Thispaper will take a profound look at the lives and music of African-American artists who have made great contributions toAmerican society through the civil rights movement.
In the years from the late1950s to the early 1960s, the civil rights movementchanged the face of black communities across the country.Throughout the years, the character of the black community was driven by ashared appreciation and understanding of jazz, blues, and rhythm music.Furthermore, the augmentation of racial discord politicized theAfrican-American community. Black music became a part of the movement withblatant political melodies while continuing to implant itself as a significant aspectin shaping the identity of black Americans. Black music sustained to galvanizethe public against racial discrimination.
The object of this research paper is to indulge in the connectionbetween music and liberation movements of the late 1950s and 1960s;specifically, the civil rights movement. In these movements, an array ofpopular music was produced. Popular music in this era is analyzed between theoutcry for collective political action and the urge of individuality. Thistimeframe is intriguing because of the outbreak of many experimental, andsocially critical forms of music. From the late 50s to early 70s, saw a revivedinterest in folk music, and the development of free jazz and rock. Thereemergence and creation of black music during this time was instrumental tothe movement, literally.
From a political perspective, this period is significant because ofits frigid animosity, where tensions determined by race, gender, sexuality, class,age, and political beliefs became the pivotal themes for mass campaigns anddemonstrations. Particularly in the southern states, African-Americans had beenforced into centuries of violent discrimination, and were time after timedenied even the most basic civil rights. The civil rights movement divulgeddemands that were imbedded in the displeased presence of black people inAmerican society. These privations included desegregation of public facilities,pay equalization, employment quotas. and voting rights. The attachment of folkmusic was used as political tool by the civil rights movement.
An example, isthe Highlander Folk School, which helped to place black folk music, otherwiseknown as spirituals, in the struggle for civil rights. However, in the mid-1960sfolk music converged with rock, which was originally a chiefly African-American blues founded idiom. Music would become aesthetically pleasingto people and their struggles. These inclinations can be seen in many folk,rock, and jazz musicians of this period, but particularly in the works of JohnColtrane and his development of jazz, through the materials of bebop.
The work of John Coltrane diverges from the others because of its considerationfor race relations in the music industry of the 50s and 60s. This would become awfullyproblematic and exposed the political strains in the period. A robust backer ofthe civil rights movement, Coltrane’s song “Alabama,”written in response to the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that murdered fourlittle girls, signified the fusing of his musical, cultural and political mindfulness.The song stood as a model for the emerging black movement of the period becauseof the notes and phrasing of Coltrane’s lines are based on the words MartinLuther King spoke at the memorial service for the girls who died. Just as King’s speech increased in passion as he shifted his focus from the homicideto the civil rights movement, Coltrane’s “Alabama” sheds its sorrowfuland cowed mood for a fizzing rush of energy, reinforcing the strength of mindfor justice:Sweet home Alabamabig wheels keep on turningcarry me home to see my kinsinging songs about the southlandI miss Alabamy once againand I think it’s a sin, yeswell I heard mister young sing about herwell, I heard ole Neil put her downwell, I hope Neil young will remembera southern man don’t need him around anyhowLouisArmstrong is by far one of the most renowned black musicians of all time.However, he is often condemned for playing into an “Uncle Tom” stereotype whileperforming for white audiences. Nonetheless, he embraced the bebop and jazz musical styles and became a cultural ambassadorfor the U.S.
during the Cold War, performing jazz all over the world. In 1929he recorded, “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue?,” a song from apopular musical. The lyrics include the phrase: My only sinIs in my skinWhat did I doTo be so black and blue?In response to growing uproar churning about the desegregation ofpublic schools, Armstrong came to be justly critical of his country.
In the1957 Little Rock Crisis, during which the National Guard prevented nine blackstudents from entering a high school, Armstrong canceled a tour to the SovietUnion, and said publicly, “the way they’re treating my people in the South, thegovernment can go to hell.”The Highlander Folk School, started in 1932 by activists Myles Horton,educator Don West, and Methodist minister James A. Drombrowski, resides inTennessee. The prominence of the Highlander Folk School to the civil rightsmovement is undisputable. During the 50s, it played a dire role in the Americancivil rights movement. It educated civil rights leader, Rosa Parks, priorto her historic role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, in addition to offeringtraining for many other movement activists, comprising members ofthe Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), in the 1950swhich included reverend Martin Luther King Jr. who would become an essential leaderof the civil rights movement.
