Tennessee, -09-19. New Market, Tennessee, None, 9, 2011. Video.

[6] The Sing for Freedom festival, Edwards, Mississippi, 1965. From the Alan Lomax Collection (AFC 2004/004) at the Library of Congress. Used courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity. Photographer unknown.

[7] Civil Rights History Project, U.S, Joseph Mosnier, and Pete Seeger. Pete Seeger oral history interview conducted by Joseph Mosnier in Beacon, New York, -07-22. (Beacon, New York, None , 7, 2011), 8.

[8] The Sing for Freedom festival, Edwards, Mississippi, 1965. From the Alan Lomax Collection (AFC 2004/004) at the Library of Congress. Used courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity. Photographer unknown.