Martin Luther King would often say, “I am manythings to many people. But in the quiet recesses of my heart, I amfundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher. This is my being and myheritage, for I am also the son of a Baptist preacher, the grandson of aBaptist preacher and the great-grandson of a Baptist preacher.” King learnedleadership roles from Highlander Folk School and would become the spearhead ofthe Civil Rights Movement. King’s perspective of the civil rights movement wasthat the effort was most fruitful when it functioned as a church-based effort. Repercussionagainst the school’s participation with the civil rights movement led to theschool’s cessation in 1961 by way of the state of Tennessee.
Staff would thenreorganize and move to Knoxville, Tennessee, where they chartered Highlanderunder the name “Highlander Research and Education Center.” Consequently, this paper builds on understandings of music’s role inpolitics. The musical practices at Highlander have been well accredited. Two definitivecollections of freedom songs, “We Shall Overcome” and “Freedom is aConstant Struggle” were documented here.
We Shall Overcome is considereda negro spiritual telling the hopes of the black community:We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shallovercome some dayOh, deep in my heart, I do believeWe shall overcome some dayThe Lord will see us through, the Lord will seeus through, the lord will see us through some dayOh, deep in my heart, I do believeThe Lord will see us some dayWe’re on to victory, we’re on to victory, we’re on to victory some dayOh, deep in my heart, I do believeWe’re on to victory some dayWe’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand inhand some dayOh, deep in my heart, I do believeWe’ll walk hand in hand some dayWe are not afraid, we are not afraid, we are notafraid todayOh, deep in my heart, I do believeWe are not afraid todayThe truth shall make us free, the truth shallmake us free, the truth shall make us free some dayOh, deep in my heart, I do believeThe truth shall make us free some dayWe shall live in peace, we shall live in peace,we shall live in peace some dayOh, deep in my heart, I do believeWe shall live in peace some day The struggle of those craving for better times can be felt throughthese lyrics. This song became a key anthem of the civil rights movement.Unfortunately, many black people of American society feel as if they have notovercome the racial disparity till this day. The history behind this song canbe traced back to Highlander Folk School. In October of 1945in Charleston, South Carolina, members of the Food, Tobacco,Agricultural, and Allied Workers union (FTA-CIO), who were African-Americanfemales, began a five-month strike against the company. To preserve their emotionalstate through the cold and wet winter, one of the strikers, a woman namedLucille Simmons, led the gospel hymn, “We’llOvercome (I’ll Be All Right)” to end each day. Union organizer, ZilphiaHorton, who was the spouse of the co-founder of the Highlander Folk Schoolsaid she learned it from Simmons.
Horton was Highlander’s music director from 1935–1956,and it became her tradition to end group meetings each evening by leading thissong. Another song that outlines the trials ofblack people in American society is “Freedom is a Constant Struggle,” whichdoes not embrace the hopeful atmosphere of thecivil rights movement and alternatively centers on the trials faced by African-Americansin the South and call for it to end:They say that freedom is a constant struggleThey say that freedom is a constant struggleThey say that freedom is a constant struggleOh Lord, we’ve struggled so longWe must be free, we must be freeThey say that freedom is a constant cryingThey say that freedom is a constant cryingThey say that freedom is a constant cryingOh Lord, we’ve cried so longWe must be free, we must be freeThey say that freedom is a constant sorrowThey say that freedom is a constant sorrowThey say that freedom is a constant sorrowOh Lord, we’ve sorrowed so longWe must be free, we must be freeThey say that freedom is a constant moaningThey say that freedom is a constant moaningThey say that freedom is a constant moaningOh Lord, we’ve moaned so longWe must be free, we must be freeThey say that freedom is a constant dyingThey say that freedom is a constant dyingThey say that freedom is a constant dyingOh Lord, we’ve died so longWe must be free, we must be freeThe upbringing from this song stems from the same town that I attendedhigh school in, McComb, Mississippi. The event of September 25, 1961 took theactions of the black community of McComb to a stop. On this day, HerbertLee, a black farmer and father of nine children, was assassinated. Lee was shotand killed by E. H. Hurst, a member of the Mississippi state legislature, forhis partaking in the black voter registration campaign. Hurst was never chargedfor the crime.
The killing of Lee sent the black community a strong message:stand up for your rights and you may be killed. This was not the first time blackAmericans had been given this message but was still a devastating blow to theirhopes that the movement had brought. The NAACP and SNCC realizednothing would happen in Mississippi unless people devoted themselves knowingthey were prepared to die for social change. In the end, the revival ofthe NAACP and theintroduction of the SNCC in McComb had registered only 12 new votersand the town lingered deeply entrenched in the Jim Crow tradition. Nonetheless,McComb had provided the black voter registration movement with an esteemedtesting ground.
When the movement resumed in the summer of 1964, it broughtfocus and intensity as the NAACP, SNCC,and volunteers were ready to implant eternal changes. The summer of 1964 hosted a presidential election. Thus, the SNCC decidedto return to McComb focus on the voter registration effort with more power andestablish freedom schools to teach reading and math to black children asschools were still segregated. This became known as the Freedom Summer.The white community in McComb welcomed the Freedom Summer with fear and panic.The violence that heightened during the Freedom Summer of 1964 gave McCombthe reputation as the bombing capital of the world. The violence influencedblack churches to shut their doors to the movement, attendance of meetingsdwelled, and most people did not want to risk their well-being by traveling tothe courthouse to register to vote.
Ultimately, the youth that attended theMcComb freedom school became the blaze of the movement. The youth were forcedto conduct classes in the backyard of the recently bombed freedom schoolbecause no other black institution wanted to offer their facilities. JoyceBrown, a sixteen-year-old freedom school student, conveyed the schoolchildren’sconcerns in a poem:I asked for yourchurches, and you turned me down,But I’ll do my work if Ihave to do it on the ground.You will not speak forfear of being heard,So you crawl in yourshell and sayDo not disturb.Brown’s poem was a turning point. The black community was motivated byher words and offered facilities for over 100 youth enrolled in the school.
Churches re-opened their doors to movement meetings and attendance sky rocketed.The Freedom Summer sparked the revival of the McComb voter registrationmovement. The summer brought commitment, confidence, and strength to the blackcommunity of McComb as the number of black registered voters increased. The FreedomSummer forever transformed race relations and shaped the future of McComb,Mississippi. Black Music had improved the lives of every member in McComb’s blackcommunity during the civil rights movement.To conclude on the involvement of black music in the civil rights movementof this timeframe, I will speak on arguably the most prominent and influentialproducer of black music of this time, Motown Records. Through the leadership ofBerry Gordy, Motown Records exposed us to many exemplary black artists who gaveus ageless music. From Motown Records came the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.
Michael Jackson is considered to be the first black superstar afterthe civil rights movement, rising to fame in the 1970s. Born just four yearsafter segregation was outlawed, he signed to Motown in 1968, the same yearMartin Luther King was assassinated, and Detroit was turned to shambles. Still,he was an artist with the potential to cause a crossover in a countrystruggling with its impending integration. Although Jackson was neverpolitically involved he is deemed a product of the movement. Michael Jackson’s name does not come to mind when one thinks ofblack music. Thus, how did a black man become known as the King of Pop? Theargument is very similar to our discussion in class about the impact ofAfrican-American jazz music in the 1950’s. This implies that Michael’s musiccreates a catalyst that triggers a chain reaction that ultimately breaks downracial barriers and unites people. As time went on Michael Jackson would growinto a global icon, nearly 50 years after Louis Armstrongrefused to perform in Russia.
Michael Jackson, like many before him, consistently used music to challengethe status quo and change the world. For example, his song “They don’tcare about us,”Beat me, hate meYou can never break meWill me, thrill meYou can never kill meJew me, sue meEverybody do meKick me, kike meDon’t you black o Somethings in lifeThey just don’t wanna seeBut if Martin Luther was livin’He wouldn’t let this beSkin head, dead headEverybody’s gone badSituation, segregationEverybody allegationIn the suite, on the newsEverybody dog foodKick me, strike meDon’t you wrong or right meAll I wanna say is thatThey don’t really care about usAll I wanna say is thatThey don’t really care about usThrough these lyrics excerpted from his song, Michael Jacksonexpresses his distaste for societies’ criticism and actions. Not only is thisan anthem for the movement towards gaining civil rights in America but also inother nations. This shows Jackson’s global stardom as a black artist, somethingwhich seemed unfathomable beforehand. Till this day, people all over the globe are fighting for civilrights. From the black lives matter movement in America due to police brutalityto the Muslims facing a ban due to Trump’s orders.
As all of this is going on,many people are standing up for their rights through protests. It is as ifhistory is repeating itself right in front of us. Many anthems are beingcreated throughout all of this, and I hope, through this researched review,many more changes can be made for the better.